A MUSICAL METAMORPHOSIS by ORLANDO DI LASSO

orlando-lassus-2

One of the legacies of my extended sojourn in chapel choirs, from the age of 7 to 22, is an abiding love for unusual corners of the Anglican choral repertoire.  Long before I myself had to compose intricate 5-part counterpoint at various desks in damp libraries and assorted examination halls, I grew to love the polyphonic repertoire of Palestrina, Josquin and other masters of the Renaissance by actually singing it.  As my interest in early music expanded I corralled various friends into putting on concerts of what were then practically unknown works: early French organum from Notre-Dame, Machaut and Ockeghem.

After a recent back operation I decided to reconnect with my love of singing in choirs by joining a couple of ensembles at UCLA.  I have already written about the once-in-a-lifetime experience of singing Beethoven under the masterful baton of the legendary choral teacher Donald Neuen, in his farewell concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall.  But UCLA offers many other conduits for those wanting to embark on unusual musical adventures.  In particular, the UCLA Early Music Ensemble brings together an eclectic group of students and faculty from all disciplines, together with some interlopers from the community like myself, to perform anything from Baroque standards to way-off-the-beaten-path curiosities from across the world and across the centuries.  Instrumentalists play authentic instruments of the period.

In one chamber concert we tackled a delightful potpourri of works by French and Flemish masters of the Renaissance, and for this particular work — “La Nuict Froide et Sombre” (The Cold and Somber Night) — I was asked to write the program notes.  Here they are, and at the end you can watch our performance.

OrlandoLasso

Orlando di Lasso, also known as Lassus, was something of a rock star in the hushed cloisters of 16th century polyphony.  Legend has it that he was abducted no less than three times for the beauty of his youthful singing voice.  Judging by the ubiquity of his works in print, he was also one of the first composers in history to understand the financial benefits of a good publishing deal.  It enabled him to spend most of his life in stable employment at the Bavarian court in Munich where he enjoyed enormous creative freedom.

Lassus performing at the Bavarian court

Lassus performing at the Bavarian court

Orlando Lassus 1570_Hofkonzert copie

You are about to hear why his music was so popular.  He was able, within the strict compositional methods required at the time, to cultivate a more earthy and sensual manner that humanized the sacred.  His gift for word setting was especially evident in his series of French chansons, which were amongst the most widely known and popular works in late 16th century Europe.  The text for “La Nuict Froide et sombre” is by Joachim de Bellay, one of a group of poets who turned to Greek and Roman poetry as a way to revitalize the form.

Joachim de Bellay

Joachim de Bellay

This poem clearly channels Ovid to depict a scene of cosmic metamorphosis thus:

“The cold and somber night

Covering with dark shadow

The earth and the skies

As sweetly as honey

Dripping from the sky

Pours sleep into our eyes.

Then the glowing sky

To labour calling

Reveals its faint light

And in varied hues

This great universe

Unfurls and forms.”

(my translation)

This text may be secular, but its depiction of the unity of creation and the constantly renewing cycle of day and night would have resonated with devotional literature of the time.  The diurnal cycle thus mirrors how despair and hope are constantly evolving into one another in the Evening and Morning meditations.  That Lasso is aware of this resonance between nature and the spiritual life is reflected in both the pictorial detail and the underlying religiosity of his word setting.  The descent of night at the opening is depicted in a series of slow-moving but harmonically unsettled chords.  Contrasts between high and low registers accentuate the poet’s invocation of the earth and sky.  A sequence of drooping suspensions perfectly mimics the effect of sleep upon the eyes.  Throughout, a virtuosic use of chromaticism invokes not only the diaphanous quality of the scene being described, but also the profound sensuality of Nature’s effects.  In that profundity the metamorphosis of day into night, and night into day, is rendered into a spiritual contemplation of palpable physicality.

THE “OTHER” TERMINATOR ( MARVIN THE PARANOID ANDROID )

Marvin+the+Paranoid+Android single cover

It’s a signature time for robots. In real life we’ve got Curiosity taking a years-long constitutional on the red planet, Rosetta dropping in on Comet67P, drones over the White House and Iraq, and a Korean Man Machine doing some nifty stuff at DARPA.

In the movies, in this year alone we’ve already been seduced and terrorized by the babe-bots of the brilliant Ex Machina —

ex-machina girls

— and now the granddaddy of all metal men, the Governator himself, is about to blast across the eons (again) in Terminator: Genisys.

terminator-genesis-arnold

It’s easy for a human to feel a little overwhelmed and, frankly, a little redundant, with all this talk of self-driving cars, AI, and the imminently self-aware iPhone (okay I made that last one up but, hey, we all know Apple is working on it).

So, in this age of Terminators and drones, whizz-bang exterminators and pseudo-human love machines, might I suggest it’s time to remember a gentler breed of “Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With.” A robot who doesn’t have all the answers, even though, as he constantly reminds us, he does have “a brain the size of a planet”.

I speak, of course, of Marvin.

Marvin the Paranoid Android.

Marvin on telephone

Marvin, a prototype of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, equipped with the ground-breaking GPP factor, as in “Genuine People Personality”.

Marvin, who upon entering the room, is inclined to talk not of the weather or the traffic, or what passes for news on Alpha Centauri, but rather will announce with breathtaking candor:

“I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed”.

Marvin_meets_Ford_and_Arthur

Yup, that’s a Genuine People Personality all right. And yes, I know what you mean Marvin. It’s just so nice to hear someone else say out loud what many of us are thinking. Much of the time.

Marvin was the creation of Douglas Adams, a former script editor and writer on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Doctor Who.

Douglas Adams

Marvin is everyone’s favourite side-kick in Adams’s magnum opus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

hhgttg-original-records

This was originally a radio show for the BBC, but it was so popular it evolved into a series of books, a TV show, and, finally, a movie. But it is in its original radio incarnation that Hitchhiker’s shines most brightly.  For most fans, Marvin as personified by the lugubrious, jaded tones of Stephen Moore, is the bright star bringing just the right amount of cynical illumination to the Galaxy.

Marvin with Stephen Moore

Stephen Moore and friend

That is the genius of Marvin and the assorted droids and computers in the Hitchhiker’s universe: his too-human side. In trying to make machines more empathetic and relatable by giving them Genuine People Personalities, their creators (us) have made them uber-human to the point of ridiculousness. Thus we have elevators having existential crises: terrified of heights and cowering in basements.  Or Eddie, the shipboard computer, who either declares life to be fantastic, all the time — or who mothers you like that over-protective aunt who smelled of slightly rotten elderberries.

It’s a delicious take on the old fear that the technology we create will somehow inherit way too much emotion for its, or our, own good. (Hi there HAL).

Marvin, reduced for most of the time to menial labour (like parking cars), prefaces much of his complaining with “Brain the size of a planet…..”

Ah, I know how you feel, Marvin. No-one really understands the full extent of my unique skills either.

