Saturday, December 31, 2011

800 Words: I Don't Hate Messiah Part 2 - The Long Performing Tradition

I wanted to rant about Messiah, but now I realize that any dislike I have of the ‘Messiah epidemic’ is indicative of a much larger problem. We’re a full half-century removed from classical music’s original ‘Early Music’ craze, yet Early Music is still subject to an enormous dose of over-reverence. Whether the undue reverence is for 19th century gigantism or for the composer’s original intentions, neither is particularly deserved - and both probably have led to centuries of extremely boring performances. Let’s just take the example of Handel’s Messiah, the Christmas nightmare, as perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon. Few pieces of music seem to attract stodgy reverence to it like Messiah - the result being thousands of performances that sound almost exactly alike. Most Messiah performances sound either bloated and tired after the manner of 19th century pomp, or brittle and arthritic after the manner of the 20th century’s obsession with recapturing the past. Neither does justice to the Handelean fire which the greatness of this piece requires. So here is a quick history of how this came to be (with enormous help from wikipedia, so any resemblance to scholarship is purely accidental):

Handel’s Messiah was premiered in Dublin, 1742 with a chorus of 32 and soloists mostly drawn from the ranks of the chorus. One journalist immediately hailed it as the greatest oratorio ever written: ‘far surpass[ing] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom.’ Another declared "...The best Judges allowed it to be the most finished work of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic, and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear..." Yet even this piece, already hailed as the greatest music(k) ever written, was subject to endless re-tinkering by Handel. Handel very much aspired to great art, but he was also a showman and businessman, probably the best combination of those qualities among great composers until Verdi. And as a businessman, he always had one eye upon what was feasible, and as a showman, he always had an ear on how best to achieve effects. When the oratorio had a repeat performance in Dublin two months later, there were substantial revisions made to accommodate different soloists and passages thoroughly recomposed to better tailor to his own satisfaction. For every subsequent performance in Handel’s lifetime, Handel made new emendations, additions and deletions, some of which he made after he went blind, and seem to keep occurring until a performance eight days before his death.

Thirty years after Handel’s death, it was common in London to hear performances of Messiah at Westminster Abbey with an orchestra alone of two-hundred-fifty musicians, including twelve horns, twelve trumpets, six trombones, and three pairs of timpani (that were made larger than average for just such an event). In fact, there is an advertisement from 1787 for a performance at the Abbey which promises "The Band will consist of Eight Hundred Performers."

Messiah performances were still stranger in Europe. In 1788, Johann Adam Hiller conducted a performance in the Berlin Cathedral consisting of 287 performers. Compared to Westminster Abbey, this probably sounds downright reasonable. But if you look at the instrumental composition, it gets still stranger: 87 strings, 10 bassoons, 11 oboes, 8 flutes, 8 horns, 4 clarinets, 4 trombones, 7 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and organ. By the rules of modern acoustics, an orchestra of 142 could easily drown out a chorus of the same number, especially one with 7 trumpets and 8 natural horns. But even in Handel’s time, it was common to have more instrumentalists than singers. At at least one performance, Handel conducted an orchestra of 37 and a chorus of only 19.

In 1789, none other than Mozart made an arrangement for performance in Vienna. He eliminated the organ continuo, added parts for flutes, clarinets, trombones and horns, simplified the trumpet parts, reorchestrated much of the piece to accommodate larger forces, and thoroughly recomposed some passages. And yet Mozart’s performance used a chorus of twelve.

To make matters still more confusing, many of Mozarts changes were worked back into the standard editions which the English speaking peoples used in the 19th century for their ever larger performances of Messiah. In 1853, New York heard performance of Messiah was given with a chorus of 300. In 1865, Boston heard one with a chorus of 600. In 1857, London heard (or sang) a performance with 2,000 singers and an orchestra of 500. These mass performances became more and more frequent, with choruses numbering 3,000, 4,000, even 5,000 singers.

But fashions always change, and lots of music lovers were getting tired of the musical gigantism which Messiah seemed to always ensure. George Bernard Shaw wrote: "The stale wonderment which the great chorus never fails to elicit has already been exhausted" he later wrote, "Why, instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness of a Handel Festival does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah in St. James Hall with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die."

Even in 1902, when one of the first scholarly edtions that consulted Handel’s manuscripts was printed, it was taken as a given that Messiah could never again be presented with Handel’s original scoring. Even for a scholarly edition, many of the accumulated changes made by Mozart, Hiller and others were deliberately left in. Its editor, Ebenezer Prout wrote:

“[T]he attempts made from time to time by our musical societies to give Handel's music as he meant it to be given must, however earnest the intention, and however careful the preparation, be foredoomed to failure from the very nature of the case. With our large choral societies, additional accompaniments of some kind are a necessity for an effective performance; and the question is not so much whether, as how they are to be written.”

(From 1926, Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder, with a chorus and orchestra of 3,300. Probably a lot louder in person, no less messy though.)

But even as scholarly performances became more frequent, the “Massiah” was still the norm. One of the first recording of Messiah excerpts comes from 1926 at the Chrystal Palace Handel Festival with an orchestra and chorus numbering 3,300. Recordings from that period can’t possibly give us the full effect of an orchestra and chorus numbering 3,300 and the results were predictably sloppy.

(probably the most dramatic rendering of the Hallelujah chorus I’ve ever heard … save Beecham’s later recording. But this one doesn’t strike you as bizarre.)

The forces with which Messiah was performed were gradually dwindling. A 1922 performance in Handel’s hometown of Halle caused a bit of a a choir of 163 and 64 instrumentalists. In 1927, Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the first virtually complete recording of Messiah. For it’s time, it was considered quite controversial. Beecham aimed closer to the style of Handel’s period, with tempos far faster than what was once the norm. The result was an orchestra, chorus and style that would sound completely at home in a Mendelssohn oratorio. The result is far lither than his infamously exciting but bloated 1959 recording (more on that later). And apparently Beecham made a 1947 recording that is even more musicologically correct. I wish I could find it. In Thomas Beecham’s chosen repertoire, he was absolutely unbeatable, and I can only surmise that both those two recordings must number among the greatest ever set down.

While Sir Thomas was showing us a new vision of Handel’s Messiah, his friend and rival Sir Malcolm Sargent clung obstreperously to the old traditions. Between the 20’s and 50’s, Sargent released four different recordings of Messiah, and at least the last two with the Huddersfield Choral Society - a choir of well over 200 voices. I’m familiar with what I can only guess are their last two recordings. Their 1940’s recording is far better than the stereo remake. There are a few magnificent moments, which almost completely result of good soloists (in the 40’s recording) and from Sargeant preparing his own edition of Messiah for a traditional 19th century orchestra of proportions that probably would have been recognizable to Berlioz. Unfortunately, the chorus is cumbersome and not accomplished technically, which drags both performances down to another iteration of Messiah’s bloated 19th century presentation.

(Go to 4:00. This Amen section must be the slowest performance of the finale on record)

It wasn’t until 1954 that listeners heard Handel’s Messiah in its original orchestration from the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by the always fascinating Hermann Scherchen. Scherchen’s performance is typically eccentric, not always convincing but fantastically provocative. By the standards of today, it’s still quite a large-scale performance, and the ensemble is certainly ragged throughout, but Scherchen channels his own personal vision which makes this a performance that sounds utterly unlike any other. You can also find a performance on youtube of Scherchen performing the Hallelujah Chorus in which he accomplishes a gradual acceleration through the whole piece. What we hear in this recording is the thoughts of a very great (and still underrated) conductor.


Far less interesting is the second recording to be done according to the original orchestration. Adrian Boult’s 1961 recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus is far better played than Scherchen’s. It’s also one of the most predictable performances, with no new insights, thoroughly Victorian-era tempos, a well-trained chorus that sounds far too large. What’s the point of using Handel’s orchestration if you’re just going to create a Victorian performance exactly like every other?

(The Hallelujah Chorus, as you’ve never heard it.)

And then,... there's The Beecham Messiah. There are three Beecham Messiah recordings, but when you say 'The Beecham Messiah' to a music lover, they always know about which you're speaking. The Beecham Messiah has got to be one of the most bizarre recordings ever made. For this recording, Beecham got composer/conductor Sir Eugene Goossens to reorchestrate the piece for a 130 piece orchestra that dwarfs anything in Richard Strauss. The chorus alone must have easily numbered 400-strong. In some ways, this may still be the most modern Messiah ever performed - closer to the spirit of the 19th century than virtually any 19th century performance. So far as we know, no 19th century performance had the audacity to reorchestrate Handel with the express intention of making his music sound resemble Elgar. This is Messiah heard through the lenses of William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast and Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand. Passages that once were done with a few singers, strings, and winds are now heard with the full weight of 530 musicians with an overflowing complement of brass and percussion at full volume. Yet what comes through most clearly is the ebullience with which all the players obviously threw themselves into this venture. It comes down to us almost like a statement of defiance against a prevailing fashion, as though they knew that they would never participate in an event quite like this one ever again. Musicological scholarship was already making performances like this one entirely verboten. In no way is this recognizable as Handel in any form we know from today, and it's certainly an acquired taste. The other day, I badmouthed this recording on the excellent Boulezian blog. I immediately regretted writing it, and went back to listen. This is Handel as an Elgar oratorio, with all the pomp and loftiness that implies. Yes, it can make for dreary listening. So can just about every Messiah recording. But when met on its own terms it works more magnificently than nearly any other recording.

