Monday, 24 August 2009

Mr Mlakar and Richard Strauss

Think of Richard Strauss and it’s the operas that spring to mind, or the tone poems, perhaps even the concertos. Strauss’s ballet music, now the subject of a fascinating new book by Wayne Heisler Jr., The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss, is something of a forgotten treasure. Here Professor Heisler describes how he discovered this music, and a historic meeting in Slovenia with two of the composer's original choreographers.

My earliest serious encounters with Richard Strauss’s music were as an undergraduate at DePaul University in Chicago (1989–1994). First, there were the many opportunities to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—Orchestra Hall is just a short “L” ride away from DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus and the School of Music. I recall, too, many informal listening sessions with my music-major friends, including my hall- and roommate Oto Carrillo, who is now a horn player with the Chicago Symphony and a member of DePaul’s horn faculty. As a pianist, I had a collection of recordings that was dominated by piano music; not surprisingly, as a horn player Oto had a wealth of recordings of late-nineteenth-century orchestral music: Mahler, Bruckner, and, of course, Richard Strauss. My first experiences hearing and studying scores for such works as Tod und Verklärung or Till Eulenspiegel were “after hours” in the dorms.

Like most undergraduate music programs to this day, mine offered non-vocalists very little formal exposure to opera, much less ballet music. (The 'why’s' for this situation are too complex to unpack here, but suffice it to say that an almost exclusive focus on instrumental compositions in music history and theory clouds the perspectives of many audiences, performers, and composers throughout history.) It was not until I entered a master’s program in musicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that I began to research, study, and love music for the stage, including works by Richard Strauss. During my first year at Madison I took a work-study gig under Karlos Moser, then the Program Director of the University Opera. As it turned out, the big production that season was an English-language version of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Through researching the production history of Rosenkavalier, including staging, cuts, and translations, I came to know the opera intimately. More transformative, however, were the lessons I learned about the non-linearity of history through that opera. Although I was a bit overwhelmed at the time, it was fruitful for a budding musicologist to become engaged with opera history, including Rossini and Wagner, via Rosenkavalier, and through the ears and worldviews of Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss’s ballet scores (who knew?) initially came to my attention in Professor Susan Cook’s stimulating interdisciplinary musicology seminary on dance and music in the twentieth century. Two of the topics I presented on that semester were the Ziegfeld Follies and Strauss’s 1924 ballet Schlagobers—readers of my book will see that these seemingly disparate interests turned out to be complementary!

While I was a Ph.D. student in musicology at Princeton University, I received grants from the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD) and Germanistic Society of America/Fulbright, respectively, to live and study in Germany. The latter residency, when I was a research fellow at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, proved to be formative for my life and work. While I was in Munich, I had many experiences that would impact my study of Strauss and his ballets, both directly and indirectly: receiving guidance from Strauss specialists Dr. Reinhold Schlötterer and Dr. Roswitha Schlötterer-Traimer, who were extremely generous with their knowledge and time; spending days at the Richard-Strauss-Institut in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where my chosen work space in the institute library overlooked the composer’s beloved Zugspitze; purchasing a cheap Bayernkarte or a Schönes-Wochenende ticket and traveling to nowhere-specific on local and regional trains; taking time out to visit as many churches as possible decorated by the Asam brothers—Cosmas Damian Asam (1686–1739) and Egid Quirin Asam (1692–1750)—whose puffed up German rococo sensitized my palate for Strauss’s unfinished ballet Die Insel Kythere (1900), as well as his late ballet Verklungene Feste (1941); and, along with other scholars, getting an informal tour of Strauss’s Garmisch villa with his grandson, Dr. Christian Strauss - the unplanned capstone of a weekend-long seminar on rhythm and meter in Strauss’s music, hosted by the Strauss-Institute. This opportunity was eye-opening for me: because the Strauss villa is not open to the public, it has resisted for the most part an idealized representation of the composer, quite unlike Wagner’s Wahnfried in Bayreuth. The presence of 'everyday' objects (at least to a Bavarian of Strauss’s generation)—carved and decorated wooden crosses or mounted stag heads—alongside more ‘sublime’ Nippsachen (knick-knackery), such as eighteenth-century porcelain figurines, is quite consonant with Strauss’s musical art, I think.

