Monday, December 31, 2012

Majel Connery, Elliot Cole, Brad & Doug Balliett at The Stone this Saturday

In what promises to be the most packed concert of 2013, I will be singing with Elliot Cole and Brad & Doug Balliet at The Stone this coming Saturday, January 5, 2013. (2013?!?!?? I sometimes still accidentally write 2001 on my checks. Maybe this is because no one has used checks since 2001? I will get to the bottom of this.) The Stone, incidentally, is possibly the smallest new music venue in all of New York City, hence the packed.

We'll be singing a set of Elliot's Grimm's tales, as in, stories from the Brothers Grimm anthology. These songs are drop dead gorgeous. (Case in point, as my mother announced to me yesterday, Elliot Cole is now her favorite composer, and hers is possibly the most sought-after endorsement in new music today.)

The Stone (aka John Zorn's baby)
East Village,
corner of Ave 3/E. Houston
Saturday, January 5

Friday, August 24, 2012

This might be the best thing you see all year

If I were responsible for making this video, I could die feeling that I'd accomplished everything I had ever wanted to.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I worry that I'm losing my memory. When I say this, I don't for a minute imagine that I'm alone. I know that there are scores of people out there with the exact same fear, and the exact same shocking, mind-decomposing data to back it up. However, when I think of memory loss, I exclude from this pool people who forget where they parked the car, or forget where they put their glasses or their keys. This is a different problem. Key forgetters and car forgetters don't have memory problems, they just have something better going on. Manufacturing and storing a small memory about where the keys are can't compete with other, bigger thoughts. You're coming through the door, and you're throwing down the keys. You're not thinking "And here I place my keys on the upper left-hand corner of the bureau next to the footstool." You're thinking WHERE IS THE BATHROOM or FUDGE ICE CREAM NOW. And because bathrooms and fudge are so much more riveting than watching keys drop almost everyone has this problem. It's called obliviousness. It has to do with memory, sure, but it has more to do with not being present for something. You have to pay attention if you want to remember. Someone very important could be saying "Hi, I'm Cornelius" to you, but if you're thinking "OH MY GOD DID I PUT ON DEODORANT" are you going to remember Cornelius, or the deodorant?

My favorite story about obliviousness comes from my mother. My mother is an avid reader of the New Yorker magazine, and she frequently tells me I have to read a particular article. On this particular occasion, my mother was so excited to tell me about this article I had to read that she called me up on the phone. "Majel," she says, "you have got to read this article from this week's New Yorker." A lot of our phone conversations start this way. "Oh, yeah?" I say. "Who wrote it?" Now, bear in mind, my mother has just read this article. As in, she put down the article and the very next thing she did was to pick up the phone and call me. She thinks for a minute, and she says, "Well, I never remember the names... but you just have to look at it. It's hilarious." "Well," I say, "what's it called?" She pauses. You can tell she's thinking. But something isn't happening. "Um." she says. She thinks some more. "I don't know." "But Mom," I press, "you just read this article? What's the general premise? Like, what's it about?" She can't remember. Now, my mother would say she has memory problems. (And, in fact, I concur.) But in this particular case, something else is going on. Clearly, my mother was excited reading the article. Clearly, she read it cover to cover. Why can't she remember even what the article was about? She wasn't present for the article. She flew through it, but she forgot to think about it. If you're not thinking about something while you're doing it, you're not really owning it. Your brain skips over what it's doing like forgetting to hit the record button.

But the kind of memory problem I worry about is different. It has to do with information that isn't five minutes old, but information that is really old, that's been there for months, or years.

When I was younger, I remember feeling very acutely that I didn't have the vocabulary I needed to express myself the way I wanted to. In particular, I remember this because there was a guy I had a big, huge crush on, and this guy was an ace at telling you what was on his mind. I was the exact opposite. I would try to squeeze my brain to get the right words to come out, and nothing would come out. So, later in life, in college and after college, I became a word hoarder. I had words for everything, rare words, words in other languages, words that no one you knew had ever heard of. I used words like a cook uses condiments: a dash of Double Entendre, a drop of Irony. I could see Shy + Flirty + Biting Sarcasm working well here, or maybe I'll deploy Brash + Inappropriate + Hysterical...

