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Posts Tagged ‘music’

11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Lou Reed on Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Setting Edgar Allan Poe to Music, and Why Record Labels Deserve to Die

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“Making things that are beautiful is real fun.”

In February of 2012, the late and great Lou Reed, already severely ill and awaiting a liver transplant , visited the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, as a guest at the Blutt Singer-Songwriter Symposium — an annual event inviting prominent musicians, including Patti Smith (whose recent tribute to Reed is pure goosebumps), Loudon Wainwright, and Roseanne Cash, to perform and discuss their work. Reed’s conversation with Rolling Stone critic Anthony deCurtis, author of the excellent In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work, is one of his last recorded live interviews. Here are the essential highlights from the interview, in which Reed radiates his singular fusion of irreverence, insight, and uncompromising creative genius.

On Andy Warhol and the birth of The Velvet Underground:

Warhol was what you would call a workaholic. … And he worked — people have no idea. … He was an astonishing person. When you consider what he was like when he was doing art direction in windows and all that — with the suit, the tie, the whole thing. And then, one day, PHOOM! He’s not Andy Warhol anymore — now he’s Andy Warhol, he’s in Levis and the wig and the jacket — fantastic! He created himself — you gotta love it.

Reed doesn’t conceal his contempt for the music labels, who didn’t like or even listen to the very music they were selling:

All these record companies deserve to go bankrupt. They’re all, you know, lying sacks of shit. No joke — these are bad guys, they deserve everything that’s happened to them.

On Bob Dylan:

On his wife, the artist and musician Laurie Anderson, whose remembrance of Reed is one of the most soul-stirring meditations on love and loss ever written (“And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”):

She’s so smart and can do anything — anything she does is absolutely great. It’s amazing.

On balancing raw force and raw vulnerability in his music and writing:

I like conflict — it’s balance. Or, like tai chi, balance is like the yin and the yang. Even a song like “Perfect Day” — the kick is at the end, the last verse: “I thought I was someone else, someone good.”

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti from The Raven by Lou Reed. Click image for details.

On adapting literary works to music and rewriting Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry in his 2003 album The Raven and the companion graphic novel:

The trouble with Poe was that his language is so serious — the vocabulary — the words he’s using — some of those words were arcane when he used them — and then, architectural terms from Greece. And I, dutifully sitting there with the dictionary, looking all of this up and thinking, certainly, in a song or on the album I don’t want to have [things like this] in there — you can just as easily use a word someone knows what it means. … For him, great. For me, no. I spent most of the time translating them into English before even starting, but I couldn’t wait to rewrite “The Raven,” the poem. Mine is like a contemporary version of it, and we have a graphic novel out … illustrated by this great Italian artist, Lorenzo Mattotti. … Making things that are beautiful is real fun.

The Raven is absolutely fantastic — here’s a taste:

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11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Susan Sontag on How the False Divide Between Pop Culture and “High” Culture Limits Us

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“There are contradictory impulses in everything.”

“If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky,” Susan Sontag wrote in the preface to the 30th-anniversary edition of her cultural classic Against Interpretation, then mischievously asked, “But do I have to choose? … Happenings did not make me care less about Aristotle and Shakespeare. I was — I am — for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture.” This demolition of the false divide between “high” and “low” culture has since had its ample exponents, most recently and convincingly Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus in his fantastic 2013 SVA commencement address. But Sontag remains arguably the greatest patron saint of this “pluralistic, polymorphous” view of culture.

In 1978, Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott interviewed Sontag in twelve hours of conversation, beginning in Paris and continuing in New York, only a third of which was published in the magazine. Now, more than three decades later and almost a decade after Sontag’s death, the full, wide-ranging magnificence of their tête-à-tête, spanning from literature and philosophy to illness and mental health to music and art, is at last released in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library).

Cott marvels at what made the dialogue especially extraordinary:

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed — the pianist Glenn Gould is the one other exception — Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning” — as she once described Henry James’s writing style—with which she framed and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings with parenthetical remarks and qualifying words (“sometimes,” “occasionally,” “usually,” “for the most part,” “in almost all cases”), the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours — an inebriation with the spoken word. “I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue,” she once remarked in her journals, and added: “For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.

