Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Poetry of Everyday Life?

"Wow, a bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson!"
Spoken by a precocious seventh grader, a twin, these words, maybe not quoted exactly, are the premise of Jim Jarmusch's latest film, "Paterson," which we saw a few evenings ago.
Paterson, the bus driver, whose first name we never learn, turns his very ordinary life into very understated poems, in the idiom of William Carlos Williams, and the viewer can't tell whether Jarmusch thinks (or we are meant to think) that they are good poems, or just prosaic meanderings by an extremely introverted and unambitious man, of whom we know little or nothing beyond what we see in the movie.
And obviously the same goes for the film itself, in which almost nothing happens, in the usual sense of things happening in a movie. You might call Jarmusch's style "deadpan," never quite telling us what he thinks, so that we have to figure out what to think by ourselves.
The movie is full of little jokes on itself, so it manages to be, simultaneously, a comment on the emptiness of modern American life in a depleted city like Paterson, NJ, and a celebration of life, lived by ordinary people, who care about each other and express their concern for one another in conversation and action.
One striking thing about the movie was the natural way that people of all kinds related to each other, African-Americans, Hispanics, white people, and Asian immigrants. Indeed, one of the film's jokes on itself is the tale of woe, constantly told by an Indian immigrant, "Donny," the bus dispatcher - he has serious troubles, and more of them every day, but his litany is also funny, in the cruel way that humor sometimes is.
Another striking thing about the movie is its subtlety. Laura, Paterson's wife, begins the movie by telling Paterson about her dream, in which she had twins, and the movie is full of twins. Perhaps Paterson, who drives a bus in Paterson, is a kind of  twin of his home city, as Lou Costello, the short Italian-American, born in Paterson, was the twin of Bud Abbott, the tall, White Anglo-Saxon.
At one of the high points in the film, Paterson quotes a famous short poem by Williams. Taking words that could have been simply a note dashed off by someone unknown to someone else unknown, Williams arranged them to make them pregnant with meaning.
I think Jarmusch has done the same thing in his film.
This Is Just To Say

Related Poem Content Details

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Fine Musicians and Personal Growth

I have probably met more accomplished musicians than any other kind of artist, as teachers and conductors, and I have even had the privilege of playing with musicians so much better than I, that I am humbled.
Recently my wife and I heard one of these, the young Israeli pianist, Omri Mor, play in a trio with the bassist Gilad Abro and the Andalusian violinist Elad Levi. They were performing a unique kind of Andalusian/jazz fusion, and I don't think any three musicians could play any better than they did.
During the years when the late Arnie Lawrence (about whom I wrote a book) was giving free musical workshops, which I attended as often as I could, Omri, who was then 15 or so, used to come, and, even then, he was an astonishingly gifted musician. Since then he has finished a degree at the conservatory in Jerusalem and gone on to master, in addition to jazz, Andalusian music (and who knows what else).
Last Thursday night we heard Omri again, in Ashdod, playing with the Andalusian orchestra in a concert dedicated to the late Moroccan Jewish composer Sami Almaghribi. That's where I took the photograph I've attached.
Before the concert in Ashdod we attended a small symposium about Almaghribi, led mainly by Edwin Seroussi, a professor of ethnomusicology. I'm glad we attended that, because we are not exactly well-informed about the music of North Africa, and it helped us understand what we later heard. Seroussi spoke briefly about Almaghribi's stint as a popular musician in Morocco, before he became a cantor in Montreal, saying the obvious: musicians have to make a living.
It's probably always a matter of compromise between playing the kind of music you absolutely love to play and playing the kind of music people will pay you to play - a compromise in all of the arts, of course.
Omri is largely a brilliant improvising musician, with a phenomenal musical memory, and Andalusian music, like jazz, demands improvisation. To the degree that musical performance is self-expression, improvised performance is that even more so. Though, of course, the improviser must remain within the parameters of the musical genre with which he's working. The greatest improvisers expand those parameters by their playing, and sometimes their innovations are rejected by traditionalists.
Of course performers of classical music, who strive to play every note the composer wrote, and only those notes, must also be expressive of themselves, perhaps the way a great actor, playing a part, is, at the same time, also expressing herself.
The challenge for a gifted young musician like Omri, as well as for Sami Almaghribi when he was a young musician, is to keep growing and expanding as an artist. And we ordinary people, who aren't super-talented in any one field, also must keep stimulating ourselves and growing.

