31 May 2010

Interview with Paul Barnes

This is the tenth interview of the "Where are we now?" series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. Please leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

Interview with Paul Barnes
at Symphony Space, New York
26 April 2010

Paul was extremely kind and accommodating; he met me in Symphony Space in between his dress rehearsal and the concert. We began by talking about the piece Paul was about to play: “Nocturne of Light” by the Orthodox Priest Ivan Moody. I asked about what he wrote and asked Paul to describe this brand-new work.

PB: Ivan Moody writes mostly sacred choral music. I have several of his recordings and I always just absolutely love his style. He is English; he lives in Portugal and actually has a Greek and Russian parish there, simultaneously, and then also has a second life as a composer. I just absolutely love his music.

Note by IA: Here are some examples of Ivan Moody's music:
Passione Popolare part 1
Passione Popolare part 2
Words of the Angel

So I was thinking about commissioning a new work. Victoria Bond [the conductor of the concert at Symphony Space and a renowned composer] is a very good friend of mine; Victoria and I have known each other for years and I’ve played on this series several times; I think this is my fifth or sixth time here. I always like, if possible, to do a world premiere here. So the last time I gave the world premiere of my transcription of the Philip Glass piano concerto that he wrote for me, number two after Lewis and Clark. That was great and Philip came to that, so it was a lot of fun.

[For tonight’s concert] I had to fly Father Ivan all the way from Lisbon, but the grant money came through and it was definitely possible. I’m very excited about the piece because it’s the Easter season and the piece is based on two Resurrection chants. You’ll hear the chants tonight, both in the panel beforehand and then we’ll talk a little bit about the piece before we play it. We’re on the second half and so we’ll be playing it for the second half. That’s when we’ll chant the hymns and Father Ivan will talk a little bit about the musical language. It’s just a gorgeous piece.

IA: It sounds ideal!

PB: I think you’ll enjoy it.

IA: I’m being selfish because this fits exactly with my project, which I’ll summarize again. I am an English teacher and I teach at a program right now for homeschoolers that’s historically based: every academic year we study one historical time period. That’s a great way to do it, because you study all the subjects related to the time period. The history teacher and I work together to create those courses. So I’m very into the arts; I enjoy all the different media: writing, music, visual arts, and theatre. Tight now we’re doing the “Modern” Period, 1900-1960, and I started thinking that if we continue next year we’ll be doing the “Contemporary” Period. So I kind of go thinking that I can sort of characterize past time periods. I can say, “All right, here are some of the characteristics of the Baroque, here are some of the characteristics of the Renaissance”--(at least for certain geographical areas of the world and for certain genres), but it’s a lot harder to do for the moment in which you’re living. So I got curious about what will music historians and literary historians say about us five hundred years from now? How will they characterize our time period? And I have some ulterior motives in doing this that I can, maybe, disclose at the end! But that’s why this is absolutely perfect, because you’re commissioning brand-new music and you’re playing brand-new music as well as being Classically trained and steeped in the Classics. So: What do you think is going on right now? How would you characterize contemporary music?

PB: Well, I just had this conversation with Father Ivan last night at dinner because what there is right now musically is this amazing openness to a lot of things, that did not exist prior to this. There was a real kind of a fundamentalist stage in the ‘60s and ‘70s where if composers weren’t writing serial, atonal music, following the dogma of the established elite, then their music was not considered worthy. Well, these days, in 2010, I play a ton of Philip Glass, who never would have been taken seriously from an academic standpoint twenty years ago. Basically what I’ve noticed is that composers have complete aesthetic freedom in 2010 because people are a lot more open in terms of receiving musical inspiration from a tremendously wide variety of different sources. And that, I find, is incredibly exciting. I don’t have to play music that I’m not particularly committed to from an aesthetic standpoint because there’s so much variety out there. I’m lucky that I only play pieces that I love—which is really good! Nice situation to be in! But also, because I have so many composer friends, it’s been a personal joy to be able to give world premiers—I’ve done ten or fifteen world premiers and just to be a part of the music-making process right from the beginning has been incredible for me.

IA: What are some of those sources, then? You mentioned that you chose some Byzantine chants. What are some other sources?

PB: Well, it’s interesting, because with the Philip Glass concerto, the source there was Lewis and Clark and so it was actually that exploration. That was by far my biggest and most expensive project, commissioning Philip Glass to do this concerto—and the second movement is based on Sacagawea
and it uses Shoshone themes. So it’s going back to Native American roots. That, I thought, was absolutely incredible. The premiere took place with R. Carlos Nakai, who is a renowned Native American flute player. It was interesting, because you’ve got this interesting clash between a traditional orchestra kind of putting its fetters around a Native American flute player, but it worked out fabulously well. So that was a very, very unique source of inspiration.

The piece that I premiered here five or six years ago by Randall Snyder who is a composer where I work, was called “Illuminations from Valis” and its inspiration is from Philip K. Dick, a wonderful science fiction writer. He wrote this trilogy called The VALIS Trilogy, of which the first one is called The Divine Invasion, and it’s a retelling of the Incarnation. And Oh my Gosh! It is just a tremendously creative work. And Randall Snyder knew that I was Christian and would be interested in this topic, so I read the books and just fell in love with them, and then he wrote this piece that was his musical experience or expression of that particular literary work.

So they’re all over the place. And then of course so many pieces have been chant-based, like what you’ll hear tonight, and the pieces that Victoria wrote for me. And of course those have a much, much older inspiration there, but that goes along with what I do as a chanter at a Greek Orthodox Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places! But there’s a wonderful community (in fact, many of them will be here tonight) who are really fed by that aesthetic of chant. A lot of people from various traditions. So it’s wonderful to have that as a basis for a new piece of music.

IA: It sounds like a lot of voices and musical sources that would have been considered minorities and would have been considered marginal and wouldn’t have been taken seriously.

PB: Exactly.

IA: Now I would imagine—I think that some of these composers you’re mentioning are going to be considered the canonical composers several generations from now and even are already—certainly Philip Glass. You said he wasn’t taken seriously twenty years ago; why not?

PB: Well, Minimalism itself was seen as a huge aesthetic threat. Because what music had evolved into was basically a hyperintellectualized expression of almost mathematical proportions. Music was becoming so complex it was seen was this Hegelian progression where it just keeps getting more and more complex and that’s seen somehow as aesthetic progress. And it gets so complex that human beings can’t even perform the stuff. It has to be performed by computers. And Minimalism was a complete rejection of that aesthetic path. It was seen as being mindless repetitiveness. In our Western European intellectual tradition there’s not a lot of emphasis placed on meditation, on looking inward, and that of course is huge in the Orthodox spiritual tradition. I gravitated toward it immediately and many others did just as a reaction against the mainline direction that Classical music was going in the ‘60s and 70s. So I absolutely thought it was this wonderful, brand-new path so I jumped on completely. Now, it’s not my only form of musical expression. I just got done doing this wonderful festival of Chopin and Schumann, celebrating their bicentennials. But as another way another looking-glass of seeing the world through these aesthetic eyes Minimalism has just opened up incredible new insights for me.

IA: Does Minimalism slow us down?

PB: What I think it does it forces us to look at a smaller amount of material from different perspectives and that I think is incredibly enlightening in so many ways. It’s about consciously embracing simplicity and then basically exploring that simplicity from different angles.

IA: You examine the one idea over and over and over again from slightly different perspectives, but the perspectives don’t come too quickly?

PB: Right.

IA: So how does that fit in to what technology is doing to us as a species? Technology is speeding us up. I just got television (!) after not having had it for several years because of moving and different things, so I started watching it again after a while, and I noticed that over the past, let’s say maybe six years, that the number of frames-per-minute and frames-per-second has sped up greatly (as well as other cinematographic improvements and so on) but this is true in the way we interact with our personal technology as well. So how does that work? How does Minimalism work in this new pace of our species?

PB: It’s interesting because I think perhaps you could see it as a balancing factor. There’s a little bit of an irony because whenever I come to New York I think, OMG, here I am, big town, fast pace, you know, but what always impresses me (and I do a lot of work in Vienna, which is another big, wonderful city) but what I notice is that there’s actually a slower pace. There are more parks. There’s generally a little bit more thoughtfulness about leisure in big cities because it’s so cherished. When you’re in suburbia or a town like mine (Lincoln, Nebraska), it’s so easy to just be constantly on the go. So I always think about that when I come to New York because I’m incredibly relaxed here. I notice the proliferation of flowers that you can buy for your loved one. I know if I lived in New York I would buy flowers more often. Certain things like that—I would be more conscientious about going to the park, about green spaces, all these kinds of things and so I find it ironic in the same way that the fast pace of technology (and I’m a complete Mac geek! and WAY too addicted to facebook, as you can tell!—my Mom keeps track of me) so it just creates a form of balance and I think that’s why a lot of people gravitate towards musical minimalism.

