Thursday, June 20, 2013

On Henry Brant's Music Stand and Summer Diversions

Portrait of Henry Brant, from his home, Santa Barbara

In the spring of 2004, I drove to Santa Barbara every week with a tape-recorder to interview Henry Brant (b. 1913, d. 2008), one of the most original “mavericks” of American concert music.  Henry had just won the Pulitzer Prize for his monumental orchestral composition, Ice Field, premiered in 2001 in San Francisco with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and Other Minds Festival (with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting). 

The Ice Field, for 100 musicians dispersed throughout the concert hall, from the stage to the top balconies, was inspired, like so many Brant’s pieces, by an apocalyptic, violent environmental event, the breaking of the ice field. He also wrote music about hurricanes, meteor showers, waterfalls, sun spots, and the destruction of rainforest.

The Ice Field is made of clashing layers and eruptions of sound from many directions. In the words of the composer,  the piece features: “extreme high register outbursts, extreme low register volcanic suggestions, melismas both sustained and jagged, spatial textures of polyphonically dense complication, and sections of unmistakably jazz character presented in harmonically strident contexts…” I spent a fair number of years studying Brant’s unique spatial music among other approaches to connecting music and space.  

Brant loved the music of Charles Ives (1974-1954), a pioneer life-insurance-salesman-turned-composer (or vice versa) whose “Unanswered Question” (1906) is a 20th century classic, and “The Fourth of July” should be in every American home. Is it? I was amazed after moving here that my American students have never heard of Ives. Who heard of Brant in his centennial year?  I learned about Ives and Brant in Poland.  

My home country’s Parliament declared 2013 to be the year of composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994), and his centenary was celebrated around the world, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Alas, the U.S. Congress did not declare 2013 the Henry Brant Year.

Kathy Wilkowski and Joel Hunt. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
Kathy Wilkowski and Joel Hunt with Brant's materials. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
My book of interviews will be among very few commemorations of Brant’s unique and visionary talent. Emerging Brant scholar, music theorist and saxophone player Joel Hunt will transcribe them.  The details of life and music will be thoroughly reviewed by Kathy Wilkowski, the composer's dedicated widow, who finally finished cataloging his works before shipping the manuscripts and documents off to the Sacher Stiftung in Basel... Yes, a book will definitely be lots of fun.

I have not written any poems about Brant yet, though the old music stand with Brant’s German inscription is begging for some verse (a gift from his widow, Kathy Wilkowski).  Let me try...
Maja Trochimczyk with Kathy Wilkowski and
 the Music  Stand. Photo by Joel Hunt.

The Music Stand

~ for Henry Brant, in memoriam and for Kathy Wilkowski

(c) 2013 by Maja Trochimczyk

Three ornate cast-iron legs
Dark, polished wood inscribed in German
Luften! Nicht Schleppen!

The faint red ink of the composer's warning 
Fades away, erased by death, melting into 
Timelessness - Lift! Do not Drag!

It stands in the corner, beneath a portrait 
Of a lady in an intricate golden frame. How do they
Bear surviving? Oh, the mindless cruelty of things!

Lift your eyes, child, when you speak to me.
Don't drag your feet. You'll wear out your shoes 
And who's going to pay for them to be fixed?

Do not drag me into this sorry affair
You are too good for that! Sing, sing, 
Sing along! Lift your spirit up to heaven!

Who knows what the music stand has heard? 
Who gave a German name to this antique wood?
Lifted before and after the rehearsals

In the most unlikely places - the top balcony, 
On the stage, between the aisles, under 
The maple tree in the courtyard

On the roof, by the pond - music transcends 
Space, weaving distant streams into a tapestry
Of sound and whimsy, crashing icebergs

Fountains and volcanoes. Here, four boats 
Of flutists float along the river Amstel, 
Under the din of Amsterdam's carillons 

There, a South-Indian trio, with a jazz band 
Gamelan, and Caribean steel drums. Don't forget 
A hundred trombones orbiting in a circle

A hundred guitars strumming an elegy 
For the rosewood trees killed to make them
They died in the rain-forest that will not grow back

Luften! Nicht Schleppen! Look up to the sky
Catch your vermilion days in a lucid net 
of notes, words - found, scribbled, counted

Lift! Do not Drag! Keep your spirits high
with the Angels and Devils, Verticals Ascending
Instant Music and Unanswered Dreams

Mojave Valley Yucca, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
Mojave Valley Yucca, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk


Not to get overwhelmed with existential and environmental drama, I wrote a rhapsody on the flavors of summer.  The flavors of past summers in Poland, mixed in with intense, fragrant summers of Southern California. 

