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30.11.03

What's a Negative?

Cellulose nitrate negativeIn the subject line is one of those questions I will probably have to answer toward the end of my career, posed by some future student puzzled by a passage in À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (translated into English by Moncrieff as Within a Budding Grove), the second book of Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust uses an image from the process of photographic development, whose obsolescence is imminent due to the advent of digital photography, in one of his many attempts to pick apart the human act of remembering. The narrator, Marcel, is about to be introduced to Albertine, the love interest who appears in the story after the first obsession with Swann's daughter Gilberte (I have modified Moncrieff's translation somewhat to be closer to the original).

These images of the "negative" and the "inner darkroom" are so vivid to a reader at least somewhat familiar with the analog photographic process: the idea that your experience is the simple exposed film but your memory is the result of a much more complicated chemical process of development that must take place in a separate, lonely room. As we continue to think about the impact of digital photography supplanting film photography (see post on November 25, Nicéphore Niépce), these are images that we have to realize will become as foreign to future readers as references to falconry in medieval literature are to us.

At the moment when Elstir asked me to come with him so that he might introduce me to Albertine, who was sitting a little further away, I first of all finished eating a coffee éclair and, with keen interest, asked an old gentleman, whose acquaintance I had just made and to whom I thought I might offer the rose he was admiring in my buttonhole, to give me some details about certain Norman fairs. This is not to say that the introduction that followed did not give me any pleasure or did not assume a definite importance in my eyes. As for the pleasure, I was naturally not aware of it until some time later when, having returned to the hotel and been alone, I became myself again. There are some pleasures that are like photographs. What we take in the presence of the loved one is only a negative image; we develop it later, as soon as we are home, when we have once again found at our disposal that inner darkroom, the entrance to which is "blocked off" as long as we see other people.Au moment où Elstir me demanda de venir pour qu'il me présentât à Albertine, assise un peu plus loin, je finis d'abord de manger un éclair au café et demandai avec intérêt à un vieux monsieur dont je venais de faire connaissance et auquel je crus pouvoir offrir la rose qu'il admirait à ma boutonnière, de me donner des détails sur certaines foires normandes. Ce n'est pas à dire que la présentation qui suivit ne me causa aucun plaisir et n'offrit pas à mes yeux, une certaine gravité. Pour le plaisir, je ne le connus naturellement qu'un peu plus tard, quand, rentré à l'hôtel, resté seul, je fus redevenu moi-même. Il en est des plaisirs comme des photographies. Ce qu'on prend en présence de l'être aimé, n'est qu'un cliché négatif, on le développe plus tard, une fois chez soi, quand on a retrouvé à sa disposition cette chambre noire intérieure dont l'entrée est <<condamnée>> tant qu'on voit du monde.

29.11.03

Paintings by Mark Barry

Mark Barry, Pool Side, 2002, image thanks to Steven Scott GallerySome time ago, in a post on August 11, I mentioned the paintings of Mark Barry. I liked what I saw of Mark's paintings from his Web site, and he has been interested by my postings on Matisse, Gauguin, and Constable, among others. Mark's paintings have been on display at the Steven Scott Gallery outside Baltimore since October 1, but the show comes down this evening. Fortunately, I was able to see the show this past Wednesday, with the gracious guidance of Steven Scott who showed me the paintings of Mark Barry and the other artists he represents. (Mr. Scott's gallery was on Charles Street in downtown Baltimore until last year, when he moved it to its present location in Owings Mills, just off the Baltimore beltway.)

I liked the pictures I was able to see over the Internet, and that was reinforced when I saw them in person. Mark's style is colorful and direct, with perspective that is often distorted or just simplified and figures who are rendered in a somewhat primitive or naive manner. (This "faux-naive style," Mr. Scott made a point of saying, is intentional and certainly not the result of a lack of academic training.) What strikes me about Mark's work is its happy warmth, revealed in his focus on domestic scenes like parties and activities like reading, bathing, and cooking. There is little darkness in the works I saw, but plenty of grace and vivacious color and pleasing curves. Prominent themes include jazz musicians and the sound of jazz (Night Life, 1998; and the ceramic vases), flowers (The Caller, 2003; March Morning, 2003), fabric patterns on furniture and curtains (The New Dress, 2003; Her Favorite Spot, 1998; The Makeover, 2003), and still life, especially of crabs and other Maryland cuisine (The Crab House, 2002). One of the paintings I liked best in the show was Pool Side (2002), which is shown at right, and I came back to it the most. Rather than providing a portrait of one particular day by a pool, the composition reduces the subject to its essentials: a stand of flowers in a garden, a woman reclining on a lounger, and the water of the pool. The pool, a simple and fairly small rectangle, stands like a mirror in the background, and the flowers hover about the woman's feet and over the water. I admired another painting in the show, Special Spot (2003; see image here), for many of the same reasons. The specific scene, a particular room in Barry's house, is lost in a wash of blue that mingles with the sunny sky seen through the window. Only a vase of red flowers on a slanting side table and the back of a yellow chair create the sense of what makes the dog think this spot is special. You can see several more of Mark's paintings here at his Web site, which he is updating at the time of this writing. There will hopefully be more images of old and new work, as there were in the old version of his site.

You will be able to see some of Mark Barry's paintings in Steven Scott's next show, from December 2 to February 28, called "Regarding Nature." This will feature recent works by many of the artists who show at the gallery, including Robert Andriulli, Mark Barry, Gary Bukovnik, Anne Marie Fleming, Patricia Tobacco Forrester, Carla Golembe, Amy Lamb, Annie Leibovitz, Michael H. Lewis, Katja Oxman, Mark Poss, Tracie Taylor, Frank Trefny, and Karen Vornov. The beautiful flower photographs of Amy Lamb, the cloud study landscapes of Robert Andriulli, the precise still lifes of Frank Trefny, and the urban landscapes of Sam Robinson (especially one of a parking lot in Ocean City) were other works I saw on my visit that are worth a trip to Owings Mills.

28.11.03

Christmas Industry

During a visit with friends in the Virginia Beach area today, I happened to experience for the first time what has become an annual tradition in that city, the Christmas light display along the Virginia Beach oceanfront. The "boardwalk" at Virginia Beach is a sort of paved road that is normally closed to car traffic. In the crazed buildup to the Christmas buying season, the city puts up a display of Christmas lights on the boardwalk from 2nd to 28th Street, and for the price of $10 per vehicle cars can drive along the boardwalk and see them. The Thanksgiving weekend is probably the busiest and therefore worst time to do this, but we waited in line and paid for our share in the holiday cheer.

The wait and expense were justified only by the experience, right out of The Simpsons, of being confronted by the greed and vulgarity of corporate America on display in the Chick-fil-A Holiday Lights at the Beach, Presented by Verizon Wireless. As we passed through the lighted gate advertising for Chick-fil-A, we were given a cassette tape to play in the car's stereo system. The first song began with the lyrics "We wish you would eat more chicken" to the tune of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" (I am not making this up), and advertisements for the sponsors were placed between the dreadful renderings of holiday favorites. You can experience it yourself through January 4, if you are in the Virginia Beach area, and fill out this grotesquely unedited survey of how it changed your life. The only appropriate word is one invented, I think, by Bart Simpson: "craptacular."

27.11.03

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ionarts already had a lot to be thankful for, and then the Detroit Lions went and won a Thanksgiving game over the Green Bay Packers. As a long-suffering Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers fan, Ionarts takes the opportunity to rejoice whenever he can and contents himself with also being a Detroit Red Wings fan.

Best wishes to everyone!

I've been thinking more about famous Washington hospitals. There is another beautiful old hospital building on Capitol Hill, the Old Naval Hospital on Pennsylvania Avenue. There was a proposal to save this building by converting it into a residence for the Mayor of the District of Columbia, but for now the building is abandoned and closed up (although I do occasionally see lights on inside there some nights: who knows why?). Most of these old hospitals were built during the Civil War, when demand for medical care far exceeded the city's rudimentary hospital system. I like to think of these buildings also as the haunts of Walt Whitman, the Good Gray Poet as William O'Connor named him in 1865. Whitman came to Washington to care for his wounded soldier brother and stayed to help with the war effort by spending time with the wounded. He went to almost all of the city's hospitals, including the Old Naval Hospital and Saint Elizabeths, but concentrated most of his time at Campbell Hospital and Armory Square Hospital, neither of which is still standing today. (See Whitman's Drum Taps and Washington's Civil War Hospitals, by Angel Price; and Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals, by Martin G. Murray; Whitman's Drum-Taps will soon be available from the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive; for now you can read Drum-Taps from LiteratureClassics.)

