Hammerklavier at the Dog Show

Oct 24, 2009

We are pointer people. But we’re not dog nuts, not into the whole eugenics and breeding thing. Nonetheless, I have to do a favor for Debbie on Friday morning by driving 16 month-old Eloise to the SVDFA—that would be the Sacramento Valley Dog Fanciers Association—in Dixon, California. Wondering if Boulez has ever been to a dog show, I leave early in the morning with Eloise sound asleep on the back seat and a bag of pricey dog food in the trunk. Commute freeway traffic is at its usual lethal prestissimo, SUV’s and Toyota Tacomas threading themselves in and out of the four lanes with the fiendish alacrity of a video game. I listen on my iPod to Wednesday’s Italian lesson, blushing in embarrassment at the sound of my own voice struggling with a sentence “A volte la politica si infila in un paio di scarpe.” (“Sometimes politics insert itself into a pair of shoes.”) Where the hell did that come from, and why am I memorizing it? Speaking three foreign languages incompetently I am now enthusiastically adding a fourth one to cheerfully abuse.

Dixon is Flat Earth country, in the middle of the vast Central Valley about five miles to the east of the much-travelled Route 80. I turn off the big road and point the car east along an absolutely straight two-lane country road that goes through acres and acres of farmland. Less than a mile off the freeway is a lonely sight, the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery, a military cemetery stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Not a tree or a even a shrub to protect the graves from what in the summer is a pitiless sunlight that daily grills the landscape at temperatures well over 100 degrees. The gravestones are planted absurdly close to each other like the stalks in the crowded fields of corn in the distance. Along the perimeter are several clusters of Port-a-Potties. The whole sight has the lugubrious look of a corporate enterprize run on the cheap. But I look at the rows and rows of simple white graves and my mind tries to take in the histories they embrace-doubtless mostly Hispanic lives, young guys who died in Iraq or maybe Vietnam. Or maybe even older vets, many of whose lives upon returning from the service were spent living in tiny towns in the West.

The road bumps over a railway crossing. In the middle of utter flatness, with visibility stretching for miles in every direction there is a stop sign. I pull to a full stop. Years of driving country roads have taught me to do things right.

Finally the Dixon May Fairgrounds looms into sight over the horizon. Hundreds of dog breeders move around the state competing on an almost weekly basis. It’s a business. Get your ribbons and then you can sell a litter for a thousand bucks or more per pup. Dog people, like their dogs, come in all shapes and sizes, but the general size tends to be extra large. A common sight is a 250 pound man or woman dressed in a suit (nylons and flat pumps if a woman; jacket and necktie if a man) galumphing around the ring holding a leash to which is attached a frequently miniscule animal.

After walking all around through a maze of a thousand or more owners and their creatures I deliver Eloise over to Josh, who is going to give her some “tough love” for the weekend and show her on Sunday. Josh and his wife are living out of their Winnebago, and they’ve got it surrounded with dog cages. He’s a professional handler, and today, although we’re out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but cornfields in sight, he is dressed in a suit and tie. He’s just finished showing a dog and his face is covered with sweat. A very friendly guy, he calls me “sir” all the time, which makes me mildly uncomfortable. “She’ll do well in the ring, sir, once she gets to know me. My wife is a behavorial psychologist and knows how to get inside a dog’s head, sir.”

I’m grateful to hand over Eloise because I’m outta baggies, and I am deathly afraid she’s going to do another poop in front of hundreds of professional dog people. See you on Sunday!

On the way back I get sick of listening to my stupid errors in Italian and I scroll the iPod, dangerous business on Interstate 80 with cars screaming by at 90 mph. I settle on Mitsuko Uchida playing the Hammerklavier Sonata fugue. The day before I’d been reading “On Late Style” by Edward Said. I was feeling that Said was much too enthralled with Adorno, much too willing to be dazzled by the “logos” and grim vision of his apocalyptic aesthetics, and I wondered if listening to the Hammerhead would change my opinion. Did this represent “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction,…a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness…a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which it is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienating relationship with it”?

The fugue is preceded by one of the strangest moments in all of Beethoven, a non-sequiter sequence of fantastic gestures, flamboyant, improvisational, pounding, knocking, nervously twitching. It’s a set-up of course, a moment of totally subjective fantasy that throws into sharp relief the music that follows, the maniacal rigor of the fugue itself. The fugue doesn’t so much “begin” as it is “sprung” or “launched.” Has there ever been a pianist who, at this very moment, didn’t have his or her heart pounding and ready to jump out of the mouth and onto the floor beside the piano bench and lie there throbbing?

And it goes, piling up these dizzying ascents and descents of manic semiquavers, chains of buzzing trills and thumping, pounding motives, all charging forth, some chopped into fragments and spewed forth, upside down or backwards, making a glorious cacaphony. And it is cacaphony, albeit tonal. Is this “polyphonic objectivity” as opposed to “harmonic subjectivity?”

