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(Dec. 5, 2007)

"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats."
 - Albert Schweitzer.

          Winky the cat has a criminal brain. His first act as a kitten newly arrived in my home was to bite my thumb, and draw blood. I declined to prosecute.
          Winky now weighs about 13 pounds. Thirteen pounds of orange striped criminality. He hates his sister, Maggie (the feeling is mutual) and regularly beats the kibble out of her for sport. (Perhaps I let him watch too much television.)
          He climbs up nice clothing, leaving a trail of snagged cotton and polyester, just to sit and gloat at me from closet shelves. He illegally opens the washing machine closet, then gets stuck between the machine and the wall. He sneaks out the front door whenever possible. He cheats at pinochle.
          Winky is also always---always, always, always---hungry. Even when he’s not hungry, he’s hungry. It’s not that he’s finicky, it’s that he either enjoys the sociability of asking me for food, or he’s insane. I’ll never know.


          Don Giovanni

          Went to the L.A. Opera production of "Don Giovanni" the other night. Once again, opera has been put into the hands of people whose motto should be, “Music? What Music?”
           The opera, of course, is a dark romp, Mozart’s dramma giocosa re-telling of the Don Juan hijinks---a tale of murder and womanizing that ends with a twist straight out of H.P. Lovecraft: the statue of the murdered Commendatore comes to life and drags the Don to L.A.---I mean, hell. As Alan Chapman noted in his pre-concert talk, this climactic moment was nothing short of terrifying in its day (to increase fright, Mozart added trombones, which had never been done in opera before)---and there is still plenty of good shock value to be mined there.
          L.A. Opera obviously likes shock value, too. The shock value of confusing the audience into thinking it is at Cirque du Soleil. I mean, what exactly is the purpose of ladies’ skirts that are six feet across, of various electric hues, and shaped like boxes? Are they hiding psychedelic dwarves? And as for the nuns flashing their gams, well, I’ve not encountered such subtle symbolism since Mae West ascended a staircase.
          Also, for a dead guy, that Commendatore sure made a lot of appearances. He was in the damn opera almost as much as the Don, once as a 30-foot specter amid all the Saturday morning cartoon costumes. Where were the tumblers and trapeze flyers? The elephants? The funny thing---well, it was all funny, so the strange thing---was that the-statue-that-came-to-life was every bit as scary as Dom Deluise in a diaper. I mean, there was this poor, dumpy old guy, nearly naked, painted gray. The real Don would have died, all right, of laughter.
          But as I was hinting at earlier, had there been no singing or orchestra, this production (imported from Poland, hold the jokes) would have been perfectly all right. Mozart distracted from the proceedings. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, you’ll understand why I enjoyed three-quarters of the opera with my eyes closed.
          Winky also has an eating problem, other than the problem of not eating 24 hours a day. Since he was a criminal kitten, he can only keep so much food in his stomach without giving it back. I don’t know if this is due to having a tiny stomach, or a tiny brain that tells him to eat the kibble or canned Natural Balance before it can run away.
          So I finally figured out to mash, mash, mash his wet food down, in order that it is difficult to wolf. This way, it takes him five times the amount of time to eat, thus allowing his stomach to accept things gradually. Still, this is no proof against his decorating the once-white carpet with yet another impossible-to-remove brown abstraction, so get this:
          I must catch him after he eats---which is about as easy as catching Larry King without a cliché---then hold him in a standing position (so loved by a cat) and. . .massage his stomach for a minute. That’s correct, folks, this is what I spend much of my time doing. Massaging a cat’s stomach.
          Winky finds this barely tolerable, of course, and is only too glad when I then immediately banish him to the patio so that if he still has to puke, he can do it in a pastoral setting.
For some reason, I’ve been listening to all my CD’s of Beethoven’s 9th symphony lately, when I am out walking. I know the 9th like I know Winky’s stomach, but I’m lately fixated with it. Probably a subconscious effort to arouse any sanity that might yet be cowering in my cerebral convolutions.
          In the last week, I’ve listened to a live recording from ’51 with Furtwangler, a live recording with Zubin Mehta, and studio takes by Giulini, Norrington, Leinsdorf, Solti (1972.) All have their wonderment, but nothing ever tops the Solti recording. That’s the one that still gets the old point across, with goose bumps, every time.
          As I walk, I notice that the symphony’s general profundity and message of brotherhood makes for oh, just a bit of contrast to the I’ll-kill-you-asshole L.A. traffic ambience around me. I mean, I hear the chorus sing, “Alle Menschen werden Bruder” (“All men will be brothers”) as I watch a jackass tailgate someone (safely driving the speed-limit), leaning on his horn and shouting, “you fucking idiot!”
          To further illustrate: I had walked to the nice, new Westwood branch of the Los Angeles Public Library to write. I was typing, listening to the Leinsdorf 9th on headphones, when someone behind me kept making hog snort sinus-clearing noises that would have bothered hogs. I mean 8.0 on the Richter scale. Krakatoa, West of Nostril. Good thing there were no freeway overpasses nearby. Eventually, after about ten snorts in five minutes, I turned to look at this creature, and found a tragically obese homeless black woman. Leaning over the table, scribbling on paper (actually scribbling), and snorting.
          It was deliberate. To annoy.
          “Good God, woman,” I said. "Take it to a hospital."   
          Which prompted this:
            “Why donchoo go fuck yourself, white honky cracker-ass.”
          Alle Menschen werden Bruder. . .
Winky the criminal cat tried to escape last night. Well, inadvertently. He is ever-tempted to freedom by the vision of various free cats strolling the neighborhood, playing chicken with SUV’s, feline leukemia, rabies, mange. But Winky is innately a coward. The slightest out-of-place sound sends him scurrying under the bed, eyes turned entirely to black holes, fur puffed like a blow-dried show-poodle.
            Last night, he was sitting in his usual spot on the balcony wall, watching the rats and squirrels frolicking in a nearby palm tree, giant bird of paradise, and power lines. Apparently, it was just too much frolicking for him to tolerate. He wanted to frolic, too, preferably with a rat or squirrel in his mouth, and so he leaped.
          I heard a great commotion in the dried branches of the bird-of-paradise, and guessed what had happened. There he was, baffled, clinging, slipping. About 25 feet above concrete, about four feet away from the balcony. I threw potted plants out of the way, leaned over, and grabbed him.
          Zip. Under the bed.
          About fifteen minutes later, he emerged sheepishly, walked over to the couch where I was sitting, meowed inquisitively, and then jumped into my lap. He does this every time he has committed a crime. He begs forgiveness. I am a pushover of a judge, and he knows it.
           Beethoven’s 9th and I have a long history, and it has always been a bulwark of comfort and support. I have often played it at great volume, almost as a way of firing goodness back at the brutish world. Why, when I was 16, on the night I was thrown out of my home, I played this symphony on my bedroom stereo at titanic volume, as I packed. I wanted the person who threw me out to know that nothing would ever stop me from believing in goodness and ethics. And nothing has. 
          There are a few things that I like in this work of almost impossible genius. I like when the little two-note bits in the opening bars of the first movement fall together and coalesce into colossal aural monuments, and I like when this is handled with a great degree of tension, drama and surprise. I like a first movement that feels like a defiant musical cosmos, if not the cosmos, being created out of nothing, and I like a second movement that packs some fright into its delirious dance---as if, as one conductor whose name escapes (Walter?) put it---“the devil is standing behind me.”
          And I like a fourth movement that lets the music and chorus breathe deeply, and take its fullest measure---and that slows way, way down on the final “Freude, schoener Gotterfunken,” then charges home like Secretariat. A last deep breath, a final summoning of energies, a last “get the point?” before the great exclamation mark.
          But lately I’ve been thinking that the key to the whole symphony is the third movement. I’m sure if I could analyze and comprehend it technically, harmonically, all sorts of illumination would occur, but I can’t. I’ve long thought of it is poignant utterance, a look-back-over-the-shoulder in gratitude, love, perhaps regret. A gentle elegy, a drifting, reflective essay in which Beethoven seems to put muse ahead of expected adagio-type  structure. Hence the odd horn declarations toward the end, the almost whimsical French horn passage, the aching, welling main theme, weaving in and out of Bach-like string passages.
          Musically, it’s all grace and lyricism, and I probably should not project below the compositional surface. It’s more than likely that this is “just music,” and that’s certainly more than enough. But I always find myself wondering what Beethoven was thinking and feeling in the moments he wrote this movement, and whether even he knew. 
          There is a huge tom cat that sleeps on the roof of the house next door. I watch him from the balcony here, on the second floor. He is white with big round black spots, green eyes and the battered nose of a ham-and-eggs fighter. He shows up on sunny days and curls up right at the corner of the roof, all day long.
          Winky and Maggie stare at him in fascination. What manner of hobo feline is this? What sort of vagabonding, devil-may-care ruffian? And they are especially baffled by my habit lately of throwing big chunks of their canned food on to the roof---splat---and watching the old boy wolf it down.
          Heard Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the Sibelius 6th and 5th, in that order, a few weeks back. Pekka is a little like the L.A. Opera production of “Don Giovanni.” He is Cirque du Soleil on the podium. The frug, the twist, the mashed potato, the swim---he does them all. He makes Bernstein’s ballet dancing of later years resemble the elegance and restraint of Giulini. The audience loves him, of course. But the audience also claps between movements.
          As for me, as with “Giovanni,” I often have to close my eyes to concentrate on the music.
          Sibelius was famously plagued by depression and alcoholism, as all the best people are, and I think it really shows in the sixth symphony. This plays like a first draft of something he barely roused enough mock-interest to do. I think he was burned out at this point---he quit writing music shortly thereafter, for about the next 50 years of his life---and his heart was not in his pen. The orchestration is compelling---the most interesting thing about it, really---and there are thematic elements that one can easily imagine having being spun into something more substantial, affecting. There are passages of shimmering, glossy string gorgeousness.
          And in that respect, the 6th is interesting. A masterpiece of first-impulse half-heartedness. Or quarter-heartedness. Or less. Ormandy refused to ever conduct it, saying it made no sense. Salonen led the piece carefully, technically. There isn’t much to frug to.
          The 5th was another story. Esa went Pekkapleptic. His silly oft-stated ethos, “to play the hell out of a piece of music,” was well in evidence. Lucky for the listener, the 5th is not badly served by such an approach, though it benefits from greater dynamic contrast and more careful, suspenseful, couching of the payoff moments. The orchestra played superbly, but it almost always does.
          The 5th, for me, is a little like Beethoven’s 9th in that is never wears out, and always gets the point across, with goosebumps. (Especially the Colin Davis recording with the Boston Symphony.) It also strikes me as a vicious struggle on Sibelius’s part to cope with, and surmount his depression, but in this case, he seems to have won through sheer imposition of will. The first emergence of the symphony’s major motif is arrestingly, paralyzingly moving. When it is restated at the end in massive, discreet blasts than hang in the air with great pauses between (the audience didn’t clap in the blanks---bravo!), well, there are no more powerful silences in all of orchestral music.
          I just spent five minutes watching Maggie the cat trying to catch raindrops in her mouth. That’s it. That’s as good as life gets.
          "Music is the best."---the great Frank Zappa, December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993.

*"Music and Cats" and this column are
© 2007 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.

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© 2007 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.