Acknowledging the many people, places, and events in Germany that contributed to my research for and eventual writing of the book, the most inspirational experience during my residency there was actually a weekend in the spring of 2001 that I spent in Ljubljana, Slovenia, working in the home of Pino Mlakar (1907–2006), the last surviving collaborator of Richard Strauss. Mr. Mlakar and his wife Pia (1910–2000) were the choreographers of Verklungene Feste. Having solicited information on that largely unknown ballet via a letter, I received a warm response from Mr. Mlakar inviting me to Ljubljana. Materially, the reason for the trip was to study his personal copy of the Kinetogramm (dance score) for Verklungene Feste, notated in Labannotation. More consequential, however, was the opportunity to go over the extant materials with Mr. Mlakar himself, and learn of the many, many aspects of performance(s) that no written record can capture.
I was welcomed at the door by Veronika Mlakar, Pino and Pia’s daughter who is also a dancer. If my memory serves me correctly, she offered me coffee and got me situated at a table in the parlor with the Kinetogramm. Immediately I discovered that critical details of the musical arrangements and plot had been lost to history—as I posit in the book, this cannily follows the allegory of the ballet itself. After working for about ½ hour or so, I heard a slow shuffling coming from a hallway off the room, and after several minutes Mr. Mlakar greeted me as ‘Herr Heisler aus München’. (Although I am an American, the fact that I was visiting from Munich meant a lot to Mr. Mlakar, who had served as ballet master at the Staatsoper there for most of the 1930s, and from 1952–1954.) Although he was already in his 90s, Mr. Mlakar spent several hours with me over the next two days, even clarifying—embodying!—aspects of the dance notation with his feet, arms, and hands. In between our talks, when Mr. Mlakar disappeared once again down that hallway, Veronika assisted me and offered deep insights as she had danced in Verklungene Feste when it was revived in the 1950s. Also memorable was an impassioned conversation Mr. Mlakar, Veronika, and I had over a delicious homemade lunch about George W. Bush’s ‘election’ the previous fall. (But that would have to be the subject of a separate blog…) Ultimately, through my visit with the Mlakars I came closer to knowing the ‘heart’ behind the strange, problematic, and beautiful Verklungene Feste—and, I believe, in all of Strauss’s ballet collaborations.

The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss is available now. In coming weeks we will post a short excerpt from the book.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Merce Cunningham, the I-Ching & the first Happening

Surely any time traveller with an interest in the arts would want to touch down at the Black Mountain College in the ‘forties and ‘fifties. Who could resist painting with Willem de Kooning, discussing poetry with Jonathan Williams or building a geodesic dome with Buckminster Fuller? Had you been there in 1952 you might have witnessed, arguably, the first 'Happening' featuring John Cage and Merce Cunningham, who died last month. Here, by way of a tribute to the great dancer and choreographer, we post a short excerpt from Peter Dickinson’s interview with Cunningham, to be found in CageTalk published by the University of Rochester Press:

PD Do you actually use the I Ching?

MC I have used it in several dances. I could use it in all of them: sometimes because of practical necessities, such as the amount of time I have to make something, [laughs] I have to employ simpler ways like using coins. It’s the element of chance bringing up something my own experience might not produce. Even though I have made the movements that will be utilized in the dance, I use chance operations to devise the continuity so that what comes after what can be a new experience.

PD Wasn’t it when Christian Wolff’s father published the I Ching that it became a great discovery for John?

MC I don’t remember the exact moment. It must have been Christian Wolff who brought the book, and I remember very strongly the impression he [Cage] had of reading the preface where Jung asks the I Ching what it thought of being published in a different language. The answer was so extraordinary . . . I remember John being absolutely amazed. My own experience about it was that the book is so vast and the kind of thing it allows for is so open that if you asked it a question, the answers were always pertinent. Then I began to see that the numbers themselves—not what they represented in terms of hexagrams—could be used for my purpose. It was around that time that I began thinking much about space and dancing. I’d been taught that in dance there was the proscenium stage and there was a center of interest at the center of the stage, the most important part of the space. Even before the I Ching, that didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t have any other answer, I admit. Then I happened to read this quotation of Einstein’s where he said there are no fixed points in space. I thought that was perfect for the stage, and there’s no point that’s any more important than any other. In that sense it’s Buddhist or Zen. Any point could be important. Wherever anybody was, was in that sense a center. So I began to explore that by taking pieces of plain white paper and marking the imperfections, then drawing lines from one to the other; then taking another sheet of paper and drawing more lines because the imperfections are always different. Then I would superimpose them so that each sheet [represented a single] dancer’s space track. Where those [tracks] happened to coincide they could do something together. That eradicated anything about the center of the stage: it didn’t exist anymore. I thought that was wonderful! [laughs] Then I also found it was possible to make dances where the audience was all the way around you. One of the very first ones, called Suite by Chance, was done that way, and we presented it at Black Mountain College that summer - we were there with the audience all the way around us.

PD Did you find that you and John dominated the scene there?

MC Oh no, not at all. . . . First of all, from a practical and personal point of view, it was wonderful for me. I was there several summers, actually. The first summer John and I were there with Buckminster Fuller, Elaine and Bill de Kooning, and Albers, of course. What was so amazing was that, in spite of inadequate facilities for dancing, it was still made possible for me to work. The dining hall was the only big space they had, and they’d simply clear it every day. It was a community where the pupils and the teachers had a sense of interacting. You all ate at the same dining room and sat at different tables each day with different people, always having a crossing of ideas, listening to something totally out of the realm of dancing. As far as I was concerned it was marvellous to get out of it for a while. You could not only hear about something different, but it could make you change your ideas.

PD You took part in the happening at Black Mountain College in 1952. What was it like?