Lately, though, sometimes I put the squeeze on the brain and I only get half a word, or the wrong word, or worst of all, not the word. When you think about how words get from the brain to your mouth, it's not a process you can really put your finger on. It's kind of like the old drive-thru way of getting money from a bank. You're you, and your brain is the bank. You pull up, you put your request in a container, shoot the container over to the small people behind the glass, and then they shoot it back to you. You put "Hey, uh, could you..." into your container. And then the container comes back and it says "DEBILITATING." And you're like, "Oh, yeah! Debilitating." Thanks, Brain! But when the process doesn't work, it's like pulling up to the bank at one o'clock in the morning when it's dark and no one is working. You keep trying to hit the button on the container, but it just stays there, empty. Not going anywhere. No words.

More and more I pull up at the bank only to discover it's one o'clock in the morning, and I am S.O.L. Maybe I'm tired. Maybe I got too much sun. Maybe I just watched two straight weeks of the Olympics. But how many times can you pull up to the bank in the middle of the night before you have to conclude you're losing your mind?

Friday, April 20, 2012

What To Do with a Dissertation from the University of Chicago

I have spent ten years of my life writing a dissertation. Just to get the facts straight, a ten-year dissertation at the University of Chicago is nothing strange. A seven-year dissertation is rushed; a six-year dissertation is wrong. I'm told that in the History Department a certain professor does not allow his students even to contemplate graduation before year ten. All of this is to say that when I tell you I've been writing my dissertation for ten years, do not gasp because it's a hell of a long time to be working on a degree. Gasp because it occurs to you that spending ten years devoted to anything (finishing the basement, reseeding the lawn, or just filling an apartment with ten years' worth of newspapers) is life warping. The point is: ten years? Seriously? (And keep in mind that in this case, my life only includes three times ten years, and the first ten don't count because what does anyone really do before age ten?)

Let me tell you what I mean by life warping.

1. I am an ultra smarty pants. I punctuate my emails. I use many semi-colons and parentheticals. I save drafts of emails so I can edit them before sending. When I leave a voicemail, I listen to it, delete it, and rerecord it. Sometimes I rerecord a voicemail dozens of times. I was once on the phone for an entire hour leaving the perfect voicemail. I am the grammar police. Nothing escapes my gaze. I scowl at fortune cookie fortunes. I take pictures of misspelled signs even when I have no one to MMS them to. I interrupt my friends' stories to point out failed noun-verb agreement. I don't read "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" because I already know everything that is in it. Writing my dissertation, I have spent entire days inserting hyphens and then, after consideration, removing them.

2. I am a lazy buttnose. I don't have to go to work like you do. I have listened to midday NPR shows you've never even heard of. I have inordinate sleeping requirements. I sleep 8, 9, and sometimes 10 hours a night. Sitting around and writing is hard work, so I am often hungry. I go to the grocery store at least once a day. I am always out of gum. Why are there so many people in this aisle? I am part of the strange ambient crowd of people walking around in plain day in New York City. I am at Whole Foods at noon, at the dry cleaners at two o'clock, at yoga by four. How do I do it?

3. I am a pretentious A-hole. I throw around names you don't know. (And I don't just know Žižek, I've edited him.) I speak the names of foreign cities with an accent. The New Yorker is light reading, and the lack of footnotes is bad scholarship. I only watch films that predate 1965. When you say something I don't understand but I sense you are superior to me, I nod because I totally get what you're saying.

4. I am a doctor, and I am looking for a job.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Crocodile Piano Makes an Appearance in Hyde Park

From a recent performance at the Hyde Park Salons, "The Umbrella Man," a Sammy Kaye song from the 1930s, followed by "A Garden Full of Posies," from the little-known Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, Ruddigore.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Mark Morris's Four Saints in Three Acts at BAM

Mark Morris is a word painter. At his best and at his worst. To know Mark Morris and to read "chain left chain right chain chain" on a page is to forecast the appearance of a group of dancers on stage in some kind of chain formation. To read "gaily the troubadour plays his guitar" is to expect to see a dancer gaily swinging an air guitar on bended knee. In a way, Mark Morris is the best possible person to choreograph Gertrude Stein. The simplicity of Stein's language, its repetitiousness and delight in the isolated quality of a single word are all things that could be said of Mark Morris's dance vocabulary. Morris makes simple choices, and he's not afraid of letting a cliché take center stage. Mark Morris has stood his career on the simplicity of recognizable gestures, gestures in particular that do a very good job of mirroring sound. (And although this has lead to accusations of "Mickey Mousing" in his choreography, a cartoon-like dependency of sight and sound, it certainly hasn't prevented MMDG from turning into one of New York's biggest dance empires.)