Like, for example, I know I could have been a pop star. I just needed that one big break…..

Yup, Marvin’s been there, done that.

Is there nothing in this world a paranoid android cannot achieve, if only he dreams big enough?

And long enough?

(from l. to r.) Douglas Adams, Geoffrey Perkins (producer), David Tate (Eddie etc.), Geoffrey McGivern (Ford Prefect), Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod), Simon Jones (Arthur Dent), Alan Ford (Roosta)

(from l. to r.) Douglas Adams, Geoffrey Perkins (producer), David Tate (Eddie etc.), Geoffrey McGivern (Ford Prefect), Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod), Simon Jones (Arthur Dent), Alan Ford (Roosta)

Marvin Your_plastic_pal_who's_fun_to_be_with!

 

 

JOHN BOORMAN IN HOLLYWOOD ( “QUEEN AND COUNTRY” AT THE AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE )

John Boorman color

I will never forget the first time I entered the unique film world of John Boorman. I was around 17 or 18. A matinee screening of Zardoz at the National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank. I wandered out of a misty Autumn day into the mist-shrouded strangeness of the opening of that film and was spellbound. A giant stone head floats across a rocky wasteland —

zardoz2

— and Sean Connery emerges reborn out of the ashes of his tour of 007 duty as a bare-chested, mustachioed enforcer in a post-apocalyptic society populated by actors I knew from British sitcoms.

ZARDOZ Connery enforcing

Strange does not even begin to describe this film and yet….. Yet…..

This was film making that did not play it safe. It tackled big themes and mythological subtext was pushed to the foreground. It was artful, adventurous, and frequently fell on its face. The performances pushed the envelope. In short, it was everything that mainstream British film-making of the time mostly wasn’t: risk-taking, emotionally naked, larger-than-life, intellectually challenging, and willing to put it all on the line.

Zardoz chamber

I was hooked. I sought out Boorman’s previous work in late-night screenings at the Penultimate Picture Palace on the outskirts of Oxford, my film school at university. There was Deliverance; the masterpiece Point Blank (the ONLY truly great color film noir that is also the quintessential, ground-zero genre exploration of existential angst); the extraordinary Hell in the Pacific, in which Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune play two combat soldiers from World War II still fighting the war on a remote Pacific atoll long after VJ Day.

hell_in_the_pacific_1962

In 1981, Excalibur was released.  This was Boorman’s vast, sprawling telling of the Arthurian legends, and I was spellbound. It was (and still is) the only time that a film has utterly committed to telling myth as if it was real history, with magic and the supernatural acting as strongly on the protagonists as their own turbulent emotions. Yes, the film is occasionally wayward, and elicits giggles in some of its more on-the-nose moments, largely because of memories of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which had been released some years earlier.  But then again there are images, scenes, juxtapositions which are as breathtaking as any in cinema.

Excalibur in forest

And then there’s Merlin: Nicol Williamson’s entirely off-the-wall, off-kilter, playful, eccentric characterization that was savaged (and I mean savaged) by the critics of the time, but which I believed then, and certainly believe even more now, is one of the most iconoclastic and brave performances ever put on celluloid.

Excalibur-Merlin

And a young, entirely sexy Helen Mirren as his evil nemesis.

Excalibur Helen Mirren

Plus one of the most priapic, Jungian/Freudian (take your pick) sex scenes in movie history (you know the one….)

Excalibur sex scene

The best book written about Stanley Kubrick is by the leading critic of the French journal Positif, Michael Ciment. Which other director did he choose to write about in similarly expansive fashion? John Boorman. There’s a good reason for this. Like Kubrick, Boorman has consistently challenged our expectations of what a mainstream genre film can and should be. Both books have sat prominently on my bookshelf since they were published, and I dip into them often.

Michael Ciment (left) with John Boorman

Michael Ciment (left) with John Boorman

These thoughts were much in my mind last night as I strolled into the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to see the Los Angeles premiere of John Boorman’s self-declared final film, Queen and Country, presented by the American Cinematheque.

Queen and Country

It’s a sequel to his masterly autobiographical film about growing up during the London blitz, Hope and Glory. In attendance was Boorman himself, a spritely octogenarian, his eyes sparkling with all the wit and impishness that drives the originality and risk-taking at the heart of his work.

The author (l.) with John Boorman outside the Aero Theatre

The author (l.) with John Boorman outside the Aero Theatre

The film itself was as fresh and surprising as any of its predecessors. It focuses on the young hero’s experiences as a conscript doing his British national army service during the Korean war. In characteristic Boorman fashion, the film serves partly as an anthropological investigation of a social group adrift from its moorings – in this case an army that is not actually fighting a war. The absurdities of the hierarchies and rituals of the institution are thrown into relief as Britain and its inhabitants reach for meaning in a post-War world.

queenandcountry2_2915573b

Within this world we follow our hero through the travails of first love, the complexities of adult relationships, and discovering his passion for movies.

queen-and-country

The film ends with the hero and his girl locked in a playful embrace, sinking beneath the waters of the Thames, as his abandoned camera film the scene. It’s a lovely, perfectly apposite image on which Boorman ends his film maker’s journey, recalling the many rivers that run throughout his work, conduits of destruction and rebirth – tactile, universal, mythological.

point-blank-1967

Deliverance rapids

Excalibur 40

Emerald Forest

After the screening, the director took the stage to a standing ovation. He offered insights and advice that any film maker would do well to heed, including the recommendation to seriously consider an alternative career: he reflected that he had spent more time on films that never got made than on ones that did.

And he told some great stories about working with two of the cinema’s greatest acting legends: Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune.

hellinthepacific on the beach

Boorman’s relationship with Mifune could best be described by the title of the film they were shooting: Hell in the Pacific. Boorman recounted how, at one particularly fraught juncture, he let fly with his criticisms, then insisted that the interpreter through whom they communicated repeat his words verbatim to the star. Mifune listened, then proceeded to punch out the interpreter. Without missing a beat he turned to the director, smiled and nodded. At one point in the shoot, Boorman fell ill and production halted. Worried producers offered Mifune the opportunity to replace Boorman, which they thought the actor would jump at. Mifune instead insisted they stick with Boorman.  It was, he said, a matter of honor.

Not a familiar concept to your average Hollywood suit, commented Boorman.  The audience at the Aero ate this up.

john-boorman-lee-marvin-e-toshiro-mifune-no-set-de-hell-in-the-pacific

Boorman recounted how he and Lee Marvin became close friends, and he told several wonderful stories about their friendship.

LEE MARVIN, UN PORTRAIT SIGNE JOHN BOORMAN

After Marvin and Boorman had completely reworked the original script for Pont Blank and it came time to start filming, Marvin literally flew the script out of the window. At a meeting with the studio brass Marvin said that he was ceding all his story and casting control to the novice director. Boorman never forgot this support. He noted that the film, about a man who is shot and left for dead, then goes in search of his killers, became a means for Marvin to confront his own demons from combat duty during the war.

