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Monday, January 31, 2011

People who live in Glass archives

In 1993, my third and final year studying violin at Juilliard, I presented An Evening of American Music in Paul Recital Hall, with music by six American composers from the second half of the 20th century. Everyone on the program was still alive at the time (and still is, come to think of it), except John Cage, who had died that year. That meant I was able to play for and / or interview five of the six composers: John Corigliano (the Sonata for violin and piano), Elliott Carter (the Duo for violin and piano), Philip Glass (Knee Play 4, for violin and men's chorus, from Einstein on the Beach), my violin teacher Robert Mann (Invocation for violin and piano), and Paul Schonfield (Three Country Fiddle Pieces for electric violin, piano, and percussion). For the Cage Nocturne (violin and piano) I played for and interviewed Anahid Ajemian, who had premiered the work.

Apparently, being included on the American recital was a good omen for longevity. Bobby Mann is still teaching and composing at 90, and Carter, 102, is at the height of his powers.

Philip Glass - one of the junior members of that group - turns 74 today, and Archive Fever is celebrating the occasion by pulling the Knee Play 4 from the video vault and publishing, for the first time since the program notes were Xeroxed for the American recital, the interview I did with him November 22nd, 1993. He was incredibly lovely and generous to me and my fellow musicians, inviting us to his home downtown and even crafting an alternate ending for the piece, which is written to segue into the next act of the opera. An unexplored corner of the archive might have those extra measures in his handwriting.

I encountered Einstein on the Beach as a twelve-year-old, when the premiere recording was hot off the press, and inside that glossy black boxed set of records a mind-altering aesthetic adventure awaited me. All those electric organs and urban flute menageries and the sound of Iris Hiskey singing "Bed" with no vibrato - it broke open not just the vocabulary of music but its capacity to give me pleasure. Einstein remains one of my favorite operas, and that first encounter stands as one of the most viscerally, psychedelically powerful experiences of my life.

Happy birthday Philip Glass!

Knee Play 4 from the opera Einstein on the Beach, by Philip Glass
Interview with Philip Glass
November 22nd, 1993

Paul Festa: First of all, what is a knee play, and where did it get its name?

Philip Glass: A knee play - it's a part of the body that connects different parts; it's a small part which connects two larger parts. In the context of a dramatic work, it's a connecting piece, so it's not really an interlude, which would be kind of an absence of something, this is really about connection. Bob [Wilson] invented the idea of a knee play as a connecting place of the piece. So there are five knee plays, one at the beginning, one at the end and three throughout.

PF: What attracted you to Einstein as an operatic character, and what is the significance of his having an instrumental, rather than a vocal role, in the opera?

PG: We were looking for a portrait of a well-known person; the idea of this opera was that it would be about someone that everyone knew. And if everybody knew about him, then we didn't have to tell the story in any direct way; we leave the problem of a narrative story because everyone knew the story to begin with. We talked about a number of people. Einstein was the one we chose because he was the one we both felt we responded to.

PF: Who else was on your short list?

PG: Oh, Gandhi was, and I made an opera about Gandhi after that...the Satyagraha. Bob was interested in Stalin and Hitler, but I wasn't. (laughs) He'd made an opera called The Life and Times of Josef Stalin, in which Josef Stalin never appears. But I was interested in more positive kinds of people, in a way. The idea was to find that the character becomes a focus, it becomes an occasion to make it a theater piece - if you choose something which is very well-known, then it gives you a lot of freedom to become more abstract. It's important, when possible, to connect a character - if there could be a built-in musical connection it's preferable. For example, if one would do an opera about, let's say, Caruso, it would be great because it would be an opera about someone who could sing. It's a little strange to do operas about people who never could sing. An opera about Gandhi, where Gandhi is singing, and there is no record of him having been able to sing at all...

PF: What about Columbus?

PG: Same thing. So that when a character has a musical connection, like in the case of Einstein - he actually played the violin - it's a real opportunity that you don't pass up. It's a way of connecting the character to the actual music itself. And it's done structurally, because since Einstein was a violinist, he would play the violin in the piece. It would be a real life connection to an abstract musical idea.

PF: The overall effect of the knee play is quite beautiful, but Einstein is working pretty hard at his arpeggios. Is he practicing?