IA: So a minimalist piano composition, for instance, or a Greek chant, will slow us down.

PB: In fact, I remember having this wonderful conversation with Philip Glass in a taxi here in New York about this—because he has a lot of roots in Buddhism. We were talking about the relationship between Greek chant and Buddhist chant (and you’ll hear tonight: my son Peter will be singing the drone; we call it the ison; it’s harmonically static. It doesn’t move. It simply creates a moment of stasis. That also has a lot in common with Buddhist chant as well. Philip thought it was interesting that I was a Greek Orthodox chanter and that there’s a connection there. A lot of my chanter friends are also very, very interested in minimalism. It’s an interesting connection.

IA: Is there a historical connection? Is there a musical etymology? Between Buddhist chant and Greek chant?

PB: No, I don’t believe there’s any whatsoever. It’s just that there are these common threads within these traditions. The key is that within those traditions monasticism, for instance, is an important critical element: the idea of withdrawing from the pace of life, radically simplifying your life, and embracing a life of prayer and meditation. That is very clearly in both of those traditions. So it would make sense that there would be musical ramifications that would be similar.

IA: Is it mysticism as well, or not necessarily?

PB: Oh, yes, very much so, within both traditions. Which for me is simply an acknowledgment of the limitations of the mind and kind of an acknowledgement of the size of God and that if God is in fact beyond the limits of our intellect (which of course He is in my view) then mysticism is the only way to appreciate God fully because He is completely beyond our intellectual constructs. The only real way of experiencing God is to understand the limitations of your own intellectual constructs in a way.

IA: Is music part of your own meditation?

PB: Oh, very much so. Even the way that the Orthodox pray in the divine liturgy: it’s sung from beginning to end, an hour and a half of poetical love songs to God. There’s a certain rhythm that I think is psychologically healing. It’s very slow-paced and there’s a lot of repetition. There’s very little entertainment value at all because there’s nothing that’s fast-paced. That has been very, very important to me in my own life.

IA: All right. There are a few other directions I want to go with a few other questions. You mentioned that you have commissioned, what did you say, a dozen or more works. So you mentioned Ivan Moody, Philip Glass—can you tell me some of the others?

PB: Yes. I mentioned Randall Snyder. He is the composer who wrote the piece on the Valis Trilogy.

And then I commissioned Victoria Bond; she wrote the piano concerto and a solo piece for me based on a very, very beautiful communion hymn.

Tyler White is a wonderful composer at my school on the composition faculty. He also wrote some wonderful pieces for me as well.

I do work with composers like Joan Tower who is an incredible composer. I’ve recorded her piano pieces, although she didn’t write them for me and I didn’t commission them, I’m still committed to a lot of music of living composers.

IA: What variety is there in these composers that you’ve named? You’ve got Minimalism…

PB: Joan Tower for example has influences from a zillion different areas and it’s a very fast-paced, high-energy, incredibly dynamic approach to rhythm. She loves percussion and is a pianist herself so the pieces are very, very exciting and at the same time very pianistic. And they’re much more virtuosic, in terms of an etude or a toccata or something like that, so it’s a much faster-paced piece; it’s radically opposed to all of the Philip Glass that I’ve done, for example. Or the piece that you’ll hear tonight. It’s much, much more slow-paced with the chant base.

IA: So I guess what I’m digging for here is: Is there a “school” of composition right now that you can identify? When we look back—you mentioned the Vienna School of dodecaphonic music, and then you mentioned Minimalism. Is Minimalism a school of thought?

PB: Oh, yes. And there are even subsets within that. There’s a whole group of composers called Mystical Minimalists. Those would be people like Arvo Pärt, John Tavener--John Tavener was Ivan Moody’s teacher, so you’ll hear a real interesting connection there just in terms of the pacing, of his musical language, things like that. He’s not interested in any kind of a pseudo-Hollywood dramatic buildup or anything like that. It’s very, very much, much more about luminosity and reflection. Those are the two things that you’ll probably hear in the piece tonight. But, yes: That’s a very specific school that people are attracted to, composers emulate, other composers within that tradition.

As is kind of a Neo-Romanticism; it is also its own school where composers of today (including Victoria, including lots of other composers that I work with) write tonal music. Unforgivably tonal! It’s just brazenly tonal. A much more traditional context. Next year, 2011, is the bicentennial of Franz Liszt, who is my hero.

IA: Understandably.

PB: I’m performing the winning composition competition composition (!) and there are twenty-five scores that have been submitted from all over the world, so I actually have to read through them all and rank them. I’m very interested just in seeing, you know, since it’s twenty-five different composers, where everything is coming from, because they’ve kind of got the spirit of Liszt, so there’s obviously going to be a virtuoso element to it but I’m so excited about digging into all of this just to see what happens from the different aesthetic perspectives. It’s just a huge part of how I define myself as a musician is to be involved in the creation of new music.

IA: Do you compose, as well?

PB: No, I do a lot of transcribing. I transcribed lots of music from Philip Glass and have three albums on his label featuring those transcriptions. But I’m busy enough just trying to keep up with my composer friends.

IA: Can we talk about technique for a minute? Your personal technique? What I’m wondering is, how were you trained as a student yourself? Can you describe for me your technique and then has it changed? Have you seen shifts in the way pianists are taught?

PB: Well, the person who had the most profound impact or impact on my technical development was Menahem Pressler, who I worked with at Indiana University. What I love about his approach is that it’s a completely integrated approach to the body so the finger works in conjunction with the hand, with the wrist, with the forearm, with the elbow, and with everything working in natural conjunction. So there’s very little tension. It’s a big sound, but it’s also very, very concise. So this is what I try to communicate to my own students as well, and it’s one of the reasons why I feel that I’m very, very healthy still. I do a lot of physical activity: I play a lot of tennis, I lift weights, but I also practice a lot and I’m able to do all three of those things. I’m convinced that if you do everything in a way that really recognizes how your body works you can do it for a long time.

IA: You can avoid performance-related injuries.

PB: Exactly.

IA: You play a lot of very virtuosic repertoire.

PB: Yes, very much so.

IA: Are there others who are still teaching this method as well?

PB: Yes. Pressler students are all over the place. In fact, the other pianist tonight is a former Pressler student as well. We had seen each other at his eightieth birthday party a little ways back and it’s good to see her again. But yes: it’s a specific school and he has particular exercises that we’ve al adapted in our own way. I’m convinced that it really does prevent injury but also gives an incredibly rich sound, as well.

IA: Are those exercises published?

PB: Yeah, they’re on my website. If you go to “Meet my students” and you click on that link, then that will go to a page saying “Pressler finger exercises.” Click on that, and you’ve got ‘em. Do you play?

IA: I had my wrists basically destroyed in undergrad so I wish I’d been trained that way. We’re looking for a piano right now so maybe I can get some therapy and get back into it.

PB: I hope you can. I hope you can.

IA: What about predictions for the future? Where you do think music is going to go?

PB: Oh, I’m incredibly excited. Again, as I had mentioned there, I think that the direction currently right now is unlimited in terms of composers and their aesthetic choices. It’s very exciting in so many ways just to see what composers are coming up with. There’s still so much wonderful music written for the piano (thank God!), my instrument, piano concertos, all kinds of things. So I’m incredibly optimistic about the aesthetic possibilities in terms of future composition. I will continue to commission and perform new music. There are lots of recitals I perform where nobody has heard a note of anything before, which I think is an incredibly important thing to do as well. Then I’ll do recital where it’s all traditional. With 2011 coming up, I do a lecture recital (I did it at Nyack about ten years ago) on religious symbolism in Liszt. On the Lizst b minor sonata. It’s entitled: “Liszt and the Cross: Music as Sacrament in the B Minor Sonata.” I draw a connection between music and iconography: the idea that music can be seen as a type of sacrament where its purpose is to convey the grace of God. I will be doing that multiple times next year and the year after for the Lizst bicentennial. Tremendously traditional: wonderful, incredibly music; but then the next day I’ll play a whole recital of Philip Glass. It’s just spanning the aesthetic globe.

IA: What does that do to your mind?!

PB: Oh, I think it’s a great workout. There’s this concept in workouts called muscle confusion, where if you just keep them guessing about what you’re going to workout, it’s really healthy for them. I think the same thing probably applies to the mind.

Note by IA: Here are several of Paul's performances on YouTube:
"Akhnaten" by Philip Glass
"Satyagraha" by Philip Glass
"Orphee and the Princess" by Philip Glass
Fugue by Barber
Haydn Piano Sonata in A-flat, Hob:XVI:46 Adagio

19 May 2010

quick post with suggested links

Here is a little bit of suggested reading for you. First, here is an article in Comment that discusses the role of the Arts and the Church in revitalizing small, dying town. It's an excellent article, well written, with apt references and good research. It's extremely relevant to Iambic Admonit in the context of the interview series I've been running.

