Cross paths with some sounds and you might risk being abducted. How did it come about and just who’s the force behind this business? Brushing away the dust clinging to Oskar Fried, a dead conductor, exposes his sounds through technology and drags him right back here from sleeping in the shellac grooves.
Every glimpse of him brought unexpected associations, one reaction after another, either extreme loathing or profound admiration, nothing half-way. Fried rascally covered all traces, leaving only a sound trail behind, shrouding his outside activities in mystery, one we shall attempt to untangle, on the installment plan, starting now.
We open the scene onto a suite from Stravinsky’s Firebird:
Beyond belief how he began conducting with the Berlin Philharmonic around 1905, for he never led an orchestra before them. He confessed to a Berlin critic that the only work after desultory years as a dissipated Berliner playing the role of a Paris bohemian was some horn parts here and there, then training dogs and circus animals, probably the best steps towards becoming a conductor.
Landing into an avant-garde Berlin, some powers controlling recordings had Fried bring the whole Philharmonic into a hall and capture the Firebird in 1928.
A malevolent dance sears with sulphuric stench and heat, shifting our sensibilities onto a daemonic plane. Old records are noisy so any Sissies out there should cover their ears or leave. Time makes noise but these sounds will nourish your soul:
The ballet was a recent arrival, still jolting to most pampered 19th century ears at large, something that could amuse Fried, who later teased audiences by juxtaposing works that never belong together, breaking the rules and succeeding.
His life started in 1871, a good ten years before Stravinsky’s. While saying that he had to quit school at a very early age to work, I spotted references to him by the poet Rilke, who became the older boy’s friend and confidante at their exclusive boarding school.
Fried summons cosmic visions of vast boundaries veering into a dream state, a transcendent mind leaping from the frenetic into the slow breathing of a new outer and inner space:
This same Fried also wielded an iron grip on profound Germanic masterpieces. Soon after the Firebird was cut, he was asked to take on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is still to be found (but not vivid like this new restoration for the blog). He crawls into Beethoven’s skin and out it comes in his knowing perspective, tempered by a Berliner’s sarcastic wit heard in the articulation, this crucial moment in Beethoven with Fried guiding tension through a restrained intensity leading into grandeur:
I couldn’t keep my hands off these studio recordings and discovered that some performances captured on stage survived, so they had to be published. A new work is in progress and we’ll follow its destiny as the music he personally identified with more than any other work. Our next blog will observe his interactions with Mahler, man and music, and probe his character and exploits. Here Fried is seen with his one and only confidant:
Before planning to meet Rezzori, I contacted Beatrice Muzi, an artist living in Le Marche whom I had encountered two years previously and once visited at home a year later, coughing and wheezing from the cats abounding in her family’s farmhouse. Memoirs of an Anti-Semite had been translated into Italian and I surprised her with a copy, asking if, perhaps time permitting, she could join me and meet this enigmatic writer. Looking on the map, there was a direct road from Fano to Pontassieve, not far from his home outside of Firenze. Nothing could be shorter and would avoid schlepping up to Bologna and then facing grim tunnels burrowing into Toscana.
The road past Fano soon had an upward incline and our arrival at 4 p.m. might be delayed. Night fell and the road became a serpentine slew of hairpins. Every hour or so we would happen upon a lone dimly lit bar or cafe, calling Rezzori to tell him we’re almost there. By ten in the evening, we struck Pontassieve and followed the local routes he prescribed. From hours of vertiginous turning we now faced an unlit track road hidden in woods with steep inclines and unexpected wrecks of tiny farmers’ sheds and an abandoned house. After a period of doubt and sensing that we had stumbled onto topography that influenced Dante ‘s Inferno, a rural facade appeared in the darkness with a shadowy figure.
We stopped to ask directions. At an open door we saw a tall slender man leaning against the archway in a slihouette caused by the yellow light from inside. FInally we can ask someone for information, we thought, so we stopped the car. The man was surrounded by the infernal asthmatic yapping from what we later learned were a half-dozen pugs and like a master devil, he turned on the side and looked down to tell them “Quiet!”
Smiling to us, he announced that we had arrived. “Come, come, so there you are! You shouldn’t have taken that road!”
When Rezzori heard that my companion was named Beatrice, he complained, “No, you’re not the real Beatrice.” “Yes I am!” she said. “The real one is in Istanbul [his wife].” Beatrice insisted that she was real, that maybe there is more than one. “Well, there is more than one then.” We didn’t meet her on this visit but Rezzori said she had previously returned from there and bought spices from the market. “Have you eaten? No? Then I’ll prepare for you Sultan’s pilaf.”
