About this thing

I’ve always said I’ll never write a blog because I lack the requisite self-involvement, which is to say that I don’t consider my merest thoughts to be worth the world’s attention. Really, we don’t come up every day with things worth sharing. But I’ve got a number of bits and pieces piling up on my computer that I find worthwhile, which for one reason or another I can’t seem to sell to anybody. Mainly, then, this blog is a repository of my orphans. Its title originated in my Boston Symphony note on Charles Ives’s Ragtime Dances. It’s come to represent my own odd bits, my thoughts and fantasies and feuilletons on assorted subjects.


 Recently in Madrid I stood for a while in front of Picasso’s Guernica, trying to explain it to Mozart. I often speak to my biographical subjects while I’m writing about them. A while back I spent some time imagining playing Louis Armstrong recordings for Brahms. I felt sure he would catch on and like it. After all, he loved gypsy music and was fascinated the time he heard an American girl playing ragtime on banjo at a party.

Talking to Mozart about Guernica was a dicier business. I wasn’t sure he could ever get his sensibility around it. There are so many issues at play in that soul-searing painting, done soon after the atrocity that inspired it: the fire-bombing of a Basque village by Nazi warplanes in support of General Francisco Franco. He ordained, in other words, the mass murder of his own people, most of them women and children because the men were off fighting in the civil war.

I’d begin by showing Mozart a photograph. I’d tell him that when photography appeared, painting was no longer required to represent reality. Now painting could take off on its own–including, if it wanted, creating images free of representation. In other words, painting could explore things that only painting can do. Art could distort reality at will, or depart from it entirely and treat painting as an abstraction like instrumental music, or use it to portray dream or nightmare images, or pure states of mind and emotion.

Already I might have lost Mozart. He was so tied to his time, to convention, to the social world his music was part of. I don’t think he ever put musical and operatic conventions aside. He made use of conventions—musical, dramatic, operatic—to the end of his life. What he did was to go through convention and come out the other side, wielding it as part of his singular voice. So Mozart might never be prepared to understand modernism in art, because he was not interested in revolution. He was interested in using the status quo for his own purposes.

But let’s imagine that in the middle of my explaining the art of the early 20th century that Mozart hadn’t run off screaming, that he remained, skeptical but ready to hear more. I’d show him Picasso’s cubism, how it distorted reality while remaining true to it, and how those distortions could be expressive, human, even as the works bent and folded matter like a sheet of paper. I’d show him Picasso’s cubist paintings of a woman crying, and point out that you can see her pain and can also make out who the woman is—Picasso’s lover Dora Maar.

Then I’d have to show Mozart airplanes, particularly warplanes, and what bombs do. I would show him film of airplanes dropping bombs. Not inured to these things as we are, Mozart would be shocked and stunned. He would see an evil he could scarcely comprehend, scarcely encompass. His view of war involved glory and heroism and grand uniforms. Planes dropping bombs have no glory, no heroism; their purpose is slaughter. I can’t imagine Mozart’s kind of art could encompass that degree of evil.

Now I would tell him about the bombing of the village of Guernica by German airplanes, sanctioned by Franco. Finally I would show him Picasso’s painting. It would need to be in person, standing in front of that massive, horrifying canvas.

If he had followed me this far, I think on some level Mozart would understand. How could he not? It is a painting whose essential point is inescapable. I’d explain to Mozart that in this painting the distortions of cubism are put at the service of portraying unspeakable violence and pain, a world broken and weeping and screaming. Women scream, nature screams, the virile bull screams. On the ground lies a shattered statue, one disjointed hand clutching a broken sword. Art is broken too. And the statue is screaming.

All very well, Mozart would say, but this painting is like the daubing of a little child! Look, you can even see paint dripping! I would respond by showing him the work of Picasso in his teens, when he could already draw traditional representation remarkably well. I’d explain that his skill at drawing stayed with him, but that he came to feel that sometimes he had to tear it up, on the surface put it aside, sometimes draw with all his skill as if he were a child. This would be another point where Mozart might throw up his hands, at the idea that you would use your skill to mask your skill. To Mozart, skill meant a great deal. In your work you didn’t boast about it, but you didn’t hide it either. My only response would be that if Guernica were painted any other way, it would not have the same kind of power. Nor would a photograph of the massacre.

So there we would be, Mozart and me, contemplating the contrapuntal elements of a legendary work. If it was a typical day in the Reina Sophia museum, we would be surrounded by a crush of viewers. In these situations I remember what my brother Charles once observed on a crowded day at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris: “Art is being appreciated to death.”

Here in front of Guernica nearly everyone under thirty is fingering a cell phone, even though it’s not allowed to take a photo of the painting. The whole museum is full of young people sitting and standing around, staring at phones more than at art. Inevitably, sadly, all this is part of the experience too. I’d tell Mozart that it would be similar at a modern performances of one of his operas: crammed with people, many of them anxious to get back to their cells. I imagine him asking if any of these people looking at the Picasso actually feel it, resonate with its unimaginable pain. Or is it just a thing to do, a famous landmark to check off the list, a destination before lunch. I’d tell him I don’t know, I hope some of them do feel it, even some of the ones clutching phones.

In any case art has changed and changed again since Mozart’s day, in ways he could not have imagined. And inevitably those changes have dragged his art along with them. The connection of art to the world has changed, everything from “art for art’s sake” to bloody involvement in the horrors of the day. Still, musical responses to war are not new. Haydn’s Mass in Time of War and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis are both shattered during the prayer for peace in the Agnus dei by sounds of war that tear the music apart—as the statue in Guernica is blown apart. But Picasso within the language of cubism has reached a depiction of pain and tragedy more raw, more immediate, than almost anything before. (The pictures of Goya during the Napoleonic Wars are among the few comparable artworks.)

There I would leave Mozart to his thoughts. For myself, every time I see Guernica I think of when I saw it in Madrid in 1981, soon after it was returned to Spain from the U.S. It was residing in its own small building, behind inches of bulletproof glass, with two soldiers flanking it holding machine guns. Francoistas had vowed to blow it up. Franco was dead then, but his spirit lived on. So much for the idea that art is irrelevant to the real world.

I thought once again about political art. The part of the Reina Sophia Museum where Guernica lives is full of works that amount to a sustained scream of outrage against Spanish Fascism and its violence. The impact of those works ranges from indifferent to compelling, though none are on the level of Guernica.

The thing is, I’ve always been skeptical of political art. For starters, I don’t buy the old socialist line that “all art is political,” because I am skeptical of any idea that starts with “all art.” Some art is intentionally political, polemical, didactic, but much of it isn’t. I don’t know how much art can change people’s minds about anything. Political art tends to be a matter of preaching to the choir; the people who like it already believe what it’s saying. There’s also a risk of sheer scam in political art: if you don’t like my performance piece against war or racism or sexism, then you must approve of those things. I half-subscribe to Joseph Brodsky’s observation that, “If a poet has any obligation toward society, it is to write well.” I would have said: “The poet’s first obligation to society is to write well.” Sometimes other obligations follow.

All this is not a simple matter, which is why I endlessly turn it over in my mind. After all, I’ve written a piece of music called They Who Hunger and another called They That Mourn, the latter in memoriam 9/11. I suppose what I believe is that a response to suffering or evil that boils up from inside an artist is an authentic work. It’s artists responding to the world by doing what they do. All the same, to make a protest meaningful you still have to write well, or paint or compose well. Picasso’s response to evil is immortal because it’s a great painting by a great artist, not because of the protest, which is intentionally so simple a child can understand it.

If Mozart had not run away during my exposition of the painting, I’d explain to him that my country is living with encroaching threats of the kind that emanate from a rot at the top. And artists haven’t been responding to it with the full force of art, as Picasso did immediately after learning about the bombing of Guernica. Maybe somebody will slather a political slogan across a cardboard box or make a digital screen crawl of it—I’ve seen both—and the political message will be the entire point. The easy, lazy point. Picasso labored at white heat for a month on Guernica, revising it again and again (there are photos of the process), because he insisted it must work not just as statement but as art. Surely that’s why Guernica is one of the mightiest works of its kind.

Here’s another example of what I mean. I once heard on radio a series of revisions Henry Thoreau made to a line in Walden. It began with an observation in his journal, after a party. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like, “I noticed that most of the people there put on a convivial face, but it was clear that none of them were really happy in the least, yet they never talk about it.” Then he began working on the idea. As I remember there are nine surviving drafts of it. What he ended up with is one of the most famous phrases in the language, and one of the most tragically wise: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” That phrase does not say anything the first version didn’t, but it says it once and for all. We spend our lives learning its truth. And remember what Picasso said: “Art is a lie that shows us the truth.”

Art done well has tremendous power, political and emotional, but there’s not enough of that around these days. Artists of our time, as far as I’ve seen anyway, have been useless at fighting the malaise of our time, the growing human cost, the rot of corruption and lies—lies that are intended to destroy the truth. At least the U.S. is not Nazi Germany yet. We won’t routinely be killed for telling the truth—not yet.

All this would surely be too much for Mozart. He would first have to understand a new scale of evil, then refashion his conceptions of art to deal with it. It would likely be too much, even for him. But we have the knowledge and the means, the technique to respond to psychological and physical violence. Yet we mostly complain instead of create. Visual art these days is more a matter of fashion and money than anything else. What’s our excuse?

These thoughts, standing in front of a devastating painting in Madrid.


Both as a composer and writer I’ve been pretty lucky with reviews. Both my endeavors are on the one hand deeply absorbing, on the other hand perfectly idiotic ways to try to make a living. For all the misery involved in my so-called jobs, however, my reviews and my reception on Amazon and the like are one of the few things I have nothing to complain about. My main grief has come from one John Klapproth re the Beethoven bio (he attacks anyone who doesn’t embrace his book saying that Josephine Deym is Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved), and re the Brahms, a British woman who has staked her career on maintaining that the old story of Brahms playing piano in brothels in his teens, being abused by prostitutes for the amusement of sailors, isn’t true. I’m quite sure it is true, because Brahms was a highly honest and self-aware man, he talked about it all his life, and he said it wrecked his relations with women. Brahms was the last person in the world to spend his life promulgating a shameful and humiliating lie about himself.

But my real point is this: the two people above have an absolute stake in their point of view, because they both believe that if they’re wrong, or have no takers, their career is for nothing. I propose that a writer of history or biography should have no stake at all, nothing that isn’t up for revision if better information turns up, no stake in anything other than what appears to be the truth based on the best evidence available. Truth and objectivity are what history is about–however impossible it is, when all is said and done, to achieve either of them. History in that respect is like science: there are degrees of certainty, but ultimately everything is provisional. History and science are both imperfect because everything human beings do is imperfect. But that doesn’t mean you don’t strive toward the truth, the kind of truth that has nothing to do with what you prefer to believe, or with the dubious careerism involved in depending on an angle that defines you.

When my Brahms book came out virtually the only criticism it got had to do with the bars, the idea that they didn’t happen. A supposed friend of mine who had been on the Pulitzer committee told me, kind of gleefully, that the bar issue had sunk any chances I might have had. We weren’t friends after that.

That idea that the bars didn’t happen originated with a well-known German Brahms scholar named Hofmann. As a Brahms biographer I came out of nowhere, so most critics and scholars assumed the German guy had to be right. I hadn’t read Hofmann’s fairly slim book on Brahms. So I examined his evidence, found it unconvincing re the bars, but did find some points of his worthwhile–mainly that Brahms did not grow up in a slum. That in turn made me realize I’d overemphasized the poverty of his family, who were actually, more or less, intermittently, bourgeois. So for the paperback edition of the Brahms I revised a few pages having to do with those issues. If I’d been convinced of Hofmann’s position on the bars—and that of his British disciple–, that would have involved revising a few more pages. I would readily have done that because I wasn’t attached to the bars or to anything else. But I couldn’t honestly do it. I published an article defending my position, that entered the marketplace of ideas, and I left it at that. Some agree with me and some don’t.

Some postmodern historians say that since we ultimately can’t escape ourselves, our upbringing, our cultural prejudices and hegemonies, etc., there’s no reason to aim for truth and objectivity at all. I call that irresponsible. Knowing that we’ll never get there, in writing history and biography we should strive for absolute truth and objectivity, to the death if necessary. (Fortunately, in the West at least, right now at least, that’s not usually necessary.) And then we see what turns up.

To put it another way: to stop striving to find truth and objectivity is irresponsible and often dangerous; to assume that you have found absolute truth and objectivity is also delusional and dangerous. For examples of the former, see a lot of current academic “theorists.” For the latter, see jihadists, Nazis, right-wing ranters, fanatics of all flavors.


These days everybody’s a genius: genius soccer players, genius cooks, genius recipes, genius pornstars, what have you. In other words, it’s a much-degraded word and some have suggested retiring it. But however hackneyed, romanticized, and vaporous the idea is, I suggest that genius is real all the same. Here are some thoughts about it. I’ll start in a roundabout way, but I’ll get there.

Two sons of a friend of mine decided, in their early teens, to become famous rock climbers. They began to live climbing, starting with a climbing wall in their bedroom. On every free day for years they were outside climbing all over the landscape. Finally one of them decided he was ready to ascend the daunting Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a two-day trip for only the strongest climbers, in which you spend the night suspended from a nearly vertical wall. On the second day, laboring upward in the morning, he and his partner were passed by a couple of Frenchmen who were doing the climb in a half day. On his return my friend’s son said to him: “Dad, those people are another species.” Soon he gave up his dreams of being a famous rock climber. He could do the necessary work, but he wasn’t a member of the necessary species.

What I’m getting at here is some ideas about the nature of talent and genius, which is part of the foundation of all my biographies, and an issue I’ve spent years thinking and writing about. It was particularly pointed in the case of Beethoven, who in Western culture is the quintessential genius, on whom much of the 19th-century cult of genius was founded. In the course of dealing with my subjects I’ve learned that I’m a good composer and writer but I’m not in that league, the genius species. I’ve taught and observed dozens of student and faculty composers in my career and have seen a fair amount of talent, but no genius.

What am I talking about? The first thing I’m saying is that talent is a real thing. Some have denied it, have tried to claim that great achievement is purely a matter of will and practice. They’re wrong. Bach once said: “Anybody who works as hard as I have will do as well as I have.” Sorry, Bach was wrong too. Talent is real, and you’re born with it—some people less, some people more, some people a great deal more. If ten pianists set out to be great and each practices ten thousand hours, they will end up in ten different places, some will have made the progress others did in a third of the time, and none of them will be great pianists, because that is given to few people indeed.

It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. I have a talent for composing and writing and it showed up however dimly in the very first things I composed and wrote: they were lousy, but they were real compositions and real writings, with a real voice. I once saw Chekhov’s first play; it was stunningly awful. Before long, unlike most awful playwrights, he became a great one. A lot of people write terrible first plays, but they don’t go on to become Chekhov. The likes of Beethoven, Brahms, and Ives also wrote bad music to start with, but their development from that point was more or less off the charts. I’ve never been off the charts. Few people are, in any endeavor.

As a conservatory teacher I watched composition students come and go year by year. It was especially interesting with the 18-year-old freshmen. I was not teaching in a leading conservatory, so we accepted a lot of young men and women who creatively had done more or less diddly. I watched some of them flounder, most of them improve slowly, some of them take off like a rocket. Most of those who rocketed reached a certain level and went no further, as if they’d hit a brick wall. (One of my students hit a wall, mired in tired clichés, but got well-known anyway because he was relentlessly determined to be.) Some stagnated for a while and suddenly took off. A very few rocketed and kept rocketing.