Friday, March 31, 2017

A Response to Balzac

After all, I was a French major in college and I went on to study French in graduate school, so, if I'm going to read Balzac, I'll read him in French – not with the idea of showing off or anything.
I just finished reading his novella, “La bourse,” which I took to mean “the stock exchange” and not “the purse,” which, in fact, is what it did mean, and I kept expecting Balzac to start talking about financial speculation. In the light of my expectations, the opening sentences of the story, which are masterful, puzzled me, because I wondered how he was going to get from a description of twilight to the mercenary rough and tumble of the stock exchange.
Here they are the first four sentences:
Il est pour les âmes faciles à s’épanouir une heure délicieuse qui survient au moment où la nuit n’est pas encore et où le jour n’est plus.
For souls that expand easily, there is a delicious hour that arrives at the moment when it is not yet night, but it is no longer day.
La lueur crépusculaire jette alors ses teintes molles ou ses reflets bizarres sur tous les objets, et favorise une rêverie qui se marie vaguement aux jeux de la lumière et de l’ombre.
Then the twilight glow throws soft colors and bizarre reflections on every object, and encourages a reverie that vaguely marries with the play of light and shadow.
Le silence qui règne presque toujours en cet instant le rend plus particulièrement cher aux artistes qui se recueillent, se mettent à quelques pas de leurs œuvres auxquelles ils ne peuvent plus travailler, et ils les jugent en s’enivrant du sujet dont le sens intime éclate alors aux yeux intérieurs du génie.
The silence that almost always reigns at that instant makes it more particularly precious to artists, who withdraw and place themselves a few steps away from their paintings, which they can no longer work on, and they judge them, becoming inebriated with the subject whose intimate meaning bursts forth then to the inner eyes of genius.
Celui qui n’est pas demeuré pensif près d’un ami, pendant ce moment de songes poétiques, en comprendra difficilement les indicibles bénéfices.
Anyone who has not remained thoughtful next to a friend during this moment of poetical dreams will understand its indescribable benefits only with difficulty.

What brilliant writing! He immediately puts the reader in exactly the mood with which he or she is meant to read the whole story, which is about the difficulty of figuring out who certain people are, and he tells us what kind of people we must be: readers whose souls expand easily, people who fall into reveries, people who find a moment of silence precious, people with the inner eyes of genius, who can get high on art, people who can be thoughtful and sympathetic. In short, romantics.
Forget the clarity of the Enlightenment! Let's have “poetical dreams.”
Balzac is writing about the Restoration, after the collapse of the revolution and the downfall of Napoleon, a time when people weren't sure who was who, and new elite of artistic geniuses like Hippolyte, the hero of “La bourse,” was emerging and, magically, as it were, also getting rich. It's a period of half-light, and Balzac enjoys it, at least here, without anxiety.

His Human Comedy contains ninety-one volumes, I believe. I doubt that I'll plow through them all, but, intermingled with some Trollope for a different kind of romantic relief, I plan to spend a good deal of time in Balzac's company.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Difficulty of Sharing an Intense Personal Experience

