Monday, December 3, 2012

800 Words: Best of the Year Part 1

I don’t like Best of the Year lists. Not only do they promote false claims of authority in bloggers, but the lists also forces bloggers to go through thousands of mediocre things that are not worth the time to examine for the sake of completion. Such a list does not allow for any of the flexibility which good writing requires. When creating lists, no longer do you write because you’re moved to write about something - whether in love or hate. When making a ‘best or worst of the year list’, you’re moved to write out of a sense of obligation. What should be done with inspirational fire is done by rote.

So as with last year, only in two posts rather than 40, I’m going to change this pseudo-objective ‘best of the year’ list to a more honest ‘Best Things I Read/Saw/Heard/Watched this year. This won’t be about things which happened this year, this will be about things which happened to me.

But there’s a further problem. One of the worst parts of constant writing is that you lose a bit of your ability to be surprised. As you write your reactions, you contemplate yourself all the more frequently, and you begin to ever but heavily know yourself. If you’re thinking constantly, the wall of resistance to new ways of thinking becomes insurmountable - not because you’ve closed off new paths, only because you’ve already tried every path of which you’ve already thought, and a person becomes understandably circumspect at the thought of walking down a path he knows will lead to a dead end.

When I think of my formative cultural experiences, I realize they’re nearly all in the past now. It’s a terrible thing to know what you like, because you know precisely what will not impress you only to have your knowledge confirmed yet again. Those early, formative, semi-religious experiences of music, and movies, and books, which raise your pulse and hormones to exalted levels happen ever-more seldomly as that critical voice nags at you that there’s no way Hamlet could ever catch the conscience of the King with a play - especially one which sucks as much as The Murder of Gonzago.

Every new experience becomes an act of faith that somehow, some way, you’ll find a means to rekindle the old fire. And the worry becomes inevitable that as you grow older, kindling will become harder and harder.

Best TV You Watched This Year: Louie

It’s easiest when the rules of what works are just being written. We still in the process of understanding what works on television, and being present at the Idiot Box’s creation is one of the most thrilling things about being alive in our time. Think about it, we were a generation that learned how to be kids by watching Bart Simpson, learned how to behave like an adolescent by watching Jerry Seinfeld, and learned about what happens if we don’t graduate college by watching Tony Soprano. It’s a pretty awesome time to grow up.

Mad Men was the perfect show to watch when you were 25 - you’re finally finished with school, you’re free to create yourself in any way you wish, only to realize that even when you’re completely free to be yourself - life is still as disappointing as ever. And if Mad Men is the perfect show for 25, then Louie is the perfect show for hitting 30. The responsibilities pile up, the sense of grievance at how your life’s turned out settles in, the realization hits that you’re either using others or being used, and you begin to pursue the thankless work which success entails simply as a means to spite a world that tells you you’re destined to fail.

(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) In Season 3 of Louie, we’re forced to watch as Louie gets dateraped by a woman, chickens out of a reunion with his estranged father, chickens out (mutually) of a fling with a guy, has to decide whether to make an unspoken suicide pact with another woman he dates, is put through an endless series of personal humiliations so he can have the mere chance of landing his dream job, watch himself powerlessly as his daughter gets bullied by other girls in her class, and watch just as powerlessly as the woman with which he’s in love with dies within minutes of their reunion.  

If Louie is the best comedy since The Simpsons, and I’m prepared to argue with anybody who says it’s not, then it’s the best because it’s the most painful. We laugh so that we may not cry. Louie is the cruelest show on television, but unlike the cruelty of so many other shows, Louie is cruel so that it can impart the most amazing, inspiring dignity to its subject. The subject is not Louie, the subject is us. Louis CK uses the experiences of his own life as a standin for all of our lives and how fate conspires to spit on our fondest hopes. And yet, like Louie, we go on hoping against hope that in the future, life will do better by us.

