Beethoven Sonata op. 96 Program Notes/Poems

Beethoven 10, op. 96 in G Major

Consider the first gesture, simple, yet profoundly philosophical. This beginning gesture sets the tone for a work that is uniquely intimate and subdued in expression for Beethoven up to this point in time. The opening gesture of op. 96, almost reminiscent of a bird call or a recitative motive, is beautifully self-contained, turning in on itself, completely lacking in the obsessiveness of other beginning motives (Beethoven’s 5th Symphony comes to mind, and even his String Quartet op. 95, which starts with an aggressive f minor motive.) Though the first movement is in sonata form, the most popular structure at the time, it differs from other movements of the time (as well as his other first movements in a lack of self-generating drive. No inner demons or psychological states flog this movement to continue. In fact, there is a quality of contentedness in all the movements except the third, which displays some of the obsession of his earlier works. The first movement is also beautifully symmetrical, with the violin and piano courting each other, exchanging the same loving gestures or mirroring each other in the same motives. This symmetry adds to the feeling of the sublime. The second movement begins with a tender hymn in the piano, but the violin doesn’t reciprocate immediately, entering instead with accompanimental figures. The movement, also in sonata form, warms up slowly from there, gaining depth and eventually becoming extremely vocal. Notes held for long periods of time are juxtaposed with sung melismatic lines that take flight from their cage of rhythm. Similar to the exquisite unending and almost unendurably long lines of the slow movements in his late quartets, this movement has a breathless quality which demands a mastery of bow control. There are moments of poignancy that cripple the zen of this movement, offering a window into the kind of pain that leads someone to achieve this kind of tranquility. The third movement is the exception to the rule in this piece (or peace!) With a focus on repeated notes and accents, it is obsessive and insistently so. The stubborn Scherzo is interrupted by a beautiful and linear Trio which is unable to escape from the clutches of the repetitive notes which end the movement. Beyond a few moments of emotional ambiguity, and a mystical variation which once again, serves as a window into an inner sanctum of intimacy and depth, the last movement is an amiable theme and variations which ends joyfully.

1.
what a lark!
world generous with
pleasant ruffling of
feathers alighting and
plastic grocery bags in our hands
crinkling, of eyes
as we exchange pleasantries
the shop windows offer
a glimpse inside
to ourselves

2.
each slow and solemn step
around the scoured, the purified
wound in the heart
waiting patiently
for for subtle changes
in topography
watching the heart alight
breaking open, breaking wide
accepting new forms, steep
mountains and deep lakes
the sun gently sloshing in

3.
the unexplainable need
to pursue, to bite at each heel
agitation and
flinging of fur
respite of leashes tangling
mingling in a ribbon song
before freedom, which
in this case is just a
cage of instinct
to bite at each heel, pursue
until picked up and brought home
howling

4.
trees lining the street
nod and wave to each other
children play hopscotch
their joy spreading
like a wide smile across
the neighborhood
dogs bark, exchange
pleasantries with each other
I drop into
trance-spun reverie,
song of self
in the sundrunk street
children and dogs
chasing each other chase
me to the present
as I yawn and head home—
what a lark!

Ode on Jiuan-Reng Yeh

I watch her start to play the zither and lament the bastardization of my identity. Her alabaster arms tense and I watch a sculpture move fluidly. I’m fascinated by the efficiency of this instrument, the way every part is utilized. The control of pitch varying in all ways, from resonant and warm to skeletal. I hear the way she bends pitches and time, and hear a lineage from the most primitive human cries in the beginning to these ancient instruments to the way our electronic music wails now, devoid of its own existential pain. I think how my veins course with the carbonation of coke, how my sides have been formed with hot dog rolls and hamburger buns. I want so badly for my hair to be darker, for my instrument to be one that ties me to a culture that is at least somewhat mine.
The big wave gesture is the one I love the most. It takes so much control to make sure each string plucked along the way within the larger gesture is plucked long enough to resonate and each one adds and adds, representing the accumulation of life, of our cultures, mine and hers together, representative of the accumulation all humanity wants to attain and regrettably is. I see the waves, the way they stack, like sonar in electronic music. I see how she strikes with cold precision and even violence each string in the right hand and warms and bends pitch and time with the soft flesh of her left hand. This is technology and humanity at its beginning. And seeing the striking of each, I think how beauty is made from the nail and how if you listen closely, it is inescapably a part of the music. Pain is how you get the thing to sound.

Violin Sonata, Debussy

I
Sometimes, a thought, a clear bell sounding and I almost remember the life I want to live before the day heaps itself into my arms and I forget, submerged in a day’s endless complications. I forget the words before they enter my mind, my tongue numbed and furred with repetition. The tepid light strengthens, a day full of plans and intentions beginning, only to be interrupted by small deviations-  thousands of ripples beating against the backbone of the day.
As I set napkins for the midday meal, I am not present, my mind is replaying a dream on the back of my eyelids. Playing memories of ocean, dusty sand on my ankles, a nostalgia for what is yet to come.
At night I scrub myself clean. Watching as the raw flesh I shed circles down the drain. It is hard to endure the shock and habituation of each day, to stand still and inure the rituals of small talk, the incessant eating one must do to keep up in energy. It is hard to keep up. I dream of the water coursing through my veins, the pungent salt on my lips, wrenching me from my skin, absorbing me whole. Somewhere in my recesses of my mind, a boat is waiting, anchored safely, beating against the dock, restless.

