Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

NEWSPRINT, PAPERBACKS, AND HARDBOUND VOLUMES

My entire life I’ve harbored a bias regarding quality in the world of writing. Even though I’ve long been a front-line journalist, I’ve believed the text in a hardbound, academic or commercially published book must somehow be superior to what’s presented in a newspaper.

For that matter, magazines were, in that measure, a degree above newspapers, but a step or two below either paperback or hardbound volumes.

In the past few years, though, that misconception has been shattered, in part because of conversations I have with one of America’s top literary voices and in part because of encounters with a host of other living authors of more mundane accomplishments.

Yes, we have every right to expect a work that requires a year or two to draft to be superior to reports written on the fly, but in some ways, that long work often turns out to be little more than a series of daily reports strung together. What turns up can be as formulaic as any pyramid-style news dispatch, and filled with more cliche and unchallenged bombast. Read carefully and you might notice a higher standard of editing in your daily paper.

What I now realize is that I had expected the books to be eternal monuments that would sit forever on public and private library shelves. I never expected them to be commodities with their own precariously short shelf life, with rare exceptions. Even public collections have only so much space and so much patience. Rarely do I find there a recommended piece I desire.

What this all comes down to is that reality that good writing is good writing, no matter the place it appears. That, in itself, is cause for celebration.

Now, for more on the newspaper dimension, there’s my Hometown News novel. Adding a further twist to this plot, though, is the fact it’s available only as an ebook.

Hometown_News

AUTUMN IN THE WATER

A quiet corner on the Cocheco River.

A quiet corner on the Cocheco River.

ONE MORE VENTURE

As I’ve been delving into my files – in effect, digging through the boxes stored in the loft of the barn – I find myself amazed at the range and quality of my literary writing over the past four decades. You’ve been sampling some of that here at the Red Barn, and more has been appearing as ebooks at Smashwords.

For those of us creating poetry and fiction that do not fall into the “commercially viable” options of today’s publishing industry – a quandary facing nearly all who appear in the small-press field – the new digital opportunities are a godsend. I’m deeply grateful to Smashwords for making my volumes across a spectrum of platforms and to readers around the globe.

Yes, the formatting has also required some rethinking of how a book functions. For most of the digital platforms, the text now reverts to a scroll – a way of reading one unbroken page, as it were, or the way ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese recorded a story. Or, for that matter, think of the Torah in a Jewish synagogue.

Sometimes, though, I really treasure the look and feel of a series of finite pages, along with the white space. That’s especially true when it comes to poetry.

And so I recently returned to an earlier venture, a private imprint I dubbed Thistle/Flinch. (Originally, it was Thistle Finch, in honor of the goldfinches in our garden, but to avoid potential conflict with companies and products offered under that name, I opted for a variation. Touch the thistle the birds so love and you’ll flinch. Bingo!)

The key to the resurrection of the Thistle/Flinch imprint was my recognition that PDF files can be uploaded to the Media Library in a WordPress site. That, along with playing around with photos importation and color applications in Word documents, got me thinking about covers, too, in ways I wouldn’t have considered as a straight-text editor. A few steps later and we have my Thistle/Flinch site here at WordPress, where a new free volume should be appearing each month.

Here’s hoping you browse its selections. For an introduction, take a look at Elders Hold.

Elders 1

VIEW FROM THE HAY DOOR

Through much of the summer, the sun on the barn roof makes it difficult for anyone to spend much time in the loft, and later, the depths of winter add their own limitations. But there are stretches of spring and autumn that can be heavenly when it comes to a time and place to retreat.

Yes, we’ve discussed remodeling the loft to make the space usable year-round, but frankly I rather like it as is, with all of its rustic charm.

My favorite moments often come in the afternoon as I call an early happy hour, pour myself a martini, and nestle into the papasan in front of the open hay door. The view over the garden or out either window at the ends of the barn can be delightful, and in many ways I feel I’m in a tree house. This fall I’ve been catching up on issues of The Paris Review and a host of symphonic tapes, so it can even feel uplifting.

As we slip into the second half of autumn, though, I’m all too aware this pleasure’s about to come to a close again. Already we’ve had a few evenings of sitting in front of a wood fire and watching the flames dance.

Long ago I discovered how essential such seemingly short breaks are to my sanity. And then it’s full-bore back into the vortex.

GAINING A GUNDALOW

Once the workhorse of the Seacoast Region of New Hampshire and neighboring Maine, the gundalow was a shallow-draft sailing vessel that could carry goods to and from town to town. Its mast was hinged to allow it to drop so the boat could pass under bridges.

Once the workhorse of the Seacoast Region of New Hampshire and neighboring Maine, the gundalow was a shallow-draft sailing vessel that could carry goods to and from town to town. Its mast was hinged to allow the sail to drop so the boat could pass under bridges and overhanging trees.

Dover city council has unanimously accepted the Capt. Edward H. Adams, a 32-year-old replica gundalow, to display at Henry Law Park along the downtown waterfront.

The installation will be part of a $400,000 upgrade scheduled to begin next year. As Foster’s Daily Democrat reported, the 70-foot vessel will be incorporated into the redesigned playground and will serve as a stage, among other uses.

The vessel was put in storage after the Coast Guard deemed it no longer met safety standards for carrying passengers, and the nonprofit Gundalow Company historic group built the replacement Piscataqua, a newer, albeit smaller, version now based in Portsmouth.

Once an active seaport, Dover relied on the flat-bottom gundalows to deliver goods to and from other locations around the region’s tidal communities. Here’s a chance to tell more of the history.

The flat-bottom Piscataqua, shown at its dock in Portsmouth's Prescott Park, carries passengers on tours of the harbor during the summer tourist season.

The flat-bottom Piscataqua, shown at its dock in Portsmouth’s Prescott Park, carries passengers on tours of the harbor during the summer tourist season. Dover is getting its larger sister.

WHERE’S THE BUSINESS MODEL?

Newspapers have long run on a peculiar business model.

People buy the paper mostly for the news, but what they pay for the product covers only a fraction of the actual cost. Traditionally, advertising generated the other 80 to 90 percent.

That imbalance always resulted in an inherent tension in the executive offices, where any expenditure for news coverage was viewed with suspicion, especially when few of the publishers – the top local executive – came from the news-gathering side.

The rest of the operation included the composing room and related departments that manufactured the actual pages that then went to the presses, plus the “mail room” where supplements were inserted and the bundles were arranged for distribution, the circulation department, and then the ad sales reps, accounting, community services/promotion, and human resources. Especially accounting. In more recent decades, the computer techs assumed their own role.

For a bit of perspective, go to a store and buy an artist’s newsprint sketchpad and then compare its cost and the amount of paper against what the typical paper carries. You’ll see what a bargain the daily paper has been. What you pay for the news essentially covers the cost of getting it from the end of the press to the place you read it.

So this is how things ran until the Internet came along. And then, for a host of reasons, publishers began putting websites up and readers began getting the news without having to view any of the surrounding advertisements that were paying the bills. That, in itself, was a recipe for disaster.

Curiously, long before the arrival of the Internet, I’d noticed that what the readers paid for a paper would be sufficient to staff a newsroom and its supporting services. Leap ahead, and you can see that if users would pay for their local news online, you could create journalism that would not have the advertisers lurking in the corners. Unfortunately, online users have become spoiled and rarely pay for anything. Attempts at firewalls, as we’ve seen, have also failed.

At the moment, the future of American journalism looks grim. And that’s bad news for our political structure and the lives of our communities themselves.

~*~

Hometown_NewsTo find out more about Hometown News or to obtain your own copy, go to my page at Smashwords.com.

 

FLEETING FLAME

So much of New England's fall foliage experience hinges on its unpredictable interplay with sunlight. Here, for instance, is a late afternoon burst. Two days later, the leaves had fallen.

So much of New England’s fall foliage experience hinges on its unpredictable interplay with sunlight. Here, for instance, is a late afternoon burst. Two days later, the leaves had fallen.

MAX RUDOLF (AND JAMES LEVINE)

The cult of celebrity continues to baffle me. The mass-media fascination with people who are famous for being famous draws none of my interest except, maybe, for a few who are simply breathtakingly gorgeous – the ones, I should add, whose words and actions aren’t completely repugnant. As you might guess, the photos are worth far more than any accompanying text.

OK, I’ll push the blame away from mass media and on to the audience that prefers celebrities to real reality. (Not to be confused with “reality television.”)

To see this outlook at work, we can extend the People magazine and supermarket tabloid spotlight beyond the realms of Hollywood and Nashville, high-level fashion models and designers, professional athletes, monarchy, and rock stars.