For the past few months I've been translating I'm Leona, a long and sprightly  novel by Gail Hareven, from Hebrew to English. Like other translators with whom I've compared notes, I seldom read a book through before I translate it, so in effect I've been reading the book as I go along, a very slow, thorough reading.
Gail Hareven used a first-person narrator, who is telling her own story in her own words, so, as the author, she faced the difficulty of inventing another voice, of acting another role, of being someone else.
In fact, authors of fiction always do this, even when they are purportedly writing in their own voices as themselves. Aharon Appelfeld, an author whom I have translated extensively, the implied author whose voice narrates his books, is not exactly the real man, Aharon Appelfeld. Indeed, in the book of his that I translated most recently, The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping, the story is told by a first-person narrator, whose first name is actually the same as Aharon's, but whose story is quite different.
The translator also writes in a voice other than his own, not exactly an invented voice, like that of a character in a novel, but a kind of imitated or imagined voice, trying to write the way the author in the source language might write in the target language.
Translation, especially literary translation, is an intense experience, sometimes very tiring, because of the emotional demands it makes. A friend of mine who is a psychologist, has spoken to me about the difficulty of constantly making decisions, something that affects busy executives, for example, and makes them burn out. In fact, the translator, too, is constantly making decisions: Which one of a number of close synonyms is  best to render a certain word? Should one keep the word-order of the original, though it might sound a bit strange in English? Does one have the right to fix up a sentence or a passage that seems as if it could have been better written? The requirement to make decisions is constant, though they might not seem to be important decisions to an outsider, and although many of them are micro-decisions (e.g. should I split a sentence in two or combine two sentences in one with a conjunction?), they have a cumulative effect.
But even more exhausting than the constant need to make decisions is the need to inhabit another person's creative mind. An ordinary reader can distance herself from the work she is reading, even decide to close the book and read something else - but the translator has to live in the book, and, once he has taken on the assignment, he can't really afford to lose interest in it or reject it.
In fact I am enjoying I'm Leona as I read it. Gail Hareven writes cleverly and with energy, the book is imaginative, the narrator/protagonist is interesting and unpredictable (young and developing rapidly), and I'm very curious as to where all these adventures will lead. The book is both entertaining and serious.
The hours I spend daily with this task are intense and demanding, enjoyable but with an enjoyment I can't share with anyone. When I watch a TV series with my wife in the evening, we share the experience, we discuss it with each other, we decide together whether the series is worth continuing with, we speculate about what might happen in the next episode. That's the fun of doing something with someone else. But translation, like original writing, is an isolated and isolating occupation.
Sometimes, after I've been working on a translation, I just want to withdraw into myself even more, because I know I can't tell anyone else what it was like.

Monday, March 20, 2017

What You can Learn by Playing Mozart Inadequately

For the past month or so I have been slowly learning how to play music that is beyond my ability as a flautist, the Mozart duets, originally written for flute and violin. When I first printed them out and looked at them, I decided to set them aside, because I'd never be able to play them up to speed and with the proper grace. But after a few weeks of working on pieces by lesser composers, I decided to accept the challenge.
I reasoned that it was a more valuable experience to play a significant piece of music that I will probably never be able to master to my own satisfaction, let alone for an audience, than to play a minor piece well - though it's almost always fun to read through a duet with a friend.
Learning to play a piece is a path toward appreciating it, and the more I work on the Mozart, the more I am blown away by his genius. His music is deceptively simple and mysteriously delightful.
I love the way he repeats phrases with slight differences, the way he leads up to the unexpected reappearance of a theme, the way he introduces new material without ever making it sound forced. You can be playing straightforward scales or arpeggios and yet be playing the most beautiful phrases.
Teachers and students of music usually talk about practicing, but my one-time musical guru, the late Arnie Lawrence, claimed that he never practiced: he only played. By that he meant that even when he was playing by himself, the music counted, it wasn't just "practice" for another time, when it would count. But none of my teachers, as I remember it, spoke about working on music.
I find it hard to "practice" for a long time, and sometimes I run out of things that I want to "play," and I forget to play as if I really mean it. But tackling a demanding piece like the Mozart duet takes me a long time, and I find it easier to imagine what it would be like to be a serious musician and practice four hours a day or more (which I have no intention of doing).
When I was in high school and taking clarinet lessons, I played a lot of exercises by Klose - more or less everyone does - but I think it would have gotten me farther if I'd learned how to take a difficult passage in a real piece of music and turn it into an exercise, while still playing as musically as possible. As a mature man, I finally figured out how to do that, and it's what I'm trying to do with the sixteenth-note passages in the Mozart duets.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Life Expectancy