If you want to know more than you ever thought possible about historic medicine in the nation's capital, take a look at this Tour of Historic Medical Sites in Washington, D.C., from the U.S. National Library of Medicine out in Bethesda.

26.11.03

Saint Elizabeths

We took a group of students to perform excerpts from our school musical for patients in the criminal ward of St. Elizabeths Hospital (in Anacostia) on Tuesday. As you can imagine, this is one of the more unusual performing situations I have found myself in, but everyone involved thought this was an uplifting experience. The patients, many of whom never leave the hospital building, are always glad to have the opportunity to hear music, and sadly too few of the organizations who might be able to bring music or other performances to them have the guts to carry through and do it. If any readers work in schools in the Washington area, a visit to the hospital is a great opportunity for students to perform a worthy community service. The staff are welcoming and extremely supportive, and there was never any feeling of insecurity on the part of any student.

Thomas Walter, Center Building, Saint Elizabeths Hospital, Washington, D.C.Saint Elizabeths is one of the oldest hospitals in the District of Columbia, founded by Dorothea Dix in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane, a place to treat and rehabilitate soldiers and sailors and other residents of the nation's capital. The oldest building (Center Building, designed in the Gothic revival style by Thomas U. Walter, who also designed the dome of the U.S. Capitol) was apparently constructed mostly by slaves (see image at left), and it is no longer used (along with most of the western side of the hospital grounds) because it is in such terrible disrepair. (You can see the revolting state of deterioriation in this slide show of images put together by the local NBC television station.) The hospital's history as the only real national center of psychiatric medicine was cut short under President Reagan. Since the District of Columbia took over the operations of Saint Elizabeths in 1987, the vast majority of patients have been released or moved. Now only about 600 remain, and most of them live in a building called John Howard Pavilion, where we gave our performance.

The decline that has been allowed at Saint Elizabeths is bad not only for the patients but also for the American national patrimony (yes, I think we have one of those). The hospital's historic buildings and grounds were on the 2002 list of the 11 Most Endangered Places put together by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as the 2003 list from the D.C. Preservation League. Many veterans of the Civil War were treated there, some of whom are buried in a cemetery on the grounds (see picture here). (Saint Elizabeths was the colonial name for the land given to the hospital, so the soldiers who were patients there began to call it by that name, which the hospital finally adopted as its official name.) The hospital is back in the news these days because its most famous patient, John Hinckley (committed in 1982 after shooting President Reagan), has been trying to convince a judge to allow him to leave the hospital on unsupervised visits to his parents' home (see this article from ABC News, this article in the Washington Post, and this article in the New York Times). The hospital and Hinckley's doctors support the request, but the families of his victims do not. (Mr. Hinckley was present at the end of our performance at the hospital.) As it turns out, the first attempted presidential assassin, Richard Lawrence, who tried to shoot President Andrew Jackson at the U.S. Capitol in 1835, was declared insane and ended up spending the last five years of his life at Saint Elizabeths.

There are many other important historical notes related to Saint Elizabeths. All sorts of innovative treatments were developed and used in the hospital, including hydrotherapy, Freudian psychoanalytic techniques, dance therapy, psychodrama, and the use of artistic creation as a therapeutic release (see this fascinating article on a piece of lace created by a patient at Saint Elizabeths in 1917). In the 1940s and 50s, the director of laboratories at Saint Elizabeths was Walter Freeman, who with his colleague James Watts was a pioneer and advocate of now-controversial procedures like the lobotomy, insulin shock therapy, and electroconvulsive therapy. (Dr. Freeman's most famous patient is probably Rosemary Kennedy, sister of President Kennedy, who was lobotomized in 1941 with sadly disastrous consequences. However, William Alanson White, superintendent of Saint Elizabeths at the time, did not allow lobotomies to take place in the hospital. Dr. Freeman performed them as part of his private practice.) The poet Ezra Pound, accused of treason because of anti-American statements he made on Italian radio during World War II, was a patient from 1945 to 1958, in the care of Dr. Winfred Overholser. The site was chosen for its access to what is supposedly the best view of the federal center of Washington, D.C. (from a vantage point known as "The Point"), a vista thought to have been beneficial to the recovery of patients. Trees of many unusual species were brought from around the world in the 19th century to adorn the grounds.

Autopsies were routinely done on the hospital's patients, and the large number of samples of brain tissue collected at the library was donated by Saint Elizabeths to the National Museum of Health and Medicine (the so-called Blackburn-Neumann Collection can be consulted there; the NMHM is part of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center). It is estimated that the hospital has treated about 125,000 patients, and significant numbers of them may be buried on the hospital grounds (burial records were kept poorly and may now be lost). This makes any discussion of development of the site quite problematic and requires historic preservation with even greater urgency.

25.11.03

Nicéphore Niépce

First photograph by Nicéphore Niépce, 1827Nicéphore [Joseph] Niépce (1765–1833) experimented with viable photographic processes in the 1810s to 1820s. In the summer of 1827, he created what is thought to be the first photograph (shown at right), after an exposure of eight hours (for this reason, the sun in that photograph appears to shine from opposing directions simultaneously). It would be far too simple to say that he invented photography, because the photographic process has undergone so many significant modifications since then. Now you can visit his house in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France, where exhibits have been set up that try to reproduce his experiments with light. There is also the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône. There is also lots of good information from the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, as well as photographic images in their online photography collections.

I haven't decided yet how I feel about the impending demise of analog photography, with plates and chemicals and darkrooms. Niépce, Louis Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, and all those people who suffered through the hassles of making photographs would surely all be thrilled at the concept of digital photography, which is so easy, instantaneous, and available to anyone. Still, I cannot help but think that old photographic images and what they evoke visually cannot be replaced with pixels on a hard drive. I could spend and have already spent a lot of time looking at old photographs (see the exhibit Portraits/Visages at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, mentioned in my post on November 13; or the online Photos and Prints collection from American Memory at the Library of Congress). Of course, I am looking at these images mostly through my computer, so I guess I should stop worrying.

24.11.03

The Lucernaire

One of the coolest places in Paris, the Lucernaire Forum (53, avenue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, in the 6e arrondissement) has been given the government subvention it needs to stay afloat, according to an article (Une victoire pour le Lucernaire, November 21) in Le Figaro:

Christian Le Guillochet, founder and director of the Lucernaire, yesterday ended the hunger strike he had undertaken, worried about the future of this very important place in the Parisian cultural landscape. As the result of the cooperation of Bertrand Delanoë (Mayor of Paris), Christophe Girard (Cultural Adjunct for the City of Paris), Jean-Jacques Aillagon (Minister of Culture and Communication), Jean-François de Canchy (Director of Regional Cultural Affairs), and Christian Le Guillochet himself, the subventions awarded to the Lucernaire Theater will be awarded "through June 2004 at the latest." This nontransferable assistance should permit this establishment to function peacefully through its sale to a future owner who will be careful to respect and pursue the present course. It is also a way for the city government and the State to reaffirm their connection to and support of the creative and artistic work of this establishment, classed as a National Center of Art and Experiment since 1984. The amount of assistance has not yet been decided.

Let us remember that the Lucernaire was put up for sale in June 2002, by Christian Le Guillochet for "personal reasons." He had benefitted until then from a comfortable subvention to welcome companies and make this place into a vital stage, very appreciated by the public. It was logical that the Ministry of Culture and Communication and the Paris city government had reduced their support and announced that it would be discontinued.
The Lucernaire is an unusual and extraordinarily convivial place where you can see live theater, movies, and art, as well as enjoy conversation over a drink. I sincerely hope that it survives.