When Beethoven was ten years old he acquired a highly sophisticated teacher named Christian Neefe, who in a magazine article predicted that this friendless, grubby, and sullen student, if he kept going as he had, could be the next Mozart. Brahms’s teacher, who was a cynical old pro, said when Mendelssohn died: “It’s too bad about Mendelssohn, but now we have Brahms.” Brahms was fourteen at the time.

Talent is real, some people have it in superabundance, and talent is the foundation of genius—but only the foundation. There are millions of people in the world who have great talent in music, or writing, or baseball or physics or auto mechanics, who never realize that talent because they never take it up, or never find the right mentor, or are told to shut up and enter the insurance industry. A smaller number, but still a great many, are shoved into the arts or sports and the like by their parents, work as hard as expected of them, and in the end find only frustration and failure. The movie Amadeus was wrong about Mozart but right about genius: you don’t get to choose whether you are or aren’t. That’s up to God [or your metaphor here], and fairness has nothing to do with it.

In my biographies I wanted to show genius not in theory but in practice, close up, as much as possible day by day: getting up in the morning, making coffee, going to the bathroom, scribbling on paper, taking a walk, fighting with friends, worrying about money, courting public and publishers, performing.

It all works together in the course of a life, but there’s another caveat, with which I’ll end: There are as many styles of genius as there are geniuses. It doesn’t matter how you live (as long as you get the work done), what your opinions are, whether you’re a dandy or a slob, whether you’re conservative or radical, a nice person or a jerk. Look around the territory, you’ll find them all. The three arguably greatest geniuses of Western music are three distinct kinds of artist: Bach who held to the old contrapuntal arts, Mozart the man of his time, Beethoven who was everywhere called revolutionary (though never called himself that). Somebody I knew who knew the uber-surrealist Salvador Dali said he was a dear, sweet man. Mussorgsky managed to create a few immortal pieces while drinking himself into a early grave. Matisse sketched his models while cursing and snarling, “What a goddamned way to make a living!” Mozart loved composing so much that he basically worked himself to death doing it.

The only thing that unites them all is the indefinable but unmistakable quality that we call, for lack of anything else, “genius.”


Epiphanies in Strange Places

We learn about life and love and art all our lives, in ways expected and unexpected. Here I want to talk about the unexpected revelations, great or small, that hit us when we think we’re doing something else.

In downtimes on the set the movie actor Cary Grant used to prowl around tinkering with things: disarrange some books here, put a cigarette in an ashtray there, and the like. When asked about this behavior he said, “A hundred details add up to an impression.” Among other things that observation made me a more meticulous composer, better aware of the little details in the notes, the hundred things that make an impression.

Back in the day when in preparing to move your young impoverished person begged cardboard boxes from stores, I was carrying an empty box to my apartment when I discovered written on its flap a poem: “Across the miles / Secret pal / I call your name,” it began. The rest of the poem was kind of vague and digressive, but the poignancy of those opening lines haunted me. I thought of all the secret pals across the miles whose names I’d called in yearning and sorrow and regret. I think in a small way those lines helped me, as a nerdy musician, to pay more attention to peoples’ lives and feelings. It was only some time later that I realized why those words were there: it was a boxful of greeting cards, and the lines were the first line of each card. If I’d understood that reality, the epiphany would have never have happened.

I’ve been doing Boston Symphony program notes and preconcert lectures now and then for, I don’t know, fifteen years or so. These are for non-musicians so you want something that’s understandable and entertaining, heavy on the human interest. So on the whole you’re rehashing stuff you know, and you don’t expect any aha!’s. But in one Brahms program note and one Brahms preconcert talk I discovered some things new to me.

The note was on Brahms’s Tragic Overture, one of a pair of overtures he wrote, the other being Academic Festival. Brahms noted of them that one laughs, the other weeps. And that’s all he noted about them. I hadn’t known the Tragic all that well. Studying it, I realized it’s very much in the tradition of Romantic concert overtures, above all Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave. Except that what’s missing in the Tragic is a fundamental component of nearly all Romantic overtures, starting with their source in Beethoven (Coriolan, Egmont, et al) and going through Schumann, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, etc.: their overtures all have stories, pictures, tone-painting,. But Brahms offered no backstory for the Tragic, or at least nothing he shared with us. He just said it weeps. What I’m getting at is that even when Brahms picked up an innately tone-painting genre he refused to engage in tone painting. He was deeply averse to it (which doesn’t mean he hated all examples of it). What he was interested in painting was mood, emotion, not pictures and story. That’s perhaps why he never got around to opera, and his pieces in that direction, like the cantata Rinaldo that you’ve probably never heard of, are mostly dreary.

The other small revelation was when I went back to the German Requiem for a preconcert talk and realized that the single word that occurs most often in the text is freude, joy. I saw the implication: the purpose of a requiem, the purpose of mourning, is finally to go through it and come back to life and to joy. In a way, joy is the goal of mourning. Both those small epiphanies came years too late to do my Brahms bio any good, but the idea about the Requiem was a key to understanding the overall programmatic implications of the Eroica when I got to that book. More importantly, it was part of the fundamental idea behind my musical 9/11 Memorial, They That Mourn. (There’s a very fine recording on YouTube.)

Here’s an epiphany founded on a misunderstanding. Years ago I went with a friend to the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, the ultimate arthouse, and saw a movie called Muriel by the French director Alain Renais. I sat through the movie fascinated but completely puzzled. It was a group of people talking about things they clearly understood, but I didn’t. People came into the story who were known to the characters, but a mystery to me. At the end my friend quipped: “A splice of life.” Brooding on the movie, I developed a compelling idea: imagine a play in which there is an absolute divide between what the characters in the play understand and what the audience understands. A constant dialectic between viewer and viewed, each of whom has their own perspective.

Well, given that I’m a musician not a playwright, that train of thought came to nothing. Still, years later when I was at music school, I saw that the Yale film society was showing Muriel. I wanted to see again this fascinatingly ambiguous film. What I discovered was a movie that was a little oblique to be sure (Renais after all made the famously obscure Last Year at Marienbad), but in the end entirely comprehensible. There was a character grieving about something I’d previously found unfathomable: his presence in the French/ Algerian war, when he had witnessed a girl named Muriel being tortured. When I first saw the film I didn’t know about the Algerian war, so a central point of the movie made no sense to me. When I understood that, the story fell into place. But here’s the thing: my incomprehension on first viewing was creatively more productive than my understanding the second time. Here we find a difference between life and art. In life most of the time you need to keep your facts straight, to understand what’s in front of you. In art, that’s mostly irrelevant. What matters in art is what you shape and feel and how you make that work, and how your audience responds to it, and the facts be damned. (When applied to politics, of course, this aesthetic is disastrous.)

I used to have those refrigerator-poetry magnets consisting of random blocks of words that you can pull apart and form poetry, always constrained as in a sonnet by the availability of words. One day I found on my refrigerator the germ of an ominous if second-rate sci-fi story: “their woman but our egg.” Never wrote the story, of course.

This is a complicated epiphany, beginning with the raving of a Manhattan bum. I was eating breakfast in a diner and at the end of the counter sat the bum, having a conversation with himself. There would be questions and answers, thoughtful reflections, moments of anger, anxiety, tenderness. But the thing was, you could not understand a word he said. It was all murky growling blather. Not a word, but you still understood the emotional gist of everything he was saying. I had a surprising thought. I’d been reading the letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer. In one of them Frost touched on the idea that there is “sound of sense.” I’d never quite understood what he was talking about.

Listening to our drunk soliloquize, I suddenly understood. Frost said that if you were hearing a conversation in the next room but could not make out a word of it, you could still understand the feelings of everyone in the conversation. He meant that the color, texture, rhythm, sound of language is meaningful in itself, quite apart from the meanings of the words. He said something to the effect that there is a complementarity, a counterpoint of the meanings of words and their sound and rhythm, and they can be saying two different or even opposing things at once. I think Frost was hinting at something about his poetry: a dialectic among sound, rhythm, and the sense of words, the sound of sense and the sense of words sometimes in agreement, sometimes not. We all know this effect in its more basic forms: when your significant other snaps, “Fine!”, you know for sure that nothing is fine and you’re in for it.

I used to teach a college class called “Films About Love, Sex, and Society.” It was a popular course. Every term I gave a little lecture about the overwhelming power of sexuality in the whole of the plant and animal kingdom, and how each animal species including us manages that power in a fantastic variety of ways. The reasons for that power are obvious enough: nature wants every living thing to have babies. At the same time we have to eat, and those two competing drives have to be resolved. But how the power of sexuality plays out is infinitely varied, infinitely fascinating. I told them one of my revelations about that power, which had to do with porcupines.

I happened on a nature show on TV about these spiky pests. The scene began with a lady porcupine grubbing around in the forest. Suddenly a male appeared, and it was evident that he was mightily taken with this gal. He happened to be a rare albino porcupine, completely white. Still, he did presumably what all courting porkies do: he reared up on his hind legs and staggered toward her, emitting passionate squeaks and spraying her with urine. For some reason, she wasn’t smitten. Maybe she didn’t like white guys. To get away from him she began climbing a tree. Emboldened by love, he followed her up the tree, but at a discreet distance—she was swishing her spiny tail at him. But soon he was overcome by passion, came too close, and got himself a nosefull of quills, at which point he fell out of the tree and dropped heavily to the ground.

Now here turned up a fascinating fact of nature: there is only one animal in the forest that can remove porcupine quills, and that animal is the porcupine. Presumably because there are so many amorous bachelors and indifferent females. Spiny or smooth, we all know about this. At the end of the sequence we saw our hero, bitterly disappointed in love, sitting leaning on the tree and jerking the quills out of his nose. Each time he pulled out a barb with his little paws, he gave a sad squeaky “Erk!” And there, I told my students, you have the power of sexuality, that can get people and porcupines into a world of trouble.

Later I told them an experience I’d had more recently: walking down a street in Bonn, Germany, I glanced up over the entrance of a church and saw that to keep pigeons away they had placed a forest of sharp aluminum spikes on the lintel over the doors. Nevertheless, a female had managed to make a nest right in the middle of the spikes. And at the moment she was jadedly watching a male courting her, standing in the middle of the spikes. What the guy was doing was shuffling his feet and kind of bowing to her, over and over, which seemed to involve unavoidable encounters with the spikes. I imaged the guy pigeon speaking: “Oh, you’re so cute OW! You’re just about the cutest things I ever OW! Oh please please I want to go out with OW!” Passion trumps pain, just about every time.

Now I’m going to make one of my patented digressions from the theme of my essay. Something I wish I’d imparted to my writing students but never did is that the above porcupine story is funny partly because the word “porcupine” is funny. I’m sorry, it just is. The story would not have been as funny if the protagonists were golden retrievers. Opinions will vary, but still I submit that some words are innately funny, or tender, or bitter, or frightening or whatever. Recall the character in Joyce’s “Dubliners” mulling with a shudder over the word “paralysis.”

I remember seeing years ago a panel of comedy writers who used to work for the immortal Sid Caesar shows in the 50s. Sid was there, also Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and others of comparable wit. They recalled the day they were working on a gambling sketch involving a roulette wheel and fell into an hour-long shouting match about what number was funny. Seventeen! somebody would offer, and the others would cry, “Seventeen isn’t funny!” At an impasse, they decided to call in Sid’s co-star Imogene Coca, who had a farcical face and a Brooklyn accent of amazing nasality. They started feeding Imogene numbers. Say twelve! “Twelve!” Not funny! This went on for a while. Finally somebody said, “Say 32!” “Thir-ty-tweo!” said Imogene. Everybody cracked up. They’d found the funniest number.

In my writing classes I wish now I’d carried this further, to other words that are innately compelling in other ways. I’m talking about the sound of sense again. From a friend’s novel I first learned the word “caravanserai.” Literally it means more or less the same as “caravan”: a procession of men on camels in the desert, transporting goods. It has a nice sequence of sounds and a decisive rhythm: da da da, da da. It’s a kind of meandering word that pictures its meaning. But it can also be a metaphor. In my friend’s novel he calls the East Village in the 60s “a daily caravanserai.” Now we’re conjuring an exotic procession, a parade, ultimately life itself as a caravanserai.

In my writing classes I talked about the significance of sound and rhythm in other ways. Like most writers I sometimes stumble out of the blue on a phrase that I become hot to use somewhere. One I had floating in my head was this: “Pamela Anderson and other famous mammals.” If you know of Ms Anderson, who first came to fame as a Playmate of the Month and moved on to Baywatch, you’ll get my drift. The trouble is, as a writer mostly concerned with classical music it’s hard to find a way to work that phrase into a piece. This problem weighed on me for years. I finally managed to get it into a Slate piece about the quandaries of selling classical music. It was in relation to Anna Sophie von Mutter, a very fine and highly cute violinist who was among the first to help sell her albums with her own pulchritude on the cover.

Another point, I told my students, was that I felt a time pressure to find a place for the line, because at some point Ms Anderson would likely age out of fame, her assets would sink. Then I’d be stuck, because no other babe would do for my phrase. “Pamela Anderson and other famous mammals” has to do with a pattern of sounds centered around the m’s and a’s, which climaxes in the last word, which as both sense and sound functions as the punchline of the phrase. That punchline is set up by rhythm and sound. If you imagine another actress, you’ll get my point: “Meryl Streep and other famous mammals.” Nothing. It’s Pam or bust.

I’d add to my students: “Do I think this much about every line I write? Oh Jesus Christ no.”

Anyway, thanks to Pamela Anderson for that particular epiphany about the music of language.



Entries from my first hiking journal, and a postscript.


In August, 1970, a friend and I sat watching the sunset from the summit of Mount Liberty in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. As of that evening, I had never in my life been so dirty and so exhausted. My shorts were too tight, boots too small, shirt too thin. Due to the displeasure of several sets of muscles I’d never known I owned, my walk was a sort of sideways shuffle.

My spirit, meanwhile, was soaring over the misting valley, across the distant silhouettes of hills; soaring not like an eagle, maybe, but at least like a dazzled and eager city bird. As the sun sank below the peaks I thought with a thrill, an actual thrill in the heart: “Remember it was here you first lived in mountains and valleys.”

That was the first of going on fifty years of backpacking trips. Since then I’ve stood on the summits of Mounts Marcy and Washington in midwinter, watched dusk from Mansfield and dawn from Camel’s Hump in Vermont, slept alone under the stars atop little Pine Cobble above Williamstown, sat and written in my journal in the middle of a snowfield in June in Mahoosuc Notch, seen the sun go down and the moon come up from a cliff in the Grand Canyon. In all those places I felt the same thing I’d first experienced on Mount Liberty: an exaltation of spirit soaring above mortification of the flesh.

What follows, assembled around 1984, is a sequence of entries from three ragged spiralbound notebooks that constitute the trail journal of a composer and writer. They were published in the mid80s by the Hampshire Gazette, one of the first pieces of my prose that saw print. These words accumulated during the week or two a year that I was able to extract myself from the daily round of getting and spending and take to the mountains of the Northeast. They are quick sketches of insight, frustration, friendship, loneliness, growth, and awe. Perhaps they outline something of what we hikers go into the mountains and the forests to find.

July, 1970, in the White Mountains.

13 Falls. We come out of the city into the woods with a shock of recognition; instinctively we see these shapes and colors as beautiful: we sense that this is where we began; somewhere in our souls and cells we long to return.

