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Archive for September, 2011

It’s late summer, after the storm, and I can’t help thinking of my favorite piece of music. I would write about it too, but I already did that a couple of years ago, prompted by storms and sea-changes in our political landscape (at least, they seemed like pretty dramatic shifts at the time). With no scruples about stealing from myself, I’m reposting the essay here.

Is it brief? Sorry, no.

Hopefully, the tiny band of people who are kind enough to follow The Luminous Hand now realize it is basically an essay publishing tool. But that does not compute in the typical blogging calculus, which requires the brain to turn off after 100 words. To this, I can only respond that I do value brevity, but that I also value levity, gravity, and many other “ity” words.

The testament at hand was originally posted on my Organizing for America blog. I wrote it a few months after Obama took office, when I still derived grim satisfaction from recounting our previous President’s bungling and buffoonery. Nowadays, thinking about Bush Jr. only gives me the chills—because we might get another one like him, only worse.

It remains to be seen whether or not the Justice Department will take a prosecutorial stand against Bush-era torture policy. As Attorney General Eric Holder struggles to find his path in the matter, it’s worth remembering the predicament of the Bush Six—and the doubtful expectation that they’ll ever appear in a Spanish courtroom.

The David-and-Goliath aspect of that affair still interests me. Spain, it seems, had something to say to us about our behavior. And although the scolding has faded (most likely into history) I submit that other Spanish voices, or bursts of Spanish sentiment, warrant our attention.

One is Picasso’s Guernica. Another, from the same decade, has haunted me since I was a teenager. It’s the Concierto de Aranjuez, a work for guitar and orchestra by the great 20th-century composer Joaquin Rodrigo. I’m no musicologist, but I suspect that Rodrigo is to Spain what Aaron Copeland is to the United States—meaning, you can’t listen to Rodrigo’s music and mistake it for anything other than Spanish.

So why do I find Aranjuez globally meaningful? The answer involves a bit of personal history and will likely disappoint readers looking for a purely political discussion. On the other hand, anyone who juggles political and artistic sensibilities may find some common ground here.

First, a brief background summary:

The concerto came into being 70 years ago, as Hitler lit the fuse of war in Europe, and war must have been on Rodrigo’s mind while he wrote. His literal purpose, however, was to evoke the splendor of the royal gardens of Aranjuez, located south of Madrid. I confess I’ve never been there, but when the music plays, I imagine the gardens as ideal for soul-searching and the quest for peace of mind.

The second movement, the adagio, is a terrible, beautiful, cavernous drama. A guitar and English horn speak mournfully to each other while a platoon of mysterious strings advances from shadow to light, echoing the lamentations. In the opening phrases, any listener, no matter how tone-deaf, can discern this much: the music will not remain so understated, so careworn, for long. It is biding its time, slowly filling each instrument with fire.

Along the way it describes moments of curiosity, danger, even a sprinkling of delight. The guitar does most of the talking. It turns strange corners, stumbles semi-gracefully, wonders aloud what it is doing—and yet it constantly builds to a climax, beckoned by the orchestra through a series of siren calls and sudden warnings.

The first time I encountered it—as a high-school junior with cinematic aspirations—Aranjuez felt like the soundtrack of an epic movie, something along the lines of Spartacus, maybe a lyrical depiction of Rome’s Iberian conquest. Images sprouted in my mind, and I saw a lone figure standing on a ridge overlooking a fertile valley. After the music ended, I thought more about this imaginary stranger. Perhaps he was one obscure Roman who had come to stake a claim, to make a name for himself, to find himself.

At the time I was a committed pacifist, but I found it hard to overrule the pull of classical storytelling. Reagan was president, after all. So I wavered and waffled about this fictitious hero. What lengths would he go to in order to secure, control, and own the land below him? Had he come to defeat or befriend the inhabitants?

