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:
A sad blurry overlooked record store on New York’s Eighth Avenue in the 1970s slept next to a mirrored metallic tobacco shop guarded by a life-sized cigar-store Indian. The Chelsea neighborhood was then an obscure backwater filled with Cuban-Chinese restaurants, their arroz con pollo, pineapple chicken wolfed down after hours in the nearby Elgin cinema showing Surrealist rarities. In a corner sat the vinyl’s warden, aimlessly nursing stale coffee. A summer’s day of drudgery had ended and walking without a destination I felt drawn into his void due to the heat and an odd sensation in my upper spine. Nothing, absolutely nothing could be of interest there, no music to speak of. Ennui exponentially heightened, and glancing down to the cracked linoleum floor I noticed a stack of identical neglected vinyl discs missing their covers, swathed in faded crumbling wax paper that a butcher would reject. The label had been designed, if you will, by a hand stencil, its pianist unknown.
Irén Marik had chosen the most arcane Liszt imaginable, works hardly ever played. Who was this mysterious Hungarian lady? “One dollar!” Cerberus barked out. At home I rushed over to the turntable, dropping the needle onto Liszt’s Benediction de Dieu. . .
Stunned by her playing, a vision came of a woman with short hair, in her thirties, seated at a piano with a perfectly straight back, playing while Bartók himself stood over her to watch and advise. A lost master reappears, more compelling and mysterious, clarifying and enigmatic than any other Liszt player, all in an extravagance of sensuous sound and enlightened way of revealing a rare musical experience. After hearing her play any work, you find it has etched itself into you. How did she understand every detail and emotion, every structure and breath? A lost master had to be found.
But was she alive? In 1980 I met Nicholas Milroy, Etelka Freund’s son (see a previous Brahms post.). He remembered Irén arriving in 1947. He had been an interrogator of captured Nazi officers and then worked for the State Department: Milroy knew an older brother who was a diplomat in Canada: She came to the US on tour and immediately defected to escape the communist regime in Hungary. No word of her since 1947: “Try finding her brother.” The Canadians reported that he had died years earlier, childless.
By 1982 her trail had grown cold. One day on a useless walk before heading home, I stopped inside a venerable long-gone sheet music seller behind Carnegie Hall. On their shelf of recordings lay the Draco logo occupying a cover, with Marik’s name and a new program. And the first image of her appeared:
The poetry dwelling in her Benediction found its boldest contrast in Liszt’s early reaction to the Vallée d’Obermann, written in his twenties while wandering around the nature and culture of Switzerland and Northern Italy, getting to the cradle of European culture long before he would make Rome one of his haunts. Her playing was fearless and ferocious, Liszt’s electrifying spirit incarnate:
What awaited one in this new recital program? This discovered album was untouched, except for its plastic wrapper having a four-inch gash on the side, not wide enough to let the record slip out. When I opened it an envelope fell onto my pal: a sealed letter addressed to the New York Times’ chief music critic, Harold Schonberg, reminding him of a rave review he gave to Marik’s Liszt in 1958. Schonberg tossed it all without a listen, into a pile dropped off at the shop for credit. The letter explained Marik’s circumstances, surmounting hardships and her health to continue making music at her highest level. It had been mailed to the Times eight years earlier. Was it too late? An address listed the postage-stamp sized Independence, California. More Liszt, Couperin on the piano awaited, and here is her way with Ravel’s Minuet, summoning his soundworld and language:
One had to hunt down an area code first, before the Internet, and then call the local telephone company. An operator gave one listing for “Marik”.
She answered. “Yes, I still play, I teach.” . . . “Yes, I had lessons with Bartók. . . for about six months.” I miraculously arranged a free flight the next week to Los Angeles. On a Greyhound bus, gliding through the grid of Captain Beefheart’s native Mojave, the melancholy stretches of endless rails tempting with open freight cars, reddish rock formations flashing by that seemed in the heat like mirages of sloping South indian temples, passing foothills of the distant snowcapped Sierra Nevadas, reaching a bench on Independence’s one and only street, arriving after eight hours. Before flying we had spoken a few times by phone. An answering machine cassette found in a box of tapes captured a message:
A radiant blonde, her hair snugly tied up, stopped her pickup truck and we headed to fetch Miss Marik at the grocers, as it was her 77th birthday and she was planning a chicken paprikas for dinner, having ordered the right spices from a Hungarian market in New York. During the next four days, Bartók and others emerged in her playing. She began teaching me. At seven each evening, it was her time to play Solitary, and she would suggest, “Must you stay? Won’t you go now?”
Brahms has been hard to get lately. Habitually played as a security blanket for too many years, it is often a struggle to endure his music. Worshipped and revered, his art is treated oh-so-gently: never taken too fast, never too loud, always within snug barriers. And it is pervasive enough to suggest that he himself was in some ways responsible for this sanctimonious situation, as nearly everyone adoring him pays devoted homage to his music in this way. Something seems quite wrong. He is latched onto in the way denizens in museums and galleries pose before the objects of art as if they were mirrors, feigning to be culturally astute when it is a mere façade. The celebrants suffer for something they cannot really grasp but require it somehow to assuage their self images. Continue reading…