Susan Sontag on art: Diary excerpts illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

As remarkable as the entire conversation is, however, one of its most rewarding tangents is Sontag’s meditation on the osmosis between intellectualism and pop culture, her resistance to that enduring, toxic divide between the two, and her conviction in expounding the pluralism of culture — something Cott likens to “the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one’s touch, provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving.”

But the part that resonates most deeply with me, as a lover of history and of consistently celebrating that fertile intersection of the timeless and the timely, is Sontag’s eloquent insistence upon the value of history as the petri dish of our becoming — something legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli echoed decades later in his meditation on intellectual elegance, where he argued that “a designer without a sense of history is worth nothing,” an insight that can be extrapolated to just about any discipline of creative and intellectual endeavor. Sontag tells Cott:

I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period — and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure. We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular historical moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.

The Histomap by John Sparks, 1931, from 'Cartographies of Time: A Visual History of the Timeline.' Click image for details.

When Cott asks her how she thinks Patti Smith would relate to this notion herself — a remarkable musician celebrated as the Godmother of Punk, who also writes beautiful poetry, is enamored with Virginia Woolf, and reveres William S. Burroughs — Sontag answers:

In the way she talks, the way she comes on, what she’s trying to do, the kind of person she is. That’s part of where we are culturally, and where we are culturally has these roots. There’s no incompatibility between observing the world and being tuned into this electronic, multimedia, multi-tracked, McLuhanite world and enjoying what can be enjoyed. I love rock and roll. Rock and roll changed my life. . . .

Further in the conversation, while discussing one of her essays, Sontag introduces another dimension:

It seems to be quite convincing to argue that Buddhism is the highest spiritual moment of humanity. It seems clear to me that rock and roll is the greatest movement of popular music that’s ever existed. If somebody asks me if I like rock and roll, I tell them that I love rock and roll. Or if you ask me if Buddhism is an incredible moment of human transcendence and profundity, I would say yes. But it’s something else to talk about the way in which interest in Buddhism occurs in our society. It’s one thing to listen to punk rock as music, and another to understand the whole S&M — necrophilia — Grand Guignol — Night of the Living DeadTexas Chainsaw Massacre sensibility that feeds into that. On the one hand, you’re talking about the cultural situation and the impulses people are getting from it, and on the other, you’re talking about what the thing is. And I don’t feel it’s a contradiction. I’m certainly not going to give up on rock and roll. I’m not going to say that because kids are walking around in their vampire makeup or wearing swastikas therefore this music is no good, which is the square, conservative judgment that’s so much in the ascendant now. That’s easy to say because most people who make those judgments, of course, know nothing about the music, aren’t attracted to it, and have never been moved viscerally or sensually or sexually by it. Any more than I want to give up on my admiration for Buddhism because of what’s happened to it in California or Hawaii. Everything is always abused, and then one is always trying to disentangle things.

Curiously, Sontag’s premise seems to be the opposite of what she argues in Against Interpretation — there is no “high” or “low” culture, no “good” or “bad,” only our interpretations and whatever cultural purpose we extract from them. She seals this notion with one final example:

To take the traditional example, and it’s the one that precedes all the examples we use from contemporary popular culture: Nietzsche. Nietzsche really was an inspiration for Nazism, and there are things in his writings that seem to prefigure and support the Nazi ideology.

But I’m not going to give up on him because of that, though I’m also not going to deny that things could be developed in that way.

[…]

There are contradictory impulses in everything, and you have to keep directing your attention to what is contradictory and try to sort these things out and to purify them.

Ultimately, however, the greatest peril of the false high/low divide is that it robs a writer — a person — of being able to absorb the vibrant wholeness and multiplicity of life with complete awareness, to be fully present with the world and attentive to all of its dimensions. Sontag captures this beautifully, adding to her collected wisdom on writing, when she tells Cott:

Giving full attention to the world, which includes you … that’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world. Because I’m very against this solipsistic notion that you find it all in your head. You don’t, there really is a world that’s there whether you’re in it or not.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is ineffably brilliant in its entirety. Complement it with Sontag on literature and freedom, the four people every writer must be, photography and aesthetic consumerism, writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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07 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Interpretation of Leonard Bernstein’s Dreams

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Freud, Jung, sexual identity, and the creative process.