MC I don’t know in detail what the others did. There were about five or six of us—Bob Rauschenberg, John, David Tudor, myself, I think M. C. Richards and maybe another person. I’m sure John has described this, but we each simply did what we did. That is, I danced around through the public, which sat in the center with aisles between. It was a kind of agreed-upon length of time during which these things would take place. There was no connection other than what anybody looking at this could make. All these things were separate, and everybody was sitting facing a different way so that they would see or hear something in a different way. It wasn’t all fixed so that everybody was to look at it one way. At the end of it they brought out coffee or something! [laughs]

PD Did it feel like something that would have reverberations right through the 1960s?

MC No. And it didn’t have a name. It was just something we did. Later they called them happenings. It was an idea about theater that John had — that anything could be theater. It can, depending on how you act or think about it. It doesn’t have to have a reference, a meaning, or a connection. It can simply take place.

PD John’s ideas open up the skies, don’t they?

MC Yes, a large mind open to so many kinds of things. His reactions to things have often been so amazing to me.

Merce Cunningham died on 26th July 2009.

CageTalk: Dialogues with and about John Cage edited by Peter Dickinson (‘The ideal introduction to Cage’ Times Literary Supplement) is available from all good booksellers. The photograph of Merce Cunningham with an unidentified dancer in Roaratorio (1983) is reproduced in the book courtesy of the John Cage Trust.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Painting Music

We are pleased to add to our growing list of client presses by taking over the distribution of Jane Mackay’s astonishing The Turn of the Screw: Visual responses to Britten’s opera, first published by Sounding Art Press in 2007. As James Bowman writes in his Preface to the book, it is ‘a very special tribute to the genius composer whom it seeks to honour’ and a remarkable manifestation of a very unusual artistic gift. Jane Mackay herself explains:

Seeing images as a response to sounds has always been as natural to me as experiencing the touch of silky fur when stroking a cat or smelling the scent of roses in high summer. As a child I saw each day of the week in colours and shapes, and so did my sister. Her colours were quite different from mine though, and many were the arguments we had about why my Wednesdays were lemon yellow when hers were a dusky green. Names, numbers, months of the year all had their hues, direction of flow, patterns and textures, as did voices, poems and music. As far back as I can remember, these visions were part of life and it never occurred to me that most people did not share my experiences. I was given a set of oil paints on my tenth birthday and from that time became seriously interested in art. My paintings were invariably ‘out of my head’ – for some reason I considered it cheating to paint what was already in front of me. Consequently, painting music was frequently part of the scheme of things.

During the 1960s I continued with my art and music whilst studying medicine in London. Then, after thirty years of medical practice I changed my career to that of a full-time artist, marking the moment by ceremoniously throwing my engraved stethoscope into the Thames on the morning of the new millennium. I discovered that my lifetime facility to see sound had a name, and that ‘synaesthesia’ was a well-recognised and vigorously researched area of neuro-physiology.

Approximately one person in 2,000 is a synaesthete. The condition appears to be inherited, many synaesthetes having a family member with the same thing. The commonest manifestation of this cross-sensory perception is seeing letters, numbers or words in colour. However, almost any sensory mix-up is possible. I have myself, on several occasions, experienced coloured temperature (e.g. a creamy whiteness on picking up a hot mug of coffee), coloured pain (deep purple sciatica) and coloured positional sense (a striking shift from banana-yellow to reddish-purple on altering position in bed).

My musical synaesthetic experiences are legion though I often find them hard to describe and explain. How do I convey what it is like to listen to a tenor on the car radio and to be absolutely certain that the voice is coloured green and red at the same time? The sound also looks like the skeletal remains of a decomposed autumn leaf. This image is not located either in the radio or in my head, but somewhere ‘out there’, totally integrated with the sound and yet separate from it and utterly recognisable and memorable. I once described this vision as looking a bit like shot silk but that isn’t right either. It is more like peering at orange fabric under a neon street light. You know that it is orange but it looks grey. It is orange and grey at the same time.

In working on my paintings of Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw I responded to the whole spectrum of synaesthetic visions that this masterpiece presented to me. Images were evoked by instrumental colours (Prologue; Variation XI); dynamic changes (Theme); cross-rhythms (Variation I); extremes of colour contrast between voice and orchestral sound (Act I, scene 4); chord colours (Act I, scene 5, Variation XI); fugal patterns (Variation V); word colours and shapes (Act II, scene 7) and overall soundworlds depicted as semi-abstract images (Act II, scene 3), to give a few specific examples.

I am sometimes asked whether I would miss my synaesthesia if it were taken away from me. I am sure I would though it can be a disadvantage of course. It is difficult to remember acquaintances whose names and voice colours clash. Loud music in restaurants and shops can lead to visual as well as auditory overload. On the other hand, synaesthesia is mostly unremarkable, constantly operating in the background, always part of things. At best it is a condition in which the music I love gives rise to images charged with a sort of creative energy – images that just have to be painted.

The Turn of the Screw: Visual responses to Britten’s opera by Jane Mackay with a commentary by Andrew Plant and a preface by James Bowman is now available from Boydell & Brewer Ltd.