My mother was 82 when she died, and my father was 84. During their last years, when they lived in a retirement community in New Jersey, they grew weaker. They both had rather frequent medical emergencies and were taken by ambulance to the hospital in Princeton. But when I visited them from Israel, which I did as often as I could, but obviously not often enough for them, I always found them clear in their minds and involved in their lives, curious about me and my children, and connected with friends and relatives - who were all getting older an dying off. I was in my late forties when they died, and I remember wondering what it was like for them to know that their lives would end in the foreseeable future. Now I'm 72 myself, and, if I die at the age my parents did, that isn't so long from now. Ten years, in retrospect, is a very short time.
So I pin my hopes on my children's and grandchildren's future, wishing them a full and rewarding life, while at the same time I have never been so pessimistic. I see disaster looming: ecological, political, and economic. But, obviously, I could be wrong, and I hope I am.
Not all parents are or can be ambitious for their children. Many people in the world live in such poverty and instability, that they are deprived of the luxury of imagining a decent future for even themselves, let alone their children.
Holding out hopes for one's children and inspiring them with those hopes can empower them, and this is a precious and wonderful gift that a parent can confer. However privileged parents are often oppressively ambitious for their children, having overly specific ideas about what their children must do for a living, whom they must marry, and so on. Perhaps because I am an immigrant in a country I have had to struggle to understand, my ambitions for my children were never very specific, and I know that by moving to Israel, I frustrated my parents' ambitions for me. But I think they were pleased by my modest accomplishments. I am certainly very proud of my children, who are doing admirable things with their lives.
Among my accomplishments have been my translations of a dozen or more  novels by Aharon Appelfeld, who survived WWII as a child in a forest in the Carpathians. I have always been aware of the painful loss suffered by Holocaust survivors. Identification with that loss, although my fortunate close family was virtually untouched by the destruction of the communities they emigrated from in the late nineteenth century, was one of my reasons for moving to Israel. I wanted to share in the rebuilding of a Jewish world. But my understanding of that loss had more to do with what was, with what they had, with the relatives and friends who were killed, and with the local Jewish culture that was snuffed out. Recently, perhaps because my own future looks so short, I have realized that they also lost their futures - at least the futures their parents hoped for them, and the futures they hoped for their children.
The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping, Appelfeld's most recently published novel, in my translation, is very much about the effort of a young survivor to stake out a future for himself, knowing that it will never be as rich and beautiful as the future his parents expected for him before the war.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Price of a Good Flute

A year and a half ago I was persuaded by the owner of one of the most professional music stores in Tel Aviv, to spend much more for a flute than I had intended to pay. He agreed that the flute he was pushing was a better instrument than I was a flautist, but he convinced me by saying that, at my age, I would probably never buy another flute, and I might as well buy a really good one.
So I bought a silver Sankyo flute, a fine instrument, on the low end of the professional instrument category. In the year and a half that I've owned it, I've come closer to being a good enough player to merit a good flute - but there are always others and maybe better ones on the market!
Every once in a while I surf the web and check on other  high end brands of flute - Muramatsu, Altus, Pearl, Powell, Brannen, Lopatin, Miyazawa- some of which cost two or three times what I paid for my own flute (as do many models of Sankyo flutes). And if you look at flutes made of platinum and gold, forget it. Each brand boasts of a long list of artists who swear by their product, which makes me wonder. How many great flautists are there out in the world, who can recommend one or another brand of flute? If there really is one kind that is indisputably the best, why doesn't everyone play that one? It should be that if you are a concert musician and have fifteen or twenty thousand dollars to spend on the best instrument within that price range (I didn't pay nearly that much!), you would know which kind to buy. But there are a lot of candidates out there, and each one has its devotees.
It turns out there are dozens of variables - soldered versus drawn tone holes, one kind of pad or another, the head joint, various configurations of keys, the thickness of the walls of the flute, the metal used, and so on. Each of these variables comes with advantages and disadvantages, trade-offs. It could take a person a month, sitting in a flute boutique (there are such), trying one instrument after another, before plunking down one's money and bringing an instrument home.
Since the best instruments are hand made, there is also a good bit of variation among them: one Altus flute will not play exactly like another, even if they are the same model, and have adjacent serial numbers. And, of course, one's playing affects the instrument, and the instrument affects one's playing. The instrument you buy today won't be the same in six months.
In the end, there's probably nothing like the objectively best brand of flute (or any other musical instrument). Yet, as a musician, one always thinks that one might find a better instrument, and that instrument will advance your playing. For sax players, in addition to the instrument itself, there are mouthpieces and neck pieces, reeds, and ligatures. For the flautist there are head joints. It's a lot like the photographer trying to get the best lens she can afford.
The man who sold me my flute was right. I'm very unlikely to buy another one, unless this one is stolen or destroyed somehow. I'm also very unlikely to lay out a couple of thousand dollars for a different head joint. The main thing that will improve my playing is not better gear but more practice!