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Helmut Deutsch: “You Always, Even After Fifty Years, Find New Things”

Helmut Deutsch, pianist, memoir, klavier

Photo © Shirley Suarez

“There is a way to say something,” my mother used to remark, “a way you have to learn.” The best form of written and spoken expression, that is, combines elegance and honesty. This matters greatly if you hope to have people do as you wish, in the way you want them to, while still holding your own. It is an art which is in ever-evolving states of evolution in my own life.

For Helmut Deutsch, however, such an integration is a way of being, on stage and off. One of the most acclaimed lieder pianists of our time, Deutsch combines bluntness and a distinct, and it could be argued, old-world Viennese elegance, to his approach to the art-work-life trinity, and most wonderfully expressed in Memoirs Of An Accompanist (Kahn & Averill), published in English last year. The memoir was first published in 2019, in German, as Gesang auf Händen tragen: Mein Leben als Liedbegleiter (Henschel Verlag), a perfect title for a musician who indeed has the gift of carrying song as if made, alternately, of solid iron and the most delicate glass; knowing which touch to use when is a great part of Deutsch’s mastery. In a celebrated career spanning over five decades, Deutsch has honed his reputation of being one of the most intuitive and artful of pianists, a full partner to vocalizing cohorts in manifesting the meaning of the words which ground much of the work, and the sounds between and around them which allow such works flight.

A great many things have been written about Deutsch and his work, but since our chat last month, I have found myself, like Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos, stymied for such words. What could possibly be written to capture such artistry? To listen is, as ever, simultaneously instructive and daunting; one is reminded, through the poetry of words and sounds, of the value of sitting in a place where silence is the only appropriate response. Indeed, I am a fan of lieder (as my past work probably demonstrates), and I am a writer, and I am a piano player (or was, and hopefully will be again soon); it is nevertheless impossible to parse the threads of these identities in experiencing the works of Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, Wolf, Brahms, Mahler (plus that of Goethe, Müller, Heine, Heyse, Morgenstern, Bethge) so intuitively performed. Such are the moments when intellect, instinct, and rather powerfully, curiosity, all magically, quietly meet. The pandemic era has forced one to make choices relating to the conscious endowment of attention; lieder has always placed large demands in this area, but the current times of forced isolation have allowed, at least on my own part, an even greater level of received power. There are no other breathing, coughing bodies to mediate reception of the artform – for good and for ill – but this directs and controls intensity of directed attention in ways I hadn’t quite expected; it’s made me listen to lieder in ways I could have never predicted, and deepened an ardent love, if also enforced occasional (if perhaps needed) distance from the quotidian. I can no longer put on Italienisches Liederbuch, for instance, without expecting to have the rest of the day vanish.

Deutsch’s meticulous attention to phrasing, his instinctual approach with singers, and his unforced musicality render such musical experiences deeper and broader, but simultaneously closer, more intimate. To listen to his work is to feel he is playing just for you, whether in a small space like a recording studio, or the vast expanse of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Listen to the clip below with Jonas Kaufmann (from December 2020), taped at that very spot; I had to sit in silence a full fifteen minutes after hearing it for the second, third, fourth times. This is artistry which requires concentration, consideration, digestion, and calls to mind the words of George Steiner, who wrote in Real Presences (Faber & Faber, 1989):

In a wholly fundamental, pragmatic sense, the poem, the statue, the sonata are not so much read, viewed or heard as they are lived. The encounter with the aesthetic is, together with certain modes of religious and of metaphysical experience, the most ‘ingressive’, transformative summons available to human experiencing. Again, the shorthand image is that of an Annunciation, of “a terrible beauty” or gravity breaking into the small house of our cautionary being. If we have heard rightly the wing-beat and provocation of that visit, the house is no longer habitable in quite the same way as it was before.

Perhaps, I can only add, it shouldn’t be, for such a transformation might be what lieder truly asks, if not demands.

This transformative power is one that Deutsch wields in both teaching as well as performance. His dual talents, as a teacher and an interpreter of lied, are long-standing, with twelve years of instructing composition, piano, and musicology at the Vienna Music Academy, and more than two decades as Professor of Lied interpretation and performance (Professor für Liedgestaltung) at Munich’s University of Music and Performing Arts, where he still gives classes, among other locales. His extensive discography includes recordings with some of the biggest names in the history of opera, many of whom (Peter Schreier, Brigitte Fassbaender,  Angelika Kirchschlager, Grace Bumbry, Yumiko Samejima, Camilla Nylund, Bo Skovhus, Matthias Goerne, Olaf Bär, Diana Damrau, Dietrich Henschel, Michael Volle, Piotr Beczala, and Jonas Kaufmann) enjoy their very own chapters in the book. It’s not surprising Deutsch’s career is one marked by close work with singers, considering the central role singing played in his own musical development. The son of music-loving scientists who often sang at home, Deutsch had an active life as a chorister and writes that “as a child, it was the most natural thing in the world to be involved with choral singing. The children’s choir school in my area of Vienna was based in my primary school, and once a year there was a large choral festival during which about a thousand children gathered on the stage of the large hall of the Konzerthaus – a mighty experience for a little boy. Piano playing came later.”

The memoir begins with the pianist’s memories of touring with baritone Hermann Prey – the good times, the bad, and everything between – and then proceeds to move chronologically, with a myriad of observations on working with singers, the differences in audiences, the pressures (or not) of various live and teaching experiences, notable variations in performing spaces, and some timely (and timeless) advice for page turners. And, lest you think there must surely be no suitable place for conductors in a book written by a lied specialist, think again: Herbert von Karajan is given mention early on, and in a particularly endearing way, as Deutsch recounts an incident from the Salzburg Festival, when he was a chorister in the Singverein of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (Society of Friends of Music in Vienna), an active part of Austria choral life. Karajan, as then-Music Director of the group (forebears included Gustav Mahler and Willhelm Fürtwangler), was set to conduct a performance of Haydn’s Creation at the famed summer festival in 1965; Deutsch was called to step in to play piano during rehearsals. “Knees shaking, I stepped up to the podium, shook Karajan’s hand and sat down at the piano,” he writes. “I had never played a single note of the Creation.”  The honesty with which the overly-fast-tempo incident is recounted, along with his honest reaction (and Karajan’s), may well inspire empathetic stirrings among those of us for whom the red-faced reactions of screw-ups in front of people we admire still sting.

A similar if less positive reaction is just as valid applied to those people and situations with whom we simply didn’t click, artistically, intellectually, or personally. Throughout its nearly 200 pages, Deutsch lets loose a refreshing honesty with regards to certain situations and recordings – but he is elegant in his assessments, and when he does name names (which is rare), there is a didactic spirit attached: one might learn from this thing he writes of, as a young singer, or pianist, or simply keen music lover. He also dismantles various overused cliches (“breathing as one” being but one) and approaches to material. “Striving to please and do everything ‘properly’ actually gives a boring and pale idea of both the music and oneself,” he writes. Everything, in music and in memoir, is meant for betterment – of performance, listening, overall creative experience. Richard Stokes, who is Professor of Lieder at the Royal Academy of Music, provides a sparkling English-language translation for the Kahn & Averill publication. Such linguistic lucidity beautifully captures the nuances of Deutsch’s speech patterns and mental meanderings, those thoughts when expressed by artists so often tend toward the musico-historico-narrative. Sentimentality, which could so easily sugar over the tone, is wisely avoided in favour of an umami-like pungency which reveals both firmness of intent and intense artistic commitment.

We spoke back in mid-February, as Deutsch was preparing to do a series of masterclasses in Vienna.

Helmut Deutsch, pianist, memoir, klavier, book, buche, memoirYour memoir is especially notable for its candour; that’s a refreshing quality.

I try to be polite as well, but it’s a little bit risky. So many singers are still alive and working with me. I didn’t really offend anyone, I don’t think. Perhaps you know the famous memoirs of Gerald Moore, and of course I have read this 50 years ago and I reread it a few times now, and found one thing very remarkable, that all the singers he was accompanying when he wrote the book – Dieskau, Schwarzkopf, de los Ángeles – were gods, but the others who had passed, he was not so nice to them. I thought, what I tried, is to give a real balance of not glorifying everybody who is singing with me at the moment because we are all human beings and have weak points also. I tried to make this as balanced as possible.

Something fascinating you explore is the automatic understanding that can occur between you and certain singers…

… it’s especially the case if you’ve known them a long time – for as long as I’ve known Jonas Kaufmann, for instance. After thirty years now, we are like an old couple!

You can read each others’ minds on stage?

Exactly. And what I think is very important as part of that is watching a singer’s body language. Of course I know him well, so I’m aware that he has an incredibly long breath and where I would have to speed up for other singers, he would say, “No, don’t get faster!” I’m able to know that after so many many years… although I had the opposite of this experience, with some remarkable singers who wanted to discuss every detail: “Let’s do this” and “Let’s try out that”. And this is interesting, but sometimes you lose any spontaneity you might have had; when you have figured out all these solutions and think, ‘This has to be like that all the time”… this is boring in the end.

So you feel there is a point where the studying must stop and instinct has to take over… ?

Yes, precisely.

How does that instinct relate to the study of text – on the Gál album with Christian Immler, for instance, with the texts of poets like Christian Morgenstern?

It’s interesting with him – do you know he is extremely popular in Germany and Austria, but only for his humorous poems? The dark stuff is almost unknown.

Morgenstern, poet, writer, German

Poet Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914)

Why is that?

Because he was known as a humorist, so he’s extremely popular just for that. For the generation of my parents and for mine too, they – we – knew parts of his poems by heart, they were so popular. And somehow he was… the idea of the audience is that he’s a funny guy, but he *was* dark. And you are right, Gál’s music complements it with these serious things. There are no jokes in it!

How is Gál’s music different or unique for you as a musician?

He’s certainly coming from the tradition of Johannes Brahms, although it’s amazing you would not think he was composing most of these early songs in the time of Gustav Mahler – you can’t feel any influence of that. He was very traditional. I’m sure Christian Immler told you everything about this discovery of what his daughter had, that he didn’t want these songs published. I think it was only because he got very old and these songs were written more than a half century before, so as an old man he said, “Oh I have not the feeling for this anymore” – but he’d only published five of his songs out of all this material. And it was interesting to convince his daughter that this is music to print – finally she agreed, but it took a very long time.

What’s that like to play?

Gál must have been a good pianist because, I would not say it’s easy to play, but it’s pianistically written. For comparison, you can see even in Mahler songs he was a very good writer but he was not a pianist, so some of his parts are a little bit against the piano technique – but people like Schumann and Brahms, and also Strauss and Hans Gál, certainly played piano very well, the writing is very logical.

Christian said that you and he never discussed interpretation in examining and recording Gál’s work.

That’s right, we never did – and I think we had no great discussions about such interpretation because we both fell in love with the songs when we saw the manuscripts, and we both had the same feeling that this is very good music, very precious. Christian is also one of these singers you don’t have to talk a lot with – there was not even discussions about tempo, as far as I remember, it was four, five years ago when we recorded it now, but there were no problems in terms of, “I see this different” or “I would like to do this much slower” or “This should be much faster” – no, it was chamber music on the very best level. On Modern Times we’d already done the known Hans Gál songs (then), and that was the start of this. Eva came to our concert (related to that album) in London and said, “Oh my father would have loved this” and I said, “What a pity he only wrote these five songs” and she said, “No no, there are many more!” And she invited us to see the songs, and we went through every manuscript for two days. He had good handwriting, very clear, and we are very lucky that, finally, with the help of the grandson (Simon), the whole thing worked.

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman

So do you feel like an ambassador for his music?

Yes. You know the heritage of all his works is now in Vienna, and I hope they will do a little bit more for him now.

It’s interesting to think about composers like him, whose works are becoming more known, and reading about the reductions of famous works which you played when you were starting your piano journey. What, in your view, is the benefit to a young musician, of learning reductions?

I grew up with my very musical parents who were scientists, and I played a lot of four-hand music with my father. This was very important, because you learn, especially when you play the lower parts, in general your left hand is more important, and many little notes are not so important, so you must figure out the harmonies and the rhythms. And it’s totally different from learning a solo piano piece. In my young years it was still considered house music, that was still alive, because long-playing discs had just started and of course there was the radio, but it was quite usual to sit down and play Beethoven symphonies or to do a bit of sight reading – you got, in many cases, the essence of the piece much much more Later on I played, let’s say, more professional arrangements – for example, things specifically written for two pianos. Brahms wrote a lot of arrangements for two, or, one piano and four hands – all his four symphonies, the serenades, and many chamber music pieces, for instance. The symphonies I played on the piano, but in concert and really professional. It’s fascinating to do, because you think you know these famous four works almost by heart, and then you start playing and you are not… there’s the pure music, because you don’t have trombones and clarinets and strings; you have just this one instrument. It’s like seeing into a microscope; you see everything much clearer.

