On Dennis Johnson’s November

On and off for the last several months, I’ve been soaking in an extraordinary piece of music, and trying to get up to speed on the series of minorly monumental circumstances that are bringing it out of obscurity.
In 1959 Dennis Johnson, a college friend of LaMonte Young, composed November, a six-hour piano piece that basically gave birth to the minimalist music movement as we know it. Young, never shy about his own importance, credits November as the source and inspiration for his own ur-minimalist composition, The Well Tuned Piano. It was all there in November first.
But except for a rough 2-hour recording from 1962, Johnson’s work had faded from consciousness, discussion, performance, and history. And Johnson himself had disappeared from the music landscape. Until musicologist Kyle Gann began investigating it, and reconstructing the score. Then R. Andrew Lee recorded it. And it got released last spring on a 4CD box set.
I found November through musician Ben.Harper’s blog, Boring Like A Drill. The unfolding of November‘s story across several years of posts is convoluted, but really wonderful. Here’s a bit of his description of attending a live performance of November by Lee, timed to the CD release:

Over five hours, the music works a strange effect on the listener. The intervening decades of minimalist and ambient music have made us familiar with the concepts of long durations, tonal stasis, consistent dynamics, repetitions, but November uses these techniques in an unusual way. The sense of continuity is very strong, but there is no fixed pulse and few strict repetitions. The slowness, spareness and use of silence, with an organic sense of rhythm, make it seem very similar in many respects to Morton Feldman’s late music. The harmonic language, however, is very different. Johnson’s piece uses clear, familiar tonality to play with our expectations of the music’s ultimate direction, whereas Feldman’s chromatic ambiguity seeks to negate any feeling of movement in harmony or time.
The semi-improvised nature of November adds another element to a performance. It was interesting to watch Lee relax as he moved from the fully-notated transcription of the piece’s first 100 minutes, into the more open notation that made up the next three hours of playing. He seemed to go into a serene state of focused timelessness, perfectly matching the music he was playing.

November reminds me of a CD by Gabriel Orozco titled “Clinton is Innocent,” on which the artist improvised some random one-handed note clusters that were meant to evoke memories of the piano music of his childhood home. I used some of Orozco’s music in my first short film, Souvenir (November 2001), but for these months now, the coincidence of Johnson’s title has had me rethinking that score.
Late November [boring like a drill]
Gann talking about November on WNYC’s Spinning on Air last August [wnyc.org]
Buy R. Andrew Lee’s recording of Dennis Johnson’s November from Irritable Hedgehog [irritablehedgehog.com]
UPDATE AN HOUR LATER: D’oh, there I go again, I just listened to the WNYC show again.

A Vested Interest

Josh Marshall solicited “What’s Your 9/11” thoughts from the readers of Talking Points Memo. I’ve avoided reading them, and most such other efforts this week. But the title he gave to reader DE’s submission really encapsulated my own ambivalence about what the Memorial Industrial Complex has metastasized into, and why I’m reluctant to turn myself over to it:

So my personal unease with 9/11 memorials is the feeling that there are a lot of people in this country with a vested interest in the country not moving on, even though the two main perpetrators of the attack are either dead or in US custody and the organization they led has been soundly defeated. They want our leaders to keep delivering the Gettysburg Address every year, to keep us on that war footing, so that they can misdirect our resources and some Americans’ lives in the service of foreign and domestic policy goals that have nothing to do with what happened on 9/11.

This manipulation of memorialization by keeping the wounds open was quickly apparent to some, of course. For all the good that did.
“A Vested Interest in the Country Not Moving On.” [tpm]

Great Minds Think Alike, But Only Some Of Us Write For The New Yorker

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I didn’t read it earlier, and I have to read it now, obviously, now that it’s finally been published in the US. But I wonder if my first short film may be an inadvertent adaptation of Geoff Dyer’s 1994 essay on World War I and the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, France.
The Millions has a nice interview with him about it:

TM: You write in the book, “The issue, in short, is not simply the way the war generates memory, but the way memory has determined – and continues to determine – the meaning of the war.” Can you describe the meaning of the war?
GD: Always in the book I’m just trying to articulate impressions of it. It’s certainly not a history book. I always have faith in this idea that if I remain honest and open about my own confusion, the blurriness of my impressions – it’s not because I’m short-witted or stupid – the chances are those feelings will be shared by other people. And I just had this very distinct sense of the First World War as being something rather buried in its own memory. There’s so much discussion, as the war is going on, about how it will be remembered, or if it will be forgotten. So right from the start it just seems preoccupied with how it will be remembered. The other crucial thing is that distinction I make with the Robert Capa pictures of D-Day, where it all seems to hang in the balance and there’s a great sense of immediacy. With the First World War there’s no immediacy to it. It comes buried in so many layers of myth and memory.