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and John Boorman on set

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and John Boorman on set

On a lighter note, Boorman recalled a memorable evening out with Marvin who, by closing time, was very drunk indeed. Boorman struggled to prevent Marvin from taking the wheel of his car to drive home, finally wresting the keys from him. Marvin proceeded to jump onto the roof of the car and refused to come down. Boorman decided to drive him home anyway.

There they were, weaving their way up the Pacific Coast Highway to Marvin’s home in Malibu, Boorman at the wheel, the star clinging to the roof. Suddenly a siren sounded, and the cops pulled him over. Up walks the patrolman.

“Sir, you do realize that Lee Marvin is on the roof of your car…..?”

How many directors can tell a story like that?

John Boorman in river

 

BEETHOVEN TRANSFIGURED ( THE NEUEN EFFECT )

10264100_642509452496442_815227805201600243_o

To transfigure: to transform into something more beautiful or elevated

There are experiences in all our lives that so completely transcend the mundane that we step out of time completely. Those experiences live on in the eternal present in our heads and we are, on some deep molecular level, altered by them – utterly.

BEETHOVEN CHORALE ONSTAGE AT ROYCE HALL cropped 3

I had one such experience recently. I was not the sole participant in the event that prompts these words. But I dare say many of the 300-plus performers who shared the stage with me at UCLA’s Royce Hall felt similarly. We were there for two reasons. First to perform two of Beethoven’s great choral works, the Mass in C and the Choral Fantasy. Second, to mark and celebrate the extraordinary musical life of our conductor and choirmaster, Donald Neuen, Distinguished Professor of Choral Music at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.

Beethoven poster FULL

At the age of 80, after a sixty-year career of conducting and teaching, Donald was retiring. Yes, that white-haired gentleman on the podium summoning up a veritable tempest of musical joy was less a Prospero thinking of lazy afternoons in a more temperate clime, than a newly liberated Ariel, ready to take on the world with mischief to spare.

10379756_642509595829761_555615687227199363_o

There are those people who feed on life and give nothing in return, who drain the colors from the canvas. Then there are those who accept nothing as enough, who believe everything is possible, and who view adversity as opportunity. Opportunity to strive, to create, to enrich, to find the Yes buried within the No. Beethoven was one such man, and Donald Neuen is another. When these two finally meet, it won’t be over sedate scones and Earl Grey at the Elysian Tea Rooms. There will be no talk of what was and what could have been. No Falstaffian reminiscences of “the days we have seen”. More likely the conversation will go something like this:

Neuen: “So, been working on anything new?”

Beethoven: “Yes. But it’s really difficult. I doubt you can find a choir capable of singing it.”

Neuen: “Then I’ll make one.” (Turning to the hovering angels): “Now who among you can actually sing?”

The 13-year-old Beethoven

The 13-year-old Beethoven

It seems as if Beethoven, like music, has always been a part of my life. As a toddler I figured out how to operate my father’s old portable record-player with precocious alacrity, and, along with Holst’s Planets and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Beethoven’s symphonies were rarely far from the spinning turntable. The hammer blows of the 5th, the frenzied dance of the 7th, and the soaring finale of the 9th were the soundtrack to my precocity. The Sixth Symphony, nicknamed the Pastoral for its musical depiction of walks in the countryside, bucolic peasant scenes and thunderstorms, remains my go-to piece for spiritual solace. It’s music that puts what really matters in life into perspective, that says: “This is you, and this is your place in the cosmos. Treasure the world around you and it will bring you enlightenment.”

It’s a truth we still find hard to live by.

Beethoven was at odds with the world, and his music reflects his Promethean spirit with a naked, and sometimes painful, honesty. He accepts nothing, wants everything, and rails against the gods when he has to settle for something less than the ideal – which is most of the time. His deafness, the cruelest of cruel jokes to ever befall a composer, would have felled most musicians; instead it emboldened Beethoven. When you can no longer hear the sounds of this present world, you imagine the sonorities of worlds to come. And so it was with Beethoven: his music grasps for a future he desperately wants not only to hear, but also to live. His notebooks testify to his struggle to find the language – the notes – to encapsulate those sounds, that vision.

One of Beethoven's sketchbooks, containing material for the Missa Solemnis. This was once owned by Mendelssohn.

One of Beethoven’s sketchbooks, containing material for the Missa Solemnis. This was once owned by Mendelssohn.

Musical ideas erupt messily from the pages, some scratched out in a fervor of second and third thoughts. The masterpieces in his portfolio are legion, spread across all musical genres of the time. They articulate a humanist, inclusive, utopian vision, brought about as much through music as through political and ideological reformation. This vision finds its fullest public expression in the end of Fidelio and the Ode to Joy from the 9th Symphony. The more interior reckoning is to be found in the late piano sonatas and quartets.

Beethoven at work

Beethoven at work

By some miracle of happenstance (or the benign influence of a god who loves music), Beethoven lived at the precise moment in time when musical language could, for the first time, sufficiently encompass his Dionysian impulses within an Apollonian frame. This was during the maturation of the so-called Classical period, articulated and embodied by Haydn and Mozart. Harmonic language found itself at a point of complete equilibrium between concord and discord. Tonality was held in balance, yet to succumb to the unraveling by the late Romantics that resulted in dodecaphony at the turn of the 19th century: the equalizing of all harmonic impulses, be they concordant or discordant – the democratizing of dissonance. As music plunged towards the maelstrom of the 20th century it moved towards a liberation from any sense of a tonal center in the music of Wagner, Richard Strauss, and early Schoenberg. From here it was but a small step to the convulsions of Stravinsky, Bartok and the birth of serialism.

In the Classical period (roughly 1730 to 1820), rhythm had become sufficiently liberated to both disrupt and also assert order.  Beethoven was too wayward and forward-thinking a spirit for the more formal structures of the Baroque, and in the 20th century the freedom to do anything tonally and rhythmically would have overly diluted the tension between disruption and resolution (or, perhaps more accurately, containment) that drives his musical dialectic.

Beethoven by Hornemann, 1803

Beethoven by Hornemann, 1803

Sonata form – the principal means by which musical material was organized at the time – was the cornerstone of the Classical era in which he composed. It had just enough elasticity to allow him to push his ideas to the limit without breaking the vessel. You see hear this over and over again, but never more tellingly so than in the famous passage in the development section of the Eroica Symphony’s first movement, where a series of hammer blows in the form of dissonant chords threatens to upend the entire harmonic and rhythmic structure. But just when you think the musical vessel is going to buckle and break completely, Beethoven pulls back so that the music’s natural order can reassert itself. (Almost a century later, Stravinsky, working with the same kind of hammer-blow motif in The Rite of Spring, is only too happy to splinter the vessel asunder and ride headlong into the whirlwind.)