His serenity in the kitchen and the profound wine of his land opened a conversation and my first burning question for him was about a specific word appearing in his book:
He mentioned that it was a term used at that time and happened upon it while looking into Lombroso, who studied criminal physiognomies, when he was young. A part of that time during his growth and discovery led on into conversation ending that night five hours later, one we continued over the next thirteen years.
“Have you a hotel reservation?” Well. . .is there a pensione or hotel nearby? “No, absolutely nothing, nor anywhere near. Look, why don’t you stay here tonight?” We climbed the stairs of the old farmhouse, passing huge canvases by Castellani, Ottoman furnishings coming from his wife’s family that hailed from Constantinople, the pugs snoring stopped at they scampered between our footsteps, grunting like piglets, as Grisha, as he insisted we call him, pointed out an array of rooms in their restored farmhouse. His bedroom had sunken bathtubs in the middle. One room was a replica of an English country hunter’s cottage. “You may sleep here, You may sleep there, you both may sleep here, or there. . .”.
We headed into the cottage, and our visit lasted three days. Grisha knew little of music, aside from being acquainted with Herbert von Karajan before the war and having known Mitja Nikisch, the pianist son of the great conductor Artur, who committed suicide in Venezia. Grisha had planned a memoir of this eccentric and tormented musician who swung between jazz and classical, spending his last days in depression being coddled in a gondola by a Russian admirer who abandoned his life to care for Mitja. In time, the story had faded and he regretted losing the thread.
Grisha’s personality strikingly resembled an account of Franz Liszt written by a Hungarian pupil of his, Robert Freund. When we saw Grisha a short while later in New York, a surprise that such an inaccessible writer frequently turned up in the middle of our city, we could experience a similar distinction noted by Freund:
photo of Liszt with his pupil Alexander Siloti, Weimar, c.1884
From then on  I had permission to visit him every Tuesday and Friday afternoon. He had two other students at the time: the composer François Servais from Brussels and the later notorious Olga Janina (“Souvenirs d*une Cosaque”); I, however, always had the good fortune to see him alone. Liszt gave the impression of a sophisticated, perhaps even somewhat affected man of the world in the salons; in small company or when alone with him however, you felt the total impact of the greatness of his imposing, venerable, incredibly ingenious personality. The gentle calm and the sublime clarity of his judgment, the universality of his mind, the simplicity and innate nobility of his comportment were incomparable.
Working on a piece for the New Yorker on replicating Nabokov’s car trips described in Lolita, Grisha asked me to review his manuscript. His latest novel, The Death of My Brother Abel, had been translated into English and he was briefly interviewed by a college radio station, reading from the text:
Much of his writing focused on the lost worlds of his youth, being born in Bukovina, as he termed it, an “astronomically remote” region of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which then became Romania, later held by the Soviet Union and now belonging to the Ukraine.
It was a delight to share views on favored writers. Once he ogled an upcoming facsimile reprint of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, which I urged him to avoid as it would rob time from his writing, knowing how obsessed he would become with such an edition within grasp. In a narrow room he had a long table with separated stacks of ongoing writing projects, and managed to be extremely fertile, and naturally he ordered the Diderot at once. Reading Bruno Schulz for the first time, I ventured the impression that he might be on Kafka’s level: “Yes, absolutely. Possibly even greater than Kafka.” He asked if I had read Susan Sontag’s new novel The Volcano Lover: “It was one of the worst books I have ever read!” He felt very drawn to Gombrowicz and when Rita Gombrowicz once came to New York for an evening at the Koscziusko Foundation, word got out that a flippant critic was ready to attack and expose details of Gombrowicz’s allegedly lurid past in Argentina. Grisha was riled: “Let’s go there, both of us, and defend her like lions!” Rita was taken aback by Grisha, whose manner reminded her of Gombrowicz’s: “He’s so noble, just like Witold acted.”
Midway through Canetti’s Auto-da-fe, I asked what meaning he found in it, especially this work, so unlike and numbingly duller than Crowds and Power or his autobiographies. He answered cryptically and clearly, as was his way: “Canetti had the need to fill a page. This is something I learned from Musil.” Grisha referred to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities as a fundamental text. At a party in their Manhattan apartment he motioned me over to an elderly gentleman with a classically beautiful Japanese wife in kimono and obi: “that’s Pitz, come meet him.” Pitz was Hermann Broch’s son, who began telling outrageous stories about his one-time piano teacher Oswald Kabasta, a conductor who later committed suicide together with his wife on Hitler’s defeat. These denizens at Grisha’s soirées breathed the core of a lost and exiled culture.