A friend — a rather rational and highly intelligent friend — recently shared with equal parts self-consciousness and delight that she had had her chart, as in astrological chart, done. (Done, no less, by a Buddhist-monk-turned-startup-entrepreneur who also happens to be a hobbyist astrologer — one of those details that captures our era’s peculiarity so poetically.) The incident stood out as a particularly poignant embodiment of the curious allure mysticism and pseudoscience hold for even the most intelligent among us — perhaps a testament to our restlessness and longing to resolve the burden of life’s ambiguities, however essential those might be to creativity, with concrete directives and tangible answers.

In fact, a number of history’s most celebrated minds succumbed to this very human tendency: George Eliot had her head cast taken by a leading phrenologist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fancied himself a psychic, and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin spent a good portion of their lengthy love affair bonding over their shared obsession with astrology. But hardly any luminary demonstrates the deeper psychological needs people seek to address through such mystical pursuits than legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990), who was intensely interested in the interpretation of his dreams, believing they held the answers to his deepest and most conflicted questions.

In the early 1940s, plagued by anxieties over his career and in a state of confusion over his sexual identity as he found himself falling in love with men at a time when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness and regarded as an offense as unamerican as communism, Bernstein started seeing a psychoanalyst named Marketa Morris, whom he nicknamed “The Frau.” A few years later, he turned to the Jungian psychoanalyst Renée Nell, who studied with Carl Jung himself, hoping the interpretation of his dreams would put his waking restlessness at peace. Bernstein’s correspondence with the two women is revealed in the magnificent and long-awaited anthology The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library), for which editor Nigel Simeone painstakingly trawled through 10,000 letters to cull the 650 epistolary treasures included in the book.

Leonard Bernstein with Aaron Copland in Bernardsville, NJ

In June of 1942, Bernstein writes to Aaron Copland — by then one of the most popular voices in American classical music and young Bernstein’s greatest love — about his sessions with Marketa Morris and the opposing forces of his reluctant desire to “fix” his homosexuality and his irrepressible love for Copland:

The Frau-sessions have borne some fruit. Little green fruit, of course, but fruit. The main thing being that I can’t kid myself any more. Kid myself, that is, into thinking that I have a closeness with someone when it is all really wishful thinking, or induced, or imagined, or escape from being alone with myself, etc. And so, one by one, all the old relationships tend to fall away; and I find that I’m not at all interested in seeing anybody — really — whereas I used to run and see anybody at the drop of a hat. This all makes the trouble harder, of course; since I still hate being alone, and yet don’t want anyone in particular. And that’s where you come in; cause you’re the only one that persists and persists, come hell or high water. And I love you and miss you as much as I did the first month I knew you, and always will. Believe that, Earth-Scorcher, it’s so real. And then this wish for closeness always manifests itself in a sexual desire, the more promiscuous the better — giving rise to experiences like being taken (by Pfb [Bowles], of course) to a Bain Turc (or is it Turque?) and seeking out the 8th Street bars again. But I’m not attracted any more to any one I find there, and it’s just as horrible as if I hadn’t gone at all. One of those unpleasant stages forward.

In the 1930s and 1940s, many psychoanalysts believed that homosexuality was a disorder that could be “cured” with proper “treatment.” In this 1947 letter, “the Frau” responds to a dream Bernstein had sent her and touches on the subject, while reminding Bernstein of the vital difference between productivity and presence in one’s life and creative process:

Lenny,

I got your dream letter. You know that it is quite impossible to give a written interpretation to a dream — and more so a dream without interpretation.

Why am I living in Brooklyn?

Jimmy’s Restaurant in Greenwich Village

Why another cab to go to Brooklyn? What’s about 289?

It’s getting dark at four o’clock in the afternoon?