PG: No. No he isn't. Some people might think so. It will be interesting for you to see the piece tonight [the November 22nd performance of the opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music] because there's no doubt, when you see Greg Fulkerson play, that the piece is about passion, not about - though there is always discipline in music, as we know - and any musician knows that. But the way Greg plays the piece - and the way you play too, for that matter - it has to do with musical values that have very little to do with playing scales. It's a sad misconception of music that it's about practicing. It comes up - it's not a bad question, because it does come up now and then. People say, oh, it's just like practicing scales. Well, of course, they absolutely have no idea about how to play a scale. If you really knew how to play a scale beautifully, that's almost all you would need. The ending of Satyagraha is a good example of that.

PF: You've objected to the use of the term "minimalism" to describe your music. Is there anything meaningful about the term, and is there another which more accurately categorizes your music?

PG: Yes; it was meaningful between the years 1965 and 1974, when there was a conscious musical movement that opposed itself to what was then the contemporary musical movement of the time: the music of Carter and Boulez and the serial school, which were the people who, when I was a young man, when I was your age, that was the music we studied. That's how long ago that was. But my generation of composers really wanted to set up a different kind of music, and I spent ten years developing a very reductive style. But when I began to work in the theater, it really was the end of that. The main reason is that with creative minimalism, less is more, but theater is not like that at all - it's more is more. Theater is not a reductive form; it's an inclusive form. So that's one thing. It's actually very simple, what I do, but it's hard for people to figure it out. I'm a theater composer. That's actually the long and the short of it. That's basically what I do. Everything I do - almost everything - is for the theater, with a few exceptions. So what I do is theater music. It's such an obvious thing that no one thinks of it. When you think about it, I've done eleven operas, five ballets, and, you know, dozens of scores for theater.

PF: How do you see your role in the tradition of Western classical music? Have you built something continuous out of the tradition?

Oh, absolutely. Definitely. You only have to look at my background to see that. Not only did I finish Juilliard with a Master's degree - I began music when I was eight - but I studied with Nadia Boulanger. I had the most classical musical education of my generation, practically. I don't know anyone who did as much as I did in terms of musical education in making a conscious tie with the classical tradition. What's confusing for people is that at a certain point, I began including non-Western music, when I began working with Ravi Shankar. Starting in 1965, I started to expand into non-Western music and that kind of threw people off. But I don't think there's any doubt, if you look at Einstein, just in terms of voice leading or in terms of traditional rules of counterpoint and harmony you can see what's going on. It's obvious what it is. It's obvious to musicians. If you look at the music, it's very much in the tradition of harmony and counterpoint, the voice leading practice of the 18th century. I don't know what else to say about it. (laughs)

PF: I guess my question is whether the route that you took broke off more suddenly than...

PG: It did appear to. But Paul, you only have to think into the past. Schoenberg appeared to have done the same thing. Wagner appeared to do that. The big changes in music happen at great intervals of 40 or 50 years, and they're usually such a shock that it takes people 40 or 50 years to catch up with it. I don't think it's as big a shock as other people do. I think in time it will not be seen as such a big break. It just appears to be that way now because of the proximity of the events.

PF: In the New York Times, Edward Rothstein wrote, "It is a tribute to [Glass'] gifts that he has managed to make the borders between high and low so porous, while demonstrating that the distinction has meaning." What do you think about that?

PG: Well, I don't think much of critics, generally. It's a complimentary remark, certainly, but those are not my intentions at all. I'm not breaking down the borders between pop music and classical music. People think that's what it is, but I've never thought about it that way. I simply don't think about that. It's a critic's game; it's not a strategy of mine.

PF: Last question. In what way is your music distinctly American?

PG: Well that's a very good question - it's a hard question to answer. I know it is because when I take it to Europe, that's what it  - I remember going to Europe eight or ten years, fifteen years ago, and I noticed they weren't doing a lot of other music by other American composers. I didn't hear a lot of Carter or Wuorinen or Druckman - I didn't hear that in Europe. And I said, "How come you're not playing this music over here?" And they said, "Oh, we have that over here, but we don't have you." (laughs) I thought that was an interesting comment, "Oh we have lots of that over here." When I'm in Europe the music sounds distinctly American. Even not only American, but it sounds like it comes from New York - and if you live in New York, you know what part of New York. You could even locate the part of town. At the same time, it's interesting that it travels so well. We're doing it (Einstein on the Beach) this year in Australia, Brazil, Japan, Europe - and the music is recognized instantly as music and yet it has a - I don't know if it has the same things that you hear in Copland and Gershwin, the penchant Americans have for a particular kind of rhythm. I think it comes out of the American language, out of the way we speak. The cadence of our language is different from the English that's spoken in England. I think it comes out of that - I think it comes out of the way we walk, the way we move. There is a distinctive physicality about American life which comes in movement and speech and I think it also comes out of music and we hear it in Cole Porter or Duke Ellington or Elliott Carter - yeah, we do hear it in Elliott Carter. The first quartet is a very jazzy piece. I think Americans are the best people equipped to play that kind of music. So in that way I think the Europeans were wrong, in terms of him, at any rate.