A journal is good for these moments in the woods that are as evanescent as the flickering of a summer cloud. Such as these falls, sparkling like myriad diamonds in the sun, the play of light in deep columns of water as they caress and carve the stone: womanshapes, Henry Moores.

Thoreau Falls. A thunderstorm is approaching from across the valley. Dates like clocktime are out of place here, lost in phases of sun, rain, light, dark. Maybe that’s why tribal cultures are oblivious to change–all states in the forest are familiar repetitions, rondo form, circular rather than additive.

October, 1970, on the Appalachian Trail atop Pine Cobble Mountain near Williamstown, Massachusetts. Looking across the redgold hills I begin to understand how art rises from the union of this nature and our nature. We sense the world as beautiful or vast or varied or ominous and forge these impressions into art in ways tempered by tradition. Charles Ives, standing on his mountaintop, looked for the less obvious unities. He noted that an observer standing in one place sees a unified scene with heterogenous parts; yet the observer also feels the greater panoply out of his sight. Thus the unfinishedness of much of Ives, his music a rich-textured spiritual landscape spreading out of sight of the beholder.

July, 1971, on Vermont’s Long Trail at Stratton Pond.

Me, the pond, a dog, three young men, two lovers whispering and caressing (when I arrived this afternoon the girl was rising naked like Venus from the pond). The sun has set and moon risen over the silver sheen of the water. It’s so still that I can hear the highpitched whine of my nervous system. The conversation turns to porcupines, the temperature, the resident dog, the possibility of rain. Then, as we watch night come, words disappear into the darkening shapes like a fire’s last flame.

Time is now a dancer poised in midleap.

Bourne Pond. Birds skimming headlong over the water, ragged clouds skimming a blue blue sky, all moving effortless as thought.

Later. Hustled to Swezy Shelter–dammit, boyscouts, so picked up my rod and my staff and trudged on to Swezy Camp, old logging cabin probably, in picturesque repair. Now three randy highschool kids are reciting the grafitti on the ceiling.

On the way a meadow of headhigh grass with trees that seemed arranged and orderly–a Grecian meadow, murmuring of nymphs and satyrs. Then a bower under a pine tree: switching myths, I thought: I’ve always been a Tristan without an Isolde.

August, 1971, camped on the Long Trail at White Rocks Cliff.

I am looking down into a valley that is so perfectly beautiful in its vastness beneath a clearing sunset sky. The dark clouds are sighing away to the northeast; in the valley houselights are going on; the sun is nearly down. I smell the trees.

From the mountaintop we see the big perspective. All the grieving quarrelling suffering going on down there blends into the greater unities, into the stars. We need that perspective, now and then–to put things into their largest relations, to see what this and that share, what enfolds them. Sitting on a crag this afternoon I followed the lines of the hills, the ridges like titanic counterpoint playing across the cloudy horizon in the grand universal Symphony.

These sounds: low snarlings of trucks in the valley; distant gunshots, dogs barking; close to me, the rising and falling breathing of wind, the flutterings of a bird. Now the sky has cleared; darkening, this day’s sun a memory, the twilight sky unfurls its diaphanous veils of oranges and reds and purples. We’ll have a million stars tonight.

October, 1971, on the Long Trail at Pico Peak.

Two of us sitting here looking around and writing in identical little books, the Canadian gent and me, both of us trying to capture these moments. A quiet, perfect day. Without irony we talked Beauty and Truth, sitting before the cabin in the golden autumn sun, looking out across the mountains. Late afternoon now; we and everything are slowing down. I am reminded of my first visit to Vermont, five years ago: the same warmth of spirit, the same tincture of holiness.

Remember the hundreds of miles of hills glowing red- orange with dark green blazes of conifers at the peaks.

February, 1972, Windsor, Vermont.

Not on the trail now but rather sitting around in suburban houses accumulating foulups. Bob, Valerie, and I left a day late due to a record snowfall, I threw up all night, now Valerie with her stomachache and assorted equipment problems. Never has so much gone so dismally wrong despite such elaborate preparation.

Two days later, at Tillotson Lodge on the Long Trail. In winter, it’s poignantly back to basics–food/ warmth/ shelter. The hike up began easy and ended hard; the last part was so steep our snowshoes slid like skis. I saw the shelter and made a beeline for it across a steep incline; ended up nearly snowballing down the hill and with hands half-frozen–I was rigid with pain while they thawed.

But now we are warm and well-fed and I’ve had my pipe and all is cheerful and sleepy. With satisfaction we contemplate the temperature outside–7 above–and wish it were colder so as to brag later. Hot chocolate before bed! Droste’s!


This is something I’ve always wanted, to be in a place like this, tired and happy like this, with good company on a good day.

Next night. Valerie feeds the stove the wood we’ve spent the afternoon gathering and cutting. Outside it’s fifteen below, inside 75F. We’re warm and full again. The stove hums a low Gb, with a third-partial Db like a distant trumpet quavering in the breeze. Bob breaks wind on a perfect Bb, completing a major triad.

Next day. You’re snowshoeing down a hill wrestling a load of wood and suddenly look up and discover again the soaring curves and masses of white over everything, discover beauty all over again, remember the things that will never change, never stop being beautiful. On a good day all these things blend into one–the struggle and the preparation join with the shapes of snow and the wind in the trees to become one feeling not of doing but of being.

From today remember the quiet woods and clearings, the crystalline shadows of trees lying across white meadows still as the stillness before creation. As we neared the top of Haystack Mountain, garlands of limbs made gentle bowers of blackspeckled white under the intense blue of the sky. Bob said to Valerie as she caught up, “A black angel came down and told us we’re in heaven.”


June, 1977, on the Long Trail atop Mount Mansfield.

This ridge I am facing now is a perfect extended musical line, a melody inflected in continually varied ways in its long arc–rising out of the mist pianissimo on my left, ascending to a series of peaks of greater intensity with a forte at the zenith, sinking again to pianissimo at the end. (This was the spark that eventually produced my Landscape with Traveler for orchestra.)

Spending the day on Mansfield, moving between large and small, the old associations return: the polyphony of the ridges, the animalshapes of the hills, the myriad forms and variations of forms held together by the sweep of hill or limb; the sense of vast space contained by the hills like wine in a goblet; the grainy and eternally varied symphony of the insects; the intuition of ancient geological time and forces; the complements of rocks and plants–mottled gray and infinite shades of green.

There is a new understanding today, unnoticed in my lone-wolf younger years: the ages of human presence in the mountains, the cultures, the generations of men and women searching on these rocks like the generations of insects.

Later, at Prospect Rock above the Lamoille Valley. Two days ago I pulled into Sterling Pond Shelter in a godawful downpour, put on my sitting clothes and settled down to write some music. After a few notes I looked up to find the sky miraculously clearing. Music vanished from my mind, I danced around anxiously in front of the shelter consulting the clouds, and finally, glutton and sucker that I am, I hit the muddy trail at the first sign of sunshine. Today the wonderful loose free sunny downhill day, now this cliff with the hazy green pastures and lazily curving river spread out below. I’d forgotten how wonderful it is simply to walk through a dappled forest, to bath naked under a chill waterfall.

Next day. Walking this afternoon I thought for some reason about current movies depicting the thirties: they often make the film itself look like photos from the thirties. It struck me that old photos and movies–and earlier, paintings–are what form our imagination of an era. For us, the thirties is an age of sepia and faded black-and-white.

Next day. Sitting now on the windswept summit of Haystack, looking south down my path over the Green Mountains: Tillotson, Belvidere, Madonna, Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, Ira Allen. At last on my last day and last summit there is clear blue sky and good visibility. This is a gentle peak, its spruces whispering intimately; forty feet above me a wisp of cloud is continuously born and dissolved.

Later, at Hazen’s Notch Camp. Arrived to find a five-year- old girl standing in front of the cabin screaming. An older girl appeared from uptrail and told me tearfully about four who’d headed downstream. I rounded them up, marched them out to the road, loaded them into a passing furniture truck for delivery to the local police. They said they’d been on a school hike. If so, it’s five hours since they’ve been lost and the incredible dimwit of a teacher hasn’t noticed.

Last night at sunset I was on a fire tower on the summit of Belvidere: howling wind, torn sky with the sun huge and red in a distant parting of clouds, the rhythms of mountains and valleys in every direction–and the song of one whitethroated sparrow.

I wanted to finish the Long Trail this time, but no dice. I’ll be back.

October, 1978, on the Long Trail at Mad Tom Shelter.

Autumn’s colors stand out each in bold relief in a stand of mixed trees–the yellows, reds, oranges and greens set one another off, outlining each tree. The most striking thing is how the framing yellow turns spruces to an electric blue-green.

The leaves are going early and fast, the hills faded from the loud yellows and reds of last week to rust and spreading gray. It is the flowering before death, the convulsion of beauty before the falling away, the evanescent sweet-sadness of autumn.

June, 1982, on the Mahoosuc Trail at Gentian Pond.

First backpacking trip in four years, since that of the previous page when I was still getting used, if one does, to being broke and divorced and was not yet plagued by a bad back.

This pond is radiant with thousands of gentians blooming all around the bank, and there are fleshy purple flowers out in the water. From the bluffs above, a soaring view; the towns look like an odd grey lichen on the solid green floor of the valley.

Two days later. Arrived at Full Goose Shelter planning to go on if this place were as glum and buggy as the last. Proved cheerful and bugless. So instead I went dayhiking down into Mahoosuc Notch, jumping like a jackrabbit without the pack. At the bottom I was nosing around, wondering if this was what the fuss was about, when a step brought me to the brink: the snow field, the mossy boulders, the icy wind that seemed to burst from the earth.

Next day, in Mahoosuc Notch. After crawling and squeezing my way through narrow corridors of stone, I’m perched eating crackers and good Vermont cheddar on the same boulder where I sat yesterday. A solid rock wall sweeps grandly up to cliffs on my right; on my left Mount Mahoosuc arches into the clouds. The air is resonant with the rush of wind and the cries of hawks prowling the cliffs. Around me are boulders wildly tumbled and hummocks of snow glistening in the summer sun. Some of the trees are still in bud. There is an uncanny aura in this place, a secretiveness, a sense of time out of joint.

Next day. I need to teach myself how to enjoy the surprises in life, even the foulups like the miserable trail relocation at the beginning of this hike. It’s the unexpected that keeps life dynamic, that insures things will never become too controllable, that keeps us humble.

Remember Speck Pond, the notch at the far end looking over the vastness of the valley, the slow dreamy nocturne of peepers and bullfrogs, the dip in the freezing water, screeching with the cold and loving it.

August, 1982, in the White Mountains.

A first summer hike with friends–composers Lew and Greg. With other people there is the constant babble of observations acute and otherwise, a tendency to marvel at the commonplace, but also the unspoken sense of shared experience–the joy, the concomitant struggle and pain. Being with a group dampens reflectiveness but makes for learning more: bits of lore, new tricks, expanded powers of observation. (Alone I would never have noticed the raspberries, and they were so good, so good.)

Two nights ago we were at Imp Shelter, me more beat than I’d planned to be, and spent the evening chatting with, 1) lovely Connecticut housewife and hubby, both squeakyclean and even perfumed, eating couscous, yet apparently stalwart hikers; 2) caretaker kid, smartass but also smart, who rambled about Thomas Mann and dipped snuff; 3) a music librarian of the Library of Congress and his musicologist wife (“Aspects of Rhythm in 12th- century Polyphony”), both of them as grubby as groundhogs, as were we three composers. Among us all, an outre evening around the old campfire.

October, 1985, on the Long Trail at Harmon Hill, overlooking Bennington.

This is as good a time and place as any to write down a current credo:

Let’s stop trying to figure out the gods. It’s a hopeless and fatuous endeavor, like an ant trying to figure Einstein, magnified to infinity. The gods do not need our help or our feeble hosannas. What we should do instead is to marvel, and above all to take care of one another. What there is of divinity–and that is something I do believe in–we will find within ourselves, and we adumbrate the divine light in acts of sympathy, pity, compassion, love. If we pursue these we’ll survive, and be as blessed as we’re capable of being.

August, 1986, on the Long Trail at Hazen’s Notch Camp.

It was from here that I left nine years ago, having worked my way up the Long Trail section by section starting in 1971. I planned to come back that year and finish the trail, or maybe the next year. Then life intervened.

But I never forgot this brown cabin by the brook, and the trail stretching away north. So yesterday I started at the Canadian line and headed down, and here I am come full circle.

I remember so many moments on the Long Trail over these fifteen years. There were the first three Appalachian Trail hikers I met, at Griffith Lake: two kids who’d never hiked before and who had by then walked 1600 miles with cheap Sears equipment and no food but Kraft Macaroni and Cheese; their buddy, ex-Air Force scientific hiker with custom boots and protein powder, was in no better shape. I asked the latter why he was doing it. “If my sister’s in the downstairs bathroom,” he said, “I’ll be in shape to run right upstairs.”

I remember Camel’s Hump in early morning, clouds lying in valleys all around. Bourne Pond on a still summer afternoon, birds skimming low over the water. A pretty girl washing her cooking pots in front of Skyline Lodge. A distant inexplicable horn playing Mozart at midnight from the top of Pico Peak. The rippling panorama of hills seen from Mt. Horrid Cliffs near Middlebury. A night alone under the stars at White Rocks Cliff (and waking in the middle of a thunderstorm). The day in 1970 when I looked north to Vermont from Pine Cobble and idly thought wouldn’t it be nice to walk the length of the state.

I’ve done various things in my life, heard my music played by symphony orchestras, published books. But now I’ve finished the Vermont Long Trail, and I take considerable satisfaction in that. Maybe among other things it shows that, like the mountains, life’s interventions can be surmounted–one step at a time.

Now I can get my end-to-end patch from the Green Mountain Club. I’ll ask my friend Mary to sew it onto my pack, so it’ll be a neater job. I plan to look at it over the years with a good deal of pleasure, and with unabashed sentimentality.



As you can see, my observations when I’m hiking tend to be in a rhapsodic and poetic direction. Likewise my notes in the logbooks that are sometimes placed in trail shelters. In regard to that, here’s an object lesson in the power and likewise the ambiguity of prose.

As of some 25 years ago I hadn’t hiked in New England in a while, so I decided to do a weeklong trek that started on the Long Trail in Northern Vermont and ended at a cabin on Camel’s Hump. When I set out I was elated to be back on in the woods and in one of my old haunts, so I was writing especially ecstatic stuff in the shelter logs, meanwhile noting that I was going to be spending a week on the trail. Then it started to rain. Rain, rain, rain. After a couple of days I decided, the hell with it. I’ll go back home, wait till the rain stops, then hike two or three days further south, ending at Camel’s Hump.

So I did go back, actually for only a couple of days. At the end I was beside the cabin gearing up to hike out when a young guy appeared on the trail. I could tell he was a long-distance hiker, probably an Appalachian Trail trekker come down from Maine. Long-distance hikers tend to be tan and lean and their clothes have a certain look of permanent grime. This guy looked beat. He dropped his pack and sat down at the table with a sigh.

We chatted a bit as I got ready to go. He told me he was tired because he’d been really pushing it, despite the rain. How come? I asked. I’m trying to catch up with this girl, he said. Oh, she’s your hiking partner? I responded. No, he said—actually I’ve never met her. But I think she’s really something. I was scratching my head. How come? I asked. I’ve been reading stuff she wrote in the shelter logs up north, he said. Oops, I thought, and asked: What’s her name?

Jan, he said.