Hmm, actually, maybe not. Or maybe the opposite. In 2001-2, I was looking at what a place of horrible destruction was like when there was no one left who did remember it. The difference between remembering and knowing, perhaps. Or the past and the experience of the present.
Also, Spiral Jetty first re-emerged in 1994, not 1999. I’d have thought the New Yorker would’ve caught that.
The Millions Interview | Geoff Dyer on the London Riots, the Great War, and the Gray Lady [themillions.com]
The Missing of the Somme (Vintage) [amazon]

In Memory Of

Harry Patch had a bustling career as one of the last living British WWI veterans. He was the last soldier to fight in the trenches. He died on July 25 at 111, just a couple of weeks after fellow veteran and oldest man in the world for a month Henry Allingham passed away at 113.
There are three known WWI veterans still alive: one British seaman living in Australia one American, and one Canadian.
But Patch’s archetypal trench warfare experience, combined with his lucid memory and firm convictions about the horrible wrongness of war, made him the most celebrated. When the BBC tracked him down for an interview in 1998, it turns out Patch hadn’t talked to anyone about his war experience at all. In 80 years. The BBC made a documentary about Patch called The Last Tommy in 2005, and then another documentary of Patch meeting with a 107-year-old German veteran in 2007.
In 2008, Patch’s autobiography, The Last Fighting Tommy, as told to Richard Van Emden, came out. Here’s a video of Van Emden promoting the book:

Then England’s poet laureate wrote a poem about Patch which the, what, composer laureate? set to music. All but a handful of the 79 Harry Patch YouTube videos right now are posthumous tributes. And now Radiohead has released a song, “Harry Patch (In Memory Of).”

In his interview Van Emden acknowledges the quirks of fate that made The Last Tommy a lucid, powerful rememberer, not someone else, a senile symbol. But he still said that while Patch was alive; now he’s gone, and his memories with him. All we’re left with are stories, which are not the same thing.
I didn’t know or even try to know whether there were still people with a firsthand memory of the brutal trench warfare of WWI when I began making Souvenir (November 2001), about the Battle of the Somme. [Patch fought at Passchendaele, not the Somme.] There were few enough veterans for my purpose, which was to see a site of horrific death and destruction after all the people who remembered it had disappeared.
I’ve left these threads alone for a while, but lately, as I’ve been plugging ahead on other installments of the Souvenir Series, I’ve had the urge to follow them again. As it turns out, a collection of essays was published in January on this very subject. War Memory and Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remembrance and Commemoration includes “The Ninetieth Anniversary of The Battle of The Somme,” by Dan Todman, a military historian at the University of London whose blog is named Trench Fever.
It’s the absence of firsthand rememberers that frames Todman’s whole survey of the contours of “memory”:

Here, then, are four problematic areas: how to define “memory: how it works for individuals and groups; the relationship between history, memor, family, and trauma in the production of ideas about the unlived past; and possible explanations for the “memory boom.”

The 2006 anniversary is a particularly useful one for considerations of what memory and “memory” mean, in both popular and academic terms. Ceremonies in Britain and in France and the media reporting of them made frequent references to the need to “remember the battle and those who had died during it. But the number of those who could actually do so was now extremely limited. The commemorations in 2006 were the first major anniversary at which no veteran of the 1916 battle was present.

Buy War Memory and Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remembrance and Commemoration at Amazon; I just did. [amazon]

On Memorial Day, Remembering

David Kurtz, writing on Talking Points Memo about finding the grave of Corporal Pearl B. Wilkerson, who was killed in action in April 1945, just before the European war ended:

But what lingers for me about Wilkerson is how Memorial Day — for all the somber remembrances and displays of military hardware — is a small strike against the inevitable forgetting. Poor Wilkerson got a head start on being forgotten: buried in a now-churchless cemetery with headstones knocked over and steadily sinking into the ground, near a briefly prosperous village of Irish immigrants that was long past its prime when Wilkerson died and will eventually be a nameless crossroads. His is the same fate as that of the overwhelming majority of men who ever fought and died for their clan, tribe or country. Today we acknowledge how much we’ve forgotten by paying homage to what we have managed to remember.