Monday, January 24, 2011

22 short films world premiere

I brought copies of the 22 short films to my cousin's bar mitzvah for a few relatives who'd seen the stills here and on Facebook and expressed interest in it. At the event, the rabbi conscripted me to play violin (no violin-playing Jew is safe in such a situation, even if he leaves his instrument back in New York, as I had - invariably there's a spare), and when I told him about the film he offered me the use of a projector. Thus did the 22 short films - actually the first six, based on the 1941-1950 footage - have their world premiere in White Plains, NY, at the reception after the bar mitzvah. Let's all give it up for Reform Judaism, for letting me run a DVD player on Shabbos. And let's give it up for Mom, who narrated the film and identified cast members in absence of a credits sequence.
Mom - star and narrator of 22 short films

I enjoy bar mitzvahs because they are attended by my family. Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are alike, but is that really true? Take my Great-Aunt Sylvia - 91 next month - who said to me within ten minutes of our reunion, "I wish you were as successful as your Cousin Michael in Columbus." I think the joy that stirs in me is fairly personal, if not unique - it may even be perverse. But maybe Tolstoy would give me an argument.

Great-Aunt Sylvia and Mom, 2011

Great-Aunt Sylvia and Mom, 1941

Sylvia with her grandson, my Cousin Ian

The bar mitzvah itself was the most beautiful and moving I've ever attended. My cousin Gabe has a developmental disability and the last thirteen years have presented him and his parents with a fairly continuous series of challenges in terms of his education and therapy. The bar mitzvah showed equally what his challenges are, and how determinedly and successfully he's met them with his family's help. When he finished his chanting and his speech, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Gabe before the service

Gabe after the service - all grown up
Be sure to tune in next week, when we celebrate the 74th birthday of Philip Glass with the blog's inaugural video, and an unpublished interview I did with the composer in 1993.

Monday, January 17, 2011

22 short films by and about my family

My grandmother with my mother, ca. 1942

A still from "22 short films," inadequately deinterlaced

I write from Brooklyn, which is where the family archive begins, at least on my mother's side. If there are any records from the shtetls I don't know about them. It only goes as far back as Kings Highway, East Flatbush, where the first generation spoke Yiddish to their children who spoke English to their children who spoke with mild Brooklyn accents to their children who were mocked by their West Coast peers for uttering gibberish like "waiting on line" and "back east" and for affecting, in fits of identity crisis and insecurity, parental accents. It could have been worse, I could have been residually English.

My grandfather's sister Eve with two women presumably related to me who knew a thing or two about latkes and schmaltz.

The impetus for this trip back east was my cousin Gabe's bar mitzvah, so Mom's commandment that the VHS archive finally be digitized was well timed - I've brought copies of the DVD along with me for family I'll see next weekend. Since the last installment of Archive Fever I burned through all two hours of the video and came up with 22 short films, an hour total, essentially music videos set to my sister's songs, Bartok violin duos she and I recorded for a friend's film back in the 90s, and a few of my own recital and concerto performances. The last third got short shrift in the editing department and nothing got color-corrected. It's a rough cut, and will probably wait another few years before a spare week comes along that will allow me to finish.

I have yet to determine whether the original 8mm film survived after the transfer to VHS a few years ago. Meanwhile much of the gorgeousness of the film stock remains, particularly in clips like the one above that time has reduced to ghostly impressions. It's not Decasia, but it's still pretty cool.

I never got to meet my Great Aunt Eve, but always felt a strong affinity with her. Maybe I responded to her physical resemblance to Bette Davis, along with a personality that even through photographs and silent film radiated positivity so intensely (in contrast to Miss Davis's). I haven't gotten an ID on the babies in the still above, but one of them might be Mom. As for their resemblance to zombie spawn - some decasia is more flattering than other decasia, and the overexposure in this clip was pretty intense to begin with.

Helen holding newborn Mom, with Eve, summer 1941.

My grandfather Phil - with my great-grandparents? I will find out at the bar mitzvah and get back to you.

One of the lovely things about watching the footage from the 40s is observing how people pull themselves together for the camera. My great grandfather, for example (if that's who he is) was possessed of the idea that the camera should capture people in the act of shaking hands. So there is clip after clip of people approaching each other and shaking hands - men, women, husbands and wives...