I should have let him down easy, but I was too flabbergasted to think. Oh, that was me, I blurted. Now, mind you, I was only about 45 at the time, but I was still a white-haired bald guy with a pot belly. And this guy had been humping it hard for a week in the rain trying to catch this sweet poetic girl who undoubtedly grew more beautiful and bewitching with each passing day. It couldn’t have been much worse for the poor guy. The look on his face could spark a novel.

I hope in later years he has found this as funny as I do.

This is a piece I wrote in the middle of the 80s and thought, sadly, I’d lost. But it turned up and I’m posting it here. Another of my orphans.


I first set eyes on Gandy Brodie on a blustery day in November, as I was driving to my schoolteaching job in Vermont. There he was, hanging his thumb beside the road at West Townsend. I pulled over automatically – hitching was the only form of public transportation in that area–, then regretted it when I saw the shabby figure galloping toward me. “O Christ, a bum,” I groaned. As he neared the car I revised that estimate: surely this is another resident of the Brattleboro Retreat, out in a day pass, seeing the sights. As he opened the door and slid in I confirmed a mad light in those wide eyes.

As with all my hitchhikers there ensued a period of confusion, because my VW Beetle came equipped with detectors that detected the backside of anyone sitting in the car, and a buzzer that wailed until that seatbelt was fastened, and finding the seatbelt was not easy. Still, this stranger went beyond the usual bounds of incomprehension, totally unable to grasp my instructions, smiling in a really unsettling way at my groping around his person, looking game and crazy/friendly, until I had for the only time in my experience to get out of the car, go around, open the door and hand his belt to him. Then he couldn’t figure out how to fasten it.

Finally he was squared away, the banshee buzzer ceased, and off we set. Glancing over, I saw him smiling and staring fixedly ahead (retreat patient, all right) and holding a new artist’s brush tight in his fist. Trying with a certain sense of despair to break the ice, I asked, “So, you have a brush there. Are you an artist?”

“I’m a famous painter,” he said.

Like nearly everything Gandy said, that statement was susceptible of interpretation, had layers of versions of truth mixed in with ironies and outright fantasies. All this, of course, was just like his paintings, those layers and layers of speculations and revisions, all of it seemingly talked into place with his never-ending, fantastic, exhausting rap.

Gandy was and is famous and not famous. His paintings are in the collections of the Metropolitan Musician of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among others, and he had significant admirers. One of the latter was critic Meyer Schapiro, who wrote of him, “Gandy Brodie stands out by his stubbornly personal poetic art… the arrested metaphors of insecure and frustrated existence…the purity and perfection of emerging life.” He had an extensive show in New York about fifteen years ago. For what it’s worth, I’m a middling dilettante of painting and I don’t know anyone of Gandy’s generation whose work I appreciate more. But as for famous: for a while I queried a number of painters and found no one who’d heard of Gandy Brodie. As the young aspiring composer I was when I met him, I hadn’t realized yet that there’s a substantial difference between good and famous.

But that elusive fame was important to Gandy, in the singular admixture of the sublime and pragmatic and incomprehensible that made up the color of his consciousness. He talked often about getting ahead, played the hustler, dropped more than a few names. Once when I was visiting his house he shoved before my eyes one of the stranger photos I ever saw. It was from his days as a hot young New York painter, I suppose, a picture from an old Vogue, maybe by Avedon, from sometime in the 50s. Posing in the photographer’s studio was a smashingly dressed Vogueish model of the era; beside her Miles Davis, trumpet in hand; and kneeling at their feet Gandy, holding one of his paintings and looking smug. That night he told me he had lived for some time with Billie Holiday, who was his greatest influence. I never found out to what degree that was true, but I began listening to Billie then and still do.

I get ahead of myself. The day we met, Gandy and I made our way down the road from West Townsend and sounded one another out. I told him I was a composer and at present was making my living teaching music at the high school in Townsend. “Then you teach my son Shane,” Gandy said, and so I did – my moony guitar-playing Grateful Dead head, Shane. Sure, of course. Gandy became a little interested in me: a fellow artist, a mentor for his son. He was to maintain that interest, despite my comparatively fledging creative career and my shy incapacity to cope with him. The thing was, you see, Gandy took everything seriously, which was one of the most nearly intolerable things about him. So if he was going to be interested in me he was going to lavish the blinding glare of that seriousness on whatever encounters we had. Always, I shrank from it. I’d never met anybody larger than life. I myself was just life-size.

I dropped Gandy off in Townsend and he aimed his thumb toward Newfane, where his studio was. Later that day I told Shane I’d met his father. “Pretty weird, huh?”, Shane said.

As best I can remember, I saw Gandy on six or seven further occasions over the next two years, the longest of them maybe two hours. But I felt then and still feel that he is as much a part of my experience as people I’ve known for years. It had to do with the density of our encounters. A meeting with Gandy was never a quick greeting or a simple get-together. It was an Event floating on the unceasing stream of his talk, which was an infinite dissertation on painting and the universe and one’s relation to them. I quickly discovered that it was impossible to banter with Gandy; every joke, every conventional ploy of conversation was absorbed into the labyrinthine processes of his mind and before my ears transformed into something rich, strange, and bewildering (bewildering, at least, to a young composer wrestling with the quotidian demands of art, a job, a new wife, and money). I have no samples of Gandy’s words to offer because I rarely could remember a thing he said. I only remember a musing voice, a rambling and weary rhythm, webs of ideas trailing off into obscurity.

Once he came to my place for a visit and I played scratchy tapes of two or three early pieces of mine, the only things that had been performed by then. He proclaimed them magnificent, which they were not, but I hoped his instinct about my artistic promise was at least a prophecy from what might be a bona fide prophet. Visiting his house I met his wife Jocelyn, herself a painter. “Jocelyn could’ve married Picasso, but married me instead,” Gandy told me later. As best I can figure, what created that notion was that Jocelyn, as a young and beautiful painter, had lived in Paris at the same time Picasso did.

Driving through Newfane on sunny days in the spring and summer I would pass Gandy painting in the yard outside his studio. I wish I’d stopped, but never did. I was too shy, he was busy (though I found that having a visitor never seemed to slow him down), and on sunny days in spring and summer I lacked the nerve to deal with him. Even in passing, though, I could see the somber and sprawling tapestry of his colors, him dancing before the canvas going at it with strokes sweeping or gentle.

I visited his studio only once. It was a barn piled with decades of paintings, most of them still in progress. On an old easel dripping with stalactites of paint sat a canvas. Like all his work it was representational, but done in a free and hyperexpressive style reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. In the middle of the canvas was a figure, which in spite of the morass of paint one could somehow recognize as Gandy, holding his pallet–a self-portrait of the painter in late middle age. It was the background that was astonishing: it’d been redone so many times that it stood out nearly two inches from the canvas. His image in the center was buried as in a pillow by that swelling mass of paint. “It’s a wonderful effect!” I exclaimed. “It’s sheer incompetence.” Gandy said in his dreamy voice, painting as he spoke.

By that point he’d become a fixture in my dreams. Always he was a wild, prophetic figure, sometimes robed in white, a judge and a goad and a burden. Once I dreamed he was sitting in the rafters of his studio declaiming away, and we were down on the floor in tears, begging him to come down among us and paint again.

My memory of our next-to-last meeting is hazy. He’d called and asked to visit me where he was staying, teaching at some summer school. He wanted me to talk to his son, who had gone to college to major in music. Gandy wanted me to inspire Shane, or something. Nothing much happened; Shane was diffident, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Saying goodbye, Gandy suddenly kissed me on the lips.

The last time was in Brattleboro. I ran across him in front of the library where he was hitching. He asked me if I was going toward Newfane. I was not. He stood with his thumb out, talking away. I remember his broad and strangely handsome features under a dirty wool cap, his stocky, strong figure and shambling grace. I recalled him saying he had studied dance with Martha Graham. (I didn’t believe that, but apparently it’s true.) A pickup truck pulled over and the driver motioned him to get in back. Without ceasing his rap, Gandy clambered into the back of the truck and tumbled heavily to the bed, turning to continue his monologue to me. The truck drove away, his voice faded into the distance. I looked after it for a long time.

A year later I was back in Vermont for a visit, no longer a resident schoolteacher, now taking a crack at graduate school. I phoned Gandy’s house and got Shane, who told me what had happened: Gandy had gone to New York and on some back street dropped dead of a heart attack. By the time he was picked up his wallet was stolen. It was a week before Jocelyn found him in a morgue. He was 51. “His father and brother died the same way,” Shane told me. “It’s the curse of the Brodies.” So that darkness had been stalking him, shadowing his monologues. To Shane I said what one says, then for some reason asked about the self-portrait. “The figure turned into a tree,” Shane said, “but it’s him all the same.”

That was 1975. Dealers have some of his work, but I suspect a lot of Gandy’s paintings are still piled somewhere unsold. That’s what Jocelyn told me years after he died.

I don’t know how much of this recollection is true and how much I’ve imagined or dreamed. I still dream about Gandy.

Note: A search online will turn up some things about Gandy, including a long interview that gives a taste of his style. On YouTube there are videos of a couple of shows of his work, and there are some paintings of his on Google Images. The above is the only photo of him I’ve found.


