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February 18, 2010

Book Notes - Terry Castle ("The Professor and Other Writings")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Terry Castle has long been one of my favorite literary critics and cultural commentators. Her new essay collection, The Professor and Other Writings is filled with her trademark wit and honest, smart writing. Taken together, these six essays read like an engrossing and entertaining memoir.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

"Incurably curious, an obsessive autodidact, equipped with an allusion for any occasion and intrepidly self-aware, Terry Castle trains her fully engaged attention on jazz musician Art Pepper, World War I battlefields, Susan Sontag, shelter magazines, graduate school, Georgia O'Keeffe and assorted other matters in "The Professor and Other Writings." Along the way, like some ideal traveling companion, she informs and amuses, speculates and startles, inserts details about her own beguiling identity, and doubles back to enrich and enfold them in an ever-deepening story line."

In her own words, here is Terry Castle's Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection, The Professor and Other Writings:

As an obsessive music collector, I don't believe there's any musical genre out there--however obscure--I haven't sampled at one time or another. It's fair to say too that I enjoy just about every kind of music I encounter. (Barbershop quartet singing and Norwegian death-metal might be two exceptions, but even there—as with show tunes played on massed bagpipes—I could probably work up at least a theoretical appreciation.)

My vast LP and CD collection--now getting very slowly mp3'd—is not surprisingly quite freakishly varied. In my new book of essays, The Professor and Other Writings, I list a few of the time-honored favorites:

Conlon Nancarrow, Fatboy Slim, DJ Cheb I Sabbah, Ludwig Spohr, Amalia Rodriguez, Johnny Cash, Dame Myra Hess, Sigur Rós, Verklärte Nacht, Brenda Lee, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Gus Viseur à Bruxelles 1949, the Pogues, some early Leontyne Price (yum), White Stripes, Charpentier, Delalande, Coney Island Baby, Historic Flamenco, Rusalka, the Bad Plus, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Son House, Reynaldo Hahn (the real guy, quavering away at the piano!), Busoni's Bach arrangements, Ginette Neveu, the Stanley Brothers, Tessie O'Shea, Milton Babbitt, The Rough Guide to Rai, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Charles Trenet, Ska Almighty, John Dowland, the organ music of Johann Fux (heh heh), Ian Bostridge, the Ramones, Astor Piazzola, Ethel Merman's Disco Album, Magnetic Fields, Flagstad and Svanholm in Die Walkurie, Lord Kitchener and the Calypso All-Stars, Sonic Youth, Youssou N'Dour, tons of the Arditti Quartet, Kurt Cobain, Suzy Solidor, John McCormack, rembetiko music from Piraeus, Jan and Dean, Los Pinguinos del Norte, Shostakovich film scores, Some Girls, Wunderlich doing Butterfly (in luscious, spittle-ridden German), Cuban contredanses, Planet Squeezebox, some croaky old Carter Family, Morton Feldman, Beatrice Lilly (and fairies at the bottom of the garden), Elmore James, Giulio Cesare, Miss Kitty Wells, Vespro della beata vergine, South Pacific, Pet Sounds, Les Negresses Vertes, Dusty in Memphis, Ferrier's Kindertötenliieder, Toots and the Maytals, Têtes Raides, Lulu, Lulu—even Gurdjieff's potty piano ramblings. He always makes me think of Katherine Mansfield.

Such gluttonous auditory appetites--combined, paradoxically enough, with overweening snobbery—make the choice of an authorial "soundtrack" for The Professor exceedingly difficult. Yet in the utopian spirit of the blogosphere, I shall nonetheless attempt one: a tiny, austere, would-be Beggar's Banquet of possibly relevant sounds.

Dame Clara Butt, "Land of Hope and Glory"

The Professor is autobiographical and the first essay in the book ("Courage, Mon Amie") is about my British background and somewhat morbid and unladylike obsession with the First World War. (My great-uncle died in it.) What to play while musing sentimentally about crater holes, trench foot, and crawling through the barbed wire and corpse-muck in one's mud-splattered puttees? No one better, perhaps, than the transcendent Dame Clara, she of the foghorn-contralto, singing the Elgar showstopper through a veritable gale of primitive 1916 recording hiss. It was said that when the boomadacious Butt—to whom the epithet pint-sized was alas never to be applied--sang this, her patriotic signature-piece, in London at the Royal Albert Hall, one could hear her all the way across the English Channel, even over the thunder of the German bombardment.