Uncle Jerry, Grandma Helen, Berkeley, ca. 1968

It turns out that my grandparents didn't own a camera - they borrowed one, and only when my mother was a little girl. So my Uncle Jerry, 11 years younger than Mom, was shafted in the home movies dept. The archive is full of injustice! And gaps - only once my parents went west and started reproducing does the camera start rolling again, two decades later, and Jerry makes his first appearance. I'm looking forward to his next appearance, at his son's bar mitzvah next week - somewhere in the archive there's a beautiful photograph of his own bar mitzvah, ca. 1965, which I haven't seen in decades and hadn't remembered until this moment. Stay tuned.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mère d'archive

Mom aloft in the hands of my grandfather Philip

James expressed some surprise that the second installment of Archive Fever would be, like the first, about Mom (if you're counting the Palin thing, don't). But his surprise was only momentary: Mom and the archive are natural allies. The word "archive," as Derrida reminds us, is rooted in "commencement" and "commandment" and "home," three areas in which Mom is supreme. Mom saves the ephemera that feed the archive decades later; she produces, directs and makes cameo appearances in the films in which we star, a fact brought home to me this week by Mom's commandment that I digitize the home video collection before she leaves for Israel, which means before I leave for New York, which is (shoot me) Friday. 

If you ever want your old VHS tapes digitized, don't give the job to a filmmaker, at least not if you want it done this year. You know those OCD victims who have to lick every doorknob? That's me in a room with unedited footage. My grandparents' home movies, formerly 26 minutes, 45 seconds and one frame of film transfered ten years ago to VHS, are now six short films set to recordings of my sister's original songs and our performances of Bartok violin duos. Making these was a complete joy that has drifted, inexorably, into a panic attack as I stare down one hour, 34 minutes, 51 seconds and 23 frames of my mother's home movies of my sister and me, plus several hours of musical performance and other video in the VHS collection. It will get done: the archive commands it. 

I'd like to share some of the video with you, but there isn't enough time before departure to deinterlace and compress anything. In any case the stills are sometimes better than the footage:

Helen, my grandmother, with my infant mother in the summer or fall of 1941

My great aunt Sylvia holding Mom

Philip and Mom

Mom holds my sister, then Eva and now Chava Rachel, who requests a celery stick

Mom in January 1973 (Eva's 5th-birthday party)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Assassination advocate Sarah Palin

Today's sickening assassination and assassination attempt in Arizona - amid so much sickening news coming from that state - is the fruition of Sarah Palin's rhetoric of violence and should disqualify her from participation in American public life.

She targeted the victim, amid other political opponents, with gun sights in her political advertising. She urged the American right to "reload" against its adversaries. The remaining grown-ups in the Republican party and the media must end Palin's career as a mainstream public official - something that is well within their power. In the context of the American right's historical reliance on violence to achieve its political aims, Palin should be held directly accountable for this massacre.

Please repost and circulate this image:

Monday, January 3, 2011

Man is born free and yet my mother is in chains

On Tuesday, August 26th, 1980, six San Francisco feminists, dressed in white, marked the 60th anniversary of women's suffrage in the U.S. by chaining themselves to the Pacific Stock Exchange to protest economic discrimination against women. This act of civil disobedience didn't succeed in getting them arrested, but it did get them into the papers, along with their message: American society discriminated against women in the workplace, paying them 59 cents for every dollar a man earned for comparable work (31 years later, that's up to about 80 cents, with the disparity worse then as now for women of color). Big business, in 1980, was lined up solidly (and successfully) against passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, just as, 60 years prior, major industrial interests opposed women's suffrage. In 1980, twice as many women as men lived below the poverty level. 

My mother, then Linda Festa and now Linda Festa Plack, was one of the women who chained herself to the exchange. For this inaugural post of Paul Festa's Archive Fever, I've dipped into her archive for photos, press clippings and flyers documenting the action. Of special note is her letter to the editor published in the San Francisco Examiner defending the boycott of states that had not passed the ERA. I had Section 1 of that amendment memorized as a child, and still do: "Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." Funny how a eight-year-old boy could get his mind around the ERA, but the US still hasn't 88 years after it was proposed and nearly forty years after it passed both houses of Congress.

Linda Festa chained to the Pacific Stock Exchange - news story by San Francisco Examiner

Upper left: Linda Festa; upper right: Sylvia Weinstein

Upper left: Sue Eckberg

Upper left (center of photograph): Linda Festa

Letter to the editor, San Francisco Examiner, by Linda Festa (ca. fall 1980)