Kurtz is right, of course, but it’s worth remembering [sic] that forgotten and buried–if buried at all–in an unknown, even unmarked grave has been the standard fate throughout history of those killed in war. Remembering and memorializing individual soldiers is a modern, i.e., 20th century, i.e., post-WWI practice.
Lutyens’ triumphal arch tower at Thiepval was one of the first attempts to recognize all the British soldiers who died at the Somme; their names cover every available surface of the arch. From the WWI innovation of dog tags to identify the dead to our current ability to match DNA from the tiniest fragment of a fallen soldier’s body, technology has rendered the idea of an unknown soldier obsolete. Perhaps it is time to switch to the Tomb of The Unremembered Soldier instead.
Gone and Largely Forgotten [tpm]

Hugh Harman’s Peace On Earth (1939)

In retrospect, 1939 was a rough year to be a diehard pacifist. But that’s when Hugh Harman’s Peace On Earth anti-war cartoon was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mahatma Gandhi was nominated that year, too, but ’39 was the beginning of five-year stretch when the award was not given.
The timing makes me think of some of the giant WWI memorials in France which were conceived at the height of unalloyed pacificism. The Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, for example, wasn’t finished until 1938, just in time for the French to use it–unsuccessfully–as a position for repelling the German invasion.
Anyway, the cartoon is about the merry little forest creatures of Peaceville, who are picking up the pieces after all the humans have killed themselves off. Enjoy. [via fred]

Alberto Burri’s Cretto


Like Pompeii in reverse, Gibellina has been remembered by its ghost-like burial instead of an unearthing.
In 1968, an earthquake devastated villages throughout the Belice Valley of western Sicily. The Italian government’s incompetent response to the disaster and the corruption that absorbed rescue & redevelopment funds turned “Belice” into a cautionary touchstone of Italian politics. It’s a scenario that might resonate today, even. In the United States. And/or in Iraq.
Anyway, in the mid-80’s, artist Alberto Burri proposed a memorial to victims of the earthquake. His plan: encase the ruins and detritus of the abandoned hill town of Gibellina in concrete, leaving the roads as a solid, labyrinthine palimpsest of the village’s public spaces. [The whole town had been rebuilt and relocated closer to the freeway soon after the earthquake. No preserve-or-rebuild debates there.]


The remarkable thing: the memorial was built. Cretto is now a 20+ acre piece of mesmerizing land art, the pathways of an entire town petrified in brutalist, post-minimalist concrete. Now, of course, in 2006, it looks like Peter Eisenman’s Berlin Holocaust Memorial, but with content. The other thing it reminds me of is an old NYT Magazine article [date? who knows?] about the challenge of designing effective warning signs for a Nevada nuclear waste dump. To get the “Keep Out” message across 10,000 years from now, someone suggested paving a giant desert quadrant with spiky black stone, which the heat alone would render nearly impassable. Haven’t heard much about that since.
Other things I haven’t heard: anyone–even the memorial experts–discuss Burri’s work in relation to the World Trade Center site, or even in the larger contexts of the evolution of memorial design, much less of Land Art. What gives?
Aleksandra Mir mentioned Cretto in her top ten list for this month’s Artforum [artforum]
Cretto [archidose talked about it, though. twice.]
09/2010 UPDATE Google Maps now has higher res images, and Street View. of BF Sicily.

Restoring Canada’s WWI Memorial

The Canadian Government has begun restoring the WWI-era Vimy Memorial in northern France:

It was 88 years ago today [apr. 9] 20,000 Canadians stormed out of the trenches and into the history books, but the scene of Canada’s most famous battle still poses a deadly threat for those toiling here to honour their memory…
But workers rehabilitating it and surrounding landscape must exercise extreme caution…
The same armaments and implements of war that left more than 10,000 Canadian dead or wounded at Vimy in 1917 are still exacting a deadly toll…
The surrounding battleground’s “atmosphere of terror and horror” will also be enhanced to contrast with the stark beauty of the monument, says restoration architect Julian Smith.

