Saturday, April 23, 2011

Shakespeare's birthday

The last time I (almost) wept in public was in Ashland, Oregon. Until recently my father and I have made an annual summer pilgrimage down to the Shakespeare festival in southern Oregon. We've seen many great performances there, and a few years back we saw "All's Well That Ends Well," one of Shakespeare's so-called 'problem plays.' The problem is painfully obvious: Why would the heroine go to such extremes to win back a man who is such a complete and absolute jerk? I had seen this play several times before, and had never been convinced. But the director of this performance was brilliant, and brought it all together at the end with a masterstroke.

At the close of the play, the servant showed a silent 8 mm home movie, a nostalgic flash-forward of the characters' future lives. Man and (very pregnant) wife, couple with baby, woman with toddler, man with young child, pre-teen writing in a notebook. While the audience watched the film, the servant read a sonnet.

Sonnet 17

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill'd with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers graces,
The age to come would say 'This poet lies:
Such heavenly touches ne'er touch'd earthly faces.'
So should my papers yellow'd with their age
Be scorn'd like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term'd a poet's rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice; in it and in my rhyme.

After some discussion with the cameraman, the boy walks up to the camera and shows it (and us) what he has written in it: All's Well That Ends Well. Not a dry eye in the house.

On our way down to Ashland my father and I had stopped in Eugene to visit with a former colleague of mine who was, like the heroine of the play, very pregnant with her first child. This was right after an economic slump decimated our department. Stressful times, but we were weathering the storm well and it looked like maybe everything was going to be okay. My colleague and her husband were about to start on a journey that my wife and I were getting close to completing. My wife had given me two wonderful sons, we raised them, and they were turning out to be great human beings. If I told anyone how much I love my wife, no one would believe me (including her, I'm afraid). But just look at what we made, she and I!

For Shakespeare's birthday we toasted the bard with sack and reminisced about the best performances we've seen and our favorite plays. I read my favorite sonnet, Sonnet 17. And it felt for a moment that maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be all right.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

More Good Nostalgia

For me, "spring cleaning" means, for the most part, moving boxes of books and CDs back and forth. The weather here hasn't been very spring like, but I didn't let that stop me. While moving boxes back and forth, I came across my copy of Kirstin Pauka's "Theater and Martial Arts in West Sumatra". To tell traditional Minangkabau tales, randai weaves together songs, dance, acting, martial arts and, of course, music and song. In her book, Dr. Pauka discusses types of music used in randai, the martial arts- based popular folk theatre tradition the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra、Indonesia. Good nostalgia.

I once promised Dr. Pauka coffee for life. In 2000 I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Pauka on an English-language production of randai. The experience was such a great one that I dutifully and happily bought her coffee whenever possible from 2000 until we left Hawaii in 2003. In preparation for the production a large ensemble of dancers and musicians from the University of Hawaii studied with two master teachers of randai, Musra Dahrizal and Hasanawi. Randai, which grew out of the circular martial arts training, is performed in a circle which frames the acting area. Between scenes, the dancers move in unison through the circular dance sequences while two singers and a flute player accompany them with songs based on Minangkabau folk-singing tradition. Between the verses of each song the dancers perform circular dances that feature martial arts movements, exciting rhythmic clapping and some amazing and rather unique pants-slapping percussion called 'tapuak'. All dancers wear special pants during performances, kind of like skirts that have been sewn together. By slapping these special pants while they dance, they produce great drumlike sounds in percussive patterns.

During the seven-month preparations for the 2000 randai production I became enthralled by the music of randai. I studied intensively the instrumental music, which included gongs, drums, recorders, singing, 'pants percussion', the rabab (a two- and four-stringed spike fiddle), and (my favorite) the flute that accompanies the singers, a large bamboo flute called the saluang. I approached the visiting performers and asked them if, one evening after rehearsals, we could have an impromptu recording session. I was at first concerned about imposing on them, but found that the Minangkabau enjoy nothing better than staying up drinking black coffee with a ton of sugar, chain-smoking clove cigarettes and singing until the wee hours of the morning.

I now live several thousand miles away from Hawaii and Dr. Pauka. This is fortunate in that fulfilling my promise of buying her 'coffee for life' may well have bankrupted me. Still, I miss the performance opportunuities offered at the UH. I will remain forever grateful to her for that experience.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)

The greatness of Irish literature predates James Joyce by some eight hundred years at least. About five years ago I read Kinsela's translation of the Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the great Irish epic of the twelfth century, and was not immediately convinced. I enjoyed the story, but was often by confused. Kinsela follows the odd mixed-bag style of the original, which I respect and even prefer, but I found myself marking up my paperback copy to make the odd line breaks an easier read. Also, the Tain, like the Iliad, starts in mid-story and ends unresolved, so the actions of many of the characters (notably Fergus) made no sense as far as I could tell.

More recently, however, I read the twelve or so remscela, the foretales, stories that prepare the reader for the action of The Tain itself (Kinsela included some, but not all). I then read several of the modern Deirdre plays (by Yeats, Synge and Wood) and a more recent (and more streamlined) translation of the Tain. Finally, I'm reading other works from the Ulster Cycle that tell, among other things, how the main characters eventually die. I'm hooked!

The Ulster Cycle is truly great literature that deserves to be more widely read. It's not clear to me why the tales themselves are not more completely and coherently presented in print or audio format. Morgan Llewelyn's 'Red Branch' is a good overall presentation of the entire story, but it is a novelization (though admittedly well-written). Rather than wait, I searched Mary Jones's truly excellent Celtic Encyclopedia. Some of the translations are a bit dated, but all are good reads. Highly recommended!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nakamura Akikazu - Shakuhachi

This CD is part of Nakamura's excellent series `The World of Zen Music'. As of today there are five CDs in the series: `Koku', `Reibo', `Sanya', `Daibosatsu' and `Nezasa Ha Kinpu Ryu'. These CDs present the shakuhachi repertoire of different parts of Japan (Kyoto, Tohoku, Hokuriku, Kyushu, and Tsugaru, respectively). The CD `Sanya' was awarded the distinguished Prize for Excellence by the Japanese Government Agency for Cultural Affairs, and each CD in this important series is a treasure.

Anyone who has traveled extensively in Japan has experienced the diversity of the food, the landscape and local flavor in this (relatively) small country. Through his travels, his research and his incredible playing technique, Nakamura has been able to share the remarkable variety in its traditional music for bamboo flute.