Next, do you remember those two little articles I wrote about Posthumanism for Curator? Well, here they are again just in case:
What is Posthumanism
a Christian response

Well, several sites have been providing linkbacks: responses, discussion, critique, and so on. Perhaps you would like to join the conversation? Here are the ones I could find. Please feel free to add more in the comments if you find any.

"Religion in Society"

"Three Quarks Daily"

"A Fool Repeats His Folly"

"Rave, rant, rate"

17 May 2010

Interview with Leah Maines

This is the eighth interview of the "Where are we now?" series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. Please leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

Interview with Leah Maines
over the phone
25 March 2010

Note to readers: Leah is the senior editor of Finishing Line Press, which published my poetry chapbook, The Significance of Swans.

IA: First, why don’t you talk to me about your own writing? You are a poet?

LM: I am a poet. I have published in journals and anthologies, and two chapbooks. My first chapbook was the first of the New Women’s Voices series. And that is what started Finishing Line Press, as a matter of fact. I had entered my manuscript in a chapbook contest and it came in as a finalist. I was a new writer. If I had known better, I would have just continued submitting it. But I didn’t take the time to do that. I did not want to self-publish, so I talked somebody else into starting Finishing Line Press! So many small presses start out this way: somebody gets their friend to start a small press to publish their work. My friend started Finishing Line Press and launched the New Women’s Voices series. She published a few books—one or two chapbooks a year—but publishing wasn’t really her passion. In 2002 I took over the press because she didn’t want to do it anymore. I bought the Press and moved everything to Georgetown, KY.
Later, I won the Kentucky Writers' Coalition Chapbook Competition for my second collection, Beyond the River. I just put together a bunch of poems that had been in journals and anthologies. I thought, Well, I’ll see if anything happens. And so I did; I submitted it, and I won! With my first collection I came in as a finalist. I do not recommend doing it that way, now, but I was a young writer then and I didn’t know any better. I was so guarded of my work and I didn’t have any confidence. I didn’t go to workshops. I didn’t speak to a lot of other writers, so I didn’t know what you’re supposed to do. But when I won, that was great.

IA: Can you describe your poetry to us? Do you think of yourself as a formalist? What techniques do you use?

LM: It’s all free verse. I write a lot of love poetry. I love to read forms. I love to read sonnets. I really love to read poetry that I know poets have put a lot of work and thought into. I know how difficult it is to write it. When I read that, I appreciate it very much. I take note of that.

IA: It’s difficult to write good love poetry, too. Are there other poets that you use for inspiration?

LM: Billy Collins is my favorite writer by far. I believe his work will outlive him. The first poem of his I ever read was “Splitting Wood.” It was in Poetry Magazine. The imagery in that poem stays in my mind. I see the wood teetering, tottering on the block before it falls in two pieces on the ground—sort of like a long-time marriage before it splits into divorce. That poem still stays in my mind.

IA: He’s very clear: he writes visual, memorable poems. They are also readily accessible. Is that true of your own work, as well? Do you strive for very clear, accessible verse with memorable images?

LM: Yes, I do. Absolutely.

IA: And is that what you look for in the manuscripts that you read?

LM: Not always. I like that, but I don’t always look for that. I think that it’s important as a publisher to have diverse voices and not to get stuck just publishing the same stuff over and over again. That’s why we strive to publish people of different cultural backgrounds and different voices. I love nature poems; I love good love poems; but it’s difficult to find them. I very rarely read good love poems. We tend to publish a lot of nature poems. But not always. I love sonnets, but we don’t get a lot of submissions of sonnets. People don’t want to write them, I guess.

IA: They’re difficult; they take very close attention. You see a lot of nature poetry; do you see any other trends? What other topics do you see passing across your desk quite frequently?

LM: Well, a couple of years ago there was a trend of mythology stuff. I hated it. I don’t know who was workshopping that. That was about three years ago, I guess. Everybody was sending me that! I couldn’t stand it! I couldn’t wait until it was over with!

IA: What was wrong with it?

LM: I just didn’t want to read it! I was glad when it died out, finally.

IA: How long did that last?

LM: A year? A year having to read that over and over again!

IA: Is there another wave right now; are you seeing something that must all be coming out of the same workshop right now?

LM: I don’t see anything right now other than various types of nature poems. And I see some political stuff right now.

IA: Positive political voices, or critical?

LM: It depends on whose side you’re on. You can take that however you want it. We’ll just leave it at that. We get some really weird submissions. People send me the weirdest things sometimes. There will be manuscripts with spells in them—incantations—witchcraft. I get the weirdest stuff.

IA: Is that common?

LM: Yes, it is common. I don’t know why.

IA: Do you think that these themes you’re seeing in poetry are microcosms of larger movements in our society as a whole?

LM: I think the political stuff is. I don’t think the mythology stuff was.

IA: Now, when we look back at literary history at certain time periods, we can see themes and trends. When we look from a distance, we can say: “The Seventeenth Century was concerned with such-and-such.” Do you think that these trends you are seeing are the ones scholars will point to when they look back at us three hundred years from now?

LM: That’s an interesting question. I’ll have to think about that more.

IA: How many manuscripts do you see in a given year?

LM: In a given year, about two thousand.

IA: So that’s a pretty good cross section of what’s being written around the country?

LM: Yes, it is.

IA: That’s not just for the New Women’s Voices series; that’s everything? That’s old and young, male and female, established and new writers?

LM: Yes. That’s all submissions. We get about two thousand total.

IA: That sounds to me that if you see these themes, that’s a pretty good indication of what people are writing all around the country right now. As a publisher, obviously you’re trying to make your selections based on quality and to a certain extent on trying to have different voices. Are you also intentionally trying to cause a certain wave in American writing? You see two thousand submissions a year. Are you trying to cause something to happen in the American literary movement?

LM: As editors, whether we intentionally do that or not, we will select what we like. So whether we want to cause something to happen or not, we select what we think is good. Also, there are times that we might not necessarily agree with someone on certain issue, but I still feel that they have a right to be heard in spite of personal objections. If it’s good, I’ll publish it, at times. Let me tell you why. I am a devout Christian: a Messianic Jew/Jewish believer. And I’m an ordained minister as well. But I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I have to be able to allow voices to be heard. I have to be willing to go ahead and publish things that will offend some Christians.

IA: You’re also in a unique position because the opposite is also true: You’re not going to reject a religious piece just because of its religious content either.

LM: Absolutely not. We publish people of many different faiths. The quality of their work was beautiful and I felt that they needed to express it and it was something that I wanted to work with. There are a lot of people using that freedom of expression and of speech for other purposes. You have to be willing to just refuse it. I am very, very devout. A very, very devout believer. I don’t compromise the Scriptures. I don’t think I’m compromising.

IA: The quality of the literature is an important factor as well as the content. I think you’re taking that into account.

LM: Absolutely. We publish it based on the quality.

IA: Do you want to make a predication about what you think is going to happen to American poetry in the future?

LM: I don’t know what’s going to happen: I just hope it keeps happening. It’s on a good trend right now. It’s popular right now, even in Hollywood. Right now we’re publishing Melora Walters: she’s one of the actors on HBO’s “Big Love.” She’s our book-of-the-month author right now. We had F. Murray Abraham singing poems at Carnegie Hall. He sang poems at Carnegie Hall in New York City—from one of our books: Lethe, Postponed by Ilene Starger. It was absolutely amazing! Poetry is very popular right now. It’s becoming very mainstream. Actors are liking poetry. Regular people are liking poetry. I see a lot of poetry being quoted. A lot of people are really enjoying poetry. As a publisher I’m a little concerned about where chapbooks are going to go; I guess we’re going to have to learn how to adapt to Kindle and other e-readers.

14 May 2010

Ekphrasis report #6

The most recent Ekphrasis meeting was rather unusual. Due to a variety of circumstances, I cancelled the official meeting and just three of us met “unofficially” in a park. We met in the Bethlehem Rose Garden: a lovely place with a stage area. It is not the season for roses, but it was a beautiful hot day and the park was lovely and quiet. Present were SPB, JL, and myself. Although I always wish more people would attend (because I like the variety of comments and I want us to spread our mutual influence for excellence further), I also like very small meetings. The smaller the meeting, the longer time we can spend workshopping each person’s pieces.

