Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Perfect Storms

Last week, C. & I had planned for an anniversary picnic dinner along the Main, and a series of hot, dry days left us expecting nothing other than a pleasant evening but as we reached the river bank — on bikes — it started to sprinkle.  Optimistic as she always is, C. insisted on spreading out the blanket and provisions on the lawn rather than head back into the city for cover, and just as we settled down to eat, a strong gust of hot dusty wind blew both bikes down and was quickly followed by rain, not in drops but constant, like faucets. We scrambled to gather food-and-drink-stuffs and move under a nearby footbridge, which would have provided some protection, were the wind less strong and were the bridge not designed to channel drainage directly below.  Too wet, too windy to make a run for it, there was no alternative to going with the storm rather than against it and, somehow, we managed to make our meal there under the bridge, balancing things on the bikes and remaining prepared to shift from here to there whenever here became the outlet for a new downpour from the bridge above.  Another anniversary was made unforgettable by the unforeseen and — once we made sure by cellphone that the kids and the house were safely hatched down —  the hilarity of our situation overcame any frustration, and we had a marvelous time, picnicking and dodging downpours in the best company I know.

A couple of years ago, we were visiting in Budapest, staying in a small apartment on the Pest side half a block away from the Danube.  It was the St. Stephen's Day, the major national holiday in Hungary and C. and the kids had gone to watch fireworks on the river.  I was stuck in bed with a 100 and some fever and only a hope to hear some of the fireworks.  The apartment was a former servants' room in a rundown late 19th century building, with only a pair of windows to the inner courtyard.  I heard some explosions, and there were flashes of light outside but then came thundering and crashes, and I could see concrete, plaster and roof tiles start to fall into the courtyard.   The window was thrown open by a strong wind, with rain pouring this way and that and, as I rushed to close it again, I could see bits of a sky in which rocketry and lighting were sharply etching a sky which, a hour earlier, was clear but had now been filled with dark clouds.  I got dressed to go look for my family but, fortunately, they were all able to make it back without injury and as they dried off, they told of the huge crowd (a good part of that city of two million people were there) enjoying the fireworks display, shot off from several bridges and hillsides, and the arrival, without warning of a twisting storm from upriver, bringing lightning,  thunder and rain, drawing water directly up from the river and scattering everyone everywhere, running where they could in the search for some distance, some shelter, from the storm, while all the while the rockets continued to shoot off on their planned schedule, but not necessarily on their planned trajectories (it turned out that the company which produced the display felt obliged to continue shooting things off, public safety ignored, as their contract allowed for no payment should the explosives not be ignited on that evening.)  Here was a perfect match of an act of nature meeting human incompetence, and it must only be due to a long-practiced patience and resourcefulness of the Budapestites that so few were killed or injured. 

Our general sense of helplessness in the face of nature's potential and the acoustical power, specifically, of a storm is an natural fascination for composers.   Beethoven certainly knew his storms, as did Mendelssohn (Hebrides Overture), Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Hugo Wolf, Debussy. Both Stravinsky and Britten had their storms, in their treatments of the Noah's Flood mystery play.  But more recently, musical mimesis of storms seems to have become more difficult.  I suspect that the ubiquity of recorded and synthesized sound has altered some of our expectations about how a storm "should" sound in a theatre.  Ligeti famously struggled for many years to make an operatic version of The Tempest and it seems that the storm — for which he wanted to employ non-linear dynamics in the composition — was a particular challenge. Likewise, John Cage had long proposed a work, Atlas Borealis with Ten Thunderclaps, based in part on the ten 100-letter thunderclaps in Finnegans Wake, in which electronic sound processing was to be used to transform vocal and instrumental sounds so that the experience would be "more like going to a storm than a concert." (Cage's terms fit nicely with his transformation of traditional musical mimesis from the imitation of nature in its outward attributes to the "imitation of nature in its method of operation.")   

Ligeti abandoned his Tempest in favor of a never-completed Alice in Wonderland; Cage, who made the practice of not composing without a specific commission and performance, never realized his thunderclaps piece and, indeed, took increasingly less interest in composing for electronics himself, but aspects of the work were perhaps carried forward into the environmental recordings used in Lecture on the Weather and the concert version of Empty Words, and the fascination with Finnegans Wake culminated in his Roaratorio.   Cage, understanding an account that Joyce's plan for a book to follow FW was to be called Ocean, began to plan a work of that title with Merce Cunningham, but did not live to experience the work which Cunningham eventually realized to a score by Andrew Culver, a long-time collaborator. Inasmuch as all storms, ultimately, end in ocean, the possibility that some of Cage's thunderclap ideas would have ended up in Ocean is a fascinating one. 

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Was at a pops concert last night in San Francisco where they played the storm from Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite," and it was a mixture of schlocky and wonderful, in its literal sound transcription of a sudden storm over the canyon.