Once Grisha called and I invited him and his wife Beatrice to try out Capsa restaurant, which made him laugh as they had usurped the name of the foremost Bucharest eatery.
So we piled into a cab and headed over. The president was at his nearby roost, supervising a rather quiet atmosphere, when a middle-aged hefty lady came in, a scarf covering her head, dressed in a drab raincoat, rushing downstairs. We ordered snitel (schnitzel) and sarma cu mamaliguta (stuffed cabbage with polenta) and the cloying moscato white wine. Suddenly an accordionist emerged to play and the lady who quietly slipped by arose in traditional costume and eyed the room. She espied Grisha and knew at once his origins and focused on him, singing a welcoming song, gesturing, mixing honorifics with insults, deriding him in every way possible in dialect. Grisha sat stunned, his eyes tearing. Afterwards he managed to say that it would not have been possible to witness this ceremonial pleasantry even in the Bucharest of his time, that one had to venture deep into the country for such an experience.
I received much insight from his remarks and felt that whatever sharpened my historian’s instincts came from an osmosis passing through his presence. Here are a few of his speculations on a Europe soon to unite.
Once Alex Melamid and Katya Arnold came along to meet him and his Beatrice in Toscana. My Beatrice was with family and expecting a child in the Marche, for the morning after our meeting, I crept into Grisha’s room while Beatrice slept in the English lodge, awakening him to proclaim that I would marry Beatrice. He inscribed my copy of the Memoirs: “from one worshipper of a Beatrice to another.”
While apprenticing to a diminutive giant of piano rebuilding in the early 1980s, my master ordered me to rush over and see “an elderly ledy on ze Fist Avenue (his Polish accent never mastered ‘th’) and see abaht her instrooment.’ Eyeing me afterwards, the retired Italian opera vocal coach asked if I ever read books and handed over a heavy bag, sending me on my way. Peeking inside, they were rather irrelevant but one title stopped me cold:
Never contented by the routine task of premeditated book selection, serendipity often played an influential role in developing me along with my reading. Dressed in scientific analyses was a police blotter text on how physical types tended to be criminal, supported by lurid case histories and shocking photos undertaken during the author’s research in his native South Africa, soon before their Boers sided with Hitler and later established apartheid. Several record collectors at large resembled this Leptosome genus
An even more pungent image came in the Pyknic category (seen below). Variations of a combined “Leptosome with Pyknic tendencies having a neurasthenic strain” led to visions of creating a ballet, projecting their photos on a screen as certain sounds, recited case-histories, and appropriate postures and motions would unite in line with their melange of subcategories, a Firebird cast of Pyknic-Athletic Arsonists.
The Pyknic on the right typically exhibits Dr. Willemse’s diagrams and head measurements defining a “gang-leader physique”. The ballet’s staging matured in my mind but no music that could properly represent them in sound was forthcoming. And at the same time, an urgency to grasp the history surrounding the forgotten and enigmatic pianist Ignaz Friedman seized me and put composing to rest.
A friend had just returned from an unexpected stopover in Romania, due to a severe scheduling problem with Tarom, their shaky national airline. Bucharest was being savaged to demolish architectural glories, resurrected into Balkanized pseudo-Pyongyang structures. Repression was at a high under their dictator, who instituted a cult of personality. My composer friend remarked on a specific brand of cigarettes that had become a fetish and status symbol, substituting for valuta (foreign currency), an open-sesame leading to contraband and palm baksheesh.
Soon after learning about this unreported chaos and despair, I stumbled upon a remote bakery in Sunnyside, Queens. Nita’s oddly boasted of their status as a European bakery rather than lording over any French or Italian accomplishments. Inside hung a list of cardboard strips offering claitite and carpati. These Romanian delicacies brought forth a gasp and lit a flame: “Is there an authentic Romanian restaurant nearby?” “Yes, around the corner: Capsa.”
Days later I dragged two Americans and a visiting French pianiste along to investigate this rarity. No one spoke English inside, but my Italian was immediately intercepted by a doting waiter. As he led us into their mythic canopied back garden, we noted a pack of Kent 100s garishly placed on the corner edges of every table as diners suspiciously eyed us in passing. Wine had been especially brought over for their restaurant, only for them, insisted our waiter. Everything was overtly delicious and ridiculously underpriced on the menu. “Try out mitiei, garlic sausages, on the house!” A few arrived and we were smitten, ordering one portion: a platter with twenty arrived. The ciorba de perisoare meatball soup was laced with lovage and shreds of sour cabbage, another “on the house” offering, also arriving in exponential amounts by the eager waiter. A second bottle of Muscat Ottonel from Murfatlar transported us with a Biblically intense fruit-of-the-vine experience into voluptuous pastries imported from Nita’s. Smoke choked the room as an accordionist belted out crooked Balkan rhythms amidst song and whistling.