Of course it’s more fascinating with the orchestra, but to get to know a piece, to know it very well, to analyze it, you play it on the piano. I did an exam as an opera coach, so I studied starting with Mozart operas, Strauss and Wagner operas, and you are not, I don’t know the words… when you listen to a big orchestra you’re overwhelmed sometimes or many times by the instrumentation, by the use of instruments and their timbre – the brass or the solo flute or whatever – it doesn’t make you concentrate on the music only. But when you play on piano you get all the tones – in a good way. You are not disturbed, you are concentrating on the music and nothing else and you are not overwhelmed by that brass chord in a fortissimo or whatever. When you play rheingold on the piano, however, and I’m not a big Wagner fan, I must say, the music is very poor for many minutes and then of course comes the famous theme, and “Ah yeah, this is Siegfried’s theme!” but in-between there is not much, but Wagner was able to make everything interesting because of such great instrumentation work. On the positive side when you play Brahms symphonies you find out much more about the construction. It’s really fascinating. So I think Brahms, in his older years, said, “I’m not going to concerts anymore; I just will read the score of a Beethoven symphony and I enjoy it” – this is a little bit similar to playing on the piano only, and getting the essence and the main core of the music; you can adore it, or you can find out that, eh, it’s not everything so glorious, like in The Ring for example. But this is my very personal opinion.

Certainly there’s the opinion that certain things should not be performed in reduction, some things by Wagner, for instance; there’s a feeling we will just have to wait to hear those things live again now.

That’s right.

But that’s when the opportunity for lieder comes. You write in the book that Liederabend are not programmed so much, but, do you think now, in our pandemic era, it might be more?

I was feeling this in the last year because so many events were cancelled. I jumped in with Jonas very often – instead of Fidelio for instance, we had a recital. And somehow (the style of the music) fits or, it fits very much more with the isolation, the sense of intimacy – and I hope this will remain, even after the pandemic.

You write that Hermann Prey didn’t want people to look in the program books when he sang – ‘They will know the meaning of everything from my voice!’ – but I think it is vital to know the poetry and how the sounds relate…

Of course.

How extensively do you study texts yourself, even one you know well, before performances or recordings?

I must admit, first of all I started when I was fourteen, fifteen years old, I think. I wrote this in book, that I was a normal boy who was interested in sports and girls of course, but I was also reading a lot of poems, especially (the works of) Eichendorf and Heine and Goethe, and I fell in love with a lot of these poems; I only found out later that these are also songs: “Wow, these poems are composed of music already!” This was a shock in the best sense, in a very positive way. It was great! I must admit over the many decades I have to rethink the meaning of a poem very often and I do read, I read normally when I have a half hour before a concert and will be sitting in my dressing room; I’ll read the texts again. Also I know many of them almost by heart, but it’s the same feeling with the music, just the same: you find details in pieces like Winterreise or Dichterliebe. You always, even after fifty years, find new things, and this is very exciting. In the world of text, I am not so much at home, they are difficult texts and there are texts which seem to be very easy, very simple, but there is so much underneath and you can read and read again and again, and, “Oooh! Ah! There’s a double meaning! And there is a shift, a metaphor, that image…!”

With the great poems, sometimes I think there are great poems by Rilke, for instance, but he was not composed-to very often, it’s very difficult, the words … there’s so much music in the words already, that they don’t need music, or any kind of music doesn’t fit. Many times you have great songs written by more or less unknown poets too; if you look at Richard Strauss songs, (Julius) Bierbaum (1865-1910) for instance, is rather unknown, or mostly even forgotten. A poet like him was known in his time but not so much now, and he is survived only by these songs Strauss wrote. The quality of some of these songs with texts by more or less forgotten poets is really great, and some of them especially have a connection with the music. I didn’t really study German Literature professionally but it’s a permanent question: what did he really mean by that? And so on. When you teach twenty-something year-old (vocal) students, it’s so often the case that they didn’t think a bit about the words. They think about the voice, of course, and maybe sometimes the intonation, but you can feel from a singer very soon that he or she is thinking in terms of the meaning of a poem or single words, or that he or she wants a color which belongs to the meaning of these words, and sometimes you see there is no feeling for the material at all, and this is a permanent struggle when you teach, even with professional singers.

I was just going to say, sometimes there are singers who just churn it out, and it seems obvious they don’t really have an understanding or intimacy with the text; there’s output, and sometimes it’s impressive, but I can sense when there’s no input.

Exactly!

I appreciate your chapter in this regard where you write of your niece’s observations on Barbara Bonney in recital.

Yes, that was so interesting to see. My niece was fourteen or fifteen years old then and the reviews of the concert said, “Oh such wonderful interpretation!” But a child feels a lot. It was really impressive to hear her make such observations.

Her observations highlight the differences in listening quality between locales and contexts. Some of my musician friends have noted those differences too – they can pick it up right away, whether the audience is “with” them or not.

I totally agree, it’s very different from place to place. There are special audiences in Europe, in Wigmore Hall – that’s a very educated audience – and also in Vienna. You have people who have bought every series for forty years and are listening to sometimes the same pieces from the same (song) cycles for so long, and they are very critical. The big difference between London and Vienna in terms of audience is that the audience in the Wigmore Hall, in my experience, is rather cool when they don’t know the singer, but when it’s successful they are enthusiastic; the Viennese are not necessarily enthusiastic but they are much warmer from the beginning. It’s a case of, “Okay, you have your chance, we are happy to see a new face or hear a new voice.” But in London they are more critical. It’s amazing in the hall. It’s hundreds of recitals a year and the repertoire is much more than 50% in German – you are young, so there is time for you to learn German, Catherine!

The lessons continue…

Good, keep practising!

But, everyone has to have a starting point – for instance, I think it’s interesting you included a chapter on page-turners in the book. Why such a detail?

It’s a person who, in the best way, is not noticed; this is the ideal page turner. It’s someone the audience is not aware of as a third person. But really, I could have written fifty pages about this, because so much happens, it’s incredible. And I would say it makes a big difference if you are very close with this person. When you have the feeling she or he is criticizing, I’ve noticed… I have memories of recordings for example, I remember being in Frankfurt with a violinist, and we started with a piece which opens in a specific way, and my page-turner made a certain motion all the time. I said, “Is something wrong?” “No, what do you mean?” “You seem to dislike my tempo in this opening.” “In fact I do.” I said, “Okay, you don’t have to, but don’t show me, I’m not interested in your opinion.” And it’s not comparable to the situation between singer and pianist, but sometimes, if they are young people… they give me an atmosphere of being very interested and enthusiastic about a song or whatever, or, they can be judgemental. But of course I try to give some… humorous episodes. The importance of page-turners may disappear with tablets, maybe.

Or they may vanish because of continued performance restrictions. But perhaps now is also the perfect time for lieder, as you say, what with its mix of intimacy and intensity.

I am fully booked this year, but we are awaiting the next update from the governments in Austria and Germany. I am full with concerts in March and April and May, but we have no idea what is coming or not. It’s really frustrating, but I think we have the same situation everywhere. Master classes can happen online but I have in-person ones booked at the Vienna opera studio and in April in Munich. Inside these places everything is working, they are preparing a lot. Some places like Vienna and Paris they may only do one streamed performance and nothing else, like Carmen in Vienna and Aida in Paris – but they’re still working.

It’s heartening to observe this bit of cultural activity, however limited it is at the moment.

It is happening, and we have the possibility, especially for lieder and recitals, to go to 500 people in Munich and Vienna, maybe, depending on what the governments say. I was in Madrid recently with Jonas Kaufmann, at Teatro Real, and we had 800 people there; it’s a ⅓ of the capacity but it is still much better than nothing.

That’s a nice size for a lieder concert; the contrast between the immensity of a space and the intimacy of the music can sometimes be jarring…

… Ja, this is true, but the great singers are expensive! So (a small venue) is not practical anymore. When you think about what Schubert wrote, it was for a salon of thirty or forty people, and Schumann as well; the (trend of holding) lied recitals in big halls started very late. Now I’ve done stuff at the Met, and you can say it’s ridiculous, but on the other hand when almost 4000 people are listening to Mahler or Strauss songs… this is great. I remember going to the Musikverein at fifteen or sixteen years old, and I remember very well the recitals by Dieskau, I only had money for the very last row in the Second Gallery; I remember hearing some Schumann songs,and it being the very first time to do so, in this recital. This is almost sixty years ago now. I would say I was about eighty meters away from Dieskau, and… it worked. It was totally fascinating. So of course Dichterliebe or Winterreise were not written for a huge venue. But, on the other hand, when let’s say, famous people who must be paid, sing for, let’s say, Carnegie Hall and 2000 people, and there are five listeners there who say, “Oh, this was so exciting! I see there is in Alice Tully Hall an unknown singer but doing the same Dichterliebe; I want to go there”… well, there is progress! (Large venues) are good PR for the art form.

Kind of like live-streams; they’re not at all ideal but they’re PR for the art form, however temporary.

There is more music in private homes now – perhaps there no chance for anything live, only to put on a CD or to get concerts live-streamed… and this is better than nothing. So (the exposure) is, for this (classical) part of the world of music, a good thing. For now!

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“There Are A Lot Of Wagners”: A Chat With Authors Mark Berry And Nicholas Vazsonyi

Arthur Rackham, art, illustration, Das Rheingold, Ring, Wagner, opera, drama, music

Illustration for a scene from Das Rheingold, the first opera of Der Ring des Nibelung. Art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) from “Siegfried And The Twilight Of The Gods”, trans. Margaret Armour (William Heinemann, 1911)

As the first anniversary of the coronavirus lockdown draws nearer, thoughts turn to sounds, people, and performance, to that which has yet to be seen, yet to be saved to memory, yet to be savoured (one hopes) and shared with others. It’s interesting if somewhat frustrating to also consider, in light of varying restrictions across countries and continents, what stagings are, in fact, happening, which ones might still happen, when, where, and to consider how they might be presented, in both theatrical and sonic ways. What is “familiar” anymore? In light of the huge amount of streaming happening at the moment, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how reception and consumption of the live experience, within both virtual and live realms, will have changed as theatres slowly reopen and we are allowed to be together once more. How might one’s relationship with certain pieces of music, and their related performance(s), have transformed through these past months (/ year)? How much have perceptions of music both familiar and not changed? What elements of scoring, vocal writing, instrumentation, interpretation will come to the fore, and which ones might have faded? Will our critical faculties have sharpened, or will they be silenced in a tidal wave of gratitude? Will the wave be quite so big if the sound is slightly (or noticeably) smaller, rearranged, or (that hackneyed word) reimagined? A written feature on reduction and rearrangement which I wrote recently for a magazine broadened the scope of such meditations and opened doors to deeper ones (i.e. the ways in which we receive and experience sound in various spaces; expectations and planned versus planned ecstasies; the way cultural experience is irrevocably altered amidst the breathing, spluttering reality of presences). The possibilities for exploration are tremendous, and very timely – so, more on that in future posts, hopefully.

Wagner, composer, German, opera

Richard Wagner, (1871, photo etching by Franz Hanfstaengl)

Suffice to say few creative and compositional outputs better capture such considerations than those of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), whose dense orchestrations and innovations, combined with a philosophical-musical ethos and notion of Gestamtkunstwerk force such questions. Such are the contradictions of Wagner’s works, life, and character, that these philosophical meanderings tend to produce more questions than they answer, and tend to awkwardly if accurately mirror back the contradictory nature of our own times. There is, unsurprisingly, a cosmos of literature on Wagner, and everything relating to him. The work and the person who wrote them can be fiendishly, ferociously inseparable; artist, man, and music have been analyzed, explored, discussed, debated, framed, reframed, deconstructed, recontextualized, and reconsidered. The contradictions and controversies of his character, combined with the dense layers within his creative output, which mingle with the philosophies of Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Bakunin, Nietzsche, and Buddhism, have haunted generations of musicians and scholars. Alex Ross, music writer at The New Yorker, wrote in his latest book, Wagnerism (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2020), that Wagner’s work was, for the Nazi regime, “the chief cultural ornament of the most destructive political regime in history” – an inarguable fact. Yet Giuseppe Verdi, born the same year as Wagner, said of Tristan und Isolde (composed 1857-59; premiered 1865) said he stood in “wonder and terror” before it, that he could never quite grasp the fact that it had been created by a mere human being – this from a composer who was not a fan of either the man or his music – and yet… and yet. Within such contradictions sits an ever-shifting portrait, one that will never be finished, never be suitable for framing, and never hang quite perfectly. Those who love the work of Wagner love it, and the same can be said of those who don’t; their vehemence is equally strong. It’s difficult to be neutral, just as it is difficult to be unconflicted; how can the man who wrote such beautiful things (like Tristan) have also written such hateful things (the hideous essay Das Judenthum in der Musik, or Jewishness in Music, published in 1850)? There is, perhaps, no real solution, and we are left with ever-shifting thoughts and ideas on the music, which shifts and alters, like waves of the Rhine, according to experience, education, exposure, and individual explorations within and outside of culture.

