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The Insistence of Music, and Geese

There is no reason, no logical reason, why I should think of viewing the world like Gertrude Stein. But it is Stein who has been in my thoughts, since the morning I read this quote from her: “There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.”

I hadn’t begun that day with Stein. I had begun by reading an exchange among some post comments which mentioned a comparison having been made between Dmitri Shostakovich and Philip Glass. (The participants, if they read this, will recognize the reference.) The music of both composers is only at the beginning of familiarity to me, that of Shostakovich mostly due to the fascinating series over at Prufrock’s Dilemma. But certainly, I was surprised to see their names paired, as I view them as composing in very different musical worlds. The point seemed to be that the compositions of both may appear limited and repetitive, to their critics, or at least to a listener unfamiliar with them. Perhaps that could be said of any unfamiliar artist or genre; still, seeing the names together made me wonder whether there could be a commonality. I felt bewildered yet intrigued; so, search I must, and did.

Strange bedfellows may often be discovered in search results, simply by linking two names or terms with a capitalized “AND”. Not expecting a real link, nevertheless I sought one between the two and was surprised to find that others before me had considered them together. Glass himself has even talked about his early years of listening to Shostakovich. I read whatever among the search results I could determine truly pertained to my query. But in the end, my lack of music theory left me focusing on Stein’s words, which were quoted in one of the articles: ““There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.” And, realizing that the experience was bound to lead me, not to greater understanding of music, but to some sort of life lesson, I released the musical associations and held only to the quote, placed in the back of my mind, and waiting for the personal connection to reveal itself.

The revelation has been slow in coming. On occasion, I have thought of Stein’s words, trying to ponder repetition and insistence; but real insight cannot be forced, and this was slow. Then, one day this week, I walked past a garden patch of gooseneck loosestrife and saw that they are starting their flower heads: clusters of many tiny blossoms, which form a shape like the head of a goose. The slightest breeze makes the stalks sway and the heads bob. At a few feet tall, they grow in flocks of geese, ever-increasing, so that they appear to be on the march, and in fact do march into neighboring yards. As I noticed the newly forming goose heads, I remembered their mature, repetitive habit, and felt that the lesson about repetition and insistence was surfacing. The same day, in perfect synchronicity, blogging friend David left a comment on my last post, in which I had talked about my love of the kind of music which builds and crescendos – with the exception of Ravel’s Bolero.

Bolero, repetitive Bolero! Was this to be part of my lesson? I don’t mind how many geese grow in my yard, they never seem repetitive, at least not in an unpleasant way. Insistent, yes, marching and trumpeting: joyous! Would they today lead me to a new way of viewing Bolero? Following David’s suggestion, I looked up a carefully selected version of the music I had previously dismissed. Hearing that it was written as a ballet, I see that it needs the ballet, the form of excellent dancers who can control the music with their dignity. Cheap and obvious, the words I had used before, fade away in the presence of art. David wrote in his comment that Bolero works best taken slowly, and how true! Wonderful dancers, accompanied by a great conductor and orchestra, make me see the importance of the timing.

Timing, being everything, brought about the unlikely pairing of goose-headed flowers and a piece of famous music I had not yet experienced in its true form. In the season when the geese emerge in their insistent formation, we have all come together.

Credits: Whatever little understanding of the original question I have begun to gain, I owe to writers David Luhrssen (http://expressmilwaukee.com/article-7067-philip-glass,-dmitri-shostakovich-get-modern.html), Be’eri Moalem(https://www.sfcv.org/reviews/days-and-nights-festival/play-it-again-philip-glass) and Jeffrey Brown (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec12-philipglass_10-23/).


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Bolero and the Aged R.

There must be a term for the sort of music that builds and crescendos, but I don’t know it. I know only that I have a fondness for it, for pieces such as Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major and Marin Marais’s Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève. Even – though you may gasp – Mason Williams’s Classical Gas is fun. Such compositions are, to me, a quiet sunset, just a faint pink in the sky, which fades gently: refined, self-contained.

But I do not like Bolero. Ravel’s composition continues enjoying popularity, apparently, and it is often performed; but the first few notes play, and I shrink. It sounds cheap and obvious, a strutting ego, dressed in red, talking too loudly. Like hearing someone I hardly know share “too much information,” I feel a little embarrassed and wait uneasily for the moment to pass.

Characteristically generous, PBS gave us a wonderful broadcast on New Year’s Eve, great music to say goodbye – and right away hello – as the years passed in a revolving door of supposed ending and beginning anew. Yo Yo Ma, the featured musician, would join the New York Philharmonic, so I hadn’t bothered to read the program; I watched because of Yo Yo Ma. They began with something by Ravel, and a Piazzola, which were good. The stunning performance was of Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul, a composer and piece unknown to me, featuring the cello. It wasn’t quite my sort of music, but Ma’s complete immersion in his playing of it was enthralling. He appeared transported, almost ecstatic! I listened on because of him and was greatly rewarded, so moved. And then came Bolero.

I take care of an Aged Relative who has both brain damage and dementia. Recent events disappear from her memory quickly, but old memories can be vivid. Childhood memories are keenest of all, and she had a happy youth, leading to conversations that give her great pleasure. Anything that prompts a pleasant memory is a valuable key, to keep track of and use again. Luckily for me, she enjoys classical music and the arts, and I often include programs about them in our evenings. The music of her youth puts her in the happiest mood. She sings along and even dances to Big Band stuff, things I never witnessed her doing before. When really inspired, she sometimes asks me to dance with her. Neither of our younger selves would ever have imagined this, but we hold hands and swing, carefully, for a few moments, until she needs to sit again and just listen.

So the orchestra struck up Bolero, and my shrinking away from it had just begun, when I heard the Aged R. exclaim, “Oh! Bolero!” I looked over at her, and her face was glowing. “You like Bolero?” “Oh, yes!” she gasped, gazing at the screen, rapt in anticipation, as the music began its strut. Of course, I couldn’t turn it off or leave the room. I was caught.

Susan Scheid quoted recently from John Ashbery’s “The Skaters”: “The balloons/Drift thoughtfully over the land, not exactly commenting on it.” (http://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/skating-above-the-ice/). It has been a goal of mine to drift through life this way, thoughtfully – possibly commenting – but without making pronouncements. I try to keep in mind Henry James in “The Art of Fiction”: “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.” One of the reasons why many refer to James as “The Master” is that a statement like this one, made by him in reference to writing fiction, is so applicable to the art of living, as well. So, while I may not like Bolero, I cannot fault the taste of the Aged R. With her, more than with anyone else, I accept her preferences as part of her world, as she sees it or wishes it to be; my role is supporting, encouraging her in holding on to as much of it as she can. The performance ended as the evening did, exuberantly. The Aged R. had been given another chance to enjoy Bolero, perhaps with glimpses into previous times from long ago, perhaps simply with the sense of happiness that they had left in her. In that evening of our life, it was what James might call her subject; exuberance was what she made of it. My subject was providing the support for her enjoyment of Bolero. I can only hope that she never asks me to dance to it.