The bill arrived and we were over $60 short. After leaving to bail us out, I was told the waiter came by every five minutes, urging the trio to “have a bite while you’re waiting for him.” Once back, our server begged me, in confidence, to approach a grim, angry fellow vigorously engaged in chatting with a seated couple: “Tell him that I am the BEST WAITER IN AMERICA!” I obliged in a formal manner and derisive laughter and snickering erupted throughout the room. The waiter, ushering us out, advised all, “Come back soon!” while whispering to me “next time, bring more money.”
I had to unlock the secrets of Capsa, as it was among the finest food I had ever encountered and a kaleidoscope of reality and illusion. A week later, alone, I returned right before dinnertime. The owner handed me Capsa’s business card which listed him in a byline as “Constantin Udroica, president.” (a.k.a ‘President-for-Life’.) A fistfight suddenly broke out in their basement kitchen and as the only customer, the Prez warned between the screaming and shattering plates, “You look too much.”
A few weeks later a book’s title stopped me in my tracks.
From the first word, ‘Skushno” (Russian, for ‘boredom’), I was drawn into an Austro-Hungarian and Romanian world that overshadowed any writer’s block or need to be a composer, unexpectedly dissipating the fog of Ignaz Friedman’s lost origins.
I soon headed to Denmark in 1984, where Friedman sat out World War I, finding a violinist colleague of his from 1912 and documentation. Amidst this trove, I reached the final page of Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs and put it down feeling utterly enlightened, and crestfallen, nearing a precipice. Rezzori had decoded a Europe vaguely hinted at by relatives, acquaintances, musicians who had fled, and moreover, the most vivid depiction of Jewish life in Eastern and Central European cities, pellucidly recited in prose by a non-Jewish writer who lived through the inter-war decades.
I had to find him.
A clue came on the blurb: the author lived in Toscana. Off at once to the Copenhagen central phone building where I retrieved a foot-high stack of Tuscan phone directories. After an hour of searching town by town, his name appeared. I rang him at once:
“I just finsihed reading your Memoirs, loved them. I’m a Jew. Can we talk about Ignaz Friedman, a pianist I’m researching, who came from your old empire? I’ll be in Italy soon.”
The first church I willingly entered had a faded clash between Byzantine and Baroque as its orange and ochre facade inhabits mysteries behind life-sized gesturing enigmatic statues placed on high.
Inside, Roma’s Santa Maria in Trastevere buzzed as an ornate Baroque social hive, again made cloying by a painting inside a recess: a pretty saintesse holding a platter containing two expressive eyeballs, lookin’ right at you. The bells went berserk before sunset, shimmering and shaking on down body and being in the otherwise poker-faced piazza mood.
Not one goddamn organ of any importance could be found nearby at the Vatican, other than a neglected instrument played on in the 1600s by their organist Frescobaldi, originally from Ferrara where he played harpsichord for the Este family in their Schifanoia palace rooms covered in zodiacal frescoes:
His sense of proportion and architecture ricochets out from his skull to fill vaults, apses, domes, essays of density and texture, expanding and restlessly contracting lines into solid forms like the Baroque architecture housing his mind’s wanderings:
Frescobaldi, played here by master Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini, unfolds sonic arabesques that arouse the stillness of space they invade: He named these works Toccatas, from toccare, to touch, as he touches on terror here in no. IV, a kind reappearing in its meteoric path later in time inside a dream between Pink Floyd’s organist and guitarist in a lost work cut out of Zabriskie Point
and a transformed stillness of space and matter arrive as sunset looms near Antonioni’s portrayal of this early occupying rite by a Goddess of Chaos and Transformation:
We seem to have somehow strayed away from church. German moral and cultural sobriety and propriety is prevalent in this well known Bach Toccata’s opening, its Gothic edge emerging from a 1929 pre-Hitler recording from Hamburg’s cathedral organist Alfred Sittard:
Sittard’s propriety adds traditional drama to the space, exciting its insides. Meanwhile, in Paris, a master organist lacking sight, André Marchal,
had a grander sense of color and drama than anyone of his city. Francis Poulenc the composer raved about how Marchal “has the best ear in Paris.” Marchal summons this passage and fearlessly exorcises space and sucks your body in as well:
A heightened expressivity lurked early on in Paris, in the fine line between institutional worship and unbounded leaps into mystic experience, hovering in their literature, visual art, the demonic erotic piety of Huysmans, churches becoming base stations to parallel universes that manifested from inner ears and fingers of organists.