Friday, December 30, 2011

800 Words: I Don't Hate Messiah Part 1 - A Baroque Music Rant

(a good deal of this is reworked from a piece about Monteverdi I wrote three-and-a-half years ago.)

(24 oboes, 12 bassoons, nine trumpets, nine french horns, six kettledrums, as many snare drums as can be afforded.....and if you’re feeling more conventional you can add some strings. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.)

When Haydn heard Messiah in London, he was said to be in tears and exclaimed “He is the greatest of us all.” Beethoven said of Handel “He is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” Mozart was nearly as effusive: “Handel understands effects better than any of us -- when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”

Before the beatification of Mozart, and Beethoven (and Bach), it was taken for granted Handel was the greatest of all composers. When Beethoven needed a sound to challenge the world, he needed look no further than Handel’s example to show what music can do. While Bach was a mere local cantor, Handel was considered the very apex of music’s ability to entertain, challenge and move audiences.

(If the opening to Zadok the Priest doesn’t thrill you. You have no pulse....give it a second...)

So now, with 2011 drawing to a close, I’m ready to ask a question that should have been asked hundreds of years ago. Why are most performances of Handel such unbearable snoozers? For fifteen years, I've tried to convince myself that I like this music enough to sit through countless hours of it surrounded by other sophisticated people, basking in the self-congratulation of being too sophisticated to go merely to concerts containing the Three B's.

And if this scenario rings true for anybody else, it's because, like me, you really do like a great deal of baroque music. You've heard things - moments, arias, even whole hours and acts of this stuff - that you really quite love. But in order to reach those moments, you force yourself to sit through hour upon hour of untold tedium. One aria after duet after trio after aria...for over three hours, every one of which becomes indistinguishable from one another. Don't tell me you haven't had this experience because I know you're lying. We classical music lovers have all gone to our share of Messiahs, seen at least one or two operas by Handel, those of you who are lucky (ie the Europeans) probably got to a few runs of Monteverdi and Rameau, maybe even one by Vivaldi. We all know and love our Bach and have seen dozens of concerts of his music. But regardless of the composer, most of these experiences involve approximately fifteen minutes of truly involving music, and then sitting through another three hours of excruciating dullness. If you weren't sitting in an opera house or concert hall, you could swear you were listening to a CD entitled 'vocal music for narcoleptics.'

(Monteverdi, writing and performed at his best.)

And because the music making is so staid, it is ripe to be subsumed by the very worst excesses of the more vibrant theatrical world that moves parallel to us. How many articles do we have to read about Orfeo ed Euridice as lesbians misunderstood by a homophobic Cupid do we have to sit through before the invisible hand begins to show its disapproval? How many reviews should we read about Giulio Cesare done in Nazi uniforms? How many will we see L'Incoronazione di Poppea done with nude court dancers? And how many more productions will involve trench coats and dark glasses? When will people stop thinking that these productions are original? Nobody should be opposed on principle to rethinking classic texts, even to radical rethinkings. But if a director brings different ideas to the productions, they damn well better be every bit as good as the original concept. But how many are?

The problem is never the competence of the ensembles: everything is always well-sculpted, well-manicured, nary a note out of place and nary a note out of tune. The problem is that Baroque opera performances are so lacking in any inspiration, involvement or inner life that there is scarcely a point in sitting through it unless you value the ability to say that you did.

(How Monteverdi used to be done. Very pretty, right? Now imagine four hours of exactly this....)

It doesn't take much of a brain to figure out that Baroque opera is not bereft of interest on account of its music being naturally boring. There had to be something within this music that excited audiences or else no one would think to preserve it. But what was it about these operas that were so incredible that they became at least as integral to their era as movies are to ours? I've heard estimates that in the early part of the eighteenth century, there were 18,000 operas written, and those were only the ones based on librettos by a single poet named Metastasio! Why was Baroque opera such a craze for no less than a hundred years? What are we not hearing?

You can only guess as to the answer, but I think it should be fairly obvious. What's missing from Baroque Opera is everything missing from our performances of every era of music before and since, only even more. In our finally ending era of Urtext, critical editions, authentic performance, and comme e scritto, we have lots sight of music's most fundamental aim - to give pleasure. We can follow the text of the composers as closely as we want. But if the results are dull, no amount of hiding behind the composer’s markings will sell more tickets.

(It's now more than half a century after Nikolaus Harnoncourt became the leader of the authentic performance revolution. They used to seem completely revolutionary, his performances now seem a near-ideal marriage of tradition and revolution. Nowhere more so than in Bach.)

Opera companies, even court ones, were never so firmly established as they have been since the age of conductors like Mahler and Toscanini. The era was one of makeshift performances, recomposed for each singer's abilities, each concert space, each available instrumentation, and each audience proclivity. Singers were expected to interpret with the score as a blueprint, but not as the Holy Writ. Over-acting was no doubt encouraged. No doubt this meant that there were at least as many awful opera performances in their day as there are awful movies in ours. But in exchange, the best performances were as of the moment, as live and as spontaneous in their way as a Coltrane solo. In the hands of the best performers, opera was probably an experience unlike nearly any we have today.

Is there any artform in which tradition dies harder than classical music? For reasons I could never understand, there are many classical music lovers who insist that this music be well-mannered, civilized, tamed. For these music-lovers, classical music is simply a refuge from the chaos and barbarity of everyday life. They listen for a tamed experience of calm, balance, and stability - and would like to hear the exactly the same performance they heard fifty years ago. If they heard Bach's B-Minor Mass in college with a chorus of 300 and a full orchestra, that will be the way they want to hear it for the rest of their lives. And if these music lovers heard the work with a chorus of 18 and just as many instruments, they will shut themselves off to any other way. Even now, early music is still a battleground between two equally closed-minded dogmas. There is no shame in subscribing to one or the other. If you don't like your music-making to come with revelations and challenges, that's your right. It's just that I could scream...and so probably would any decent composer.

(Rene Jacobs. He started out as a countertenor, he then became the HIP movement's second truly great conductor.)

It should at least be said that we've come a long way in the fifty years since the Raymond Leppard editions. Who can deny that Baroque opera is becoming less and less of a chore. One day soon, it might even be a joy. The realizations are getting more diverse and occasionally even more imaginative. Conductors like Rene Jacobs, Jordi Savall, and Marc Minkowski are able to buck accepted notions of what's 'correct' in favor of what works (and let's be fair, Harnoncourt always did that too). Soon-to-be-legendary singers like Cecilia Bartoli and Sandrine Piau (and the already legendary Lorraine Hunt Liebersen) built their careers around these virtually unknown masterpieces, endowing them with a visceral depth of expression that is sometimes unattainable in the 19th century operas we know so well.

But this is precisely the problem. I can so easily name these figures because they are exceptions to the dangerous rule of law pervading the authentic performance movement. The authentic performance cannot exist merely to force musicians to play in any given style. Authentic performance exists to make performers aware of the stunning diversity of interpretive choices available to them. The best performers of the HIP movement are always conscious of the fact that the only true authenticity is great music-making. If this means doubling the winds or halving the tempo, they have no qualms about doing so joyfully. The ultimate irony of the authentic performance movement is that it set out to restrict the way interpreters perform music, but ended up endowing our music scene with more diversity than ever. It’s just a shame that most performers choose not to exploit it.

(Cecilia Bartoli...amazing)

And this is why performances of Baroque music that are any less than good become ever more inexcusable. If you're going to perform a piece as important to the history of music as L'Incoronazione di Poppea completely uncut (which I would be surprised to read that Monteverdi ever did, particularly because he probably didn't even write the famous ending...), you had better make a performance vital enough to sustain interest over four hours of music.

What we currently think of as classical music is still very much a 19th century phenomenon. The rest of music has moved into the 21st century, but classical music - by the definition of its very name - is a preservation of the music of an era that is no longer with us. Perhaps in 2111, the English speaking world will still be hung up on The Beatles and Bob Dylan while new and vibrant musical cultures spring up Spanish and Mandarian speaking worlds that have completely new definitions of what music is.