II
A sudden disturbance in the night, a giant bird alighting across a dream, I wake with a shudder, the alarm diluted by familiar surroundings, their dullness seducing me back to sleep. But panic has seeped through, soaking me in its’ brine, sweat glinting in the moon’s pale light. My breathing is changed, short and shallow as I knock over ornate mirrors and frames, clumsily fumbling in the dark for keys, for the oblong door handle, for a way out of waking every day with each limb tired, knitted through, worn as an old shoe.
Into the cool night, the darkness a relief. Shivering madly, ecstatic in escape, yet feeling chased by my own skin, my feet know the way, hurrying forward, avoiding the bare-bulbed street lamps snaking their light towards me. That blind fury, ancient unnameable fear seizes me, clutching my body in its’ vise, a shrill alarm, disabling. That deep sadness, ancient unnameable desire, no, not unnameable, but unsayable, responds- a tender siren rattling my mind in its’ cage. The water in my body pulls me apart, threatening to rip the seams of my skin. Finally having reached the small pond, I dip a toe in, and the disquiet leaches out of me into the water. For now, I am tamed.

III
Early dawn when I awaken, unable to shake off the weariness, the sadness. Only the visitations help, retina flashes of the waves, cresting, looming. I no longer dream my dreams, inhabiting them instead, living them more fully than my life. I yearn for the feeling of sun beating on my chest, the sails of my skin pulled taut, changing the course of my life. I yearn to be pulled along, perversely out of control, to have the ocean invade me, violate me, to have the thrill of knowing that something is inevitable.

In the bath, she reclines, washing off the tyranny of everyday life. Her eyes fluttering feverishly under their lids as she thrashes in the hot water, the only sound the dripping of the faucet, the roar of the wind, as she treads water deliberately, weighed down by the swelter, joining that restless coil, tongues of the sun lambent on the ocean’s surface. The bottom of the sea calls to her, the seaweed bed flickering lazily in the shadows, slowly writhing for her.
She is swimming, she is sinking, now at the bottom, among the ocean’s dregs, the bioluminescent plankton in anarchy, raging. The skin fleeing from her body in droves, the carbon blooming in every blood vessel, bursting through.
There she lays, nestled in the seaweed where they strangle what is not there to strangle, and she is left, bloating, triumphant in the water.

Mythes, Szymanowski

Arethusa’s Fountain

The trembling mirror is broken by her body as she puts on the the shimmering liquid dress; the water enmeshing her in a gentle embrace, pressing it’s silvery depth against every curve. Her teeth shudder with cold and her back arches as the icy water pours itself into her mouth, steeps her in its molten chill. She spreads herself, augmenting in the water, now taut, now slack as she saturates in the froth. She thrashes and gasps swallowing its’ abundance. As the gooseflesh rises on her arms, the color rises in his cheeks. He stands in the shallows, watching, hungering.
His hunger becomes desperation as he longs to touch her, can’t help but touch her, caress her as the water does. He lunges for her, fumbling in the water with clumsy hands.
She thrashes and gasps at his disturbance, his savagery. Crying aloud, pushing him away, slipping as she runs, slowed by her muddied feet, the syrupy bog, pleading for the aid of her goddess. She runs on, slipping more and more, losing whole parts of herself, a big toe here, a  shin there, until only her head is left. She registers the puddle of self she is, a trembling mirror of jade wenge, a body broken into the formless infinite. She thrashes and gasps as silt and small particles tear through her. She begins to weep, at the immense loss, her tears melting away her cheekbones, jaw, face. He arrives at her meager puddle, both of them assuming her more helpless than before. She feels an insistent tug in the wind and follows it, trickling away from him a little. And there, hovering in her new self, she understands that Artemis, in her infinite wisdom, fury, and kindness, has given her a complexity in form to match her mind, has made her a woman so uncontainable as to be ungraspable by man, and she rushed away.

Narcissus

In the thick torpid heat, water pulses incessantly, lapping against him where he languishes in the tall grass. He watches as a bead of sweat lazily trickles down his back and notices for the first time it’s fine muscular shape, notices it’s gentle taper, it’s texture, somewhere between marble and oil. He stretches, watching as his supple muscles tense, absentmindedly stroking the fine gold down covering his body, this form which drives all who see it to madness. Even now, the oppressive sun beats against him, swarming him with its rays, condensing on him in an attempt to possess him; the tall grasses collectively sigh when the wind blows them away from his direction. In the water, his eyes slowly raise to meet his gaze, taking in his heavy lids with dense curled lashes, the sumptuous lips, the carved ivory bones. As he drinks himself in, he too, begins to yearn, wishes to possess, to contain himself. He contorts his body, wishing to see himself from every angle, writhing in satisfaction at the wealth of his own form, the plenitude of hair, rich follicles drenched in honey hues. How grateful he is, to have found the one who will always be with him, who could never try to leave him, the one who completely understands and agrees with him. And yet, as time passes, boredom settles like a fine dust around his weakening frame, a stagnancy that comes with a love unchallenged, an ego unchecked. Years pass and he spends them all riveted by himself. He has known every inch of himself, now no longer the youth captivating to all before. His nail beds curve with the weight they carry, thin hair fraying at the ends, the sallow lined skin matted and caked with his own waste. Unseeing mycelium grow over him, a man unnourished by the thoughts and presence of others, a man who didn’t think to look at another, and when he passes over, there will be no one to remember his love, his life. In his last sigh, he finally looks away and realizes the beauty of dependency, the hollowness of self-reliance.