The problem in this case, is that Gertrude Stein is so much more than simple language. Stein's libretto, which is baffling and endearing all at once, does battle with the very narrative conventions in which she works. Halfway into Scene 1, a singer announces "Scene Three," followed two lines later by "Scene Four," followed by a reassertion in the chorus that we are, in fact, still in "Act One." But Stein's contradictoriness, and her gentle challenges to narrativity don't quite make it onto the stage. When on a single page we learn that "Saint Teresa not seated," "Saint Teresa not seated at once," that "Saint Teresa once seated" and "Saint Teresa seated and not surrounded," Morris's gestural logic reaches an impasse. He can't recreate contradiction, so he ignores these lines altogether.

Of course, no one would expect any choreographer to stage each and every tiny fluctuation in Stein's poetry. "If it were possible to kill five thousand chinamen by pressing a button would it be done" translated to stage could quickly become a sketch from Whose Line is it Anyway? The problem with Morris's choreography isn't that it doesn't capture all the nuances of Stein's poetry. The problem is that it lacks the freedom to break rules the way Stein's poetry does, including the freedom to break with the libretto the way the libretto breaks with itself. Why not seat St. Teresa on these lines? Why not seat someone on St. Teresa, and someone on top of both of them? Why not create a pile St. Teresas? Why not have St. Teresa lie down on these lines, or exit? Why not interrupt scenes with other scenes, the way Stein does? Why not create scenes that have nothing to do with the libretto? The problem, in my view, is that Morris wants to be captive to a libretto that only infrequently yields sensical onstage pictures and relationships. When the libretto goes where he cannot go, he seems to run out of ideas. In particularly awkward moments, the dancers enact a kind of ordered chaos that looks like what Lewis Carroll might have envisaged for his Lobster Quadrille.

To be fair to Morris, Virgil Thomson is a big part of the problem. His score is oddly chipper, as though trapped in the world of Copland's Rodeo, which had premiered three years earlier. The upbeat positivity of the score is at times so overwhelming it becomes almost parodic, as though it were channeling Arthur Sullivan. To be sure, Thomson is very aware of the more beautiful moments in Stein's libretto, and thankfully so. "Can women have wishes," "It is very easy to love alone" and "There can be no peace on earth with calm" are stunningly poignant moments of choral stasis. (Trinity Choir, by the way, with the exception of a few, minor hiccups, is excellent.) Still, one has the feeling again and again that Stein's minimalism was way ahead of Thomas and that Philip Glass would have been a fitter collaborator.

When Four Saints is successful, it is when gesture is allowed to assume equal partnership with the music and the text, and to make decisions on its own. Violating the logic that a closing curtain means "scene," for instance, at the end of Act II a dancer flings himself triumphantly through the curtain and takes a kind of Chariots of Fire lap around the stage. Or, the first time St Ignatius enters, he side-steps on tip-toe as fast as he can, crossing the stage in its entirety and unceremoniously disappears again. In really rare moments, gesture even rises above music to tell us more than music alone can. In Beethoven's Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, the second piece on the program, there is a moment where we expect a giant flourish from the piano, which builds to a climactic forte ... and then falls silent. Onstage, a dancer enters, preparing to leap into cadenza-like frenzy. But then, hearing nothing further, she quickly glances around and ducks offstage as though to escape the embarrassment of an accidental entrance. In this brilliant maneuver, the dancer's confusion articulates our own confusion almost before we know we've felt it.

My favorite moment on the entire program is the famous "pigeons on the grass alas" line, where we finally get to see (or so I imagine) why Morris chose to do Four Saints in the first place. The chorus sings, nonsensically, and with gusto: "They might be very well very well very well they might be they might be." Suddenly, as if given permission do what it had wanted to do all along, the male chorus suddenly breaks into a swaggering barn dance like something straight out of Oklahoma! This is immediately followed by a group of women strutting across the stage to "Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let Lucy Lucy Lily Lily Lily Lily Lily." The audience burst into laughter, and from the faces of the dancers, it was clear that the moment made sense to them too. It was as if, in letting go of all pretense to English, the libretto signalled that finally it was okay to be silly. And it worked because finally Mark Morris wasn't afraid to be Mark Morris. If only there were more of him in this production.