In the publishing industry, for instance, we have “bestselling author.” At least there’s an accomplishment to back up the fame, regardless of quality. The recognition level, let’s be honest, will be lower than in the aforesaid big-money glamor fields. But my guess is that these aren’t the writers who are high up on your own list of favorites, either. For that matter, few who make it to the bestseller list ever gain that widespread recognition. No, we are far from the days of Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Mitchner, Sandberg, or Frost in the eyes of the general public.

Likewise, in classical music or opera, where fame is a crucial component of box-office appeal, we’re far from the era when having “Sol Hurok presents” as part of an artist’s credentials spelled a degree of celebrity. Hurok was an artist manager who handled all of the big names, or so he made the world believe. But the cult of celebrity still plays a role, as Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, and Lang Lang demonstrate. (Note, though, that by now we need both first and last names.) And, we should acknowledge, you don’t get there without talent.

All of this, though, is by way of introducing my favorite conductor ever: Max Rudolf (1902-1995).

As another former Metropolitan Opera conductor once told me, “Rudolf could have been as famous as Leonard Bernstein, if he had wanted it.” Obviously, he didn’t.

What impressed me – and continues to impress – is that what he really wanted was to make music of the very highest level and to nurture that tradition. This could follow a much different route than mere celebrity, even in the arts.

At the time, Rudolf was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, which he headed for 13 years.

To be honest, the first time I heard the ensemble, I was not impressed. It was on a road trip to Dayton, and Rudolf was pushing for rhythmic precision at a time when I wanted plush sonic, well, uprisings of bombast. Only later did I comprehend what he was instilling – a unity of perfection of structure and meaning.

He offered his players precise, expressive, often restrained gestures and obtained “maximum results with minimal effort,” as I think one critic observed. Unlike the over-the-top dramatic Bernstein, I should add. What I now see is that the gravity of playing was somewhere back in the orchestra, rather than focused on the podium. In other words, despite all of his Germanic authoritarian roots, something organic was happening. And, as I would see, they played as one – more than some of the famed soloists I’ve heard.

His lineage runs back to the opera at Prague, where he worked under George Szell, and ran to the Metropolitan Opera, where he wound up as administrative assistant to Rudolf Bing. (Two abrasive personalities, from all we’ve heard.)

When he accepted the Cincinnati post, others had cautioned him not to go. “You’re making a name for yourself here in New York. You’ll give that up if you leave.”

Thankfully, he followed his heart, and classical music has been all the richer.

One of the things I remember is the amber sound he developed, not just in Cincinnati but in some of his other recordings as well – the Metropolitan Opera and even Italy.

As one of this first-chair players once told me, his mantra was, “First it must be in time.” And then the rest could follow. The trills, for example, as miniature roller coasters rather than flutters.

The former first cellist told me he received eight coaching sessions a week as a young player. How remarkable!

Even in the recordings, I still marvel at the entire ensemble playing with more unity than some soloists I’ve heard. If the Cleveland Orchestra was the Rolls-Royce, then Cincinnati was a Ferrari … fast, tight cornering.

He once lamented to a reporter that, at the time, the Cincinnati audience did not appreciate Mozart. He was one of the greatest Mozart conductors, ever.

And then there were his discoveries, beginning with Erich Kunzel and James Levine, who achieves some of the sound I associate with Rudolf.

There is, after all, a theory that your ideal orchestral sound is the one of the first great orchestra you heard. For me – and I believe, Levine – that’s Cincinnati.

Unfortunately, Rudolf came down with hepatitis, blamed on seafood during his summer in Maine, and that cut short one season and more. In his place came the Michigan native Thomas Schippers, assuming his first and, lamentably, only orchestral leadership post. As Time magazine lamented, the operatic master Schippers could not take over the Metropolitan Opera when the opening occurred because he was tied down in Cincinnati. And then, all too early, both Schippers (an addicted smoker) and his wife died of cancer. He was 47.

I can only assume Rudolf had been somewhere in the background pushing for Schippers’ appointment, and no doubt did the same in getting the young James Levine a position in Cleveland under Szell.

Rudolf went on, in part at his friend Rudolf Serkin’s urging, to create an opera program at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and then a conductor’s program there. Among his prodigies on the podium are Robert Spano, Michael Stern, and Paavo Jarvi, who later spent a decade at the helm in Cincinnati.