Arthur Rackham, illustration, Wagner, Brünnhilde, Grane, horse, flames, opera, Ring, music, drama, art, Götterdämmerung

Brünnhilde rides Grane into the funeral pyre at the close of Götterdämmerung, the final opera in Der Ring des Nibelungs. Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) from “Siegfried And The Twilight Of The Gods”, trans. Margaret Armour (William Heinemann, 1911)

Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, or The Ring), written between 1848 and 1874, is, specifically, a cycle of four operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung) but more broadly of  course, is one of the most famous pieces in the opera world, requiring large forces to explore epic and intimate (if ever-applicable) themes of greed, power, love, betrayal, family, forgiveness, transformation, and much, more more. Record producer John Culshaw, who was behind the very first full recording of The Ring (in 1958, for Decca) wrote in Reflections on Wagner’s Ring (Secker and Warburg, 1976) that its enduring popularity and central position within the opera world (to say nothing of the position it holds within the hearts of many opera fans) is that “it is about each one of us, and all of us. It is about humanity, and that is why it is important.” That line comes off like a bit of ad copy in our cynical age, and yet the sheer volume of material inspired by the work, the energy expended by countless artists, scholars, educators, thinkers, fans, detractors, hints at the great river of human experience with which Wagner himself so vividly paints in sounds, one which still carries so very many. Numerous planned versions of the famed tetralogy set for 2021 had to be shelved, among them an in-concert version (two complete cycles) by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring a stellar cast (which would have included Matthew Rose and Brindley Sherratt), and a highly anticipated production by director Valentin Schwartz for the Bayreuth Festival, which, this summer, is planning a scaled-back version of its usual giant self, like so many other festivals and institutions. In the meantime, there are streams, and there are words, and though they are not, in any way, substitutes, they do provide a modicum of relief to the thirsty Wagnerians keen to drink from the sonic swell. Various facets of The Ring (musical, theatrical, theoretical, mythological, mystical, etc) are explored through thousands of different works and scholarship. Musicologist Carl Dahlhaus made a very prescient observation in his famous 1971 work, Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas (Cambridge, trans. Mary Whittall):

Over and all around the simplicity of the myth, and the vigour and sometimes violence of the stage action, there lies a musical commentary, a texture woven from many motives, the most outstanding characteristic of which is precisely that complexity of thought and reflection […] The listener needs to be able to distinguish the musical motives, the ’emotional signposts along the drama’s way’, as Wagner called them, to recognize them when they recur, and to keep track of them as their relationships and functions change, if the music is not to roll on as the ‘torrent’ that the classicists among its denigrators have called it. It is only after reflection, and the suspension of reflection, that an emotion arises together with a power of musical observation that is more than aural gawping.

That “aural gawping” is such a deliciously tempting activity to engage in amidst the drudgery of lockdown; what’s wrong with a gawp now and again, really? Nothing I suppose, but if that’s all your after, you might be missing a thing or two, and that’s a pity; one’s experience of something as wide-reaching as The Ring might be most rewarding when it is just that – wide-reaching – and shot through with the kind of exploratory spirit with which the composer himself applied to its creation.

book, Wagner, opera, The Ring, Cambridge, Mark Berry, Nicholas VazsonyiThe Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (Cambridge University Press, 2020), released late last year, is an insightful, highly readable collection of essays edited by Mark Berry and Nicholas Vazsonyi, two distinguished Wagner scholars and dedicated Wagner fans, which explores the tetralogy from a variety of illuminating and diverse angles. With related printed music sections, the book is divided into smart sections (Myth, Aesthetics, Interpretations, Impact) which offer solid musicological analyses which integrate composer anecdotes and quotes, cultural reference points, and contextual history. Its editors also provide thoughtful explorations and an array of viewpoints. Co-editor Mark Berry is Reader in Music History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and has authored a number of books on music, including After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from “Parsifal” to Nono (Boydell Press, 2014) and a biography of Arnold Schoenberg (Reaktion, 2019); he is the Recipient of two music prizes (the Prince Consort and the Seeley Medal, for his work on Wagner) and keeps an excellent, music-focused website. Nicholas is Dean of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, and Professor of German at Clemson University in South Carolina. He has authored works on Goethe and Wagner, and acted as editor of Wagner’s Meistersinger (University of Rochester Press, 2003) and The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia (Cambridge University Press, 2013). On a recent wintery day, with Mark in the United Kingdom and Nicholas in South Carolina, we discussed both the book (and its creation), as well as just a few of the great many issues in and around Wagner, and just how and where his music and the challenges of our Covid era might intersect. We began by discussing how work is used as a kind of “escape” route from family, which led to ideaas on escapism particularly applied to the works of Richard Wagner.

The notion of escapism keeps popping up in various recent exchanges; people are desperate for it in some form. That notion is especially active in online opera groups, with some input revealing some clear continental divisions of the “role” opera should have right now. In your book, Anthony Arblaster writes in his essay (“The Ring as a Political and Philosophical Drama”) that Wagner “never intended that his music dramas should be mere entertainment”– how much can the idea of escapism be applied, or should it?

Mark: I suppose, quite apart from any normative end to it, I agree with Wagner on that – it’s a peculiar choice of what you want to sustain. People can escape into anything if they so wish, but it would seem there would be better choices! I can’t quite see what one would be escaping from, some ghastly Lord Of The Rings style perhaps. I know lots of people like it but I can’t stand it, it’s something that doesn’t seem to have any real association with anything in and of itself. Perhaps they like watching people wear strange helmets and such, but it really doesn’t seem to be what Wagner is about. And I’m sure there is some element of geographical distinction in that respect. I don’t think it’s so crude as saying, “One side of the Atlantic thinks this; the other side thinks that” and presumably this country (the UK) is floating in the middle, but I guess there are differences in theatrical understanding, certainly with German theatre, in not just musical theatre but in an operatic sense. More generally, I’m not convinced that I’m capable of going to the theatre and just relaxing, and doing it in a noncritical way. Obviously I’m not going to the theatre at all at the moment…

Nicholas: I think it’s great how Mark and I work so well together and yet we see the world differently, yet it all works somehow. What I would say is, and this is not disagreeing with him at all, but to approach it differently, is to say there are so many layers to Wagner. It’s layer on layer on layer, and one of the things – it’s Wagner’s fault, he did have guys there in helmets and breastplates – is that on a surface level you really can just approach Wagner that way, if that’s what you are looking for. One of the classical examples of Lohengrin is set in an historical period; generations of Wagner scholars have nothing better to talk about than the MIddle Ages and Christianity and that, and Wagner clearly says, Lohengrin is about the modern artist, it’s about the journey for the artist! Peel away a couple layers of the opera, and that’s what he’s talking about: the displacement of the artists in modern society. It doesn’t look like that at all if you read the text as-is, but it also requires a certain kind of approach and a certain kind of work, to not just accept that surface layer. I think that’s what stage directors have been doing for twenty, thirty years now, not accept that level, and try to present to us different ways of approaching the incredible depth of these stage dramas he has created.

Barry MIllington’s essay  (“Notable Productions”) is really helpful in this respect, having been raised to the Otto Schenk vision of Wagner but not being a great fan of it. Learning about different presentations highlights the layers you mention, Nicholas, but also points up the heightened reality of Wagner’s writing, which seems spiritual in nature. It’s one that feels quite relevant to now…

Nicholas: The Ring is always for now…

… but most especially right now, at this time in history…

Nicholas: Well, what I would say – I don’t want to completely get rid of Otto Schenk, though Mark will now disown the friendship! – but I came to opera when I was ten, eleven, twelve years of age, I didn’t see a staging until I was twelve, and I’m not sure I would’ve been ready to see Chereau’s staging then, as a twelve-year-old. One of the problems in the opera world is that the audiences are getting older and older, and certainly I don’t want Schenk now but actually, it’s the Schenkian approach to staging I think I probably needed in my early teens in order to have that gateway into the works, and it kept me coming back for more. I needed and wanted more and when I was ready I got it. I remember the shock of seeing The Magic Flute with Ruth Berghaus’s staging (Oper Frankfurt, 1980), and it was not all the Flute I imagined! I was ready for it – by that time I was in my late teens and I’d spent almost ten years with opera thinking about it – so I was ready for that, it was unbelievable to me, the turning-on-its-head of the Flute I thought I knew, and that wasn’t the most extreme I’ve seen subsequently. It’s another opera that has all these layers which, if you dig, are there for unpacking – but there’s that escapist layer that is perfectly okay for many, many people.

Mark: I suppose one thing I’d say, and I think that’s all fair enough as I do with whatever Nicholas says, is… I’m not entirely convinced that Wagner is really for children in the first place. Not that I wish to ban them from going, but maybe there are some things in The Ring, or Lohengrin, or… I mean, I can’t see much for children in Tannhäuser either, but then again, I don’t know, maybe they like it! And there’s nothing wrong all that but I do think there’s a danger in that something like Schenk or whatever, might be presented as somehow without interpretation, as though it is somehow actually a sort of literal working to a recipe that Wagner presents, when it is actually a transformation of something into something else, a Disneyfication, and that is *not* neutral.

It’s not the “neutral” or somehow “pure Wagner” presentation some may perceive it to be.

Mark: One might say, “Well lots of children like to watch Disney, therefore it’s a good idea” – I don’t know, but I’m not convinced. I came to these things through listening to them, following the libretto in translation, either with the CD or with a score, and I knew the things I heard and read produced images in my head which were pretty much literally according to what I saw in the stage directions. I was a teenager then, and I suppose different people come in different ways; people will come from a theatre background who will be perfectly conversant with contemporary theatre, and may have a tendency to actually see the absurdity of a “traditional” production or whatever one wants to call it. If opera is just people sitting around in helmets shouting at each other, it may or may not be for people who are coming at it from elsewhere.

… and that notion of “elsewhere” matters! Every year I play my students bits of classical music; one of those pieces is Peter And The Wolf. In the seven years I’ve been teaching this course, three students had heard of it – that’s three out of hundreds. Many like them will be “coming from elsewhere” to The Ring and it’s nice to read your acknowledgements about feeling daunted  as a newcomer, but to also “try and see it performed. Even bad productions and performances will contribute to your understanding of the work.”

Mark: That (live) experience is important, but of course it’s quite at odds with how I came to it! I guess it’s only how I would do it now. I’ve changed partly because I’ve had the chance now, which I didn’t have when I was younger, to go to a lot of theatre and concerts. I started out at home listening to something.

Nicholas: That’s also how I came to opera, at home, listening and following the score, but I speak for both Mark and myself when I say that that is not normal…

Mark: No, it isn’t!

Nicholas: the other thing is, access –  we say, “go see if you can” but it’s easier said than done. Unless you are sitting in a major world capital or living in Bayreuth or nearby, it’s a challenge, to get to The Ring in any case, and opera in general is not cheap; unless you’re in a metropolis there’s very little opera to see.

Mark: … but in Germany, in general, to be fair, you don’t have to be (to see live presentations).

The essays in your book are organized in a very good way, for both newcomers and experienced fans; how did you decide on the chapters and why?

Mark: Well really, you don’t want to know how a sausage is made!

Yes I do!

Nicholas: It felt like a very organic process, what we were doing; we’d been relegated to Zoom and Skype because we were only rarely in the same place at same time, but we developed it. I would be hard-pressed to recall whose idea was what.

Mark: I think probably to be fair, Nicholas actually came up with more of the initial suggestions than I did, and we discussed them, but I think Nicholas had some conception of an overall plan which we then worked on. There were things we might’ve loved to include, things which, in the end, didn’t quite work out for whatever reason; there’s always going to be that element, particularly in something such as this. Frankly we could’ve made twice the length if we’ve been able to, it wouldn’t have been difficult to come up with twice as many chapters – but looking back it seems quite an organic thing.

