“Thirty-two years of meaningless fame to end up alone in my room, watching myself become extinct. My music growing fainter, all the time fainter, until no one plays it at all. And his growing louder, filling the world with wonder. And everyone who loves my sacred art crying, Mozart!”

Salieri’s final speech, from the film Amadeus.

Peter Shaffer, author of the play and the screenplay, has died.

As the presidential contest becomes surrealistic, journalists reach out to modernist literature.

Donald Trump’s distinctive rhetorical style — think of a drunk with a bullhorn reading aloud James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake under water — poses an almost insuperable challenge to people whose painful duty is to try to extract clarity from his effusions.


[Chris Christie, standing at a podium behind Trump, whom he has endorsed] had the eyes of a man who has looked into the heart of light, the silence. A man who had seen the moment of his greatness flicker, and seen the eternal footman hold his coat, and snicker.

And, in short, he looked afraid.

(The allusions are to T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.)


So, that’s fiction and poetry. Let’s round things out with a dramatic monologue for Christie — from Eugene O’Neill’s Anna [“Chris”] Christie:

And I was thinking maybe, seeing he ain’t never done a thing for me in my life, he might be willing to stake me to a room and eats till I get rested up. [Wearily.] Gee, I sure need that rest! I’m knocked out. [Then resignedly.] But I ain’t expecting much from him. Give you a kick when you’re down, that’s what all men do. [With sudden passion.] Men, I hate ’em–all of ’em! And I don’t expect he’ll turn out no better than the rest.

Your musical selection this morning…

… a big UD favorite, is Julia Lezhneva, singing Rachmaninoff’s Daisies to accompany UD on her train ride up to Boston. I like almost everything Lezhneva performs, but this small song in particular always gets me. And that’s odd, because it’s not the sort of music I generally like — “art” songs, sentimental, with titles like Daisies, drawn-out atonalities… I ask myself why I like this piece so much and here’s my list of possible reasons:

1. There’s a close-to-perfect feel to the performance – one Russian singing another, a perfect match of singer and song in terms of language and sensibility. It’s what a critic would call a “gem.” (Lezhneva won this competition, by the way – youngest singer to do that.)

2. The performance showcases what I find so amazing about Lezhneva – the way her voice always seems part of the score. Know what I mean? She’s so smooth, so inside the music, that there’s a seamless connection between piano and voice. Her sensibility is slightly self-abnegating – she’s no prima donna – and this deepens the sense of her fidelity to the music above all rather than her personal dramatic projection. (This is probably why I’m not put off by the sentimentality of the song.) Yet her voice as instrument is so remarkable that this never means she disappears inside the score.

3. Her voice as instrument? To my ear she has a piercing clarity and accuracy with her notes – not just the basic acrobatic fact of a soprano who can hit something really high, but the smooth ease with which she does that … The way her high notes aren’t like — deep breath! hit that sucker! — (and that’s a feeling I sometimes get with Joyce DiDonato, despite my deep respect for her singing). There’s something sedate and, as I say, undramatic about Lezhneva, which seems just right for this small Rachmaninoff piece – the ability to set a mood and sustain it, explore it a bit, resolve it.

Interestingly, the only Lezhneva stuff I’ve heard/seen that I haven’t liked is her operatic stage stuff. The same gestalt that makes her no Maria Callas makes her… no Maria Callas. There is something neat, self-contained, delicate, bird-like, about Lezhneva, with her modest height, her slight body, her small features, her paleness, her wispy light brown hair — she is the anti-Callas. Her effect is powerful in part because of the contrast between her unremarkable physical presence and the vocal power she generates; quietly faithful to the score, she gives you space to respond and not over-respond. She holds things back, which in my aesthetic experience tends to mean that the power of the expression is heightened.

I guess another way of saying this is that she ain’t very sexy – can’t see her getting much traction with this ditty.

Ay, Rubio! Ay Rubio!

Your beautiful repetitions are the heart of poetry and song.

Alan Rickman



Disturbing resemblance to Spiro T. Agnew.

“She was a young American…

… All the way from Washington...”

Typical of wee UD to have gotten the Bowie lyrics wrong – and wrong in a way that made the lines be about her, a young American from Washington…


She heard the song for the first time in an Evanston Illinois apartment shared by four Iranian engineering students at Northwestern University. She remembers loving it so much that she just sat there, for a long time, listening again and again.

David Bowie has died.

“I don’t think [as a playwright] you start [by saying to yourself] I’ve got this to say about anything. You don’t have anything to say about anything. You delve into a particular corner of yourself that’s dark and uneasy, and you articulate the confusions and the unease of that particular period. When you do that, that’s finished and you acquire other corners of unease and discontent.”

Brian Friel, author of Dancing at Lughnasa, has died.


His comment about the origin of certain kinds of writing is similar to what Don DeLillo said the other night at the New Yorker festival:

“That assassination [of JFK] was the thing that made me a novelist,” he said. “The power of it… I couldn’t come to terms with it.”