~*~

Back now to James Levine, who went on to the top of the conducting world. The story I want to hear is what role Rudolf had behind the scenes. In Levine’s music-making, I hear Rudolf as well – the sound of the musicians making music together (a center of gravity back in the band, not simply at the podium). And the warmth, that amber sound in the strings I so admire.

Levine more or less moved into Rudolf’s earlier role at the Met, but then he expanded it all into his own. Aficionados can argue all they want, but both Rudolf and Levine will probably wind up in the top two dozen opera conductors ever.

Just as Rudolf did in Cincinnati, Levine later restored the Boston Symphony to its glory. Its sister band, the Boston Pops, had its own Rudolf legacy – Keith Lockhart, who came by way of Kunzel, that former Rudolf assistant.

I hate to think what might have been lost if Rudolf had followed the advice not to go to Ohio. Could he have exerted the same influence in Manhattan? I doubt anyone could.

ORCHESTRAL POPS

While symphony orchestras continue their tradition of playing symphonies, concertos, and overtures, American ensembles have their own unique tradition of the pops repertoire.

It can be traced to what Arthur Fiedler did in Boston as he pushed the light classics repertoire into a blend all his own. Or it can be traced to John Philip Sousa’s work a generation earlier with the concert band.

Either way, something remarkable happened in the aftermath.

First, while Fiedler was still busy in Boston, Max Rudolf asked his young associate conductor Erich Kunzel to take over the Eight O’Clock series in Cincinnati. He told Kunzel there were a thousand young conductors who aspired to Mahler, but here was a repertoire begging for leadership – and Rudolf was overwhelmed as it was.

The rest is musical history.

Just look at the recordings – and that’s just the tip of an iceberg that includes performances with Tina Turner (when she could really use them) and local bluegrass bands and, well, anything that was music. Kunzel was also big on extending local connections.

Somebody could probably do a doctoral dissertation on the way Kunzel built a spider web of concert themes. You can look to his fabulous Telarc recordings to build the connections. The Hollywood albums, of course. Plus Mancini. There were all the Star Wars/Star Trek albums, each leading to the next. The Roundup album led to Happy Trails and Down on the Farm. The light classics discs soon focus on American orchestral selections leading to the piano and orchestra masterpieces as well as the Gershwin series. Well, they radiate outward, each one rising on something earlier.

The Cincinnati trustees quickly established Kunzel’s Pops ensemble as a separate brand, one that played throughout the year, unlike Boston, where the pops band is a late spring/early summer staple.

Each to his own.

So second, I should point out that when the flamboyant Kunzel was passed over in Boston after Fiedler’s demise, the film composer John Williams instilled another repertoire, giving film music an esteemed place.

I should add that the two become big fans of each other, rather than seeing themselves as rivals.

Now that’s music-making!

There’s much more, I sense, in that range between popular (commercial) music and traditional orchestral fare that could be explored – a third stream, more adventurous than most pops programming and, dare I say, than most classical scheduling these days.

As I hope will yet happen.

As for a connection between these two cities? Kunzel’s assistant, Keith Lockhart, took Williams’ place on the podium in Boston. Seems like just yesterday, though it’s been … I don’t want to count!

NO LONGER MUSICAL RARITIES

Looking at yet another recording of Vivaldi’s now ubiquitous Four Seasons reminds me of the first time I encountered the work. Two of our local FM stations each had an hour of classical music each night, and there it was, taking up the entire program, or at least most of it.

At the end of the piece, the announcer came on, leaving me to exclaim, “Who was that? Never heard of him.” A nobody composer, then. (Actually, I think my reaction was more graphic. In those days, I wanted BIG NAMES.)

A month later, the same thing.

And a month after that, the reaction continued.

I must have been a sophomore in high school. By my senior year, Vivaldi had gained enough traction to have one of the Four Seasons concertos be included in a Cincinnati May Festival concert I attended (Robert Shaw conducting), and even Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic had recorded an all-Vivaldi album that was a mainstay of my budding collection.

How times have changed.

I remember, too, discovering Mahler through a Boston Symphony recording under Erich Leinsdorf, probably about the same time. By my senior year of college, Mahler had gained enough visibility that I heard two live performances of his Fifth Symphony, one by an Indiana University orchestra and the other by the Cincinnatians under Max Rudolf – and that was within a span of one month.

Now that Mahler and Vivaldi are regulars in the repertoire, I keep hoping for a similar discovery of John Knowles Paine, George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, and their American Romantic-era colleagues.

Yes, times and tastes can change. There’s so much more to discover and embrace.

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