Charles Tournemire (1870-1938), of violent religiosity and otherworldliness, created a cyclical voluminous soundworld called L’Orgue Mystique. Put everything on hold and listen to him treading quasi-Indian ragas robed in Medieval chant:
A name often appeared on exotic harpsichord recordings. This vivid spirit somehow unscrambled works sounding vague in the hands of others.
Bach’s Toccata in D on the harpsichord:
Before embarking to Hungary in 1983 to find Irén Marik’s brother and any remaining traces of her life there, I was advised to call on János Sebestyén, the artist behind these performances. In a very formal English, he invited me over. After spending two weeks in Vienna for research, sick of its decadent clinging to a thoroughly dead past glory, stung by nasty sneers torpedoed my way from elderly passersby who recognized a non-Aryan who got away from them, fed up with their dull food (relieved only by a late discovery of a Syrian family place making killer okra stew on pilaf rice), it came as a great relied to catch a train to Communist Hungary! Continue reading…
Can’t stand it! Not only the self-indulgent verbal masturbations by mounting speech to an alleged higher meaning, but having to stomach it in real life.
Shamed for not accepting it, stigmatized for being uncultured with such beliefs.
It was a lonely position.
Until reading Witold Gombrowicz. Stuck in Argentina, away from contorting Polish society, he began a Diary in the 1950s and a comforting work: Against Poets.
“It would be more subtle of me if I did not disrupt one of the rare ceremonies which we have left. Even though we have come to doubt practically everything, we still venerate the cult of Poetry and Poets and this is the only deity which we are not ashamed to worship with great pomp, deep bows, and inflated voice. . .”
I strayed into Byron’s Don Juan and took refuge in a language that inspired Liszt and even created a fable spouted by the genius master musician Theodor Leschetizky, who
claimed to have taken a Turkish princess in his youth away to a lonely Greek isle to live an Edenic existence. His charming tale was as monstrous lies have to be – quite big in order to be accepted. But it didn’t help much.
Laughable was T. S. Eliot’s adopted pseudo-English, more pompous than the Windsors. Recent sonic digging, however, turned up an evening he gave at Columbia University in the early 1960s. He was in New York to record his poetry for vinyl discs and, in a revealing aside, instructed his public on how to experience his poems and the way he presents them:
And it makes Eliot more than readable; he emerges as a jazzman, scatting his verse.
One Italian modernist is hermetic but his voice grabs you by the throat and doesn’t give in: Giuseppe Ungaretti. I dared to render a vague idea in English of his untranslatable poetry. It’s hard to imagine a lesser abduction of our ears and hearts in hearing him read a work emerging after his nine year old son’s death:
John Zorn just forwarded a text on how Leica saved many Jewish lives and the silence surrounding their heroism.
Leica and the Jews.
The Leica is the pioneer 35mm camera. It is a German product – precise, minimalist, and utterly efficient.
Behind its worldwide acceptance as a creative tool was a family-owned, socially oriented firm that, during the Nazi era, acted with uncommon grace, generosity and modesty. E. Leitz Inc., designer and manufacturer of Germany ‘s most famous photographic product, saved its Jews.
And Ernst Leitz II , the steely-eyed Protestant patriarch who headed the closely held firm as the Holocaust loomed across Europe , acted in such a way as to earn the title, “the photography industry’s Schindler.”
As soon as Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, Ernst Leitz II began receiving frantic calls from Jewish associates, asking for his help in getting them and their families out of the country. As Christians, Leitz and his family were immune to Nazi Germany ‘s Nuremberg laws, which restricted the movement of Jews and limited their professional activities.
To help his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz quietly established what has become known among historians of the Holocaust as “the Leica Freedom Train,” a covert means of allowing Jews to leave Germany in the guise of Leitz employees being assigned overseas.
Employees, retailers, family members, even friends of family members were “assigned” to Leitz sales offices in France , Britain , Hong Kong and the United States .
Leitz’s activities intensified after the Kristallnacht of November 1938, during which synagogues and Jewish shops were burned across Germany ..
Before long, German “employees” were disembarking from the ocean liner Bremen at a New York pier and making their way to the Manhattan office of Leitz Inc., where executives quickly found them jobs in the photographic industry.
Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom – a new Leica.
The refugees were paid a stipend until they could find work. Out of this migration came designers, repair technicians, salespeople, marketers and writers for the photographic press.
Keeping the story quiet.
The “Leica Freedom Train” was at its height in 1938 and early 1939, delivering groups of refugees to New York every few weeks. Then, with the invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany closed its borders.
