Sunday, November 18, 2007

Composer Cranks, Composed Cranes

Thinking of Classical Music adventures for my previous post, and now reading a compelling new book detailing the history of such music over the course of the whole 20th Century--The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross (music critic for The New Yorker)--have reminded me of many favorite composers whose music I have been neglecting for recordings of Jazz, Reggae, and whatever else, Dvorak to Mahler, Debussy to Sibelius, Weill to Shostakovich, Copland to John Adams.

The whole of Ross's book is brilliantly written, erudite yet anecdotal, remarkably jam-packed with information, yet easily grasped and just plain fun to read--among the most interesting segments, his discussions of Charles Ives and George Gershwin; Weimar Berlin; the WWII years in the U.S., Germany and Russia; and the diverse and avant-garde Fifties and Sixties; plus his canny acknowledgment of the impact of Jazz, Ellington to Coltrane, on recent Classical composers like Steve Reich. And the detailed back-of-book notes make it clear that he has studied and absorbed thousands of scores, recordings, and pertinent ur-texts, and conducted, er, scores of interviews. An astonishing feat of scholarship and lucidity, convincingly demonstrating the Joy of Music--even the works that some might deem "noise"!

One passage in his chapter on Sibelius ("Apparition in the Woods") caught my attention in a beyond-music way: "Sibelius lived to the age of ninety-one.... One September morning in 1957, he went for his usual walk in the fields and forest around Ainola, scanning the skies for cranes flying south for the winter. They were part of his ritual of autumn; back when he was writing the Fifth Symphony, he had noted in his diary, 'Every day I have seen the cranes. Flying south in full cry with their music. Have been yet again their most assiduous pupil. Their cries echo throughout my being.' When, on the third-to-last day of his life, the cranes duly appeared, he told his wife, 'Here they come, the birds of my youth!' One of them broke from the flock, circled the house, cried out, and flew away."

Birds sometimes haunted my youth too. Generally ignorant of their lives, and certainly no serious birdwatcher, I still found them appearing in my dreams, often compelling lyric pieces from me. Poems are a kind of music too, of course, the music of words; and they may become busily noisy or lapse into silence. A lovely sentence of Ross's speaks to this: "Then he ((John Adams)) goes back to work, chipping away at the silence of everything that remains to be composed."

Here are two such poems published some years ago:

The Cypress Swamp

The cypress swamp, west
Of here, is mostly water--
Sometimes coffee-colored,
Sometimes an oily grey—
And forty-odd cypress trees.

Forty-odd cypress trees
Growing up from the swamp,
Each with its maze of roots
Searching downward, like fingers
Anchoring into the mire.

Anchored like pillars in the mire,
My tough cypresses ache
Upward, tall and barren,
To clumps of moss and sticks
Where cranes are nesting.

Where cranes are flying,
They scrawl swamp messages,
Clumsy stick letters
That tell of the lives of birds
Across the slate sky.

Up in the slate clouds
Light jumps and flashes,
The afternoon sun reflecting
On a bomber’s wings: the glint
Of a catfish in motion.

Where a catfish moves,
Silvery in the dark depths,
Like a ghost that stirs and fills
A whole room with its presence,
Ripples splinter the water.

Ripples shatter the mirror
When a kingfisher splits the air
And smashes the water’s surface;
Bubbles and tiny insects
Dance in the golden light.

I dance in golden light
Though only my eyes move--
Near the cranes and barren trees,
The catfish and the moss, here
By the cypress swamp, growing.


The Fishers

Anchored on sea-winds,
easily riding the air,
the white osprey balances,
mortally still and sure.
Talons arced, he stands,
a parlous barb of white,
poised there to cry praises
of his haggard sun’s glare
or shriek the lure of night.
He scans long miles of air,
tangent to sky and sea,
then leaps to hurtle freely
down turbulent piles of light.

A graying blur, the osprey
plummets. Slashes a way,
fighting each buffet of air,
piercing through to his fish
that turn in water-light.
No reflective barrier,
no bubbling gift of tongues,
can check his gleaming stare:
the killer dips and catches.

Now screaming arrogant songs
he strides back up the wind,
feeling the elements flow—
his air that burns all finned
and seaward things to ashes.
High where the dive began,
the writhing catch flashes.

On the nacreous beach below
I chafe my cold bones,
and wish, and grope for
dying fish among the stones.


Down below, I have supplied a link to Alex Ross's equally wonderful blog for anyone curious to discover more.

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