The Dryads and Pan

The air sizzles with heat and anticipation as Pan wakes up drenched, his body quivering at the thought of girls. He had been dreaming of them, their laughter still echoing in his half-wakened mind. He dreamed of the mischievous games they would play with him, calling to each other in their dew-dripping voices, hiding from each other so that looking at them, you might only see here, a glimmering fin, there a willowy frame, the whole forest a kaleidoscopic riot of women. Arriving at the fabled forest, the air is deflated, stale. He takes out his flute to draw forth women and mirth, to banish his loneliness…his flute made from the last girl he loved, the last girl who refused him. He draws his breath through her once-body… playing beautifully, shyly. Who will love me? Who can love me? The innocent charm of his playing draws no response and the air begins to curdle, no one answers. Plunging into self-pity, he plays a vulnerable song and a nymph, touched by this unvarnished song approaches to listen to the song his heart has sung since the day he became a monster, since the day people called him monster, gazing at his half-form, and the thought occurred to him to be one. Sensing attention, Pan catches sight of her, and begins to chase her, wretched with desire. Her empathy evaporating, she rises in the air, clutching at all that can save her from his lurching attempts. He pleads with her, alternately seducing her and taunting her when he fails to elicit a response. As she escapes, Pan picks up his flute again, and watching her, plays again a song, an ominous harbinger of the dangers of rejecting insecure volatile young men such as himself. The atmosphere comes alive with girls again as Pan leaves, materializing from the air, water, and brush to resume their lives. What for him was possibility and play, was for them an end to freedom and self-possession.

poems in response to Lou Harrison’s Varied Trio

Gending

time is a wetted brush
balanced perfectly on the edge of a bowl
ready to be lifted
to glide across surfaces
with varying heft and lightness
ease and hesitation

time is the heavy hour
until the moon turns her face

time is the grinding
of bones dried
in earthen jars
the words written
on them being
slowly loosed

time is a damp fungus
deep in the earth
unsure of which way to grow

Bow Bells

time is a violence
which when struck,
emits vibrant beauty

time is a mechanism
to make you feel
virtuous or guilty
depending on
arrival

time is a carver
shaving the world into angles
right and obtuse,
increments to fill
with meaning

time is a groove
in a record
the needle endlessly
helplessly spinning
getting sharper

Elegy

time is the wringing of hands
as we get accustomed
to the inconceivable,
death as part of life

time is the mind
threatening to split
into dark rooms
and stillborn blooms

time is a staggering weight
to carry alone
like bones dried
in earthen jars

time is routine
habits, errands, joys
and
every so often
an ache

Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard

time is fragrance
lingering too long in places,
vanishing in others

time is not time present
but always time past
a window we gaze into,
misremembering

time is innocence
equally unknowing
of past and future

Dance

time is this moment
the sun is blazing
the wind is roiling
the band is playing

time is hard to hold onto
try catching every moment
time is holding onto
each of us,
try leaving its grasp
time will keep holding

time is all we have
this moment our forever
take a bow
buy a t-shirt

13-17-37-42

13

It was an almost windless night, only the moon trembling in the pond gave any indication of life. The grass, unmoved for so long, ached to be stirred, and the trees slowly turned to stone, their leaves gouged lower and lower by gravity’s pressure.
The girl turned in her sleep.
Her stomach whined with a latent hunger and she sighed.
Her breath trailed to the open window. The leaves resting there exhaled, shrugging off the stillness, rippling into each other, igniting the grasses, sweeping the landscape into gentle elation.
The girl turned away.
Without her sighs to emanate their dance, the trees were pressed in with sadness. They tried to sigh. They stood there hanging their leaves in shame, in desperation. A lonely cucco warbled. The moon cowered in its hiding place, embarrassed by its own ostentatiousness.
Her stomach whined again, insistent. Her spine started to shake, notch by notch, Cupid was thrumming her body with his pointer finger, drawing the hunger out. The world waited for her breath, her birth.
Violently, he struck the final chord, intoning her into being. Her body hummed, she became sacred. She gasped and the world continued their dance in response, convulsing with her as she languidly writhed in her bed, her back arching into a half moon, shoulders revolving back. Her limbs stretched, spanning previously unreached lengths. Her breasts dilated, and blood pulsed in waves…red, powerful globules, surging against the vein walls, a siege of desire. The trees and grasses exulted and even the moon throbbed with need.

17

The club-footed boys leer and wipe their sweaty hands as the girls leap around them like impaired flamingos. Preening and prancing, tittering, guffawing, the room is frothing with feathers and possibility, everyone careening for love. This is innocence, the desire to be older, to experience, to be marked, marred. In every corner, secret maps are being drawn in hearts, secret plans that start to bubble over…extravagant dreams spinning out as the dancers circle closer and closer in this teenage ritual.
The girl turns.
She yawns, and as she raises her hand to cover her mouth, he takes it, asks, Can I? May I? And just like that, her fist of a heart cracks open a little. With careful steps, they circle around each other, each coated in gooseflesh, aware of every hair on the other, of every breath each is withholding. Hardly moving their bodies, just their hearts pounding against each other, a dance of their own, pulling them this way and that, but always closer. The color rises in their cheeks, necks dampen, and with each slow spin, her eyes dare to look a little more into his, the light in them getting brighter and brighter.
Secret plans are being drawn in their hearts. They are in the antechamber of love and it is bubbling over like the champagne in the soft flaps of their membrane, their dreams are volatile as they spin and spin and rush on, whirling past the aisle, launching into a life together as the fist of her heart cracks wide and lets him in. The moon, just a whisper tonight, hides behind the swarming clouds.