Switches putting on lights upstairs and not downstairs? What’s the difference between up and downstairs in this beautiful, big, expensive house?

What about the two girls blocking the exit from behind your desk?

Write me if you feel like — besides the dreams! For instance why cannot you relax and just simply not compose? Remember, you had the idea that adjustment to homosexuality could facilitate heterosexuality! Couldn’t adjustment to relaxation constitute a capacity of creative work? Of course not pretending to relax only.

Bernstein also had his personality “read” by the noted harpsichordist and pianist Rosalyn Tureck who, like our Buddhist-entrepreneur friend, had a side-interest in astrology. While she presents it with the necessary grain of salt, she does make a special note of the g-word:

Dear Leonard,

At long last, here is your “personality analysis”. I cannot take these things seriously but they are wonderful fun especially since the person who did it does not know to whom the doodling belongs.

According to the analysis it looks as tho you must face the fact that you definitely fit into the genius category…

She then encloses Bernstein’s full personality profile, which makes it hard not to project onto these vague generalities the concrete biographical particularities of the composer’s life, such as the intertwining of his professional admirations and his love interests, his identity confusion, and his musical genius — the same trick that to this day keeps horoscopes in business:

This person’s character shows a peculiar and great singleness of purpose. The sex development is practically nil and the personality which might have started to assert itself at one stage in the man’s development has become completely absorbed by career.

The career is complex. Its division is almost geometric and the line of demarcation, very clear. For each phase of the career, there is a well thought-out and deliberate development. The dark areas indicate the creative and the white areas the mechanical. The mechanical seems to dominate the subject and he is more curious about the development of it at this stage than he is about his creative development. There is one point about the career, which seems to come early in the middle life, which indicates the great peak of success. The subject will have attained a very happy balance of creation and mechanics.

The sex symbol is interesting in that the line — the only line connecting it and the rest of the personality chart — extends right to the career symbol. This indicates that the subject’s development is completely concentrated in his career. His personality symbol shows the same direction. There is no embellishment, no additions to it, there is no sign that any development of self has been accomplished. The sign connecting it with the career is merely two extensions from the sex symbol.

It is interesting to note that, in spite of the fact that the sex symbol is not developed as a physical unit, it is present and the aesthetic aspects of it will be found in this man’s career creations later in life.

This man may not be a good mathematician, but he has an excellently organized mind. It is well disciplined as demonstrated by the complete lack of extraneous matter. It is also the mind of a purist.

This man has great ego-maniacal tendencies and will often go to bizarre ends to gain a point. By nature though, he is retiring and socially shy. His great ego, however, serves as a shield against society.

A fruitful creative life is indicated, but an extremely lonely social life will be his lot.

Leonard Bernstein seated at the piano, making annotations to musical score (Photograph by Al Ravenna courtesy of The Library of Congress)

In July of 1947, a few months after the composer announced his engagement to the Costa Rican actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre, Marketa Morris revisits the question of Bernstein’s conflicted sexual identity, still raging in his dreams:

Lenny,

Your letter stirred up lots of problems.

To go into them adequately would require an elaborate paper — and that does not agree with my vacations. I try a compromise. I have to be honest in the first place. Honest and short means usually: it hurts! I have to rely on your perspicacity and your English to translate my thoughts into a good, nice, considerate English. Will you?

[…]

Of course there is a chance that we may come to some essential clarification. No way to deny it. It’s fifty fifty — and you have to know it.

In your dreams there is confusion, you are not able to go where you have to go: two simultaneous engagements or dates and so on. You are seeing Felicia and the day she leaves you have to see a boy.

The same old pattern. You can’t give up. Very eager to resume analysis but the queer fish resistance is as big a fish as your drive to get well.

[…]

Remember that you wanted to challenge people and find out whether they would still love you. … Lenny, I hope very much that you understand what I really want to convey to you! Do you?

Bernstein did — at least for a time. His engagement with Felicia was broken off in September, but they eventually married four years later, in September of 1951. Felicia wrote Leonard shortly after they married, “You are a homosexual and may never change […] I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” And yet, as the plethora of his letters to Felicia reveal, Bernstein really did love her profoundly — a testament to our irreconcilable, coexisting inner contradictions.