Best Book I Read This Year: Piles of Eric Hoffer

Just like there are TV shows for every segment of life, there are books and writers too. When I was of college age, I loved writers who were cynical solipsists. Milan Kundera, Jose Saramago, Philip Roth, and Kafka for fiction, Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman for politics, Pauline Kael for film, Robert Hughes for art, Richard Taruskin and Alan Rich for music. These writers were perfect for me. People are stupid, I suppose I reasoned, and deserve to be known as such. In their distinct ways, each of the above writers were poets of contempt, and contempt was my favorite emotion during that period of my life. When I was in the midst of my twenties, I graduated to writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Ian McEwan, Michael Kinsley, Jonathan Chait, Tim Page, and David Thomson who, in their own ways, would humiliate their subjects just as often, but viewed their subjects as deserving of compassion in spite of their stupidities. Now that I’m on the other side of thirty, I’m tending towards more and more non-fiction. The writers which I now try to read exhaustively now are Stefan Zweig, Amos Oz, Isaiah Berlin, Bohumil Hrabal, Roger Ebert, Alan Rich, Robert Christgau, and Eric Hoffer. This is the first time in my reading life that writers speak to me who do not seem to view life as a curse. They almost, not quite, seem to view it as a blessing, or at least as a mixed one.

Among non-fiction writers, Eric Hoffer is now my greatest hero and an ambition to which I can only hope to aspire. Hoffer was no Intellectual with a Capital I - he worked his entire life as a San Francisco longshoreman who wrote down his thoughts when he got home from work. Hoffer never went to college, spent the Great Depression on Skid Row, and wrote down all his favorite passages of the books he read on index cards. He maintained his commitment to learning through the toughest imaginable circumstances.  Rather than tailor his style as an academic might to an audience of academics, or even as a journalist might to an audience of like-minded readers, Hoffer had no such luxury. He was forced to write his books in such a way that any curious amateur could not only understand it, but be elevated to the level of his material. The result is a style of aphoristic essay for which Montaigne himself (Hoffer’s greatest hero) would be proud to call his own.

One of the great ironies is that the alleged Marxist ideal of the cultured worker who lives by his hands during the day and by his pen at night should find its greatest flowering in America in the hands of a philosopher so contemptuous of communism that he regarded it as interchangeable with fascism and fanatical Christianity. Hoffer was no Conservative: in the above interview he refers to then-Governor Reagan as a ‘B-Movie actor who wants to run California on a B-Movie budget.’ But he was unapologetic about his belief in the greatness of American individualism, and merciless in his critiques of those philosophies which negated the individual.

Whether in The True Believer or The Ordeal of Change or The Temper of Our Time, Hoffer believed in the aim of a dippy concept like ‘self-esteem.’ But in Hoffer’s hands, an abused concept like ‘self-esteem’ has real meaning. Like the term ‘ego’, self-esteem has taken on a meaning that signifies almost the opposite of the meaning for which the word was created. We do not aspire to high self-esteem, we aspire to self-esteem, period. And if we do not achieve self-esteem, nobody fills that void by inflating their sense of esteem, we fill that void by convincing ourselves that the self does not matter. And therefore, those of us who do not believe we matter attach ourselves to groups which we believe do matter. God only knows how Hoffer would have lain into the Tea Party...

According to Hoffer, we gain our self-esteem by succeeding at that with which we are put on earth to do. Those of us who can partake in those activities which give us contentment and joy, whatever those may be, are people who’ve realized their sense of self. Those who cannot partake in those activities shall find no substitute. It is difficult to believe that many people were more tested in that regard than Hoffer himself - an uneducated blue-collar worker who never married and didn’t write his first book until just before his fiftieth birthday. And therefore, his life, his writing, his entire legacy, should be an inspiration to everyone. Writing was what he was put on earth to do, and he wrote on in spite of all life's attempts to deposit him in the least sympathetic surroundings for his joy.

Best Music I Listened To This Year: Evan Goes Back To The Proms

I went back to London this year, and everything was new again. If you’re like me and need a sense of self-esteem, go to The Proms. It’s the only place in the world where every complaint I have about the classical music ghetto of my youth has even a prayer of being redressed. The Proms is the one place in the entire world where classical music seems to matter so much that it’s given to the public as a fundamental right. 5-quid seats, standing room in the front, a 6,000 person capacity audience a night, and at very least one concert once-a-night every night for two months. If an angel assured me that The Proms tickets would be available in heaven, it’s probably the one incentive that could make me behave in this world like a righteous man.

(Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Beethoven’s 7th Symphony at The Proms. If you look five rows back you can see me... Well, I didn’t, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.)

On the day I arrived in London, I got to see Daniel Barenboim conduct his orchestra of Israeli and Arab youth in the piece he performed with the Berlin Philharmonic in a free concert on the day the Berlin Wall fell. If you believe that music means more than a bunch of notes and symbols, an experience like that is unmissable. If you don’t believe that music is more than mere music, it’s difficult to believe you still could after an experience like that. I’m not a knee-jerk Daniel Barenboim fan, but that concert was one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve ever had in the concert hall, and can make you believe that maybe, maybe, just maybe... music can build the bridge that is more than a self-congratulatory symbolic one.  

(Vaughan Williams 6. Amazing.)

After three weeks in France and a rather uninspiring Boulez concert (Boulez couldn’t even show up, “Bosh Flimshaw!” as Mr. Burns would say), I returned to the Proms to hear a program I’ve long dreamed about (conducting or listening to): the three middle symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams on the same program. Vaughan Williams wrote his three middle symphonies when already in his sixties and seventies - old RVW was forced to watch as darkness descended upon both his personal life and the life of his country. The fourth symphony is a harrowing, boiling piece of music - the rare moment of rage from this most sober composer is exhilarating. RVW wrote the fourth as Hitler began conquering Europe and as his wife began her descent into the long illness which would kill her a full fifteen years later. The fifth was written during wartime and after Vaughan Williams began to take up with the mistress who would become his second wife. The fifth is as consoling and humane as the fourth is brutal. But imagine my astonishment that after eighty minutes of tremendously difficult music, Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony reserved the finest for last. Vaughan Williams’s 6th symphony is a postwar symphony, full of Cold War anxiety and written as RVW cared for his first wife on her deathbed. It’s been suggested by some that the supremely mysterious final movement is a depiction of earth after the nuclear apocalypse, and by others that it is a depiction of his dying wife. Whatever the truth, it was an absolutely extraordinary end to yet another of the greatest concerts of my life.

(Petrenko does Manfred...amazing...but...)

And yet the wonders did not cease. A mere two days later I was back in the Royal Albert pit to hear Vladimir Jurowski conduct the London Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. For two years, I’ve listened to a Proms performance from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic practically on loop - first from a radio relay, then on youtube. I could not have imagined better advocacy for this great yet flawed semi-symphony by Tchaikovsky. But that was before I heard Vladimir Jurowski do it live. Vasily Petrenko is a young Russian conductor who reminds one of those supervirtuoso Russian pianists who possess the ability to pull off effects of color and dexterity that make your hair stand on your head, even as you wonder if they're capable of doing anything less superficial. But Vladimir Jurowski is a great conductor who happens to be Russian, with a Carlos Kleiber-like ability to hone in on the composer’s precise intent. No conductor since Kleiber has a more uncanny musical sense, but like Kleiber, his talent is so huge that the lack of spontaneity is almost crippling. To a conductor like Jurowski, the idea that an interpretation can happen spontaneously is a horror - and that’s what made his Manfred an amazing experience. No matter how rambling the passage, Jurowski controlled it with an iron hand, and therefore nobody in the hall was able to tear their ears away from the black hole of emotional darkness contained within every bar of this black pearl of a work for even a moment. Wait until that performance gets to youtube...