37

Every day is a dull green color. A large moss is growing over their lives, softly at first, overtaking the house, the dog, the children, smothering, sucking with its tentacled tissue and sporophytes all life underneath. Every day is the same liturgy of brushing and braiding hair, soggy bologna sandwiches, lavish amounts of detergent, 100 strokes of the swiffer, the nice dinner, honey! with sadness and a glass of wine or two or three.
The dim metallic air weighs heavy as loneliness prowls around the house with sinewy hips.

And yet, sometimes the lush fog clears, and her eyes dare to look a little into his, and the timid fist gently uncurls.

The moss encroaches, enveloping the timid fist with dense vegetation. The dust motes march down one by one. The laundry, like clockwork starts to give off its peculiar stench. The children’s stomachs growl and the dog stamps impatiently at the door. Each second being sliced away by the Sacraments of living.

The moon peers over the moss but cannot see anything.

42

The leaves of the mangosteen tree trembled violently as the house shook with the anger of raised voices. Volleying back and forth, tidal waves of irreconcilable words, irreconcilable fears rain down in the yellow kitchen. And with one breath, with two breaths, with three, they say without meaning to, the things they cannot unsay.

Bitter foul taste of bile and acid rising with regret in their stomachs.
She takes his raised hand, “May I? Can I?” She tries to help him remember, their life before the moss, a shared life of everyday comfort, not easy, but theirs.
She uncurls her heart and lays it bare for him. An open peony, each petal still smooth, she uses his hand to trace over it the secret plans and maps she had, no, not the secret plans and maps she had but the real memories and experiences they shared, etched in the grooves of her heart, a favorite record she plays all the time.

Her eyes are bright, they dare to look a little into his, but his eyes, his thoughts are inaccessible to her. The peony trembles, losing a petal, crumbling to paper. He has left this life for another, he had secret plans and maps of his own- plans that grew larger and larger, like a thick moss enveloping him. The moon cannot see him. He is enticed by another, she is left a wound in the yellow kitchen.

She is unable to sustain herself. Irreconcilable fears have become inconsolable fears. She shuffles around the house unclean as her neglected children, now without even one parent watch wide-eyed as she shouts and sobs, someonehelpmesomeonehelpmeplease. Begging barefoot in the streets, bleeding openly without dignity, without care. She is left prostrate, moaning, rocking back and forth in the grass, tormented by her imagination, the shrieking  questions taunting her with images, trying desperately to fill in her lack of knowledge. She makes secret plans and maps, drawing them in the secret chambers of her mind, militantly engraving them. The voices urge her to go find the little half-moons in the medicine cabinet.

She walks to the bathroom and as her fist closes over the knob, she is besieged. Her heart is pounding, her blood is pulsing in waves…red, powerful globules, surging against the vein walls in desire, arresting her. Live, live, live, they say. Even the moon has needs, look!  The moon, full and ablaze outside the window looks at her with no embarrassment, with pride. She lets go of the handle, seeing her own face in the mirror, with the reflection of the moon in it.

She clutches her round cheeks, polished by the moon. She dares to look all the way in her eyes. The blood in her veins sloshing, crashing in joy. Her breasts swell, dilating upward. She walks stridently outside to the moon, breaking to pieces as she goes. An arm left here by the mangosteen tree. Laughter comes out of her without being processed as she peels off her clothes like peony petals. Her eyes grow brighter and brighter, drenched in the moon’s strange light. She unfurls, effulgent with the moon, all the while, parts of her falling, a pinky toe rolling down the sewer, a gash in her thigh wide as a mouth, light filling in the broken parts, great scabs of light, shards from the moon assailing her, she stumbles, falls on her knees, prostrate again, gyrating in mad joy, arms outstretched, groping, searching desperately for the next adventure, ready for this life, the next life, the light of eternal darkness

 

Smitten with Britten part 5: poetry

For one of the final projects of a documentary poetry class I took, I decided to do a poetic-biography of Britten. The poems are meant to give some idea of his life as well as the feelings he could have had, and they are meant to be companions to the Violin Concerto as I had a particular part of the piece in mind while writing each poem. I mentioned in my earliest Smitten with Britten that Britten was a very complicated man…in trying to write poems from his perspective, I was trying to do what he did for Peter Grimes…grapple with some of his more unsavory qualities and allow a chance for artistic redemption. It can be hard to separate a man and his music (like with Wagner and his anti-semitism,) and with Britten’s alleged pedophilia as well as an allegedly disturbingly close relationship with his mother, I wanted to find a way to view him in full complexity and to maintain the love and respect I have for him as a composer. In preparing for this project, I read 9 different books about Britten and his music including letters and different biographies to get a fuller picture of the man. What I like about a poetic-biography is that it doesn’t presume to understand or know anything about a person…and it doesn’t pretend to be a complete representation. Because it asks more questions, and allows for more possibility, I almost see it as a truer sense of biography- one in which the mystery of a man can still live without being pinned down by facts, opinions, etc.

Opus 1, Beni

Everything trembles, hushed.
Again, it comes.
I crash through the froth
as the current crests,
legs yawning as the rush gives way.
I ease my way to opulence.
It always starts with a sudden leap in the darkness.
I see auric lines and pale blue fire.
I feel something culminate in me.
At the moment I think it will break,
it rounds, extends, and exits.
This is breathing.
The sudden leaping has continued all this time.
This is my heart beating.
The blue blurs to indistinct shades.
The beating is discordant, apart
from my breath, my song.
There is a strain upon me
to be right,
There is a strain within me,
diverging, alarming
in nature.
The tea kettle left too long
screaming,
smoke uncoiling.
And I drown in heaviness.

