How Asia lives in Debussy

What on earth does the Frenchman Debussy have to do with Asian music? It sure effected his music and once you hear what lies there, it will change your own listening! The barrier begins when most pianists struggle to drag their familiar Debussy into his late works, where he reinvented himself in a Modernism leaning towards Mondrian rather than remaining shut into the sonic Monet he was made to represent. Debussy’s old clothes no longer fit and their efforts fall flat.

Let’s sample a bona-fide critically-acclaimed Debussy expert, Walter Gieseking,

playing an excerpt from Etude no.7. The studio mike is usually placed at a distance to reduce the snorting from his adenoids, giving the sound more Impressionism as his producers sought to shape and sell it while lessening his nose tones:

Debussy a la Gieseking

It’s played like an Etude, a gymnastic feat deftly tamed. But Debussy’s underground use of harmony and motivic narrative was left lying unsuspected and ignored. Yvonne Loriod, a couple of decades younger, married Messiaen

Messiaen and Loriod

and knew damn well where the late Debussy led and could look back and demonstrate his innovations that the limited Gieseking didn’t grasp.

Debussy by Loriod

One outside culture that unexpectedly hit Debussy was his encounter with Indonesian music at a Paris Exposition. We can only guess which gamelan genre he heard but I offer this alluring private gamelan playing Babar Layar, owned by a Chinese merchant in Java who allowed them to be recorded around 1928 by visiting Germans. The European engineers left out its deep bass gongs so use your imagination to fill them in:

babar layar

Debussy spent time with Stravinsky who came to Paris for his new works presented by the Ballets Russes with Nijinsky and Diaghilev. At Debussy’s they played through the Rite of Spring on two pianos and became well acquainted musically and socially. One striking detail in this shot of the emergent Stravinsky with a moribund Debussy is the artwork in Debussy’s apartment: Japanese prints.

Debussy & Stravinsky

Just as Debussy’s idea of Asian music is presented as if emanating from a Renoir parlor, we hear Pagodes given in the way a Parisian would browse postcards. Gieseking was born in Lyon, France and grew up bi-lingual. He loved collecting butterflies more than playing the piano but here in 1938 he is sensitive to its expressive shapes:

Debussy Pagodes 1938

Unlike Gieseking, the German-trained Percy Grainger collected folk music, trekking to Nordic villages, covering the Celtic cultures of the British Isles.

He and Béla Bartók owned copies of Music of the Orient, a pioneering set of discs spanning from Japan to Persia.

Grainger gave an evening in Austin, Texas’s university, playing solo, with wind ensemble and addressing listeners. Obsessed with Pagodes, he once arranged the piece for multiple pianos and percussion. Here are some remarks by Grainger in a thick Australian accent:

Grainger lectures on Pagodes

Now hear Grainger keeping his word by pedaling heavily to keep the gong tones ringing. What you’ll experience is a boundary between Western and Asian music being shattered as a new form emerges. Grainger was twenty-two years younger than Debussy and thirteen years older than Gieseking:

Debussy Pagodes by Grainger, Texas 1948

While Debussy was dying from cancer and hardly able to compose, he received visits from an Indian guest:

Inayat Khan, musician and Sufi

Inayat Khan, a Sufi philosopher, brought a veena along for his European lecture tour. He met often with Debussy, playing the instrument and singing. Debussy asked to borrow the veena while Khan covered the continent. Khan may have given Debussy some lessons and perhaps he picked it up on occasion but died before Khan’s return and the instrument was lost. A greater loss was the style it could have influenced, but traces of Asia in Debussy still emerge, one as recently as 2011.

On a visit to violinist Roman Totenberg, who at age 101 still teaches and can recall plenty from ninety-four years of music-making, I played for him a recording of his early idol and mentor, Bronislaw Huberman. It was Brahms’s violin concerto and I snapped a photo of his enrapt listening, putting aside body and environs to enter deeply into the sounds, which amazed him now as they did then:

On an earlier visit, I searched through his archives at his request and found many hours of concert recordings he had gathered throughout some sixty years. One tape from 1960 had Debussy’s violin and piano sonata. It was a difficult piece even for most renowned players to capture as violinists high and mighty lapsed into scales and occasional maudlin phrasing but seemed incomplete. Totenberg’s had a grasp that eluded the others. I had to ask him what was behind it all:

“When I came to Paris in 1933 I studied with Enesco and was eager to learn the Debussy sonata. After a year there I noticed that no one had ever programmed it in concert.”

Was it too difficult musically, or ignored for being passé?