The picture stuck with me through the rest of high school and college, its focus sharpening every time I heard the piece. Again and again I tried to understand the odd protagonist on the ridge. Maybe he was no ordinary centurion or settler. Maybe he was no Roman, but rather the principal in some kind of science fiction story, working in the service of a higher good and possessing an intelligence dwarfing humanity’s. In that case, he deserved what lay below, just as Arthur C. Clarke’s overlords assume a benign mastery of Earth in Childhood’s End.

Convinced I would one day produce a film with Aranjuez as its score, I tried to further my knowledge of moviemaking and story structure, working at various jobs in Seattle’s humble TV and film industry and eventually returning to school for a Master’s in film production. Akin to my imagined hero, I awaited the moment in which I’d stretch out a magisterial fist and possess every acre of Hollywood, or, if provoked, lay waste to the entire landscape.

Meanwhile, America followed similar visions of grandeur. We elected a chain of chief executives who scrubbed and polished the mythology of benign world leadership. This mythology has an extensive pedigree, to be sure, but I always viewed it as a vaguely positioned brick in the bastion of U.S. foreign policy. With the advent of new terrors, new hallucinations of what we should and shouldn’t be, that misshapen brick became a hastily hammered-in cornerstone—supporting a fortress of supremacy and unilateral privilege.

That’s when my contrarian nature reared its ugly head. While the Bush team contemplated empire, I tumbled to the lowest estimation of my powers, ever. The idea of me, Scott, succeeding as a film director began to feel absurd, on a par with becoming the king of Mars. Why this happened is difficult to sort out, but my spiritual constitution was a major factor. A movie production, even a small one, closely resembles a military operation, and despite my best efforts I could no longer muster the needed resolve. Instead I let my dreams erode like a derelict city of sand.

Entwined with this plunge in confidence were my feelings about Aranjuez. Now and then I would put it on the CD player and experience a sourness bubbling up from my stomach, even during the most exquisite passages of the adagio. It wasn’t that Rodrigo’s notes rang falsely—rather, that I had finally detected their core meaning, and in my opinion, no film scenario emerging in the post-9/11 dimness warranted such transcendent music. Every script I conceived felt hollow, as hollow as Bush’s hilltop citadel proved to be when its foundations buckled under the dual burdens of greed and stupidity.

Today, Rodrigo’s adagio still conjures my dream of heroic visitation, but with a light-year’s increase in poignancy. I continue to appreciate its wanderlust and inquisitiveness. Most of all, however, I hear a sweet regret. Twenty-five years after the music first floated from my clock radio, I’m living in a completely different setting—born a West Coast kid, I now reside a brisk train-ride from Ground Zero—and the nation’s social, political, and economic position has mutated just as much. I no longer aspire to Spielberg-hood. Our society aspires to avoid implosion.

The final crescendo of Aranjuez’ second movement tells me something about the necessity, yet near-impossibility, of regaining a proper path. I could care less that it’s seventy years old and Spanish. It rapturously outlines a route away from failed ambition downward to honest earth. As the guitar gathers force, demands to be heard, then yields to the strings and their incendiary reprise of the melody, my ragged “hero” image takes on a crystal clarity.

Above that valley of erstwhile wealth shivers a lost soul named America. The hour is late, almost too late. America has just rediscovered what it means to be a stranger in the wider world, what it means to need friendship, support, and dialog. Neighbors and adversaries alike wait to see what it will do. 

Not even America knows, really. But here is my hope: that drums and clarions fade to the tap-tap-tapping of a conductor’s baton while America descends from its crumbling stronghold, sword sheathed. Such a feat is possible with, among other elements, the proper soundtrack.

Once more I ask for indulgence in suggesting Rodrigo’s far-sighted adagio. Its origins remind us that, if power is exercised, the aim must be to create a public garden rather than a bunkered compound. And as a simple aural narrative, the music is equally useful. Through its aching expression of abandoned opportunities, it readies us for new ones.

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