by RIP RENSE
MUSIC AND CATS*
(Dec. 5, 2007)
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.
Went to the
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
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
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
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
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
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,
(1972.) All have their wonderment, but nothing ever tops the
That’s the one that still gets the old point across, with goose bumps, every
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
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
“Good God, woman,” I
said. "Take it to a hospital."
Which prompted this:
“Why donchoo go fuck yourself, white honky cracker-ass.”
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
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
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
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
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
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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