23.11.03

Constable in London

John Constable, Rainstorm over the Sea, 1824-28, Royal Academy of ArtYesterday Andrew Motion published an article in The Guardian on The Secret Constable, in advance of the opening of new painting galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which owns a collection of paintings by John Constable donated by the painter's daughter and another collector, John Sheepshank. (Here is the museum's press release on the event this Wednesday.) I'm not having much luck finding images of the museum's collection on its Web site, but Motion mentions some of the paintings that will be in the new galleries: Cottage in a Cornfield, Watermeadows near Salisbury, and The Cornfield; very interesting indeed are the 22 oil sketches that will be displayed, among the things that Constable's daughter inherited from his studio at the time of her father's death. This is a fine article by Andrew Motion, a writer whom I admire especially for his biography of one of my favorite poets, Philip Larkin, called A Writer's Life (1994). He met Larkin while teaching at the University of Hull, where Larkin was a librarian. Motion was named Poet Laureate in 1999, and he really embarrassed himself this summer by writing a rap poem for Prince William's 21st birthday. Not to worry: not even Tennyson could always write good official poetry as Poet Laureate.

Another article by Louise Jury and Vincent Graff in The Independent (November 24, New Gallery to House Royal Academy's Hidden Masterpieces) relates that 18 paintings of Constable, hitherto not on public view, will be shown in the Fine Rooms of the Royal Academy of Arts, along with many other works given to the Royal Academy by new members when they were received. The Constable works include The Leaping Horse (1824–25), and you can look at the other Constables in the Royal Academy collection, as well as just about anything else they have, through their excellent Web site. (Take a look at the larger image of Constable's Rainstorm over the Sea, 1824-28, which is a stunningly beautiful painting, shown above.)

22.11.03

This Sunday at the National Shrine

Tomorrow is the end of the liturgical season of ordinary time in the Catholic year, and next Sunday marks the beginning of Advent. This last Sunday of ordinary time is now designated as the feast of Christ the King (instituted by Pope Pius XI: see his encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor of 1928), and the choir of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, D.C., will be performing the following music:

• Gerald Near, Communion Service
• Ned Rorem, Praise the Lord, My Soul (1982, text of psalm 146)
• Sidney Campbell, Sing We Merrily unto God our Strength
• Luca Marenzio, Jubilate Deo (à 8)
• Claudio Monteverdi, Cantate Domino (à 6)
We will also be performing for the annual Christmas Concert for Charity at the National Shrine on Friday, December 5, at 8 pm, with the orchestra and choruses of The Catholic University of America. Our part of the program will feature some of the pieces from our forthcoming compact disc (Carols at the Crèche, from Gothic Records), including the Five Carols of Richard Rodney Bennett and pieces by Fink, Mulet, Korte, and Billings. We will also perform the 12-part motet Beata es virgo Maria by Vincenzo Ugolini (see my post on July 25).

21.11.03

Do Critics Have to Pay Attention to Popular Works?

Terry Teachout published yesterday on his blog About Last Night (November 20, At the National Book Awards) his impressions of the National Book Awards ceremony and the speeches of Stephen King and the other honorees. (He was one of the judges, on the panel for nonfiction.) He has since published a response to the numerous messages he received today (King's X). You can see a picture of Stephen King that night in the article in The Guardian's Books section (November 21, Stephen King makes a prize call for populism), in which he is quoted as saying of the disdain of the literary establishment for popular genre fiction,

"What do you think," he asked, "you get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?"
The speeches should eventually be published on the Web site of the National Book Foundation. King's basic point, lamenting the divide between popular and literary fiction, seems a silly thing to say when receiving an honorary award from the National Book Foundation. Yes, there was some backlash from literary types about King receiving the award, but King's award seems to indicate that the divide has already been more or less closed. Most literary critics are aware of popular fiction, and some of them probably read popular fiction, but that surely does not mean that they have to think it's worthy of serious comment. This will almost certainly not change because of one year's honorary National Book Award. On the other hand, I think what the NBF is trying to say with this year's award, as they said by honoring Oprah Winfrey in 1999 for her book club, is that lots of people read because of Stephen King. He has mastered an accessible, fluid style that keeps people buying his books and turning the pages. Ultimately, that is a good thing for the world of books and publishing.

20.11.03

Update on the Arles Excavation

I don't understand this, but I have still seen no reference in the major anglophone media of the discovery of an ancient basilica under the construction site of a media center in Arles (see my post on November 17, Site of Early Christian Basilica Discovered in France). As I am able to glean information from French newspapers and magazines, I will keep translating new information here.

According to an article by Baudouin Eschapasse (La cathédrale oubliée, November 21) in Le Point, the excavation is proceeding and will continue until late December, when the entire country of France shuts down for the Christmas holidays:Mosaic from Arles excavation, November 2003

Like the Arlesian woman of Daudet, we've been speaking of it for centuries . . . without ever having seen it. "The cathedral, exhumed last week behind the site of the former convent of Saint-Jean, was described in numerous texts of the Middle Ages," notes Frédéric Raynaud, archeologist in charge of the excavation in Arles. Its discovery has not amazed the researcher any less.

"This is one of the oldest cathedrals of Europe," he explains. "Probably built in the first half of the 4th century, then abandoned around 430 in favor of that of Saint-Trophime" [more pictures of Saint-Trophime]. Which explain why it has not undergone any subsequent modifications in the Romanesque or Gothic periods.

The religious structure, which from initial inspection measures about 15 meters [49.2 feet] wide, follows a basilican plan with no transept, a marble flooring, and a very beautiful mosaic. "If it is not established that the two councils of 314 and 353, which were held in Arles to draw the attention of the Bishop of Rome to the schisms of the period, took place here, this cathedral nevertheless supports the idea that this city's see was the most important in Gaul," points out Marc Heijmans, researcher at the CNRS.

The excavation, which must be interrupted in December, will nevertheless endeavor to determine the date of the entire building and the origin of the columns found in the choir. "From what we can tell, recycled from an earlier pagan temple," according to Frédéric Raynaud. Before construction of the media center that should open on this site in 2005 can begin, "the plans for it will be modified to take into account the treasures underneath," the municipal government affirms.
The Arlesian woman mentioned at the beginning of the article is a reference to a famous story by Alfred Daudet (1840–1897) called L'Arlésienne, in the collection Lettres de mon moulin (1866), in which a young man from the countryside pines after a beautiful but ultimately unfaithful woman from Arles. Unable to marry her and desperately unhappy, the young man throws himself from the top window of his house and dies. The Arlesian woman herself never appears in the story, although she is constantly discussed. Daudet adapted the story as a play in 1872, for which composer Georges Bizet (1838–1875) wrote some charming incidental music (collection into two suites). The story was also set as an opera (L'Arlesiana) by Francesco Cilea with a libretto by Leopoldo Marenco, premiered in Milan in 1897 with a young tenor named Enrico Caruso as Federico.

If you want to see some great pictures of the excavation, the city of Arles's Web site has published a page devoted to the discovery, Une basilique du IVe siècle sous le chantier du médiapôle. I will translate some more sections from their site in the next couple days. Here is how their announcement begins:
Of course, this is an additional patrimonial treasure that will increase the notoriety of Arles. As soon as the excavation has reached its conclusion, government officials want the public to be able to visit the site.
A conference to discuss the discovery will be led by Hervé Schiavetti, Mayor of Arles, on December 2 at 2 pm in the Theater of Arles, followed by a visit to the site. If there is anyone reading Ionarts who can possibly go to Arles for this conference, I will post whatever comments you can make about it. For more information about the city of Arles in late antiquity, you can also visit the cool Web site of the Musée de l'Arles et la Provence antiques and see some of their marvelous collection.

19.11.03

Taking Apart the French Patrimony

Considering my admiration for the French government's protection of its national patrimony (see post on August 6, The Idea of a National Patrimony, about Prosper Mérimée), I have been shocked to follow the plans of the present right-wing government to release control of a number of historical monuments to local governments. See Marie-Douce Albert, Monuments de l'État: avis de décentralisation (November 18 in Le Figaro); Françoise Monnet, Monuments historiques: le grand marché (November 18 in Le Progrès); and Vincent Noce, L'État caseur de pierres (November 18 in Libération). René Rémond, President of the Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, submitted the official report on this subject to the Minister of Culture on November 17; you can also consult this overview of the proposed changes published in Le Figaro.