Add A.R. Ammons:

[Poetry] comes from anxiety. That is to say, either the mind or the body is already rather highly charged and in need of some kind of expression, some way to crystallize and relieve the pressure. And it seems to me that if you’re in that condition and an idea, an insight, an association occurs to you, then that energy is released through the expression of that insight or idea, and after the poem is written, you feel a certain resolution and calmness. Well, I won’t say a “momentary stay against confusion” (Robert Frost’s phrase) but that’s what I mean. I think it comes from that. You know, [Harold] Bloom says somewhere that poetry is anxiety.

The Queen of Spain Comes by her Kafka Shirt Honestly.

She studied literature at university.

An Appreciation of UD’s Sister…

… by Jon Paul Fiorentino.

“[Patrick Modiano] shuns the limelight and remains humble despite his fame and success. You’ll never stumble upon him at one of those literary cocktail parties Parisian editors adore, nor will you spy his rangy figure on popular talk shows. Modiano’s interviews are few, but his words are priceless. For the past few years he’s lived in a charming historical building between Place Saint Sulpice and the Jardin du Luxembourg—a perfect base for this inveterate flâneur who knows the Paris street map by heart.”

Modiano just won the literature Nobel.

No, I don’t know his work. I’ll do some sniffing around and maybe post something later, though.


As early as 1974, Michel Foucault, discussing Modiano’s screenplay for Louis Malle’s Occupation film Lacombe Lucien, was one of many who saw how all of Modiano’s work implied a reaction to Gaullist-era myths no less than to the wartime Collaboration whose shame virtually required those myths in order to shield itself from scrutiny.

(This passage comes from a book about Modiano whose first chapter – fully available at the above link – usefully reviews critical responses to his work.)

“Who’s Afraid of …

Ellen Staurowsky?”


Ellen: And you want to know the clincher?

NO! NO! NO! NO! … You will not say this!

Ellen: The hell I won’t.


By their operas shall ye know them.

Anna Nicole Smith, Jerry Springer, and now – of course – Rob Ford.

A UD reader (thanks, Dirk!) sends UD a link to…

… the full film, on YouTube, of DeLillo/Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. UD, a DeLillo fanatic, found Cosmopolis so disappointing she could barely finish it. And then this novel, of all DeLillo’s novels, gets filmed…

She avoided the film, especially when bad reviews started coming in. But of course she has been curious about it. And here is an easy way for her to see it.

So she’s been watching it today, between lawn mowing, pumpkin gathering, and car washing.

The curious thing is, she’s also been watching, over and over, the trailer for Gravity; and these two films together have her thinking about their rather strange similarities. Both films feature the cuttingest-edge postmodern American technology along with the new sorts of people this technology spawns. Both films put these new sorts of Americans in conditions of absolute surreal silence.

Outside of this silence, in its background, revolves a very real world. The background in Gravity is Earth, and as I watch the trailer my homing eye is always moving away from the astronaut and instead following Sri Lanka and Florida and Chad… The revolving stage of beloved bluegreen Earth …

Manhattan’s the background in Cosmopolis, and the anarchic city churns and churns behind the deeply tinted, armored, windows of Eric Packer’s stretch limo.

The films share, that is, this perennial dual focus, this inside/outside, silence/noise, technologically mediated environment/natural (or semi-natural/semi-cultural) environment. Both really allow one to think about mediation, about the odd estranged relationship many contemporary Americans are able to have with actuality. DeLillo’s best-known novel – White Noise – is all about this, from its title onward… our white-noisy electronically mediated daily experience…

Yet Cosmopolis is the work of a moralist; indeed, for me, its weakness is precisely its moral hectoring about the psychopathology of great wealth, and in particular the way great wealth immunizes itself from the pain of humanity. I love the theme – but in most of his novels DeLillo approaches the theme subtly, satirically. Here there’s a grim sermonizing that forces the film’s actors simply into one anti-capitalist screed after another.

Gravity’s trailer (good name for a film in itself) suggests that this film uses the dual focus bit in a much more human and (I hate the word, but it fits) poignant way, conveying our new yearning for a life of embeddedness and proximities and raggedy no-tech imperfections in the wake of all that shiny mediation.

It’s like what Stephen Dedalus says in Portrait when he realizes he’s an artist:

He smiled to think that it was this disorder, the misrule and confusion of his father’s house, and the stagnation of vegetable life, which was to win the day in his soul.

I got onto Eydie Gorme just a few weeks ago…

… and it happened like this (Gorme has died, at the age of 84): I was singing and playing through Latin Songs and I discovered one song in particular that I really loved: Sabrás que te Quiero.

I did the thing I often do: I played and sang it again and again, trying to find the energy, flow, control, lightness, and expressivity in my voice (all of those things being really difficult for me to evoke), and at the same time trying to find a way to work my inept fingers through the piano accompaniment. The version in Latin Songs was quite dumbed down, but it still took me awhile to feel comfortable in the piece.