Nicholas: The other issue of course is that although we have a concept of how each chapter would be, that’s not necessarily what was delivered. That was a tough thing for us: do we just let the authors have their way, so to speak, even if it’s taking the book in a slightly different direction? Or do we want to exercise our editorial power to interfere with that process? Or do we want to mould the article for the chapter? We had examples of all of these, and the authors responded in kind to our interventions. Not all of it was clean and fun – some of it was a little bit messy – but I’m very glad you like the results.

It’s incredibly illuminating and I really appreciate, as someone whose music studies are ever-evolving, the clarity and variety of both voices and subject matter here.

Nicholas: It was very important, in the process of development, that certain things be covered one way or the other, but first of all to have things written in such a way that it would not be excluding a possible audience. I think that’s a problem with a lot of academic writing, people can be exclusionary, and very elitist, in the worst possible way.

Yes, some music writing I’ve come across has felt highly exclusionary! I don’t find the writing of Alex Ross to be so, but it can be dense; Wagnerism (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020) was released at roughly the same time as your book, and I found it challenging to engage with certain sections which felt steeped in the specificity of American culture and American cultural figures – that’s not a criticism so much as a reflection of my ignorance, probably.

Nicholas: I think Alex Ross had a very different vision from our book, and it’s encyclopaedic in its own way; it has all the strengths and weaknesses of an encyclopaedia. It is a great book, though.

It is! I found it tough-going though educational.

Mark: Exactly – I learned a great deal from it too, not only in connection to Wagner, but to figures I didn’t know of at all. Alex is doing a different thing and he writes from a different standpoint, which for me and Nicholas, as we were saying, well… everybody is coming at this from different ways. The Rest Is Noise (Picador, 2008), for instance, is a history of 20th-century music which I think is written from very much an American standpoint, and this side of the Atlantic one notices that more than if one were on the other side, yes. But I’m sure the same could be said of what I’m doing or anybody else, none of us is without a past, none of us is Parsifal or some hero coming out of nowhere.

Wagner, composer, German, opera

Richard Wagner in Paris, 1867.

That whole sense of writing from nowhere doesn’t really exist, and most especially not with someone like Wagner; I appreciate you tackling that from the outset. Was it intentional?

Nicholas: I think, in my section in the introduction, that comes from personal experience, in talking to educated people who know nothing about Wagner but think they do know something – these conversations with educated people who thought Wagner was alive during the time of the Third Reich, for instance, were shocked to learn that he was not alive in the 20th century, and so that’s why I just wanted to list all these things right at the beginning and tackle them head-on, not that you can really deal with them – and especially the antisemitism issue, with any degree of resolution.

Mark: I think the only problem I have with that sort of thing is when, if the antisemitism – like racism more generally, on these sort of critical studies – if one isn’t careful, it becomes a way of closing things off rather than opening things up. Clearly these are issues that want to be discussed and demand to be discussed, in particular moments; in the wake of the Third Reich how can one not actually want to look at what has opened up here? But the problem is, there’s a sort of childishness at the moment, i.e., one sees something programmed and then says, “That’s racist, take that off!” – well, that doesn’t seem a remotely helpful thing to do. I mean, what isn’t racist in a racist society, ultimately?

That is a pertinent issue to many festivals right now; I saw something an exchange online about Glyndebourne recently in this vein… 

Nicholas: I’ve been there once, and it’s unbelievable to see the remnants of the British Empire on full display, the picnics and the way they dress…

Mark: I think it’s a bit more the local golf club thinking they are fancy, though; I think these people are not what they think they are, necessarily!

Is that not sentimentality though? That sentimentality for a highly edited version of the past to make oneself more comfortable in one’s present time, country, situation? My issue as it relates to Wagner is that such sentimentality really works against his the actual nature of his output. 

Nicholas: I agree but… the potential to read nationalism into Wagner is not a complicated step to take. Even if that’s not “my” Wagner…  but you know, there is also lots of peoples’ Wagners, I think that’s the point Alex Ross is trying to make – in a lot of words! – and one which is very true, is that there are a lot of Wagners, and have always been, since the time of Wagner himself. He turns up in the most unlikely places, and functions, or represents, something for people very different ways, depending on where they are coming from. At the beginning of this chat with relation to escapism vs genuine interaction with Wagner, I’m not sure there is any such thing. To go back to me as a twelve-year-old, when I heard the First Act of Walküre on a recording I had no idea what I was hearing, I didn’t know the story, didn’t know about incest or any of it, all I can tell you is, I said to myself, “What is this music?! I can’t get enough of it!” I was just swept away by this flow. It was an uninterrupted hour of unprecedented – that’s the word of the year isn’t it? – an unprecedented hour of music and drama.

Castorf, Ring, Wagner, opera, staging, theatre, music, drama

Iain Paterson as Wotan and Nadine Weissmann as Erda in Frank Castorf’s 2014 production of Das Rheingold at Bayreuth. Photo: (c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele

Mark: This compartmentalization, not just of Wagner but of cultural life in general, is undesirable. A lot of directors are bound up with how a lot of people receive culture, and now, everything now is on the internet – people go search for whatever on Youtube, they don’t necessarily buy a CD with surprising things on it they can listen to and be surprised by. I think to a certain extent we all tend to go to things we think we’ll get something out of; we may like to challenge ourselves, and certainly, we like to *talk* about challenging ourselves, we like to *think* we’re good critical listeners, and to some extent we are. But if I’m given the choice of going into two productions of The Ring, which one I think I’m going to get more out of, whatever that may mean, then I’m going to choose that – but one *can* be surprised, and I think the ability to experience things, and to think about them, and to rethink them in a way one might not initially have chosen to do, so insofar as one can do that, is extremely important.

For an example, the first time I saw Frank Castorf’s production of The Ring at Bayreuth (in 2014), there were things I greatly admired, but there were things I utterly loathed and really didn’t understand. I thought I would never want to see that again, although I liked the Rheingold and parts of Götterdämmerung, but what came in-between, much less so; I was utterly shocked when I decided against my initial judgement to give it another go years later (2016) and I was utterly bowled over, often precisely by the things that I initially had loathed. I came to see a different sort of theatre being applied to Wagner than I had ever done before. I suppose it was what one broadly could call postmodern or post-Brechtian theatre – but these are such large umbrella terms; Castorf is Castorf, not just postmodern. And, it was clear (in re-seeing it) the cast had grown into it also – they were less shocked by what they were having to do. I came to understand what was going on, and so I say that of any production I’ve ever seen of The Ring, at least it’s the one that has most made me rethink the whole work; it transformed my understanding of a work I thought I knew very well, in a way unlike any other.

Nicholas: But Mark, your journey to the second viewing, think about that. Your journey is a forty-year journey, it’s one that got you to this moment, and got you ready. You needed two viewings to be ready for it: think of what that means, and what type of conversation we’re having now. It’s not that we shouldn’t have it – you shouldn’t have that experience! – but what about everybody else? Who do we need to be brought into at least a version of this conversation in order for the genre to continue to exist and be supported the way it needs to be?

That’s something I covered most recently in my last essay, where I quoted my interview with Barbara Hannigan and essentially asked (as I keep asking myself now): who are we doing this for?

Nicholas: Again, there are many levels, and there has to be a level that’s at the absolute pinnacle. My daughter is studying theoretical physics; I didn’t understand what she was talking about at thirteen, now she’s twenty, and I asked her what she’s studying and I’m stuck in the third word of her first sentence. There has to be that level (of understanding) – that’s what gets us forward, but the danger is, when it’s so rarified, it’s exclusively rarified, how do we mediate what’s important to a large group of people in order for this whole thing to be sustainable? With physicists what they are able to figure out is able to filter down, and manages to be your GPS – without Einstein and his essays at the beginning of the 20th century, we wouldn’t have GPS technology. I don’t know how this translates to the art world, but it’s a problem if only three of your students, Catherine, over six years so far, heard of Peter And The Wolf –  and that’s children’s music, that’s not even Wagner.

To me that underlines basic education, or lack thereof; when school funding is cut, what’s the first thing to get the chop? I make a point to play students the music of Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Wagner’s “The Ride of the Walküre” – things they know already but don’t know the context of and haven’t been asked to think about in imaginative ways. It personalizes the music for them, but also gives them a background.

Nicholas: “Ride” was in an AXE commercial and maybe that’s where they know it from. And they probably also know the Bridal March of Lohengrin too, I bet; those works are part of popular culture.

Mark I suppose we shouldn’t assume that everyone would be coming to that Castorf production of The Ring as I did. Maybe it was more difficult for me, coming with all the baggage I have, knowing it as I do and its performance tradition. It’s like difficulties people might have with contemporary music. I think children, in many ways, or people with less actual classical, less exposure in classical romantic grounding, find it far less of a challenge to dispense with tonality than those spending most parts of everyday practising their scales, for instance. It’s not necessarily one way.

Mark Berry, writer, author, music, classical

Mark Berry

And that “not necessarily one way” especially applies to whatever baggage one brings to The Ring, or how it’s thought of and written about. How did you choose the authors for the book?

Nicholas: We wanted a very broad array of voices, and I think to a certain extent we also wanted the usual suspects, but some people who’ve not had a chance to participate in the conversation a chance to do so. It was very important to have a broad range of nationalities as well, because that also colors the way one approaches the issue of Wagner.

Mark: I think that says it all, really.

Nicholas: We did want it to be relevant to today; we wanted authors who were aware of the full length and breadth of the conversation, but also brought a current perspective. And some of the issues are current, like environmentalism and the Ring. That’s a relatively new way of approaching The Ring, because … well, it’s not that new actually, but applied in this way, it’s relatively new and applied to Wagner, and it’s not really been part of the conversation.

But it’s smart – and speaking of currency then, which Wagner work then would you like to see live right now and why?

(long silence)

Mark: Having given it a few seconds’ thought, my instant reaction is I want to see the whole Ring, because it just seems to be feeding into so much of everything that is going on at the moment, and might just help me make sense of it all. Also, perhaps this is coming back to the escapism aspect -– I’ve missed it. That communal element that is so a part of theatre, that is to musical life and art in general, I think is never stronger, at least in my experience, than when you go to a performance of The Ring. Often, for example, you end up sitting with the same people for all four events and you share that experience, even physically, talk to them a bit or not at all, but at the end of Götterdämmerung, when it’s all over, it does feel like the end of a school year; you’re leaving the immediate surroundings, you’re leaving the people you’ve been going through it with, and there’s nothing quite like that in my experience.

Nicholas: Everything Mark said, and I would add to that, unfortunately that kind of confirms the escapist concept: Wagner does create a whole world, and if you go to The Ring the way he imagined it in Bayreuth, you are really sucked into that world. It’s quite a phenomenon, the coherence of that world he creates, it’s all-encompassing. There is no equivalent experience in our culture, or even has been.

Nicholas Vazsonyi, Clemson, writer, author, music

Nicholas Vazsonyi (Photo: Craig Mahaffey, Clemson University)

I love this concept of community created in real and meta ways through the direct, lived experience of The Ring. The engagement of the senses in an environment like Bayreuth seems very purposeful.

Nicholas: Absolutely, it’s why he wanted Bayreuth itself to be in the middle of nowhere, so you are drawn out from your everyday surroundings and put into this especially structured world; that’s the Disneyworld aspect of it. Even though I know Mark shudders at the comparison, it is a unified, holistic world that is there in Bayreuth; you see those people were sitting next to, see them at 2pm in one of the very few places you can eat in Bayreuth, you run into them and they are recognizable, your eyes meet, and there’s a kind of a greeting there, and you go your separate ways; it’s a feeling of community both in and outside the theatre.

Mark: That’s a festival in a very religious sense, and (Wagner) intended it to be so. Maybe he changed his mind somewhat about what it entailed, but it’s part of this form he so strenuously disassociated from the day-to-day, opera-as-entertainment aspect –  it’s *not* supposed to be something you approach having had a hard day at work, going across the city on public transport, being exhausted by the time you get there, with your mind elsewhere. So yes, you could say that is escapism, you could say it’s transformative, you could say it’s aesthetic – I suppose it’s all of these things. We shouldn’t probably get too hung up on that. I’m contradicting myself from what I said earlier – which is what Wagner makes you do!

Nicholas: It’s the exact opposite of our Covid world right now, with the total absence of physical distancing. That’s the other reason of course I share Mark’s yearning for The Ring: it’s about getting as close as possible to each other.