STORY – from a dream 11/088

One, two, three. One, two, three. Okay, let’s check it. All right, it’s recording.
Okay, I, uh… I hope this little recorder holds up for a while because I’ve got some things to say before … Wait, is that a … No. Whew. Good. I don’t have to run like hell right now. I forgot my cattle prod. I can’t run anymore anyway.
I’m, ah, out on the street as you can hear, whoever you are. I’m trying to get to the stadium. It’s ten in the morning, maybe twelve blocks to the stadium. Decent day for a game, at least. No rain, just those high clouds you never used to see, pink on the top with lightning or something sparkling around in them. I don’t know if they ever figured out what that is.
The thing is, future people… Why do I say that? What future people? Who am I talking to? Well, the recorder will be here, maybe, so maybe somebody will be around to listen to it. Maybe even I’ll listen sometimes, to remember, with what time I have left.
Anyway I appear to have more memory left than most people these days, so I want to get this down. Maybe talking can make this, this mess… Christ, mess isn’t the word for it, nowhere close to the word for it. Ah, so I, I want to talk about it. Try to make some sense… That’s not the word either. There’s no sense in it at all.
I just left the house. See, I can remember that. This is good. Not many people on the street right now. Probably a lot at the game, but a lot of people just don’t leave the house anymore. Too scared. Bones picked clean on the streets to remind you about the risks of going out. The screams in the distance. It’s better during the day, though. As long as you remember your cattle prod.
At home it’s garbage day. Ha! So I got rid of the garbage the usual way. Even though, sure, it’s supposed to be against the law. But I still do it the usual way, like most people law or no law. I turn on the stochastic translator on the sink, it starts to whiz and click, the little ramps turn into a blur and the clicks turn into a hum, the garbage on the receiving tray gets kind of wavy and transparent, then it’s gone like a puff of smoke. Amazing gadget. No home should be without one. We love ’em. Snapped ’em up when the price came down.
The thing is, nobody knows whether it was the home translators, millions of them, that made the difference. We don’t know. We don’t really know. So now a lot of people including me just keep using them on the theory that things could hardly get more screwed up. The situation hasn’t changed much in a year or so, as far as anybody can tell. Sure, maybe one day suddenly everybody will get wavy and transparent and disappear like smoke. And there you go, end of problem. Unless we find ourselves in the Paleozoic Era or up in Betelgeuse or something. Which would not be fun. And which isn’t impossible, they say. Nothing, no thing whatever anymore is too impossible to happen. Just– Ow, dammit!…
Agh! I stumbled. No, Miss, I’m okay. Yeah, I’m fine. Nice day, huh? You going to the game? Good. Enjoy it. What? Yes, I’m Athletic Director. That’s me. Good… Thanks. Thanks. Enjoy the game. Go, Raptors!
What the heck did I stumble over? That’s… Oh, great. A femur, and it looks human. Just great. I’ll turn this off a…
Glrp. I want to … Eh, ah, as is well known, used to be well known, the stochastic translator was developed at our university. Huge accomplishment, no question about it. Earth-shaking, they said. Epochal. Jesus God in heaven that sounds funny now.
I’m at the corner of State and Executive. Here’s a bench, I’ll sit down a minute. I’m not in real good shape these days. Going to meet my maker before long, and it won’t be too soon. I can hear the cheers and the band at the game. Somebody made a touchdown. All the same who it was, there’s only our own team here.
A device that could send things forward and backward in time. I guess epochal is the word for it. Except for the little problem. It’s a one-way trip, and you couldn’t tell where or when things were going to or coming from. In time. At least not at first. Then where some of the things were coming from got very clear. Oh, very clear indeed.
They were trying to get rid of garbage, for godssake. That’s where it started. The garbage had gotten overwhelming everywhere, stacking up and stinking all over the place. Before then there’d been a little success dematerializing matter, in small ways. Some were worried that could be dangerous, could start some kind of chain reaction that would dematerialize everything. But that turned out to be easy to control. I’m not a scientist, but that’s what they said. Easy to control.
Wow, here’s a bus going by. Hear it? Not many busses anymore. Who wants to fool with them when there’s no money for fares, and only so much gas left in the storage tanks. The bus is full, though. From the yells I can tell they’re headed for the game. I’ll get up in a minute. God almighty, I am so tired.
What happened was, a guy in the physics department named Leonid-something was fooling around with this peculiar gadget with two side by side ramps facing in opposite directions, with an oddlooking chain that races around the outside of the ramps, and somehow that and the computer inside it created a beam or something that affects matter. He said he stumbled on it. Holy Mother of God, stumbled on it. So it looked like it could get rid of garbage at least, and everybody said hooray.
They started experimenting with disappearing larger and larger piles of garbage. Before long, though, the scientists noticed what they called “artifacts.” These were bits of rock or even strange smells that would show up when the garbage disappeared.
Like I say I’m no scientist, but somehow they figured out what was happening was that things were coming and going in time. Bits of things, like smells or pebbles. Naturally they started focussing on that issue. I guess they figured if the dematerialization of garbage didn’t get out of hand, didn’t start a chain reaction, neither would fooling with time. They were wrong, but it was all quite logical. That’s what they said. Logical!
I’m getting excited. Let me catch my Glrp. There’s Ben and his wife, they don’t see me. I don’t feel like talking to anybody right – Oh – Hi Ben! Hi Betty! Going to the game? See you there. No, I, I’m all right. Just resting a minute. Yes, it’s a voice recorder. I… You don’t want to know. Private…haha! Yeah. See you there.
Where… Ah. At first they called the thing a TrashMaster. When the artifacts started turning up and they realized what was happening, they renamed it a stochastic translator. That was when they developed the software to enhance the effect of moving around in time. I don’t know the math of course, but they said what the thing did was to analyze random patterns in, I don’t know what, the vibrations of the universe or something, and figure out probabilities. I’m no physicist, but I gather what happens is, in a flash the gadget takes random patterns and sorts them into possible ones then amplifies them into probable ones, and then in the room things get wavy and disappear, and sometimes near the translator there was a rock or a funny smell, all kinds of odd little things.
Before long they invented the receiving tray that would attract the artifacts, and that kept everything nice and manageable. Right. I’d forgotten. That’s the word they used for the tray: manageable. It was the same tray that later, in the home model, you used to dispose of garbage, sending it who knows where in the past or the future. People were crazy about it, the streets were cleaner, the city smelled good again. All so harmless, so convenient and manageable. I guess they assumed the garbage would end up in the middle of space or in some other dimension or something. But it didn’t. It stayed right here on Earth. Only not in the present time.
I was there when they unveiled the first translator, right in the middle of the football field. Reporters from everywhere in the world, news cameras all over. First they dematerialized some garbage, then they materialized an artifact. The device didn’t produce anything big that day, but what did materialize on the tray might have told them something. It was a tooth. A large, unidentifiable tooth broken off at the root. With blood on it. People got a good laugh out of that. It was the first artifact the public had ever seen, and it was plenty amazing I guess.
As amazing things do, after a few years it got familiar. People couldn’t wait for the home model to arrive. It was programmed not to produce artifacts but only once a week to dispose of garbage, or anything else soft and mushy you put on the tray, like a dead dog or whatever. It was programmed not to affect anything living, but before long people discovered a way to make it zap bugs and the like. At that point folks started some informal experiments that got pretty nasty. Things were changing. But of course it happened so slow, people hardly noticed.
I ought to get up in a minute. They expect the Athletic Director to put in an appearance at the games. Start me talking on this stuff, I don’t know where to stop. But how many people remember all this history now? All this epochal history. What a word. I’ll say it’s epochal!
First the home garbage translators started accepting living animals, which they weren’t supposed to do. Some really sick home experiments then. Then artifacts started showing up when and where they weren’t supposed to. Artifacts. That’s the word. Pretty fancy word for a twelve-foot sabre-toothed tiger in your back yard eating your pets, eating your kids too, if you turn your back for a minute. It didn’t happen all at once. It took years, long enough for us to get used to using translators in our daily lives, long enough for them to become indispensible. The world garbage crisis solved by a miracle of science and ingenuity and, some said, even divine intervention.
Only that artifacts started turning up on their own, nowhere hear a translator. Happened here and there, all kinds of weird stuff including at one point, this was in the papers, an old dirty tennis ball materialized in the swimming pool of the Indiana governor’s mansion, while the governor was swimming. Seemed funny at the time. Then after a few more years larger things started appearing. Some of them alive and hungry.
Like I say, it didn’t happen all at once. It was slow. Years. But one fine day in Minsk, Russia, there was a wooly mammoth tearing through a town garbage dump. By God, that got people’s attention. At that time they were building a Very Large Stochastic Translator inside a mountain in Switzerland, intending to study the history of the universe and all. Of course just as the VLST was getting finished after billions of bucks, they put the kibosh on it. Switch that thing on, you don’t know what’s going to go up like smoke or appear in the receiving area, but you know it’ll be very large and very bad.
Then the weather changed, those strange high clouds started forming. This damned miserable drizzle we have most of the time now. In other words all hell broke loose, bit by bit. I remember the day I looked out the window of the Student Union and on the street there were a polar bear and some kind of velociraptor watching something that looked like a giant wolf gnaw at a basketball. When the ball blew up they all ran away. One of the students who’d been playing basketball in the neighborhood was never seen again.
The government said, be careful, stay off the streets at night when the artifacts–they actually called them that–were most active, and during the day be sure to carry your handy six-foot cattle prod at all times. The cattle prod business became the world’s leading industry. A lot of my fellow citizens don’t remember when they weren’t carrying them. For some time the animals, one heck of a zoo of dinosaurs, mammoths, big cats, all kinds of creatures we had no idea ever existed, were out and about. At first they mostly prowled dumps, which is what told us where the garbage had gone. These things had developed a taste for our table scraps. They were probably eating them when they got translated. But there was not much edible in dumps anymore, most people used translators, so the animals got more interested in fresh meat. There’s been massive efforts to catch and kill them, of course, so the numbers never get large, but they turn up faster than they can be managed. So it’s not such a good idea to play basketball outside. Peculiar artifacts turn up not only from the past but apparently from the future as well, but–and this is ominous you have to admit–there never seems to be anything from the future that’s alive.
Everybody said, nothing to do about it, what’s done is done, we’ll learn to live with it/ Science will solve the problems soon, we love our garbage translators and we’re going to keep them. For a while scientists were working on a reception device that would show the past or future like a TV screen. The athletic department already had one of those on order, when they were ready, so we could study the games of the past. (They’d program them to blank out the future of course, but there are ways around that.) Then the weather changed. Then a lot of other things. That’s why we can’t get out of the city now, the roads north and south end in giant smoking sinkholes and the ones east and west are breaking apart. We don’t know why buildings inside the city aren’t crumbling, but there’s no guarantee they never will.
I remember the day, the TV broadcast when one of the inventors of the translator told the world what had happened. I remember his words exactly. “It turns out, unfortunately, that time is a mechanism. Like a machine. And it looks like somehow with the translators we’ve broken the mechanism. God knows how, but that’s what happened. We’ve broken time. We don’t know whether it’s only on Earth or everywhere, but here on this planet, time is unraveling. But I mean, my God, there’s going to be, I can’t…” And then ladies and gentlemen of the television audience, he broke down and cried like a little baby.
A month or so after that all the television screens went blank, the radios went mute, the internet expired. Around here, anyway. Maybe all over the world, but there’s no way to tell. The electricity from the dam is still on, though. The stadium still stands and night games look swell under the lights. And our stochastic translators still work.
Really I’ve got to get to the game. And jeez, now that I look at it, the power meter is running low on this recorder. I’ll sign off right now in a minute.
Ah.. What can I say? How to end? They, they used to say all politics is local. I guess the end of the world is local too. If it is the end. Sure, I hope it’s not, but I probably won’t be around to see it anyway. Some people say we’re going to a higher state. Translated to a higher state. Ha. Wish I… Well.
I remember the day I stopped at the box office to get my ticket for a game, and the smiling folks inside said you don’t need one anymore. Fine, I said. Do you know where I can get some food? I’m hungry. They smiled. Well, they said, most of us don’t get hungry now, so we can’t help you. Strange, isn’t it? But it’s not so bad. Enjoy the game.
Everybody’s memory has started to get kind of wavy and transparent. It’s starting to happen to me. When memory started to fade one of the first things to disappear, and this is a blessing I guess, was fear. Well, that’s not the word. Fear isn’t entirely gone and thank God for that, we need it. But terror, despair, you don’t see those so much anymore. You’d think the crime rate would be bad but it isn’t. I guess when you don’t have to eat and you aren’t scared, you don’t have to steal or bother anybody. People seem more, I don’t know, benevolent.
I used to go to church and pray a lot, go to confession and all that kind of thing, but not anymore. My sins are harder to remember. I can’t remember my late wife’s face. I can’t get in touch with the kids. Churches are mostly empty, what few priests are left don’t have much to say. They smile benevolently and give you a blessing from the maker of us all.
Did the maker of us all make the stochastic translator? If He did, maybe it shows He was getting tired of His creation. Wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over. Or maybe He needed to be alone again for an eternity or two. Or maybe it was just the human race He was tired of.
I’m losing my train of thought here. Most people aren’t hungry all the time anymore, like I am. Friends bring me old stuff from their pantries, because they don’t need it now. These days people mainly want to just enjoy themselves any way they can, like they used to. In this grand and great university town where everybody’s a big sports fan, we just keep going to the game, the football game that never ends.
Wow, here’s a bus. I’ll

About Musical Biography


Let me start with a quick tour of what I think I’m doing as a biographer and why, then get to what I can of the how.

I’m a composer who writes scholarly biographies of composers aimed at a wide audience. I hope to write things that can be of interest and use to trained musicians and scholars, to performing musicians, to the mass of readers and music lovers. I think there’s a need for compelling writing from within the profession that casts a broad net. And it seems to me that the point of view of the rare composer who writes about composers can integrate and complement the angles of musicologists and theorists.

I cast a broad net by emphasizing the person behind the notes: his ideals, personality, friends and lovers, his Bildung as the Germans call it—a person’s education and growth not only in knowledge but in life. This all functions within a particular historical moment and zeitgeist. I emphasize the personal not just to grab readers, but because of some convictions about music: the technical and formal elements that occupy us as musicians are important, but more important is the human element, Above all, music is something people do to move and to communicate with other people. To put it another way: music contains abstractions unique to the art, but they are not the real point. Music and musicians are part of the world, not isolated from it.

In the end, the goal is to paint a subject so that he stands up and casts a shadow, so that by the end of the book a reader feels they know this person as they would know a friend or a family member, or at least a long-time acquaintance. That’s how I feel about my subjects: I’m present at the birth, en route I rejoice and regret, criticize and applaud, and end up beside the grave. At the same time, as with friends and acquaintances, you keep your own council, and respect what you don’t and can’t know about another person. In the same way that what your subject doesn’t do or say can be just as revealing as what he or she does do or say, what we can’t know about somebody has to be part of our understanding of them.

I don’t see that there’s anything unusual about what I’m saying, as long as we’re talking about biography in general as distinct from musical biography. In fact, that’s a distinction that on the whole I don’t make. I don’t see how musical biography has to be innately different than any other kind. True, musical biography has its own history and tradition. We also know that this legacy includes a lot of 19th century theories and assumptions that most of us don’t subscribe to, such as the Romantic cult of the Genius as demigod. One way to escape the shibboleths of the past, not the only way but one way, is to say biography is biography: reporting a life to readers, whatever the subject’s occupation.

The technical aspect of music is the main difference between musical biography and, say, literary biography. The average reader can more or less follow a poem but doesn’t know from dominant seventh chords. As scholars, each of us has to deal with this issue based on our particular career, project, and projected audience. As I used to tell my writing students, who you are writing for has much to do with how you write: when we write for experts the technical is naturally more important; for a wider audience you try to find ways of talking about music that are not too technical yet also not flapdoodle. That’s not easy to do, and writing about music doesn’t come easily for me, but unfortunately that’s my job when I’m writing for a broad audience.

So I see myself as a biographer, period. Sort of. Meanwhile I have no doubt that if I weren’t primarily a composer, I’d be talking from here to sundown about “the art of biography.” Since most of my creative juices and ego are involved in composing rather than writing about composers, I don’t define biography as art. For me art is when you make it all up, when you get to play God. Fiction writers, of course, regularly use personal experience in their work. When I first tried writing fiction I was astonished at all the things emerging on the page from my life that I’d forgotten, that I didn’t know I knew. Yet to me a novel is still an invention, one that comes out of imagination working on experience and then goes back to its source: the world according to X.

I believe ultimately composers do the same thing: write from deep personal experience, which includes the experience of music. With any kind of art, if it doesn’t come from your guts it’s not going to reach anybody else’s. Music is no different. But with composers the process of turning life into art is much more veiled and mysterious than with, say, novelists. Much of what a composer writes rises from the history of music and the nature of sound, according to X. Like a novelist’s art but much more so, a composer’s art is involved in traditions of genre and craft, rules of the game, the technique and character of instruments, and so on.

For one example, I know Brahms’s adolescence playing in waterfront dives, where he was abused by the resident prostitutes, influenced his work, because you compose out of everything you are. What I can’t know, unless he had spelled it out, and he didn’t, is how Brahms’s childhood influenced his music. That, I would not presume to say. He did spell out that he believed his abuse influenced his life: he said it wrecked his relations with women, and I duly reported that.

In passing, I’ll note that based on my experience as composer and writer of both fiction and nonfiction, my current metaphor for the relationship of artist and work is a DNA molecule: two strands vitally connected in every part, at the same time individual streams, in some degree each with its own agenda, that can be separated and go off to fertilize something or somebody else.

So I call fiction an art, biography a craft. Because biography is a branch of history, where you can’t play God but have to submit humbly to what’s known, I also think of biography as a kind of higher journalism. Your first and primary job is to report who, what, where, when, and if you can, why. At one point in reading Brahms’s letters to his lifelong love Clara Schumann I found an unusual case of his pressuring her to bring her daughter Julie along on a visit. Only a year or so later did it become clear to Clara that he was in love with her daughter.

In a book, only after I’ve laid out the life as it was lived, the art as the artist conceived it, the art as the audience of its time perceived it (the latter being two quite different things), only then do I allow myself to judge, to gloss, to interpret–much of the time interpret in some quarantined way like an afterword or an endnote. While I resist interpreting an artist’s life, however, I freely interpret his work because it’s there to be responded to, so among other things to be interpreted.

I say biography is higher journalism simply because you have a lot more time to write it than other kinds of journalism, but the goals are similar: get the facts straight as possible, let the facts speak for themselves when possible, let your subjects speak for themselves when possible, and lay out the life in a clear and readable way. Fact and truth are the game, not ideology, and the reality that both fact and truth are unattainable doesn’t change that. Like all artists, in my creative work I’m in the profession of trying to do the impossible–compose as well as Mozart–so that’s a normal state of affairs for me.

As you respect fact as the coin of this particular game, I suggest that a biographer needs to respect the fact of another person’s life–the concrete reality of it, the integrity and also the mystery of it. I have a moral conviction that a person’s life was not lived in order for somebody else to interpret it for their own benefit. I’m not talking about avoiding unpleasant things in your subject; you don’t. The way I honor the reality of a life is to let the facts of somebody’s life and words speak with minimal interference from me.

Now I’m getting around to my title: listening to your subject. In my Brahms and Ives biographies, much of what seems like interpretation is simply an explication of what they said about themselves, however obliquely. With Brahms especially I came to trust his hard-headed common sense and self-knowledge. Brahms didn’t lie to other people and he didn’t lie to himself. When he said in a letter by way of explaining some of the gloom of the Second Symphony, “I am a severely melancholic person,” he knew what he was talking about.

Charles Ives was a different matter. I came to trust his idealism and essential good-heartedness in nearly everything. Even if I found some of his ideas about life and art delusional, they were magnificent delusions, for the best of reasons. He believed, among other things, that humanity was rising inevitably toward divinity, and that music plays an irreplaceable part in in that rise. When it came to Brahms I ended up agreeing with him about a lot of things, and wishing I could agree more with Ives. I wish I could share Ives’s faith in the best side of humanity.

With Beethoven it was yet another matter. I think he was given to not so magnificent illusions and delusions about a lot things, including himself. I found that you can only fully trust Beethoven when it comes to his musical wisdom, skill, and judgment–there you can trust him almost absolutely. In the rest of his life, not so much. In his better moments Beethoven was quite aware of that himself. He once wrote in a letter: “Everything I do outside music is stupid and badly done.” I took him at his word.

In writing I’m guided by no theory and see my subject through no prism except in light of an inevitable limitation that he’s him and I’m me. I start a book by doing anything I can to wipe out of mind everything I think I know about my subject, and start over from scratch. I’ve found that the best insights come from working intensely with the whole of the material you’ve collected. Until then I collect facts with an attempt at zenlike detachment, waiting until the facts start to speak to me–often by way of two or three independent facts coming together and striking a spark. A simple example of facts coming together happened with the Ives biography. Part of the Ives family legend had Lincoln observe to General Grant of George Ives’s band as they marched past, “They say that’s the best band in the army.” That may have happened, but by putting two dates together I realized Ives’s father was not himself there that day—he was home in Connecticut recovering from an injury. He didn’t witness his greatest moment of glory.

The structure of my biographies I call “chronology with hooks”: the life is discovered as it was lived, the way we all discover our lives. Then at certain points it’s logical to bring up larger issues. Charles Ives was pervaded by his childhood in Danbury and the ideas of his band-director father, so I began with chapters about Danbury and its people, its hat-making industry, its bands, about the 19th-century brass-band tradition, about music and the Civil War, above all about the marvelous, eccentric Ives family.

