Reading The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross. An account of how classical music got from the late romanticism of Mahler to the tape loops of Steve Reich, Ross succinctly explains everything from the lives of composers under the regimes of Hitler and Stalin to Gershwin and Bernstein’s struggle to find both mainstream and pop acceptance in this country. As I know next to nothing about music theory, Ross’s extended descriptions of how music works, tracing the journey of a piece from a minor A and then through whole or half steps up or down an octave, left me befuddled, no closer to understanding why I can’t tell the difference between Schoenberg and Stravinsky. But Ross’s lyrical glosses on how music sounds were thrilling—poetry masquerading as criticism. Here Ross describes the ending of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan: “an upward-scuttling scale in the violins, a quiet drumroll, hollow chords on scattered instruments, three thumps, and silence.”
Losing the wiffle ball in the high grass on the summer solstice, a year-and-a-half ago on the back side of the Shawangunk Ridge in High Falls. Twelve of us drinking wine, having a picnic, saying any absurdity that entered our heads—meaningless things you believe you’ll always have time for on the longest night of the year. The annual tradition of watching the sun go down, calling John in San Diego on his birthday, and waiting for the fireflies.
Except now Pilar’s moved to Philadelphia to marry Peter, her English boyfriend, a veterinarian. And Megan and Joe live outside Albany currently, only an hour away, but we hardly ever see them. Ed and Fairlight moved to Colorado; I haven’t spoken to either of them in six months. Mark and Riddi are in Santa Cruz, Riddi having just birthed black-haired Isla Elizabeth. But it’s been long enough that I’m not sure if they were even there or not.
Five of us tramped down the high grass for long two minutes looking for the ball, then gave up.
Driving home from work one warm evening, window down in January, I spot a wiffle ball marooned in a mound of charcoal snow starred with gravel.
Reading a profile of the photographer and model Lee Miller in the New Yorker by Judith Thurman. Born and raised in Poughkeepsie, Miller would have turned 100 last April. (She died in 1977 of lung cancer.) Miller’s life and work cast a jagged shadow across the middle third of the 20th century. She was a lover of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and others as she saw fit, more like a man than a woman of her time in the exercise of sexual privilege. A drawing of Miller by Georges Lepape was featured on the cover of Vogue. She was one of the few women accredited as a war correspondent during World War II; her pitiless images of the concentration camps are among her best-known work. On April 30, 1945, the day after Dachau was liberated, Miller and Dave Scherman, who worked for Life, were among the first journalists to document the human wasteland that Nazi barbarism had created. Later that day, Scherman and Miller finagled a stay in Hitler’s private apartment in Munich from the 45th Infantry Division. Scherman took Miller’s picture nude in Hitler’s bathtub, a photograph of the Führer resting against the back wall of the tub—just hours after documenting the crime of the century. Thurman calls it “a sensational moment of callous clowning.”
I visited Auschwitz/Birkenau with my mother and sister five years ago. After a morning of touring the grounds at the former concentration camp sites, we drove on to Prague and checked into our hotel. After freshening up, we ate Indian food in a restaurant just off the Old Town square. I drank four or five bottles of pivo with the spicy vindaloo. In the morning, we walked across the Charles Bridge in a misting rain to visit the castle with the rest of the tourists.
Discovering another expression for bad luck courtesy of Martha Frankel: hats and eyeglasses. It’s the title of her memoir about gambling and family (a review can be found on page 52). The term refers to what happens when a ship sinks, and all the cargo—human or otherwise—sinks along with it. What floats to the surface—hats and eyeglasses.
Listening to Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” performed by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. It’s the seventh song on the second disc of the I’m Not There soundtrack, sandwiched between “I Wanna Be Your Lover” by Yo La Tengo and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” by The Hold Steady. Hansard and Irglova, known for singing and starring in the wistful indie romance Once, unlock the song’s unalloyed, propulsive joy with their harmony in a way that Dylan’s weary drone never could. He wrote it, but they now own it. The type of hopeful, happy three minutes of music that makes me want to learn guitar, like Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” I play the song over and over in my car for days on end. The words make no logical sense—“Genghis Khan and his brother Don /could not keep from keeping on”; “Whoo-ee! Ride me high”—as one might expect from Dylan, but I shout along just the same to their intuitive logic. What is it about certain collections of sounds that possesses us, as if we suffered from a mania?
Getting the news that Heath Ledger, who portrayed one of Dylan’s personas in I’m Not There, had been found dead in his apartment, at the age of 28.
Whoo-ee! Ride me high
Tomorrow’s the day
My bride’s gonna come
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
Down into the easy chair
Listen to Brian every Monday morning at 8:15 with Greg Gattine of WDST’s “Morning Show with Gattine and Franz” on 100.1 FM.