Friday, March 5, 2010

16 Minutes Of Musical Perfection

Knoxville: Summer Of 1915

This is the very recording I listened to several times a day and night during the last half of my senior year in high school. I don't remember how I stumbled across the piece or the recording, but no one, not even Dawn Upshaw, has been able to match it in exquisite tone, depth of feeling, and grace of intent and execution. This is the soundtrack for Act III of my life, coming this summer to a bean field near you.

Note: Unless the geniuses who uploaded the song have fixed it, they completely mangled the end of Part 1's transition into the strings' descent into Part 2, where it's almost as if the fiddles are the musical embodiment of falling leaves after a late Spring thunderstorm in Eastern Tennessee. Idiots. God is in the details, folks. Even on Youtube.

I can't really put into words what this music means to me, so I'll just let you listen and read along with the text if you want. I dare you to try to be unmoved by the end. Would that life were a movie, one we could write ourselves into.

Part 1
Part 2

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently, and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by: things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, paste-board, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber.

A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping: belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks: the iron whine rises on rising speed: still risen, faints: halts: the faint stinging bell: rises again, still fainter: fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten.

Now is the night one blue dew. Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose. Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes . . . Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glones hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine . . . with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening. among the sounds of the night.

May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

-James Agee, from A Death In The Family


switters said...

Where'd everybody go?

Anyways, Sam's music was horribly misunderstood for its time. And today is his 100th birthday. This music means the world to me.

Oh. And I closed on the Piqua property yesterday. I think it's mine now. That's what my brother tells me. Probably head up there Easter weekend to have a look and "walk the property" with Al and Jess.


"...will not ever tell me who I am." Or something.

I'm off to Glee.

tia said...

I believe it is time to crank the Pretenders and sell your shit and get yourself home. Congratulations!

Keifus said...

Still here. It's just that 16 minutes of undivided concentration that the piece needs is hard to come by via the computer. (Plus a few more to get downloaded and buffered--whatever that is--so that it doesn't stop constantly. I mostly skip on the videos.) I wasn't familiar with any of the artists.

Beautiful though. Haunting, a cherished present that catches a glimpse of the fading future, which feels like the right vehicle for nostalgia, living, to steal a phrase, the happy ending in advance. How come all the near-mystical confusion of childhood felt more real than anything else ever has?

Congrats on the closing. Take some more pictures when you get up there.

switters said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
switters said...

Tia, I can't listen to "Back To Ohio" because it's Rush Limbaugh's theme song still. Did I mention that Al is, and has been for quite some time, a "ditto head"? We've come to blows.

I think about you guys every day. I hope you're holding up alright. And I'm truly delighted that you're still writing.

Keif, Agee's prose is so musical in and of itself that it would seem sacrilege to set it to music -- unless you're Samuel Barber. I think Barber's dad was dying when he started it. It's officially dedicated to his memory, I know that. I still don't understand why Knoxville didn't score him yet another Pulitzer.

Though it doesn't sound like it, it's enormously complicated music. His genius was in making it not sound so, and was largely criticized for writing music that was too pretty, and thus, insubstantial, by the likes of Elliot Carter, Virgil Thompson, et al. I.e., pinheaded "fire-in-a-pet-store" composers. Don't get me started.

I only recently came to understand the piece. The music is a near perfect mirror held up to Agee's nostalgic elegy, both child and adult in one. Price owns it. Dawn Upshaw has a first rate version of it (we went to school together for a short time), but this version is... well, for lack of a better word, profound.

Wow. Only took me 24 years finally to understand what both Barber and Agee were talking about. Yes, childhood, I think, is the most real of our lives because it's when we're just aware of ourselves enough, but not to much, to allow our selfs to comport themselves to the unfolding of being.

"After a little, I am taken in, and put to bed. Sleep, soft, smiling, draws me unto her, and those receive me who quietly treat me and one familiar and much beloved in that home."

Unbelievably moving and subtle.

Schmutzie said...

I had it playing as background music while tooling around the office today. Lovely. Too pre-occupied to actually sit and listen the way I should. I'm sure I'll give it another listen tomorrow.

Didn't "go" anywhere bud. Sometimes I just pop in, read, and think good thoughts pointed in your direction. Like...""