When I looked at Brahms’s Schatzkästlein, the book where as a teenager he wrote down favorite quotes from authors, I saw the writers were mostly high-Romantic: Novalis, Wackenroder, E.T.A. Hoffmann, et al. In other words, Johannes was a very Romantic young man, though not such a Romantic adult. His teenage years were the hook to talk about Romanticism and a Romantic Bildung. When Brahms moved to Vienna, it was time to talk about Vienna–always a gratifying thing to do. With Beethoven, Brahms, and now with Mozart I’m dealing with Vienna in different parts of its history, from the Enlightenment to the fin de siècle.

Because I respect the reality and integrity of my subject’s lives as they lived them, I don’t shape the life into a book. The life shapes the book–my subject’s high points and low, joys and sorrows all given their due, in what approximates their true chronology, their true importance and true proportions, as doggedly if imperfectly as I can discern them. I’ve been accused of rambling, but that’s how it goes. I’d rather my books be more like life and less like literature. And my current favored metaphor for life is an improvisation on themes–often unconscious themes.

Some of the themes of a person’s life are obvious, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Ives’s hometown of Danbury was important to him, so it was important to me. I began the book with an evocation of his town. One of the main themes of Brahms’s life was his early and lasting fame, all the satisfactions, frustrations, and terrors that entailed. His book began with a scene of roaring but ambiguous applause. Beethoven’s ideals came from his youth in Bonn, so I spent a lot of time with the town, its people, its Enlightenment ideals, the Freemasons and Illuminati.

The less obvious themes of a person’s life are the things you notice turning up again and again in the material. With Brahms, it slowly sank in to me that in company his main conversational gambit was to find out the going opinion and then attack it. Brahms was the perennial Devil’s Advocate. If he was around Wagner fans, he lambasted Wagner. If people were running down Wagner, he suddenly became “the best of Wagnerians.” Eventually I realized what he meant by that: he admired Wagner’s music as music, his achievement for its ambition and scope, but dismissed all the hoopla and propaganda with which Wagner buttressed his work.

Again, I don’t write out of any theories. My themes and ideas come from my guy. You keep watch on your subject to find patterns, habits, themes. It’s a bit like watching a spouse, to find the things we need to know in order to live with them. Here’s something that helped me understand biography. Years ago I read a review of a bio of the American writer James Agee that essentially painted him as a monster. The reviewer wondered, if Agee was that bad, why so many people were so fond of him. At the time I was in a writer’s group with Alex Eliot, who was once art critic of Time magazine and knew nearly everybody. I asked Alex about the critic’s question. “Well, it’s pretty simple,” Alex said. “When Jim Agee was sober he was a great guy and everybody loved him. When he was drunk he was a bastard. And he was drunk a lot.” The biographer had apparently never figured out that his subject was a sweet guy at heart but a mean drunk. These are the kinds of fundamental human dynamics that biographers need to figure out–when we can. When we can’t, we should leave it alone, or at least be clear about when we’re speculating.

Of course, often you can’t figure it out. In the end you’ll most likely never find the things locked in a person’s heart that may explain everything about them. Often, surely, that person doesn’t know them either. In movie terms, you rarely find Rosebud–and if you did find it, there’s no guarantee it would explain anything, and if it did explain something, you might not understand the explanation. There’s no answer to this inevitable incapacity of biography, our inability ultimately to know another person, except to note that whatever people do and say and write reveals them in a more than superficial way, if you know how to read the signs. No one can say or write five words without telling you something about themselves. Even though Brahms, for example, was guarded in his letters because he feared they might end up in print, he could not help revealing himself in them.

Which is all to say that you need to listen intently to what your subject says, how he talks, what he means. You listen intently, even if your subject is lying, even if he appears to be nuts. When John Kirkpatrick first met Charles Ives, he happened to use the phrase, “for simplicity’s sake.” Kirkpatrick was horrified to find the word “simplicity” had triggered one of Ives’s fits. Ives jumped to his feet and went on and on excoriating simplicity until, with the cry “God DAMN simplicity,” he fell back exhausted. Kirkpatrick thought he’d killed him. I don’t think Kirkpatrick ever understood why Ives reacted so violently, but I think I do. Simplicity was a word the emerging populist / Americana school of composers was using to belabor Ives and his friends, and he knew it.

Brahms was fascinating to observe as a writer and talker, wonderfully subtle, ironic, sardonic, and funny. When he was most serious and closest to his heart was generally when he was most guarded and oblique, but I think he wanted to be understood. He once noted in a letter, “I only write half sentences. The reader has to fill in the other half.” I felt that nobody had tried to understand the unspoken half of what Brahms said. For example, his crack about the Fourth Symphony: “Oh, once again I’ve just thrown together a bunch of waltzes and polkas.” That’s a joke and a good one, like most of Brahms’s jokes, but it’s also half serious: the Fourth Symphony is largely made of dances, however solemn and mournful, though the scherzo is a kind of polka.

When our subject writes a letter, we need to remember where they are in their lives and to whom they’re writing, what the history is between them. There’s an often-quoted letter Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann where he says, “Passions are not natural to mankind…The man in whom they overstep the limits…should seek medicine for his life and health.” That letter is generally taken as a statement of principles by Brahms, and that’s one dimension of it. But there are other dimensions. The letter was also written to a woman Brahms had in effect recently jilted; in part, he’s exhorting Clara to get over it. And third, it was written to a woman who in fact was given to bouts of hysteria, and Brahms wished Clara could get over that, too.

Now I’m going to present a group of quotes from my three biographies, with my glosses.

Charles Ives, writing supposedly about Hawthorne’s stories but really about his own music: “Not something that happens, but the way something happens.” By that Ives means that, say, the way musical amateurs sing a hymn or play a march, for all its roughness, is an expression of something deeply felt. For Ives the “something” is, say, the musical notes on the page, but they are only the outward symbol of a fundamental inner reality—call it psychology, call it spirit. The roughness itself, the way a piece is sung or played by everyday people including the wrong notes, is part of the real music. Drunk bandsmen on the march at the Fourth of July parade might fall off the beat or forget the key, but to Ives that was as vital a part of the music as the notes, all of it rising from the human heart and soul. As Ives wrote of amateur town bands: “They didn’t always play right & together and it was as good either way.” For Ives not the notes of a hymn but the way they come out of people’s mouths and feelings is a symbol of the eternal spirit at the core of humanity.

Johannes Brahms, telling a friend how he replied to Nietzsche concerning the latter’s Hymn
of Life, which the philosopher had sent him hoping for praise. Brahms told a friend that it was “much the same as any young student’s effort.” But later, to the same friend: “I’ve done it! I’ve extricated myself beautifully from this Nietzsche business! I simply sent him my visiting card and thanked him politely for the stimulus he had given me. The amusing thing is that I quietly avoided mentioning the music at all!”

Now Brahms to Clara Schumann, concerning Eduard Hanslick’s celebrated tract On Beauty in Music: “I found so many stupid things on first glance that I gave it up.” Now Brahms to Eduard Hanslick, concerning On Beauty in Music: “I must also send you my most sincere thanks for your book Beauty in Music, to which I owe many hours of enjoyment, of clarification, indeed literally of relief. Every page invites one to build further on what has been said, and since in doing so…the motives are the main thing, one always owes you double the pleasure. But for the person who understands his art in this manner, there are things to be done everywhere in our art and science, and I will wish we might soon be blessed with such excellent instruction on other subjects.”

Have we caught Brahms being a hypocrite? Political maybe, but not hypocritical. Brahms was a relentlessly and sometimes brutally honest man. But after all, Hanslick was not just a personal friend of Brahms; he was the most powerful music critic in Europe. I came to realize that like the note to Nietzsche, but on a grander scale, the letter to Hanslick is a masterpiece of Brahmsian irony. Some translations: “Every page invites one to build further [you don’t go very far ]…the motives are the main thing [I know you mean well]…I wish we might soon be blessed with such excellent instruction on other subjects [Don’t do this kind of thing anymore, you’re not any good at it].”

In both cases the letters did the trick: Hanslick proudly quoted his letter in a memoir, and Nietzsche went about telling people his tune had received “deep signs of respect from Dr. Brahms.” One can hear Brahms’s lusty laughter. He was, by the way, an imaginative practical joker. At one point he convinced his musicologist friend Gustav Nottebohm that he had stumbled on a new sketch by Beethoven, wrapped around a sausage in the park. It was a current pop song, written on old music paper by Brahms in an expert imitation of Beethoven’s handwriting. He had paid the sausage-seller to give it to Nottebohm. Likely he dined out on that story for a long time.

Charles Ives, introducing his collection 114 Songs: “Greek philosophers, ward politicians, unmasked laymen, and others, have a saying that bad habits and bad gardens grow to the unintendedables; whether these are a kind of daucus carota, jails, mechanistic theories of life, is not known, but the statement is probably or probably not true.” Daucus carota is the species name of the common carrot. The sentence is just like one of Ives’s more riotous pieces: an accumulation of things piling up rapidly to a final punchline, and that punchline “probably or probably not true” shows his love of paradox. He’s basically saying that the songs have gotten so out of hand that he has to get them out of the house. The sentence also shows how gnarled, oblique, and apologetic Ives could get when presenting his music to the world. Meanwhile it further reveals that in his music, prose, and person Ives was a very funny guy, in a kind of proto-surrealistic way. He once sent a hilarious letter actually to his daughter, but written to “Raggedy Ann Ives,” who was Edie’s doll.

Brahms, writing to his publisher Simrock to ask for an advance: “The so-often-praised goodness and charity of your Well-bornship give me the courage to approach you with a great proposition. My situation is terrible, a horrifying future stares me in the face; the abyss appears yawning before me, I fall therein unless your saving hand draws me back. With the last one-mark note I must now proceed at once to the Igel restaurant, but with what feelings shall I eat, and indeed, drink!” Brahms was also very funny, generally at somebody’s expense though often at his own expense, and there was usually something serious concealed behind the joke. When he was rehearsing one of his quartets the violist asked if he liked their tempos. “Yes,” Brahms said. “Especially yours.”

Beethoven, four letters from a single month, August 1819:

[To his patron Archduke Rudolf] “The persistent worries connected with my nephew [Karl] who has been morally almost completely ruined are largely the cause of my indisposition. At the beginning of this week I myself had again to assume the guardianship, for the other guardian had resigned after perpetrating a good many misdemeanors for which he has asked me to pardon him.” Beethoven had adopted the son of his late brother and was trying to keep him away from his mother, whom he called “The Queen of the Night.”

[To a Viennese acquaintance] “Recently an attempt was made to make my nephew appear before a commission. That I cannot possibly allow. He is innocent and that I can testify so far as he is concerned. The meager support which the guardian I appointed received…coupled with the mother’s wicked intrigues is the only reason why my poor nephew and ward has been put back in his studies for a whole year.” [This is one of Beethoven’s rare accusations of Karl’s mother that was likely true. He considered her capable of anything, not omitting hiring herself as a prostitute and poisoning her husband. She was, to be sure, a piece of work.]

[To another acquaintance] “The best thing would be to resign the guardianship without choosing anyone and to leave Karl entirely to his fate. For already he is an utter scamp and is most fit for the company of his own mother and my pseudo-brother.”

[To Archduke Rudolf] “In the world of art, as in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives. And although we moderns are not quite as far advanced in solidity as our ancestors, yet the refinement of our customs has enlarged many of our conceptions as well.”

Whether he is being idealistic, paranoid, or at wit’s end, Beethoven’s language is direct,
concrete, uncensored, and without irony (except occasional blunt and bitter irony). Yet
because of his capriciousness, much of what he says can’t be taken at face value.

There’s much more to be said but I have to finish somewhere, so I’ll do that with a few bits of ideas. I’ve spoken about writing with respect for the life as it was lived, and reporting that life clearly, fairly, and fully. I add that anyone’s life is not mainly lived in ideas and abstractions but in feelings. Feelings are facts too; feelings are an important part of the story. For me, the function of writing is to be clear and readable, but also to convey the emotions of your story so that the reader understands them. Many of the emotions are obvious: Brahms loved his mother, he was sad when she died. You don’t need a citation to know these things, you only have to be human. His mother was important to Brahms, and what’s important to my subject is important to me. Somebody once took me to task for talking so much about Ives’s illness: “He was an executive, executives get heart attacks, it’s boring.” All I could say was that Ives was seriously ill and that had much to do with his later life and career, so I had to report it.

So the form and style of my subject’s life is the form and style of my book, their themes my themes. Charles Ives was involved in music, philosophy, aesthetics, politics, business, family, and more. To get all that in, and to project the eccentricity and the paradoxes of that all-embracing man, I resorted to three kinds of chapters, occasional imagined episodes, and endnotes of all kinds, not omitting an illustrative story about my highschool band: we set out playing the Star-Spangled Banner in two keys at once, with Ivesian results. Ives believed that one should stand up and say one’s piece as an individual, and in my endnotes, I did. Meanwhile in his music Ives wrote what he called “shadow lines,” and the endnotes were the shadow text of my biography of him. That was my Ivesian book about Ives.

The challenge of writing about Brahms was that except for some dramatic post-adolescent years and a tragic end of life, because everyone’s life ends tragically, Brahms did relatively little but write music, perform music, hang out in cafes and taverns, visit brothels, and fight with his friends. He lived in other words an exemplary composer’s life. In contrast to Ives there was an enormous literature about Brahms’s music, and I felt his work was generally well understood. What I felt was not well understood was his personality, so I concentrated on that. My Brahmsian book about Brahms was a straightforward, hard-headed, craftsmanly affair, with well-behaved endnotes. Some were disappointed in that book because they assumed the Ives was “the way I write biography,” and the Brahms isn’t like that. But there is no way I write biography. There is only the subject at hand.

With Beethoven I was haunted by his words about being the most wretched of mortals. His life was heaped with misery and for him it was only made endurable and meaningful by music. In my book about Beethoven his music had to redeem his life and make it bearable. Thus the subtitle: Anguish and Triumph.

Which is all to say that when I’d finished the Ives book I ran across a line of philosopher Stanley Cavell’s that expressed the method I’d instinctively arrived at. I think it’s a good way to conceive biography and a lot else, and a good way to end here. Cavell said: “The way to overcome theory correctly…is to let the object of your interest teach you how to conceive it.”




I’m a longtime fan of the movie The Sweet Smell of Success, but my admiration has redoubled after seeing it for the first time in a theater. Appropriately, it was the venerable Brattle St. arthouse in Harvard Sq, where the Bogart revival began in the 50s and Bergman got his American foothold. I’ve been watching movies there since 1964. As usual with classics at the Brattle, some of the audience seemed to have the script memorized: they chuckled before the lines arrived.

There are films you admire because they’re profound as well as well-made: Vertigo, Persona, 2001. Some you admire for their sheer near-perfection. Two I cite for the latter quality are Dr. Strangelove and Sweet Smell.

I won’t spend much time on the plot of Sweet Smell—I’ll refer you to the Wikipedia article, which is pretty good. It appeared in 1957. Bottom-feeding press agent Sidney Falco wants attention from the most famous and feared of columnists, J. J. Hunsecker. (The names evoke the characters.) Sidney will do anything, betray anybody, to climb the ladder—though there is a small but nagging murmur of conscience. J. J. has nothing but contempt for Sidney and his ilk, but he’s also dependent on them for his items. He has a younger sister, Susie, who lives with him in his penthouse. Their relationship may not be literally incestuous but is psychologically so. She has a boyfriend, a jazz musician, whom J. J. wants out of the picture. “You’re all I’ve got, Susie,” he says to her. It’s maybe the only honest and human thing J. J. says in the movie. He wants Sidney to wreck the relationship and preferably the musician too. Sidney has qualms, but he beats them back. The rewards of serving J. J.’s corruption can be great. I’ll leave the plot at that.