Beni plays with his siblings, exterior

I wonder why
we always play bad men
prompted by bad things.
Cowboys and Indians,
we gallop and shriek
in the bland sea breezes.
From the conch shells
harpies whine disharmonies;
cries cut up by the wind
Ashen water whips in a frenzy
like my voice,
when it teeters on highs and lows.
Sand grit nicks at my
corneas,
salting my calves.
I’m made to cuff and slap you.
Another day at the beach,
under an indifferent sky.
Another day as a young boy,
savage and savaged.

Beni plays with his siblings, interior

I want to prove myself–
to be a boy like other boys.
I want to be concerned only
with sinew, tendon, and heft.
But there are aches
within me, because I have
or could have–
a capacity for song.
I have inclinations.
Ardor, and rapture.
Other things too.
There is delicacy here.
And quiet feeling, unshakably earnest.
Stretched and pushed by the
waves, its puppet strings.
What is boy, what is man,
and what is woman?
My bones whistling, muscles singing,
the harpies urge me

Beni, left alone, dreams of his mother Barbara

The stain spreading,
white secretions murmur against each other.
The thrush outside is cooing circles, 5am
A young blonde actress wrings her hands
on the pale green glo-worm screen.
My stomach is lurching,
porridge nausea hits my tongue.
There are faded flowers on your bathrobe.
You turn to me!
And my heart clamors in its coop.
Agitation becomes the only honest thing about me.
Desire is flaming out lick after lick of triumph.
Tenuous, I paw at your lap,
my heart a tight wound.
Weak branches clawing
at a window.
I have inclinations.
However imprecise, askew,
“Such a girl as even I
could lose my heart to”
Only the first blush of morning
makes tired my weakness.

*By four separate accounts, Benjamin’s relationship with his mother Barbara was seen as odd. She was very controlling and they were intimate in ways that made many friends, family members, and outside observers uncomfortable.

Benjamin grapples

From the window,
unseeing orioles twitch ecstatic
while little girls,
little boys,
sharpen pencils,
take the bus.
So effortful not to see,
want, seduce,
produce
The sirens start again,
their full-throated song.
Making shapes in blood-
colored silks.
I want,
to sing along,
seduce, produce.
In schools,
war and peace co-exist
on book covers,
but synthesis is misshapen.
War and peace cannot co-exist.
Where one loses
beauty, the other loses strength.
Just like God and my devil
cannot co-exist.
It is wrong to love other boys,
especially little ones.

Benjamin decides

I want to create a single and singular thing of beauty.
To show you who I am when I am my best.
This is my contribution.
This is my contribution to the Spanish Civil War.
Maybe not the blood, the entrails of my body,
but my equally spilt and fractured conscience.
I know the ways morality can augment and rub out
Histories, families, people.
How virtuous, how clean.
I do not need to fight this Spanish Civil War
in the way you think.
Already inside me,
Ignorant armies clash in the night.
I wrestle with the graying slight stoop.
I wrestle with the choice between
baby soft cottons and a simple starched shirt.
…To have clarity like his unmarred skin
in these times of war…
I know I am disgusting because you have told me I am.
I have disdain too.
The love, how much and what kind…
Stars emit their faint pulsing sadness
at tens of thousands dead.
I just know I want to make you,
my concerto,
a single and singular thing of beauty.
Incompetent rubbings, accidental ruptures, waste.
But I keep trying.
If I can’t make you, at least
I would like to touch you.

Grand Rapids

“I shall never forget a certain night in Grand Rapids. Ich liebe dich, io t’amo, jeg elske dyg, je t’aime, in fact, my little white-thighed beauty, I’m terribly in love with you.”

I’m beginning
To be sure of my footing now.
To know where I stand
and how.
I’m taking shape,
becoming evident.
The horses are charging with their steel
flanked muscles.
The trumpeters expel air
from their rounded,
now hollowed cheeks.
I cast a net for those voices
which will not be drowned.
And yet, I’m flooded with
grief with
uncertainty with
love for
you who are my mother or my son or
my Peter
The steeple,
so clean…so virtuous.
Leaden steps in the water,
I steep in this metal,
I gasp I gasp, I grasp

*Peter Pears on the night they consummated their union.

Peter

*Peter Pears was the life partner of Benjamin Britten. Both were gay in a time it was illegal and now, their love, partnership, and works are among the things England most prides itself on.

You lift your face to me.
I see you suspended,
and lean.
I make lowing sounds–
water appears on my face.
Seized, I whimper,
teeth chatter and plead.
I feel something culminate in me…
I round, extend, and enter.
Suspended,
we swim on our sheets.
Lichen bloom
around us as our tongues whorl
counterclockwise.
Pain exquisitely distilled,
I see you deeply,
unshakably earnest.
In the blue half-light,
as we arch, clinch, and calcify…
I can see all the sweet boys and girls
mumbling in their pillowcases.
Just waking, beginning to take shape,
be sure.
As the dark unobscures,
as the prejudice unobscures,
I see them having inclinations and knowing,
finally,
the love, how much, and what kind.
Muscles hum and spark.
At last,
I gasp, I gasp.
And yet, cold dawn leaves
garishness.
I am just a man
unloved by other men.
I keep asking, uncertain.
Each time the answer,
resounding yes.
The long fingers of war and light
make me unsure.
I’m left–
suffocating–
supplicating
I lapse, I lapse