By that time, hundreds of endangered Jews had escaped to America , thanks to the Leitzes’ efforts. How did Ernst Leitz II and his staff get away with it?
Leitz, Inc. was an internationally recognized brand that reflected credit on the newly resurgent Reich . The company produced range-finders and other optical systems for the German military. Also, the Nazi government desperately needed hard currency from abroad, and Leitz’s single biggest market for optical goods was the United States .
Even so, members of the Leitz family and firm suffered for their good works. A top executive, Alfred Turk , was jailed for working to help Jews and freed only after the payment of a large bribe.
Leitz’s daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland . She eventually was freed but endured rough treatment in the course of questioning. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of 700 to 800 Ukrainian slave laborers, all of them women, who had been assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s.
(After the war, Kuhn-Leitz received numerous honors for her humanitarian efforts, among them the Officier d’honneur des Palms Academic from France in 1965 and the Aristide Briand Medal from the European Academy in the 1970s.)
Why has no one told this story until now? According to the late Norman Lipton , a freelance writer and editor, the Leitz family wanted no publicity for its heroic efforts. Only after the last member of the Leitz family was dead did the “Leica Freedom Train” finally come to light.
It is now the subject of a book, “The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train,” by Frank Dabba Smith, a California-born Rabbi currently living in England .
Thank you for reading the above, and if you feel inclined as I did to pass it along to others, please do so. It only takes a few minutes.
Meditations on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sunny California in the early 1960s seemed like a peaceful planet. My best friend in North Hollywood lived up the block and had dark skin from his Hawaiian father. A nearby cafeteria employed a Black counter cook whose grilled cheese sandwiches were the first tastes I ever relished. Otherwise, far and wide, everyone was White, although some folks, like my father and aunts, spoke in an accented English that gave me the idea of being an outsider.
The first view of the outside world of Black Culture during this period of segregation came via the parable of a naive boy led astray by curiosity and boredom of social obligations, finding him cutting out of a Sunday church service. The mythic 1930’s Spanky is accompanied by Porky and Buckwheat, the first Black boy in our lives, who seemed more genuine in thought and action than the kids at school, young as we were, as they already were thoughtlessly veering into adult conformism.
Spanky, in Little Sinner, makes a desperate flight away from a Sunday church service, admonished by all his friends to stay put, and stumbles upon an eclipse, accompanied by moaning sounds. He, and viewers like me, espy our first river baptismal rite by a Black community (beginning in the video at 11:35)
Spanky’s contact with a vital religious practice, one unlike the dogmatic and cosy routine of his imposed creed, shocks him and instills fear of the unknown. He narrowly escapes this Jungian threshold of spirits, infiltrating himself amongst parishioners just in the nick of time to hypocritically get off the hook by feigning that his spiritual needs had been met by his community’s reverend: exemplary training for a future in business and diplomacy!
This child’s entertainment feature left a mark on me that would be followed up a few years later. The music contained in that celluloid was among the forms documented by a Wisconsin furniture company that set up Paramount Records in the early 1920s. This was America’s first glimpse of Black culture through sound. The execs who marveled at their sales somehow noticed that their clients in the South had no recordings of their music, so a label was organized and talent scouts of varied abilities sought bluesmen, popular singers, gospel groups, raging reverends, and captured the cross section of a vibrant culture as it buried old styles and gave birth to new Jazz, Ragtime, and individual artistry.
One unusual example is an enigmatic recording entitled: Antebellum Sermon, alluding to the Civil War, long ago, perhaps the earliest sounds we may ever hear of the prayer style from that age.
The music remained in the community. Rarely were there White customers for these Race Records. Colin McPhee, an avant garde composer, discovered many of them and bought quite a haul in the early 1930s. He also reacted to Balinese gamelan on 1928 discs and gave up being a virtuoso pianist and classical composer to head for the isle and write a masterpiece on its music, becoming a composer who influenced all the Westerns who ditched Schoenberg.
White collectors in the 1960s also happened upon these discs and began searching the South for any surviving musician, going door-to-door asking families if they still had any old records. Their publications resurrected lost giants and changed the role of Rock music while opening up new light on a lost transformed culture. So many marvels came back.
One recording session reveals an unknown reverend, Frank Cotton, who entered a Parampount studio in 1927 with a few congregants to recreate his fiery sermon on The Pool of Siloam:
The message of Rev. Cotton’s sermon gains in intensity to the point that his speech morphs into song and becomes ecstatic shouting, words no longer sufficient to express the spirit and content of his message, provoking shocked interactions from his flock.
Early sacred songs were in the reservoir of Rev. Gary Davis, who described Children of Zion as being hundreds of years old. In this video, he is hootnannied by Pete Seeger who joins in after awhile. Davis’s stark expression gets a bit watered down in company but Seeger captured one of the few extant films of this master.