(The only Biber (sic) that matters. Heinrich, conducted by the great Jordi Savall)

In the meantime, the past is past. Neither the 17th, 18th, 19th nor even the 20th centuries can ever be recaptured. Authenticity doesn’t matter, quality does. No amount of boredom can justify taking the tempo you think Monteverdi/Handel/Beethoven wanted. Sometimes, a traditional 19th century approach can make music from other periods even more interesting, (re: Bach, Stravinsky - it works backwards too), more often, it kills most of the things that are interesting about the music (Monteverdi, Handel, Shostakovich) of other times....or at least that’s what I think.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

800 Words: 35 Favorite 'Cultural Stuffs' in 2011. #'s 20, 19

20. Casino

(Casino Censored)

The embarrassing confessions just keep pouring out on this blog lately. Until this year, I’d never watched Casino all the way through. I’m pretty sure I’d seen something approximating the whole movie over the years in the bastardized version that plays on AMC and Bravo in which a bad Joe Pesci imitator interjects a fulmination about whatever ‘mother-lovin’ rock-chucker’ he happens to be mad at at that given moment. I don’t know why so much of this movie’s essence is lost without the profanity..... but apparently many people thoguht something was lost even with the profanity.
The original reviews of Casino were unforgiving. Scorsese had spoiled us, and it wasn’t enough that he gave us another movie so close in spirit and quality to Goodfellas. People were mad that he issued yet another masterpiece about macho hoodlums from Brooklyn. It’s only with a decade’s distance that people began to appreciate what Casino was: perhaps the last great film of Scorsese’s long Golden Period. What we all would give for Scorsese to consistently make movies as great as Casino again....
Recently, a piece ran in GQ that made a case not as controversial as it once was: Casino is in fact a better movie than Goodfellas. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s a perfect companion piece that, if anything, deepens our appreciation of Goodfellas. Both movies are epics, Casino is a great look at the corruption which made and unmade Vegas, but Goodfellas is about the romance and rot at the core of the Mafia itself. It’s foolish to compare two movies so great, but I can’t shake the feeling that Goodfellas is still slightly better.
Goodfellas is a movie with an incredible amount of detail, but the details are secondary to how the characters perceive the details. What matters is not how Henry Hill steals but the joy he takes in stealing. In Casino, the encyclopedic detail is the whole point of the movie. Ace Rothstein has a job to do, and he does it, with absolute doggedness and compulsion. He does not feel joy or love, only monomaniacal obsession. The obsession itself is compelling, but it doesn’t make him quite as compelling as the much more human protagonist of Goodfellas.
What gives Goodfellas a run for its money is Ace’s wife, Ginger. Scorsese has never seemed much interested in women - he tends to portraythem more as objects for male lust than people with their own motivations. In Goodfellas, Scorsese finally gives us a very human woman in Karen Hill. But in Casino, Scorsese finally seems to tackle his Hitchcockian obsession with beautiful blondes. Yes, Ginger McKenna is very much a sex object, a pure incarnation of Vegas lust. But few movies are brave enough to show the emotional damage that goes into a desire to maintain that facade. Ginger is like a caged tigress, supremely dangerous and possessing no idea what she wants except a vague longing to be free from men’s influence. She’s also the emotional heart of the movie and easily the most fully human of Scorsese’s women.
The mafia’s decline has taken an interesting turn in movies. Hollywood took great pleasure and pains in romanticizing gangsters in the years that the Mafia was at its height. But there was no real attempt to document it realistically until The Godfather, which dealt with the experience of life in America’s top crime family. As mafia movies became more common, the portrayals worked their way down the gangster heirarchy. In the 80’s, we got moderately successful mafiosi in the form of Tony Fontana in Scarface, and Noodles and Max from Once Upon A Time In America. By the early 90’s we were getting stories about gangsters stuck in the mafioso equivalent to middle management like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, and Vincent and Julius from Pulp Fiction. By the second half of the 90’s, we were getting portrayals of low-level gangsters like Lefty from Donnie Brasco and Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects (ok...not necessarily low level). By 2000, we were ready for The Sopranos, a panoramic map of gangsterism at all levels in America. And now we’re living in the age of Boardwalk Empire, which reboots gangsterism as something so alien to our time that it can only be a costume drama.

19. Ron Swanson

I watch Parks & Recreation every week. I’m well aware that it doesn’t reach to comic glory often enough. In terms of actual laughs, it doesn’t equal the standards set by NBC’s other great but fundamentally standard issue sitcoms like The Office and 30Rock. But I don’t care. Why? Because Parks & Rec has one asset on hand which nothing on either The Office or 30Rock could ever hope to equal.

In each of their standard issue sitcoms, NBC seems to allow only one character to break free from assembly line sitcomery and to become something far more - a character without any predisposition to being liked or relateable or sympathetic that seems to have wandered from the set of Arrested Development or Monty Python. At times, these characters may earn our sympathy, but only because it makes them more complex, and therefore funnier. The Office has Dwight Schrute, 30Rock has Jack Donaghy, Parks and Rec has Ron Swanson.

Neither Dwight or Donaghy were ever drawn with the incredible specificity of Ronald Ulysses Swanson - the well-mustached, meat tornadoed guardian against government encroachment who heads the Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, Indiana with the singular goal of destroying it. Every episode seems to have its own Ron Swanson moment (see above), and whatever else happens in the show, the Ron Swanson moments will be almost guaranteed to make any amount of dithering about the irritating subplots involving Tom and Chris worth sitting through.

It must have been tempting to make Ron Swanson into a cartoon villain against whom his assistant, the liberal idealist Leslie Knope, must always take a stand. But that would have been far too easy. Instead, we see Ron as a hypocrite and not a little self-loathing, who maintains his ultralibertarian facade as a way of distancing himself from people after a series of bad life experiences.

At its best, Parks and Recreation taps into a certain kind of America which we don’t much see on the coasts. Ron is such a specific character that he taps into an American character. He’s the epitome of a certain kind of American for whom life has not worked out as he planned, and therefore wants to simply be left alone. He’s the archetypal Angry White Male. Because Parks and Rec is a network comedy, he invariably displays a hidden side as a friendlier, more caring person. But in reality, it’s the anger of people like Ron Swanson whom Americans most have to fear lest Ron turns America into the country he thinks it already is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

800 Words: 35 Favorite 'Cultural Stuffs' in 2011. #'s 22 & 21

22. Nixon in China at The Met


I’ve probably gone up to New York for the Metropolitan Opera as many times as a would be musician in his 20’s who tries and fails to be a cheapskate could permit. But until this trip, I wouldn’t dare take the step I’ve taken hundreds of times in Baltimore and Washington. At the Meyerhoff or Kennedy Center, I routinely make it a point of honor to buy the cheapest ticket, then sneak into the front rows while dragging friends kicking and screaming for their lives with me. But the Met is far more intimidating - not because it’s such a legendary opera house, only because the front rows are so expensive that I have fiery visions of getting assaulted violently by ushers for even trying.
But necessity dictated what followed. I could barely hear the singers from my top-tier back-row perch during Act I. So after intermission, Il Giovine and I moved up to coveted (by me at least) mid row seats of the orchestra. There I was, finally, at the very nexus of American opera - witnessing a show dismissed by many as the ‘CNN opera’ finally accepted as the classic of the American Stage which it deserves to be called.
Adams has gotten all sorts of derogatory commentary for the perceived leftist slant of his operas, particularly for The Death of Klinghoffer - his opera about the Israeli Palestinian conflict. But the sniping was already present in the reception of Nixon in China. Many people alleged that the creative team of Nixon in China was drawing a kind of false moral equivalence between market capitalism which kills thousands and exploits millions of workers for lower wages and the dictatorial communism that murders hundreds of millions of its own people. Obviously, if this were the case, there would be a problem. But it’s not. The point of Alice Goodman’s (rather abstract) libretto is to get inside the heads of the people portrayed in this work, what makes Richard Nixon, Pat Nixon, Mao and the Madame, think as they do. And in order to do that, she had to take it as a given that each of these players felt they were justified in believing everything they do. In almost every case - the sole exception of Henry Kissinger - Goodman accomplished that rather brilliantly.

(I am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung)

And therein we come to the opera’s biggest problem, which is also it’s greatest strength: The Chinese Ballet in the 2nd act, which contains an evil capitalist landlord that is portrayed by...Henry Kissinger!...or is he Henry Kissinger? We suddenly find ourselves in a thoroughly strange hall of mirrors. Is it Kissinger playing the landlord in the Chinese ballet, or is it an actor meant to resemble Henry Kissinger in voice, mannerism and oafish behavior (in the opera that is), or is it just a coincidence? But it’s precisely this hall of mirrors which makes the work so compelling, Pat Nixon watches the whipping of an innocent girl and thinks it’s so real that she rushes onstage to help her. Madame Mao watches the same incident and sees a vengeful vindication of everything about the Cultural Revolution. The opera takes no side, it merely asks us to consider two virtually opposite views of the world, and to ask if an attempt at understanding between them is possible.
Once again, nothing about the libretto would matter if this were not tied to an absolutely brilliant score - exciting and gorgeous in equal measure - composing music fundamentally in the Philip Glass idiom that goes well past what Glass does within it. The minimalism itself is just a clay which Adams can mould into different patterns, here a little Glenn Miller to represent Richard Nixon’s thoughts, there a little Aaron Copland for Pat’s, here a little Wagner for Madame Mao, there a little Mussorgsky for the Chinese Crowds.
The end result is a myth for the 21st century, asking us to deeply think about the chances for understanding between cultures which still understand very little about one another.

22. The Barber of Seville

(Thomas Hampson singing Rossini the way it should be)

OK. Time for another confession. In over a quarter century of obsession with classical music, I‘ve barely listened to any Rossini. For me, he was fundamentally that guy with the cool overtures which the classical radio stations would put on as filler in between a Beethoven Symphony and some snoozer of a Baroque concerto from the Corelli/Tartini/Tortellini epoch which could make even me extremely happy to change the station to 98Rock.
I never had much prejudice against Rossini. The thought of really sitting down with the output of the other big Bel Canto composers like Bellini and Donizetti never filled me with excitement. But Rossini is another matter: Rossini knows exactly how absurd his operas (all operas?)are, and so he plays up all the ridiculousness - the incessant patter songs, the constant vocal runs that sound like machine gun fire, the obsessive rhythmic figures, the almost cocaine-binge level of propulsion, all sold to us at such a manic pitch that we don’t have the mental space to remember how ridiculous it is.

But with regard to Rossini’s most famous opera, there’s one other reason: Bugs Bunny.

Thanks to Bugs, I will never be able to listen to the opening melody to the Overture to the Barber of Seville without thinking “Welcome to my shop/let me cut your mop/let me shave your crop.” And it’s all over from there. It’s amazing that I’ve gotten this far in my life and until last month I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to The Barber of Seville all the way through It’s partially due to Bugs, a larger part was intellectual laziness. The fact that The Marriage of Figaro (which Mozart based on the play that was a sequel to the play this opera was based on) is probably my all time favorite opera/piece of music/experience in life makes this omission all the more humiliating. But the largest part was due to the fact that lots of recordings of Rossini bored me. Rossini is one of the ultimate singer vehicles: in Bel Canto repertoire, conductors let singers who are famous for their heavy voices get away with all sorts of unimaginative phrasing, monodynamic singing, and too-comfortable tempos which would enrage them if they were working on Verdi. The result was that Rossini sounded like a half-way rest area between Mozart and Verdi: lacking the beauty of the former and the drama of the latter.

(The amazing Act I finale courtesy of James Levine. As good as you could get in 1975.)

So this fall, I finally resolved to do one thing that I probably should have done years ago. I skipped the overture and searched for a recording that
might change my point of view. It took two minutes of searching through Napster’s excellent $15-a-month music service (RIP) to find a recording that looked interesting - one that starred Placido Domingo, not in the tenor role but in the principal Baritone role of Figaro himself (made long before he switched to Baritone repertoire). I looked at the rest of the cast-list, Kathleen Battle, Ruggero Raimondi, Frank Lopardo - almost every one of them singing half a fach (voicetype...roughly) heavier than the roles they usually play. And all of this with Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, whom years of radio experience taught me made easily the best of all Rossini overture recordings. Lo and behold, this opera really is as good as people say it is.
It’s still fairly common to view Rossini as a sort of layover in the journey of opera between Mozart and Verdi who wrote mostly comedies because he wasn’t great enough to write profundity. But Rossini is far too unlike either Mozart or Verdi to be compared to either. If there is anyone he could be compared to, it’s Gilbert and Sullivan - not for the incessant patter but for what the patter serves. In both cases, the high spirits are part of a greater desire to entertain. It simply does not take bad feeling for an answer.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

800 Words: 35 Favorite "Cultural Stuffs" in 2011: #23

23. Imogen Heap/Regina Spektor

I was discussing Mozart operas with the McBee last night over drinks (as I’m wont to do when I have too much alcohol), and the McBee made an argument which I can’t totally refute. How can people who aren’t familiar with opera’s aesthetic not be put off by the literary silliness of it? Even a piece as great as Don Giovanni (which certainly has one of the better librettos) has a libretto (script) that can be charitably described as ’dumb.’
My only argument against this is that much of the pop music we love would be considered just as absurd if not more if we weren’t raised on its aesthetic. Unless you’re a talent on the level of Bob Dylan/Leonard Cohen/Neil Young etc., your lyrics are no less dumb than anything in opera. And musically, rock’s aesthetic is so simple and predictable that in two centuries, it shouldn’t surprise any historian if people look at the Stones or even The Beatles with all the same incomprehension to which so many in my generation give even the greatest operas.
It shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who loves either Imogen Heap or Regina Spektor that they both grew up with the intention of being classical pianists. They are both top of the class exemplars of pop-rock’s latest (post-Bjork) generation: which bring a far heavier dose of classical music sophistication to pop music.
Imogen Heap won’t win any awards for lyrics in the next millennium, and her partnership with Guy Sigsworth in Frou Frou is nowhere near as good as her solo work, and even her last album was a bit of a letdown. Even so, Imogen Heap’s music has the clear elegance of a rare musical mind. Experiencing what Heap can do with music is a bit like a meeting with an encyclopedia. Her music should be used by less imaginative musicians as a manual of how to elicit sounds that would otherwise never occur to them. At her best, her albums strike a very rare balance: an attentive listener should be dazzled at the sheer virtuosity of how the music is put together, yet the technique rarely feels like overkill. In its own way and its own degree, the effect of her music is Mozartean.
For a lot of music lovers, Imogen Heap draws much more attention for how well she’s marketed her music than for the music itself. When she wrote her second album, ‘Speak for Yourself’, she used her website as a blog to update fans about the album’s progress. For her third album “Ellipse”, she used twitter to post updates, and acquired 700,000 followers in the process. Her latest album is being released piecemeal, each song as its own as soon as its completed with an accompanying music video. Four songs have been released so far, and at least two of them recall her best work. My favorite of the new songs is called ‘Propeller Seeds’, which has the fragile delicacy of a glockenspiel solo in The Magic Flute. Delicacy is perhaps the operative word in describing the Imogen Heap sound-world. Heap is an expert purveyor of delicate sounds, and that she does so in a music world where delicacy is often viewed as record sale poison makes her music that much more special.
It’s not saying much to state that Regina Spektor’s lyrics are better than Imogen Heap’s. But to say that Regina Spektor’s music is even better than Imogen Heap’s, while also saying that she’s also a reasonably good lyricist is probably to say that she has a once-in-a-decade talent. I’m not sure I’d go that far: her songs are deceptively simple. The harmonies are always effective, but they rarely go past the four-chord, simple meter pop song paradigms, albeit always arranged beautifully. Whereas Imogen Heap tries to stretch her musical imagination to the breaking point (and sometimes past it), Regina Spektor’s music stays on more familiar ground. She takes less risks, but within her more modest territory, she never stops being stunningly consistent. Spektor might be listed as a member of the genre, ‘anti-folk’, whatever that means...but she’s clearly a musical all-rounder whose vision is larger than any genre.
Whereas Imogen Heap’s music often thrives on sounding disquieting, like the strange music of a moon species, Regina Spektor’s music sounds completely unafraid of human sentiment. There are songs of hers that are almost shockingly self-revealing. To be sure, there are all sorts of oblique literary references, multi-lingual lyrics (she lived in Soviet Moscow until she was nine), odd instrumental flourishes that sound strange on first hearing, but underneath it is music that is more occupied with sounding human than sounding weird.
All sorts of big deals have been made about Spektor’s (rather familiar sounding) childhood, in which she grew up the piano-playing daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, solely interested in classical music. and discovered that she could write songs while on a trip to Israel. But this is partly because most people don’t realize how important it is that musicians can get some kind of proper training (and that people pay more attention to a musician when the musician is hot..). A kid classically trained as a musician can become a great ‘pop’ musician in adulthood, but it’s pretty much impossible to go the other way. In fact, perhaps this remnant of her classical background is her most impressive quality (and what makes her a featured performer in my dreams for the last year...). Begin to Hope has a classical musician’s long-range hearing which makes each song feel like just a small part of a cumulative whole that can take in everything from Joanie Mitchell, to Tom Waits, to Schumann, to Mussorgsky yet feel completely personal (call me!:).

Friday, December 23, 2011


Will happen when it can in the next few days. I'm in Maine currently for 'the season.' I have planned still my top ten 'cultural stuffs' for the year (in addition to #'s 18-24), and I wanted to do a piece about someone who hates the Messiah epidemic (a sentiment almost as ubiquitous as the performances themselves). Hopefully this is all stuff I can get to before the first of the year.

In the meantime, enjoy...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Motor City

I'm not even sure if this is selling Chrysler, but this has to be one of the greatest commercials ever made.

800 Words: 35 Favorite 'Cultural Stuffs' in 2011. #'s 12 & 11

12. Peabody Opera: L’Enfant et les sortileges (The Child and The Spells) by Maurice Ravel

(dancing math homework: every child’s nightmare)

It’s a shame that Ravel only wrote two operas. His imagination was probably too unique and too strange for the world’s most expensive artform. But that does not change the fact that Ravel’s forty-five minute opera is one of the very greatest ever written - a masterpiece of pure imagination, so different from any other opera that it would probably require its own genre if it were staged more than once a blue moon.
This opera could frankly work as either an acid trip and an absinthe burlesque. It should be impossible to describe the plot as incomprehensible without being unclear, but that’s precisely what the plot is: An obnoxious boy breaks various objects in his room, and the objects in the room come to life, as well as his homework, and furniture. His room then turns into a garden with various animals and plants whom the child has tortured. They all gang up to attack him, but wind up attacking each other. However, when the animals see the boy bandage a squirrel, they realize that he is not a monster, and help him return home.
On it’s face, the plot is bizarre. As a modern allegory for growing up, the terrors of childhood, how we mature, and how one learns compassion and love, it is extraordinary. It also helps that Ravel writes one of the all-time great scores - almost like a vaudeville variety show in which he finds a perfect musical nuance for everything from dancing sofas to a Wedgewood Teapot. Ravel’s great models for the score was Gershwin and Victor Herbert, which gives the score a distinctive jazz tint which is handled with an imagination which often eludes other French composers of the era who constructed whole careers around creating a classical/jazz fusion. But there is equal time given to passages that seemed ripped from the pages of Wagner, Verdi, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bellini Bel Canto, Gregorian Chant, Chinese Folk Music, Dixieland Jazz, Tchaikovsky Ballets, and an unmistakeable reference to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony - all processed through the unique Ravel tint that deftly navigates a middle ground between parody and tribute (except the Wagner..).
When I saw this at the Peabody Opera Theater back in March, I was both elated and saddened. It was a first-class performance of an all-too rarely performed masterpiece that should enchant anyone who’d ever heard it. But I could only lament the fact that I probably won’t hear this opera live for another thirty years. It is an all too sad fact that the classical works of true imagination which would probably impress music lovers best are the ones least likely to be performed. Once a music lover hears Verdi or Wagner, they pretty much know what to expect in every Grand Opera. Fortunately, Grand Opera is only one (overperformed) substrata of the opera world. Unfortunately, few people outside the world of opera know that. So when they have the chance to see something different, they’ll think it’s like any other opera they’ve ever seen. Furthermore, opera companies do themselves no favors in the long term by putting the same twenty operas on over and over again. If the opera world wants to entice a new audience, they have to find new repertoire.

Here are twenty-five operas (in no particular order and not counting L’Enfant et les Sortileges) that I would venture a guess would turn upside down every preconception you ever had about opera. This is not a list of the best operas, just a list of atypical once and a twitter length description about what makes it atypical:

1. Cunning Little Vixen by Leos Janacek

2. The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz

3. Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin (yes, it’s an opera)

4. Wozzeck by Alban Berg

5. Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi

6. The Nightingale by Igor Stravinsky

7. Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten

8. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartok

9. The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill

10. Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini

11. Showboat by Jerome Kern (opera houses are the only places that perform it anymore)

12. Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky (original version only)

13. The Abduction from the Seraglio by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

14. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Dimitri Shostakovich

15. The Love for Three Oranges by Sergei Prokofiev

16. Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass

17. Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg

18. West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein (Yes, that’s an opera too)

19. Nixon in China by John Adams

20. Sweeney Todd (So's most Sondheim)

21. Saint Francis of Assisi by Olivier Messiaen

22. The Dialogue of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc

23. Le Grande Macabre by Gyorgy Ligeti

24. Der junge Lord by Hans Werner Henze

25. Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov

11. Big Love Series Finale

If I do anything longer than a short post, I’ll probably never finish it. I’ve been putting off a long Big Love post since I began these ‘800 Words’ things, but a post about my thoughts on Big Love could easily go upward of 4,000 words. In some ways, it’s the riskiest show HBO has ever done (at least since I started watching). This is the only HBO show which tries to enter the minds of the people who would view the network itself as a sin. And unlike Bill Maher or HBO’s political films, this is a work that takes truly enormous pains to demonstrate why Americans who view the world differently from us believe what they do. Big Love was not a perfect show - it presented us with an alternate universe populated by a byzantine network of religious cults and century-old blood feuds, in which prophecy and revelation was not a matter for bygone eras but an utmost concern of the present. There were times (even a whole season) when there were too many characters to follow and not nearly enough time to explore them. But at its best, this was a TV show of extraordinary power. On the one hand, it had the intimate and human concerns of characters that are exactly like people we know, even as they are extremely different. On the other, the show had all the power of a biblical epic - culminating in a final episode which is either a simple summation of the show’s story, or the summation of a new (fourth?) testament. Like The Sopranos finale, it all depends on what you believe happened.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

800 Words: 35 Favorite 'Cultural Stuffs' in 2011. # 13

13. Mavis Staples/Charles Bradley

(Eyes on the Prize)
I feel like I’ve encountered the alpha and omega of soul music this year - not because Mavis Staples and Charles Bradley are the greatest soul singers you’ll ever hear, though you could do a lot worse. I say this because between these two singers, you get the two twin polls of soul music.
Mavis Staples’s music is pretty much unceasingly, assaultingly optimistic. This is one lady who will not take your gloom. If the sheer happiness of her music didn’t shake you like an earthquake, it would feel totally false. As it happens, Mavis Staples (both as part of her family and apart from it) sings music that is almost hilarious in how good it can make you feel. The only problem with it is that it’s all pretty much the same - mostly effervescent, meant to uplift, with an unceasing chain of five-six-and seven chords, and no end to lyrics about how our troubles are over because we put our trust in the Lord.
And no wonder Staples is always happy, Staples is a gospel singer born into musical royalty who once got a marriage proposal from Bob Dylan, and whose equally famous father was friends with Martin Luther King, Robert Johnson, and Mahalia Jackson. Her family was one of the great symbols of the civil rights movement. She was singer worshipped as a goddess of gospel from the time she was a teenager. Fortunately, she at least seems to have done the only logical thing: be happy about it and make others as happy as she is, for a little while.

(I’ll Take You There. So amazing.)
When I saw her set at the Newport Folk Festival this July, I was spellbound. My friends wanted to leave so they could see Devil Takes Three. I told them to go without me, I was staying until the unbittered end. This set was one of the great concerts of my life. Unlike so many soul singers, she’s just improved with age. I remember seeing James Brown in 2004 and thinking how sad it was. Brown clearly wanted to make himself feel more contemporary to his audience, so he had his band started chanting catchphrases like ‘Whoomp There it Is,’ a song from 1980. But Staples clearly knew exactly what she was. The music was almost all gospel, and her bluegrass ensemble was bluegrass and her young backup singers had half her energy level, it worked. Her voice may now be an octave lower, but it’s in stunningly good health. When she got to her famous closer, ‘I’ll Take You There’, I had moved up to the second row just so I could sing along with the true believers. I may never have seen Otis Redding or Ray Charles or James Brown in better days, but I’ll be able to tell grandchildren that I saw Mavis Staples.

(The World (Is Going Up In Flames)
It is very sad to see that Charles Bradley is considered part of a genre called ‘Retro Soul.’ Bradley’s been singing nearly as long as Mavis Staples. But if Staples forged her craft on the stages of music halls, Charles Bradley forged his on the streets of Brooklyn. He heard James Brown in 1962, and immediately knew his destiny. Fifty years later he finally got his debut album. This comes after a decade of making a living as a handyman while impersonating James Brown on the side. Before that working as a cook at a mental institution, and was laid off right after he made a downpayment on his house. Shortly before his debut, his brother was murdered.
If Mavis Staples was a queen of life, then Charles Bradley was a footstool. If Mavis Staples’s music is unending joy, then Charles Bradley’s is raw, cathartic pain. If Mavis Staples’s music is a testament to the optimism of the Black America during the Civil Rights era, then Charles Bradley’s is a testament to all the struggle and heartbreak that followed.

(Why Is It So Hard?)
For me, the most powerful song on his album, No Time for Dreaming, is How Long. Imagine, if you can, that Otis Redding had a few more years and lived to see the MLK assassination and the 68 riots. What sort of music would he have written? Perhaps he’d have gone the sellout route, but I’d like to think that he might have been the great documenter in music of urban disintegration that we’d never had. If this song had come out forty years ago, it could have been the most potent soul song ever sung. And for all we know, as Le Malon pointed out to me, Bradley might have written this 4 decades ago. As it is, what he says in this song is nearly as true today as it was in the days following MLK’s death.
In talking about both of these artists, I’ve missed a crucial element. Both of them very clearly talk in their music about where their attitudes to contemporary America were forged. For Mavis Staples, her worldview comes straight out of the optimism and determination of the 60’s. A fact which you can readily see in the lyrics to Freedom Highway:


March for freedom's highway
March each and every day
Made up my mind and I won't turn around
Made up my mind and I won't turn around
There is just one thing
I can't understand my friend.
Why some folk think freedom
Was not designed for all men.
Yes I think I voted for the right man
Said we would overcome.

But Charles Bradley, a man formed by the 1970’s projects, is clearly a much more despairing about opportunities, about hopes for our country, about life itself. Just read the lyrics to How Long:

How long
Must I keep going on?
To see all this pain in the world
How long, oh
Tell me, tell me
tell me
How long? o.

Ooh, oh, ow, oh
I talked my brother the other day
he said brother
please, gimme a little fix
I look at him and said
brother, don't leave me (repeat)

How long?
Must you keep suffering like this?

You know how people suffering
they looking for something, something to look up to
they looking for a change

How long?


what I'm gonna do
what i'm gonna say
please hear me...
make this world right, ooh people

Monday, December 19, 2011

800 Words: Hitch and Me Part 4

Hitch: I was a member of the antitotalitarian left, a member so extreme in my anti-authoritarianism that I would endure the hardships of war to obliterate the hardships of peace.

Evan: I’m not even going to begin to unpack that.

Hitch: You don’t have to. Fuck the ones who can’t understand it.

Evan: I’m not sure I can.

Hitch: You can, you just don’t want to.

Evan: I can’t afford to have standards that high.

Hitch: Are we talking about sex now?

Evan: Maybe.

Hitch: Not my problem.

Evan: Indeed. So you believe that there are things more odious about peace than about war?

Hitch: If it’s forged from the blood of innocents, it is a spurious peace.

Evan: Well what if there’s demonstrable proof that less innocent people are killed through one option than another?

Hitch: Tell that to the slaughtered innocents.

Evan: Can’t we all forget about the blood of innocents a for just a minute or two a day?

Hitch: Their families haven’t forgotten.

Evan: I’m pretty sure their families would be very grateful for your devotion and then be incredibly glad to close the door when you leave.

Hitch: How could you tell such a mendacious lie? I’m beloved by those I champion.

Evan: You also love everything until the minute you decide you hate it.

Hitch: This from the guy who’d never heard of Ween until he hated Ween before he loved them before he hated them more than ever?

Evan: I can’t even remember a song by Ween right now.

Hitch: A sure sign you cared.

Evan: And you remember everything you ever fulminated about?

Hitch: I always operated on drunk memory.

Evan: Oh yeah. That really does work. I barely remember a word of any foreign language until I have a few drinks.

Hitch: Some would argue you still can’t when you have a few drinks.

Evan: They’re probably right.

Hitch: I’m not so sure about that. Alcohol’s a memory juice.

Evan: Except when it isn’t.

Hitch: I wouldn’t know.

Evan: But you romanticized drinking. Most of us get drunk because we want to fit in at a party or we wanted to forget about the ex we just saw out with our worst enemy.

Hitch: I went to Balliol College, Oxford in the late 60’s, a place and era when being a well-travelled man of letters and mystery was a simple career option. You got a 3.4 GPA at a third-rate university and have no particularly useful family or school connections. The only people of your station who will attain my level of eminence are those who do exactly as more fortunate people tell them every day until they reach senility.

Evan: How cheerful.

Hitch: You sound as though you’re not enthused by that.

Evan: Should I be?

Hitch: We’re the only chance you have. It’s people like me that are fighting for a better life for you.

Evan: So encouraging....When should we see the results?

Hitch: When people start listening to us.

Evan: That’s less encouraging.

Hitch: So why did you stop listening?

Evan: I didn’t stop listening. I just got exhausted and decided I needed some brakes.

Hitch: Tyranny allows no breaks.

Evan: Neither do you.

Hitch: This is getting unpleasant.

Evan: Indeed.

Hitch: Well, let’s get back to the original point. I was a member of the antitotalitarian left, a member so extreme in my anti-authoritarianism that I would endure the hardships of war to obliterate the hardships of peace.

Evan: It’s almost like you rehearse all these quotes in the mirror.

Hitch: Every day for five hours.

Evan: So what hardships are there in peace?

Hitch: The fact that all peace is, in some sense, a false peace so long as war exists somewhere else.

Evan: So...I’m going to cut two more hours of noodling to say that the end of all this is that you would wage perpetual war until peace is won for all time?

Hitch: More or less...

Evan: More or less??? That’s a pretty big point to be inexact about.

Hitch: So long as people are suffering, others have an obbligation to help in any way they can.

Evan: So after all this drumbanging about freedom, you’re still the same militant who rages against woolly liberals the way all socialists and conservatives do. And you'd wage all the hard-won instruments of peace and freedom to make war against tyranny with all the same manicheanism that any fascist or communist would employ, simply because not everybody is free?....

Hitch: Sounds like a fair bargain to me.

Evan: You realize that that’s insane. Right?

Hitch: I don’t aspire to sanity. I aspire to end suffering.

Evan: That’s insane.

Hitch: It’s a lifestyle. I’m dead so I can admit that now.

Evan: Well, lifestyle or not, you’ve annoyed a lot of people for no good reason.

Hitch: There was a good reason. It might have been a lifestyle, but I mostly fought for the right causes and I think I helped them.

Evan: Well, I certainly think they were almost all the right causes so I can’t argue there.

Hitch: For better or worse, my name is secure for posterity. I was the great non-fiction writer of the last generation of an exclusively British civilisation. My comrades and I proposed that Britain and therefore the world had sustained a civilisation open to a precious few and built on the blood and toil of less fortunate men. The time has arrived to tear it down like indolent flesh so the privileges open only to people like me for so long may be enjoyed by many more.

Evan: Well, I can’t help agreeing with most of that, but in the process you threw out quite a bit more in some areas and not enough in others.

Hitchens: Would you care to give some examples?

Evan: Hell no. I still have to go to sleep.

Hitchens: Suit yourself. Until next time comrade.

Evan: ..Wait!’s coming over the wire that Kim Jong-Il just died.

Hitch: I should know. Havel and I called in a few favors.

Evan: Wait, so there is a God and you got him to kill Kim Jong-Il?

Hitch: Not as such. Existence is in fact an parliamentary semi-republic in which the venal heavenly ministers make bargains with corrupt olympian businessmen and thuggish celestial soldiers of fortune. The new Prime Minister is a particularly criminal sort. He’s a giant aviary being whose every nerve is visible through his exoskeleton.

Evan: So God’s a flying spaghetti monster after all?

Hitch: I suppose he is. On that note however I have to go. I have a meeting in an hour with the managing editor of Kingdom of Chaos magazine. I think he’s going to make an offer.

Evan: Well it’s good to know that eternity has room for the Hitch.

Hitch: See you in fifty-two years, five months, thirteen days.

Evan: My death date?

Hitch: No, just the date you’re diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Evan: Oh.

Hitch: I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other more often after that. But I’ll see you well before then. We still have many more of these to do. Cheers.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

ET: Almanac

"How much trust or even admiration for the Western peace movement can we expect from a simple yet sensitive citizen of Eastern Europe when he has noticed that this movement has never, at any of its congresses or at demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of participants, got around to protesting the fact that five years ago, one important European country attacked a small neutral neighbor and since that time has been conducting on its territory a war of extermination which has already claimed a million dead and three million refugees? Seriously, what are we to think of a peace movement, a European peace movement, which is virtually unaware of the only war being conducted today by a European state? As for the argument that the victims of aggression and their defenders enjoy the sympathies of Western establishments and so are not worthy of support from the left, such incredible ideological opportunism can provoke only one reaction -- utter disgust and a sense of limitless hopelessness."

- Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) Anatomy of a Reticence

ET: Almanac

"Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan "I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;' he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, "What's wrong with the workers of the world uniting?" Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology. . . .
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe. . . .
The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing. . . .
Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system. . . .
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe. . . ."

- Power and the Powerless by Vaclav Havel (1936-2011). If Hitch was not our Orwell, perhaps Havel was.

800 Words: Hitch and Me Part 3

Hitch: Well Evan, prepare for lots and lots of namedropping.

Evan: It’s a specialty of us both. And how else will people remember all those names. With you gone, a whole era’s beginning to pass now.

Hitch: Yes it has. I’m just the first.

Evan: Weren’t you predeceased by Tony Judt and Peter Porter?

Hitch: Judt’s an academic. Porter’s an Aussie.

Evan: What about Pinter?

Hitch: (waves hand dismissively) Pinter’s not a writer.

Evan: Oh.

Hitch: But soon it’ll be Naipaul and Frayn, thereafter Clive James and Derek Walcott, and soon enough it’ll be Salman and Fenton. Eventually even Martin will go.

Evan: And those are just the English ones. But some of those guys: like McEwan, Barnes, Stoppard, they look like they could go on forever:

Hitch: Indeed, they could last as long as Robert Conquest.

Evan: And even Robert Conquest outlasted you.

Hitch: Don’t forget Eric Hobsbawm.

Evan: And Robert Service. I always thought Robert Conquest and Robert Service were the same person.

Hitch: They are. Don’t tell anyone.

Evan: But except for the occasional Naipaul, it’s probable that no American of my generation knows any of those names.

Hitch: They know Salman’s.

Evan: Not for his books.

Hitch: You’re right, they know him for the death sentence and marrying that chick on Top Chef.

Evan: I haven’t even read anything by half of them.

Hitch: Well then if you want to understand what they meant to a certain part of the world, please imagine something for me. Let’s say for the moment, there is a long tradition of English letters that begins with Tyndale and the King James Bible. It begins as a tradition appreciated mostly through oral recitation with Marlowe, Jonson, Fletcher, and Shakespeare. Meanwhile Shakespeare and Donne begin to create with the sonnets begin to create a written tradition that takes spiritual sources from the Bible and erotic sources from antiquity. It’s developed by Herbert, Marvell, Traherne, Crashaw and Cowley. And it reaches its apex in Milton, who assimilated all of his predecessors’ work and the writers who influenced them to create a metaphysical, erotic work that challenges no less than the Bible itself - aesthetically and morally.

Evan: I never cared for Paradise Lost.

Hitch: Shut up.

Evan: Yessir.

Hitch: This tradition is now so strong that it begins to dawn on them that they are responsible for seeking a greater freedom - a freedom from the inevitable requirements of tyranny that accounts for matters both aesthetic and moral. With Pope its poetry moves away from the stiff poses of heroic verse, and he brings with him poets as diverse as Oliver Goldsmith, Ambrose Phillips, John Gay, Henry Carey, the Thomases Grey, Wharton, and Percy, James Thomson, and Edward Young. With Locke, philosophy begins to postulate that men need not be ruled like cattle, which leads to the speculations of Bishop Berkeley, Hume and Bentham in a line that culminates with John Stuart Mill. With Swift, we realized that people can and should make fun of authority. With the good Dr. Johnson, the art of criticizing other becomes an art in itself. With Edward Gibbon, we see that historical writing can catalog an entire civilisation. And finally, with Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and Sterne a new, entire, imaginative universe is revealed to us, parallel to ours, alike and utterly different from it. It is the novel in fetal state: less verifiable to reality, narratively less secure. But it is at very least the modern novel’s official birth.

Evan: I’m pretty sure I had to read the last three of them for an English lit class.

Hitch: What did you think of them?

Evan: I never did the reading.

Hitch: Skip Richardson, read the other two. You should see the Albert Finney movie of Tom Jones.

Evan: I have, it’s awesome....So would it be fair to say that this your favorite period of the tradition.

Hitch: Not entirely unfair.

Evan: And you are today’s Swift or Samuel Johnson?

Hitch: I could never write fiction, so that precludes being Swift. But if I’m not the good Doctor, at least I’m somebody’s Boswell.

Evan: Better than being somebody’s Andrew Sullivan.