Smitten with Britten part 4: influences

Many pieces and events as well as his own life influence Britten’s violin concerto but in my approach to the piece, the musical influence I studied the most was Beethoven, largely because of the following excerpt from the Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten:

“The strongest influence up to the middle of 1926, however, was Beethoven. Later diary entries show the extent of Britten’s admiration for him. On 13 November 1928 he declared Beethoven to be ‘First…in my list of Composers…and I think will always be’, while on 24 June 1929, after, hearing Kreisler’s recording of the Violin Concerto, he enthused, ‘Oh! Beethoven, thou art immortal; has anything ever been written like the pathos of the 1st & 2nd movements, and the joy of the last?”

Before my performance of the Britten with the Shepherd Symphony, I wanted to work on the Beethoven Concerto and see for myself how Britten was influenced and how the pieces might be linked. Beethoven is my favorite composer (I know we aren’t supposed to have favorites…) and I’m in the middle of my own project of doing all of the Beethoven Sonatas in recital but I took a break from just sonatas last semester and did a recital with Beethoven’s 7th sonata as well as his concerto, mimicking the Beethoven/Britten album of one of my own musical influences Janine Jansen, who’s recording of Britten was the first time I heard the piece many years ago. Here’s an excerpt of the second movement from my recital last semester…the audio is slightly muted for the first few seconds for whatever reason…

Smitten with Britten part 3: program notes

The Violin Concerto, op. 15 was written in 1938-39 when a young Britten of 25 was composing in an atmosphere entrenched with the brutalities of the Spanish Civil War and the tension which would lead to the outbreak of World War I.
More locally, young Benjamin Britten was feeling increasing artistically isolated because of “the low status music had in Britain and how oppressive militant officials of parochialism could be.” His left-wing politics, homosexuality, and friendships with openly gay writers such as Auden also put him at odds with his country politically, and he left for America in 1939 where he finished his violin concerto.
While the piece is not programmatic, most of the music in the concerto can be loosely categorized as being rigid or sensual and one can hear in the struggle between rigidity and sensuality the other dualities of war and peace, artistic freedom and parochialism, society and individual, law and homosexuality, morality and desire.
The violin concerto was clearly shaped by the external and internal struggles of Britten’s time as well as those eternal struggles shared by all of humanity.

The first movement starts with a quiet timpani flourish which repeats, stirring the rest of the orchestra to enter. The strings sigh and the timpani flourish continues in the bassoon to set the stage for the solo violin entrance. The solo violin starts by singing a beautiful melody. Like shadows on a clear day, the song darkens and lightens until the accumulated intensity launches the next section where the solo violin barks militaristic rhythms and tries to sing through melodies broken into jagged lines.
The agitation infects the orchestra; they take the cubist shapes and militant barks as the solo violin tries to heroically sing on the lowest string, lashing out for high notes only to fall again.
Slowly, the solo violin ascends, struggling through scales and constant failed attempts until it finally reaches the highest point. The solo violin stops here, insisting on it’s place in repeated octaves as the militant orchestra, also at its highest point escalates and pushes the solo violin down an octave-glissando rabbit hole.
The orchestra joins the solo violin in the fall and they revel, taunting and celebrating with heightened intensity in war-like rhythms. The orchestra’s raucous celebration comes to an end when they disagree between the notes F and F# (the same ambiguous notes which end the piece,) both are played at the same time causing a dissonance which gapes like a wound and allows enough uncertainty for the solo violin to enter again.
Tentative and wounded, the solo violin begins a series of questioning bird-calls which eventually lapse into an anguished presentation of the melody it first began the piece with. Just as the solo violin gains enough courage and makes it up to the note it begins the piece with, the timpani plays the militant rhythm, haunting the solo violin.
The solo violin immediately writhes and retreats, but the woodwinds now sing out fragments of the questioning bird-calls, encouraging the solo violin to keep going. It isn’t enough, however, and the solo violin begins a slow descent, helplessly sinking, all the while trying to reach higher and higher in arpeggiated twitches.
The solo violin reaches it’s near-death and left alone by the orchestra, begins to rise slowly, happening on rescue and resurrection with harmonics which lift the weighted violin part into the air.
The orchestra and solo violin change places in the recapitulation. After recent harrowing experiences, the solo violin resolves to be rigid, taking on the timpani flourish of the beginning as well as the militant rhythm in pizzicato as the orchestra plays the song. Like sirens, they try to cajole the solo violin to join, but the solo violin part gets more agitated, unable to sing because of it’s angularities.
The orchestra reaches their highest point in the opening song and the solo violin plummets in response, giving up on it’s resolution and sings the song too in its most impassioned and desperate form. The solo violin loses steam and starts to question and reason its recent indulgence with pleading arpeggios and weighty scales before surrendering into the last iteration of the opening melody; here only the solo violin and percussion play- the orchestra and the opening melody are both reduced to a shell of what they once were.
The timpani plays the now fatal motive from the beginning, marching the solo violin on. The solo violin part, shackled with the sinister heartbeat of the timpani tries to play doublestops and chords, clutching to any and all passing notes, but is unable to hang onto anything. Just impressions of sadness and regret are left, depicted in sighing duples before the violin is rescued again by harmonics.
The movement ends this way, with the eerie hollow singing of the violin harmonics over the orchestra’s spectral pizzicato of the militant theme.