The effect these ancient melodies and traditions of transcendence through sermonizing was not lost on the geniuses of Jazz, who created what is termed “Free Jazz” in the early 1960’s, a harsh dissonant style disturbing to many ears. While the extreme playing sounds like a flight from melody or what Jazz is believed to be, the culmination of the sermon is merely applied to a speaking and shouting instrument. Albert Ayler developed this as a pathbreaking language, taking a sacred march tune and expanding its meaning through musical glossolalia (Truth is Marching In):
Black culture has been the avant garde destiny of American music, always posing a challenge, one that Spanky failed to take, and cross a separating line, leading to. . .
Life is full of surprises. I became Rev. Gary Davis’ last pupil, his widow our son’s godmother, and that summer after Davis passed on, I encountered Buckwheat himself: he was working in a summer camp’s kitchen where I was a waiter. At our last supper, all the directors stood up anticipating applause from the campers but we all screamed our lungs out for Buckwheat, who came forth smiling to a joyous standing ovation.
Adventures in Ethnic Music: Hot Albanian Clarinets
The rolling hills of Italy’s Marche region lead down to the Adriatic Sea. Way further south, hours and hours by train to Brindisi, one can imagine how just across the water lay the forbidden Albanian People’s Republic. In the early 1980s a composer friend, curious about a recording Henry Cowell placed into a Folkways anthology, truly extra-planetary Albanian music, headed over to a New York secret: their nearly unmarked Albanian Mission to the U.N. Albania only had friendly ties with North Korea: Russia was way too liberal for them in those years! A voice over the locked entrance’s speakerphone ordered him to go the hell away, followed by armed guards appearing.
Albania’s international programs on Radio Tirana beamed their way over the globe. Every hour was graced by a trumpet fanfare dreadfully ringing out each of the twenty-four hour clock. Propaganda 24/7 in all tongues. In the mid 1980s on a hot summer afternoon, I switched away their shortwave to hit the AM zone. Bypassing Italian pop channels, this rare sonic orchid emerged from the ether:
A dream state from Tirana’s hermetic local station escaped across the Adriatic! The signal went in and out of intelligibility. Their programming was chaotic so for months a cassette was poised, the radio honing in on their frequency, my in-laws miracles of tolerance for the sounds that continually streamed until I would leap up from the table to capture some spontaneous gem.
Back in New York, Perikles Halkias, a local clarinet master, occasionally performed his Greek Epirotic music. This zone around Ioannina was bordering on Albania and he sure remembered their once-open frontier and the friendly Albanian babes within reach of a hot musician. By a miracle I was informed of a Bronx Albanian who sold videos from his apartment, somehow spirited inside the US through a third country. He was of no help and had no interest in the traditional music, only anxious to hawk his political films and television videos. He let out that an Albanian event was soon to happen: the UN mission’s chief would be there.
At a high school gym in Hells Kitchen, a well-polished elegant diplomat smilingly shook my hand and said I could easily come to Albania to research their folk music. Only one American at that time, Brooklynite Jack Schulman, was permitted inside, and he returned empty-handed for any music but loaded with correct books to sell such as this most creatively creative non-fiction:
Could I really visit Albania? “Yes. Do you have another passport?” Not really. “Oh. . . . I guess you can’t help it if you were born here,”
Years of summers glued monitoring Radio Tirana brought forth unexpected surprises, such as this loose clarinetist who wails like a Balkan Hendrix. The repetitive background acts as a mantra blanketing his wild exploits, pulling out the sonic rug with a gear shift chord change catapulting you into a new existence from its harmony and insistent beat:
Stripping back layers of time, one hears earlier periods embedded in their isolated sounds. The Albanians were contemporaries of ancient Greeks,: Illyrians, with a unique language that no knowledge of Attic Greek, Hungarian, Basque, Finnish, Lithuanian, or Pirahá will ever help you. After a Byzantine period and Mongols came Ottomans, who Moslemised a bit but let the Christians carry on as usual. (We’ll explore them in a forthcoming post).
Behind it all is their choral singing: Byzantine might be too recent a period to classify this style’s hidden origins. It would be a delight if some Greek expert would step up to compare if their metrics resemble choruses in Ancient Greek tragedies. They are probably soul brothers in the same feet.