Soviet-era stamp, 1970

Soviet-era stamp, 1970

These kinds of musicological preoccupations take on a different hue when one actually has to perform Beethoven’s music. In his own lifetime, the impulse behind the music – its deeper intent and modes of expression – reached beyond the notes written on the page to a degree that musicians and listeners found difficult to wrap their heads around. Even the instruments themselves seemed inadequate. The so-called Hammerklavier­ sonata for solo piano, which did, literally, hammer in a manner designed to cripple, it seemed, the instrument’s mechanism, was merely the first volley of an all-out assault on the piano’s physical capabilities. Beethoven’s music was a major factor in the instrument’s evolution away from Haydn’s polite parlor-room fortepiano into the über-instrument of today: the 9-foot long Steinway Grand used in today’s concert halls.

Controversy still rages over the precise meanings of Beethoven’s seemingly contradictory (and often willfully impossible-to-play) metronome markings (the score’s indication of what speed the music should be taken at). These issues have still not been entirely resolved by the most recent, scholarly editions of his works by Jonathan del Mar, as witness the frequency with which his recommendations are ignored by conductors. (Though this might be more accounted for by the extent to which interpreters, especially conductors, feel a right – indeed a need – to appropriate Beethoven for their own aesthetic agendas, and damn the textual niceties. Two recent examples of this inclination are Mikhael Pletnev and Christian Thielemann.)

Autograph score for Mass in C

Autograph score for the Mass in C

Given the technical and interpretive challenges of Beethoven’s music, it was hardly surprising that at our first choir rehearsal for our concert, Professor Neuen began by addressing two core issues for anyone planning to sing Beethoven: vocal production and rhythm.

12.2holidaygala

He talked about how Beethoven demanded an intensity of singing that, if one did not employ good technique, could literally tear one’s vocal chords. To avoid this he talked about how one must project more from one’s forehead than from one’s chest, and he carefully walked us through the way to achieve this (complete with diagrams). Allied to this was an idea we had to firmly implant in our brains of sending forth our voices from our bodies in a cone – an almost literal, physical projection of sound. (This also came with a diagram). By the time of our concert, seven weeks later, that “cone of sound” would be hitting the audience like a physical force, a literal “wall of sound”, even when we were singing pianissimo.

At some point in the midst of the rehearsal process, when our singing was occasionally lacking a certain focus and power, Professor Neuen pulled out a book about the great choral conductor, Robert Shaw, with whom he had trained and worked, and whose approach to choir training he had absorbed and emulated.

Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw

He read us a quote from Shaw:

“People, the flesh must not be weak. Beethoven is not precious, he’s prodigal as hell. He tramples all over nicety. He’s ugly, heroic; he roars, he lusts after beauty, he rages after nobility. Be ye not temperate. Enter ye into his courts on horseback.”

This came from a letter Shaw had written to his choir, the New York Collegiate Chorale, as they prepared for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th under the baton of the legendary maestro, Arturo Toscanini. The letter continued:

“Which, being freely translated, means: Get your backs and your bellies into it. You can’t sing Beethoven from the neck up – you’ll bleed. Quit sitting back on your soft little laurels. Get your feet on the floor. Get elbow room. Spread your back. Keep your neck decently erect and your throat open. Don’t lead with your chin. And give with the part of your gut that ties onto your ribs. Make your body do part of the work. And, oh yes! Get lots of sleep. Read lots of good books. Drink lots of milk and orange juice. Think good clean thoughts. Love your neighbor – and Allah be praised.”

Robert Shaw conducting the New York Collegiat Chorale at opening of United Nations Building in 1953

Robert Shaw conducting the New York Collegiate Chorale at opening of United Nations Building in 1953

This advice Donald recommended we follow too. I swear a look of quiet despair passed across the faces of those students inclined to dedicate the end of the school year to more Dionysian pursuits. Yet adhere to Donald’s dictum they needs must do: it was already clear he inspired fierce loyalty, devotion and love in his singers. This was all the more remarkable considering the majority of the choir consisted of non-music majors. The keg parties would have to wait.

As to rhythm, this is at the core of Beethovenian style. His music’s characteristic cut-and-thrust is achieved, in part, by accenting the offbeats and upbeats which, traditionally in music up to and including this period, are played more lightly, leading into the heavier downbeats. This off-the-beat accenting is so counter-intuitive, going against pretty much all the early training musicians receive, that Professor Neuen was reminding us of it right up to the dress rehearsal. With the orchestra in full flight, those lazy upbeats (KYR-i-E instead of the required Kyr-I-e) would cause him to yell “BEETHOVEN!!!!” and, somewhat shamefaced, we would make the necessary adjustment.

Neuen in rehearsal

Thrilling as the concert was (and it was thrilling, like riding a bucking bronco on a high-wire over the Grand Canyon), it was the many weeks of rehearsal leading up to it that I treasure. Attending rehearsals was like embarking on a great journey with a companion from whom one never ceases learning. I had forgotten (as so many of us do once we leave school) what it is like to embark on a course of study in the company of a great teacher and inspirer of men. There is a sense of moving towards a place of enlightenment that the so-called “real world” of jobs, marriage and kids can seem to deliberately obfuscate.

Arrayed around Professor Neuen in rising semi-circular tiers, like the audience before the actors in a Greek amphitheatre, we were alternately coaxed, lulled, harangued, goaded, bullied, inspired, shamed and seduced into action by the kind of leadership that wins Superbowls and great battles. In fact, Neuen has been compared to the legendary coach of UCLA basketball, John Wooden, known as much for inspiring the hearts and minds of generations of student players as for capturing trophies. Neuen had, in fact, once contemplated a career in sports, that is until he became involved in choral training. Once he caught the choir bug there was no turning back.

Donald Neuen at a recording session, 1987

Donald Neuen (r.) at a recording session, 1987

 

But, as I rapidly learned, the strictly musical preparation that took place on Monday and Wednesday afternoons was only one part of the “Neuen experience”. In the midst of wrestling with half and quarter notes, recalcitrant tuning, listless rhythms and all the other ailments that afflict even the nimblest of choirs, the Professor would put down his baton, settle into the back of his stool and invite us to share a “sit-back” moment. There would follow a reminiscence, or an anecdote, or an observation of musical methodology or history, that would, first of all, be informative and helpful to what you were trying to achieve in the rehearsal room. But then you would start to realize there were other applications for these bon mots. They were little lessons to make you feel better about how your day was going, where your life was at the moment, and where it might go in the future. All those petty preoccupations and obsessions from outside the rehearsal room, the general life-malaise with which we so easily fill our daily internal monologue, would suddenly all reveal themselves as the utterly disposable bric-a-brac they truly were. From there it was but a small step to putting them all into a little box, placing them in a drawer, closing and locking it with the thought that you might revisit at a later date, but actually you also might not need to. Then it was “Back to Beethoven”!