What I mean by near-perfection is the way the elements of the film work together. All the elements have earned boundless praise individually. Start with the script, begun by Ernest Lehman based on his own story, thoroughly reshaped and rewritten by Clifford Odets. The latter has been largely forgotten, but in his day he was celebrated as a leftie playwright whose immediate disciples included Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. Odets’s plays of the 30s include Golden Boy. By the end of the decade he was in Hollywood. He spent most of the rest of his life there, writing screenplays and drinking himself to death. His reputation as a socially conscious writer tanked when he sold out in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Those contemptible episodes tended to ruin or derail both those who caved—Elia Kazan, Sterling Hayden—and those who didn’t—Paul Robeson, Orson Welles. The eventual HUAC blacklist included over 300 Hollywood figures.

Tony Curtis remembered Odets pounding at the typewriter with an open bottle of whiskey next to it. Some of the script was filmed hours after the lines were written. Director Alexander Mackendrick would lay out the pages on the floor, trying to make sense of them. Yet in the end it’s one of the greatest scripts ever to come out of Hollywood. It’s most famous for its zingers, legendary in themselves: “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.” “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” “Everybody knows Manny Davis—except for Mrs. Manny Davis.” “Here’s your head. What’s your hurry?” And above all: “I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” But the script is a great deal more than a collection of dazzling lines. Every one comes out of its character and amplifies that character. The story is beautifully shaped, with a rising line of tension and corruption that overwhelms everything in its path. In the end, everybody loses: Sydney beaten up by the police, J. J. losing his sister and only real human connection, his sister heading out to nowhere to see if she can find a life, and the prospects don’t look so good.

The performances. Nobody at the time knew that certified big-boxoffice stars Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster could actually act, or would care to. Least of all that they would take on parts of repellent characters. The film flopped with audiences because they didn’t want to see their favorites covered in slime—though the reviews were prescient and glowing. Tony Curtis was at that point the leading pretty boy in movies, familiar in sword-and-sandal epics, romantic stuff, light comedy. He was felt to be limited by his dropdead looks and his Brooklyn accent. His line delivery in the cheesy historical Taras Bulba is legendary: “Yondah lies da castle of my faddah.”

But Curtis had a lot in him, and with Sweet Smell he knew he had something meaty and he wanted to show his stuff. He fought for the part. The fact is, in the relatively few roles Curtis got in movies with strong scripts and directors, he usually nailed it, whether in Sweet Smell or Some Like it Hot. His Sidney in Sweet Smell is astonishing, all burning eyes, kinetic energy, searing sarcasm and a brilliant gift for improvised manipulations and betrayals—though never brilliant enough to move him one rung up the ladder. Now and then, though, in his eyes in the most subtle way you see regret and the gnawing of conscience, though you know it won’t last. Curtis is onscreen most of the movie. In his eyes, his face, his voice, his body, he’s never less than exhilarating and horrifying to watch. It’s one of the great performances in all film, unsurpassed by a lot of the supposedly classier actors including, say, Olivier and Guinness.

Lancaster is on about the same level, in an opposite way. Here’s where the relationships and balances of the movie come in. Sidney is ablaze all the time, J. J. as cold and calm as a snake waiting for prey to come to him. He’s on top of the world and he knows it, expects it as his due. To insult me, he tells Sidney, is to insult sixty million people, my readers. (He’s based on the notorious columnist Walter Winchell.) J. J.’s face is impassive, but his rage and revenge and corruption are revealed in little moments, little tics of eyes and lips. Curtis is over the top, Lancaster all subtlety, and that’s why they play off each other so well. Director Mackendrick had Lancaster wear his own heavy glasses, which look somehow threatening. But he smeared the lenses of the glasses with vaseline, so Lancaster could not focus on anything, and that contributed to his look of scary detachment. Often when J. J.’s talking to you, saying terrible things, he’s not looking at you.

Director Alexander Mackendrick. I don’t know how he did it, because neither before or after did he do anything like it. This most echt-New York, echt-Broadway, echt-American movie was directed by a Scotchman, though born in Boston, whose most celebrated film is the immortal Alec Guiness/Peter Sellers comedy The Ladykillers, among the most British of movies. Mackendrick managed to hold together a chaotic situation in which the script was being written day by day and some scenes were filmed without a script. Lancaster as producer was touchy, interfering. At the premiere Lancaster blamed the commercial failure on Lehman and threatened to beat him up for getting sick and leaving the production. (“Go ahead,” said Lehman. “I can use the money.”) In the end Mackendrick shaped a classic of clear arcs and gathering gloom, with a script like a stream of bullets.

It’s the cinematography that welds it all together. It was by James Wong Howe, who came from China and somehow by the 1930s had risen to the top of the profession in Hollywood. One of his Oscars was for Hud. He remains one of the greats of cinematographers, with Gregg Toland and a handful of others. Sweet Smell is usually called a film noir, but I don’t think it’s really part of that genre. It’s a one-off, a genre unto itself, though its influence has been enormous. Noirs are classically dark and grainy, like Double Indemnity and The Naked City. Sweet Smell has two lighting modes, both of them unforgettable, neither of them grainy and dark. Many of the scenes have a weird lucidity, crystalline in lighting, icy in effect. Some of the interiors look like they were shot in glaring fluorescent light. Somehow that look makes the darkness they depict more unnerving. The other lighting mode is used mostly for J. J.: he’s lit from above, casting long shadows down his face. I suspect this had a big influence on the top-lighting of The Godfather, among later movies.

The music has two aspects too, both of them involving mid-50s jazz in its prime. The actual Chico Hamilton Quintet is in residence, providing cool jazz (the guitarist boyfriend is in the group). And there’s a blaring, hairy, brilliant big-band element by Elmer Bernstein, an old hand as Hollywood composer, best known for splashy scores like The Ten Commandments and The Magnificent Seven but also delicate ones like his work in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Elmer was not related to Leonard Bernstein, but they were friends.) The old line for success as a film composer is this: to know how to write in every style but your own. Bernstein’s big-band stuff for Sweet Smell welds itself indelibly to the story and images and lighting: dissonant, glaring, scary. It’s the ancestor of a lot of intense jazzy themes to come by among others Henry Mancini: Peter Gunn.

Helping out are the secondary performances—some excellent, like Emile Meyer’s grinning, crooked cop and Barbara Nichols’ abused cigarette girl Rita–others at least good enough, such as Susan Harrison as the helpless Susie. (Her acting career didn’t go far after this.)

The perfection is in how all these elements work together, amplify each other. You can’t imagine the film without any of them: story, script, acting, lighting, music are welded together in a seamless, brutally effective whole. It’s what all movies aspire to but few reach at this level. It’s what we composers aspire to: to weld sound and rhythm and structure and emotion into a seamless whole. Music and movies after all are closely allied, because they both move in time.

You come out of Sweet Smell of Success feeling like you’ve been dipped in slime, but no less exhilarated, partly by the inexhaustible energy of the whole thing (you end up feeling at least a little sorry for Sidney), no less by the energy and mastery of the filmmaking. And the best way to experience that as with all great movies is in the theater, where they were made to be seen. I remember taking in Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen in 70mm, and I’ve never quite gotten over it. Even on the Brattle’s smallish screen, the effect of The Sweet Smell of Success was gigantic.



[The below was written for my new intro to music for Basic Books, due to come out later this year as best I can tell. I’m posting my original essays here because most of this material was cut from the book.]


When I used to teach classes in musical analysis I insisted that my students include in their essays some take on the emotional side of the piece. At first this generally got uneasy responses, because talking about emotion in the academy tends to be verboten: emotion is subjective, personal, arbitrary, therefore not scholarly. But I persisted, telling students that when a classful of musicians agree on the emotional tone of a piece, that’s interesting; when they don’t agree, it’s equally interesting. Each case tells us something important about the composer and the piece. I also think that a performer needs to have his or her own sense of what a piece is expressing; that’s what helps put a piece across. As we said over and over at the conservatory: there’s a great deal more to performing than playing the right notes and sounding pretty.

I’m a classical musician first of all because that kind of music moves me more deeply than any other kind (though I’m interested in all sorts of music). The analytical and historical aspects are absorbing, but for me the technicalities lie well behind the feelings. I’ve been known to go through a whole performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass with tears in my eyes. If I didn’t feel music that deeply I wouldn’t have gone into it in the first place, given that for most of us the field is a manifestly stupid way to try to make a living. I can’t imagine why anybody would get involved with music for any other reason than emotion and love. Well, that plus talent. As a friend said to me: “I play the cello because I’m good at it.”

I’ll say three things at the outset of what is going to be a clearly unscientific discussion of musical expression. First, musicians use the term “expression” in two ways. To play “expressively” means to play with feeling whatever the emotion at hand may be in the piece. Talking about what a pieces “expresses” concerns the particular tone. Second, like many musicians and listeners I believe that music is an emotional language beyond words, so its essence can’t be captured in words (though it can be useful to try—thus my books). Third, I like the conclusion of philosopher Suzanne Langer, who called instrumental music “an unconsummated symbol.”

The extent of what Langer means by symbol is too much to get into here, but the basic idea is that a symbol is a story, painting, image, event, etc. that we respond to in a complex emotional way rather than a directly informational way. That’s the difference between denotation and connotation. A stop sign at an intersection denotes that we should stop. At the same time, it may represent to us all the damn things in the world that tell us what to do, that get in our way, that mess with our lives. To someone else, a stop sign may elicit a comforting feeling of order, the social contract, the need to for caution. In each of these cases we’re responding to the stop sign’s connotations. In other words, we’re responding to it as a symbol.

Langer felt that our response to art and much of the rest of life is a texture of symbols, but that instrumental music, lacking words or clear imagery, is a kind of blank slate that we nonetheless respond to as if it were a tangible symbol. What the symbol is, in any given piece, is largely up to our own responses. So, “an unconsummated symbol.”

These are ideas I subscribe to. The thing is, however, that in practice music is much, much more complicated than that. In most vocal music, for example, the words tell us the subject and imply emotions, and most composers want to express the emotional and even physical sense of the words (though sometimes they might write music that inflects or even contradicts the words). In a Schubert song, when the story turns sad he usually shifts from a major to a minor key; meanwhile he jumps on every image in the text, from a spinning wheel to a tree in the wind, and pictures it viscerally.

A second complication is that most advanced musical cultures have familiar signals for emotions that listeners absorb by being part of the culture. We tend to hear music in major keys as somewhere on the happy spectrum and minor keys as more somber. But in fact, in the 18th century Bach didn’t have so strong a sense of that association; he wrote some cheery pieces in minor and some manifestly sad ones in major. Still, his time had a “doctrine of the affections” that assigned particular emotions to specific musical gestures—some having to do with pitch, some with rhythm (a joyful piece will tend to be livelier, a gloomy one slower). One famous example is the descending chromatic bass line that undergirds the crucifixion movement of Bach’s B Minor Mass. In the Baroque, drooping half steps were a standard representation of sadness unto tragedy. Beethoven was still using that convention when he wrote the Pathétique Piano Sonata, whose leading motif of a falling half step clearly represents pathos.

India has one of the oldest and most sophisticated musical cultures, involving an elaborate system of emotional representation. Traditionally there are eight expressive areas, called rasas; they include sadness, love, valor, laughter, and so on. A musical work, called a raga, is largely improvised according to intricate rules. Each raga has its particular rasa or mixture of them, its rhythmic meter, its appropriate time of day, its appropriate season, and so on. Each is also based on a particular scale, with rules about how that scale must be inflected in that particular raga. Musical connoisseurs in India hear all this, I assume, in the same way as we hear a happy versus a sad piece. I am a longtime enthusiast for Indian music, but I don’t hear any of that because I didn’t grow up in that culture.

All this is to say that our culture teaches us from childhood how to listen to its music in terms of conventions of melody, harmony, rhythm, and color that are associated with emotions, tension and release, times of day (a serenade, for example, is an evening song), even landscapes (as in a pastoral work). Most composers of the past made use of those conventions in some degree or other. Beethoven was a supreme master of abstract form, but in his Missa solemnis the word ascendit is predictably set to a rising line and descendit to a descending one, and likewise for every other word in the text that can be viscerally expressed. And, remember, Beethoven wrote the Pastoral Symphony.

When I was composing my piano quintet Midsummer Variations, I wasn’t particularly thinking about its expressive direction, or rather I was feeling the expression without defining it. Only at the end did I realize that every bit of this piece written in a country hilltown in the middle of summer was about that—even more specifically, about New England midsummer, because summer here is so poignantly evanescent. All that had been unconscious, but it was still real. So if I had not attached that title to the piece, would it remind listeners of New England midsummer? I doubt it, but how listeners respond might be close to my feelings about the season. In any case, I think the tone of that piece has a strong sense of being about something.

When I’ve experimented with writing fiction I found that the events of my life external and internal, many of which I thought I’d forgotten, were flowing onto the page. That’s how fiction happens, from an amalgam of experience and invention. I believe that when we compose music it likewise comes from our lives, even if–as with my midsummer piece–we may not realize it at the time, or ever. If a work of art doesn’t come from the artist’s guts, it’s not likely to have any life of its own. Still, as with fiction, to write something happy or sad does not mean that the artist was feeling that way at the time. Famously, some of the most joyful works of Beethoven and Mozart were written when they were depressed. To write about joy or sorrow you have only to be acquainted with them. Fortunately and unfortunately, all of us are. Nor can we as listeners be expected to feel exactly what the composer was trying to convey. We have to see it through our own lens. Ultimately, the artist is supplying us with stuff to dream on.

So does all this mean that Langer is wrong about music being an unconsummated symbol? I still say that in a larger sense she’s right: beyond cultural conventions, there is still a lot that we have to fill in for ourselves. At the same time, while each culture teaches its people how to hear its music, there are potent if elusive universals. Joyous music tends to be fast, melancholy music slow; minor keys sound “darker” so are good for darker feelings. Music can mimic the sensation of movement, of breathing or sighing, of weeping, of certainty or surprise, of excitement or sexuality. The rise and fall of tension in music echoes the rise and fall of feelings. All the same, many more or less scientific attempts to define universals of emotion in music haven’t come up with much. I do think that universal responses and emotional qualities exist, but they’re hard to pin down. In any case, our response to music I believe is an intensely individual synthesis of personal and universal qualities, plus ones that have been imbued by our culture. (See “Specific Emotions in Music” below for more ideas in this direction.)

Again, the personal element is critical. A roomful of people may agree on the general tone of a piece, but when it gets down to the details, every listener will have a distinct response based on their personality, their experience, their mood, what they had for lunch, any number of factors. For me that individuality of response is one of the wonderful things about music. Sure, our responses to a poem or a painting are also individual, but with instrumental music that aspect is central if this composition in sheer tone is to “mean” anything to us. That’s what the Romantics exalted about instrumental music: it gets to our feelings directly, without having to be filtered through language or logic or story or image (though it can be so filtered, if words are involved).

The whole matter of expression is still more complicated, but I can only touch on further issues. For one, some composers are more emotionally direct than others. Beethoven set out to express human passions and expected his listeners to be sensitive to what he was saying. When I write about Beethoven’s music it tends to give me good adjectives, even when the tone is ambiguous; I’ve written about Beethoven’s touching major-key pieces as “minorish majors” and their opposite, “majorish minors.” He is, in other words, intentionally transparent in his expression and in his implied narratives (though less so in the late music). Brahms sometimes and Mozart much of the time I find more elusive, often poised exquisitely between qualities. With those two composers I often have to resort to adverbs: tenderly, excitedly, and the like.