Project beset by danger [canoe.ca, via archinect]
Official Site – Vimy Memorial
Vimy Ridge – 80 years on [I used this site a lot researching the film]

“shaped by their directors’ experiences with grief”

The lingering after-effects of tragic loss are figuring into American feature films now. Some films are specifically–if obliquely–related to the September 11th attacks, but others can be attributed to a post-9/11 heightened sensitivity to the nuances of experiencing a loved one’s death.
Makes sense to me; I set my first short, Souvenir November 2001 in this aftermath, after the active, self-conscious mourning is past. People say that the hardest time is actually several months after the funeral of someone close, because people have usually stopped actively checking on you, and the reality of that person’s absence really starts to sink in.
9/11 Is Sneaking Onto a Screen Near You [nyt]

Bill T. Jones on New York’s Golden Age

It’s too bad it’s not online, becauseThe NY Times City section’s feature, asking 14 prominent New Yorkers when the city’s “Golden Age” was, makes for interesting reading. Counting the two who said, “Always,” five people said “Now”: John Leguizamo, Robert Stern, Laurie Anderson, Oscar de la Renta, and Yoko Ono.
But the choreographer Bill T. Jones said “Right after 9/11,” which, I agree, was a unique time that’s being lost and forgotten:

New York had a true reappraisal of itself at a tragic and introspective moment. New York had the attention of the whole world; it was a frightening moment. But the world was ready to follow, to assist.
It lasted a few months. We were vulnerable and open to the rest of the world, and we were ready for a change. There was a chance to ask questions, and it was a time when we were forced to do so.
But it didn’t happen. There wasn’t a true conversation about what America means to the rest of the world or about why New York was chosen. It was an opportunity. And then the politicians took it.

Glory Days [Thanks to Jason, a closer reader of the NYT, for the link]

Wong Kar Wai talks about 2046

2046 barely screened at Cannes, after the director hand-carried the not-quite-finished print to the rebooked theatre. Now it’s being released in the UK, and it turns out Wong has actually re-edited it since May.
Read Howard Feinstein’s interview with WKW and his recounting of the tortured making of in the Guardian
“It was like being in jail” [Guardian UK]
Related: I, too, delivered an unfinished film to Cannes, a fact I mention because of the deep, meaningful resonance between Wong Kar Wai’s films and career and my own.

Looking at Tall Buildings

united_arch_moma.jpg, image: MoMA via nytimes.com

A correction: Reading Herbert Muschamp’s review of MoMA’s “Tall Buildings” show, which includes the United Architects proposal for the WTC site. [The ‘Dream Team’ proposal is in there, too, but I’ve said all I’ll say about that.]

Coming after the pissed-to-be-publicly-accountable Meier, United Architecture’s proposal was surprisingly moving that morning in Dec.2002. They had made a video (it’s still on their site) with cuts of all kinds of happy shiny people looking up from the street, pointing at the new buildings, “like,” I said, “they used to do.” But it’s not really true.

Unless you were a tourist wanting to get fleeced, or you needed to get your bearings, you didn’t come out of the subway and look up at the World Trade Center, and you sure didn’t point.

Except on that morning. It just occurred to me that Farenheit 9/11 opened with shots of people staring, looking up, pointing. Like an uninsidious version of the Dream Team, United Architects unconsciously incorporated the attacks themselves into its presentation.

Conceived after September 11th, in case the world needed a reminder, “Tall Buildings” makes the complicated psychic and emotional power of skyscrapers as its jumping off point. Which is about as complicated a phrase as I can come up with.

[2018 UPDATE: In 2018 The New York Times reports that five women who worked with Meier, either at his firm or as a contractor, have come forward to say the architect made aggressive and unwanted sexual advances and propositions to them. The report also makes painfully clear that Meier’s behavior was widely known for a long time, and that his colleagues and partners did basically nothing to stop it beyond occasionally warning young employees to not find themselves alone with him. This update has been added to every post on greg.org pertaining to Meier or his work.]

On the dislocation of airports

Like the road, the airport is a nonplace, something encountered on the way to going somewhere else, better measured in time – always too long – than in square feet. Now that it is unsafe to hitchhike, and affordable to fly, the terminal makes a better canvas for transition or self-discovery. As such, it is the setting du jour for our narratives of romance, longing, adventure and intrigue.
“It’s unlegislated territory,” Mr. Iyer said. “It’s a psychological limbo that becomes a meeting place of the human and posthuman – people are meeting loved ones, sending them off to war, meeting for funerals, all in the midst of a network of Body Shops, Sharper Images and other stores whose names even speak of displacement.”