So, we began with a dramatic performance by SPB. She had participated in a long improvisation exercises in one of her drama classes: the students were required to enact several personas chosen by tarot cards and other interesting methods by her “New Agey” professor. One character was a “spirit guide.” S’s card was a hummingbird. Out of that extended improv, she developed a character called Hummingbird: a little girl with a great imagination and an intuitive moral sense. Later, she wrote an original monologue for that character. This is what she performed for us in the park. It was a high-energy, physical monologue, requiring intense immersion into the inner life of the character: all the more challenging since that character was a little girl young enough to suck her thumb and curl up on the floor (pavement, in this case) to sleep at the end. The monologue included an embedded story, straight from the little girl’s imagination, about a fantasy realm and a dark, wounded woman named Hoth who can only be healed by True Beauty.

Then we read out Act One of a play I’m working on. There are three speaking characters in Act One, so that worked out well. However, my play is in high verse (Scene One is in hexameters), so SPB’s main comment was that I was born in the wrong time period. The content is daringly modern, even pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable in our contemporary American culture, but the verse is difficult. Indeed, there’s little plot. The play is driven by the verse more than anything. It’s meant to be evocative, atmospheric, as much about sounds and the images they evoke, as about character or event. I’m working on Act Two now and stuck in the last scene. We’ll see how it goes along. I’d like to have Act Two ready for our next meeting, but at this point that’s ambitious.

Then JL shared the first chapter of a semi-autobiographical novel he’s writing. It’s quite different from his earlier work, which might be called Spiritual Fantasy (much in the vein of Frank Peretti, although I guess J’s never read Peretti’s work; I don’t know who else is doing that kind of stuff today, beside Dan Brown, whose heresy puts him out of the Christian camp). It’s a very character-driven story, mostly dialogue, interested in developing personalities and internal motivations.

So as usual, it was a varied meeting, quite pleasant. We didn’t work very hard this time; there wasn’t a lot of detailed critique. But perhaps that was due to the extremely pleasant environment; it’s hard to be nitty-gritty in a perfectly lovely rose garden. Next time we should meet in somebody’s dank basement. Just kidding.

10 May 2010

Interview with Julie Ann Eggleston

This is the seventh interview of the ”Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. If you would like to suggest someone for me to interview, leave a comment below or email me:

Interview with Julie Ann Eggleston
over the phone
29 March 2010

IA: To our readers: Good afternoon, and I am interviewing Julie Ann Eggleston, who is a pianist and a piano teacher. Julie Ann, thank you very much for doing this. I really appreciate it.

JAE: Thank you!

IA: Why don’t we start with you just telling us your résumé, as it were; why don’t you tell us how you got into music and your history of where you studied and what degrees you have, to begin with.

JAE: All right. I have actually wanted to be a piano teacher since I was eight years old when I started taking piano. When I graduated from high school, I went to Gordon College and earned a Bachelor of Music Performance in piano. Then I did my graduate work at the University of South Carolina: a Master’s in Piano Pedagogy and a Graduate Certificate in Piano Performance. Since then, I have taught at community music schools in extracurricular activities for children all the way through adults learning music. All together I have nine years of teaching experience, private and class mediums.

IA: We’ll come back in a minute and talk more about your teaching and then about your home studio as well, but I want to stay on the performance aspect for a minute, if that’s OK. Why don’t you talk to me as a fellow pianist and to other people who are Classically trained. Why don’t we get kind of technical for a minute. You could talk about repertoire, you could talk about technical things that you learned as a pianist, you could talk about how historical scholarship informs your playing. What do you think about technically and historically with your piano performance?

JAE: You mean how I interpret [a piece] historically and how I would put that into my performance?

IA: Yes, absolutely.

JAE: OK. First of all, I have always wanted to keep a Classical foundation for my performances and for the pieces that I focus upon when I play, because I believe in a Classical foundation (“Classical” meaning the all way from Baroque through, probably, the Impressionistic period). I believe that gives an incredible foundation for piano playing and for musicianship. When I perform, I aim for the highest quality of performance and also to bring a message to the people who hear me. For however they would interpret the music. As far as who I bring that message to, that’s where some of the difficulty lies today, because there is not as much of an attraction to Classical music in general. There is much more fascination amongst the pop culture with jazz and with “easy listening” music (people would probably call it). So in pursuing the learning of Classical music myself, it’s been kind of difficult to try to figure out my calling in delivering that to the current generation, because there doesn’t seem to be as much of a desire for that amongst our peers and the younger generation. The elderly generation there is a little bit more of an attraction towards that. But in general the view seems to be that there’s Classical music—there’s kind of the intelligentsia of music—and then there’s music that the layman can understand and enjoy. There’s this big gap between the music that is quality—the Classical genre—and music that is played by bands and by the pop culture of today. I’m not saying necessarily that those type of music are not “quality,” but there’s a difference there. There needs to be more of a dialogue between all of the different genres.

IA: Do you think that if we look back historically at where “Classical” music came from, wasn’t it quite often the popular music of its time when it was being written?

JAE: Well, I’ve done some thinking about that. I don’t think so, necessarily. And the reason I’ve come to this conclusion is that when you’re talking about the Late Romantic Period all the way into the Early Contemporary Period, there was a string of popular music or folk music, but there was more of a dialogue between the two, the “Classical” genre and then the pop music, because there were composers who would research the folk music and take it into their style of music (such as Bartok). So I think that’s interesting because that doesn’t really happen today as much. We might arrange pop music for the orchestra, but that seems to be as far as it goes. There’s not a new genre, a new kind of music, created from the folk tunes of today.

IA: And what are the folk tunes of today?

JAE: Well, I don’t know that there are any! The folk tunes of today maybe are the little kids’ songs that everyone sings since they were kids. The pop tunes: I hear six-year-olds singing pop tunes now-a-days and that’s another new phenomenon that didn’t used to happen. We have pop stars who are twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old that are creating their new music. But it’s all in the style of “yesteryear.” It’s not new music. I don’t see any new strains of music that are high quality in the pop culture. It’s all neo-rock and roll, neo-pop, neo-alternative.

IA: Now do you think that this great divide between what, unfortunately, gets called “High” music vs. popular music is attributable to technologies? Because if we thought about, perhaps, Mozart’s time, shall we say, music was very pervasive, but it had to be performed live. So you either had to be a talented musician yourself or have musicians in your family if you wanted to have music in your home, or else you had to be wealthy enough to patronize the arts. Whereas now music is readily accessible to almost anyone and therefore is performed all the time. Do you think that this technological change has led to that division in music?

JAE: I think probably a lot of the technologically advanced venues—it used to be that even back in the mid 1900s we could turn on the radio and that’s about all we could do as far as accessing music or even the media, without hearing things live. That’s an interesting twist, because I was just thinking about what the media growth has done to the arts, as well. Printing books and poetry comes very easy today as compared to back when the arts were kind of a “high society” kind of thing. Just about anything, whether quality or not, can be printed. I guess the same thing goes for music.

IA: Since access is more readily available there is perhaps less vetting for quality?

JAE: And another side point to that is that there’s a very good thing about that. That is that so many people can have access to music and to reading and to so many different many aspects of the arts, whereas they didn’t before. And there’s been a new growth in the area of music education called “Recreational Music Making” and that’s developed over maybe the last ten years or so. It’s generally adults who did not learn how to play piano or some other instrument when they were young and now they want to dabble in it. Not become some incredible pianist, but just be to able to make music for themselves. I don’t think that necessarily happened very often back in Mozart’s time, for example, or Beethoven’s time. It was only those serious musicians that were able to benefit from music instruction and music performance.

IA: And there was perhaps a class division as well. I’m thinking now of the “Regency” period, the early 1800s: any fashionable young lady had to know how to play the pianoforte, and yet that was a mark of a certain social status. Well, why don’t I pick up on something else that you said, then, since you started bringing up education. The whole other aspect of your work in the arts is as a music teacher. So why don’t you tell us about your home studio and some of your teaching experiences?

JAE: Well, first of all, let me start with the whole community music school. I have been teaching at community music schools for about six years now. That aspect of music education is very different than teaching from your home or taking lessons from a college professor even if you’re younger. Generally the attitude or the mentality of parents who enroll their kids in a community music school is that they want their kids to have fun. That is their primary goal in enrolling them for music lessons. This new development has happened in music education over the last ten years, because kids are involved in so many activities they don’t have the energy or even the time to be able to devote to practicing. They used to choose one particular trade or activity. This kind of new way of music education has grown up. I don’t think they had community music schools even twenty years ago. Within this little community of young musicians there develops a camaraderie and an ability to perform in front of one another. It’s kind of this environment that’s very encouraging, very uplifting: but if you took any of those musicians and transported them into a different environment that was not a community music school and compared their level of performance and musicianship to those who go by the old school of practicing however-much a day and hard work, they’d be nowhere near that level. Even though they’re deriving a lot of enjoyment out of playing.

IA: So do you think that the recreational aspect is perhaps taking precedence over a good, solid foundation of technique and of Classical training?