(HMS Pinafore with Sir Charles Mackerras in 2005)

It would have been fantastic had Sir Charles Mackerras lived long enough to conduct a semi-staged Yeoman of the Guard at the Proms, as he inevitably would have if given five more years. Jane Glover is a competent replacement, but she clearly does not have Mackerras’s inspirational spark. For years, I’ve liked G&S well enough, but never have I loved their operettas enough to seek them out. The continued appeal of G&S is easily enough explicable - sublime silliness behind a flimsy pretext of high seriousness. But The Yeoman of the Guard is the only opera by G&S which aims at a humanity beyond the Muppets-type shenanigans. It’s fun for a night at the theater, still more fun to act in (I’ve been the Major-General in The Pirates of Penzance, and played in the pit for Mikado) but those who don’t know G&S shouldn’t have to put everything down to find it. Except, that is, for The Yeoman of the Guard, which I did not know before this production. It is the only G&S operetta that is anything but a comedy. A comedy it certainly is, but a tragic comedy in which the main character’s ending is extraordinarily sad. I’m slightly ashamed to say that I didn’t see it coming, and it was so affecting that I literally sobbed as I applauded. It is the only G&S show with more weight than a piece of paper, with an almost Mozartian sadness that pervades the whole show, and a stunning score with which Sullivan's great musical ancestor couldn't possibly be delighted. Indeed, had Mozart lived eighty years later, perhaps Yeoman of the Guard is precisely the sort of tragicomic opera he'd have written.

(Vanska doing Nielsen 4 in a 2005 performance that’s still a benchmark for me)

And finally, we come to two heroic symphonies. Carl Nielsen’s music does not have Beethoven’s diversity. But Nielsen is the only composer since Beethoven to share the same towering moral vision. Every note of Nielsen’s symphonies is an heroic affirmation that with enough perseverence and fortitude, a better world shall be built. Even if he might be wrong, we need to believe that Carl Nielsen is right. It is nearly impossible to view the fifth symphony as anything but a depiction of World War One, with all its terrors and graphic suffering intact, you can hear the march of soldiers, the whizzz of the bullets, the terror of the battlefield, and the hymns which beg an uncaring God to save us and those whom we love. The second half-movement of the symphony is one of the most moving works of art ever created, during which Nielsen instructs a snare drum player to improvise around an orchestral hymn ‘as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra.’ It is an affirmation of order and meaning in the midst of indifferent chaos and violence, and it is one of the great glories of all music. Osmo Vanska is not equally great in everything he conducts, but he is, among other things, the greatest living Nielsen conductor. No other living conductor who champions Nielsen (not even Blomstedt) is as reliably in possession of the fire it takes to breath life into these Beethovenian masterpieces. I expect it will be decades before I’m as moved or thrilled or shaken by Nielsen as I was by this performance by Osmo Vanska and the BBC Symphony.

(The closest I’ll ever get to watching ‘me’ conduct at the Proms. Andris Nelsons)

And finally, the night before I left, Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony with the City of Birmingham Symphony and Andris Nelsons. There is enough to say about Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony to fill an entire 4,000 word post - don’t think I haven’t thought about it. I occasionally wonder if this alleged piece of bombastic trash isn’t the greatest symphony written since Beethoven. Classical music lovers condescend to Shostakovich at their peril, and history will vindicate Shostakovich at their expense, even if contemporary fashion doesn’t vindicate him. But the greatest part of this concert was finally seeing Andris Nelsons live. …

There was something about watching the enthusiasm this uninhibited 34-year-old Latvian exhibits (is he the first conductor since Leonard Bernstein who star-jumps?), the half-a-dozen misplaced cues, the pool of sweat separating him from the first-desk stringplayers, the receding hairline and the already swelling beer-gut that makes me wonder - is this the best vicarious thrill I’ll get to watch myself conduct a major symphony orchestra? Nelsons is precisely the kind of conductor I love to listen to. Fearless in repertoire, fearless in interpretation, sloppy but always exciting. Vladimir Jurowski may be even more talented, but Jurowski is all control, and the result is the kind of perfect performance that provokes awe but no love of music. Nelsons is all enthusiasm, and there are all sorts of questionable choices Nelsons makes both as a conductor and as an interpreter, and yet when he succeeds, which is quite often, he works absolute magic. In a few years, he may take his place with Kubelik, Bernstein, Mitropoulos, Jarvi, Munch, De Sabata, and Rattle at the top of my personal pantheon.

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