or, a doomsday collection

A Painting

This is a fairly early work by Velázquez, the prince of painters. It’s a companion to Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan with which it may share a model or two. That painting depicts a truth revealed—Apollo is telling Vulcan he’s seen Vulcan’s wife, Venus, and Ares making love. This one shows a lie—Joseph’s brothers have smeared goat’s blood on his tunic to make their father think he’s dead. (Apparently the dog isn’t fooled.) I’ve always loved the idea of a painting of a lie. Besides conjuring up real, living people in a way no other painter equals, Velázquez tosses in a conceptual witticism. The truth-teller is a mythological figure; the liars are biblical, and no one would ever say the Word of God wasn’t the truth. Of course, both paintings are also just paintings. They were done in Rome in 1630 at the suggestion of Peter Paul Rubens.

A Movie

As soon as I saw La Vie Revée des Anges I became a fanatical admirer of Erick Zonca. I’d shake my head or gawk in showy disbelief, if someone calmly praised it as just a superb “slice of life” movie. I suspected Zonca might be a specialist in young women’s inner lives and longing—because, really, how could understanding so deep be any broader? Then I saw Le Petit Voleur. In an hour (a peculiar, satisfying length for a movie) he gets at the experience of young men like an entomologist fixing a beetle with a pin. "Risk" or "A Lesson in Humility" sound like the subjects for a woeful and godawful after school special (as they used to be called). Zonca makes the material resound like Mahler. He has a gift for intensely realistic abruptness—you’re startled as if by a car crash interrupting a long day’s nameless anxiety. The picture above shows the title character at the very end of the movie. He’s about to make the little slashes in bread dough that keep the baguette looking tidy while it bakes, an overwhelming gesture in context.

An Epic

If a "doomsday collection" is a cousin of the old BBC radio show "Desert Island Discs" (and I guess it is), then the Iliad is a show-off-y pick, besides being an easy one. After all, who wouldn't want the Iliad saved? I like it not only because it's an awesome classic, though I like that about it, too. Awesome classics all look the same from the outside, but when you get past the uniform unapproachability, they're often likably particular, even odd. The Iliad is about a fit of pique. A child psychologist would say Achilles folds his arms and goes on strike. I love the notion that a key to our culture is a story set in motion by a refusal to act. Personally, it's so recognizable.

A Piece of Music

Tashi is a five-movement chamber work written in 1975 for the “Messiaen-ic” ensemble “Tashi” (pianist Peter Serkin, violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry, and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman). Charles Wuorinen was a dues-paying member of the rebarbative twelve-tone school at the time, a Morningside Heights New Yorker, a decidedly academic composer. Yet Tashi is one of the most thrilling pieces of music I know. It has the aggressive energy of a Reger Cello sonata, but its synthesis of passion and intellect is unlike the work of any composer but Brahms. In a musical idiom cranky enough to make Elliott Carter smile, Wuorinen somehow produced a late late romantic masterpiece. The intense music doesn’t snootily require attention so much as it forces an exalted alertness on you. The experience is genuinely exciting. For a moment after the quirky last toot, all other music seems either too simplistic or too effortful.

Selected Works

Together with a Reader's Guide
PDC, 2003

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