JAE: Yes. Definitely. That’s why a lot of pianist-composers have made a pretty good living on creating educational music for the piano and perhaps for other instruments (but obviously I know more about the piano end): there are so many, so many! pieces of sheet music being composed for very elementary levels of piano playing. The goal is to fascinate and keep the young pianist intrigued without too much work on the pianist’s part! To look showy even though you put in a very minimal amount of practice. But there doesn’t seem to be as much of that when you transfer over into a home studio situation. Teachers in home studios are devoting a lot of their time. They only want however many hours of teaching and so there seems to be an attraction for more serious students in that environment.

IA: So you think that students are more likely to get the good, solid, technical Classical training in a home studio, or from taking from a college professor, than they would in a community music school?

JAE: Yes. Well, community music schools. And of course we’re making a huge generalization here; I can’t evaluate every community music school out there. There’s one community music school in this area where I've taught for the past two and a half years. And then there’s an academic school in our area: Arizona School of the Arts. And they are not a community music school: they are an academic school with a focus on the arts, which I think is an incredible idea. Maybe schools should be aiming towards more arts. This school in particular takes a serious look at the fact that the arts are a necessary part of education. They require music classes and they require art classes as opposed to other schools where it’s an elective. The arts are they’re looked at today as a recreational thing, an extra thing, but mathematics and reading and English, those core educational areas, are looked at as a necessary thing. Which I’m not saying they aren’t, but I’m saying the arts are just as important as that. But people have lost sight of that.

IA: Perhaps then for just the last few minutes, let’s take what you’re saying and see if we can paint some broader brushstrokes about the arts in general. Let me ask you a few things and see if you think I’ve got it right here. Perhaps one concern, then, in Postmodernism (or in whatever we want to call the contemporary phase) might be a potential loss of history or of tradition. Do you think that’s right, that maybe if you were to give advice to people working in the arts in general it would be not to lose their traditions, because in their tradition is the good scholarship and the well-practiced techniques. Am I accurate with that, do you think?

JAE: Yes, I think so. I think that we can’t lose sight of what the greats have done in the past. If you look at every great composer, pianist, and performer of the past, they’ve always taken quite an interest in the artists and the performers that went before them and studied them very particularly and knew their works very well. That’s why you see a common thread between Beethoven and Bach, for example. They borrowed each other’s techniques and then went further themselves, using their own talents. I think it’s very important for us as performers and as educators, like you said, our students are not going to advance technically and in their musicianship if we don’t take a look at history.

IA: The other side of that, I think, besides history, is just hard work. Perhaps the recreationalism is more wide-spread than you’ve been saying. There have been books with titles such as Amusing Ourselves to Death and other books of that nature discussing contemporary American society: that we’re a society that likes immediate gratification and that we don’t want to do the hard work. That studying history and that practicing scales are hard work. I imagine that if we had more time, we could talk about how this might be specifically endemic in the Christian arts. That perhaps the Church has been as guilty as any other institution of doing easy works of quote-unquote “Art” to get a message across rather than doing the hard work of history and technique.

JAE: That’s a good point. And maybe that’s where a lot of the worship environments are coming from in churches. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but there’s not a whole lot of study and respect for the traditions of the past in the worship arena in Evangelical churches today. So they end up with low-quality music that does not enhance worship to the extant that it could.

IA: Do you see that changing at all? Are you optimistic at all that either in pedagogy or in worship music there are some of these realization being made?

JAE: I think that there are some, but I think that a lot of people in certain parts of the country become isolated in their own communities. For example, over here in Arizona, in the Valley, I think a lot of churches are going for the newest thing, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true for the rest of the country. But there’s this fascination with the new and the latest music in churches. And so that takes precedence over any traditions. As soon as anybody hears a hymn they just dismiss it as old music and they don’t want to hear it. But that’s what I’ve seen in the churches I’ve attended. It’s not necessarily over in the New England area or the East Coast. There are probably pockets in a lot of the U. S. that still very much value the traditions of the past. Hopefully those pockets will start to spread and there are enough people that are interested in preserving our church traditions that it will get better.

IA: I think so, and I see some of those trends. OK, well, we’ve spent a good deal of time already, but do you have anything you really wanted to say that we didn’t cover, or any final thoughts that you wanted to share?

JAE: Well, for a general statement: I’m talking as much to myself as to anybody else. We to not become discouraged with the negative aspects of music and the arts today. We need to stay positive and look for the role that we as Christians in the arts arena should play and try to find the little things that we are doing to make a difference and be encouraged by those steps of progress.

IA: Absolutely; I agree. Well, thank you!

03 May 2010

Interview with Charles McMahon

This is the sixth interview of the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

Interview with Charles McMahon
at St. Stephen’s Theatre, home of the Lantern Theatre Company
14 April 2010

I attended the Company’s production of Henry IV, part one: a splendid performance! It is playing until May 9th; go and see it if you get a chance. Later this season, Lantern is hosting Anthony Lawton’s one-man show of The Screwtape Letters; you should try to catch that, too.

IA: The idea [of this series] is that because I teach at a historical program (every academic year we study a different historical time period), I feel as if I have a pretty good sense of the arts in past time periods. So I’m wondering: What time period are we in now? Three hundred years from now, what are we going to say [about the twenty-first century]? You can’t really say that when you’re in it, but you can take individual snapshots of people and companies and movements in the arts. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been asking people in all different media: What are you doing specifically? and then: What do you see?

CM: It’s a fascinating idea. One of the discussions that we’ve have with doing this play [Henry IV, part one] and doing Shakespeare –this is true for Shakespeare in general, but it’s become part of our focus in talking about this particular play—is the sense of time. Not just the sense of the passage of time, but time as a factor that governs people’s lives and how we understand it. In our series of lectures and discussions about the play we have been talking about Shakespeare and his sense of straddling historical time periods in his own life. He’s born in, essentially, a small town in the English countryside which is a lot like a Medieval city-state and time in that period is a cyclical event, a seasonal, cyclical thing. The day is measured by the position of the sun; it’s noon when the sun is at its zenith and then it goes down. Then the Renaissance is invading London as he’s growing up, and when he moves to London he moves to the Renaissance. So it’s like you’re in a Medieval town with a sense of the roundness of things, the fullness of things, governed by seasons, by circles, and you move to the Renaissance and everything is straight lines, curves and arcs and it’s incomplete. Time is something you measure with a device. Time is now something that goes in a straight line. It has a direction. The day is broken into a series of chunks of time that you fill up and organize in a certain way. There are not names for all these things: historians and critics come along and they name them afterwards—but Shakespeare is just observing that there’s a new kind of paradigm that’s coming into being. In this play, you may have noticed that the very first thing we do in the play is we’re trying to take people out of their experience of being on the street and being in twentieth-century America. So we have a little margin there. There’s nothing specifically going on. There are impressions, there’s a little music, the lights do something interesting, some people come out and the cast of the play repeats lines from the first speech of the play as if they were just the many voice of the many people in England. The king is there praying. The idea is that these could be the things that are filtering into him while he’s in contemplation here.

IA: It’s a little bit nonlinear for that moment. We suspend time at the very beginning.

CM: Right. But in essence the function of that section dramatically is to let the audience wash out the impressions they just had, the conversations they just had, hurrying to get tickets and to get upstairs. Now we’re going someplace else. So we want to give you a moment to adjust. A little margin. It doesn’t have to mean anything, it just has to be a prologue of some kind. Then you’re in the play. Then the king speaks this line, he recaps everything that’s gone on, and he comes up with a plan of what to do next. You’re in the midst of the action. It’s very ongoing action, you’re thrust right down in the middle of it, and he says: OK, we’ve finally got a little bit of free time after all these wars and broils, and now with this little margin of calm that we have, we’re going to launch a crusade to Jerusalem, because that’s what I determine to be best for the country.

Note by IA: here’s the text of Henry IV’s opening speech:
So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in strands afar remote.
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood;
No more shall trenching war channel her fields
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces. Those opposed eyes,
Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
All of one nature, of one substance bred,
Did lately meet in the intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery,
Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,
March all one way and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies.
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,
No more shall cut his master. Therefore, friends,
As far as to the sepulcher of Christ—
Whose soldier now, under who blessed cross
We are impressed and engaged to fight—
Forthwith a power of English shall we levy,
Whose arms were molded in their mother’s womb
To chase these pagans in those holy fields
Over whose acres walked those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed
For our advantage on the bitter cross.