Devilish, caustic, and malicious, the second movement begins suddenly, mid-dance.
It recalls the militaristic taunting of the previous movement and is also somewhat palindromic in form.
The movement begins with urgent scale runs from the orchestra and the solo violin is treated as a percussion instrument before beginning a louche duet with the bassoon and other woodwind instruments.
The orchestra joins in, mimicking the grotesque smearing gestures of the solo violin part, crying out like newborn harpies until the percussive solo violin re-enters with octaves and sneering glissandi, challenging the orchestra which responds with full-bodied menace.
The violin takes the scale runs the orchestra has at the beginning of the movement beginning rhetorically and ending insistently, passing the scales and urgency off to the orchestra.
The orchestra tries to end the movement emphatically by repeatedly cadencing but on the final cadence, the violin begins the pleading middle section to this movement. Starting intimately and lost, the solo violin gets more sincere, tenacious, and high in range with each repetition of the theme. In the last repetition, the solo violin and oboe cry out the same pleading theme offset from each other- their inability to find each other though struggling with the same painful theme emphasizes the lost feeling of this middle section.
The solo violin melts into a lower range and quietly pleads, seeming only to go through the motions. The lower strings quake beneath the pleading with the percussive opening material, which now with one note removed, is the same gesture as the fatal timpani motive from the first movement.
The solo violin in response drags itself slowly upwards, hoping for a harmonic rescue like the first movement, but unable to find one, starts to spin in place at the highest range of the violin. The piccolo enter here continuing the high-frequency register and motive of the solo violin and the tuba begins an ominous lurching theme at the lowest register.
The dance of depravity from the beginning of the movement returns in a hushed disembodied echo. The orchestra and solo violin gain corporeality by way of dynamics and gesture as the dance continues until an outbreak of scales in the orchestra bring back the percussive opening gestures of the solo violin in a frenzied riot as the orchestra screechingly deplores behind the madness.
The solo violin ends as the orchestra continues in an unrelenting lament, crying the pleading theme from earlier in the movement as the woodwinds and brass drone the ominous tuba theme. The solo violin joins in the wailing just as the orchestra reaches its climax and the violin is left alone thrashing furiously at the beginning of the cadenza before plunging to the depths of the instrument’s register.

Alone for the first time in the piece, the solo violin begins a monologue, dealing with the aftershocks of the previous movements by recalling previous themes and motives and agonizing over them. The first movement fatal timpani motive is followed by the pleading second movement theme and both are then repeated in apparition-like harmonics coming to the rescue once again. The harmonics are interrupted by the timpani and militaristic theme and this time the harmonics follow, fully converted to the militaristic theme. The solo violin resolves again to be rigid, playing repetitions of the barbed timpani motive, losing more and more control until finally, we get the turning point of the piece- the moment where the dualities of militant/rigidity and melody/sensuality fracture. The solo violin plays the melody and plucks the militant theme in the left hand simultaneously- this is the first time the solo violin plays both of the main themes and characters at the same time. Because this technique on violin of playing and plucking at the same time is more difficult, it is almost impossible for the melody to sound beautiful.
Britten imposes this limitation on beauty for the violin here to prove that the two themes can’t co-exist.
The fracture of this duality destroys all former modes/themes of existence for the solo violin and leads to the honest searching and unknowing of the last movement.

There is no break between the second movement cadenza and the last movement. As the dualities presented in the piece fractured in the cadenza, so did any hope of maintaining a normal or expected “form” for the piece.
After the realization that the two themes can not co- exist, the solo violin begins a leaden and despondent scale into the last movement which is joined by the trombones who play the theme of the movement. While the trombones play the new theme (which is almost the first movement song in reverse,) the solo violin is playing the first movement song, but because the new theme alternates between whole and half-steps making the key ambiguous and the solo violin is seemingly in a completely unrelated key, there is no center discernible, mirroring the now-brokenness of the piece.
As the solo violin fades away, the rest of the orchestra slowly enters, creating a bleak and desolate landscape. Emerging from an almost drug-like stupor, the numbness slowly mixes with pain as dissonances are created by the overlapping scale lament from all voices. The orchestra seems to come to a standstill at the most deafening dissonance.
Here, Britten writes the first variation almost as a recitative- the solo violin comes in speaking, murmuring and sobbing, getting more restless as the orchestra plays disquieting chant-like figurations underneath.
The second variation continues the turmoil of the first with writhing solo violin arpeggios and statements punctuated by pointed writing in the woodwinds.
The conflict in the second variation thaws into the third variation- a relaxed and undulating oboe solo, the first time since the beginning of the piece without tension.
In the fourth variation, the oboe hands the solo to the solo violin and the solo violin plays the theme playfully trying to get free from the underlying stricter rhythm of the orchestra.
In the fifth variation, the solo violin sings in octaves, inverting the theme before mimicking the orchestra’s ornamental scales. In both variations 4 and 5, echoes from the first movement start to surface- the more rigid strictly accompanimental figures are related to the militant theme as well as the heroic octave leaps in the solo violin part which are allowed to cascade and sing in earnest this time.
The sixth variation is a march, alluding to the first movement once again, with double stops and scale flourishes alternating between solo violin and orchestra.
The seventh variation is a bassoon solo over the violin playing mosquito-like music, light and similar to the ghostly piccolo part in the second movement. The seventh variation erupts into the eighth which is the grand orchestral finale.
The weighty and despondent scale we heard as the bridge to the last movement in the violin is now transformed as the orchestra plays it and allows it to resolve. This movement, once so uncertain, is now noble, sonorous, and definite. The solo violin comes in, joining in the triumph of this certainty, but there are still remnants of uncertainty and doubt. These remnants are the undoing of the closure obtained in the eighth variation, but they free the solo violin for the last.
The solo violin lapses into the last variation, surrendering to uncertainty as the only certainty and unknowing as the only knowing. The last variation consists mainly of a four-chord chant-motive pulsing in the orchestra and the solo violin, finally free from duality and the need for it, singing, searching, and improvising around that motive. In a piece where the solo violin and orchestra have been primarily at odds with each other, the last variation brings them together. The solo violin repeatedly wanders and resolves on one note of a harmony, which the orchestra then completes, helping the solo violin bloom, encouraging and affirming the violin to continue. These harmonies are strange, unexpected, and more beautiful than the things we could expect from our knowledge of how formal harmony should function. The climax of this variation is the solo violin singing a treacherously high melody on the lowest string. Singing at this range on the violin is nearly impossible and the violin seems instead to be choking, desperately supplicating. This is another instance of Britten imposing a limitation on beauty which leads to the exhaustion of the solo violin part- collapsing into the piece’s last doubting mournful moments.
The piece ends with the solo violin searching, alternating between two pitches before it trails away, leaving no closure, all of us unknowing.