BTW- tomatoes are in short supply in these parts, which is causing me pizza angst.

Great news on the closing.

switters said...

Smutty, m'boy!

Jess and Al have already threatened to store their tools (and by "their tools" they mean "Grampa Kading's ingenious inventions" [he made a table saw out of sewing machine parts]) in that very garage.

The closing agent had to tase me twice to get the cashier's check out of my grip.

Easter, then. I hope.

You might listen with attention to Knoxville, and you may think of your dad, and your mom, and you may cry a bit. Barber's and Agee's and Price's... gift to us, I suppose. Life shouldn't be so complicated.

bright said...

Yay! And thanks for the links to those 16 minutes.

switters said...

bright, are my tickets at the door or at "will call"?

bright said...

Will Call, under the name L. Westminster Purcell.

Schmutzie said...

2nd listening....

All my people are larger bodies than mine . . . with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.

>The change in the mood of the music here is startling, almost,...I don't know what word I'm groping for, just a surprising change in tempo and tenor and feel.<

By some chance, here they are, all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening. among the sounds of the night.

May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away.

Absolutely lovely. I didn't quite cry, but you could remove those quilts and replace them with 8 chairs circling a huge picnic table and, well, I know that setting. My Aunts and Uncles, and my mother who is good to me, one is my father who is good to me, talking about nothing in particular. And there I was, paying very close attention to them talking about nothing in particular.

And nobody could have told me of the sorrows of being on this earth, around a picnic table, listening to them talk about nothing in particular, among the sounds of the night.

(Leontyne Price. Dear God what a voice.)

誇張 said...


switters said...

Yeah. And the fact that they're lying on quilts, on the grass, but they're in a summer evening I think suggests, along with "in that home", that James, as much as he wants to be there in that moment, never can be ever again, and that he regrets not realizing it at the time. Yet again the Stage Manager of Our Town rears his profound head. I wonder what our Irish comrade would think of Agee's prose. I'm almost afraid to ask.

Schmutzie said...

"...and that he regrets not realizing it at the time."

There is a scene at the end of the movie "BIG" where Susan/Elizabeth Perkins takes Josh/Hanks back to the Boardwalk so he can wish himself back to being a 12 year old kid again, and he asks her if she wants to come with him. She says something about how it was too painful the first time, and that she wouldn't want to go through it all again.

Probably true for most of us, and we recall the "safety" of back when we were kids, and tend to forget the frightening times. I don't know if I would or I wouldn't, given the chance. But if I could "know then what I know now" I likely would, and I'd sure as shit savor those summer nights more then, I do now.

Cindy said...

Wishing you a wonderful walkabout on Easter.

I often wonder if we have simply lost our ability to listen to Samuel Barber any more. I mean, what optimists those "modern" composers were ... Barber, Ives, Britten ... to imagine that people would sit and ponder and listen and think.

For longer than 2 minutes.

rundeep said...

Congratulations! This is so perfect for you -- the music, the farm, the family. I can't even think of a Ben Folds' tune to top it. (Mr. Barber should be known for more than his "Adagio" for sure. )

twif said...

i, alas, have not yet had time to listen. a shame, for musical perfection is thing to be cherished.

i'll get to it. eventually.

aside: hey rundeep, long time no see.

switters said...

Cindy, I suspect Barber not-so-secretly looked down upon his so-called critics for being, not unironically, backward thinking, ultimately. It seems the passage of time has proved him all too correct.

rundeep, m'lady, I've always considered Knoxville a true masterpiece and, frankly, Sam's greatest achievement, and one of the greatest moments in 20th century music history. Adagio is very fine and all, but no one seems to recall that it was the slow movement of his string quartet. Oh well.

twif, take you time, it's worth it. No extraneous notes, no frivolous orchestration, and the most beautiful voice in all of music ever. So, yeah, not much to live up to, I guess.

rundeep said...

You know I'd love Barber cause of the Curtis connection. Twif, nice to see you too! How's the munchkin?

twif said...

@switters: audio streaming is, i think, still blocked at work. some dumbasses in omaha got caught watching hulu in the office (it clogged up the whole network) and so they blocked streaming audio & video. gots to find time at home.

@rundeep: growing like a weed and turning into a chatterbox.

recent pics @ my site, if you haven't peeked in awhile.

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