Perhaps the Albanians kept this going in their rugged mountain isolation. These dudes are tougher than Hells Angels, keeping it culturally air-tight:
The rhythm of this restless mood-swinger grips you like an archaic instigation calling for blood, words tossed like death threats. Before World War I, about a quarter of the population perished due to blood feuds:
Albania’s traditional music is the most extraordinary in Europe. With changing politics and finally opening up, one fears that while the worst is gone, a bad feeling about the culture kept alive by their recent monster’s regime will cause it to be trashed along with his memories.
After arriving in Marik’s little desert town, she began to speak about her life’s events, being charmingly formal, subtly spicing her talk with wit and sharp critiques: “There is only one other pianist here in Independence – she lives at the other end of town. She’s a Schnabel pupil. . . and plays terribly.” Her reserve was tossed aside when Irén began to play with raging emotions, visions, poetic metrics of Schubert, spiritual geometry in her Bach, a living grasp of Bartók’s music. How did she get so close to him, a modern and difficult music from her youth. Did she learn it directly from Bartók?:
“No, I played some of his works for him at our first meeting and he said ‘I see you understand it. Let’s begin with Mozart and Beethoven.'”
Bartók plays the opening of his Allegro Barbaro (1929 Budapest recording):
Irén taught at Sweet Briar college until retiring at age sixty five. Whenever she had to leave for a brief absence, such as to appear as a concerto soloist with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., Sweet Briar made sure to deduct the missed time from her pay. On their English faculty was Evelyn Eaton, a Canadian author. Marik and Eaton became instant close friends and shared a house there. Evelyn retired before Irén and moved to the California desert.
Eaton was part of a noble British family and had been a journalist, writing dispatches from France for The New Yorker in the 1930s, publishing a dozen novels. But in her past was an American Indian ancestry and she found the Paiutes living near Lone Pine, California. Evelyn became close and was accepted as a pipe woman and revealed gifts as a healer. When Irén retired they shared adjacent homes. Irén would start her day with two hours in the rose garden, then on to the piano for three more. Lunch followed, a nap, three more hours of playing. Evelyn was often away at Sweat Lodges and teaching, lecturing, or in her nook of a studio decorated with ancestral stained glass windows. Once with her alone, she confessed that the tapes Irén used to record practicing and concerts were frequently thrown out by her: Evelyn quietly hid them and presented me with a box.
Eager to share their combined interests, they would open Irén’s home for concerts and lectures. One series found Evelyn discussing and reading literature spanning the Renaissance to late 19th century France, Irén following with musical examples from each time and place:
Her Ravel evokes nature, the acoustical expansion of space by bells with a hint of Ravel’s fascination with Asian music, in this case Javanese gamelan:
So in this town of a few hundred souls one could find one of the greatest living pianists and a profound erudite author whose knowledge of literature, history, the traditions of the Paiute Indians, and her rapier wit made it into a cultural center of our planet, emanated by two quiet profound deities who gardened, wrote, and cultivated great art.
One unusual result came from Evelyn’s traipsing around the Alabama Hills by jeep, beneath Mount Whitney, outside of Lone Pine. She noticed a clearing amidst the wild projecting rocks where, in her dreams, a stage for Irén and others could be erected. After battling the Bureau of Mines, she bagged a temporary go ahead and created the Deepest Valley Theater.
It seemed that Irén’s nine-foot Steinway grand was ‘translated’ (like the Holy House in Loreto) from her living room smack into the clearing. Listeners drove up and down from San Francisco and Los Angeles to settle into nooks in the crags and take in her playing, illuminated by oil lamps after sunset. Sitarists and harpsichordists also made it onto the series.
Once her piano partner John Ranck flew in from New York to recreate Messiaen’s Visions de l’ Amen with her, a work they had unleashed in the mid 1950s in New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Imagine these sounds traveling through Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral:
How did Irén like playing outdoors? “Terrible acoustics!”
After four days I had to catch the one and only early evening LA bus. LIsa, the blond driver who had been Evelyn’s assistant, vanished a few hours earlier, having let her long locks fall onto her shoulders. Irén had gone to bed and the ride led to a sleepless night on an LAX bench before a staggering onto a 7 a.m. flight to Chicago for cousin Joanna’s wedding, seeing all the family surprised and scrutinizing my dazed and elated expression.
I was transported by the memory of her sound, spirit, and rose garden, the aromatic wild sage for smudging, aromas and experiences etching their way inside as the Greyhound bus strode towards the Mojave tabula rasa.
I had promised Irén that I would attempt a trip to Budapest and soon, to find her artifacts and the distant brother she hadn’t seen since defecting from Hungary in 1947, and trace Bartók’s remaining friends.
“View to the Inyo Mono Mountains from entrance” photo: Irén Marik
Sara Fishko probes Irén Marik on NPR:
Hear Irén Marik in the recordings I discovered and published: