Fall 2002 Volume XXXII, No. 1
Alan Lomax: Citizen Activist
by Ron Cohen
Afro-Asian Crosscurrents in Contemporary Hip Hop
by Ellie M. Hisama
Musical Topics in Hale Smith's Evocation
by Horace J. Maxile, Jr.
Eileen Jackson Southern: A Tribute and a Mandate
by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.
ReviewsCountry and Gospel Notes
by Charles Wolfe
Gendering Jazz Narratives
by Susan C. Cook
Rorem on Everything
by Eleonora M. Beck
Rorem on Everything
by Eleonora M. BeckWhile music resounds in the heavens, Ned Rorem’s autobiographical Lies: A Diary 1986-1999 (Counterpoint, 2000; $19) proves that composing it can be hell on earth. His accounts are filled with the ups and downs of living an artist’s life in New York City, the capital of ambition. At times I read his diary as I would read notes for an obituary, the achievements and failures, the loves and disappointments carefully counted. “Why keep a journal?” Rorem asks. “To stop time. To make a point about the pointlessness of it all. To have company. To be remembered. For there is so much to be recalled, with no one to do the recalling.” His recollections make for exceptionally good reading, and his Lies is so engaging that it was hard to put down.
Lies chronicles a transitional period in Rorem’s life, when he loses his parents and longtime partner, Jim Holmes. Rorem’s entries about Holmes’s gradual decline from cancer and AIDS provoke new insights from the prolific writer. One of the most touching appears in 1995 when Holmes asks, “‘Do we know anyone who could be called a Nice Person?’ We search long, and in vain.” Rorem asks, “‘Am I a nice person?’… ‘Good heavens, no,’ says JH.” Perhaps this is what we care most about in the end and it is the end that most concerns Rorem in Lies. While an earlier collection was entitled Knowing When to Stop, this diary might be subtitled Knowing How to Stop.
In coming to some kind of conclusion, Rorem makes it clear that he is a product of his teachers, parents, books, students, music, lovers, and, to a surprising degree, television. “Documentary on Sistine Chapel ceiling’s refurbishing. How breathtakingly great in detail, yet how slightly disappointing to draw back and view the whole. The whole, less than its parts.” What matters most is whether something is good or not and why, and one of life’s goals is to fine-tune the ability to judge. Elliott Carter’s music is still a target of Rorem’s disdain, while with the passage of time Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s music receives more favorable reviews: “I went alone to Zwilich’s new and pretty good quartet.” We read delectable quips: “Rereading To the Lighthouse. What marvelous melancholy flow. What a humorless bore. Rereading Beckett. What a fraud.”
He is also the product of Holmes’s illness. “Every day, mostly in the morning, I ponder dying. Living seems…uninteresting anymore. Noise here, in the streets, and Perlman’s machine.” (Itzhak Perlman’s “goddam air conditioner” that whirs twelve months a year is one of the diary’s most memorable inventions.) And he endures the hourly reminder of Holmes’s sickness: “Jim lives in a self-contained hell, a bubble of pain that floats from room to room of the otherwise ‘normal’ house.” Rorem’s writing is as blunt and whimsical as ever, placing him squarely with great American composer/writers Virgil Thomson and Charles Ives. The diary ends with descriptions of his pets’s mundane machinations after Holmes’s death, testimony to the joys of living in the present.
A Ned Rorem Reader (Yale University Press, 2001; $29.95) is long overdue, and it is thoroughly enjoyable. It combines diary entries and essays. Divided into three sections, it begins with pieces grouped under the heading “Diaries and Musings,” followed by “Music Matters,” portraits of musicians and music, and “Portraits and Memorials,” pieces on musical and nonmusical personalities. These works have been previously published, though where and when is not made clear by McClatchy, the compiler, and writer of its engaging foreword. In it McClatchy praises Rorem for his “exquisite honesty” and his “pungent opinions that are this book’s glory.” One wonders why an index was not included in the volume to quickly find dishy comments about celebrities especially since McClatchy, in an interview about the art and craft of writing a diary, asks Rorem, “The first three diaries have no index, where one could cruise for one’s enemies and friends. It’s maddening! Was it deliberate?” Also, it is not clear whether these are excerpts from essays or entire pieces. Rorem nurtures his favorite contrivances: the ingenious juxtaposition between German and French, the wistful longing to be as famous as, say, Liszt, the cheeky remarks “I never mean literally what I say, including this sentence,” and the raucous namedropping. My favorite pieces are “Jackson Park,” “P” and “Aaron Copland.” The first two are from his youthful diaries and the final from a later rumination. I find these early reminiscences of first loves poetic and effervescent. The Aaron Copland essay contains the lyrical passage, “I was always a lone wolf and never became one of Aaron’s regular flock anymore than I became one of Virgil’s, except that I worked as a copyist for Virgil, so I knew him better. Aaron had an entourage, so did Virgil; you belonged to one or the other, like Avignon and Rome, take it or leave it. I left it. Or rather, I dipped my toe in both streams.” This collection clearly highlights Rorem’s gift for the bon mot and his vast knowledge of everything.
—Lewis and Clark College