Over a decade ago, in a desperate attempt to find the Men’s room, I stumbled into Magen Solomon’s auditions for SFCA. Perhaps the immediacy of my necessities sweetened my voice a little or, more likely, the director probably caved to her own distress over the interruption and signed me up, wanting this strange character done and gone as soon as possible. It would be three years before I got the hint, three of the happiest years of my artistic life.
As misbegotten thanks, I bombarded her with almost monthly doses of my unabashed compositional gassiness, a process she accepted in stoic recognition that it was the only way to get me back in my seat and, thus, at some safe distance. In fact, I think she offered me the chance to be Composer-Not-In-Residence solely on the proviso that I stay not in residence.
In greater fact, though, our shrinking globe has worked against safe distances of any kind. The unexpected result is that we have actually expanded our cultural vision. Certainly I find this to be true with Joseph Brodsky’s Nativity Poems. While Joseph Brodsky’s poetry is generally confessional and sarcastic (and hard to make music out of), his Christmas poems throw open cultural doors allowing us a peek at his Eastern sense of the transcendent.
A Russian Jew who described himself as a Christian “by correspondence,” Brodsky celebrated the western Christmas because he found it more richly developed than that celebrated by the Eastern Church. But the man who with Alan Ginsberg shopped for used clothes in New York could reach beyond cool nonchalance and capture an almost metaphysical lyricism that unveils a cultural window on the bustle, the tradition, and the sense of expectation in Russia’s own celebration of Christmas.
Brodsky disapproved of “artists” who added things to a subject already rich and profound, so I am sure he would disapprove of my setting A Russian Christmas Card in alternating measures of five and six beats. The tempo is marked “Lullaby,” and I found the comic absurdity of a 1970s-era Soviet-made rocker that worked for eleven beats before faltering and having to start over too hard to resist.
The poet would, I believe, have approved the allusion found in the title, however. He drew inspiration by pasting picture and cards on every available surface of his study, often shocking visitors with the excessive display. He once admitted that he might have burned down a friend’s dacha when he taped some post cards to the friend’s kitchen stove!
He said later in life that he’d lost his mind long before his hair. I suppose there are some like Brodsky’s Soviet Union who think society would be better served if poets (and composers) consented to the occasional sanity test and got honest work. I agree! The world would be better off if we all took a sanity oath — but not to promote it, heaven forbid, but as a promise to live on its edges, there to play with possibilities and set fire to that which is held together merely by tradition and pretention. It could be a standard clause in our creative contract with society. Besides, this time of year, who wouldn’t find comfort in a sanity clause? Happy Holidays.