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Jessica Duchen on Beethoven: “He’s Very Difficult To Capture”

Beethoven, classical, composer, music, German, portrait, Stieler

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

Beethoven was one of the first composers whose works I was determined to play on the piano. His works were  butterflies I aimed to net, stare at, make my own, and release anew, knowing they were never wholly mine to keep. He asked all of me as a young player. When I felt I couldn’t give anymore, he kept asking, nay, barking, anyway, for more, ever more, to push past my perceptions of limitation. Some days I felt defeated, other days, prodded, needled, poked, as if this long-dead, stern-looking German man was wielding a little stick aimed straight at my pride, those two opening notes of his Third Symphony like sharp jabs at the ribs urging, “Weiter gehen!” (“Go further!”). It was a sentiment voiced loudly by my mother, who didn’t take kindly to sighing silences or creative keyboard noodling.

“Back to Beethoven,” she would say, as another moan of desperation rose from the Baldwin grand. “Back to your work.”

“I can’t do it!”

“You can so; work it out. Do it. You’re not finished.”

I sit at a different kind of keyboard now, still alternating between silence and silliness. The act of pushing against perceived limitations is a feature of any creative life, the act of “return” rendered a million different ways; such recognition, and the change borne from it, matters as much as the act itself. Get back to Beethoven; you’re not finished. And so I did return, investing in a Bärenreiter edition of Beethoven’s symphony scores last year, edited by Jonathan Del Mar. The music of Beethoven has been with me for so long (one of the first orchestral performances I remember attending was his Sixth Symphony), so owning them seemed like a logical step. However, the act of going through them initially kicked open doors to questions which heretofore hadn’t been so stark, so bug-eyed, so snitty and snotty and snide: what could I, sans music degree, sans formal Conservatory education, sans musicological knowledge or direct orchestra-playing experience, possibly have to say, write, or contribute? What was I hoping to prove?

Vienna, Beethoven, history, classical, music, museum, Pasqualtihaus, Austria

The plaque outside Pasqualatihaus in Vienna marking it as one of Beethoven’s residences. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Yes, I’ve been to the Pasqualatihaus, and yes, I know so many works by heart, as it turns out; they are not monoliths to me but shards of someone’s soul – questioning, conflicted, difficult, a flickering wall of stained glass, some of it cracked – but what do I know? What value does my voice have, if any? Whose validation am I seeking, and why? Was (Is) my mother’s energy making itself felt across the decades? Studying Beethoven’s symphonies has meant wrestling with demons; like sitting at the piano years ago, some days are better than others, and some days the voices are louder, or softer, depending on just how much I choose to dampen that pedal, open that door, stick to the task at hand. Consistency has been a good way to exercise curiosity, to push against the limitations I feel so often hampered by and judged over. Perhaps I should pay more attention to the softer voice at that cracked stained-glass window whispering that even without knowing the technical names for certain aspects, I can still intuit the larger things they hope to express – and there is value in that. The language may be lacking, but the components that both anchor and surpass that language (curiosity, commitment, compassion) are not.

Vienna, Beethoven, history, classical, music, museum, Pasqualtihaus, Austria

Pasqualatihaus. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Months of studying scores has also highlighted, however inadvertently, the extent to which Beethoven is largely misunderstood and misrepresented in popular culture. One’s perceptions of any artist will understandably alter throughout time, experience, maturation; I once thought of the composer as a true and admirable revolutionary (indeed a youthful projection), whereas I think of him lately as largely shaped and informed by a deeply religious  and conservative faith, an aspect composer James MacMillan explored in a chat for The Spectator. This specific spiritual side of the composer isn’t as widely explored as perhaps it ought to be, which is a pity; it goes against the rebel-image of course, but understanding the immense role of religion greatly expands one’s appreciation – of Fidelio, some symphonies, and various choral works like Missa Solemnis, to say nothing of the many subsequent works inspired by them, MacMillan’s oeuvre included. Again, the religious Beethoven doesn’t gel with (and perhaps isn’t as easy a sell as) the Frowning Rebel Genius, which is of course so tied to the trend of ‘cancelling’ him. The clichéd version of Beethoven which tends to live in the popular imagination is one based not on knowing scores or history, but on programmatic oversaturation tied to the realities of contemporary box office sales, a reality which so rarely (if sadly) actualizes any real responsibility to intelligently and challengingly link needed contextualization with performance and modern repertoire in any enlightening way. There’s something frightening to many contemporary programmers about intelligence, about asking audiences to read, learn, grow, to be surprised and yes, to be challenged and forced to contemplate, as if such activities are a collective form of elitism; rather interestingly, that is one thing not evident (at least to this student) in Beethoven’s actual output. What with Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebrations largely called off because of COVID in 2020, perhaps his 251st will be marked by brighter pathways to more adventurous programming tying context, music, and history more closely together in a spirit of creativity, curiosity, and pushing those limitations. One can hope.

Writer Jessica Duchen is very skilled at linking such things, and doing so in ways that beguile and delight. Her latest novel, Immortal (Unbound), uses the famous “Immortal Beloved” story involving Beethoven as a jump-off to more fully explore the man, his times, his loves, and his music. Released in late 2020, the novel treats aspects of the (highly romantic) story, the world it unfolded, and Beethoven himself, with utmost care and respect, and features illuminating details as well as a sharp ear for dialogue. Jessica is known  for her novels which blend music, history, character, and gripping narrative so seamlessly; her 2008 novel Hungarian Dances (Hodder & Stoughton) is one I find particularly affecting, wonderfully connecting the visceral experience of violin-playing across the ages with the search for identity, family, home, culture, contentment, love. Jessica is also a highly accomplished journalist and was classical music correspondent for The Independent from 2004 to 2016; her work has been published at The Observer, The Guardian, BBC Music Magazine, as well as The Sunday Times. In addition to five works of music-history fiction, she has authored biographies of composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Phaidon, 1996) and Gabriel Fauré (Phaidon, 2000). She has also worked with composer Roxanna Panufnik on libretti for choral works and operas, including Silver Birch, a work commissioned by Garsington Opera and, in 2018,  shortlisted for an International Opera Award. Garsington’s Youth Company also commissioned two Oscar Wilde-related works from Jessica: The Happy Princess in 2019, with composer Paul Fincham; and The Selfish Giant with John Barber; it has been postponed to 2021.

Jessica and I spoke late last month, about the pangs of editing, the joys of crowdfunding, the beauty of simplicity, and just what her beloved “Luigi” might think about our COVID era.

Beethoven, classical, bust, music, decor, composer

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

2020 was supposed to have been the Beethoven year.

It was!

It still was, wasn’t it? His work is so much about compassion, or its absence.

Exactly, and if we had to have a big composer anniversary I’m glad it was him; he gives so much in his music.

You reflect much of that intensity of feeling through your work. How did this particular book come about?

It felt different partly because I was writing in the first person, it’s something I’ve not managed to do successfully before; I’ve tried with other novels those are the ones sitting at the bottom of the cupboard with no hope of completion, this is the first time it’s worked, which has made a difference. As for the research, the wonderful thing is that so many have done so much research already – there is an awful lot to read! And you can find something about whatever aspect of his life and world you want to know about; you don’t need to sift through and decipher every handwritten letter, it’s all been done.

The “Immortal Beloved” story is fairly well-known in classical circles; how daunting was it to tackle as the subject of a whole novel?

It really is a case of, hold your nose and jump, and from a great height! It was about seven years or so ago I was asked to do a talk about Beethoven and women, and I didn’t know that much about it all then, and I started reading and researching, and thought, bloody hell, amazing stuff; it gets under your skin, and I can see how people get obsessed with these stories and with different theories. I started following some of the trails where some of this stuff came from, and why certain things have been pushed and others hampered, for one reason or another, and I discovered it’s not to do with the stories but the people who have been pushing them or otherwise, in many cases; the fact that the Beethoven-Haus Bonn is very much behind the Josephine scenario made me think they probably knew something, because if anyone knows, they do! It was a Canadian musicologist, Rita Steblin, whose work was the most useful; she’d written articles about this, getting other sides to the story. Tragically she died last year; I’d been trying to find and write to her, to get in touch and ask her some things, and I couldn’t find her anywhere, then I met the director of the Beethoven Haus in January in London, and he told me she had died a few months prior. I was horrified. Anyway she’s an absolute heroine, and she was Canadian. She wrote a ton of articles about Beethoven and Schubert and lived in Vienna.

Integrating research, without it being too granular, with storytelling, is must have entailed some tough creative choices.

Any historical novelist or biographer will tell you that you use about 10% of the actual work, the groundwork, that you’ve done, and the thing is to not get so bogged down in detail that you close the thread of the narrative. I had to cut a huge amount out of the book, and it’s more than 400 pages still – it would’ve been more than 500 without those cuts. Sometimes there will be an editor who will say, “Right, get rid of this” and other times you have to be absolutely ruthless, I had one chapter, a digression about the birth of romanticism and all sorts of literary and slightly tangential things that were going on that touched on Beethoven, and Tom (my husband) read it and said “That’s great, I love this!” – and my editor went, whoosh, out with the red pen, and I thought, “Oh nooooo!!” But I can see she had a point; it was bogging down the narrative. If you go on too long (in such tangents), you’ll lose people.

… as well as the momentum of the narrative.

Yes. I’ve had comments saying, “This is a long book but it has a pace of its own.” I tried to pick up the pace as it goes along, so you squelch yourself into that world with a lot of detail and character near the beginning, and then the plot starts, but if you think about it, most really serious books about Beethoven are over 1000 pages long, and there is reason for that: he needs that much. He’s very difficult to capture.

Studying the scores underlined, for me, the role of changeability in Beethoven’s creative endeavors and life overall; what did you find as you wrote this?

Absolutely – to me the heart of Beethoven is his passion for variation, and in a way, he’s always writing variations – nothing stays the same, everything is in motion, every time a theme comes back, it’s a little bit different. Yet there is this motif which is very attached and some people think that has something to do Josephine – it may or may not be the case – but his motifs are not exactly the same. They are always a little bit different when they come back.

I’m curious what you make of the Beethoven you encountered in your research and writing, and the criticism of his work and seeming dominance of the classical music canon. 

The first thing that really comes to mind is that I am all for performing a wider range of repertoire; I think it’s absolutely essential that we diversify the music being played and recognized. We have to hear more women composers, particularly because there is still this attitude that they somehow aren’t as good – we have to hear more music by them, and composers of color; I’d much rather go to a concert of music that I don’t know than music that I do know, because it’s more interesting. When you’ve been going to concerts as long as I have and sometimes reviewing them too, you get really tired of some of the stuff out there, especially the big Late Romantic symphonies. You think, “Come on, something else now!”

On the other hand, I don’t see why hearing more music by other composers means we have to kick out, wholesale, the great figures of the past. I mean, there is this attitude in some quarters of, “Clara Schumann is great and Robert Schumann is crap” – no he wasn’t, he was incredible, but they are two different artists doing two different things, who are important for two different reasons. Both need recognition, and I don’t see what’s the matter with that.

I think Beethoven would whole-heartily support contemporary composers being programmed alongside with his work, and he very much understood the pressures of market forces and money woes.

Oh, I think he was quite canny.

I think he had to be…

This is very true.

Might we , when we come out of COVID, have a more contextualized Beethoven? Or do you see a move toward entrenchment of The Hits?

I really don’t know. I have very little sense of how things will unravel or ravel-up again, and I don’t know how long this whole thing is going to take to pass, I don’t know what will happen politically. In the UK we crashed out of the EU, and the entire music scene will be badly affected; the realities of many simply haven’t been taken into account. I really have no idea; we have fantastic musical life, and we have people who are throwing it out the window, so when things get thrown out the window it tends to be the case you get an entrenchment of the surefire sellers because people are anxious and they’re desperate, and they are scared of taking risks – that’s when there’s a pulling back of the boundaries rather than a pushing out of them. So … I don’t know. I think Beethoven’s been picked on because it was his anniversary so he was the highest-profile composer around, thus he’s an easy target.

I recently watched an old performance of the Leonore overture, and I wondered if such criticisms aren’t as much related to pedestrian performance practises as to decontextualized programming… 

I had to listen to a recent CD recording of Beethoven 5, related to something I was involved in weeks ago, and I could not bear this one particular recording; I thought it was brutal. Honestly, I found it unlistenable. And I was quite shocked, because there are many others who think it’s wonderful.

Do you think there’s value in having that intense a reaction and that extent of divergent thought, though? I wonder if that’s the point.

It could be, but it’s a pity it’s necessary. Here’s where we come back to the need to diversify repertoire: if we heard Beethoven 5 slightly less often there would be no need for people to tear it to pieces and trample it underfoot to make a point. I don’t think trampling Beethoven 5 underfoot has anything to do with what it’s about.

That goes back to programming. We haven’t been able to attend many things and a lot has been forcibly reprogrammed as a result; what stage were you at with the book?

I was in the middle of editing when COVID struck, in March 2020.

Did that experience change your process?

I don’t think it changed it but it made it more meaningful. It was my way of escape. It means when it was locked down it was fine, I don’t have to phone people up and say, “Sorry, I can’t make it; I have to work” – I could just… work. There were a few bits where I accentuated and honed in on certain things and did them slightly differently, for instance there’s a  bit where Therese is going to stay in Vienna to hear Fidelio although Napoleon’s army is marching in; she’s pig-headed and she is not leaving town until she’s heard Fidelio! There are some descriptions of the atmosphere around Vienna at that time, about how she felt in the face of this tremendous change, when everyone else is leaving town and the place is empty and she’s on her own and doesn’t know what’s going on. There were bits like that that got in at a late stage because of what happened through 2020.

The crowdsourcing for this novel seems like a smart way to go about a creative project; do you think it points the way to a future for creative output, especially for writers? Doing it in normal times is one thing but doing it now is quite another.

It’s tricky to say. It’s the third book I’ve done with Unbound, the other two that I did first were finished before I took it to them; Ghost Variations (2016) was with them, for instance. I’d hit a rocky patch because after the financial crash in 2008, a lot of authors, if they weren’t Dan Brown or Salman Rushdie, found themselves turfed on their tails; there were a lot of us writing pretty good books but we were in the middle ranks, and we got kicked out (of publishers). I’d been taking around Ghost Variations and I was very fed up with the sort of responses I was getting to it; I knew it was a good story and I knew it was topical. Eventually I found Unbound – I filled in a form on their website and they came back and said, “We’d like to have this as one of the founding books on our list” and that was my first go on crowdsourcing; I got the money together in 12 days. I surprised everyone! I love the people, the design, the editorial standards, everything is really good; Unbound is a traditional publisher but it crowdfunds.

The Beethoven book was a little bit different, as I hadn’t written it yet, and I knew I would have to do it damn fast to get it out in time for the Beethoven anniversary. I had a drink with the guy who was my editor at the time and said, “I’ve got this amazing story, I really want to write it” and he said, “Well if you can do it by about this time next year then we can probably.” He told me what they needed, and I thought it was just about doable; I’d done all the research, I just hadn’t sat down and put anything together, I hadn’t really had the guts to take the plunge on writing a book. I thought I could do with some talks and didn’t see myself doing a whole novel, but I thought, “It’s the anniversary year and I’m going to kick myself if I don’t do this, it’s now or never” so I jumped. The crowdfunding was quick, it all came together in three months – quite fast. For something else it might take a few years.

book, novel, Beethoven, history, music, fiction, Unbound, Jessica Duchen, immortal beloved, classical So how much do you see crowdfunding being a model for creative endeavours in 2021 and beyond then?

I know quite a number of really interesting music projects being funded this way, so I think in a way it’s books who are the ones late to the party; musicians have been doing this for a while! I think it’s a little bit difficult – that’s probably an understatement because of the pandemic situation. There’s an awful lot of people who have no work and their finances are very stretched; people are extremely worried and won’t know if they’ll get their work back, and there are others who get government support or don’t get government support, here it’s a very capricious system and it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.

On the other hand, there are a lot of people who have full-time jobs, they are professional people who’ve been furloughed and are still getting paid and they have nothing to spend money on; they can’t go abroad, they can’t go on holiday, they can’t go to the theatre or concerts, there’s no point going shopping since we’re all living in our jogging pants and are getting far fewer haircuts. That means people will have some cash sitting around and might have time to support books and music… so if you can target the right market, there might be something to be had through crowdfunding I don’t think of crowdfunding as ideal, and I don’t think it would become the way to do things – but it’s an alternative, and it’s quite fun. You are building a whole community around your project as you are creating it, which is something I really enjoy.

Building community is very tied to the equalizing effect of the internet; some roll their eyes at the digital world but others (like me) wouldn’t have a career without it, and the related efforts of building and engaging a virtual community… 

Absolutely – and it is real work.

… although as you mentioned, it’s difficult to know what to say about online performances because they are not visceral…

It’s not the same as being there. It can’t be.

… and I am not sure of the value of doing fancy filming of performances for online broadcasts. I like the Wigmore Hall concerts because they’re simple; I can focus on the sound itself.

They are elegant and so simple, the way those are done! I suppose it’s easy to do in the Wigmore though.

Beethoven, classical, bust, music, decor, composer

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

There’s something to be said for simplicity in 2020 going into 2021! What do you think he would make of our current times?

That’s a very good question, because if you think about the world he lived in, the life expectancy was something like 45, and he did well to get to 56. Loss and death were a huge part of everyday life for people in the 19th century in a way they are not today, when everything tends to be very sanitized, so (hygienic practise) would be something he would be surprised to see. Also he had the Napoleonic Wars to deal with; that was a really eye-opening side of the research I did, because for some reason, my history studies at school and university in music courses, did not touch on Napoleon at all – somehow we studied Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven (at Cambridge) but not what was going on at the time. And millions of people died because of Napoleon.

And that’s such an important thing to know when approaching Beethoven’s work…

It really is! Quite honestly, if I think about it, Beethoven in our times would say, “Get over yourselves! Do the sensible thing! Wear a mask! Do the hands-face-space thing, and be glad you have these hygienic and technical things to keep you alive and connected – you’ve got so many advantages!” And he’d say “Come on, make the most of what you can; you’ve got all of this stuff now that I didn’t have… pull yourselves together! Get on with it and be productive!” That’s what I think he’d say, but I could be wrong.

Digging In The Dirt

Illustration by Kerrie Leishman via

Continuing with my tradition of being terribly late to cool parties, I recently finished reading The Luminaries (Little, Brown and Company), Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker-winning novel released in 2013. I had delved into the mammoth work late last fall, and had gone through phases of intense and dedicated reading (mainly over the Christmas break), followed by weeks of leaving it aside in favor of focusing on my own work and on the million responsibilities that built up over late winter and early spring.

The Luminaries requires an intense amount of mental energy and focus; author Eleanor Catton paints a gorgeously rich and detailed world of prospectors and swindlers, dreamers and dawdlers, with each character aligned with either an astrological sign or heavenly body. Every story (and character) is carefully, deftly, beautifully interwoven, with the book eventually becoming a pattern of spiderwebs hung against a canopy of stars on a cold spring night. You want to stare and attempt clarity, even as something inside tugs that, to paraphrase Duchamp, the desire to understand it all fills you with a certain horror. It’s a Victorian-style novel, yes, and it’s also a ripping good crime novel, but, like any good crime piece, is also a profound meditation on the nature of greed, identity, and existence.

For book-lovers, finishing a book is akin to the ending of a special relationship, one you know is destined to come to a close, but will nevertheless leave a gaping hole in your life. It’s a hole you know will be filled by many other things (and authors!) but the prospect of that hole existing is sometimes made all the worse by the anticipation involved in its digging. You carry around the ideas and people and world the author has laid out, even as you remember the experiences you had through the process of reading the book. With The Luminaries, my memory is as full with frequently-painful experiences as the book is with unsavory characters and situations. Over the course of the 800-page-plus work, I endured a series of bladder infections, a violent flu, and the start of what became a two-month health odyssey that necessitated multiple surgeries and visits to the emergency room. I also experienced the start of a serious decline in a family member’s health that necessitated huge lifestyle changes for both of us. I can’t begin to remember how many waiting rooms and hospital beds Catton’s tome was taken to, how many times it functioned, alternately, as a soother, a lullaby, a thriller, a prayer, a pillow, a pilgrimage, or, most always, an escape.

Cover print via

As I consumed more chapters (which become progressively shorter, reflecting the movement of the heavens, apparently), I started to read more and more slowly, hoping (in vain) to draw out the last bits of goodness, like sucking at a bone for the most minute dregs of marrow left in the spiny crevices. At a certain point, as the last words of Catton’s work were read late one night (and it should be noted, the book ends on a light, casual note, like an expert nurse giving a needle you didn’t know you needed), I felt a sense of something lifting — not heavy or demanding, but a certain conclusion, as if a very unsettled chapter of life was drawing to a close. It’s funny how we can become addicted to bad things happening, as if adrenaline keeps us awake and needing another fix of the terrible, over and over, so accustomed are we to the dramatically awful. It’s so strangely hard to let those phases go sometimes, to sit back, accept what has passed, and gently remind one’s self that it’s time to break up.

Dear Luminaries, I love you, but this had to end. I’ll always remember Moody, Anna, Lydia, Carver, Mannering, Clinch, Frost, Lowenthal, Gascoigne, Devlin, Ah Sook, Nilssen, Prichard, Quee Long, Balfour, Te Rau Tauwhare, Emery Staines, and poor old Francis Wells. They’ve become permanent residents in the rattling, haunted attic of my life these past months. I may be just coming out of the gutter at last; I’m definitely seeing the stars, wondering at the heavenly bodies, and remembering the glint of spider webs, the silence of moon glow, the rough-smooth texture of gold, the heavy fog of smoke, and the smell of heavy wool after a New Zealand rainstorm. These things live with me, just as much as my surgical scars do. But the story is over now.

Maybe it’s time to see what the attic looks like from the garden. Maybe it’s time for sunrise. It’s time to dry off and see what I’ve mined.

Healing Hearts

September 11th, 2001 is indelibly burned into my memory -and the memory of millions of others. We all remember where we were, and what we were doing.

It’s hard to try to describe that kind of event with any level of appropriate respect, let alone render it into a creative form that might make any kind of sense.
Toronto-based artist John Coburn didn’t set out to try to ‘make sense’ of what he saw during the awful weeks that followed that day. What he did do was sketch, in his identifiably detailed, careful way, life in and around Downtown Manhattan. His sketches became a book in 2002, Healing Hearts, and close to three thousand copies were distributed to families who’d lost loved ones in the Twin Towers. A related, feature-length documentary is in the works, too. It will aim to explore the many stories depicted in the book and feature interviews with those directly involved.
But to get a true sense of John’s work and the people involved in Healing Hearts, I highly advise taking a trip Downtown to see his work. A selection of originals are currently being display at Sciame Construction (at 14 Wall Street) through September 15th. With the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 on Sunday, the significance of John’s lovingly detailed images become all the more powerful, their depictions more, not less keen over time and memory.
Speaking with the artist was a moving experience; his love of New York City is obvious, and his grief over what he saw still vivid. We shared favorites restaurant spots, transit tips, and great places to sketch and write. Then we shared where we were on 9/11.
What’s your history with New York City?

I’ve been going down for the last thirty years. I first went at nine with my family, and I did my first little oil painting of the Statue of Liberty as soon as I got home. At 17, I went down with my art college and got hooked on it, so ever since, I’ve been drawing and working out of there. For anyone who spends time in New York, it always sits fondly in their mind -it’s always floating around.

How have you seen New York change?

I certainly cherish the fact that I was there in the late 1970s into the 80s, when it was still seriously had that edge -you know, the East Side and Times Square and all that – it had that strange edge, you really did have to stay on your toes. But it’s still good ole New York, that’s what I love about it: it’s this big churning machine of love and strangeness.

Explain how Healing Hearts came about.

It started from when I was inside St Paul’s Chapel [located across from what was the Twin Towers] and the chaplain looked down and saw me drawing. We chatted and he said, “I see people scribbling down addresses a lot -so cherish this. What’s going down on paper is picking up the vibe of love and care everyone’s reaching out with.”

When you’re sitting there minute after minute, hour after hour, that life and spirit and energy somehow gets translated onto paper and it’s really the first time I ever thought of art as maybe… there is more meaning to a piece of art than an attractive picture on a wall. So when that chaplain said that, in a tiny way these drawings could deal with the theme of healing, he felt people could look at (them) and in their interpretive sense, get enough from their own imagination to see into what’s going on.

I met a woman named Rosemary Cain in the Salvation Army tent near Ground Zero. [Rosemary is the mother of FDNY fireman George Cain, who perished on 9/11.] I had these original drawings, which I showed her, and I said, “If I managed to put these into book, would you even want to receive it?” She pulled a photograph of her son out of her purse and handed it to me, saying, “John, if your little book can help people remember my son George, I think it’s worthwhile.” That one conversation was the only way this book ever happened.

How hard was it to complete?

It was so emotional for anybody to get through a day. When I was about to surrender, I ran into [artist] Bryan Chadwick, a Canadian guy who’s been in New York now for 30 years. [Bryan wrote the forward for Healing Hearts.] I showed him these drawings and said “Brian, people think we should try to do something, but how am I going to get this into book form?” We were in his Soho kitchen. “Put down your coffee, we’re going to Midtown,” he said to me.