Mojave Valley Yucca, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
Mojave Valley Yucca. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
The Flavors of Summer

(c) 2013 by Maja Trochimczyk

Pink clouds of raspberry sorbet float in
A large bowl of cherry soda at the museum.
“The signature recipe of my Grandma”
She offers, “the taste of my childhood.”
Not my flavor, not my taste.

The cold sweetness fizzles on my tongue
In the idyllic country of Ramona, the siren
Of almond blossoms and winter sunshine,
The tragic heroine from pages of an old romance,
And a tourist attraction, rolled in one.

Foreign story, distant times.  I long for
Hand-picked cherries bursting with delight
While my bare legs dangled from the tree branch.
I dream of my mom’s famous zupa nic, soup nothing –
Egg-white clouds frozen in a yellow yolk sky.

I see scarlet droplets scattered in a forest clearing
Wild strawberries hiding under fern fronds
Discovered in a burst of sunlight, bittersweet
Treasure preserved in small jars of confiture –
A teaspoon for each dark night of winter.

Bittersweet grapefruit ripens on my tree
Pink juice wells up under sunny yellow skin.
Birds got to the apricots before I did, leaving
A memorial of round holes in soft orange fuzz.
I find comfort in the scent of lavender and rosemary.

The dangerous whir of hornets (run if you hear one)
Morphed into a low din of bejeweled hummingbirds
Bombing each other away from the sugar water
In a ruby feeder, among flowercups of mandevilla
And white star jasmine climbing the roof of my patio.

I let the grass grow tall in my backyard this July
To remember the orchard of my aunt, the juice
Of cherries and pears on my chin, angry circles
Of yellow-jackets that sting and sting again
Unlike noble honeybees, dying with honor.

My neighbors of immaculate lawns and pristine
Driveways look at the Slavic jungle with disdain
And a warning: “Beware of snakes. Rattlers are hiding
In your grass. They are thirsty. They come from the desert. 
Watch out for the snakes of California summer.”


Mandevilla in a garden, Maja Trochimczyk 

As the readers may have noticed, the inspiration  for this poem came from attending a Ramona lecture by Dydia Delyser at the Bolton Hall Museum… Who heard of Ramona? A fictional heroine of a 19th century novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, an activist, Indian Affairs inspector (who in vain bombarded the Congress with documents and reports about abuse and injustices inflicted upon Native Americans).  Mrs. Jackson decided to fictionalize the many grim and tragic events from the history of Mission Indians that she described in her somber reports and books. 

Estudillo Museum or Ramona's Marriage Place
Escodillo Museum, Ramona's Marriage Place in Old Town San Diego.
The end result, a tragic love story in a novel "Ramona," became an unofficial guide to Southern California for visitors by train and the automobile, and a myth. Charles Fletcher Lummis, D. W. Griffith, and other luminaries became fascinated by the story, that became the subject of three movies. The book itself had more than 300 editions and spawned a tourist industry, with Ramona-themed locations and attractions in Ventura, San Diego, and other counties.  In addition to the various places and companies named after Ramona, her story has survived the past 80 years in the town of Hemet that has held the annual Ramona Pageant in late April. 

I visited San Diego and stopped by the Casa de Estudillo in the Old Town Historic Park. The U-shaped house is filled with artefact from Californio life - the Spanish-themed house includes a small tribute to Ramona, the novel that saved the building, known as "Ramona's Marriage Place" to the book's readers and lovers.