Living and Music: Beethoven op. 130 and vulnerability

The reason I first started this blog close to a year ago was because I had just finished working on Beethoven’s Quartet op. 130 and the Grosse Fugue and though it wasn’t the first piece I ever loved, it is the first piece that I felt loved me back. That sounds funny as I type it out, but it’s true. This was when I started understanding music as something you can have a tangible relationship with…something that can reflect and show you a lot about yourself and your surroundings and change you. Since working on the piece, I was preoccupied afterwards with the idea that something could be so emotionally familiar without being actually familiar. It was like meeting someone you had an instant connection with…you don’t understand why you connect with the person and you don’t see all the mechanisms behind the connection like nurture, nature, life experience, etc. but you feel it. In my very first entry I proposed a first theory that maybe Beethoven’s music is familiar because it is unfamiliar and in its’ unfamiliarity, mirrors the way our lives are. Even though we have structure in our days and we make plans (similar to how even the most simple or complex musical pieces have form of some kind) there are unplanned elements every second which shape our lives in ways we may not even know. Here is, a year later, my second theory of why Beethoven’s music is emotionally familiar.

I remember practicing the 3rd movement of the Op. 130 by myself in the small room I shared with Denise at Aspen. The 3rd movement is possibly the hardest to grasp of the 6 in the piece because it isn’t easily put into a category. It isn’t a dance, it isn’t the virtuosic fast movement, it isn’t the slow movement, etc. It is certainly beautiful and lyrical at some points…but it is mostly quirky, adorable, and maybe a little persnickety. As I was practicing this movement, I started to cry and I was overwhelmed with this sense of being understood. This was really bizarre to me. It happens sometimes, but not often, that I cry first and figure out why later. Now I’m going to move forward to a few weeks after this initial emotional response to the music. We were working on the piece at a summer festival which takes place on a beautiful beach. During a rehearsal break, I was sticking my feet in some water and watching the ocean. Growing up, instructors have often compared musical markings and gestures to ones found in nature. One of the reasons Beethoven’s music, especially the quartets (in my small experience), is so difficult is because he requires the musicians to do extreme changes in dynamic range very suddenly. Op. 130 is riddled with these rigorous dynamic contrasts and the 3rd movement is especially demanding in this regard. There will be one measure of music with as many as 4 different dynamic contrasts required. That is, 4 different dynamics for 10 notes! It is hard to do this by yourself, let alone, with 3 other people in a quartet where everyone has different concepts of soft, loud, and middle. So I was thinking about this while looking at the ocean, watching each wave build and gently crest, and I realized that despite what my instructors said growing up, I couldn’t think of a single thing in nature that is as instantaneous in extremes as these markings in the Beethoven. If you can, right now while you read this, it is because you are smarter than me or because I just do not think enough. Probably both. And then I realized that there is something in nature that changes as instantly and as extremely as these markings and I remembered that I had cried and now I knew why. The human heart changes this way…our emotions, our thoughts are this volatile, flexible, and hesitating. I made a small video clip of myself playing and trying to explain this part.

So now I know that when I was practicing this part, I was having to constrict and free myself physically to get those higher notes and then to stay in one place before leaping physically again. This kind of leap always reminds me of when they do bars in gymnastics- there is that split second where you aren’t touching either bar or either place on a violin string. This means that as a player you feel vulnerable about your skill, your technique, your physicality. Coupled with the fact that the section is a song but takes so long and so much hesitation to get started- you feel not only physically vulnerable but emotionally vulnerable. I felt understood because this is honestly how I feel socially. In my friendships, in relationships, gatherings, my internal dreams, anything…it takes me a lot of effort to get started and keep going. This was especially the case when I was a teenager when I felt my most physically and emotionally vulnerable, though the 20’s aren’t that much easier on either front. So Beethoven, centuries ago, wrote something that, by physically enacting, I was able to experience emotionally. He showed me how I’m vulnerable and what it would be like if I just gave in, kept trying, and found the courage to sing. And once I could do that in music, it started being a lot easier to do in public.

It’s a metaphor. I’m not actually going to sing in public.
Ling Ling