“So I found two pupils of Debussy, one was Marcel Ciampi, and they coached me in it. Ciampi mentioned its being influenced by Asian music.”

And so it was, and I published it shortly after its discovery.

Keeping Grainger and the gamelan in mind, hear Roman Totenberg in an excerpt. A deep listening occurs as he plays:

Debussy, from The Art of Roman Totenberg Arbiter CD 159

I apologize (not really) for this lengthy post but this is what flashes through my mind when these people are mentioned and thus wished to spell it out for you in real time. . .

–©Allan Evans

Stinky proclaims himself Chopin’s heir!

One of the wondrous mythical beings in childhood was the infrequently appearing Stinky of vintage Abbott & Costello films. In no way was he dated: his dress and manner were as contemporary and vivid as the avatars we bombinated with in school hallways.


Just as Stinky is obsessed and possessive of his cards, Raoul von Koczalski, a look-alike, acted this way with Chopin.

From the very first sight of him, another personality came to mind at once: King Farouk of Egypt, an indolent, corrupt, but colorful defrocked monarch.

Child prodigies rarely had time for any formal education, and Koczalski, pardon me, von Koczalski was pushed into a career at a tender age. One period found him having lessons with Karol Mikuli, Chopin’s assistant.

It must have been remarkable to have had access to such a contact, Chopin’s star pupil and the first to edit his mentor’s notes with descriptions of how the composer himself used strategic fingerings and subtle pedaling to project his avant-garde creations. But Milkuli was quite old when Koczalski came to him.

Koczalski made a lifelong fetish of his contact with Mikuli, including secrets allegedly gleaned from him on how Chopin embellished his music, causing scholars to wonder and marvel over the recordings Koczalski left behind, several hours of Chopin.

One recently discovered program came from 1948, the year of the pianist’s death. He sits at Chopin’s own piano (an instrument he played when living in Poland, tuned to a lower pitch) and offers us a mazurka:

Chopin mazurka (op. 7, no.1) by Koczalski

Wait  a moment!! In one passage, Chopin composed a hemiola: a rhythmic creature that exhibits a boisterous math game: instead of the rocking one-two-three, one-two-three (a total of six beats), the clever composer made it into left hand groupings of one-two-one-two-one-two (three times two) against the feeling of three in the right hand. Chopin doesn’t often resort to this game. As Koczalski self-proclaimed himself to be Mikuli’s heir and Chopin’s musical grandson, enjoy the way he counts this rhythm:

Raoul’s beat

Let’s step aside for a moment and check some dates. Koczalski was born in 1884, Mikuli died in 1897, so our prize-winner was thirteen when his mentor left the planet.

Another boy, some two years older, never met Mikuli and never claimed to be Chopin’s one and only heir, but many listeners found Ignaz Friedman to have understood Chopin better than anyone in their time.

Friedman in Hawaii 1927, soon after recording the Polonaise.
Friedman in Hawaii 1927, soon after recording the Polonaise.

Here is Friedman playing Chopin’s rhythmic jest as written :

Ignaz rhythm

Once when I was about to lecture on Friedman at a symposium, the presenter ahead happened to select Koczalski as a significant historic link to Chopin, singling out Friedman as a musician whose Chopin should be reviled. Readings from Koczalski’s effusive paeans to his master and how the tradition flowed in his veins were supplemented by a recording of Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat, offered as an exemplary correction to Friedman’s excesses (which weren’t heard during her spot). Here is one telling moment in the dance. Usually a martial rhythm dominates but in one unique episode, Chopin sets aside its rhythms and lazes into a rhapsodic improv:


There immediately follows a cloying melodic shape. Koczalski seems put off by its or his tedium of having something repeat, in expectation of its Big Bang theme to return on its heels:

Polonaise rvk 2

I sat stunned, as if Friedman had come to me in a dream days earlier, guiding me to isolate the exact same example and illustrate how overblown egotistic automatons like Koczalski overlooked Chopin’s subtleties written into the music, like Stinky coveting his cards on stage. I included Friedman’s disc to show the music coming to life when an interpreter provides a sonic close-up (note the left hand’s prominent bass tones and then the attention to chords,) sweeping into a momentous arrival of the main theme:

Friedman polonaise

If I haven’t caused every reader to experience discomfort by listening to Koczalski, then I sincerely hope this example will bring about a full-bodied revulsion. As Stinky hoarded his cards, Koczalski made public some hidden ornaments that Chopin dusted into a Nocturne. This was permitted as the music derived from Italian bel canto singing and he was obsessed with Bellini’s operas and their embellished arias. Moriz Rosenthal, born well before Koczalski in 1862, also studied with Mikuli and was mature when the master died.

He once stated that Mikuli understood Chopin in the way a talent understands a genius: Mikuli was practical in teaching how to create a singing legato line, a genuine link to the composer’s touch. Rosenthal provides an example:


Now it’s Koczalski’s turn:

9.2. Koczalski

Chopin wrote a friend of hearing the opera that night with vocalists who seemed to be digesting their dinner on stage. Koczalski’s kitschy inclusions, a la Liberace, add extra padding to phrases that bloat its rhythm, reminding one of an Italian adage:

To be accepted, lies and meatballs have to be large.

The aftershock of this alleged authentic and unchallenged playing leads to a photo of his doppelgänger, King Farouk, doing his best to stay awake during a serenade, similar to Koczalski’s struggle with what he perceived and projected as boredom in Chopin.

My sincerest apologies to the dethroned king:

his cousin Prince Hassan Aziz Hassan sat by Ignace Tiegerman’s bedside as he lay dying in Cairo and helped save his legacy, keeping Chopin’s spirit alive more than anyone else had, and on the Nile.

Tiegerman’s Chopin

Hassan’s Cairo


Scratching beneath surfaces

From the first sounds, this  pianist’s playing proved irresistible. As a low bass note materializes you are no longer in the zone beyond your nose; inner time intrudes.

Liszt Consolation no. 3

This playing of Liszt’s Consolation no. 3 is no pro-forma melody supported by an accompaniment. Every part gets charged with reflections, surrogate meanings tag along its main lines.

You could devour the nourishment in this feast emanating from a wooden box with metal strings, percussed with felt hammers. What kind of hands are responsible?

How did they get out from a renaissance sculpture and end up in the 19th century? What’s his hair like?

Pianists aren’t like this anymore. Clean-cut is the way to go. His expression is suggestive:

He liked to play Chopin. So did someone else. Here’s another pianist, a younger Swiss-Frenchman enjoying a delightful drink in the company of a cackling dame in her silly hat at the exclusive Hotel Ritz in Paris, early 1940s. Her hubby Albert snapped the photo.

photo by Albert Speer

Never saw him laugh in a photo. He was adored by the photographer, who wrote in his prison diaries of glorious evenings spent together while on assignment there, relaxing at the pianist’s apartment over some Chopin and Debussy decanted from his hands. The pianist got quite busy recording in occupied France, 1942, and churned out all 24 of Chopin’s Etudes. The last one of them resembles a roller coaster map, everything repeated, just harmonies shifted for variety’s sake:

 How will he play it?

Chopin Etude op. 25, no. 12 (1942)

Images come to mind. He singles out the bottom and top tones, the rest gelling like a blur, shining through a foggy uncertainty like this atmosphere:

Backing  up a mere two years we catch our renaissance man with the renaissance hands having a go at it in occupied Vienna:

Chopin Etude in C minor, op. 25, no. 12 (1940)

The Swiss-Frenchman’s blurry musical muddle is nothing like the oldster’s excited mesh of interlocking inner rhythms that vie with attention given to its extremities, not to mention secondary melodies darting between alto voices down into a low baritone, as Chopin wrote it, smeared over by the younger Modernist who over-pedals them into a froth. This complex hive of activity has a different spirit altogether, given a contemplation amidst frenzy buy a wise elder:

All the nature and emotion heard have been sublimated by the first player, who sacrifices it for something greater, a defining sign of Fascism.

Back in 1884, the older player had a colleague of Chopin as his musical guide who caught him at an impressionable age:

There he sits by Liszt’s left knee aside an allegoric play of hands as the pianist by Liszt’s right leg, Arhtur Friedheim, touches his master’s knee, placing his right hand on cross-legged Alexander Siloti, Rachmaninoff’s cousin, who has the standing Moriz Rosenthal’s hand resting on his shoulder, a chain transmitting osmosis and telepathy.

Too bad Emil Sauer (1862-1942) isn’t better known, whereas Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), who informed on his Jewish students to the Gestapo, is highly admired as a pianist, even though his heights are a streamlined reduction of the music’s glorious details and spirit dwelling in the older master’s language.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Devour Sauer


Tidbits from Hardboiled Old New York

Knowing Teresa Sterne during her last years was an astonishing experience. Her actions as the head of Nonesuch Records created their Explorer series, one that took world music out of the International entertainment bin and captured authenticity.

Her example led us to seek the earliest recordings from Bali. One scheduled for repatriation in a new terrestrial form is by Gamelan of the Love God in Banjar Titih, from 1928:

15624 aa

Tracey worked with many avant garde composers, such as John Cage, Xenakis, developed projects with William Bolcolm, launched the recordings of Jan De Gaetani, Gilbert Kalish, and Paul Jacobs.

One box on her shelf contained concert performances by Jacobs, including this Stravinsky Etude, played at Brooklyn College where Jacobs taught:

8 Audio Track

Her archive had more by Jacobs and we eventually brought it to light:

She was a pioneer and her level of culture nourished us.

She brought to life over five hundred recordings as a producer and “coordinator” with the creators and players, all offered on an affordable label that went far beyond the scope of so-called majors. In her home, she prized a set of Mark Twain gathered as a child, an economic edition of an author who became a lifelong companion. Knowing of my ignorance, she repeatedly urged me to read The Mysterious Stranger and once opening its first page, I understood the urgency. After her tragic passing in 2000, I realized how having such significant literature, especially by a writer who shaped her vision, was a model for her actions in capturing high culture and making it as accessible as possible.

An indefatigable talker, to put it mildly, she considered writing memoirs but didn’t have time to grapple with a vast archive. She once mentioned how aunt Rose, with whom she and her mother lived with in a Borough Park, Brooklyn house in what she described as “genteel poverty”, once took a writing course. Tracey handed me one of her aunt Rose’s essays, capturing an accent and world view that has passed, for better and worse, into a regimented transformation replacing layered bubbling neighborhoods with dormitories of cosmopolitan consumers lacking in character.

From the papers of Rose Sterne

A squat fat man in work clothes ambles toward the steam table, sawing his way through the labyrinth of winter noon-day patrons in a cafeteria in the heart of the garment district.

The tall, wiry, hard-eyed blonde behind the counter, the glow on her cheeks heightened by the waves of heat from steaming meats and soups, balancing a plate in the palm of her left hand, the long aluminum ladle in her right alerted to plunge into a mess of peas, or scoop up a blob of potato at the go sign, rasps:

“Wodd’ll yu have?”

“Gimme some o’ dat der hamboiger.”

“That ain’ hamburger, that’s chopped sirloin.”

“Gib it ter me, woddever it is,”

Dipping into the shallow pan of sirloin patties, she slides one on to the plate, and . . .

“Wot kinda vegedables?

“Some o’ dat der macroni.”

“That’s spigeddy.”

“Make it spigeddy.”

She sinks the ladle into the slithery spaghetti, and draining off excess hot tomato sauce, glides it close to the sirloin, where it spreads out into a little pool of sauce. Eyeing her customer, pertly:


“An I’ll have o’ dat der spinich,” inhaling the mixed aroma of spice and juice.

“Spinich! That’s kale,” glaring at him.


Letting the ladle fall with precision she chops off a bit of green steaming kale and stacks it on the plate.

“That’s all yu git with sirloin – two vegedables.”

Cocking his round head to one side, and narrowing his small vacant eyes:

“Listen sister, who’s payin’ for all dis here chow?”

“I’m only sayin, mister,” receding, “you kin read the sign – ‘Sirloin with two vegedables’ – seventy cents.'”

“So vot! You’se keeps dishin’ till I tells yer ter stop, see!” Raising his chin like a turtle out of a fat doughy neck:

“An I’ll have some o’ dat der sparagas.”

“That ain sparagas, that’s broccoli,” tapping the floor with her heel.

“Awright,” snorting.

She scrapes up a soft lump of limp mossy broccoli, and nestles it next to the kale.

Stroking his fat pale cheek:

“Er, how’s about’ some o’ dat mashed sweet perdaders?”

“Listen, brother, that there is squash.”

“Squash?” – drooling.

“Yes, squash.”

“Make it squash.”

The loaded plate now dripping with juice and bits of overlapping vegetables, she drops the ladle into a vessel of hot water. Drawing a deep breath, she plops the plate upon his uplifted tray, and. . .

“Who’s nex’?”

“Hey, wade a minit, wotta yer rush. Gimme some o’ dat vegeble soup.”

“Chicken gumbo, get me? Chicken gumbo!”

She ladles out a portion of soup into a small white bowl and tucks a tiny cellophane pack of crackers between the bowl and the plate beneath it, and, inaudibly:

“I hope yu bust!”

Guiding his short arms to balance the tray out over his fat belly, he cuts through the long cue of hungry restless patrons, waddling out toward the tables and fades into the crowd.

April 4 1951

Awakening a defunct conductor: Oskar Fried (part 1)

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:

l. to r.: Oskar Fried (monocle and cigar), Eva Gauthier (singer, hostess), Tedesco (conductor),George Gershwin (meeting Ravel for the first time); seated: birthday boy Maurice Ravel

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.

Karsavina: the first Firebird. Ballets Russes, 1910.

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:

firebird 1

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:

firebird 2

Fried transports us into a soft stasis of clashing lines going against each other in opposite directions that transform the spectacle into the reawakening sounds of nature:

firebird 3

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:


A first step into documenting his life resulted in this cd and article:

Arbiter cd 153

Mahler’s disciple

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:

Confusion untangled by Affinity

part two

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 [1870] 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:

Grisha reading

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.


Grisha was planning a return to his native Czernowitz after the fall of the Iron Curtain and pondered his status as an exile:

not living in iron curtain

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.

East West Unified Europe

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.”

l. to r.: Rezzori, Alex Melamid, Beatrice Monti della Corte Rezzori, Allan Evans. 1992 Donnini, Italia

Best interview so far:

Interview in Bomb Magazine

Confusion untangled by Affinity

part one:

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.

Gregor von Rezzori (photo: Beatrice Monti della Corte Rezzori)


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.”

“Come on over my boy! Would be glad to meet you.”

(to be continued)


Sonic departure terminals into time and space.

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

Oenone excerpt (an early leak from Zabriskie Point sessions)

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:

Bach Toccata excerpt by Alfred Sittard, Hamburg 1929

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:

André Marchal plays opening of Bach’s Toccata in D minor

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:

Tournemire Andantino played by its creator.

Only one copy of this disc survives and I was the happy boy to restore and publish all his extant performances:

Tournemire had a volatile character, snapping at a student who promptly left him for good. Olivier Messiaen claimed he learned nothing from this thorny mystical crab, but his music tells us otherwise.

For the curious: more to read on Marchal:

Tournemire revealed:

and behind these deeds is our Sonic Archaeology:

János Sebestyén: A Musical Silk Route in Budapest

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…

Poetry despite myself

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:

Eliot pt. 1

Smoking gun time: Eliot then makes a point of how technology corrupts art by its confines.

TSE on recordings

A taste of Eliot uttering a fragment from Fragment of an Agon:

Fragment 1

And in one moment, Rule Britannia takes a back seat to St. Louis, his drawl emerging like the underworld tones he heard there:

end agon

His voice and accent are familiar to his paesano, William Burroughs:


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:


Gridasti soffoco                 A cried-out choke (use of remote past verb)

. . .

In essi s’alimenta      Nourished in them

L’unico fuoco della mia speranza.       The only fire of my hope

Posso cercarti, posso ritrovarti,     I can seek you, I can find you again,

Posso andare, continuamente vado     I can go, continually I go

A rivederti crescere     To see you again grow

Da un punto all’altro     From one point to the other

Dei tuoi nove anni.     Of your nine years

Io di continuo posso,   Continually I can

Distintamente posso   Distinctively I can

Sentirti le mani nelle mie mani:   Feel the hands in my hands

Le mani tue di pargolo   Your infant hands

Che afferrano le mie senza conoscerle;    That grab mine without knowing them;

Le tue mani che si fanno sensibili,    Your hands so sensitive.

Sempre più consapevoli     Always more aware

Abbandonandosi nelle mie mani;   Abandoning themselves in my hands;

Le tue mani che diventano secche     Your hands that become dry

E, sole – pallidissime –     And, alone ­so pale

Sole nell’ombra sostano…     Alone they stop in the shadow. . .

La settimana scorsa eri fiorente…     You were in flower one week ago

Ti vado a prendere il vestito a casa,      I go to take home a garment

Poi nella cassa ti verranno a chiudere      Then in the casket they will come to close you up

Per sempre. No, per sempre        Forever.  No, forever

Sei animo della mia anima, e la liberi.      You are the soul of my soul, and you free it,

Ora meglio la liberi      Now you free it better

Che non sapesse il tuo sorriso vivo:     That you might not know your living smile:

Provala ancora, accrescile la forza,     Try once more, give it more strength,

Se vuoi – sino a te, caro! – che m’innalzi     If you want, all the way to you, caro, you rise me

Dove il vivere è calma, è senza morte.      Where life is calm, is deathless.

Sconto, sopravvivendoti, l’orrore      I count off, surviving you, the horror

Degli anni che t’usurpo,        Of the years that I usurped you,

E che ai tuoi anni aggiungo,      And that I add to your years,

Demente di rimorso,       Demented by remorse,

Come se, ancora tra di noi mortale,      As if, among us mortals,

Tu continuassi a crescere;       That you continue to grow;