Casa de Estudillo, Old Town San Diego, by Maja Trochimczyk

Ramona at Casa de Estudillo, Old Town San Diego, by Maja Trochimczyk

Porch in Case de Estudillo, Old Town San Diego, by Maja Trochimczyk

Mojave Valley Yucca in Big Tujunga Wash, (c) Maja Trochimczyk


Photos by Maja Trochimczyk, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

On Irony and Love Songs with Grapefruit and Pomegranate

Doves and grapefruit by Maja Trochimczyk

Some people… wrap themselves in a thick blanket of irony of sarcasm and greet every expression of sentiment or affection with a sneer. We’ve all seen our share of these tough guys and gals, who curse or ridicule every expression of what really matters. “How banal, how boring!” they say, when they hear a sweet love poem, like the one below (first published in the Emerging Urban Poets 2010 Calendar). I remember, I was like that, too, deeply wounded and hiding my pain under a mask of worldly indifference. There was no hope, no future, only the reward for work done in the present. All love declarations I heard were a gigantic lie. The Universe was wrong, all around me. We lived in Hell. Or so I thought.  In my new life vision the Hell part has been upgraded to the level of Purgatory, the place of atonement, relentless testing, endless life exams. Yet, there is hope, there is love, and there are glimpses of Heaven.

The concept of “irony” (from the Greek term εἰρωνεία eirōneía, “pretended ignorance”) is a great invention of romantic heroes, starting from Lord Byron, who protected their vulnerability with an armor of disaffection, finding themselves alienated from the whole world. It still is a useful literary device, but why is it wrong to be ironic in life? To spend your life so well armored, that no real emotion may pierce it? That’s exactly why. This separation from others, this distance, alienation, is the plunge of the soul into the emptiness of a spiritual void. Ugly things become possible: indifference, cruelty, unwillingness to help others, to care for anyone at all, but your own career goals or physical comfort. 

Grapefruit tree by Maja Trochimczyk

I was going to say I “hate” irony but that’s not true, I do not hate anything, nor anyone. I have pity instead. I consciously cultivate in myself an ability to be filled with love and compassion for everyone. (Do I fail in that? Of course, but it is not giving up that matters…) The moral choice of refusing to be ironic, in life or art, may have unpleasant consequences. Some “real” poets would think me silly, and my love poetry sappy and trite, as I happily write a next sweet line while listening to the rich mezzosoprano of Patsy Cline or Ella Fitzgerald, warm as liquid honey: “I’ll be loving you… always… with the love that’s true… always….” 

These words were once addressed to a real person, just as my encounter in the garden really happened… but I don’t think we need to know such details, to feel refreshed and nourished by love.

The bitter-sweet pink grapefruit and the baby pomegranates from my garden are a perfect illustration of our topic for today.

Pomegranate in May by Maja Trochimczyk

A Portrait in Brackets

               “… you promise eternity almost, from the embrace.”
                     Reiner Maria Rilke, The Second Elegy, Duino Elegies

I love every hair on your head
every wrinkle, the round scar
in the middle of your forehead
like Cain’s mark – you are
the chosen one, the untouchable

The little freckles on your nose
shine – endearing, childlike
It was supposed to be
summertime when they came
Here’s summer all the time, already

My love stirs for your full, half-open lips
waiting for my kisses, as I caress
the sharp contours of your cheeks –
I hold them in my cupped hands
looking straight into your eyes

There is no world
only us and the birdsong
at noon in my garden

I love the quiet confidence
of your fingers, skillful hands
like my father’s – solid, able
to fix things, take care of me

I touch your skin, tracing a line
down the nose, soft lips, and chin
I brush against the prickles
of your goatee, before reaching
a sweet spot on your neck

Below your shoulders, under
the smoothness of hard muscles
the bell of your heart welcomes me
The blood sings in your veins, love
surges towards me – I do I do I do

I rest my head on your chest
and listen to your heart
that beats and beats and never
stops playing the music 

© 2009 by Maja Trochimczyk. Published in 2010 Calendar, Emerging Urban Poets, Pasadena.

Stages in Life of a Pomegranate by Maja Trochimczyk

A Lesson for My Daughter

After a ruby-colored glass of Merlot
I told my daughter the secret of the Universe.
I solved it at noon, by the river

Questions, as I thought, do not matter
The right answers to life are “Yes”
And “I Love You”

If you build a circle of “Yes” all around
Affirming who you really are
You will be safe

If you say “I Love You” to everyone
near you –  very quietly, so they can’t hear
but you know

You will walk in a sphere of gladness
That no insult or curse
May pierce

You will find yourself hidden deeply
Where love blossoms, laughter bubbles
And joy overflows

© 2006 by Maja Trochimczyk 


This article and two poems are published in the June issue of The Voice of the Village.

Photos from my garden - grapefruit and pomegranate.