I hadn’t seen Marcel Proost in a very long time. There were rumors along Buckshot Creek Road that he was doing time at Vacaville for unpaid parking tickets or check kiting, but when I spied a unneutered dog go running down the road yesterday morning, I figured he must be back living down in the ravine. So I ventured down the steep grade of his driveway, through dense redwoods, ferns and overgrown huckleberry bushes, past the hulk of an abandoned Dodge Ram, and sure enough, through the gloom I could see a light on inside the trailer and hear his generator humming.
Marcel, looking the same as ever, greeted me effusively and offered a bottle of Geezer Surprise IPA. He was sitting in his one-piece “union suit” at the formica table he’d scavenged at the local dump, and I could see I’d interrupted his rolling a cigarette. The trailer smelled an unpleasant mixture of wet socks, tobacco and too many dogs. I noticed that on the wall where he always had pin up photo of his latest crush—first Nastassja Kinsky, then later Nuria Schoenberg —he now had one of Claire Danes.
“What’s that you got playing on your CD there, Marcel,” I inquired. “Sounds pretty intense. I’m going to assume it’s not Credence Clearwater Revival. Right?”
He grins at me and shows a tiny fleck of Bugler on the tip of his tongue. “ Come one, John. That’s Elliott’s Variations for Orchestra. You gonna tell me you don’t know this—one of the indisputably great American orchestral works.”
“Yeah, I guess I recognize it after all,” I say. I didn’t let on that I had recently done it with the amazing New World Symphony Orchestra and was planning to do it again in London. I thought I’d play dumb, have a little fun with Marcel—-pull his chain and see what kind of response I might get.
“I just can’t make my mind up about Carter, Marcel,” I say. “I’m in a state of perpetual ambivalence about his music. What I love is—what should I call it?—the integrity of the whole and the sum of the parts. And there are ideas of really stunning originality, like those granite brass chords that can plaster you into your seat faster than any Messianic Expectorant. I love its vitality, its invention and overall seriousness. But there’s also an unyielding busyness and corresponding lack of repose that threatens to turn me off…the same kind of brain fatigue you get after an hour (or ten minutes?) of reading Adorno.
Marcel, who’s just taken a generous swig of Geezer Surprise, makes a contorted face, coughs and sputters, “Excuse me, friend, but isn’t there more to the appeal of music than its being striking and original? What about the experience of being overwhelmed by its beauty or by its truthfulness in the the representation of emotion?” He pounds his fist on the table and I can see one of his pit bull’s ears prick up in a state of anxious alert and hear it growl.
“Whoa, there, Marcel,” I exclaim in consternation. “Don’t get so upset…you’re sounding like one of those people Jaron Lanier writes about, someone who’s perfectly nice in the flesh but kinda coarse when they get online.”
“You mean a troll?”
“Well, not exactly that bad. But that’s a topic for another time. What interests me is how long it took me to like the Carter Variations. I confess that half the reason for deciding to conduct the piece was hoping that I’d come to really know and even love the work.”
“Yes, well I believe that happened, at least for the most part. I still feel it’s over-written in some passages. Those two amazing variations, the one that slows down gradually only to end up where it started—you know, like a rhythmic Shephard tone—and its mate (which does the opposite) both suffer from too heavy a contrapuntal piling on of material. They could be more effective if there weren’t so much conflicting activity that ends self-cancelling.
And likewise, that splendid moment at the end of the finale arrives after so much frenetic activity and harmonic ambiguity that I always find I have to hit “reset” on my emotional sensor.”
He smiles with a look of condescending patience. “You’re just getting to know the piece. Come back to it in another year, and I’ll bet you will like it even more than you do now, that you’ll even love it. John, this is a really strong piece, and it’s a scandal that it hasn’t become a repertoire favorite by now. Do you realize this piece is coming up on its sixtieth anniversary, and still you don’t see it on the seasons of major American orchestras more than once in a blue moon."
“In fact I do love it, Marcel, and I think the reason it’s so rarely played is because a lot of big time conductors just don’t get it, and they also know it takes a huge amount of time to rehearse. There has to be some supreme irony in the fact that a great band like the LSO knows “Harmonielehre” but still has yet to perform the Carter."
“Marcel—you’re such a demanding listener!” I razz him. “Oh well, what can I expect from someone who lost his virginity while listening to the Sessions Violin Concerto on his car radio!”
“A case of serious imprinting, I guess, John.” Well, I gotta get to bed. Herb Schreiner and I are heading out at 5 AM for some abalone diving. I hope it goes well for you in London. Best audiences in the world, I hear tell.”
By the time I leave it’s become completely dark, and I don’t have a flashlight. I have to fumble my way a half mile up the road, my hands stretched out ahead of me, a similar experience to hearing the First String Quartet for the first time. Finally I see a light way ahead in the distance and head for it. Far behind me in the canyon I can hear the sound of Marcel’s CD player—he’s put it on shuffle mode, and now it’s playing an old Moondog tune.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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