Several months ago I attended a concert at New York’s Lincoln Center commemorating the 50th anniversary of WNYC, the not-for-profit radio station that is home to National Public Radio, and one of only two stations left in Manhattan that broadcast classical music. (The third, WNCN, recently switched over from yesterday’s court favorites to today’s rock favorites.) At that time, WNYC’s commercial license was still owned by the city—it has since been purchased by the WNYC Foundation— and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was threatening to sell it in an effort to help ease New York’s budgetary woes. It is, unfortunately, an oft-repeated government scenario, and one that is especially popular in the current Gingrich-led Congress: when money gets tight, stick it to the arts. Why it surprises me each and every time it happens I do not know. Anyway, in the midst of this potential crisis, the station decided to throw a party. In what was undoubtedly a Herculean—and highly last minute—effort. Mayor Giuliani made an anniversary declaration to WNYC in which he promised not to sell the station unless there was “no other alternative.” And with that quasi-encouraging piece of news, the evening’s festivities began.
Suppose that a much-admired restaurant celebrated the anniversary of its opening with a special tasting menu, created by some of the most renowned chefs of the day. Now suppose that all that the menu offered was chicken, prepared in a variety of ways. A quaint idea, perhaps; but no matter how different the entrees’ presentations may be on the surface, when you remove all the fancy sauces and pickles, you are still left with, well, chicken. And even if you simply adore the agreeable fowl, by the third or fourth course your taste buds will probably grow tired of it.
My ears suffered a similar plight at the WNYC concert. On the menu was Pulitzer Prize-winning John Ashbery’s previously unpublished poem, “No Longer Very Clear,” served up by some of the “Big Names” in contemporary classical music: Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, Anthony Davis, Morton Gould, Milton Babbitt, and half a dozen others. The poem—introduced by Ashbery at the start of the concert—reads as follows:
It is true that I can no longer
remember very well
the time when we first began to
know each other.
However, I do remember very well
the first time we met. You walked
holding a daisy. You said,
“Children make unreliable witnesses.”
Now, so long after that time,
I keep the spirit of it throbbing still.
The ideas are still the same, and
to fill vast, antique cubes.
My daughter was reading one just
the other day.
She said, “How like pellucid
statues. Daddy. Or like a . . .
In this house of blues the cold
creeps stealthily upon us.
I do not dare to do what I fantasize doing.
With time the blue congeals into
that takes the shape of alcoves,
landings . . .
Everything is like something else.
I should have waited before I
Given the dubious status of WNYC, the title was ironic enough; more so when you consider the third stanza, where Ashbery, in characteristic fashion, interrupts what is otherwise a lovely poem with an offhand and ambiguous conversational aside, surely an example of the “opaque playfulness” that one New York Times reviewer has attributed to Ashbery’s work. But what was odder still was that the very same stanza about “pellucid statues”—by far the least pellucid section of the poem—was the one focused on by a surprising number of the composers on the program, an oddity that is best explained in the words of Henry Fielding: “They are the affectation of affectation.” I must, however, give credit where it is due, for not every composer exhibited such pretentiousness: Robin Holcomb admitted that she had to look “pellucid” up in the dictionary; and Anthony Davis had the courage to tamper with the work of a Pulitzer Prize winner and omit the third stanza entirely because, as he explained, “It just didn’t speak to me.”
It did, however, speak to John Corigliano. Corigliano, whose vision was explained by the sadly humorless leader of the all-female Bassoon quartet for which he composed the piece, was apparently very taken with the contrasting images of the hot, pulsating engine and the fixed, frozen, stone statues. Indeed, it would not have hurt Corigliano to follow Ms. Holcomb’s lead. As far as his piece “How Like Pellucid Statues, Daddy (or like a . . . an engine)” is concerned, let’s just say that it was not any worse than I would have expected from a piece written expressly for four bassoons.
Philip Glass’ creation, “Now, So Long After That Time,” sounded no different from any of his others: a painfully monotonous cascade of chords. He could have just as easily titled it “Recycled Glass,” and it would not have made the least bit of difference in my assessment of the piece.
The award for the most original—and, for that matter, farfetched—interpretation of the evening, however, was won hands down by composer Steven Mostel and his group, the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble. (For those of you who are somehow unfamiliar with these “instruments,” Tibetan singing bowls are metal bowls of different sizes which emit an increasingly loud humming sound when repeatedly stroked with a pestle-like object along their outer rim.) Mr. Mostel, who, as a rule, does not like setting words because he feels that they only detract from the music, decided to set only the vowels in the poem—after all, what could be uglier than the sound of a consonant? During rehearsals, however, his singers kept returning to the words. Instead of taking this as a sign that maybe the words in their entirety were the way to go, he chose instead to set only the vowels of what he thought were the two most important “concept words” in the poem: “True” and “No.” Yes, this is true; and no, I cannot explain, except to say that it was an interminable ten minutes. (Apparently, Mr. Mostel isn’t much on brevity, either.)
As for the others—”Or Like A. . . . ” “like a . . . an engine,” and a handful imaginatively called “No Longer Very Clear”—admittedly, my recollection of them is no longer very clear. The one thing I do remember, however, is the poem itself, which has been drilled into my memory from repeated hearings. Like it or not, it sits in my mind, perched awkwardly beside the works of such poetic paragons as Shakespeare, Tennyson, Longfellow, and Donne, taking up precious space in the corner of a not-yet-antique cube.
I should have waited before I learned this.
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