As a huge semi emblazoned with “Sacramento Meat Packers, Inc.” zooms past me in the far left lane I think to myself that Beethoven in this fugue is saying “you wanna talk about technique? OK, here’s technique. Don’t fuck with me, wimpface.” Indeed, sir.

Comments (13)

Derek Bermel
October 24, 2009

'Sup dawg! Hm, I would suspect that Boulez might have had a poodle, purebred. But this is mere speculation. My cat loved both Ben Webster & Webern, hated Beethoven, especially the sonatas. Go figure...

October 24, 2009

Concerning speculation of what kind of dog Boulez might have, I would think pit bull.

October 24, 2009

My family took our dogs to those shows when I was a little kid. I didn't see "Best of Show" until I was older, but there is certainly more truth than not.

Matt King
October 24, 2009

I somehow suspect that Boulez is more of a cat person.

Bonnie MacEvoy
October 24, 2009

Very eloquent. We got our family puppy (Sheltie) last Feb. at Dixon, so Ryan shared this link with me. You describe the clientele and show people very well. Even more bizarre to me was the "beauty shop" maneuvers - back combing, shaving, mascara, tints, and make-up - on the dogs! Eloise is beautiful; enjoy her.

October 25, 2009


I don't see an easier way of possibly communicating with you.

An idea: you composing an opera of Roberto Balano's "2666."


Sarah Baird
October 27, 2009

"Don’t fuck with me, wimpface.”

The message of tradition passed down from generation to generation of composer.

(And somewhere not far from here a young composer is cowering under the muscle of "City Noir.")

Tom Holman
October 27, 2009

Having not spoken to you or seen you in what, more than 40 years, why now am I leaving a comment on your website. Well, just saw the PBS LA Philharmonic performance of your completely brilliant City Noir. Was very impressed that you wrote such a fine dazzling alto sax part. Was equally impressed when you reeled off some of the jazz alto greats in your interview, though Desmond ("Desmond and the MJQ"/Greensleeves) and Adderly ("Something Else"/Autumn Leaves) are worthy and are on my Blackberry. Warmest regards, Tom Holman (Juilliard/Dartmouth)

Cory Voigt
October 28, 2009

Pointer? Looks more like a GSP; German Shorthaired Pointer.She's at my feet now listening to Brahms. I live in South Africa, so we're just out of bird season, but our special time is that 3 hour drive back from the farm and music,music,music.
Saw Flowering Tree recently in London.Congratulations

emma smore
November 8, 2009

We are, however, mixed breed people, but that comes with certain advantages; hybrid vigor, f'r instance [not the dubious vigor one encounters in a Toyota Pious, however, being more in favor of the hybrid vigor your Mr. Proost [shouldn't that be "Proots?"] might enjoy by stuffing a 440 Hemi in his vintage flatbed] and ease of access; enthusiastic pups found under sheds or motor homes or, on one memorable occasion, a coyote trap on the Owyhee Desert. Were we more disciplined they'd all, being, eh, "cattle dogs", doubtless do splendidly in the sheep trials, but we aren't and they don't. And seem to favor Thelonius Monk, at least when nervous in cars.

Merilee MacKinnon
March 17, 2010

Just came back from Nixon in China now in performance at the Vancouver Opera (Canada) and was so blown away that I thought I had better Google this guy I had not really heard much about (sorry). I read the very impressive biography and thought I would read a few blog entries and the one I chose had a photo of the unmistakable GSPointer rear and tail. I read through looking for talk of the dog because we too are Pointer people. Figured out that she was Eloise and then searched for that and came to this cute pic. Our male had a one spot on his head like that when he was younger. Anyway here you are so magnificent a composer and I have just discovered you (the opera was in the season's subscription so I just go to what's offered) and now I have the bonus that you have the same breed of dog. Wow..and that I am writing all this. Great work. MM

Paul Sweeney
June 14, 2010

Beethoven was brilliant when he got pissed off. He wrote the "Diabelli Variations" because he was insulted by being asked to contribute one variation for some sort of multi-composer project that Diabelli had going. I love the "Hammerklavier", but I love Haydn's sonatas as well. I love Boulez' music, and also that of John Adams. I love Schoenberg's quartets and Ben Webster's tenor. Is this allowed? Sorry - don't really care.

Nancy Woodman
May 14, 2011

Dear John--

I've just finished reading Hallelujah Junction, and enjoyed it so much. Your memory of M de la Point (Fifi, weren't we cruel?) was spot on. You write beautifully--I'm not surprised--and can laugh at yourself, a lovely trait.
We lost our dear hound Kicky in February. He was 13, and we miss him like crazy.
I am now a grandmother to 4 young children! Our son, Robb, has 2 boys and 2 girls. Adorable, natch. They live in Portsmouth; our daughter Jessie, now married, works at the Gardner Museum in Boston. Let me know your e mail if you're so inclined.
John and I married 40 years this August!

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