I. “Dragonfly Delight” – In Memoriam H.B.
“H.B.” is Harold Brodkey, a very good writer whom I did not know personally. Brodkey contracted AIDS, and as his illness progressed, he wrote an article entitled “Dying: An Update” which appeared in the February 1994 issue of the New Yorker magazine. I felt a powerful resonance with the following excerpt:
“But, you see, a traumatized child as I was once, long ago, and who recovers, as I did, has a wall between him and pain and despair, between himself and grief, between himself and beshitting himself. That is the measure for me – handling the whole weight of my life in relation to polite bowels. The rest is madness, rage, humiliation.”
The dragonfly is one I saw on a walk at Blue Mountain [near Missoula, Montana]. It was a brief encounter as this elegant and beautiful little creature hovered at grass level near my feet, and then was gone. I offer this delicate and moving music as a moment of delight and consolation for a troubled soul.
“‘Enigma’” grows out of the Bach chorale melody Herr Gott, dich loben wir (Lord God, We Praise You). I have been studying the Bach chorales for many years, and have found them to be amazing touchstones for my own musical invention. The title Lord God, We Praise You set me to thinking about the nature of the universe, and beyond that, the nature of God – and I quickly came to the conclusion that I have barely a clue about either. The music begins quietly, but rises dramatically to a full-throated and awestruck shout of praise.
III. “What’s Up?”
“‘What’s Up?’” is also based on a chorale melody (Wie bist do, Seele, in mir so gar betrübt?). The German title translates roughly as “How are you my soul?” I have reduced this to “what’s up?”, as in “what’s up, Doc?” The music is brash, powerful, and edgy, until the piano concludes with a quiet statement of the chorale. Somethingis up!
IV. “Howl” – A Vision of St. Francis
I had a dream of St. Francis. Initially I was in the presence of a burning hot – thousands of degrees hot – metal object which was shaped something like a bowling pin. In my dream I was required to touch this object, but I had no idea of how to do it without getting seriously burned. It suddenly occurred to me that it was possible to do this. I reached out confidently and placed both hands on the metal object, which turned immediately into a small statue of St. Francis, made of reeds, and dressed as a Chinese peasant. (!) Out of this dream encounter has grown a strange but densely powerful music, related in its intensity and mystery to the praise music of the second movement. I say “howl” because it raises the hair on the back of my neck, and I can feel the howl rising in my throat.
V. Groucho’s Dance
Full title: “Groucho Marx Dances the Charleston on Adolf Hitler’s Grave.” Yes.
I have summarized the following story from Sarah Lawrence Magazine, Summer 2002. The article, entitled “What’s So Funny? The Nature of Comedy”, was written by Gurney Williams III, Elisa DeCarlo, and Celia Regan.
In 1958 on a tour of Europe, Groucho Marx visited the town in Germany where his mother had been born. He discovered that the Nazis had obliterated all Jewish graves and all record of inhabitants from his parents’ time. Marx hired a car and told the driver to take him to Adolf Hitler’s grave in Berlin. They made their way to the bunker where Hitler was said to have committed suicide, and where he was supposedly still buried. The rubble at the site was about twenty feet high. Wearing his characteristic beret, Marx climbed the debris. When he reached the top he stood still for a moment. Then he launched himself, unsmiling, into a frenetic Charleston. The dance on Hitler’s grave lasted a minute or two. Nobody applauded, nobody laughed.
When I read this story, I was electrified. To me, this single gesture is a defining moment in the twentieth century, and in what it means to be truly human. The single person, in the face of the tyrant and the war machine, can say, ”I am alive; I am free; you nave not killed me; you have not killed my people; I dance on your grave.” My music is a free-wheeling romp. It is fast and energetic, with a bit of a biting and sarcastic edge.
Program note by David Maslanka