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.



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