If I understand correctly, only 298 of the total of 442 sites controlled by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux were even up for consideration of decentralization. The 87 historic cathedrals (those of Paris, Chartres, and Reims, for example) would remain under national control, with the single exception of the cathedral of Ajaccio in Corsica, which had already been released back to the Corsican government. Cathedrals may be the most important type of monument in the commission's eyes, since it also recommended that the national government actually take over the cathedrals in Laon and Noyon. The Château of Versailles, of course, will remain a national property, as will the Palais-Royal, present home of the Ministry of Culture. Also important enough to keep in national control: the Château of Villers-Cotterêts, where François I named French the official administrative language of his government; most national cemeteries; the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris; Voltaire's home in Ferney; and several important abbeys, such as Cluny and Fontevraud; and sites of paleolithic cave painting, such as Lascaux. Most of the most famous sites, the Château of Compiègne, Mont-Saint-Michel, the Château of Azay-le-Rideau, and most of the monuments of Paris, like the Panthéon and the Grand Palais, will remain national property.

Of those it was asked to consider, the scientific commission recommends that the national government turn over to local governments about one-half. The article in Libération calls the official report "a dissertation in political philosophy, all in nuances." Of 298 sites, 136 would remain under national control, while 162 would be released to the control (and therefore financial responsibility) of local governments. Most of the sites affected appear to have strong local importance, like the fortifications of old cities, the towers of La Rochelle, and the Château of Haut-Koenigsbourg in Alsace.

The Doors of Paris and the Beaujolais Nouveau

I feel happier just looking at these images of 50 doors of Paris. Thanks to Plep, who has just returned from a trip to Nepal, for directing me to it.

If you need some artificial happiness, this year's vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau will be available at midnight (the beginning of the third Thursday of November) in France. (You can buy it in North American stores starting tomorrow morning.) There are midnight tasting parties throughout France, which are a lot of fun, more for the spirit of fun than for the wine, which is usually raw and unspectacular. This year's edition, however, thanks to a frost in the spring and a long summer heatwave, has been called by some advance tasters "une année d'exception [an exceptional year]." Others are not so happy about the rise in price this year, given that this sort of extremely young wine should really be dirt cheap.

18.11.03

Wood-Boring Beetles at Chambord

I did some reporting on news from the Château de Chambord this summer (see post on August 11, Changes Planned for the Château de Chambord?). Shortly after that, a beam in the château broke, causing a group of tourists to crash through the floor to a room below (see my post on August 19, Accident at Chambord). Further investigation has revealed the cause and suggests that other rooms may need to be closed from tourist traffic, as reported in the newspaper Libération (Chambord débarasse son plancher, November 15), of which I translate an excerpt here:Deathwatch Beetle

Two young people are hunting a wood-eating insect in the Château of Chambord. Since six visitors fell through a floor in the king's wing on August 17, the cracking of inlaid wooden floors is causing worry. Have gluttonous deathwatch beetles tucked in on other beams? The accident resulted in only light injuries: the tourists' fall was broken by a pile of statues, stored in the stone closet, 2.5 meters [8.2 feet] below. But the panic has been intense. A fall of 7.5 meters [24.6 feet], the normal ceiling height here, could be more harmful, and the Loire Valley castles don't need any bad publicity when its American clientele starts pouting.

Frédéric works at the Wood Rheology Laboratory at the University of Bordeaux; Stéphanie has started her own company, Xyloméca. "Our job is to evaluate the technical resistance of wood," she specifies. The monument is immense (440 rooms, 80 of which are open to 800,000 visitors annually), and for several days, they have been sounding the "support beams" identical to the one which gave way. [. . .]

The beam that broke is at ground level, victim of an attack by large deathwatch beetles. No suspicious sawdust indicated their presence. The insects died some years ago, when all that remained was wood too dry to gnaw. Why did the beam hold so long before giving way? The experts have no response. "For deathwatch beetles, there must be water and edible fungus present. It all depends on the history of each beam. The one that gave way may be the only one affected," says Frédéric.

After having inspected 18 rooms, or about 22 to 24 support beams, he remains cautious: "There are two or three we have doubts about." [. . .] Technology will certainly allow the installation of detectors able to indicate degradations as they happen. For walls, "fissurometers" measure the evolution of flaws. "Up to now, they have been stable," remarks Jean-Lucien Guenoun, government architect of buildings in the Loir-et-Cher. A water leak, a statue that comes unsoldered, a weathervane that dangles loose. Accidents are rare, but about twenty years ago, a little girl was killed in the neighboring Château of Blois, crushed by a block of stone.
If I had not been a music major, I probably would have studied entomology, and insects still fascinate me, so allow me this short digression from the arts. The grosse vrillette (Xestobium rufovillosum de Geer), or deathwatch beetle (see picture above), is a member of the order Coleoptera (you can see other pictures of the beastie here, which ranges in size from 5 to 12 mm, or between 3/16 and ½ inch). Coleopters are extraordinarily diverse, with over 350,000 identified species, the most of any type of organism on the planet. They are also often quite destructive, and in this case they have displayed excellent taste. (Take a look at the damage they can do to wood: no wonder the beam gave way at Chambord.) This beetle gets its name from the sound the male makes to attract females by tapping his armored head on a wood surface, usually at night. If it was heard by someone sitting up late at night with a sick person, the tapping was interpreted superstitiously as an omen of death.

17.11.03

Site of Early Christian Basilica Discovered in France

This news has not really played in the United States (or in the blogosphere) as far as I can tell, so I think I need to draw some attention to it here. Workers digging under the city of Arles on the site of a future Media Institute have discovered the old foundations of what may be one of the the first cathedrals in Gaul, built probably in the 4th century and in use until the 6th century. I learned about this first from Le Nouvel Observateur in the article Une cathédrale gauloise découverte à Arles from November 13, which I translate here:Mosaic from excavation in Arles

A fourth-century cathedral, one of the first built in Gaul, was discovered on the construction site of the future media center (Institute of Media) in Arles. "In historical terms, it's important," noted Frédéric Raynaud, of the National Institute of Preventive Archeological Research (INRAP). "We have an extremely well-preserved early Christian church, with remnants visible at the choir level." This researcher underscores the value of mosaics "so fragile that we are going to have restorers come. The floor is decorated with white and gray marble arranged in staggered rows," he explained to Associated Press. According to archeologist Emilie Leal, "All the work is yet to be done. We have not understood at all the true function of this basilica. We cannot speak of an autonomous building: it is a complex."

"In the early Christian era, each Roman city had a corresponding diocese and bishop," explains Jean-Maurice Rouquette, Honorary Chief Curator of the Museums of Arles. "The bishop is the center of all, he baptizes and distributes the sacraments." According to him, this system ended in the 6th century when the Bishop of Arles, Saint Caesarius, "seeing that he could no longer control his diocese, had the idea to confer his powers on the priests of secondary parishes."

The municipal government of Arles has not given up on erecting the media center, whose construction is estimated at a value of 5 million euros. "We have on one side an economic development project and on the other we find ourselves faced with an exceptional discovery: we want to find a compromise in which we take account of both," declared Bouzid Sabeg, Director of the Patrimony of the City of Arles.
In the same issue, Olivier Frégaville-Arcas published an article (Découverte d'une cathédrale du IVe siècle à Arles), from which I translate the following additional information:
During work preparing for the construction of a multimedia center in downtown Arles on the site of a former convent, workers were surprised to discover gallic ruins. A team from INRAP was sent to the site to make an evaluation of the discovery: either to authorize the construction and dispense with the archeological claim or launch a scientific excavation. Archeologists have uncovered, among other things, collapsed columns and very beautiful but extremely fragile mosaics. They have therefore called on restorers to preserve them in the best possible state. . . .

The apse, which measures more than 15 meters in diameter, suggests that this religious building is a cathedral. According to Marc Heijmans, archeologist at the CNRS, these would be the remains of the absolute first cathedral in the Arles area, perhaps even in all of Gaul. In effect, Arles became an ecclesiastical city at the beginning of the fourth century. The researchers hope to have the time to decode what is hidden behind the complexity of this building. After all the municipal government of Arles has not yet shelved its multimedia center project . . . INRAP therefore must preserve this exceptional discovery while at the same time permitting the city's economic development. In the wait for a compromise, the excavations continue.
An article in La Croix broke the story on November 10, which rated the importance of the discovery in the following terms:
This cathedral is the first constructed in France, around 350, according to researchers. The two other known cathedrals dating from the same period are those of Trier (Germany), administrative capital of the Gauls, and of Geneva (Switzerland). The cathedral, 40 to 50 meters in length, has an apse about 15 meters in diameter, "which is exceptional for the period," indicated Jean Guyon, specialist in late antiquities at the CNRS in Aix-en-Provence.
Last Friday (see this article in Le Nouvel Observateur), the French government stepped in, in the person of Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the Minister of Culture, who gave the site temporary status as a national historic monument. This means that no more construction can happen on the site for a period of one year, while the archeologists do their work. (I ask again why we don't have this position in the United States? I am available for the next President to appoint.) The pictures of the excavation and one of the mosaics on the Nouvel Observateur's Web site are tantalizing. As I can learn more, I will write again.