Art Pepper, "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," from Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, 1957

In Straight Life, the candid and astonishing autobiography he dictated to his wife Laurie three years before his death, Pepper (1925-1982)—carouser, jailbird, unrepentant heroin addict and one of the supreme American jazzmen of the twentieth century—describes the unpromising circumstances in which he recorded his 1957 masterpiece, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. He hadn't practiced for six months; the mouth-piece on his alto sax had rotted away; and he was so strung out on heroin and booze that his floozie-girlfriend, Diane, had to push him out the door to get him to go to the recording studio for a long-planned date. ("She said, ‘It's time to go.' I called her a few choice words: ‘You stinkin' motherfucker, you! I'd like to kill you, you lousy bitch! You'll get yours!' I then went into the bathroom and fixed a huge amount.") He was petrified, he explains, at the thought at having to play, unfit and unrehearsed, with the celebrated Miles Davis rhythm section—then the best in the land.

What happened? If you believe the story, a miracle of the loaves-and-fishes sort. The second essay in The Professor, "My Heroin Christmas," is a Pepper tribute and a reflection on how, if you're lucky, you just might in the end salvage beauty and meaning out of despair. Pepper channeled his rage and sadness, here and elsewhere, into artistry of the highest and most exquisite kind. "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" is the lead-off cut on Meets the Rhythm Section and you can hear it instantly: the tenderness, the warmth, the fluid, probing, unimpaired technique. Pepper had a musical intelligence so profound and coherent and indestructible that even the cruelest gods were lulled into forgiveness.

Connie Champagne, "All Tomorrow's Parties," from La Strada (1991)

"Sicily Diary" describes a ludicrous and somewhat ill-starred pleasure-trip I took to that fabled isle of myth and crime. The essay begins, literally, in the macabre confines of the Palermo catacombs—where Blakey and I encountered row upon row of the rotting, still-clothed remains of hundreds of 19th-century Capuchin monks and wealthy Palermitans. A Sicilian tarantella from the turn of the century might be fitting here: let corpses dance!

By the end of the essay, however, I've come around--don't ask me how--to a short meditation on the ultra-downtown photography of Nan Goldin. Goldin first came to the notice of art-world scenemakers when she exhibited a graphic autobiographical slide show, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, in New York in the 1980s. In subsequent work she has continued to document her own life and that of her hipster friends in a manner at once intimate, seedy, self-ironizing. Glamorous decay, nostalgie de la boue--it's all there. Music-wise, some good old postmodern "standard" would thus be needed to capture the go-away-a-little-closer element in this part of the essay: something louche and bohemian and like the mummies of Palermo, more than a little sinister. "All Tomorrow's Parties" strikes the right dyspeptic note—it's uncanny and portentous, a memento mori, a forecast of dissolution. I've chosen the Connie Champagne version rather than Nico's, however—Champagne is a San Francisco chanteuse who, among other things, made an extraordinary album, La Strada, in the early 1990s. She continues to perform and please locally but has never gotten the grateful recognition she deserves.

Dvorak, the "Moon Song," from Rusalka, Act 1, scene 5.

In "Desperately Seeking Susan" I recount a somewhat checkered eight-year friendship with Susan Sontag. I wrote this short memoir after her death in 2004, in part because I felt the mostly dull and respectful obituaries she'd received up to that point had not dealt honestly with the sharply mixed feelings she invariably evoked in those who encountered her. Yes, she was brilliant, charismatic, and indelibly inspiring, but she could also be breathtakingly rude--quite comically awful. She was a mistress of the abrupt, brutalizing intellectual put-down, and our friendship went abruptly south at the end. Yet before it did we used to visit record stores together in New York and San Francisco: both of us on the prowl for something cultish and arcane the other one hadn't heard of. She once asked if I knew the Czech composer Janacek's opera, The Excursions of Mr Broucek, and when I said no, reprimanded me in characteristic intellectual-diva fashion: I owed it to myself "as a cultivated person" to familiarize myself with it. She sent me a recording not long afterward. I still have it, but confess I never play it: I find it horribly dry and indigestible. But I can't bear to get rid of my CD of it either, no doubt because of the exalted provenance. Now it might be fitting, I realize, to sample a desiccated wodge of it here in the great lady's honor. But why not wallow instead in something truly ravishing? Something that I like! Also by a Czech composer! Thus the "Moon Song" from Dvorak's Rusalka, preferably sung by the goddess Renée Fleming. Girls just wanna have fun.

John Cage, 4'33"

The fifth essay in The Professor, "Home Alone," is about one of my more mainstream, if hopelessly derrière-garde, obsessions: so-called shelter magazines. (Standard examples include House and Garden, Elle Décor, Architectural Digest, and World of Interiors.) It's an attempt to explore the eerie bourgeois post-9/11 fantasies such mags cater to: above all, the fantasy that once you create your own "perfect" space, you will be safe and never die. With the right window treatments, kilim runners, and cut-flower arrangements you can make your home into your own mausoleum-like sanctuary. But while I do mention a piece of music in the essay--the Pet Shop Boys' haunting synthesizer ballad, "King's Cross," from Actually—I do so only in passing and the song doesn't really have a great deal to do with the main theme. Had I given it more thought, an appropriate "cut" for this chapter might have been John Cage's famous 4'33"—4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, in three movements, scored for any instrument or combination of instruments. Deathless.

Laurie Anderson, "Hiawatha," from Strange Angels, 1989

A primal American-landscape kind of song from the most beautiful and visionary (and strangely unregarded) album Anderson ever made. The Native American references--at one point she samples the old Hamm's beer commercial of the 1960s, "From the Land of Sky-Blue Waters"-- give it a loose thematic connection with the penultimate chapter in The Professor: "Travels With My Mother," about a trip Blakey and I took with my 80-year-old mother to Santa Fe a few years ago. I wanted especially to see the Pueblo Indian sites and the gorgeous minimalist paintings by Agnes Martin in the Taos museum. I did both of these things while also trying to come to terms—however imperfectly--with my mother's larger-than-life personality, her physical frailty, and my own daughterly guilt. No question but I owe my love of art, books, and music—not to mention my middle-aged waistline and psoriasis—to the powerful maternal pattern. Laurie Anderson has always seemed quite beyond guilt of any sort; she deals purely--as in this gorgeous lyric--in freedom and cool transcendence.

Anna McGarrigle, "Heart Like a Wheel," from Kate and Anna McGarrigle, 1975.

Music is everywhere in the eponymous novella-length memoir with which The Professor concludes. The central subject of this last piece is a near-catastrophic affair I had with a much older closeted female professor when I was a graduate student the 1970s. The Professor had been a folk singer in Greenwich Village in the Dylan/Baez era and had even made a few records—a personal history which along with her seductive butch demeanor, utterly awed and enthralled me when we met. I was young and susceptible; she was mannish, deep-voiced, and heart-stopping. Though I didn't twig on it for a while, she was also a bit of a sociopath and notorious for having taken advantage of various young female students over the years. The night our affair began, things got started with my cranking up the stereo, record-geek fashion, and playing several of my favorite Dolly Parton songs for her. ("Jolene" and "Touch Your Woman" still carry a strange yet potent Sapphic depth-charge for me.) The mood music worked: thanks to Dolly's breathy, sexy-little-girl stylings—plus a fair amount of wine and pot---the Professor and I began arm-wrestling on the floor and everything went rapidly on from there.

Yet none of it ended happily, perhaps needless to say, which is why Parton--much as I love her—is an unsuitable musical mascot here. (Far too downhome, busty, and cheery.) More appropriate: the thin, dark, weirdly wonderful McGarrigle Sisters, whose stunningly refined first album came out right around the time my doom-laden liaison began. (I even gave the Professor a copy of the record as a birthday present a month or two later, but it was by then too late to save our relationship.) No doubt Anna McGarrigle's wraith-ballad, "Heart Like a Wheel," is best-known in the fairly lush, fairly plush Linda Ronstadt version. Sung by Anna, accompanying herself on a harmonium (?), it is like Emily Dickinson on Vicodin. Delicate, shivery, dissociated—spinsterish and keen to the point of eeriness—it is one of the great female paeans to a broken and excruciating love. Very Miss Havisham. Loss has never been more perfectly sublimated—made over into such pristine, melodic agony. I still adore it, thirty years later, but I'm also glad I outlived it.

Terry Castle and The Professor and Other Writings links:

the author's website
the author's blog

Bay Area Reporter review
Buffalo News review
EDGE San Francisco review
Ghost Word review
Library Journal review
New York Magazine review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Time Out Chicago review

New York Times interview with the author
Salon interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (highlights of the week's comics & graphic novel releases)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (highlights of the week's book releases)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists