Untitled (Night View of Trees and Streetlamp, Burgkühnauer Allee, Dessau), 1928.
This morning I’ve been reading our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, on the protests in Egypt. —Lorin Stein
I’ve just learned that the poet R. F. Langley—like me, a Staffordshire lad—has just died. It’s well worth reading Jeremy Harding’s tribute to Langley’s “fiber-optic attention” over at the LRB blog, and it’s only a short trip from there to the faintly surreal pastoral world evoked by Langley’s verse and journals. His playful approach to poetic form and intimate but elliptical voice tilt the reader’s perspective ever so slightly askew. This isn’t nature as seen beneath the microscope, but glimpsed through the looking glass. —Jonathan Gharraie
Earlier this week, I stumbled on Charles Baxter’s short story “Poor Devil”. Baxter documents a divorced couple’s last moments and memories together as they clean the “house where [they] tried to stage [their] marriage,” ending in the couple—eyes closed and arms out—intimately stumbling through the dark together to look for the ex-wife’s purse, “divorced, but … still married.” Oof. —Sam Dolph
I used to hate it when grown-ups sang the praises of rereading. Then I got old. This week it’s The Counterlife and No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger. I remember there was a waiting list at our school library when this restored edition of Mark Twain’s fantasy novel came out, and that it blew my fourth-grade mind. No wonder. Telepathy, time travel, a clandestine printing press in a dilapidated castle—inhabited by a boy narrator who happens to sound like Mark Twain? I must have thought I’d found the Perfect Book. —L. S.
I love books, like Nicholson Baker’s U & I and Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J. D. Salinger, that are as much explorations of one writer’s obsession with another as the critical studies or biographies they purport to be. Can you recommend anything else in this vein? —Anonymous
Can I ever! First, if you haven’t read it yet, get hold of Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. A sample:
Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D. H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate.
That is sentence one. Things go, hysterically, downhill from there.
On a recent Friday night, lured by the promise of a secret performance, a throng of people piled into a small basement on Eldridge Street. By the time I had arrived, the place was densely packed, and in wading through the crowd I noticed that a foamy, doughy material covered the floor. Behind the front desk, an off-white painting by Lutz Bacher read, in bold black lettering, “Have you heard the one about the cow, the Frenchman, and the bottle of Budweiser?” Nearby, a smiling Justin Bieber stared out from a Chinese-like rectangular banner displayed on a coverless ironing board. It was hot and uncomfortable, and I pitied the blush-cheeked baby who was nestled in a BabyBjörn. The performance still hadn’t started, but given that the exhibition on view featured artists Liam Gillick, Matt Keegan, and Amy Granat, I was willing to wait, sure that whatever lay ahead would be worthwhile.
Since it opened last September, the Artist’s Institute has hosted a number of intriguing short exhibitions, lasting only a day or a weekend. Conceived and run by thirty-five-year-old curator Anthony Huberman, whose résumé includes stints as education director of P. S. 1, curator at Palais de Tokyo, and chief curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the space is quickly becoming a standout in the gallery-dense Lower East Side. Funded by Hunter College, it operates year-round as an affiliate to the school’s graduate visual-arts program. Huberman, who conducts a weekly seminar at Hunter related to the Institute, says he wanted to “counter the conveyor-belt problem in art where, before we have time to think about what a show means, it gets swallowed by what’s next.” Each season, the Institute chooses one artist, the “anchor,” around which Huberman and his crew of student “researchers” mount exhibitions and events. The entire fall season was dedicated to the relatively unknown Fluxus artist Robert Filliou, a Frenchman and a friend of George Brecht. He served as inspiration, in the loosest sense, to the shows, and his commands to “unlearn,” “disinvent,” and “misunderstand” were somewhat adopted as the Institute’s dogma.
On October 26, 1961, Sonny Clark reported to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for a recording session led by alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. Clark brought with him a new composition he called “Five Will Get You Ten.” He was an effective composer, and his tunes were welcome at most sessions. However, this one he’d stolen from Thelonious Monk. He had probably seen the sheet music or heard Monk working out the tune on the piano at the Weehawken, New Jersey, home of the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who routinely made her home a rest stop and clubhouse for jazz musicians.
Monk called the tune “Two Timer”; Clark gave it a new name so he could claim composer’s royalties. It was the move of a desperate, depleted junky. (W. Eugene Smith had cameras, lenses, and other equipment stolen from his loft by jazz junkies all the time, but, an addict himself, he wasn’t one to judge. The thefts would leave him both distraught and ambivalent.) According to Robin D. G. Kelley’s remarkable recent biography of Monk, the elder master treated Clark like a “troubled younger brother,” and he never did anything about the stolen tune. Chances are that by the time Monk heard McLean’s record and realized what had happened, Clark was dead, or in some other condition that made a reprimand irrelevant.
In the last eighteen months of Clark’s life, he would climb to daylight for brief periods, breath clean air, play some beautiful music, and then sink to lower and lower depths. In the August 1962 issue of the invaluable, idiosyncratic Canadian jazz magazine, Coda, there was this report from New York by Fred Norsworthy:
One of the saddest sights these days is the terrible condition of one of the nation’s foremost, and certainly original pianists. Having been around for many years he came into his own in 1959 and no one deserved it more than he. I feel that something should be done about drug addiction before we lose many more artists. I saw him several times in the past three months and was shocked to see one of our jazz greats in such pitiful shape. Unfortunately, the album dates that he keeps getting only help his addiction get worse instead of better. Whether or not he licks this problem at this stage of the game remains to be seen. In some cases people refuse help and the loss of a close friend was no help either. If anything he took a turn for the worse and disappeared for 3 weeks. However right now should he die it will at least be better than living a slow death with no relief in sight.
The pianist is almost certainly Sonny Clark. That same month, he cut two classic Blue Note albums under the leadership of saxophonist Dexter Gordon, Go and A Swinging Affair. When Clark died five months later, Gordon remembered these sessions in a letter to Blue Note impresarios Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff: Clark had “almost totally given up” on his life, Gordon wrote. Yet judging from the surviving albums, he still cooked on piano. Several of Clark’s solos are top notch, but in this rhythm section with Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, he conducts a clinic on how to play sensitive, sparkling piano accompaniment behind a soloing saxophonist, in this case the atmospheric Gordon. Clark didn’t appear to give up on anything musically. Many years later Gordon remembered Go as among his career favorites.
The startling success story of pianist Simone Dinnerstein.
Earlier this month, pianist Simone Dinnerstein celebrated her latest album, Bach, A Strange Beauty, with a six-hour-long release party in her parents’ Park Slope brownstone. She set her iPod to shuffle, and at the end of the evening, as the final few guests made their way out the door, her own recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations came on. “I hadn’t listened to it in years,” she said, “I hadn’t even realized how much I had changed.”
The Goldberg Variations marked a turning point in Dinnerstein’s life story, the classical-music world’s rags-to-riches tale that’s by now familiar to many fans. Less than a decade ago, with her chances at a high-octane concert career looking dim, she had started to settle into a life in Brooklyn, a career of smaller-scale concerts, teaching, and performances in nursing homes and prisons. The discovery that she was pregnant with her son inspired Dinnerstein to work privately on the Variations as a way to mark his arrival. She went on to raise money from friends and family and recorded the piece herself, a decision that took some guts, given the many canonical recordings of Bach’s epic work out there (joined now by a pretty hilarious rendition of the aria by Stephen Dorff in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere).
Improbably, Dinnerstein’s performance became the top-selling classical album of 2007, at one point even reaching number four on Amazon’s record sales for all genres. Her success is particularly startling when you consider the number of household-name classical pianists who either won a major competition or grew up in the spotlight as child prodigies. But Dinnerstein’s playing is one of a kind. The intense conviction she communicates is so arresting that, for me, hearing her rendition of a piece makes it impossible to imagine it performed any other way. (Classical musicians often refer to the importance of playing “with conviction”; or as my pianist friend’s formidable Russian teacher would often say, “My dear, you must be convicted of every note.”)