-John Leland, “Unchecked Baggage: Our Airports, Ourselves”, NYT
Related: Souvenir (November 2001) Shooting Day 1: Charles de Gaulle

Memorial to the Missing War

Armistice Day ceremony at Arlington, 11/11/21, image: acusd.edu

This morning I was in DC, so I thought I’d go to the WWI Memorial. [Veterans Day began in 1919 as Armistice Day. It was expanded two wars-to-end-all-wars later, in 1953.]
Nice plan, except that there is no national WWI Memorial. On 11 November 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in a ceremony which was relayed by telephone to New York and San Francisco.
[“In the open air the President’s voice swept over the crowd in Madison Square,” enthused The Times‘ man on the scene. “The Voice seemed to come from the chest of a giant…Carried by wire from Washington, [it] was heard more clearly that that of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and Martin Littleton, whose voices were amplified as they spoke from the platform in the Garden.” God Bless America(n Telephone & Telegraph).]
Presidents laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns became an Armistice Day tradition. But eventually, the soldier disinterred from Belleau Wood was joined by representatives from later wars, expanding he Tomb’s purview. As a result, specific remembrance of the horrors and sacrifices of WWI were conflated into the larger struggles of the century.
The traffic at Arlington was a mess; after sitting in misdirected lines for nearly an hour, I left without even a glimpse of the parking lot, much less the Tomb. Many in the crowd were veterans, though, families in tow. I went on to my second destination, across the Memorial Bridge, to the south edge of the Mall.

DC War Memorial, cropped from someone online, who I can’t remember….damn…

The DC World War Memorial is located in a grove of trees midway between the new Korean War Memorial and the massive, so-new-it’s-not-done-yet WWII Memorial. President Hoover dedicated the little temple pavilion in 1931 to the memories of Washingtonians who died in The War. Technically, then, it’s a local memorial, created by the locals, who also happened to be the leaders of the country.
I was the only visitor during the half hour I was there. Three Park Service rangers–two in WWI-era uniforms–were breaking WWI-era camp in the little temple. For three years now, they have taken it upon themselves to create a little interpretive history opportunity for any visitors. Last year, when detours for the WWII Memorial construction closed off many other pathways, the rangers had quite a turnout. This year was much quieter. The two rangers in period uniform participate in WWI re-enactments with the Great War Association. Unlike Civil War re-enactments, however, there is no audience; there are practically no spectators, only participants.

Memorial to the Missing, image. bc.edu

Britain created the Cenotaph as a Memorial to the Great War, and it has woven taught WWI into the national identity. They built The Memorial to the Missing–the subject of my first film, and an inspiration for Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial design just across the Reflecting Pond from the DC War Memorial–in France, an outpost for British memory. The names of just The Missing from just The Somme exceeded 75,000.
DNA testing helped identify the Unknown Soldier from Vietnam, and his remains were reburied in 1998. Until September 11th, it was assumed there would be no more Unknowns or Missing, but that turns out not to be the case. The World Trade Center Memorial will hold the presently unidentifiable remains of those killed, in hopes that technology will someday match them up to the 1,271 individual names. The New Missing, on the other hand, are frequently those who have been wounded or killed in Iraq. Witness to the fresh horrors of war, it seems, must come from the unlikeliest of sources: Cher calling into C-SPAN with stories of brave 19 year-olds who’ve lost arms and legs, just a few of the 2,100+ GWII casualties who are shunned and obscured by the Administration.
In Sunday’s Washington Post, the playwright Norman Allen–an old man, I take it–lamented the fading of Armistice Day:

I first heard tales of the war’s devastation from my grandfather, who was 19 when he was wounded not far from Chateau Thierry, an hour’s drive from Paris. In middle age, he spoke in generic terms of his heroic comrades, Iowa boys like himself. In early senility, he spoke in detail of struggling across a field under heavy fire. Glancing to the left, he saw a friend’s head blown away. He told me, “Never go to war. No matter what.” My generation is the last to hear these things firsthand.

Well, his generation–and Cher.

On Transit and Memory

Santiago Calatrava talks about his vision for the transit hub he’s designing for the World Trade Center site. I’m a fan, although there doesn’t seem to be a lot of design meat here.
And the New Yorker‘s Jane Kramer gets Berlin artists/memorial designers Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock to talk about a memorial for the World Trade Center. Their comments seem well suited to the discourse of a year or so ago, when entertaining the world of possibilities didn’t feel so escapist as it does now.
In fact, last year, I was very impressed by their proposed Holocaust memorial.