 

The concert hall at Eisenstadt where the Mass in C had its first performance

The concert hall at Eisenstadt where the Mass in C had its less-than-triumphant first performance. Prince Esterhazy II, who had commissioned the work, was none too happy, declaring: “But Beethoven, what have you done here?”

 

The Neuen “sit-back” moments, I learned, were famous, and rightly so. They were the lobs of a great champion on the tennis-court of the day’s preoccupations, bringing with them enlightenment and inspiration. They slowed down life’s driving forehands, jabs and seemingly insurmountable volleys and overheads. They changed the rhythm of the game, so that the defensive back foot play reset the balance of power. From love-forty down one could find oneself serving for the match.

And so, finally, and all too quickly, came the performance itself: the pomp and splendor of some 350 performers arrayed across the stage of one of the world’s great concert halls, UCLA’s Royce Hall.

 

UCLA Royce Hall at night

It was here that the Decca recording label made many of its most celebrated recordings of the 60s and 70s, capturing the legendary acoustic and the sounds of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with its now classic array of “Decca tree” microphones.

 

DECCA20Tree.JPG?d=a1

Royce Hall from Sunset Boulevard, 1924

Royce Hall (left) from Sunset Boulevard, 1924

Under construction

 

Led by Dr. Rebecca Lord, who gained her PhD at UCLA under Neuen’s tutelage, and who had then become an Associate Professor in the Choral Department, there were speeches, tears – and even bugle volleys courtesy of fellow faculty member, Jens Lindemann, of the Canadian Brass.

 

10264064_642509249163129_5194334477614219389_o

(l. to. r) Jens Lindemann, CEA Vice President Stephanie Sybert, Dr. Rebecca Lord, Professor Donald Neuen, CEA President Kanwal Sumnani, and SPARK Coordinator Elizabeth Seger

 

Current and former pupils and singers who had been touched by the Neuen magic flew in from around the country. The house was packed for a concert whose costs were met by an online campaign organized by the students themselves.

 

10383837_642509435829777_590251891610941047_o

Dr. Rebecca Lord and Professor Neuen

 

But finally, ineffably, after the tributes and the farewells, there was the most important thing of all —

— the music.

The Agnus Dei from the autograph score to the Mass in C

The Agnus Dei from the autograph score to the Mass in C

 

Music by Beethoven!

 

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

 

As Professor Neuen strode towards the podium one last time for the Mass, he shook his fists like a great baseball hitter heading out to the plate in extra innings, bases loaded. Everything to win, everything to lose. He mouthed only one word: Beethoven! And we all knew exactly what work had to be done.

 

10382525_642510225829698_5737272539607674672_o

 

To participate in a great performance, led by a great conductor, is to reach so far beyond oneself that the process has the quality of a dream. Or, sometimes, a delirium. An articulate, controlled delirium, but a delirium nonetheless.

The notes are learned, everything is practiced and rehearsed to the nth degree, yet in the moment of performance the process is a both a frenzy and a becalming. Our minds are necessarily racing, because all music-making at this level is primarily about thinking hard and fast, always one step ahead of the score.

Our thoughts are driving our bodies to make the required sounds with constant changes in pitch, rhythm and expression. In the process we seem to become almost autonomous, divorced from ourselves, bound up into a collective, but also singular, act of creation.

The conductor’s baton, his eyes, his will, gather us up into a single thought. And in that thought, that moment, it seems as if the notes were never actually written down by the composer, the music never printed, never passed around, never scrutinized, studied, dissected and re-assembled, never worried over ad infinitum in the rehearsal room. The notes, the music, seem simply to emerge spontaneously in the here and now, drawn up from some distant consciousness we call Beethoven, to be hurled into the cosmos like the fire Prometheus stole from the gods.

With Beethoven one always seems to come back to the prodigious Prometheus; the composer even wrote music for a ballet about the mythical figure.

prometheusSmallside_wm-763275

 

What, asks Man of his gods, is it for, this music? What does it mean?

Why, the gods answer, do you need to ask?

The music, and the making of the music, is its own answer.

And so, the orchestra plays, the soloists and choristers sing: “a lifetime”, as T.S.Eliot writes in Burnt Norton, “burning in every moment”.

 

Professor Neil Stobart, soloist in the Choral Fantasy

Professor Neil Stulberg, soloist in the Choral Fantasy

 

The 80-year-old professor who has given his ideas, his passion and his grace to his students, friends, colleagues, family and the family of men and women who have shared his life’s journey; who has given his life to music, and the idea of music – that professor stands before us one final time on the stage. He invites us, through Beethoven, to reach out into the void, and pluck forth meaning.

 

Beethoven chorale men

Soloists Sarah Grandpre, Sarah Anderson, Daniel Suk, and Michael Dean

Soloists Sarah Grandpre, Sarah Anderson, Daniel Suk, and Michael Dean

10293814_642509645829756_8658630554486237779_o

 

As the conductor and choir trainer par excellence Robert Shaw once wrote:

“The Arts have a chance to become what the history of man has shown that they should be – the guide and impetus to human understanding, individual integrity, and the common good. They are not an opiate, an avoidance, or a barrier, but a unifying spirit and labor.

 

Max Klinger working on his sculpture of Beethoven

Max Klinger working on his sculpture of Beethoven

 

“The Arts are not simply skills: their concern is the intellectual, ethical and spiritual maturity of human life.
 And in a time when religious and political institutions
may lose their visions of human dignity,
they are the custodians of those values
which most worthily define humanity,
 which most sensitively define divinity
and, in fact, may prove to be 
the only workable Program of Conservation 
for the human race on the planet.”

 

Beethoven by Max Klinger, 1902

Beethoven by Max Klinger, 1902

 

And so, in Royce Hall, this extraordinary music that a deaf man wrestled into existence from the void, lives again – in our hearts and voices. In the process something deeper lives too. The Soul of Man.

 

10454264_642509765829744_1517487704109580644_o

 

The teacher and leader is young again —

— and we are old.

It is a complete and perfect metamorphosis, both within – and outside of – time.

As the music sounds, we are all, performers and listeners alike, translated –

— and transfigured.

10460665_642510142496373_3244665085647351210_o

1888822_642508942496493_3283011908952522623_o

BEETHOVEN CHORALE ONSTAGE AT ROYCE HALL

You can watch the complete concert here:

Beethoven, by Andy Warhol, 1987

Beethoven, by Andy Warhol, 1987

EINSTEIN’S MONSTERS ( Martin Amis, the Bomb, and Thinking the Unthinkable )

spikeexplosion 1952

“Einstein’s Monsters” is a collection of short stories and essays by the distinguished British author, Martin Amis (“Money”, “The Rachel Papers”).  The book formed the basis for a radio drama project I developed in the early 90s for NPR, titled “Radio Einstein”.  On this day, marking another year removed from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, this essay is a reflection on his book, and how the nuclear issue hovers, ever-present, in our individual and collective consciousness (or maybe that should be un-consciousness, given how comparatively blasé people have become on the subject). You can listen to the audio sampler from the radio series here, or click on the embedded link at the end of this post.

urakami-cathedral

Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki

“I was born on August 25, 1949: four days later, the Russians successfully tested their first atom bomb, and deterrence was in place. So I had those four carefree days, which is more than my juniors ever had. I didn’t really make the most of them. I spent half the time under a bubble. Even as things stood, I was born in an acute state of shock. My mother says I looked like Orson Welles in a black rage. By the fourth day I had recovered, but the world had taken a turn for the worse. It was a nuclear world. To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel very well at all. I was terribly sleepy and feverish. I kept throwing up. I was given to fits of uncontrollable weeping….. When I was eleven or twelve the television started showing target maps of South East England: the outer bands of the home counties, the bull’s eye of London. I used to leave the room as quickly as I could. I didn’t know why nuclear weapons were in my life or who had put them there. I didn’t know what to do about them. I didn’t want to think about them. They made me feel sick.”

martin_amis

This is how the great British novelist Martin Amis begins his essay, “Thinkability”, which leads off his book, Einstein’s Monsters.

EinsteinsMonsters

The short stories which follow are his attempt to find ways to write about nuclear weapons: what they embody, and what they do to us – physically, psychologically, sociologically, and all the other “-ally’s”. The stories are metaphors, allegories, psychodramas, fantasies embedded in a paradox. The paradox at the heart of the nuclear equation.   Nuclear fusion and fission are derived from the primal energy of creation, yet they also give rise to such monumental destructive energy that they can end all creation. The life force is also the death force. As Amis acknowledges:

“Although we don’t know what to do about nuclear weapons, or how to live with nuclear weapons, we are slowly learning how to write about them. Questions of decorum present themselves with a force not found elsewhere. It is the highest subject and it is the lowest subject. It is disgraceful, and exalted. Everywhere you look there is great irony: tragic irony, even the irony of black comedy or farce; and there is irony that is simply violent, unprecedentedly violent. The mushroom cloud above Hiroshima was a beautiful spectacle, even though it owed its color to a kiloton of human blood.”

hiroshima bomb

The “irony of black comedy or farce”, as Amis describes it, is what drives the most famous exploration of the nuclear nightmare in popular culture, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Originally, Kubrick had intended a more-or-less straight dramatization of the series of events in his film that lead to nuclear Armageddon. But, as he worked on the project, he came to realize that the darkness of his subject could only be adequately captured with the heightened irony and absurdist tone that characterize the finished movie. One of the film’s most famous lines perfectly captures the surrealistic absurdities that lie at the heart of any contemplation of nuclear issues, whether in fact or fiction. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) admonishes General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) as he wrestles with the Soviet Ambassador on the floor of the U.S. Operations Control Room: “Gentleman! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”

Dr. Strangelove %22Gentlemen....%22

The film originally ended with a massive custard pie fight, a lovely allusion to the movies’ silent era, and an apt reductio ad absurdum of the nuclear stand-off.

Kubrick directing George C. Scott in pie fight

Kubrick directing George C. Scott in the pie fight

But Kubrick felt this farcical conclusion was perhaps a little too much, diluting the point he was trying to make — and he was right.

Dr. Strangelove_PieFight

It would have trivialized a scenario that, for all its absurdity, was deadly serious, because underneath all the antic posturing, the possibility of an accidental first strike by America’s nuclear bombers was entirely possible. So Kubrick opted for a more sobering, albeit still surreal, conclusion.  The maniacal, crippled Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers), knowing that a Doomsday Device of planet-wide annihilation has been triggered by America’s single wayward bomber, is so transported by his visions of mass copulation amongst the survivors (with multiple female partners allocated to each man) that he rises, prophet-like, out of his wheelchair, declaring “Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!”  Cut to epic, beautiful shots of nuclear orgasm derived from documentary footage of H-bomb tests, with Vera Lynn crooning on the soundtrack the old wartime standard: “We’ll meet again / Don’t know where, don’t know when / But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day…..”

Mankind (and let me emphasize the man part of that word – I suspect womankind, left in charge, would not pursue self-annihilation with such single-minded fervor) has always seemed to find something compulsively beautiful in the rictus of death. Why else would we have continued to celebrate obliteration so fervently in our literature and art? From the earliest myths which correlate love and passion with death (Tristan and Isolde anyone?) we have now moved, inexorably it seems, to the ubiquitous fetishizing of erupting death wounds, dismemberment, and other baroque, slow-motion tours de force to be found even in your average Summer PG-13 blockbuster. And this is not to mention the lingering shots of mutilation and the casual sadism we welcome into our homes without a blink on assorted TV procedurals and Game of Thrones. As a species we are as much in love with the look of violence and death as we are with the idea of it, let alone the practice of it.

Nowhere is this dichotomy between the beauty and horror of death presented more vividly, on a more epic scale, than in the biblical splendor of the atomic detonation, and the smoldering, shimmering afterglow of the rising mushroom cloud. Take a look at the carefully restored footage of America’s nuclear testing program of 30-plus years, gathered together in the documentary Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie, and you’ll want to pop your corn and settle in for an evening of nuclear ‘shrooms. Viewing real footage of assorted atom and hydrogen bombs is beautiful, compelling, exotic and terrifying in ways that the slow-motion carnage and mayhem of the Matrix movies can only dream of being. Because this stuff is real, man! During the height of America’s above-ground testing program, families would traipse out into the desert with their picnics to watch the spectacle: a nuclear al fresco, if you will.  Little did they know they were also investing in a future of mutant tumors, rebellious immune systems, and sometimes a slow-motion, radiation-soaked death incurred from drifting fallout (see the extraordinary book and website American Ground Zero).

When the scientists of the Manhattan Project witnessed the first atomic test in the Nevada desert, named in suitably Biblical fashion as Trinity, the beatific horror of what they had created, God-like, out of the building-blocks of creation rendered them, first, mute, and second, inclined towards prose tinged with a strain of scriptural poesy.

Trinity: .016 secs after detonation

Trinity: .016 secs after detonation

Trinity .034 secs

Trinity .090 secs

TRINITY 2 secs

Trinity 3.0 secs

Trinity 10 secs

Trinity: 15 seconds after detonation

Trinity: 15 seconds after detonation

Trinity_test_(LANL)

J. Robert Oppenheimer, chief architect of the Bomb, himself quoted Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”.

Oppenheimer hunched over the Trinity bomb, engaged in final preparations for the test

Oppenheimer, hunched over the Trinity bomb, engaged in final preparations for the test

But, beneath all the hand-wringing and subsequent calls to disarm from some of the nuclear scientists, you can still sense the little boys within the fathers of Armageddon jumping for joy: “We did it!”  they cry.  As the cloud from Trinity arose from the desert sands, one of the scientists pronounced, more ominously, “Now we’re all sons of bitches”

In the months and years that followed the test, and the two subsequent atomic conflagrations in Japan, some of the Manhattan Project scientists, like Oppenheimer, began to more fully realize the ramifications of what they had wrought. They tried to jump off the nuclear band wagon as it picked up speed, to move the government towards disarmament. Miscalculating his political influence, Oppenheimer lived to see his security clearance revoked after a series of humiliating hearings in which he was accused of passing secrets to the Soviets.  He never recovered, neither from the betrayals, nor the sense of his own culpability in bringing mankind one large step closer to its own doom, and died a broken man.  Others in the scientific community, like Edward Teller (who testified against his old friend and colleague at those hearings), invested themselves heart and soul in the Faustian nuclear bargain.

Edward Teller

Edward Teller

Teller, more than anyone, set the US on the road to creating and stockpiling ever increasing megatons of mass-destruction.  Motivated by his early experiences as a refugee from Nazi oppression before the war, he was more inclined to view the Soviets as  the new Reich.  For Teller and his political allies, the threat of force had to be contained by the threat of greater force, and thus the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, was born. Besides, the boys were hardly going to throw their shiny new toys out of the sandpit. They wanted to play, and play they did.  Thus was also born this country’s epic program of nuclear tests that effectively irradiated the entire US with fallout over the course of decades. There were some in the medical community who raised alarms about the long-term effects this exposure would have on the population; their warnings (and careers) were duly curtailed by officialdom.

Photos taken from “American Ground Zero” by Carole Gallagher:

Nevada Test Site from American Ground Zero

Amargosa Valley, NV. Copyright Carole Gallagher

rye-patch-nv-copyright-carole-gallagher

American Ground zero cover photo Carole Gallagher

Teller himself remains a compelling, maddeningly enigmatic figure at the centre of the nuclear narrative.  He was brilliant, zealous, paranoid, neurotic, messianic in his zeal for nuclear superiority, and, thereafter, for the so-called Star Wars missile defense shield; after giving birth to his babies, he then proceeded, Zeus-like, to find the most outré manner in which to eat them. If ever someone in real life embodied the flaws of a tragic figure like Lear or Oedipus it was Teller: tragic for himself, and for us.

In his essay “Thinkability” from Einstein’s Monsters, Martin Amis cannily zeros in on the strain of infantilism at play on the stage of the nuclear arms race:

“Trinity, the first bomb (nicknamed the Gadget) was winched up into position on a contraption known as “the cradle”; during the countdown the Los Alamos radio station broadcast a lullaby, Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings”; scientists speculated whether the gadget was going to be a “girl” (i.e., a dud) or a “boy” (i.e., a device that might obliterate New Mexico). The Hiroshima bomb was called Little Boy.

Rare photo of Hiroshima bomb from the ground, taken 2-5 minutes after detonation

Rare photo of Hiroshima bomb from the ground, taken 2-5 minutes after detonation

“It’s a boy!” pronounced Edward Teller, the “father” of the H-bomb, when “Mike” (“my baby”) was detonated over Bikini Atoll in 1952…. It is ironic, because they are the little boys; we are the little boys. And the irony has since redoubled. By threatening extinction, the ultimate antipersonnel device is in essence an anti-baby device. One is not referring here to the babies who will die but to the babies who will never be born, those that are queuing up in spectral relays until the end of time.”

Hiroshima shadows....

Hiroshima shadows….

Hiroshima shadow

Extending his observation of this strain of infantilism that suffuses nuclear history, Amis extrapolates a keen metaphor with which to conclude his essay. Remember this was written in 1987, before the fall of the Soviet Union; though in reality little has actually changed in terms of the political chess game (or should that be crap shoot?) which keeps us perpetually betting the house on a round of nuclear Sudden Death.

The world's nuclear stockpile c.2011

The world’s nuclear stockpile c.2011

“At the multiracial children’s tea party the guest have, perhaps, behaved slightly better since the Keepers were introduced. Little Ivan has stopped pulling Fetnab’s hair, though he is still kicking her leg under the table. Bobby has returned the slice of cake that rightfully belonged to tiny Conchita, though he has his eye on that sandwich and will probably make a lunge for it sooner of later. Out on the lawn the Keepers maintain a kind of order, but standards of behavior are pretty well as troglodytic as they ever were. At best the children seem strangely subdued or off-color. Although they are aware of the Keepers, they don’t want to look at them, they don’t want to catch their eye. They don’t want to think about them. For the Keepers are a thousand feet tall, and covered in gelignite and razor blades, toting flamethrowers and machine guns, cleavers and skewers, and fizzing with rabies, anthrax, plague.

nuclear missiles

“Curiously enough, they are not looking at the children at all. With bleeding hellhound eyes, mouthing foul threats and shaking their fists, they are looking at each other. They want to take on someone their own size…..

nike-missiles

“If only they knew it – no, if only they believed it – the children could simply ask the Keepers to leave. But it doesn’t seem possible, does it? It seems – it seems unthinkable. A silence starts to fall across the lawn. The party has not been going for very long and must last until the end of time. Already the children are weepy and feverish. They all feel sick and want to go home.”

To me, this kind of passionate, imagistic, but precisely argued writing fully captures the folly of the nuclear situation, which is every bit as six-packed, witless and ghastly a barometer of the state of civilization as its namesake on the Jersey Shore. Einstein’s Monsters is more urgently and evocatively written than any number of memoirs, histories, philosophical and political discourses that have marked the silent nuclear countdown since August 1945.

Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell

Amis was inspired first and foremost by the luminous, passionate writing of Jonathan Schell, whose classic The Fate of the Earth foretold the irradiated, polluted, slow stir-fry state of the world we now find ourselves living with, and in, for the forseeable non-future we’ve created for ourselves.

The rest of Einstein’s Monsters proceeds from the gauntlet Amis throws down for himself in the opening of his essay, “Thinkability”:

“Every morning, six days a week, I leave the house and drive a mile to the flat where I work. For seven or eight hours I am alone. Each time I hear a sudden whining in the air, or hear one of the more atrocious impacts of city life, or play host to a certain kind of unwelcome thought, I can’t help wondering how it might be.

Castle Bravo

“Suppose I survive. Suppose my eyes aren’t pouring down my face, suppose I am untouched by the hurricane of secondary missiles that all mortar, metal, and glass has abruptly become: suppose all this. I shall be obliged (and it’s the last thing I’ll feel like doing) to retrace that long mile home, through the firestorm, the remains of the thousand-mile-an-hour winds, the warped atoms, the groveling dead. Then – God willing, if I still have the strength, and of course, it they are still alive – I must find my wife and children and I must kill them.

“What am I to do with thoughts like these? What is anyone to do with thoughts like these?”

Hiroshima kids

His answer is a sequence of stories which all latch upon the varied strands of the nuclear state, the nuclear argument, and the potential nuclear end-game. They explore the issues through beautifully rendered metaphors and allegories that bleed out into re-imagined Earths and states of being. In The Immortal, a man who is slowly dying, along with everyone else, of radiation poisoning, escapes reality by remembering his life as an Immortal being who has witnessed the entirety of the planet’s history. Thus the pettiness of human folly (and achievement) is put into cosmic context.

In The Time Disease, a future colony of pseudo Angelenos have traded in our current obsession for maintaining perpetual youth by any means possible for maintaining a state of premature aging (due to radiation and pollution) under a sky that is boiling with the same kind of nuclear tumescence the Manhattan Project scientists saw in the Nevada desert at the Trinity test. And this is fine by them, because to catch Time, to come down with Time – to become young again, to have hope – means you would have to acknowledge the possibility of Life. Given the impossibility of life continuing in any form we would recognize or desire in this putative future, this post-nuclear world, that would also mean the death of hope. It’s a fitting paradox from which Amis carves a dystopian future far more chilling than any of Hollywood’s creations.

Watch from Hiroshima

The death of time and the birth of something else: a watch from Hiroshima

In the early 90s I was planning a radio adaptation for NPR of Einstein’s Monsters, which was to blend the stories with interviews and archival recordings from the frontlines of the nuclear age. The author himself was very supportive of the project. Alas, we were in the early stages of pre-production when NPR decided to scrap all its drama programming, so the project was shelved. But not before we had recorded a demo to give a taste of the series to potential underwriters. This is what you can listen to here. It gives a pretty good idea of what the shows would have sounded like, and stands on its own, I think, as a meditation upon the nuclear problem.

Nagasaki aftermath

I have always felt that Amis’s atmospheric language, full of rhetorical flourishes and brilliant wordplay, was, like Dickens, ideally suited to be spoken aloud. Therefore, translating his stories into the medium of radio seemed not only feasible, but also desirable. Radio is both an intimate, interior medium, and also the perfect realm in which to let the imagination roam. So it seemed perfect for these kinds of psychological, allegorical and fantastical imaginings that were rooted in humanity’s contradictory nature.

The nuclear issue is a subject whose implications for how we define our species, our place in creation, and our so-called progress through history, let alone our future, are so vast, so paradoxical, so antithetical, that they resist rational argument and easy conclusions with all the slow-burn lethality of fallout. But, just as radiation invisibly suffuses the environment, its tendrils reaching into the fabric of life, initiating its slow rot from within long before physical symptoms of poisoning become manifest, so the idea of nuclear destruction has likewise insinuated itself into our mental DNA. It lingers, it corrupts and, ultimately, it decays everything it touches. For those reasons, this is one of those subjects that demands an experiential argument as much as an intellectual argument to be fully grasped. Which is what Stanley Kubrick was trying to do in Dr. Strangelove, and what, in a smaller way, Radio Einstein likewise intended.

As Einstein himself observed: “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”

Einstein and Oppenheimer

Einstein and Oppenheimer

However, as Amis observes, our hearts have already been changed by the specter of the mushroom cloud, but not, alas, in the ways that Einstein was hoping for: “We are all Einstein’s monsters, not fully human, not for now.”

Dr. Strangelove - 2 bombs

The warning is clear, but will we pay heed?

The signs are not good.

hiroshima aftermath

To listen to Radio Einstein, click on this link, or stream via one of the two panels below:

Radio Einstein:

 

Dr. Strangelove weegee and sellers

 

 

JAMES EARL JONES REMEMBERS ( Filming “THE COMEDIANS” with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Alec Guinness )

The Comedians - table scene

Long before he provided the ominous tones for Darth Vader and created the most iconic-sounding villain in screen history, James Earl Jones made his mark in a number of major productions of stage and screen. It was his role in Jean Genet’s groundbreaking play The Blacks, first staged in New York in 1961, and running for a record-breaking 1408 performances, that led to one of his most memorable early film experiences.

James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Blacks

James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Blacks

Polish poster for The Comedians

Polish poster for The Comedians

Peter Glenville

Peter Glenville

Peter Glenville, a leading British director of the time who had closely collaborated with Graham Greene and Tennessee Williams, was looking for a number of black actors to take roles in his forthcoming film of Greene’s The Comedians, set amidst the turmoil of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s Haiti.  Going to The Blacks, which was one of the top off-Broadway hits of the decade, Glenville was presented with an embarrassment of acting riches.  Jones was not the only one to be cast in the film as a result of his performance in the play: joining him were Cicely Tyson, Zakes Mokae, and Roscoe Lee Brown.  Also in the film was a young Gloria Foster, who later made a mark as the Oracle in the first two Matrix pictures.

Jones and Zakes Macae

The-Comedians James Earl Jones

For Jones, working on The Comedians was memorable both on, and off, screen. For rarely can a young actor have found himself spending time with such a luminous A-list cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, not to mention the legendary star of silent pictures, Lillian Gish.

Peter Glenville with the cast of The Comedians

Peter Glenville (c., standing) with the cast of The Comedians

A few years ago I produced an oral history of the life and work of Peter Glenville, and James Earl Jones kindly agreed to share his reminiscences with Susan Loewenberg, Producing Director of L.A. TheatreWorks, who commissioned the history on behalf of the Peter Glenville Foundation.

Peter Glenville directing Ustinov and Taylor

Peter Glenville directing Ustinov and Taylor

The segment about The Comedians was my favorite, enlivened by Jones’s commentary, his extraordinary presence, and that voice. (In a technical sidebar, that voice was so resonant with bass frequencies that the engineer had quite some trouble recording it without distortion).

Jones and Burton

Now you can enjoy his story too……

Narrator: Martin Jarvis.  Voice of Peter Glenville: Simon Templeman.

James-Earl-Jones-001

 

 

You_Only_Live_Twice_-_Gun_Barrel

In 2008, TV’s best series on the arts, The South Bank Show, trained its telescopic sight on James Bond, to coincide with Daniel Craig’s second outing as 007 in Quantum of Solace.  The result was one of the best documentaries on the film series of Ian Fleming’s iconic creation, and includes a rare interview with Sean Connery, plus some marvelous behind-the-scenes footage.

PART 1:

 

Ursula Andress and Ian Fleming on location for Dr. No

Ursula Andress and Ian Fleming on location for Dr. No

 

PART 2:

 

Bond ian_fleming

 

PART 3:

 

Fleming and Connery on location for From Russia with Love

Fleming and Connery on location for From Russia with Love

 

PART 4:

 

Connery, Shirley Eaton, Fleming on set of Goldfinger

Connery, Shirley Eaton, Fleming on set of Goldfinger

 

PART 5:

 

Daniel Craig

Skyfall-James-Bond-will-return-50-Years-logo