At the same time, every piece is constantly being renewed in performances, so its expressive quality evolves. That is one of the great strengths of classical music: the silent notes on the page are brought to life in constantly new versions. I remember coming out of a performance of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto by Christian Tetzlaff, James Levine, and the Boston Symphony saying, “I’ve known that piece for thirty years and never realized how weird it is! There ought to be new performance indications for it: insectoid, fidgetissimo.” Then I heard the celebrated Hilary Hahn recording and it sounded like a Romantic concerto. In an interview I asked Hilary if she deliberately set out to play it that way. Her response was basically, “Well, duh, it is a Romantic concerto.” It is, if you make it work. Both those versions of the piece worked for me. Recordings, of course, negate that renewal, which is why I prefer live performances. Meanwhile, as we change and evolve, so too does our sense of a piece when we come back to it. The greatest, most lasting works are ones that maintain their fascination through this process, that we feel we never get to the end of.

I think music is good at conveying basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, and so on. It’s not so good at, say, “wistfully regretful.” The more subtle emotional territories are where our individual responses set in. Meanwhile much of the effect of music may not be a matter of happy and sad and so forth, but of visceral appeal. Plenty of pieces I love I can’t put an emotional label on at all; they grab me because they grab me. I sniffle through Bach’s B Minor Mass not because it’s all tragic—some of it overflows with joy–but because I am moved by the beauty, the brilliance, the craft, the depth of expression, the power and glory of the human imagination at its most profound.

A couple more points. The very idea of emotional qualities in music was out of fashion in 20th century academe. The idea of “abstract” or “pure” music ruled the scene. I was once slapped down by a teacher for suggesting that the piano accompaniment of Schubert’s Erlkönig evokes the galloping of a horse. Of course it does. Program pieces illustrating a stated story were tolerated in the classroom, but with a pitying smirk. The celebrated music writer Donald Francis Tovey said that Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony had essentially nothing to do with nature at all; it was an abstraction like every symphony. Sorry, Donald, that’s rubbish. Beethoven geared the melody, harmony, form, orchestral colors of the Pastoral to express its program of a day in the country, with its brook, its birdcalls, its peasant dance, its thunderstorm, its warm sunset. (See my Beethoven bio.)

So of course emotion in music is present and vital. I’ll go beyond that and point out something I don’t know has been said before: every one of the central revolutionary pieces of the last two centuries was based on a story, and found its innovations in the composers’ determination to paint and express that story: Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was originally titled Bonaparte and is about Napoleon from beginning to end; Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun evokes the eponymous time of day, that amorous creature, and Mallarmé’s poem about them; Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps got its singular energy and style from the ballet’s story about a primeval human sacrifice; Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire gained its stunning originality of voice from capturing the fin de siècle weirdness of its lyrics.

I’ll let Schoenberg have the last word regarding the necessity and centrality of expression. In the preface to Pierrot he warned musicians not to add expressive notions of their own but rather to stick to the notes as written. Famously at one moment in the piece where the text says “Pierrot scratches on his viola,” Schoenberg pointedly avoids using a viola even though he has one in the ensemble. In a later article called “This Is My Fault,” Schoenberg points out that younger composers took his preface as a manifesto saying that expressing a text was out, and in ignoring the meaning of the words they wanted to “surpass me radically.” But if music and text are independent, Schoenberg asked, then why not have Wotan, King of the Gods in Wagner’s Ring, stalk across the stage to a boogie-woogie? Of the anti-expression movement he concludes, “What nonsense!”

So music is expressive of emotion, sometimes in more concrete ways and sometimes in less concrete. Some of that response is cultural, some of it innate. After all, even one-celled animals respond to sound. I suspect our response to music starts at the cellular level and travels up to the higher brain functions. And the most important part of our emotional response is particular to ourselves. We can sometimes agree on what a piece expresses, but we’ll each fill in the details differently, and we’ll never fully understand how music moves us. What we feel from music is like what we feel from a sunset. The sunset contains no emotion; it’s a physical phenomenon that has nothing to do with us. Maybe the dinosaurs enjoyed them. In any case the feelings are ours, some of them universal to humans, some individual. Ultimately the source of such responses is a matter of magic and mystery, and so music echoes the magic and mystery of the universe.



This is a companion piece to the essay above. There I was making larger points about musical expression, mainly that our response to expressive qualities in music is partly personal, partly universal, partly according to the ways our culture has taught us to respond. Here I want to examine some pieces that seem to me to be going after particular emotions. As always when talking about such things, a certain amount of this will be personal. But I maintain that it’s not entirely personal, that definable qualities can be portrayed in music (most manifest when joined with words). As someone who’s highly emotional about music and a composer who is determined to write expressive music, I’m on familiar ground with these matters.

As I also said in the above essay, I think music is good at expressing broad emotional categories, not so good at more subtle ones, which we have to supply for ourselves. To get into specifics I’m going to start here with vocal music, because in that case we can know with relative confidence what the composer intended to express.

I’ll start with a remarkable juxtaposition of qualities in Bach’s B Minor Mass. The central part of any mass setting is a juxtaposition central to the faith: Christ is crucified for our sins and resurrected from the dead. These mass movements are the Crucifixus, always tragic, and the Et resurrexit, always joyful. Here Bach paints the crucifixion with a variety of colors, some traditional and some invented.

His Crucifixus is set over a chromatically descending bass line, which is a Baroque convention for representing sorrow. Meanwhile the bass repeats over and over, which suggests something relentless and inescapable; the steadily repeating rhythmic figures work to the same end. Over the bass, the lines of the chorus are drooping, mostly set low in the voices, and the instrumental parts also lie fairly low, so the texture and color of the music are shadowed. The harmonies over the chromatic bass are dissonant and unsettled. In the voices the opening phrases are scattered, broken. So every aspect of the music—melody, harmony, rhythm, color—is geared to expressing tragedy.

The Crucifixus ends with a falling and fading away, unmistakably representing a descent into the darkness of the grave. From that moment of despair the Et resurrexit erupts with a torrent of joy. Everything about this movement is the converse of the Crucifixus: the rhythm whirling unto delirious, the melodies soaring and dancing and laughing, the colors bright with high strings and winds and ecstatic trumpets. That transformation is one of the most stunning I know in music, and Bach maintains the joyous celebration from beginning to end of the movement.

There’s joy and there’s comedy. For the latter I’ll present three examples. Beethoven is comic more often than he gets credit for. One of his more overt bits of humor is the last movement of the Second Symphony, which begins with a gigantic hiccup—or maybe the cry of a jackass—that turns out actually to be a primary motif of a high-spirited and waggish romp. Stravinsky’s Renard the Fox, from 1916, based on a Russian folktale about a clever fox who gets his comeuppance, begins with an outlandish march; the entry of the voices, imitating the animals in the story, is brilliant and uproarious. From that point the tone oscillates between comedy, parody, and irony.

Brahms is not generally noted for humor in his art, but that’s a bit of a bum rap. One of his comic outings is the finale of the String Quintet in F Major, which is not thigh-slapping stuff but still suffused with wit, especially in a refrain that comes back over and over, a goofy tune scored for high violin doubled by cello octaves below. In his person Brahms was a subtle ironist and also a practical joker, and now and then his music reflects that.

Charles Ives believed there was not enough laughter in the concert hall, and he intended to do something about that. Part of his humor comes from realistic portraits of amateur music-making; as he noted to a copyist, “Bandstuff! They didn’t always play right & together and it was as good either way.” Putnam’s Camp, the middle movement of his Three Places in New England, is an affectionate satire of town bands falling off the beat, playing in the wrong key, and generally losing it on the march.

The late-20th-century master Gyorgy Ligeti has the reputation of a fearsome modernist, but he was in fact a passionate humanist and also one of the funniest composers—though his comedy tended to have an edge. His Adventures is a chamber opera with no words, only inarticulate sounds from shouting to laughing to purring. I had to see it live and acted out to realize how hilarious it is. More to the point is his series of Nonsense Madrigals on poems by Lewis Carroll. Those bits of surreal whimsy have never been better realized. Try “A Long, Sad Tale” for a sample: a collection of bizarre vocal manifestations adding up to a little scene both comical and shivery. His opera Le Grand Macabre is a hyper-pastiche of apocalyptic import. I suggest watching a staged version on YouTube. Also try the hyperbolic Simon Rattle/ Barbara Hannigan version of the excerpts Mysteries of the Macabre, figuratively and literally a scream. There’s a lot of laughter in Ligeti, even if much of it is uneasy.

When it comes to tragic pieces there are inevitably lots of examples in religious music. One of the most powerful I know comes from the relatively obscure Italian Giacomo Carissimi, the final chorus of his oratorio Jephte, from around 1650. The story is of the Biblical king who promises God that if he wins a battle he will sacrifice the first person he sees afterward. These promises usually don’t go well; it turns out to be his beloved daughter Jephte, and this time, unlike with Isaac and Abraham, God doesn’t come to the rescue. The piercingly tragic and beautiful final chorus, Plorate, filii Israel, is a lamentation by her friends. The music is sustained wail of grief, building to a climax on a chain of heartrending harmonies. Chorus singers report having trouble getting through the piece without choking up.

A madrigal is a piece for usually four or five singers, designed mainly to be done by enthusiasts at home. The English madrigalists of the Elizabethan era were expert at minutely portraying every image and shade of emotion in a poem. The Silver Swan by Orlando Gibbons presents a literal swan song, its mournful course ending, “O Death, come close mine eyes! / More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.” Like many mournful pieces, it gets much of its effect from falling vocal lines and poignant dissonances. Also from that era, John Dowland wrote many songs for voice and lute, most of them on his own verses. His signature lute song, one of the great hits of its time, is the exquisite Flowe my teares.” Its lament builds steadily to its devastated last verse: “Hark! you shadows / that in darkness dwell, / learn to contemn light. / Happy, happy they that in hell / feel not the world’s despite.”

Beethoven said that even thinking about the Cavatina in his late String Quartet in Bb Major, Op. 130, brought him to tears. Toward the end, in a section marked “anguished,” the music seems to break into sobs. As in so much late Beethoven, the suffering here is not simple but complex, blending moments of hope, regret, universal human grief.

Among the 20th-century Viennese sometimes called chilly intellectuals, it was Anton Webern who after the death of his mother wrote the devastated Six Pieces for Orchestra. I know of no more naked depiction of anguish than its fourth movement, a funeral cortege that resolves into a mounting roar of percussion punctuated by shattering cries in the brass, ending on a sudden and devastating silence. This is not sorrow; this is agony.

Let’s touch on a couple more qualities. First, heroic. The obvious choice here is the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, which he titled Eroica (originally called Bonaparte, so it is about Napoleon). The first movement is a kind of abstract portrait of a battle or a campaign, searching and unstable, building to grand perorations. The second movement portrays the aftermath of battle–a funeral march. I’d add the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which breaks out in a brassy song of triumph and sustains a festive and heroic tone throughout. (Beethoven appears in this essay more than anybody else partly because I think his work is some of the most emotionally intense and also expressively transparent in music.)

There’s love music everywhere, it’s much of what we sing about, but how about pieces that shade into the erotic? One example is the exquisite slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 In C Major, which for me has always evoked a languid evening of lovemaking. (In the 1960s it became a hit accompanying the lovers in the movie Elvira Madigan.) The most graphic example of sex in music, no doubt, is Wagner’s Prelude and Love Death from Tristan und Isolde. The opera is about a fatal amour fou. The Prelude starts with a series of sighs representing the rising of desire; it builds to an earth-moving climax. (In a letter Wagner compared the opening gestures to the Hindu breath of Brahma that creates the universe—a lovely image of creation as the desire of Unbeing for Being.) In the Love Death, Isolde expires in ecstasy on the body of her lover Tristan, and the music does justice to the image.

A subset of the matter of expression is what are called musical topics. These are pieces evoking a fairly specific image by use of musical gestures the culture has developed for those purposes. The most familiar topic is a march. Marches can be created in all kinds of styles, but certain things will be consistent: it will be in two-beat or four-beat meter (because we have two feet), and it will be in some kind of marchable tempo; the melodies and gestures will be vigorous, the overall style something associated with its culture. (This includes the “Turkish” style used by Beethoven and Mozart, heavy on bass drum and cymbals, which came from Turkish military music. See Mozart’s famous Rondo alla Turca, for piano; the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth also has a Turkish march.) Marches, after all, are used to move troops around and sometimes even accompany them in battle. They will be geared to give people courage and strength, and even when translated into concert music they will still have some of those qualities. In the Classical style of Mozart and Beethoven, most concerto first movements are in a more or less military mode.

All dances amount to a topic of some kind, each with its characteristic rhythms, gestures, forms, and tempos: minuet, englische, waltz, and so on, their rhythm, style, and form geared to the steps of the particular dance. In turn, every dance has its social overtones, from the courtly tradition of the minuet, to the more democratic associations of the 19th-century englische (a contradance in which everybody danced with everybody), to the sexiness and delirium of the waltz (it was the first dance in which couples embraced), to the vigorous two-beat polka, originally a Polish folk dance. Brahms described his Fourth Symphony thus: “Oh, once again I’ve just thrown together a bunch of waltzes and polkas.” He was partly, but not entirely, kidding; the third movement is sort of a polka, and all the movements have dance overtones. Much of Chopin is founded on Polish dances such as the mazurka and polonaise.

Another familiar Western musical topic is the pastoral. This music evokes fields and woods, perhaps inhabited by amorous nymphs and shepherds and such. From Handel’s Pastoral Symphony in Messiah to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, this topic is going to feature a gentle, warm atmosphere, folkish tunes, bagpipey drones, simple harmony and rhythms from gentle to vigorous folk-dances. A sort of subset of the pastoral is “hunt” music, leaping and rhythmical, often with hunting calls in the horns; the finale of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is a hunt piece. Often in the pastoral mode there will be a suggestion of the ancient, imagery of Greece and Rome. Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 above is in a serenade topic, meaning night-music.

Other topics include the passionate and exotic “Gypsy,” aka “Hungarian” style, used by composers from Haydn to Brahms, who wrote a collection of popularistic Hungarian Dances, but also used the style for all his concerto finales. Another late-Classical topic is Sturm und Drang, meaning a highly expressive, intense, bold style in some cases, inward and subjective in other cases. Not all emotional expression is covered in the list of topics, but a lot are. Mozart, to name one, was usually wielding some topic or other in his works. We may no longer recognize them, but many in his time did. A whole piece does not have to stick to a topic—a symphony movement, say, may have marchlike or Sturm und Drang moments en route.

And so it goes. Music expresses particular emotions sometimes with the help of words, sometimes with the help of cultural traditions, sometimes in more mysterious ways having to do with our innate responses to rhythm, tempo, harmony, the colors of sound. Some music is transparently expressive, some not. Ultimately each of our responses is particular to ourselves, and that individuality of response I call one of the most splendid things about music. What I’m encouraging here is not to take my responses as any sort of final word on what any piece “means,” but rather to cultivate your own responses in kind. The first time you hear a work, maybe it’s best to take it in without thought. But as you return to pieces, begin to find your own resonances, your own paths into the work, and watch them evolve as you evolve. As we change and grow, the things we love change and grow with us.