UPDATE:
Thanks to David Nishimura of Cronaca for linking to this post in reference to the Arles basilica.

16.11.03

La Juive in Proust

Philip Kennicott's article on La Juive (see yesterday's post) stole my thunder on this point, but the talk about this opera reminded me of the very funny use of La Juive (along with other operas on Old Testament stories) in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. A melody from Halévy's opera is hummed, without the words, by the narrator's grandfather in reference to the narrator's friend Bloch (I have modified the Moncrieff translation slightly).

Malheureusement, je ne pus pas apaiser en causant avec Bloch et en lui demandant des explications, le trouble où il m'avait jeté quand il m'avait dit que les beaux vers (à moi qui n'attendais d’eux rien moins que la révélation de la vérité) étaient d'autant plus beaux qu'ils ne signifiaient rien du tout. Bloch en effet ne fut pas réinvité à la maison. Il y avait d'abord été bien accueilli. Mon grand-père, il est vrai, prétendait que chaque fois que je me liais avec un de mes camarades plus qu'avec les autres et que je l'amenais chez nous, c'était toujours un juif, ce qui ne lui eût pas déplu en principe—même son ami Swann était d'origine juive—s'il n'avait trouvé que ce n'était pas d'habitude parmi les meilleurs que je le choisissais. Aussi quand j'amenais un nouvel ami il était bien rare qu'il ne fredonnât pas: "O Dieu de nos Pères" de la Juive ou bien "Israël romps ta chaîne," ne chantant que l'air naturellement (Ti la lam ta lam, talim), mais j'avais peur que mon camarade ne le connût et ne rétablît les paroles.

Avant de les avoir vus, rien qu'en entendant leur nom qui, bien souvent, n'avait rien de particulièrement israélite, il devinait non seulement l'origine juive de ceux de mes amis qui l'étaient en effet, mais même ce qu'il y avait quelquefois de fâcheux dans leur famille.

—"Et comment s'appelle-t-il ton ami qui vient ce soir?"

—"Dumont, grand-père."

—"Dumont! Oh! je me méfie."

Et il chantait:

"Archers, faites bonne garde!

Veillez sans trêve et sans bruit"; Et après nous avoir posé adroitement quelques questions plus précises, il s'écriait: "A la garde! A la garde!" ou, si c'était le patient lui-même déjà arrivé qu'il avait forcé à son insu, par un interrogatoire dissimulé, à confesser ses origines, alors pour nous montrer qu'il n'avait plus aucun doute, il se contentait de nous regarder en fredonnant imperceptiblement:

"De ce timide Israëlite

Quoi! vous guidez ici les pas!" ou:

"Champs paternels, Hébron, douce vallée."

ou encore:

"Oui, je suis de la race élue."

Ces petites manies de mon grand-père n'impliquaient aucun sentiment malveillant à l'endroit de mes camarades.
Unfortunately I was not able to set at rest, by further talks with Bloch, in which I might have insisted upon an explanation, the doubts he had engendered in me when he told me that fine lines of poetry (from which I expected nothing less than the revelation of truth) were all the finer if they meant absolutely nothing. For, as it happened, Bloch was not invited to the house again. At first, he had been well received there. It is true that my grandfather made out that, whenever I formed a strong attachment to any one of my friends and brought him home with me, that friend was invariably a Jew; to which he would not have objected on principle—indeed his own friend Swann was of Jewish extraction—had he not found that the Jews whom I chose as friends were not usually of the best type. And so I was hardly ever able to bring a new friend home without my grandfather’s humming the "O, God of our fathers" from La Juive, or else "Israel, break thy chain," singing the tune alone, of course, to an "um-ti-tum-ti-tum, tra-la"; but I used to be afraid of my friend's recognising the sound, and so being able to reconstruct the words.

Before seeing them, merely on hearing their names, about which, as often as not, there was nothing particularly Hebraic, he would divine not only the Jewish origin of such of my friends as might indeed be of the chosen people, but even some dark secret which was hidden in their family.

"And what do they call your friend who is coming this evening?"

"Dumont, grandfather."

"Dumont! Oh, I’m suspicious."

And he would sing:

"Archers, be on your guard!
Watch without rest, without sound,"
and then, after a few adroit questions on points of detail, he would call out "On guard! on guard," or, if it were the victim himself who had already arrived, and had been obliged, unconsciously, by my grandfather's subtle examination, to admit his origin, then my grandfather, to show us that he had no longer any doubts, would merely look at us, humming almost inaudibly the air of

"What! do you hither guide the feet
Of this timid Israelite?"
or of

"Sweet vale of Hebron, dear paternal fields,"
or, perhaps, of

"Yes, I am of the chosen race."

These little eccentricities on my grandfather's part implied no ill-will whatsoever towards my friends.
The first of these tunes is, I think, "O Dieu, Dieu de nos pères, parmis nous descends!" from the beginning of Act II of La Juive (1835). "Israël romps ta chaine" is from Saint-Saëns's opera Samson et Dalila (1877). "Champs paternels, Hébron, douce vallée" is from Méhul's Joseph en Egypte (1807).

15.11.03

La Juive at the Met

Neil Shicoff in La JuiveAn interview on NPR got me really interested in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Jacques Fromental Halévy's grand opera La Juive (premiered in Paris in 1835, with its U.S. premiere in New Orleans in 1844). It has long seemed somewhat of a mystery to me why French grand opera is not better liked at the Met, because these are works expressly made for flamboyant productions with grand historical backdrops. There is a bias of sorts at work, as seen in an early review of the production by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times (Retribution and Lust Collide in the Ghetto, November 8). After reviewing the negative reception this production received at the Vienna Staatsoper, he states:

Still, opera fans should be grateful for the chance to experience a work admired by Berlioz, Wagner and Mahler, among others. For all its French grand opera trappings, Halévy's 1835 work is indebted to the Italian bel canto tradition (imagine a Gallic-tinged Bellini) and prefigures the innovations of Gounod, Halévy's student, and Verdi.
French grand opera trappings (bad) vs. Italian bel canto tradition (good). Gallic-tinged Bellini? If that's an endorsement, it should be no surprise that this is the first production of this famous opera at the Met since 1936. How could a work that was so famous, featuring the much-beloved final role of Enrico Caruso (see this page from Metropolitan Opera History on La Juive at the Met), simply disappear from the repertory? (For one thoughtful response to this question, see Philip Kennicott, La Juive's Hateful History, in the Washington Post, November 2.)

American tenor Neil Shicoff is responsible for bringing this production from Vienna, and he stars in Caruso's role, Eléazar (see picture above). In what was actually a long interview with NPR's Linda Wertheimer today, Shicoff explained his interest in the role and how he convinced the Met to let him sing the role again. Shicoff is the son of a Brooklyn cantor, Sidney Shicoff, who gave him his first musical training. (Halévy was also a cantor's son.) When he decided he did want to follow in his father's footsteps, he went to Juilliard and from there into the world of opera. Although I would love to go to New York to see this production, I think I will have to settle for listening to the live broadcast on the radio. Everyone within the sound of my voice should know about the ChevronTexaco Met Broadcast, which has been a Saturday tradition for over 60 years. If you just have to know what the Te deum sounds like as imagined by Halévy in the opening scene of La Juive (it is heard in the background as Eléazar and his daughter Rachel, the title character, are seen transacting business on a Christian holiday), turn on your radio at 1:00 pm on December 13. (You can see if there is a station that carries it in your listening area here. If you don't know about the Met broadcasts, you can order a free brochure and schedule here.) Halévy's opera is the first in the broadcast season, after a season preview on December 6.

