Marcel Proost in the dark

Apr 02, 2011

A long spell of wet weather, heavy downpours and high winds have made the north coast a tricky place to reside over the last month. Driving up the winding Route 1 you could see hundreds of large Monterey pines collapsed, many fallen from the roots due to the soggy, unstable ground. Emergency crews had quickly sawed them and dragged them over to the side of the narrow highway, sometimes in the dead of night with the rain lashing their faces. Floods blocked the usual route in some cases, necessitating a detour through small towns like Guerneville, Cazadero and Sebastapol. I had to backtrack 20 miles from the Bodega Road when I came to a brand new body of water covering the road a foot deep. There was a Mazda truck out in the middle of it. Guy thought he could just gun his engine and hydroplane through, but he was stuck out there in the middle with water gushing into his vehicle, looking sheepish and kind of embarrassed while several cows stared at him from further up the road.

Before fallen trees cut the electrical power for a full six days, I ventured out one late evening to pay a visit to my neighbor Marcel Proost, whom I hadn’t seen since last fall. Readers who haven’t entirely given up on Hell Mouth may recall that Marcel Proost lives alone in a trailer at the bottom of a redwood gulley not far from my place near Buckshot Creek. I was going to bring along Eloise, our German Shorthair, as Marcel’s pit bull, Jean Paul Sartre, is always delighted to see her. But Eloise is in season, and the Northern California GSP Association would have my hide if something untoward were to happen and she were to have, well, a litter of hybrids.

The bottom of the gulch where Marcel lives is so densely shrouded in redwood and oak that it’s completely dark by the time I approach his trailer. First I think maybe he’s not home. The lights are out, but then I hear strange sounds coming from inside. At first I think the wind is whistling through a broken window; then maybe I think Marcel is using a power saw, but that doesn’t make any sense since it’s pitch black inside. I nervously knock on the door.

“Yeah, what?” I can hear him moving around inside, and I imagine he’s reaching for his .12 gauge.

“Relax, Marcel, it’s me. Just coming by to say hi. You got some light bulbs in there, or are you hiding out from the feds again?”

He opens the door, still in the dark, and I can hear strange, moaning music coming over his loudspeakers—tone clusters and sudden shrieking glissandi on violins and cellos.

“Yo, John. World traveler, dude. Where you been? Hain’t seen you up here since last fall. How was the East Coast?”

“Marcel,” I say, “turn on the damn light and we’ll say hello proper. What are you doing sitting here in the dark like a mole? And what is that music on your system?”

Marcel has on only a dirty pair of long johns and is in bare feet.

“Ah, John. That’s ‘In Vain’ by George Friedrich Haas. Austrian guy, sort of a Alpine spectralist extraordinare. That what you’re hearing is the Wiener Klan Forum, my favorite redneck band, laying it on richly.

“I believe it’s called Klangforum, Marcel. You know “Klang” as in “sound?” It’s a German word.

Marcel eyes me suspiciously.

" Never mind," I say, “but, yeah, I heard about this piece.” Number One Son is a fan. I hear the players have to learn it pretty much from memory.”

“Right you are. That’s because the piece is supposed to be performed in the dark. Every once in a while there’ll be a sudden flash of light, a moment of sudden, existential shock, of illumination. I got this old strobe here hooked up to my truck battery and it goes off at random blasts. Or we could just wait for that electrical storm to flash us some genuine Mother Nature lightning. Same effect. I like the piece because it lives in its own sonic world—you know, far outside the black and white notes that most other music is confined to.”

Marcel allowed that a local group of musicians up in Anchor Bay were attempting to learn “In Vain” for a performance at the Bones Road House.

So far they’d rehearsed it for forty hours. If they could get it together, he would be reviewing the performance for the Independent Coast Observer, our local paper. Marcel’s chatty reviews are usually printed on the same page with the sheriff’s log and “Pet of the Week.”

“So….” Marcel switches on his kitchen light and gives me one of those “size you up” squints, and I know I’m in for some serious ribbing. “You been hoity-toity with all them East Coast liberals.”

“Actually, Marcel, we stayed two months in a Trump Tower down by the West Side Highway.” I thought maybe the mention of Donald Trump would impress him, even though I’d not much warmed to the place. But Marcel tells me that he’s not interested in Trump, and furthermore he’d just sent in a contribution to the Michelle Bachmann for President Exploratory Committee. Wants to get in “on the ground floor” with Michelle. (I’d heard from a neighbor that Marcel had gone to Wisconsin in February to join a Tea Party demonstration supporting the governor there, but I wasn’t going to let him draw me into one of his “gotcha” exchanges about unionized teachers and public employees.)

“Yeah, I was living in New York for two months. Got there just in time for the Christmas blizzard.”

“I read about it. And I read about your GOP “docu-opera.” Folks pretty worked up over the treatment of Mr. Kissinger in Act II.”