We went up to Lexington and 42nd, to a boutique agency. The ad guys were in a boardroom, they saw the drawings and were tearing up and said, “This is how we’ll give back. We are honored to design this book.” They did a masterfully sensitive job. They created a little treasure. And it was printed for free, and sent by Fedex for free. It took 300 people to make it happen.

How did families react to your work?

I was invited to have this show in New York of these original drawings by Mary Fetchet, who is Founding Director of Voices Of September 11th. Mary and I met over course of year, after she lost her son Bradley, a 24 year-old who worked in finance. She started the foundation, and every year at the anniversary, she’s held events for families to get together share what they need to share.

There’s also a woman by the name of Selena Dack-Forsyth who lost her 39 year-old son Arron in the attacks. She told me, when 9/11 happened, she had called up a fire chief in the Ground Zero area, saying ‘I need boots. I need to go in and help find my son.’ The fire chief spent 40 minutes on the phone gently sharing with her this wasn’t possible to do.

A year-and-a-half later, when she received Healing Hearts, she sat down and read it cover to cover, and said, “Your book brought me to the site and gave me what I wanted to do that day. I was able to see and feel these moments inside St. Paul’s, and the people on the site.”

I also received many letters from families thanking us for doing it. A lot of them said, ‘The starkness of the pictures of airplanes in the building –we don’t need that -we need to see that people cared.’ My brother and I, who put the book together, heard from British families who lost relatives in 9/11. A lot of them had never been to New York, ever, and couldn’t afford to fly over, but all of a sudden, they flipped through a book that showed how much people cared.

How has Healing Hearts changed the way you approach art?

It’s a reminder of the struggle to survive on this planet as an artist. When you sit and you have one mother tell you an ounce of how this might’ve heaped a bit, that right there makes thirty years of struggling make sense. It gives me the encouragement and the respect to continue on as an artist.

I went into a firehouse in Little Italy –Engine 55, on Broome Street. They lost five guys. I drew outside for a few hours, and the Captain came out, saw the drawings, and said, “These are really beautiful. Would you like to come in and draw a shrine to the five guys we lost?”

After that, they invited me in to have ravioli with them. I drew the guys around table. It was late, and they said, “Hey, you’re a ways from home -you are welcome to sleep upstairs.” It was just one journey after the other. As you finish one drawing, someone else is standing beside you saying, “Can you please come and see this?”

Pen to paper in New York City, 2011: what goes through your head?

If 9/11 had never happened, I would still be drawing, whether it’s cafe architecture or some tree in a park. I would still be doing this because I thrive on people and architecture, especially big cities and big vibes, but yes, with the history and what I’ve gone through doing Healing Hearts and meeting families and New Yorkers in general, it does make me again appreciate the fact that I am able to put some lines down on paper that might be appreciated next week, next century.

That’s what artists are about: writers, filmmakers, and artists like to put little treasures together and have them appreciated years from now. I’m just so grateful.Photo credits:

Top photo from my Flickr Photostream.
Pen and ink drawings by John Coburn, taken from the book Healing Hearts.
Art photos courtesy of John Coburn.

Lovely Lawson

A new Nigella Lawson book is always cause for celebration in my world.

With plenty of know-how, an approachable style, and a playful spirit, Lawson’s work is an automatic go-to when I’m running low on ideas and inspiration. Her other works, like How To Eat, Feast, Forever Summer, Nigella Christmas, and Nigella Express are chalk-full of yummy, smart, and mainly easy dishes. Her basic pizza recipe from How To Be A Domestic Goddess is a staple in my kitchen, and it isn’t too much of an exaggeration to state that How To Eat was life-changing.

Sure, Nigella is a food goddess -much ink (and drool) has been spilled chronicling that aspect of her -but she’s also a seriously good writer. Without a trace of smarmy know-it-all-ness but with oodles of honesty, Nigella’s been chronicling what goes on in her kitchen now for almost two decades. It helps that she used to be a journalist; it’s equally helpful that she throws in plenty of personal references to keeping her children, friends, and work colleagues nourished. With a slew of titles and television shows under her belt, she strikes me as something like a super-elegant, knowledgable, refreshingly un-hipsterish, print-loving version of a food blogger. With great power -and beauty, and culinary skills -comes great responsibility, and Nigella ably, amply fulfills the requirements for being a wily, wonderful kitchen-witch.

Unlike her last book, a holiday/Christmas book from 2008, her latest, Kitchen: Recipes From The Heart Of The Home (Knopf), offers a cross-section, multi-seasonal approach, with a firm focus on the basics and homey favorites. Within the pages of the 400+ page hardcover tome, you’ll find clear directions, easy-to-understand terms, as well as a thorough Express Index. The book is handily divided into two sectons: “Kitchen Quandaries” and “Kitchen Comforts”. Each section contains chapters like “Hurry up, I’m hungry!”, “The solace of stirring” and, happily, “Chicken and its place in my home”. Nigella has never made a secret of her love of a simple roast chicken throughout her work, and indeed, I still use her basic recipe from How To Eat as the basis of my own: start with a good organic bird, stick half a lemon up the bottom, “annoint” (her word) with butter and olive oil, stick in the oven. Easy-peasy.
So it’s nice to see her acknowledge her love of poultry, and to introduce fresh new ideas that are, as ever, Nigella’s signature blend of yummy and easy. As she writes in the chapter introduction, “for me, a chicken remains the basic unit of home. I don’t really feel a kitchen is mine until I’ve cooked a chicken there.” I can’t agree more. Dining out last week in New York, I struck up a conversation with a restaurant manager one night about our shared love of food; he asked me about my own specialty in the kitchen, and answered, after a momentary shyness, “roast chicken.” There’s something undeniably wonderful about its scent filling the house, the yummy drippings, the moist meat, and the luscious leftovers. Equally, it’s nice to see these easy, warming recipes; Thai Chicken Noodle Soup, Poached Chicken With Lardons & Lentils, and Chinatown Chicken Salad are all delicious, easy, and yes, inexpensive. I defy anyone who swears they can’t cook to try Nigella’s Quick Chicken Caesar recipe. I suspect, like much of Kitchen itself, that she wrote it just for them.

The introduction also features a fantastic section called “Kitchen Confidential”, which outlines all the tips, tools, and tricks for home cooks of all abilities. She details the usefulness of having boiling water handy, the benefits of buttermilk in cooking, the uses of baking soda, when and how to freeze stock, and her love of having a myriad of bottles (like vermouth, marsala and garlic-infused oil) around her stovetop. She also doles out an important piece of advice for home cooks of all levels:

This is so much easier to say than to do, but try, when you’re cooking for people, not to apologize nervously for what you’ve made, alerting them to some failure only you might be aware of, or indeed, might have invented. Besides, it only creates tension ,and although I do believe food is important, atmosphere matters so much more.

Atmosphere, and I would argue, confidence. Kitchen: Recipes From The Heart Of The Home is a tool to provide you with just that when you approach any culinary -or indeed, sensual -endeavor. You can make something, and do well, and enjoy it, with others, or just by yourself. And why wouldn’t you? Go forth. Cook. Eat. Live. Be happy. So says Nigella… and it’s gorgeously, delicious true.

True Star

I first met Paul Myers when I interviewed him for CIUT’s morning show back in 2007. He and I spoke about his incredible book on the life and times of Long John Baldry, an under-appreciated musician who cast a long shadow over popular music.

Myers is a true music afficionado. As well as being a musician and songwriter, he’s a damn great music journalist, and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Guardian, the Georgia Straight, and the Globe and Mail, among others, keeps a very fine blog where he offers a mix of observation, wit, insight, and just plain love for the hybrid beast that is rock and roll.

Paul’s latest work is called A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio (Jawbone Press), and it documents the incredible, incredibly under-appreciated legacy of musician and studio magician Todd Rundgren. The title is based on Rundgren’s much-loved 1973 album of the same name. Now, I admit that I knew precious little about Rundgren when I began this book, but by its end, I was more convinced than ever of his large, vital footprint on popular music. Most people only know his name from the Liv Tyler connection, or from his producing (and playing on) Meat Loaf’s monster hit album, Bat Out Of Hell.

Rundgren is a multi-faceted, multi-talented person who’s difficult to get a handle on. He produced albums by The Pursuit Of Happiness, Steve Hillage, the New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, The Band, Cheap Trick, The Tubes, as well as Hall and Oates’ War Babies and XTC’s Skylarking (which features their mega-hit, “Dear God”). He released a ton of his own material including Something / Anything? , which contained his best-known work like “Hello It’s Me” and the classic-rock-radio staple”I Saw The Light“. He revolutionized studio technologies and instrumentation. He appeared on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s with Prince. His anthemic, catchy “Bang The Drum All Day” is used widely in commercials. People know his work, but they don’t know him.

Myers’ work gets no closer to really knowing him or plumbing the depths, but it does dig (deep) into his methodologies and techniques within a studio context -an approach that illuminates the hard work that goes on in the rock and roll world, past the boring media stories of drugs and debauchery. Mind you, this video, with Rundgren sporting theatrical costuming and makeup, implies a kind of gritty-glam debauchery that has a direct connection to none other than Lady Gaga herself. Rundgren, influential? Durrrr.

Fabulousness aside, it was the chapter detailing the making of Patti Smith’s Wave that I found most enthralling. Featuring interviews with group members Lenny Kaye, Iva Kral, Richard Sohl, Jay Dee Daugherty, plus producer Rundgren, and the lady herself, it’s a fascinating portrait the ties that bind people, creatively, personally and professionally. Myers’ approach is very detailed and thorough here, as through the entire book; his examination of tunes I’ve long loved -like “Frederick” and “Dancing Barefoot” -were fussy, yes, but they were also genuinely thrilling, and shot through with a musician’s instinctual understanding of the finer points of sonic creation. A Wizard, A True Star is a mix of clinician and musician, mixing the creative and the technical into one fascinating, heady mix.

Paul was kind enough to offer up his own insights into his latest work, and its subject.

Describe Todd’s ultimate role in rock and roll in one line.

My whole book kind of makes the case that Todd Rundgren’s best instrument is the recording studio itself. Sure he’s a great vocal arranger and powerful singer, not to mention a flash guitarist and serviceable drummer, but if you look deeply at his entire 40 year career, there’s a very identifiable way in which he sculpts and blends performances (his own and his clients’) together into something that sounds, for better or worse, like a ‘Todd Rundgren Production’. Oops that’s more than one line!

Why do you think Todd isn’t in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?

The Rock And Roll Hall is a very political body, a lot of great rock artists don’t (or didn’t) have the political capital to grease their nomination into Cleveland. And, of course, Todd has a kind of Orson Welles reputation; there’s much respect for his craft but on a personal level he has been known to bend a few noses out of joint over the years. Maybe Jann Wenner, who has a lot of pull on the RRHOF board, doesn’t like him. Who knows? Also, Todd has often exuded a kind of “who cares” attitude about the whole thing, so maybe they’re put off by that and would rather induct ABBA, whom I love, but can’t see as “rock and roll”.

Why did you decide to do a studio-focused book?

Todd has two parallel careers, as an artist and as a producer of other artists, so once I decided that the studio was his milieu, if you will, it seemed like that was the best setting to tell this incredible story of album after album, and I knew I had to get both Todd AND the artists he produced to tell their story incredible stories. I’m reminded of Hollywood producer Robert Evans’s autobiography and film “The Kid Stays In The Picture”, which opens with a great quote: “There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth.”

You go into a lot of detail in the studio in terms of production and instrumentation; for instance, when I read the chapter on Patti Smith’s ‘Wave’, I came away with a whole new appreciation of her work and the dynamic within her band. How does this kind of detail help the average music fan get to know Todd’s art?
I make no secret that I am a musician who has also produced recordings, but I am married to a woman who is not a musician but who loves a good story. So I write a little bit for her, as a test “layman”. I tend to split the difference, conversationally, when I tell music stories to her and that’s what I wanted to do here. I don’t make movies, but I love hearing how “green screen” and CG effects are done. My goal is to give the layman just enough information to understand the significance of what is being discussing. Having said that, one of my favourite passages is where Todd describes the effect on Grand Funk (Railroad) singer Don Brewer’s voice on “We’re An American Band”, the Cooper Time Cube. It’s a delay effect that I’d never heard of before, and Todd had to Google it during the interview to see if he even had the name right.

You explore the role Todd played in music / studio technology; how much do you see his influence in things like Autotune, and even something like GarageBand?