Hitch: And so by the 19th century, this tradition accumulated so much to learn along the way that the artists within it must begin to question its value. People are able to read poets like Keats, Blake, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge - each of whom throws off the conventions of the Enlightment in completely different ways and forges new paths for poetry utterly unlike one another.

Evan: Weren’t Keats, Byron and Shelley all champions for all the Enlightenment causes?

Hitch: Keats didn’t love anything that wasn’t at least two millenia old, Shelley was a pagan, and Byron fooled around with his sister.

Evan: Ah.

Hitch: A generation later, the imaginative universe of the novel becomes a battleground to elucidate truths about the world of our own. It starts when Austen critiques the world of love and the Bronte sisters the treatment of women. It then metastasizes to the searing critiques of a larger society which one finds in Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens, George Elliot, Wilkie Collins and Thomas Hardy. If one could view this development as a river, then they are the main banks, with many tributaries for genres that are populated with later writers like Lewis Carrol, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G Wells, and Beatrix Potter. In addition, there is a resurrection of the English stage centered upon Wilde and Shaw. And meanwhile, there is a second flowering of romantic poetry, this one meant to be full of grandeur and portent, an imperial poetry for an imperious age in which we read the new verse of Tennyson, Swinburne, the Rosettis, the Brownings, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Macaulay, A. E. Houseman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. And with it comes a school of brutally hard-hitting critical essays that flow from Dr. Johnson into the Walters Pater and Bagheot, the Thomases De Quincey and Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Samuel Butler, John Ruskin, and William Hazlitt.

Evan: Y’know...this is beginning to sound an awful lot like simple namedropping.

Hitch: Where else would people need to go for intellectual namedropping on the internet if they simply read my articles and your blog?

Evan: Point taken. But what does portent mean?

Hitch: I’ve never given it much thought.

Evan: I see why people called you intellectually honest.

Hitch: Speaking of intellectually honest, how many of these 19th century writers have you read in a serious manner?

Evan: Um...I’m tempted to say none. But the truth is...let me think...certainly many of these poets, some Dickens, I love Middlemarch but I still can’t finish it...

Hitch: That’s George Elliot.

Evan: I know that. Also, a good amount of Sherlock Holmes, Treasure Island when I was MUCH younger, The Time Machine...and a lot of kids’ books versions of every novelist you mentioned. I also loved Jude the Obscure, (shoots Hitch a look), that’s Hardy I know. I also love Hardy’s poetry, particularly The Darkling Thrush. I really liked a Trollope novella I had to read in college, but with a name like his...

Hitch: Insert obvious university freshman joke here.

Evan: You asked.

Hitch: Indeed, which brings me to my next question, what did all of these writers have in common?

Evan: They’ve never been in my kitchen?

Hitch: Quite true. But they too are English to the marrow. With so few exceptions, every name dropped in our conversation thus far is native rooted to English soil. It is only with the arrival of Joseph Conrad, a Pole for whom English was a third language, that England reads an author of a truly international English tongue. He was one of the two first and last documenters of England at Empire - him and Rudyard Kipling alone were the imperial authors. Together, the weary cosmopolitanism of Conrad along with the innocent exuberance of Kipling’s adventurism. How much of Conrad and Kipling have you read Evan?

Evan: Not enough. I’ve read a number of Conrad novels and can barely remember a single thing about them. As for Kipling, some poetry a number of years ago....I remember thinking it was pretty good.

Hitch: A good thing this lesson in English literature is given by me and not you.

Evan: Indeed.

Hitch: But the grand adventures stopped very quickly after World War I. And afterward, English writers began to paint on canvasses far smaller that almost completely ignored that which they did not wish to see. By this time true breath of imaginative English writing was to be found in America. And because these canvasses were smaller, there were more of them than ever before. There was Wodehouse, Waugh, Powell, Forster, and Kingsley Amis who focused almost exclusively on upper class gentry. There was Virginia Woolf using the upper class as a pin upon which to hang her formal experimentation. There was the science-based fiction of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Doris Lessing, Alasdair Gray, and J.G. Ballard. And the Christian based fantasy of Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Mervyn Peake, and Robert Graves. There was the children’s fiction of Roald Dahl and Philippa Pearce. And the historical fictions of Georgette Heyer, and Penelope Fitzgerald. One can't forget the political fictions of Orwell, Graham Greene, and John leCarre, and no less important the genre fiction of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Patricia Highsmith, and Ian Fleming. And then there is the more considered high philosophical novel you find in Iris Murdoch, John Fowles, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess, A.S. Byatt, and William Golding, and the travel writing of Naipaul and Jan Morris. But one simply can't forget to mention a new theatrical tradition that begins with Beckett and goes through our near contemporaries like Pinter, Stoppard, John Osborne, both Ayckbourns, both Shaffers, Ronald Harwood, Michael Frayn, and Alan Bennett. And it's particularly important that one can't forget the poets: War poets like Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon. Modernist poets such as D.H. Lawrence, Richard Aldington, Ford Maddox Ford and T.S. Eliot. Or the MacSpAuDay group of the 30's: W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Lewis MacNiece. Or the poets from The Movement which spurned modernism like Phillip Larkin, Peter Porter, and Seamus Heaney. Not to forget poets as important as Ted Hughes, Alan Sillitoe, and Geoffrey Hill who fit no movement neatly. And last but not least an entire philosophical, historical, and critical tradition of commentary, the names from which it would be impossible to recite without doubling this list.

Evan: At this point can’t we count Joyce, and Yeats too? You've already counted a bunch of other Irish.

Hitch: What’s another two Irishmen in this company?

Evan: Even I can’t believe how incredibly pretentious this got.

Hitch: And rather boring, but there is a larger point of all of those names, and that is to say that in order to inherit all of this tradition, we had to swallow the whole thing; read everything from the Bible to John Fowles’s beard and be able to recite days worth of the stuff from memory. The tradition of English letters is one of the longest and fullest flowerings of civilisation in the world's history. Through an our body of literature, we have reached the limits of what humanity has yet thought. And in our particular corner of human thought, our generation reached the absolute limits of human erudition. No generation has ever nor will ever again know it nor be required to know these writers as intimately the as English writers and readers of my generation did. For our generation is the last for whom the English language is not the property of the entire world. We shall be the last Dead White Males. After us, Englishness shall no longer matter to the English language. And with that irrelevance, many of the great English writers will disappear completely.

Evan: That’s a lot of literature to learn about.

Hitch: Well, wikipedia helps.

Evan: So in a sense, your literary generation was the one which buried English literature.

Hitch: We didn’t just bury English literature. We blew up the corpse. English literature is over. And it will never be rebuilt.

Evan: How did you do that?

Hitch: Politics. But we can discuss that in part 4.

Evan: At some point we have to end this conversation. I still have 13 more in my favorite cultural stuffs of the year.

Hitch: Well, whenever you like. I have nothing but time now.

How Long by Charles Bradley

Just imagine if Otis Redding had lived just a year or two longer and had a song like this in response to the 68 riots and the MLK assassination. It would be THE classic of American music.

h/t Le Malon

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dan Deacon

Aside from standing next to John Waters for twenty minutes, there was little about seeing Dan Deacon live at Baltimore's Ottobar that didn't sadden me. Deacon is an amazingly gifted musician who has produced two (four? eight?) albums that show a real musical mind at work behind all the electronic silliness. I love the goofiness of his music making. But nobody at his show was listening to anything in his music, goofy or otherwise. It was just a single massive mosh pit that seemed dimly aware that they were dancing to a beat with some chords that seemed to fit decently well together. And the speakers were pounding the beats at such a high level that you couldn't even hear the amazing designs in his compositions.

(Pink Batman)

This is a shame, because Deacon is most definitely the real thing. On the classical side, music like his seems the next logical step from Glass, Reich, Stockhausen, perhaps even Nancarrow and Ligeti (at least Lukacs). On the 'pop' side, this is clearly somebody who knows his Eno and Bowie (and perhaps the ghost of Zappa presiding over his every idea) but he's also part of the post-Aphex Twin world of electronic music that goes for musical complexity without fear. But there is very little in his music of the sort of ironic numbing to expression that makes so much electronica not worth listening to. There's real emotional commitment to this music, which is, sadly, too rare in the electronic music world. To my great relief, classical and the various pop worlds are drawing ever closer together, with more cross pollination than we've seen since the invention of modern popular music. And the sooner he can find a live crowd that actually listens to his music, the quicker people are going to realize that he might soon be a giant.

(woof woof)

Friday, December 16, 2011

800 Words: Hitch and Me Part 2

Evan: Y’know, you died on the very day the Iraq War ended.

Hitch: I am the Iraq War.

Evan: What?

Hitch: I am the very reason it happened.

Evan: What the fuck does that mean?

Hitch: It means that I was raised from the cradle to believe that democracy and freedom were things worth preserving at all costs. And if liberty’s caretakers were inadequate to the task of freedom, then they would have to be replaced. If it meant supporting George W. Bush, I stay with George W. Bush through all. If it meant supporting the Sandistas and Arafat, then one does not waver or falter in the pursuit of liberty’s tree.

Evan: But isn’t that precisely the sort of liberal tradeoff you abhor?

Hitch: Of course. But nobody needs to acknowledge the flaws of reality when moral absolutes are at stake.

Evan: But shouldn’t you care about how these things work in reality?

