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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000072.txt from 2008/05

From: "Lelia Loban" <>
Subj: [kl] re:Gnarly Buttons
Date: Mon, 12 May 2008 09:35:06 -0400

Dan Leeson wrote:
>Yesterday, Apr. 12, the Classical TV network showed a
>performance of the beginning of John Adams Gnarly Buttons,
>with a small and eclectic orchestra accompanying the soloist,
>Andre Trouttel. While I was not favorably inclined to the piece,
>it is clearly a heavy piece of work for the clarinetist."

Simon Aldrich replied,
>>I have played Gnarly Buttons a number of times, most recently
a few months ago on the west coast with the Victoria Symphony
(in Victoria, BC).
>>Gnarly Buttons is Adams' most personal and autobiographical
work. One could even say it is his most cathartic work because
it is a memorial tribute to his father, who he lost to Altzeimers. It is
a tribute using his father's favourite instrument, the clarinet.
>>Adams was taught the clarinet by his father . . . . [snip]

Thanks for the context, Simon. It's a sad story, and (since my own mother
died of Alzheimer's in February) I do empathize with it. It explains why
Adams wrote the music the way he did. Unfortunately, I don't think empathy
with his reasons makes the music any more palatable. I find it
unlistenable, because (I now understand) it evokes Alzheimer's all too well.

We love desperately ill people because they're our own, or we volunteer to
care for them because they're human beings and we choose to include the
whole family of humankind with our own. The sheets of paper with music
written on them are inanimate objects. The clarinet is an inanimate object.
They can't--the music can't--feel sadness and pain and confusion. The music
can only be used as a tool by other human beings to evoke those feelings in
listeners. The music itself can't cry if I reject it. Therefore, when the
sheets of paper and the clarinet and the musician combine to sound like
someone in the late stages of Alzheimer's, I do reject them.

Moreover, I don't feel guilty about rejecting them. My
formerly-intelligent, artistic mother wouldn't have put up with her own
medical condition for one minute, if she'd had any choice. Nobody chooses
Alzheimer's--and, as an amateur musician, I don't choose to listen to it,
let alone learn how to play it. I don't need, let alone seek out, music to
rehearse compassion for the next person I love who falls prey to that
inexorable deterioration.

Thirty years ago in California, my family lived next door to a professional
painter who specialized in what I would call glorified wallpaper, for hotels
and offices. No, you've never heard of her. These assembly-line paintings
were highly proficient watercolors, all landscapes, soft green and blue and
tan, in a quasi-Japanese brushwork style. (She wasn't Japanese.) They were
inoffensive. They were nice. You could hang one anywhere without arousing
any controversy. They sold quite well.

They were boring.

She got cancer. It spread. She learned she had months, maybe weeks, to
live. Shortly after the latest of many hospitalizations where doctors
gradually removed pieces of her, one gory gobbet at a time, she invited me
into her house and showed me several dozen of her unsold paintings: all much
of a blandly stereotypical muchness, all except one. She hesitated about
whether or not to show me that one. She hesitated so long that I began to
suspect that one painting was the reason she'd invited me in, in the first
place. She decided not to show me.

Then, abruptly, at the front door, she turned around and beckoned me to
follow her into her bedroom. She dragged that framed canvas out of the back
of a closet where she'd hidden it and she slammed it roughly up against the
wall. That one, which she'd just completed in thick acrylics instead of her
usual watercolor, was a blotchy horror of an abstract in screaming red and
yellow and orange, great lumps of paint spreading, boiling over the soft
blue and green, blotting them out. She didn't say one word. She didn't
need to tell me what that painting was about. I burst into tears and so did
she. I told her I thought it was far and away the best and most honest
thing she'd ever painted. It was magnificent. It definitely didn't belong
in my house or in anybody's house and I couldn't imagine a corporation
hanging it on an office wall. It belonged in a museum.

After she died, after another prolonged agony in the hospital, her widowed
husband broke the frame, slashed that canvas to rags and threw them out with
the garbage.

The music has to stand or not on its own merit as music, and I've got a
limited tolerance for wallowing in musical agony when there's already an
unbearable amount of pain in real life.

Lelia Loban


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