I’m not sure why I liked it so much. It’s simple, I guess, but it has that weird thing that good songs have. Despite its simplicity, it gets to you, it’s beautiful, emotional, even somehow musically interesting… It works its way up from quiet notes to amorous excited notes at the end…

Anyway, I also did a thing I often do — checked for YouTubes of the number.

I didn’t know it was a standard; there were plenty of versions, male and female, to be had.

The one I loved above all the others was Eydie Gorme’s — and this despite the fact that the musical arrangement was way kitschy. Her voice was so good it easily rose above the instrumental dreck. It had all that stuff I listed above, the stuff I find on any given day at the piano so difficult to pull from within myself — energy, flow, etc., etc. Occasionally, on mysteriously special days, UD‘s voice wakes up in the morning with all of those attributes, and I walk it over to the piano and just let loose through all of my songbooks… I sit there for hours marveling at this sudden vocal rightness I hear myself producing. But it’s utterly fickle, utterly unusual, that my voice does that.

Great singers, like Gorme and Cecilia Bartoli and Kathleen Battle and Ella Fitzgerald just have it there all the time, the sweet spot, and you can see that they have the personality that accompanies it. By this I mean that there’s a rather strange nervy buoyancy, a headstrong brilliancy, to all of them as human beings (this nervy buoyancy can be much darker, as in Nina Simone or Maria Callas, but I think it’s the same basic attribute of intense unstoppable essentially celebratory life energy which has managed to discipline itself in the direction of the production of sound) which allows them to carry a song tonally and emotionally, and even own it.

I was aware of Gorme’s tricks — the melismas; the sly dynamics on certain long notes; the whispering shyness of the opening lines which broadens until she produces the positively cosmic vibrato at the very end (it’s oddly and excitingly masculine in its muscularity, this final vibrato, suggesting the transcendent strength of her passion); the slight catch — a little cry – at certain moments; the coy curvature of some sounds, which has the effect of personalizing this as one particular woman’s love song… I was as aware of these tricks as I am when listening to Battle, who for my money has the purest and sweetest and most unearthly of soprano voices.

I wanted to hear more of Gorme. Song after song, she found the meaning of the piece, entered into it, and brought that weird and for me pretty unattainable mix of control and flow and overflow to it. She was a pop singer, no doubt about it, a creature of Vegas lounges and corny stage banter. But – like the kitsch accompaniment to her Sabrás que te Quiero – that stuff had nothing to do with the voice.

Longtime readers know that UD’s a big fan of …

… Anthony Tommasini, New York Times music critic, because he writes really well. His review of Bayreuth’s recent train wreck of a Ring Cycle is a thing of beauty. Excerpts:

When Frank Castorf, the avant-garde German director responsible for this confounding concept, took the stage with his production team, almost the entire audience, it seemed, erupted with loud, prolonged boos. It went on for nearly 10 minutes, by my watch, because Mr. Castorf, 62, who has been running the Volksbühne (People’s Theater) of Berlin since 1992, stood steadfast onstage, his arms folded stiffly. He sometimes jabbed a finger at the audience, essentially defying the crowd to keep it coming.

… Mr. Castorf presents the “Ring” as a metaphorical story of the global quest for oil, with the resulting era of war, oppression, corporate greed and environmental destruction. But Mr. Castorf did not follow through with this theme very consistently.

In the first act of “Siegfried,”which opened on Monday, Mr. Castorf and the set designer, Aleksandar Denic, playfully evoke the battle over energy that was a major component of the cold war. The setting is supposed to show the forest dwelling where Mime, the Nibelung dwarf, has raised the orphaned Siegfried into brawny young manhood. Here Mime’s home is a trailer-park campsite in front of a stunning scenic riff on Mount Rushmore: The faces of the American presidents have been replaced by Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. But often the oil quest imagery just seems slapped on, literally: for no clear reasons, singers smear one another with crude oil.

… [N]ear the end of “Siegfried” …(you can’t make this up) a monster crocodile swallowed the poor Forest Bird in one big gulp.

This last scene, of course, is the ecstatic love duet between Siegfried, our rambunctious hero (who, by the way, instead of forging a sword assembles a semiautomatic rifle), and the smitten Brünnhilde. In this production, at the most climactic moment in the music, the stage rotated to reveal two of those monster crocodiles busily copulating.

… [One] crucial scene … begins at the Marxist Mount Rushmore, then moves to an almost-reproduction of the Alexanderplatz, the Socialist-era transit hub and shopping center in Berlin.

[At another point, a singer] scurried up a stairway to consult a hairy-chested man, who wheels a baby carriage down the stairs, spilling its contents — potatoes — everywhere. At least they looked like potatoes. If you are expecting me to explain this (or Wotan’s being orally serviced — one Rhinemaiden sucking oil off the finger of another as they look longingly into each other’s eyes), I am sorry to disappoint you…

This oil business reminds me of another avant-garde effort, in the pages of Vogue.

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