Tuesday, November 1, 2011
The Unanswered Questions of Ives and Bernstein
I cannot get back to sleep tonight. Before the Chiefs beat the Chargers in overtime, 23-20, I went to bed. Sometime around 1am, I awoke after a dream where I walked on a long road that ended at a sand dune near the sea. By the sea there was a rocky cave. It felt like Ireland, landscape much like the Giant’s Causeway. For some reason, I confronted a young man and we argued about something. We both seemed angry, but in the end, we shook hands, apologized, and parted ways. I gathered my extra clothes and shoes, placed them in a cardboard box, and walked back down the road, barefoot on the smooth warm blacktop as the sun set before me. Why had we argued? And how had we come to make peace?
Tonight while the football game played on the TV, I sat in an adjoining room and watched excerpts of Leonard Bernstein’s 1973 6 part lecture at Harvard called “The Unanswered Question”. At one point I took a break to listen to Ives’ piece by the same name. His music feels like a dialogue; three channels of musical themes running at disparate times, like three conveyor belts at different speeds. He composed this in 1906. Bernstein’s lecture is epic. Twelve hours almost. It’s a bit exhausting to me, but I plan to watch more later today, after I get some sleep.
On Wednesday night, I plan to attend the newEar’s Book Club where we’ll discuss the book of the lectures. I’m glad I watched it instead of reading. After watching Bernstein speak and play musical examples, after listening to the symphony selections, and watching, I cannot imagine reading the book, for this is something to see and hear. I’m not halfway through the six parts and yet I’m feeling as if Bernstein’s fitted me with a new set of sensing antennae, a fresh shiny new wide-angel lens, and a new set of ears.
And with his interdisciplinary approach, metaphorically linking language and music, pulling in my knowledge of linguistics, referring back to my nerdy love of diagramming sentences, I’m a puddle of mush right now; deep in a jungle of everything, hearing sounds I never understood, tones that slipped past my ears, yet seeing fibre of connections like a huge spider web glistening in the sun, minus the spider, thankfully. Maybe the spider appears later. I hope not.
In the background, I’m playing some Bach courtesy of Glenn Gould. When I was in high school, I became interested in classical music after listening to his Goldberg Variations recorded in 1955. By the time I heard it in 1968, it was a classic. I didn’t know that. It just sounded really cool and I had no idea who Glenn Gould was; that he had given his last public performance in 1964.
I enjoyed watching Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” series on TV as a kid. I was in no way self-aware of the fact that none of my friends were into it, that my parents rarely watched. I dabbled at clarinet, but found it tedious. I wanted to play like Benny Goodman, but my teacher was this old guy who was really boring and didn’t want to be a teacher. Or so I sensed. Maybe he wanted to be in a jazz band or an orchestra. Maybe he was and I was not interested enough to ask him. Maybe I should have talked with him about those Bernstein shows.
Classical music as a term is as meaningless to me now as it was when I was young. To me it was music; big music, complex stuff without lyrics unless some people were singing in Italian or German which I didn’t fully understand at the time. It felt a lot like Shakespeare; hard to wrap my arms around in one go, something I could learn more about the second, third and fourth time around. There were a lot of musicians to watch at once. Going to the symphony at the Academy of Music was very cool. Eugene Ormandy conducting. I saw Bernstein a few times. He was quite a performer, hair flying around just like on TV. I used to conduct in the mirror a lot.
I’m still excited about connecting my dorky love of diagramming sentences to music. I have my grammar book from grad school. Yes, after learning to diagram sentences from Sister Asunta and the Franciscan Sisters in grade school, I continued my weird fascination throughout the years. I remember my grammar course final exam at St. Mary University. Sister Marie Brinkman had us diagram a few literary passages…a Shakespeare soliloquy and one of those humungous sentences from a Faulkner novel. In that two-semester course I studied Noam Chomsky closely for the first time. Bernstein collaborated with him in building his 6 part lecture.
So now my head is swirling. Maybe this swirl had something to do with that weird dream. The young guy with whom I was arguing looked a lot like Glenn Gould come to think of it. I don’t know for sure.