Hitch: Why should I? If my life meant anything to people, it means that it’s possible to feel enormous moral indignation without actually being affected by it.

Evan: Does this mean that your rage at the moral failings of political figures was manufactured?

Hitch: No. But rage is an overrated emotion to begin with. I could summon it at will to whatever target I wished.

Evan: That’s a talent I should like to have.

Hitch: There are those who would argue...

Evan: Let’s stop that right there, shall we?

Hitch: Suit yourself.

Evan: In any event, you were telling me about how you are the Iraq War itself?

Hitch: Indeed, I am.

Evan: And how is that possible?

Hitch: Because there is no cause in my lifetime in which I did not take the most extreme possible position on the side of liberty’s defense. Extremism in the pursuit of virtue is my great contribution to modern society.

Evan: Shouldn’t you be a little worried about where that could lead you if you took the wrong position?

Hitch: That’s nothing a few shots of Maker’s Mark can’t fix.

Evan: And that’s ultimately why you were such a terrible fit in the Obama era.

Hitch: Indeed. At a time when America is thoroughly gripped by a plague of thoughtful uncertainty, my rhetorical bromides are far too strong stuff.

Evan: The last five years of your life, you were for all intents and purposes a political irrelevance.

Hitch: I was lucky that I found a larger target.

Evan: there a God?

Hitch: Does it matter? If He exists, He’s very thankful that I paid Him the ultimate tribute?

Evan: You died for His sins?

Hitch: I like the ironies there, but no. A lifetime spent grappling with increasingly large questions of the world’s upside down morality finally centered on our one enormous explanation that allows us to commit every evil.

Evan: But even if religion is as bad as you say. Isn’t it just a symptom of human nature’s badness? Not the root?

Hitch: If you eliminate religion, you eliminate the sanction for people to commit evil disguised as good.

Evan: Couldn’t humans simply find another way to bless evil acts?

Hitch: We’ll never know until we get rid of the existing system.

Evan: Didn’t they do that in Russia?

Hitch: Yes. And religion made Bolshevism possible.

Evan: This is going in circles.

Hitch: You eliminate the circle if you get rid of religion.

Evan: No you don’t.

Hitch: When I was a student at Oxford, I began to realize something important that has never left me.

Evan: And what was that?

Hitch: That ever so gradually, we are getting better.

Evan: As a society?

Hitch: As a species.

Evan: How do you figure?

Hitch: Once again, I’m my own best evidence.

Evan: It’s amazing that some fan of yours didn’t kill you before cancer did.

Hitch: Gradually, mankind is getting better. And it’s up to the better specimen of mankind like myself to ensure that progress continues to be made.

Evan: And what sort of progress is that?

Hitch: Freedom, openness, tolerance.

Evan: And aren’t you afraid of what might be found out in comparison to mankind’s worse specimens?

Hitch: Not in the slightest. It’s by openly showing how much more attractive my view of the world is than theirs that we will make them understand how much better their lives can be.

Evan: Aren’t you afraid it might not work out the way you’d hoped?

Hitch: I’ll take that risk.

Evan: So in spite of all this romanticizing conflict and the forces of good vs. evil, you really do consider yourself an enlightenment guy.

Hitch: Oh yes. I believe that writing like mine will lead to the betterment of mankind.

Evan: You see, I could never really get behind that.

Hitch: Why not?

Evan: Maybe I’m just not political enough, maybe I just don’t have that high an opinion of myself.

Hitch: I highly doubt that.

Evan: Me too. But even so, the thought that anything I ever did could contribute much one way or the other to the betterment of mankind seems kind of ridiculous. And even if I could I’m not sure I’d want to.

Hitch: Well, then I feel a bit of contempt for you Mr. Tucker.

Evan: Suit yourself.

Hitch: Don’t you think that it’s important to have oneself recognized as being on the right side in the great march of conflict between the forces of good and evil?

Evan: Not really. I find these questions interesting, and of course I’d rather people do well and be happy. But most of us adults have to give up on the idea of always being able to do the right thing.

Hitch: That’s simple laziness.

Evan: Perhaps. It’s also maturity.

Hitch: If that’s maturity, then I’m glad I tried to stay immature for the whole of my life.

Evan: And you succeeded at that quite well.

800 Words: Hitch and Me Part 1

(It is nearly three in the morning. Christopher Hitchens, Evan’s college hero, is dead. Evan has been on the phone with Le Malon for two hours: summoning up remembrances of things past, drinking three honorary scotches, and as he occasionally does - celebrating the best of what life has to offer. Just when life can’t get any better, in walks a ghostly, see-through image of The Hitch in better times: a full head of hair, paunch intact, bedecked in a rumpled blue button-down, rolled up sleeves and a too small pair of khakis.)

Evan: there a God?

Hitch: Who cares? Where’s that Laphraoig bottle?

Evan: In the dining room.

(the bottle magically appears in Hitchens hand, he immediately takes a swig)

Hitch: Well, you’ve been reading me regularly for nine years. What have you learned?

Evan: That I should get drunk more often.

Hitch: Good man.

Evan: Seriously, after I heard you died I got on the phone with my best friend from college and we drank together for two hours.

Hitch: Oh dear. That sounds strangely like you care that I’m dead.

Evan: I suppose I do.

Hitch: How does it feel to no longer be the guy who makes fun of people who mourn celebrities publicly?

Evan: Pretty awkward actually. I feel like a hypocrite.

Hitch: (holds up the Laphroaig) Drink more, it’ll dull the feeling.

Evan: My feelings are pretty numb already.

Hitch: I’d have never refused another drink when I was your age.

Evan: I also plan to make it past seventy.

Hitch: Your biblical three-score and ten? Isn’t that a bit presumptuous?

Evan: Only to the idea that life is worth sticking around for.

Hitch: I’d have checked out long ago without the happy sauce.

Evan: All good things in moderation.

Hitch: Does anyone actually believe that?

Evan: I don’t know... You’re dead now.

Hitch: And the world seems to have noticed.

Evan: Why has no other writer's death in my lifetime gotten this kind of mass outpouring?

Hitch: How many writers do you know who can can drink, smoke, and fuck every day, and still have their ideas taken seriously?

Evan: Personally?

Hitch: You don’t know any writers personally.

Evan: Well, there’s you....there’s Albert Camus,...there’s Byron,....there’s Mailer...

Hitch: Don’t forget Truman Capote.

Evan: Indeed. But where exactly are you going with this?

Hitch: That I’m the ultimate fourth-estate playboy every aspiring political writer wants to be.

Evan: Is that all?

Hitch: Why don’t you listen to one of my typical days (pulls out black notebook): this is October 20th, 2006.
I get up at ten in the morning and write 1000 words about the plight of the oppressed and downtrodden in the still unrecognized Kurdistan. I wrap it all up in an hour and a half, and leave for a twelve-o’clock lunch with James Fenton and Grover Norquist at La Tomate in Dupont Circle. The lunch goes until 4:30 in the afternoon during which we spend three hours discussing the finer points of Rosa Luxembourg’s influence on Hannah Arendt’s writings while clearing two bottles of grappa. At four-thirty I go back to my apartment because at five I’m due to host a gathering of Libyan freedom fighters who show me an official intelligence brief about Qaddafi’s sadomasochistic proclivities. In the midst of this gathering walks Salman Rushdie and Olivia Wilde, and we all spend an hour playing the literary Vagina game (in which you substitute any word in a literary title with the word ‘Vagina’. Dickens novels work particularly well in this regard...). Rushdie is here early for a meet and greet which also includes Christopher Buckley, Antonin Scalia, Rashid Khalidi and Richard Dawkins. Tony Blair was supposed to be there as well, but he backed out at the last minute. The soiree begins at seven, but around eight-fifteen Khalidi misquotes Wodehouse and that begins a debate about the influence of Martin Chuzzlewit in the poetry of Thomas Hardy that lasts until three in the morning. At which point Salman begs off to fuck his latest toy and people begin to trickle out. Scalia is the last to leave at four-thirty, at which point I polish off an essay about Connor Cruise O’Brien for Vanity Fair.
Now, let me ask you, Evan. What part of this experience does not appeal to you?

Evan: Meh.

Hitch: Really?

Evan: Oh my god I'd have killed to even experience an hour of a life like this one!!!!

Hitch: And there you have it sir. The artist as hero, that old 19th century phenomenom that was supposed to have died out when Celine did a radio ad on behalf of Vichy Water. The desire for a life like this is exactly why you drank and chainsmoked yourself into an extra seventy pounds in college.

Evan: It was fun while it lasted. To say nothing of using a university column to take potshots at other students I resented. It made me a writer for life, it also probably ruined any chance I had at becoming a writer professionally.

Hitch: You had to admit though, it was fun.

Evan: It’s still the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer. Particularly because nothing I wrote mattered. And that was the difference between me and you. I wrote that stuff because I was interested in it but didn’t care, you wrote because you cared...

Hitch: ...and wasn’t interested. Scruitiny is not part of my makeup. I don’t like reality, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to avoid it. And some of us are lucky enough that we never face reality until we’re stone dead.

Evan: I did.

Hitch: A shame you had to.

Evan: Indeed it was. But it was a good time while it lasted, you were the perfect model of everything I wanted to be when I was twenty-two.

Hitch: I managed to stay twenty-two for another forty years.

Evan: I’d certainly trade old age for that ability.

Hitch: You may yet have the chance...

Evan: Doubtful...