If you weren't worried about the state of the arts in the United States before, you should be, in light of the fact that this is the final season of radio broadcasts that ChevronTexaco will sponsor from the Met (see their press release from May 2003). I have always praised this company and exempted it from criticism of big business and oil companies in particular, solely because of this sponsorship. The first live performance of opera that I ever heard, when I was in high school, was from the Met, and it was carried to my ears because of what was then Texaco. At the intermission, I heard people like Fr. Owen Lee, Edward Downes, William Weaver, and others talk with such knowledge and love about opera. It infected me, and I have never recovered. It is a terrible abandonment for ChevronTexaco to stop the funding of the Met broadcast, and it will be even worse if no other sponsor can be found. How will future opera lovers in small Michigan towns ever catch the bug?

13.11.03

More Art to See in Paris

There has been some coverage in the French newspapers about more exhibits I would like to see in Paris. The first is called Aux origines de l'abstraction (1800-1914), at the Musée d'Orsay until February 22, 2004. Here is my translation of a part of the description of the exhibit from their Web site:

Although central to art history, the question of abstraction's sources has curiously never been the subject of an important exhibit in France, where nevertheless the great pioneers of nonfigural painting were gathered. The Musée d'Orsay, whose collection covers the turn of the century (1848-1914), seemed the ideal location to carry out this investigation. Because, far from being a historical phenomenon which appeared suddenly in the urgency of a few crucial years, abstraction is the product of a progressive ripening over the entire 19th century. . . . The first part [of the exhibit], titled "The Solar Eye," examines the questions of thresholds of visibility. How did the translation of light, from Turner to Delaunay, push painting to free itself from the representation of forms? The second part, titled "The Musical Eye," focuses on the visual translation of sound to analyze the decisive impact of the musical model in the sources of abstraction.
I find this last concept to be quite interesting. The museum's Web site has images of a number of the works in the exhibit. The second is Portraits/Visages, an exhibit of photographs from the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The library has made available a really cool Web site with lots of images from the exhibit, well worth the visit.

If you want to hear a musical revue of Rodgers and Hammerstein called A Grand Night for Singing (it had some success on Broadway in 1994), you can hear a group of talented students at Saint Anselm's Abbey School this weekend, with yours truly at the piano: Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm.

12.11.03

RSS Feed

This is a purely technical note. A friend in Rhode Island who writes a cool blog about using technology to reform schools, Tuttle SVC, got me interested in the whole concept of blogging. So when he sent me a message saying that Ionarts needed an RSS feed and gave me instructions to do it, I had to heed his advice. So, for those of who know what an RSS feed is and use it, it should be in place now, which is why there is that new XML image and link in the sidebar. If I did something wrong to implement it, I know I'll hear about it.

11.11.03

Happy Anniversary to the Tallis Scholars

An article by Roderick Conway Norris (What They Really Do: A Wall of Sound, November 11) in the International Herald Tribune drew my attention to the fact that the Tallis Scholars have been giving extraordinary concerts of Renaissance polyphony for 30 years and that Peter Phillips has published a memoir of that remarkable career, What We Really Do (the link takes you to the online order form where you can buy the book). Having been an undergraduate piano major and choral singer in the late 1980s, I enjoyed performing Renaissance polyphony from the first time my high school choir director made us sing O magnum mysterium by Victoria. However, my first experiences with hearing recordings of Renaissance music in my undergraduate music history class made me cringe. When I went to graduate school in the early 1990s, I heard the recordings of the Tallis Scholars for the first time. I remember very clearly listening to their recording of Thomas Tallis's settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for Holy Week and thinking that it was heaven on earth. Now the Tallis Scholars have performed all over the world (including a televised performance of Allegri's Miserere in the Sistine Chapel) and made a pile of recordings. I wish them a happy anniversary and many more years of performance.

10.11.03

The Intermittents du Spectacle Strike Again

In case you missed it, an article by John Rockwell (Ground Zero and City Opera, a May-December Match, November 9) in the New York Times has made quite an impression on all sorts of arts-related people. The e-mail list (AMS-L) of the American Musicological Society (about to have its annual meeting this weekend in Houston), for example, was buzzing with indignation that a Bruce Springsteen album "has touched more people, and is better art besides, than a high-minded classical score like John Adams's 'On the Transmigration of Souls'." And Terry Teachout at About Last Night and Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes have been lamenting the decline in real arts coverage in the American mass media (see my related post on November 6, Popularizing the Arts).

As an antidote to this depressing state of affairs, here is my translation of the account of the latest action of the intermittents du spectacle in Paris. This is the union (another taboo word in the United States) of part-time workers in the performing arts, whose subsidies and insurance, which they have traditionally received from the French state, are on the block in the right-wing government's attempts to cut the budget (see posts on August 30, August 13, and July 30). These people still care very strongly about the arts and their livelihood in the arts, as this account (Des intermittents du spectacle se sont invités au JT sur France 2, November 11) in Le Monde makes clear:Intermittents du spectacle on France 2 News, November 10

Monday evening, part-time arts workers briefly interrupted France 2's television news program, presented by David Pujadas, and read a message to protest the reform of their unemployment insurance program, less than a month after an intervention on the set of TF1's program "Star Academy."

The workers came onto the France 2 television set brandishing signs behind the anchor, who decided to yield his seat to allow one of their spokespersons the time for a live statement. "We want a true reform negotiated with all those concerned. We want our proposals to be taken into account. We want a primetime televised debate between both sides on these questions," the spokesperson declared.

The spokesperson concluded by calling the part-time workers to demonstrate Thursday in front of the home office of Unedic in Paris, where a meeting is planned for that date between employers' organizations and unions to ratify the agreement protocol reforming the specific plan for payment to unemployed part-time arts workers. This protocol will then be submitted for final signature to the Minister of Social Affairs, Work, and Solidarity.

The part-time workers who had invaded the France 2 set loudly applauded the statement of their spokesperson and then left, allowing the news program to continue without further incident. "We apologize for this interruption; we chose to give the floor to the representatives of the part-time workers," explained David Pujadas to the viewers. About a hundred part-time workers had made a scene, on October 18, on the set of the entertainment show "Star Academy," in La Plaine Saint-Denis, requiring TF1 to suspend the transmission of its star show for two hours.
The story on this event from France 2 (Les intermittents s'invitent au 20H) includes a statement of condemnation from the television network's administration, and from Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Minister of Culture and Communication, who denounced the disturbance in a message: "This taking hostage of a television news program goes seriously against the principle of the freedom of information."

Maybe Terry Teachout should lead a band of bloggers into the offices of Time or onto the set of NBC News. The difference is that in France you would be welcomed by the anchor and in the United States you would be arrested. Not that the trend of elevated arts coverage being crowded out by the mass media cannot be observed in France, too. For example, the sexual memoir appears to be established as a new genre in France. The book by Catherine Millet (La vie sexuelle de Catherine M. is completely out of stock at Amazon.fr; the English translation by Adriana Hunter is still easily available), I noticed on my recent trip to Paris, has been made into a play (adaptation by Arnaud Bédouet) now at the Théâtre Fontaine, directed by Jacques Malaterre. Opinions are divided in France about whether or not this book can be taken seriously as literature (see the endorsement as a "must read" by blogger Parisiana on September 25). Now the inimitable Merde in France has sent up the latest sexual memoir, Warm Up by Bénédicte Martin, who has been compared to Henry Miller by Thierry Ardisson on his show Tout le monde en parle (the author was one of his guests on November 8). I love to read the slangy and sometimes grossly vulgar French text of Merde in France, which is not always really translated in the accompanying English text. (For example, "et tout le monde trouve une place dans son garage à bites" is much funnier than "and you drive her home.")

UPDATE:
Read about the group of intermittents who stormed France 2 in this article (Juliette dans la peau de David Pujadas) by Bruno Masi in Libération on November 12.