“Well, it was in good clean fun. And all you need to do is read your history of the bombing of North Vietnam and what they did to Cambodia to remember that his and Nixon’s style of Realpolitik was a terrible, murderous thing. In retrospect I think we were altogether too kind to the President.”

Marcel cracks open a bottle of Dog Breath IPA and offers it to me while he rolls himself a cigarette, licking the ends expertly.

“Yeah, well, I guess “opera” and “disappointment” go together like a horse and carriage. Folks always looking for one thing and, not getting it, will be guaranteed to find something to annoy them, like the princess and the pea.”

“In fact I had a great time, although coming back after each rehearsal and trying to compose, working at the kitchen or the dining room table, was pretty jittery. Hard to concentrate. Now, back home here, I sit hour after hour, sifting through charts of modes and transpositions, rhythmic modulations and so on, trying to get my mojo up and running.”

Marcel strokes Jean Paul Sartre’s ears and takes a deep drag from his cigarette.

“Composing and performing. They tend to work at odds with one another, or so I read. You gotta have iron-ass discipline to make it happen.”

“That’s right,” I say. “It’s nearly impossible to understand how someone like Mahler could have that hectic, chaotic life directing maybe a hundred opera performances in a year, arguing with divas and management, and still be able to produce those gigantic symphonies.”

“Compartmentalist?” Marcel ventures.

“Perhaps, but mainly just demonically driven. And probably not an easy person to be around. Anyhow, everyone’s different, and we struggle to find balance. My problem is the damn airplane. Everyone expects you to pop on a plane and be in another city for one thing or another. It’s never ending, and shattering to your concentration. It’s hard to say no, without offending friends and supporters.”

“Yeah, well just pretend you’re one of those old cusses like Ruggles or Partch or Nancarrow. Or Pynchon—now there’s a triumph of splendid isolation. I’m sure he’s got fewer frequently flier miles than my pit bull bitch here.”

Marcel reaches over and flips the CD out and puts on another: “US Highball” by Harry Partch. He grins at me. I hear an old geezer reciting something about boxcars and hobos eating cold beans out of a can.

“Total nut case, huh?” Marcel grins. “They got George Friedrich Haas there in Wien” (he says it like “Weeeeeeeeeen”), “but we got our Harry and his surrogate kithara.”

Comments (20)

Philip D.
April 2, 2011

Not everyone has given up on Hell Mouth!

Ms. Castorp
April 2, 2011

No indeed...I'm looking forward to future posts!

Doug Palmer
April 2, 2011

Good to see ya again, Marcel

Cameron Killick
April 2, 2011

I started reading Hell Mouth during the Nixon in China hiatus. I'm very glad that there are still more posts to come. Thanks John.

Cam Killick
Lyric Baritone (Best as I can figure)

Anthony Prickett
April 2, 2011

Great to see you back, Mr. Adams! Insightful, funny, and interesting as usual. On the other hand, the Wienermobile pic is a little on the weird side....

ursula smith
April 2, 2011

Marcel, we love you x That John Adams is quite a writer, keep posting please

April 3, 2011

In Soviet Union, Hell Mouth gives up on you!

Bill Sisson
April 3, 2011

Dang, John, just found this bloggy-critter. Another new fun place to meet some real characters. I was probably with all the 85,000 teachers on the other three sides of the statehouse in Madison from Marcel, but everybody actually got on pretty well. Heck, pack enough people into State Street coffee houses that also serve liquor, and you could probably solve most of the world's problems in a couple of weeks.

Stephen Llewellyn
April 3, 2011

I write the blog for the Portland Opera and I am SO going to be talking about this tomorrow. I love it! Please post as often as you can, MrAdams. It's wonderful way to procrastinate, too ;)

Mike P
April 3, 2011

Welcome back to the West Coast !!

April 4, 2011

was missing Marcel sooooo much!
and your political incorrectness... :)

April 5, 2011

Definitely missed you, John. And now that I think about it, I missed Marcel too! Haas's stuff seems like the type of music best listened to alone, in the dark, with a pit bull.

P.S. I bet even Mahler couldn't have kept up a blog like a champ anyway


Roger Viel
April 6, 2011

John Adams you impostor!

Yoko Kanno is so much better than you!

April 6, 2011

Mahler may not have blogged, but he sure wrote a lot of letters!

Glad to finally see a new post :)

May 4, 2011

Michele Bachmann: “What I love about New Hampshire and what we have in common is our extreme love for liberty... You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord. And you put a marker in the ground and paid with the blood of your ancestors the very first price that had to be paid to make this the most magnificent nation that has ever arisen in the annals of man in 5,000 years of recorded history."

At least she was only one state off...

Es lebe der Wiener!

Paul H
August 19, 2011

If the part about a group of musicians up the coast trying to learn "In Vain" for a performance at Bones Roadhouse isn't a joke (as seems likely). I hope the performance is announced here. Based on recommendations from Alex Ross and "Hell Mouth's" author, I sent off to Germany to get a CD of this piece. It is a wonder, indeed, and well worth a trip to hear it.

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