Leonard Bernstein with Felicia Bernstein and their children

But perhaps most poignant and insightful in addressing Bernstein’s dreams and his psychological tumults is this 1949 letter from Renée Nell, who relays the era’s theory of what happens while you sleep — more than half a century before modern science shed new light on the mystery — and in the process addresses the rivalry between Freud and Jung:

Dear Lenny,

Thank you for your nice letter and poem to which I have this to answer: “When the real animus and the real anima web, you can get married and take your wife to bed.”

Some short remarks on your dream: when you are unconscious (“taking a nap, sleeping”), you find that your rather undifferentiated feeling is playing tricks on you, bringing people into your psychology whom you do not want to have in there. Rather than finding out what these people really want from you, or why they were invited, you get angry at that side of yourself who played the trick on you. You get in touch with that side by hurting it, then you regret. You would know more if you would try to make her understand why you don’t want these people anymore. Then, when you do get away from the unwanted collective, you get into an even less desirable one, a very pedestrian collective (street). Being alone now, without anything but yourself, you are eager to make contact with some other side, contact in the usual average pedestrian way — sex — which is the substitute for human relationship. When you find that that is impossible you are caught in some very dull, past aspect of your own bourgeois-side. That shows very nicely why you are so eagerly seeking homosexual contact in reality, it seems the way out or the escape from the fear of being caught in bourgeois patterns, and seems to symbolize the free and non-bourgeois life. They talk about your work in the dream; your fear always seems to be that being a conductor and being set in a profession is the same as being dully married and leading a middle-class life. I am sure it could be that way, but must not be that way, and will stop to look to you that way the moment you get some real color into your life; then you can give up to the so-called “colorful life” you are leading.

Freud’s definition: Id — subconscious; Ego — conscious; Super-Ego — conscience. Ego is the whole of consciousness. Jung: has the same concept of the Ego, he terms it the center of consciousness, the difference between F[reud] and J[ung] is in the way [the] use and function of the Ego are seen. With F. it is the censor and adaptor to reality. With J. it is understood as the channel for the forces that want to flow from the inside to the outside, and vice versa, it has a consciously screening function and serves the forces of the Self or the unconscious. With F. it is supposed to master them. To F. the Ego is the human being as such, therefore it has a very high value; to J. it is an aspect of the human, subordinated to the Self, which means the unspoiled essence of the human being. The Self is to J. the highest value in a human being. I hope that does not confuse you more.

I wonder if you have enough contact with my way of analysis yet that the long distance dream-interpretation means anything to you. Generally it is difficult to get anything out of such answers in such an early stage of work; later when one is more attuned to each other it is easier. Let me know. I hope you have a fairly good time, not too many tensions.

Kindly, Renée

Bernstein soon dropped out of his sessions with Nell, but his subconscious summoned her in a dream he describes to his sister Shirley in April of the following year, noting how Nell helped shepherd his disjointed unease into a more unified direction of living:

Last night I dreamed at length that I had found her and solved our problems together. It was a hard dream, but full of richness. And, on awakening, I was desolate at the thousands of miles that still lay between us, and the grayness of doubt and not-knowing. My day-dreams are of her flying to Israel, and our being married in Jerusalem. Renée, of course, would be the uninvited fairy who would pronounce the curse. Strangely, though, I think she’d be delighted. I was not at all surprised at your news of Renée: I had always seen these things, but had always diminished their importance in the light of her values and of my affection for her. Of course, I have no intention of returning to her, or, I hope, to anyone, if I can begin really to live my life (as I can now) and not only live on the circumference of it. And, willy-nilly, Renée has helped to that point — a point where my world changes from one of abstractions and public-hungry performance to one of reality, a world of creativity, of Montealegre-Cohn, of Spanish & French and travel and rest and love and warmth and intimacy.

Leonard Bernstein conducting

Complement The Leonard Bernstein Letters, which peels away at layers upon layers of the beloved composer’s complex psychological constitution, with Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections and the science of dreams and why we have nightmares.

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