CM: And he gives ostensible reasons for it. I mean, probably his main reason is he doesn’t want to be damned! This would have earned him an indulgence. It would have meant he had a get-out-of-Hell-free card from the pope. Although it’s historically inaccurate to assume that in the 1400s you could still launch a crusade to Jerusalem and anyone would even go (these things had been over for a while), it becomes a perfectly useful device in Shakespeare. He’s looking into the past. Time is a fluid thing in the play. He’s saying to the English Elizabethan people, the early Renaissance English people of Shakespeare’s time: Think of a time when things were different, when people launched crusades, it was a different time, not of this time. And then he compresses time, he pulls time apart. Hotspur and Hal become the same age when in fact in real life one of them was 16 and the other was 39; but everything is fluid and changeable for the purposes of telling the story.

So this play is now moving along. The king gets you up to speed; immediately someone comes in with important information: “We’re going to have to hold up on the crusade to Jerusalem. There’s just been a battle. It’s uncertain whether we’ve won or lost. There was even worse news that came in: By the time I got here, I found out that we’d definitely lost a big battle in Wales.” Then the king says: “Oh, wait; the battle that you didn’t know about earlier? Turns out we won that one. But now we’ve got other problems. All right.” And the king always gives a directive at the end of these scenes that has to do with time. He says: “On Wednesday next, we’re going to hold our council. In the meantime, between now and then I want you to do this and I’m going to do this.” Every time you see him he says I want you to do this by such-and-such a date. And he gives people clear directives of what they’re expected to do and when they’re supposed to do it. Interspersed between these scenes, which are very linear, very deterministic in the mechanical sense (one event is causing another, is causing another, is causing another) you’ve got these scenes with Hal in a bar—and time stops. It just stops. After the first scene, he’s hanging around with nothing particular to do, they come up with a scheme to kill time. The very first thing that Falstaff says is:

CM & IA simultaneously: “What time is it?”

CM: Hal says, “What do you care? Why would you possibly care what time it is?” And this is right after the king says, “We must do these things hastily.” Hal says, “Why, what do you care?” And Falstaff says, “Yeah, you’re right; I don’t care.” But people are always asking what time it is. And we finally get to the climactic bar scene, which is toward the end of our first act here: It’s about 27 minutes long. And in the course of it, people are coming in with information about what’s happening in the outside world and everyone in the bar is saying, “Eh, let’s just not pay attention to that right now.” So there’s a very, very different sense that these people are living in. Time is flowing in this very fast stream in part of the play and in the other part of the play it’s the shallows: things aren’t really flowing, they’re trickling.

IA: Is it immaturity and irresponsibility to step out of that flow into those timeless moments, and Hal has to step into it to realize that he’s going to be a cause rather than just an effect?

CM: That’s a very good question. It’s never as simple as it seems. Many of the characters in the play would certainly say that Hal has been wasting his time and that he needs to start taking responsibility and start doing things differently. What he’s been doing has been a bad road and he needs to set off on a different road. The same character, a couple of plays from now, in Henry V, says: “I can understand the Dauphin, how he comes over me with my former days, not measuring what use I made of them.” So the implication, then, is that these wild days are actually adding something to his experience that others don’t have. It becomes a genuine advantage in ruling a people, or maybe in commanding an army, or understanding of people.

IA: He says that: He has a speech in which he says he’s doing this as a foil of his later days and not wasting time, how he’s being so intentional—whether or not you believe him.

CM: Yes. Exactly. And I hope that when you watched this that you had a hard time believing him. Because typically I thought that that was a pitfall in productions [of this play], is that Hal comes out and says to the audience: “Don’t worry, I’m going to make everything good in the end.” And I think that if you believe him right then, A, it takes some of the drama out of it, and B, it takes some of the necessary character transformation out of this guy. He is a screw-up in a lot of ways and for him to just glibly say: “I’m simply going to put everything to rights at the last minute” and mean it—first of all it’s totally unrealistic. There’s no drunkard in the world who honestly and sincerely says: “I’m going to reform, real soon.” Unless it’s now, it’s not true, it’s not meaningful, it’s not sincere. The only time that you ever reform your life is NOW. It’s never in a week or a month or when I feel like it. St. Augustine with his prayer—

IA: —“Make me chaste, just not yet.”

CM: It’s a famously insincere prayer. Saint or no saint, it’s still an insincere prayer. It’s only sincere when it’s: “Make me chaste and pure NOW.” And Hal concludes by saying, “You know what, I’m going to start screwing things up even worse, because that’ll be even better for my plan.” I think that anyone who has seen addictive behavior or who has dealt with people who are self-deluding at that point will go, “Yeah, sure you are, pal. Yeah. OK. I’ve seen this; I’ve seen this all before.” So in a sense, Hal does not save himself through some great plan. Hal is essentially saved through some kind of grace. And Hal has to work. He has to make a very, very hard choice dealing with his father in the scene at the end of the first act. His father continues to press him. His father slams him for several minutes. He has this long tirade of grievances against the kid, and Hal doesn’t just come out and say: “No, Dad. Here’s the plan. I actually buy the whole party line, I’ve just been doing this and this and this for these reasons of mine.” No. The first thing he does is he makes a very equivocating, weak, semi-excuse, which the king simply brushes aside with contempt. And then he says, “I will henceforth be more myself,” which the king also elides over. And then finally he has this kind of cry from the heart, where he says, “I will redeem myself fully—or die. And I’m really sorry for how I’ve made you feel.” And that’s the beginning of a sincere moment. And he never really quite goes back to the guy he was earlier on. He tries to bring Falstaff along on his road (and ultimately Falstaff isn’t going to go), but he becomes a different person after that point in the play. He never really quite goes back to where he was earlier, and I think that’s an important thing.

But at the same time he does not disavow everybody. He doesn’t lose track of them, he doesn’t forswear their company right away. And I think that’s the important thing for Shakespeare: he’s making a point that this guy is different from the people who came before. So Shakespeare is, I think very consciously, saying: “There was a era of kings. There was an old law in which certain conditions applied, and then things changed and there was a new kind of person that was required.” Hal is in a way a transformational character. How? How is he different from the others that went before? Well, in one way he went down, in among the common man. He was the king by blood, by birth, by right, but he lived among the common people and was one of them. And the insights thus gained, the sense of kinship with these people, the sense of sympathy, meant that he was going to consider their needs more deeply. And if he was going to do something that was going to hurt, or if he was going to demand some sacrifice on their part, then it was going to be deliberate and necessary. That he wasn’t just going to take them for granted and sell them cheaply. They understood this and this is in fact all that they asked. Not only is he king of England; there have been many of those. But he can commend all the good lads in Eastcheap, and not many of the kings of England can say that. This stands him in some good stead. His following is scanted by Hotspur and Hotspur’s people, but he shows up at Shrewsbury with a bunch of roughnecks that have been out on the highways robbing people and now he’s turned them toward another path and they will march through hell for him, because he’s been there with them. He’s been one of them.

And in a sense, I think Shakespeare is taking sort of the totality of everything he’s learned in religious symbolism as well as just classic characters from storytelling and his own imagination and these three things (classic stories, his own imagination, and the deeper meanings of the religious mysteries that I think are frequently at the root of Shakespeare’s plays) and he’s turning Hal into a transformational figure. A guy who’s in a sense going down among the common people becomes this almost sort of transformational Act that to some degree redeems this generation of Englishmen. In later plays, Richard III and Henry VI, subsequent kings don’t really live up to the potential of Henry V. But it’s also probably true that he wrote those plays a good deal earlier. So he’s writing Henry V, he’s a more mature writer, and he’s suggesting that this is what real authority should be. Not out of touch with the people. Not simply peremptory and commanding (there’s that aspect to it), but that it also shares the common body with the governed. Which would have been something that was deeply suggested by Christian symbolism. The idea that God is not simply a remote and commanding being, but that God is among us. He’s the guy sitting next to you and the person at the other end of the bar. God has been here and exists among us and that you should treat your fellows as he….

IA: You’re reading Henry IV not as a Christian allegory but as a play that very explicitly draws on the archetypes and the mythic power of the Christian story?

CM: I would say implicitly. I’ve always assumed that there was a good deal of Christian resonance in all of Shakespeare’s plays and I’ve found it in working on them. There are moments like where, in the battle, Hal offers to fight with Percy in single combat. Well, this is essentially like sacrificing your life in order to save the life of your subjects, for the people you love. And the king says: “I would so far venture you.” And that’s a bit like the Lord Jehovah saying: “I will sacrifice my Son because I love my people.” And Henry [IV] even says, “We love our people, even those that are mislead upon your part, Worcester.” I think that could be a moment when the king is subconsciously trying to behave in a spiritually enlightened way, partly because he’s desperate for salvation himself, as a person. He’s sort of imitating the acts of the Divine because he’s looking for personal salvation. But nonetheless, if you’re watching it, I don’t know if you’re going to understand that, consciously, as a piece of allegory. but subconsciously, some aspect of it will resonate with you. You will say: “That is noble.” Because that is something that you have been taught at your parent’s knee to see as the ultimate kind of nobility: self-sacrifice for the good of those who are not as strong or less well-off.

And forgiveness: forgiveness of enemies. The king makes a big deal of trying to forgive his enemies. You could very easily say, “Well, the king isn’t sincere. He’s going to put all these people to death eventually.” And he might. It’s also very true that he might. But I think that you have to understand that at that point, he is very sincerely trying to be a different kind of man. He can’t be, quite. He’s not that kind of man. But his son can be. And he is. So I think that I don’t know if Shakespeare is consciously saying: “I’m going to use aspects of the Christ story to inform this.” But it would have been so rooted in his own understanding of what virtue was. And he is very consciously trying to write a story about a king who is trying to be good and make good choices.

So, veering back to your theme: I think that there is a sense in which Shakespeare is aware that the great organizing paradigms behind the way governments work and societies structure themselves, are changing, in his time. He’s seeing it. He’s seeing the different forces trying to steer the country in different directions and he’s seeing the tension that this causes. This is a play about civil war. Two guys trying to take the country in different directions. There’s a scene in which three guys are standing on a map and dividing the country in three parts. That is one direction. That is the idea of the feudal lords and barons having rights on the land and arguing about who has a right to this, who has a right to this, and, in a sense, none of them are asking: “Do I really have the right, in order to safeguard my inheritance, do I really have the right to put thousands of people’s lives in the hazard just to protect my property? What do they get if I win? Are they better off?” That is the law of the land and that has been considered justice up until now, but it’s clear that England is headed in a different direction. And in trying to divide the kingdom according to the feudal laws of the past and the feudal system and understanding of things, in some ways they’re kind of counter-historical. History is moving in a direction and the arrow of history is pointing towards unity. That’s ultimately good.

And Hal is guy who has an ability to unify the kingdom. He’s not walking on this map, dominating the landscape, and saying: “I’m going to dam this current up here, I’m going to change the directions of all the rivers, and I might change the coastline because I don’t like the way that bit sticks out into the ocean there”—which is a form of arrogance! That’s one of the reasons we have Hotspur, in this production, actually walking on the map. That’s arrogance. It’s presumption. Little shades of Agamemnon in the Oresteia. He tramples on the fine fabric, which angers the gods. So, these three guys are dividing up the kingdom. Similarly, in the other play in which you see the kingdom divided up into three parts, King Lear: again, things don’t go well for that plan.

IA: So Shakespeare, then, is drawing on the metanarrative of the Christian story, which is an intrinsic part of his society. Everyone was consciously trying to enact parts of it. Elizabeth was consciously trying to enact a Mary type of figure. So Shakespeare’s drawing on that to give his interpretation of what a good Christian ruler is?

CM: I think he’s referencing it, certainly. I don’t think you can understand these plays without some understanding of what the Christian story meant. The idea that you were a better ruler through hob-nobbing with the common people. Something that the king criticizes Hal very heavily for, saying: “Oh, Richard made himself stale and popular. And people didn’t respect him, ultimately. And you’ve done the same thing.” He’s completely missing the point of what his son’s doing. His son goes down into a room where a bunch of people are having a bunch of drinks, and he sits there, and he listens to them. “In a quarter of an hour I can now speak with any tinker in his own language. I can speak to them in their own language. They understand me, I understand them. They like me. And they follow me.”

IA: So it’s incarnational, in a small scale.

CM: In a very small scale, yes. It’s a kind of a distant overtone of the Incarnation. That’s my sense of it. Even though I am sort of predisposed to look for these parallels in these plays, at this point, that’s not something that even occurred to me until many weeks into the rehearsal. I went, “Huh! I think this might be what’s going on here.”

IA: Your reading of the change of time, as well, ties into this religious perspective, too. There’s some evidence that maybe when Shakespeare was a child he might have seen the Cycle plays, right before the Cycle plays were forbidden, he may have seen the York Cycle or [the Corpus Christi Cycle] or one of the other big Cycles [of Mystery plays]. They conceived of time that way, with seasonal cycles, with seeing Scripture and the Bible stories in that way. And then the Protestant, more individual view of time, I think ties into the liner view. And there is also a technological reading. They’re inventing the minute hand and the second hand develops and you get all these Carpe Deim poems: People are seeing their lives ticking away! So then you get Falstaff’s lines about “Memento Mori,” people are making watches with skulls on them and so on. So we can read the time element of this play technologically: we can read it with a Historical Materialist interpretation, but we can also read it with the religious change that’s going on in England as well.

CM: I think so. Everything that’s going on in England at this time is a country being torn between the past and the future: between Catholic and Protestant, between the Medieval time and the Renaissance, between the idea of time as this harmony of the spheres (everything is set in motion, everything is cyclical and eternal) versus everything moving in a straight line from a past here to a future here and we have this little tick! spot in between. Hotspur refers to that: “Our life is no more than an hour, ending at the dial’s point, to live that basely were too long” (paraphrasing, obviously, as I go along).

note by IA: the original reads:
…the time of life is short!
To spend that shortness basely were too long
If life did ride upon a dial’s point,
Still ending at the arrival of an hour.

CM: Shakespeare is very aware of time. He’s very aware of how future ages will look back on this and what they’re weaving for posterity. I don’t think he thinks for a moment that we’re going to be performing his plays and studying him and that there will be people who will have busts of him in their libraries; I don’t think he imagines that! But I think he’s definitely thinking about how future ages will talk about them and what they did, so that they need to make decisions and exemplify things and behave in a way that other people will find inspiring in the future. Henry V himself in his St. Crispin’s day speech projects into the future and says: “Let’s do something now that people in the future will find inspiring, the way we do about the past.”

IA: Well, and Shakespeare's writing about a couple of centuries previously as well, so he is immortalizing that past.

CM: Absolutely. And the other thing is, in other parts of Shakespeare’s canon, in The Tempest, for instance, Gonzalo talks about what he would do with this island. He would enact the Golden Age. He would set things as they were imagined to have been in the past, in the Golden Age when things were like this and things were like this, before things got so Modern. Before they got so New and Modern and New-fangled. The amazing thing is that Shakespeare is an incredibly contemporary author. The language is different but the ideas, the insights! To some degree there are things about Shakespeare that people would find appalling [today]. The lack of relativistic thinking about certain things. The sense that there are absolutes. And I think that there are definitely characters who, most of the time, see there being absolute good and absolute bad in most things. And that’s frequently, now-a-days, thought of as being sort of a quaint concept. Although it’s starting to come back around.

IA: Do you see that?

CM: I do, I do. I mean, it’s always very dangerous, because the trouble with saying that there is absolute good and absolute bad is that immediately one goes to the erroneous assumption that one knows what those things are!

IA: In every detail, in every particular.

CM: Right. Yes. One might posit that there is an absolute good but the instant caveat you have to make is: “And I don’t know what it is, and neither do you, nor anybody else! So I’m not going to blindly follow anybody who claims to know it, and I’m not going to preach it, because I have to be humble.” It’s a life-long struggle to try to apprehend what that might be. But simply to have the faith that it’s there and to try to reach for it; that’s one thing. Too many people are too afraid of the whole Jim Jones or David Koresh: that charismatic leader who claims to have an answer and then people follow them unquestioningly down this dark hole. That’s the ugly face of absolutism.

IA: Or a crusading king, for that matter.

CM: Yeah, yeah. But at the same time, it’s very difficult for people to stay in relativism. For instance, the scientific method is based on an incredible discipline of suspension of judgment. It’s always about adding new evidence and keeping one’s mind open. But almost nobody really applies the scientific method. It is too hard. It is too exacting, it’s too difficult, to simply say: “This could be. This is what the evidence seems to point to, now.” People ultimately tend to slip back into absolutism. The trouble with absolutism is that it leads to horrible excesses. The trouble with relativism is that it leads to too many compromises. The trouble with science is that it’s too difficult for people to stay with it. The trouble with religion is, I think, ultimately, people want you to have faith in what they believe in. Shakespeare is balancing all of these things. He’s aware of them all. Science is beginning to be born. Religion is beginning to come out of the shadows. It’s no longer just Latin Scriptures that are repeated by priests who have some kind of absolute power. And philosophy is beginning to be rediscovered as a discipline on its own, apart from the teachings of the Church. All of the sciences, religion, are going through this rebirth and they’re tugging at each other. They’re fighting for dominance in men’s minds. And Shakespeare is trying to find balance. All these things are necessary. Inside of us there are all of these forces at work and we have to find the balance point. I think that he, to some degree, recognizes that this is the challenge of his age. I would contend that it’s the challenge of ours.

IA: That’s what I was going to ask next.