9.11.03

St. John Lateran

Apse of St. John LateranToday is the feast day in commemoration of the dedication of the basilica of S. Giovanni in Laterano (see some pictures here, here, and here), the cathedral church of Rome and the historical seat of the pope Bishop of Rome. Although the present church has been extensively altered, it is still honored as the first place of public Christian worship in Rome, which is why the inscription on its walls reads "Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput" (Mother and head of all churches of the city and the world). It is on the site of the Laterani family palace, seized by the emperor Nero when a consul of that ancient family was accused of treason. It passed into the belongings of Constantine who gave it to the church of Rome no later than 311. The basilica or meeting-hall of the palace was apparently adapted to serve as a church, and it was dedicated as the church of Sancti Salvatoris (Holy Savior). A monastery named for St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist was established next to it, and that name of San Giovanni has come to be the principal name of the church. The early popes, who lived in the Lateran Palace, decorated the church so extensively that it came to be known as the Basilica Aurea (Golden Basilica), all of which splendor was destroyed or removed in the fifth-century attack of the Vandals. Very few original elements of the church have survived its many destructions and rebuildings, with the major exception being the fourth-century mosaic of the original apse which was incorporated into the larger apse built in the late 19th century. (You can see this oldest part of the mosaic, the head and shoulders of Jesus surrounded by nine angels, at the top of the image at right; for a better view see the top of this image.)

The feast celebrating this church's dedication was considered quite important in many churches throughout the Middle Ages. For example, there is an unusual set of chants for the office of S. Salvatoris that was celebrated in the Cathedral of Florence, which is recorded in a manuscript (Florence, Arcivescovado, s.c.) that I worked on for Project CANTUS when I was a graduate student. This is certainly the most elaborate body of liturgical music that I know of for this particular feast. The texts recount the story (De Imagine Domini) of a miraculous image of Jesus that is possibly related to the mosaic preserved at the top of the Lateran apse. The liturgy of Florence Cathedral has been studied extensively by Marica Tacconi (now teaching at Penn State) in her dissertation, Liturgy and Chant at the Cathedral of Florence: A Survey of the Pre-Tridentine Sources (Tenth-Sixteenth Centuries), and in her book The Service-Books of Santa Maria del Fiore: Cathedral and Civic Ritual in Late-Medieval and Renaissance Florence (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press).

At the National Shrine today, the choir sang Anton Bruckner's motet Locus iste (text is the gradual of the Dedication of a Church), written for the dedication of a chapel in the cathedral of Linz, Austria. In 1993, I was with the choir of the National Shrine on a trip to Rome, where we sang a private concert for the Holy Father. One of the performances we gave on that tour was for a Mass in S. Giovanni in Laterano. One of the pieces we sang was a polyphonic Mass ordinary by Francesco Soriano, who was maestro di cappella at the Lateran from 1599 to 1601. We were seated in the choir stalls at the left of the image shown above.

8.11.03

Kodály Quartet

Kodály String Quartet, 2003The latest chamber music performance in the series of free concerts at the Library of Congress, on November 7, featured the Kodály String Quartet (shown at left in a memorable image like rock musicians on an album cover). I had known this group only by reputation, and the chance to hear them here in Washington was most welcome. (They are on a U.S. tour right now and go from Washington to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia.) Students of the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music formed the group in Budapest in 1966, and they have become one of the most highly regarded groups in Hungary, with quite an international following because of their recordings. (The present members are Attila Falvay, first violin; Tamás Szabó, second violin; János Fejérvári, viola; and György Éder, cello. None of the founding members still play with the quartet.) To enter the Coolidge Auditorium, you have to pass through a metal detector and send your bags through an X-ray machine. Since one of those machines was malfunctioning Friday night, many of us were delayed getting in but fortunately the start of the performance was delayed. (Those who straggled on the way were seated noisily, following the third movement of the first piece.)

The idea of their program was a chronological cross-section of the formative years (1755-1785) of the string quartet genre's development: three quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, a nice selection from their recording of the complete Haydn string quartets (from Naxos), and one Mozart quartet from the same period as the last of three Haydn pieces. Mozart and especially Haydn are justifiably cited as being largely responsible for creating the genre of the string quartet by taking the forms of chamber music before their time (the trio sonata and the light sort of outdoor music called a divertimento or serenade) and creating something of substance, eventually intended for trained performers rather than amateur players in their own homes. The first piece was Haydn's String Quartet in E major, op. 2, no. 2, composed around 1757. Haydn continued to give his first 30 or so string quartets the title of divertimento, and this piece is one that still reflects the five-movement format of that earlier genre, in this case, with a fast-slow-fast arrangement of tempos for first, third, and fifth movements and minuets in the second and fourth slots. The piece is short and pleasing, with a brief sonata form in its first movement (Allegro), a poignant melody in the second violin in the third movement (Adagio), and an off-kilter tune with a grotesque sforzando on the second beat for humorous effect. The trio of the fourth movement showcases the first violin, and the entire quartet showed off its technical power in a very fast rendition of the fifth movement (Presto).

Then in 1761 Haydn went to work for the Esterházy family, in what is now Hungary, the home of the Kodály Quartet. He continued to transform the genre that would eventually be called the string quartet and, although he still called the six quartets of his op. 20 divertimenti, they are far from that. As in the next piece on the program, the String Quartet in D major, op. 20, no. 4, he settled on the four-movement format that eventually became the norm for most instrumental genres: fast-slow-fast with only one minuet, although the placement of the minuet was still not set in stone. The second movement of this performance was quite striking, with a short, sad song that serves as the basis for three variations. In the first variation, the second violin and viola have a dialogue while the first violin sits silent, and the cello dominates the second variation. When the air returned at the end of this movement, the Kodály Quartet played it very simply, almost without vibrato. The third movement is a Menuet alla zingarese ("in gypsy style") with offbeat accents that create an unsettling effect by trying to reproduce the folk sounds of Hungary. (For remarks on Bartók and Hungarian folk music, see my post on October 24.) The last movement, Presto e scherzando ("fast and jokingly"), seems to be in part a depiction of lots of kinds of laughing, with little twitters in the first violin, a loud up-and-down braying in the second violin, and chortled grace notes, in a charming performance.

After intermission, we moved forward another ten years to Haydn's String Quartet in B Minor, op. 33, no. 1, published in 1781, the year that Mozart settled permanently in Vienna. Lest you think that the typical Washington audience is not informed, I observed one spectator carefully following the performance of this piece with a score. Haydn himself acknowledged that he began to use a new compositional technique in the op. 33 quartets, what he called thematic elaboration, a form of melodic fragmentation and development that would shape the Viennese classical period and reach perhaps its culmination in Beethoven. This performance by the Kodály Quartet was excellent, especially the impressively fast final movement, Presto.

Mozart was so influenced by Haydn's string quartets that he ended up dedicating to him a set of six string quartets now known collectively as the "Haydn quartets" but not actually composed as a group. The final piece on the program was Mozart's String Quartet in G Major, K. 387, composed around 1782. The Haydn quartets were probably first performed by a group of composers in Vienna who met in 1784 to 1785 to play quartets, usually with Haydn on second violin and Mozart on viola, and sometimes with Mozart's father Leopold on violin. K. 387 is a favorite of mine, and I found the Kodály Quartet's performance to be thrilling. The second theme of the first movement (Allegro vivace assai), presented by the second violin, is one of the cheeriest melodies Mozart ever wrote, not laughing like the joking last movement of Haydn's op. 20, no. 4, but something that just makes you feel happy, as if the world really were a bright place filled with kindness. The group also played this quartet's fourth movement (Molto allegro) at a very fast tempo, showing off the fugal writing that is a tribute to what Haydn was doing in his quartets of the same period. The closing theme of this movement is more in the joking mold of Haydn's rondos, with a clownish rhythmic variation when it is repeated.

In a most unusual gesture for a Washington audience, the generous applause at the end of the concert convinced the Kodály Quartet to sit down to play an encore, another very fast finale movement, with a short pianissimo tag after the rondo refrain, a tag that humorously concludes the piece. Although I could not identify it at the time, I suspected that it was a piece by Haydn, which another informed listener has since confirmed by identifying it as the fourth movement (Finale: Presto) from Haydn's String Quartet op. 54, no. 1. This was composed around 1788 and provided a tantalizing look forward into the sublime years of the Viennese classical string quartet.