I say in the book that over the last decade Todd became less involved with bands, probably due to the fact that the technology for self-recording (some of which he either designed or requested) is so advanced that it has reduced the ‘perceived value’ of a producer. I say ‘perceived’ because I think, just as a bunch of great actors can read surely read a bunch of great lines from a great script without a director, in the end a good director is always welcome. I don’t think Todd had much to do with Autotune, but definitely the spirit of Todd’s original experiments with multi-tracking lives in digital recording software of today. A band like Pomplamoose, who openly film themselves overdubbing all the instruments might appeal to Todd, I’ll have to ask him.

What do you think Todd’s legacy will be 100 years from now?

I would hope that Todd’s legacy will fall into the pantheon of similarly adventurous recording pioneers such as Les Paul, Brian Wilson and the later artists such as Trent Reznor and Prince (both of whom have cited Todd as an early influence). Musically, I think his piano based ballads on Something/Anything? and Hermit Of Mink Hollow will be re-appreciated by the coming crop of bedroom musicians.

Feel / Reveal


Watching pieces of the movie Frida recently, amidst bites of crostini, answering emails, and half-sketching, was a strange experience -and not just because of the multi-tasking.

When I saw it in the cinema in 2002 I was bowled over by the mix of images, plot, and music within Julie Taymor‘s vision of the Mexican painter’s life. My initial viewing was at an early point in my own personal explorations into drawing and painting; after years of photography, including nearly two years spent in Ireland and England with an ancient, beloved manual-forward SLR camera, I thought it might be a good idea to strip the technology away to get to the heart of art-making. And so the drawing/painting/sketching odyssey began, and photography, however slowly, fell by the wayside, paralleling the dwindling of film stock and the rise of mobile (and, for that matter, internet) technology.

It was during a recent dinner party at my home that I felt a deep twinge of nostalgia for my old snapping days. I brought out the old Minolta at the request of one of my guests, a photo enthusiast. The weight of the camera, the ka-chunk of the shutter, the cylindrical beauty of the lens, the quasi-surprise of the prints… it was all magical to behold after so long away from it. Yet spying the light meter again created a small panic, a palpable sense of, what am I doing?! It was a curious mix of panic and passion.

Aside from the heart-stopping, beautiful viuals, what I love so much about Taymor’s film is that Frida’s struggles and doubts over her own artistic voice aren’t ever glossed over; in one scene, when she and husband Diego Rivera go to New York City so the latter can complete a commission for the Rockefellers, a reporter asks her, “Are you an artist too?” She demures -and keeps on stabbing her brush at the canvas. Yes, no, maybe. I don’t know. Keep on keepin’ on. Even when bed-ridden, she continued her output, never labelling herself or her work. Just doing it.

I’m a longtime admirer of Frida’s work -“admirer”, actually, feels too mild, but “fan” feels too slavish. She takes her place, like Patti Smith, in my mental curio cabinet of beautifully imperfect heroes: shriekingly female but defying categorization, always personal but ever-cryptic, physical but very heady, hugely experimental but deeply traditional. A mass of genius in contradiction, Frida’s work, like Patti’s, has the power to bring me to tears, and frequently has.

The timing of Taymor’s movie on television was curious on a personal level (never mind Taymor’s directing Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark, opening next month on Broadway. More on that in a future post.). I’d been berating myself for not being productive enough artistically lately. I should be drawing/painting/etc is a frequent mental mantra. It’s feels like a hard thing to go off and do, and yet it shouldn’t be. That old want-to-be-doing vs should-be-doing battle is raging. The other reason productivity falls away is that I have a genuine sense of not knowing what I’m doing, that it’s all for naught, that it’s all horribly amateur and pointless and stupid. That voice of doubt is sometimes louder than the calm, quiet one that asks me to keep going.

And so, it was appropos that, looking through a bookshelf for something else entirely, Peter London’s No More Secondhand Art (Shambhala Publications, 1989) popped out at me. I opened it, as if my magic, to a page with the following header: “Am I Good Enough?” That would be my other mantra, a much older one that applies to several areas and pursuits. But I was fascinated by London’s dissection of this question to self as applied to art-making, one that works whether you love drawing, painting, photography or performance:

We can never win the encounter with such a question, because the very underlying assumption of “Am I —— enough?” is a faulty appraisal of the human condition and a false understanding of what it does take to engage in creative enterprises… Rather than paralyzing ourselves with the existential bone-crusher “Am I good enough?” we would do better to ask ourselves question that invoke no comparisons. Instead, we could become interested in describing the new terrain being uncovered or invented.

I dream of the day that voice stops -or at least softens. I dream of the day I’ll have the most precious things any artist could ask for -time, space, resources -to do what I want most to do, when my heroes smile and say, see? It wasn’t so hard after all. Because really, it’s not.


Paintings:

Top: The Two Fridas, 1939.
Bottom: Viva la vida, 1954. Frida Kahlo’s last painting.


Photo credit:

Photograph of Frida Kahlo by Lucienne Bloch, 1932.

Dear Katherine

Two things struck me looking through The Tattoo Chronicles, by famed tattoo artist Kat Von D (with Sandra Bark): first, this girl can draw, and second, she’s so much a twenty-something woman of the 21st century.

The first observation might seem a bit idiotic at the outset; after all, Kat rose to fame based on the wildly popular television series LA Ink, chronicling her life in the City of Angels, inking up the not-so-rich and infamous. But she’s also a genuinely good artist in her own right.

I’ve been returning to drawing in a big way the last little while, and while it’s rewarding, it’s also incredibly hard, time-consuming, and frustrating. Kat has an incredible faculty to be able to draw both what’s in front of her as well as from her considerable imagination. She shares drawings, stories, and photographs in this gorgeous red hardcover book; its pages are designed like a scrapbook, with snatches of tattoo sketches (and the finished work), highly stylized photographs, letters, and doodles. It’s a fascinating chronicle of memories and experiences, and adheres closely to Kat’s high-wire act of balancing relenteless self-promotion with genuine twin passions for art and human connection.

The front cover, with Kat hugging a diary to her chest, sleeve-tattooed arms enfolded around her tiny frame, angular face, black hair, leather pants and super-high red sparkly shoes tells you that while she isn’t exactly the girl next door, she’s not the trampy, vampy hellraiser she might like to make her out as, either. This bears out within the pages of The Tattoo Chronicles (Harper Collins), particularly the more personal bits detailing Kat’s up-and-down roller coaster of a relationship with rock and roll bad boy, former Motley Crue bassist Nicki Sixx. The age difference between she and her paramour -Sixx’s 50th birthday party is chronicled, along with Kat’s 27th (with much frustration she tosses off a “so-the-hell-what?” at the age discrepancy at one point, the flippancy of the statement belying its worried underpinnings) -as well as the close relationship she shares with many women, including her sister Karoline, and Johnette Napolitano, who wrote the book’s compelling foreword.

The Concrete Blonde singer’s line that “I just do what I do and happen to be a woman” struck me, because so many of the artists I admire carry the exact same credo, and it’s one, I think, that applies equally to Kat, who has blazed a trail for women who tattoo, who love it, or are fascinated by its culture.

But that accomplishment doesn’t erase vulnerability or, indeed, humanity. For all her fetching style and tough-lady attitude, Kat very much comes off as an insecure, anxiety-prone twenty-something in the throes of forming identities amidst a barrage of external forces -ones that might a bit distant for some of us (TV shows, books, a Sephora make-up line) but nonetheless fascinating, and even familiar. Who can’t relate to the stress of being far away from a loved one? fights? a breakup? panic over losing your sense of self that makes you you? Her Alpine-esque ups and downs with Sixx are shared with searing honesty. In one entry, dated July 7th, 2008, 4:42am, she writes:

There’s no ignoring the physical distance between Nikki and I today -and it’s
only been a day -God, I miss him -can’t sleep. How am I gonna get through the
next two months? More importantly, how the hell did I become “that” girl? I feel
so damn clingy -needy almost … UGH. We start filming in the morning.

Never for a moment does Kat lose sight of the ultimate prize: further fame and notoriety. Her single-minded approach can be cloying at times, but it also gives way to some truly moving passages. Kat’s write-up about Glory Mkini, who comes to her for a tattoo that both pays homage to her home (Mkini is Tanzanian) and covers up a scar, is deeply moving. The personalities that dominate the book (along with their accompanying photographs) provide a fascinating hodge podge of humanity in all its confusing, contradictory, inked-up glory. And it’s in these passages, in Kat’s detailing her exchanges with these people and their journeys, that The Tattoo Chronicles really shines.

As to her own personal bits, Kat wallows the way any lovelorn, self-obsessed twenty-something might. It’s annoying at times, but it’s also related to an overall me-me-me-broadcast that defines so much Western cultural exchange within a young-celebrity context in the 21st century. Kat’s entries occasionally read like Facebook status updates -not a bad thing, but hardly introspective. We don’t get a true sense of why a veteran like Johnette Napolitano is her friend, and we get naive howlers like her relating her own relatively-short period of sobriety with Nikki’s decades-long process. They aren’t the same, Kat. They really, really aren’t. Stop comparing. Stop always bringing *you* in.

But that sense of ballsy narcissism, of take-on-the-world-ness, of shrieking arrogance-meets-naivete, is really the charm of it. Just when you think you could never have anything in common with someone like Kat Von D… the “someone like” part vanishes, and, past the shoes, the makeup, the spiffy clothing, the perfect lighting, the plastic surgery, and oodles of rock and roll/celeb connections, there’s this… lonely, wildly insecure, overwhelmed, for-all-her-success-hugely-naive, messed-up person… who happens to be hugely talented (and, um, rich), very curious about people, and unafraid to speak her mind. There’s something heartening about seeing someone so completely, unapologetically like the rest of us non-gothy-glam schlubs… make it, while bleeding all over everyone and not trying to be cutesy about it, but hauling out the mops and shouting for a TV camera. Kat feels so appropriate for here and now, and her latest book is proof of that.

The Tattoo Chronicles is a book that inspires curiosity, thought, and guffaws for sure -but within it is the unquenchable instinct to connect, cherish and accept everyone within this crazy little globe, no matter how mnch -or little -they may have lived, or how much they have to show for it, physically and otherwise. Everyone has a story. It’s nice to see them so creatively chronicled.

Prince


Like many following the crisis in Haiti, I’m left with tremendous feelings of sadness. What can I do? How can I help? Is my donation enough? What else? As a journalist, it’s been interesting to observe the various ways stories from Port au Prince are being related; some are more positive than others, but there is an undeniable emphasis on loss, which is both fitting and yet discomforting. Surely we have to start focusing on the reconstruction stories soon. Energy goes where eyes go, after all. And eyes need to be on feeding, rebuilding, doctoring, and all-around aid.

Jean-Michel Basquiat understood this concept of energy. His paintings were full of question marks: who am I where do I belong? how do I define myself -as a black man, an artist, an American? His works, utterly shaped by graffiti and street art, have a rhythm and pulse that many painters work hard at capturing. They’re not meant to be soothing, polite, or elegant, but rather, raucous, loud, and confrontational. I frequently wonder if this is owing to Basquiat’s own mixed background and the sense I get that, in his 27 short years, he was on an urgent, stabbing quest to try to fit in -on artistic as well as socio-economic levels -with a society that he knew, to some extent, would never entirely welcome him as their own. Maybe this sense helped to fuel the rage I see (and love) in his works.

I came across a book featuring his work today and was forced to pause between floor cleanings. Leafing through Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, Basquiat’s shifting sense of power, vacillating between lost rebel and confident artiste, was both enthralling and challenging. His works are a loud, exuberant complement to Maya Angelou’s proud paean to resolve in the face of massive fear and overwhelming odds.

It may sound pretentious, but I found a new power in his many works exploring black identity in the light of the Haitian tragedy. Basquiat’s father was born in Haiti, while his mother was Puerto Rican. What would he think about the events of the last few days? How would he express the magnitude of the calamity that has befallen his father’s homeland? Would he look at UN efforts and proclaim SAMO? Or might he paint, in the spirit of Angelou’s words, a defiant, fortifying tribute to the indomitable spirit of Haiti’s citizens? We will never know. But seeing his works again have, in a strange way, given me a sort of hope the news hasn’t, and perhaps, won’t. That’s okay. Maybe that’s part of the beauty -and mystery -of art.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes

And listen for my scream,

If I’m afraid at all

It’s only in my dreams.

I’ve got a magic charm

That I keep up my sleeve

I can walk the ocean floor

And never have to breathe.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Not at all

Not at all.

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