CM: It is the issue with us. We have more power and control over the immediate conditions of our external world, but no more, certainly, over the long-term conditions of our external world. We can foul up the environment to the degree in which we won’t be able to live on the planet any more. We can do that. We can poison the water and the air. We can pollute and irradiate the land. And we can make large sections of the earth uninhabitable for ourselves. But we probably can’t destroy all life on earth. We probably can’t. We could destroy ourselves. But…we shouldn’t! We can control the temperature of the air in a room, but we can’t control the temperature of the earth. We can probably make it hotter if we really foul things up. But we can’t control it. We can’t make it bend to our will. To some degree we’re going to have to make an accommodation with the world around us. This is the place we’ve been given. To some degree we’re going to have to accommodate ourselves to it. To another degree, we’re going to have to say, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t live in the Sahara desert, if I can’t take that degree of light and heat.” And we haven’t figured out how to do that. We still think that we can continue growing the population of Las Vegas indefinitely even though there’s no water there. There’s enough water there to sustain a couple hundred thousand people maybe indefinitely. You get up to a couple million and you’re going to run out. It’s just going to happen. I think that trying to find this balance is a big thing for us. I think that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be saying: “This is what is happening here and now. Here is where we stand. We’re moving in a direction: I don’t know exactly where in that group of hills we’re going to end up, but we’re heading in that direction.”

IA: And if he were living right now, he could still be writing history plays and using them to comment on the current moment. Were you doing that in your directing? Were you commenting on today? Do we have a change in our concept of time right now?

CM: It’s a good question. I don’t think it’s as jarring, as transformational, as, say, the invention of the clock. Or getting to the point where everyone had watches or a clock in their houses.

IA: Although relativity was pretty big. And I suppose our new technology has sped up our relationship to time.

CM: Well, that’s true, but relativity doesn’t change that way you live your life everyday.

IA: That’s true.

CM: There are things that change the way we fundamentally see our world. For instance, the idea of circumnavigating the globe. Or Copernicus, obviously, later backed up by Galileo and Kepler. These guys changed the way we view the world and our place in it. And later on Columbus and his voyage. That meant that man’s place in the universe was fundamentally different from what we thought it was. And that went hand-in-hand with certain technological changes that made everything very different. But the question is, what have we seen in the meantime that had that kind of impact?

IA: Do you think Darwin had that much impact?

CM: Darwin had a lot of impact. I don’t know.

IA: How about the internet?

CM: The jury’s out on that. The internet is an incredibly valuable tool. But the things is that there’s a qualitative difference between the invention of, say, a knife and a gun. When somebody invents a musket, it’s very primitive, but it changes everything. The difference between the musket and the M-16 machine gun is a quantitative difference.

IA: A difference of degree.

CM: Right. But it’s not a game-changer. Everything is based on marginal increases in the efficiency or the speed of that piece of technology. But it’s still doing ultimately the same thing and it’s still providing the same class of advantage—

IA: --killing at a distance.

CM: Yup. And with no skill. Relatively little skill. An English yeoman archer was an incredibly skilled person at killing from a distance. The thing is, they had to spend ten years shooting arrows every day. If you took a dozen English yeoman archers and put them up against a dozen crack troops from the Northern army in the Civil War, the archers would have mopped the floor with them. No contest. The rate of fire was almost three times. The accuracy was significantly better. Their ability to move while loading was significantly better. But the twelve guys in the Civil War uniform: they may have had a week’s training, whereas the other guys had had ten years. So you were able to field a massive amount of guys. In a sense, the gun allowed the industrialization of warfare. Soldiers were interchangeable parts at that point. So the invention of a machine is a huge qualitative difference. The invention of better and better machines is quantitative. So the internet is an extension of the telephone, of the telegraph,

IA: of the telegraph, or the semaphore.

CM: It’s better. You can get graphics. But you could get information quickly at a distance where and when you needed it with those other technologies. So it’s difficult to say. I think the thing about the internet, though, is that it potentially connects people who can do things that they couldn’t do before. Eventually if you end up with everybody having a handheld internet device, you get a situation where it’s impossible to have a media-controlled totalitarian state. We hope. It’ll be impossible to create states like North Korea in the future.

IA: Google in China notwithstanding.

CM: How long can they continue to hold back that flood? The Netherlands work because they’re only a little below sea level. If they were enough below sea level—

IA: --they’d be Atlantis.

CM: Yes. It’s impossible to hold back the flood eventually. Where is that tipping-point? When do we reach that? Are we in a fundamentally different age now, or are we just in a somewhat speeded-up era? Are we seeing the remnants of the Industrial Revolution. It’s an accumulation of things. So many ideas that accumulate. Just take the idea of monotheism arising from polytheism. And then you take the idea of the Incarnation. Or the idea that the godhead is present in individuals. That the individual is no longer someone who had to go and supplicate to Zeus: “Please don’t tread on me, O mighty Zeus!” This Creator-Figure is fundamentally different. [We say to God:] “I am an act of your creation and I am a participant in it. I have a responsibility to You—and You have a responsibility to me. We have a pact.” And that’s a fundamentally different idea. And that continues to develop. And then in that situation how long can you ultimately have an all-powerful Church based on the polytheistic Roman Empire and the all-powerful state? How long can Leviathan keep control of the Body of Christ? Ultimately, no! It still thinks it can. Even now you’ve got the Pope and the College of Cardinals thinking, “Well, it’s all very unpleasant, this whole sex-abuse scandal, but at the same time we can’t let this shake the very foundation of the Mother Church.” Completely out of touch! They don’t know what it is! They think that they church is them! They think that it’s the power structure and the Cardinals and that divinity flows down through them.

IA: Rather than the individual with a relationship with God?

CM: Yes. Or that ultimately they are servants of the poor, illiterate, uneducated, grandson of a laid-off steel worker whose parents never worked in their lives, in a rust-belt town in Western Pennsylvania. That is their boss. That is who they are answerable to. They don’t understand that. Hal would, in a way. “I have a responsibly towards this guy. If he doesn’t have the opportunity to do something with his life, I’m failing.”

IA: Well, then, what about the contemporary relevance for right now, this moment in history, for the theme of redemption, and for the king who is essentially saved through an act of grace but also becomes at least an instrument of redemption himself, if not even possible a savior-figure? How does that work for 2010? Why did you do this play now? How do you see that fitting in?

CM: I think it’s partly, with us, there’s only so many Shakespeare plays, and we just keep doing them.

IA: Great, because I’m trying to see all of them in my life; as long as I live long enough I can come here once a year and get it done!

CM: We’re trying to mix up genres, styles. We did a couple of comedies, a couple of tragedies. This is the first real history. We did Richard III: that’s kind of the classic tragic villain play.

IA: Well, and yet, I can tell with you you’ve got artistic integrity and you’re such a thinker, a scholar of history and a scholar of ideas. Yes, you’re just going to go through the plays, but I’m sure that when you approach each one you’re asking yourself all these questions.

CM: We’re looking for the things in each one that are revelatory of human nature. With Shakespeare, you kind of just throw a dart at a map and you’re going to hit something incredibly relevant. You just need to study; that’s going to show you a lot. One of the things that we wanted to do with this play was that we wanted to work on a play that wasn’t quite so deterministically plotted. That had these sort of three different plot threads altogether. We thought that would create interesting design ideas.

IA: So sort of a non-traditional plot structure.

CM: Yes. In choosing this play we were attracted to the form; it was different from what we were doing in the past. When I started to work on this I was still working on Hamlet (last year), and I was looking at fathers and sons, equating Hal to Hamlet in some ways; Laertes and Hotspur; and then you have the competing father figures in Hamlet. Architecturally there are a lot of the same features.

IA: And you really brought that out with the fascinating double-casting here [of King Henry IV and Sir John Falstaff; virtuoso dual performance by Peter Pryor!]. The most recent Hamlet I saw double-cast Claudius and the ghost.

CM: We did that too. We had an actor who could play both very well. And they’re brothers, they’re never in the same scene; it was easy to do. A neat kind of acting challenge, too. But I think that ultimately we’re looking at war. And looking at it in a different way. Looking at a nation that’s utterly exhausted. And the king starts out the play talking about how it’s utterly exhausted. They’re spent. He’s spent. And a society that’s being torn apart in two different directions and it’s trying to come together and reconcile, but the forces that are pulling it apart are constantly stretching it and tearing at it. That was something that resonated. We didn’t have to highlight these things at all. We didn’t have to say: “Look, we’re commenting on this. This is like now!” I think that people get those things. They’re going to draw their own conclusions and they’re going to be more meaningful to them. I would say that those were the fundamental spurs that got us interested in it. But it really happens at a more intuitive level. You just get excited about it. You don’t know exactly why. You can articulate a few reasons that seem to be consistent intellectually, but they’re really more of a justification after the fact. You do this now and you don’t know why, but there’s just something. Some voice in you that says, This is the One, and you know it’s right.