7.11.03

Putting Together the Pieces of "Shattered Glass"

The opening scene of Shattered Glass starts with its protagonist, Stephen Glass, giving a speech to a classroom of mostly young girls about the standards and practices of being a journalist at the tony publication The New Republic. ("The only in-flight magazine on Airforce One" is their pedigree.) Glass, portrayed here by Hayden Christensen, glows with boyish reluctance and pride as he pontificates to these swooners about the difficulties of getting your name in print. It's not only Glass who's aglow but the entire scene. A wash of white light bathes the school room and one half-expects one of his devotees to bat their eyes with the words "I love you" written on her lids. The scene is so serene and ideal that its effect is quite contrary to its setting. You know something is wrong. That beyond Glass's young republican exterior (the very image he will lambast in his articles later) and dreamy, reluctant pride is a person who needs this. You suspect somewhere in that sheen is a slight crack so fine and delicate, yet deep, that it cannot be traced yet it has the ability to break the whole into pieces.

This scene is the closest the film comes to giving any definition to writer Stephen Glass's past or motivations for the future and yet it's all one needs to understand him. There's no secret to the fact that Glass was discovered late into his time as a writer with the The New Republic to have fabricated some or all of the content of his articles. Unlike most, I had the distinct advantage of not knowing the details of Glass's life or times at The New Republic. The movie, based on a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger (Shattered Glass, September 1998), has no interest in linear explanations or by-rote biopic "flashbacks" where we see young Stephen telling his parents that he DID NOT chop down that cherry tree. The film seems far more interested in the notion of integrity and its costs. The quiet desperation of those who seem to suffer for their values and those who step over them on their way to the top. Quite simply, championing substance over style, which these days seems like a revolutionary act.

Director Billy Ray, who wrote and directed the picture, starts with his Glass as a nerdy, gratingly nice boy-wonder who just wants to be everyone's friend. His endearing traits are things like offering colleagues gum, asking if they'd come to a 'monopoly party', and asking anyone with a furrowed brow if "they're mad at him?" We see from the start that Glass isn't putting out fires (yet), but rather, squelching embers before they even catch hold. Yet, so effective are these slight-of-hand manipulations, that even when his lies flare up most of the people around Glass smell the smoke but can't see the flame. Juxtaposed with Stephen is Chuck Lane, a fellow journalist and soon-to-be editor, who bears all the weight of adulthood and responsibility. Chuck (played with masterful restraint by Peter Sarsgaard) is a paternal authority figure and not a barrel of laughs. Chuck, you see, writes stiff, humorless articles on Gabriel García Márquez while Stephen continually lights up the conference room with tales of celebrity hackers and drug-abusing politico conventions. The only problem is that not only are Stephen's stories untrue but the only source material for the fact checkers are himself.

It's a testament to Ray and his actors that the film never comes off as preachy or as a two-dimensional morality tale. Besides similarities to All The President's Men (1976) and The Insider (1999) this film also bears a certain resemblance to Quiz Show (1994). Both Fiennes' Van Doren and Christensen's Glass teeter upon the same slope of dissatisfaction that ability and accomplishment have wrought. The difference here being Van Doren's regret and apology for his actions and Glass's constant descent into further lies and denial. His only regret seems to be the fact that he was caught. One of the film's greatest assets is in Christensen who is a delight to watch squirming and wriggling into any nook and groove of 'reality', no matter how desperate, to keep his version of the story alive.

It is the very word reality that seems to be pressing at the core of the entertaiment industry and makes this film so timely. I found it quite ironic that, on the day I went to the screening of Shattered Glass, on the front page of The Daily Variety was the news that CBS was pulling its television biopic "The Reagans" after much criticism of its accuracy. It seems after The Insider that CBS is suddenly very sensitive about its journalistic integrity when transferring the news via such age-old vehicles of truth like the movie-of-the-week. One wonders when Walmart will be selling copies of Oliver Stone's JFK: The Studio Cut or NIXON: The Version We Can All Agree On. With the airwaves awash with 'reality shows' that bear less resemblance to reality than a typical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the recent Jayson Blair debacle at the New York Times it seems the culture is in a quandry. The question being posited seems to be whether life in the Matrix is actually better if we just don't know or care if it's true or not. This film takes the position that it does.

6.11.03

Popularizing the Arts

The opinions are diverse about the financial windfall from the J. Seward Johnson show at the Corcoran, discussed in my post from yesterday (Corcoran Doubles Attendance). Lenny Campello of the new Washington, DC Art News (whom I also thank for linking to Ionarts) wrote about this in a post on November 5, in which Ionarts is cited by a link as "some writers who actually liked this show." I have not actually seen the show, and I can't really say that I like it. I am more interested right now in the polemical divide in reactions to the exhibit. Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes also reacted with emphasis in bold on November 5 to my characterization of the disconnect between critics and the public on this exhibit: "The JSJ flap is not about elite art writers and art-world-types looking down their noses on the masses who like Impressionism or J. Seward Johnson." Tyler continues in a vein that seems to contradict rather than support his first statement: "Should art museums, which . . . have a quasi-academic role in the cultural discourse, put on shows of wretched stuff just to move bodies through the turnstiles? Or should they be paragons of culture? Should their mission be to share quality art with the public?" If I understand the distinction correctly, it's not that elite art writers are looking down their noses on the masses, it's that a museum, to raise its profits, is pandering to the masses with art it knows is cheesy and inferior, when they should be conscious of their role to improve the public's taste. Judging by the public reactions to Gopnik's review on the Washington Post Web site (thanks to Lenny Campello for bringing this to my attention), the masses do not feel they are being pandered to (both people who had published comments at the time of this writing gave the show four stars), but they do seem to feel like Gopnik may have been looking down his nose at them: one wrote, "I was saddened that someone would be so critical . . . I had every intention of seeing it and the review would not deter me," and the other wrote, "I won't contend that Johnson's exhibit has any redeeming artistic value, but . . . put down the pince-nez and take the toddlers" (emphasis mine).

This thread relates well to a recent book that was sent by its publisher, HarperCollins, to Ionarts for review: The Middle Mind, by Curtis White. The book has already generated a lot of interest online (as you can see by the results of a Google search on "middle mind"). You can read an excerpt of the book's first chapter and read Scott Spires's less than favorable review of the book at New York Press. White teaches English at Illinois State University and is president of the Center for Book Culture, which he runs from Illinois State. This book grew out of an essay published in Harper's Magazine (a version of this article is available online in Issue 9 of Context: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture), a forum and length that seem more appropriate to the subject than a full book.

I will probably write more about White's ideas when I finish reading his book, but his basic premise applies to the question of the mass appeal of J. Seward Johnson's sculpture installations at the Corcoran. White uses the term "middle mind" to describe a mainstream approach to cultural issues that is broad-minded and mildly liberal but also homogenizing, sanitizing, and lacking in imagination. A couple of points really seem to rankle Curtis White, one is "that the Middle Mind is winning." That is, mass media programs like the great bugbear White mysteriously singles out as a "pornographic farce" (Terry Gross's Fresh Air on NPR) have a greater influence over popular opinion than true critics of "the academic left or ideological right" (think here of someone like Blake Gopnik). The second problem is its wide-spread appeal: "it has the most plausible claim to being the true representative of the public's opinion." The fact that mass media have merged with cultural commentary means that support of the arts that is somehow popularized is actually insidious:

The Middle Mind imagines that it honors the highest culture and that it lives through the arts. It supports the local public broadcasting station, supports the symphony, attends summer Shakespeare festivals, and writes letters to state representatives encouraging support for the state arts council. The Middle Mind's take on culture is well intended, but it is also deeply deluded.
Personally, I never listen to Fresh Air for some of the same reasons as Curtis White: "Terry Gross has no capacity for even the grossest distinctions between artists and utter poseurs. (Many of the 'writers' she has interviewed recently have been writers for TV series and movies. People who can with a straight face say, 'Seinfeld is a great show because of the brilliant scriptwriting' love Fresh Air." I enjoy watching television from time to time, but I do not want to waste any time analyzing television. The fact that television programs are sometimes reviewed now in The New Yorker, for example, strikes me as a waste of resources. However, this is more a matter of my taste than any sense of cultural value that can realistically be applied: I do like to read about film and photography, two genres that until recently had the same problems of gaining legitimacy with critics. If a book or work of art has popular appeal, is it for that reason unworthy of serious consideration? (This was not Gopnik's motivation for panning the Johnson show. He simply thinks it is bad art, which is Tyler Green's point, but they appear to be a minority.) Is it really a bad thing for more people to give money to public radio or their local symphony, to engage their politicians on behalf of the arts, or to attend plays and go to museums?