Amitav Ghosh, Armagnac, Biarritz, Cheese, Deng Xiaoping, Embers of War by Frederik Logevall, Ezra Vogel, France, Hannah Pakula, Ho Chi MInh, Igor Stravinksy, Jung Chang & Jon Halliday, Les noces, Octet, San Sebastián, Stanley Karnow, The Glass Palace, The Last Empress, West Hollywood, William Kraft
I’ve always thought that to understand history, you need to experience the locations that can bring a story to life. Being born in Los Angeles, my life as a musician is anchored by Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, both living for many years off of Sunset Boulevard. These two hometown heroes, current academic giant killing be damned, were formative influences on many of the teachers and musicians who shaped my thoughts and ideas. That’s a genuine tradition in my book. Looking back, I realize what a wonderful crucible for music they created in the City of Angels.
Jan and I spent a delightful time in San Sebastian, in Spanish Basque Country, this October, celebrating her 60th birthday. She’d always wanted to experience the legendary pintxos eating and experience first hand what all the gastronomic fuss was about. It didn’t disappoint.
Did I mention that mushrooms were in season?
But eating isn’t the only reason we travel. I’d looked at the map of surrounding Basque areas, and the city Biarritz in France stuck in my mind. I couldn’t quite place it the first glance I took, but then my memory woke up. Wasn’t Biarritz a Stravinksy town? A little research confirmed that this coastal French Basque city, a short and convenient bus ride from our base in San Sebastian, was where the orchestration of Les Noces was settled, and his Octet was composed. The charming Basque city thrived after the end of World War I as a place to recharge from Paris in the 1920s.
That settled things easily. We were going to be certain to visit Biarritz. You don’t go wrong trusting places that a person like Stravinksy decides to live in. Call it an unforeseen consequence of loving their music. Chances are the place will be worth a visit on its own. My feeling is if it’s good enough for Stravinksy, it’s good enough for me!
And Biarritz is wonderful, have no doubts. If you are in the neighborhood, don’t miss out. Keep reading to increase your appetite (which in France is probably not an issue).
Being from California, coastlines are not a difficult selling point. Quite the opposite, we feel like we are at home! Though Stravinsky would eventually decamp from Biarritz for Nice, as the winter storms were relentlessly brutal, we found also a chilly October wind. But the walking paths along the coast are incredible and well worth a long stroll.
Though Stravinksy is history book famous for his three ballets for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, L’oiseau de Feu, Petrouchka and Le sacre du Printemps, he had a fourth work in mind as a conclusion for Diaghilev’s company. The many and confusing orchestrations that characterize the composition of Les Noces, which brought Diaghilev to tears when he first heard it, finally were resolved here in Biarritz in the 1920s. Certainly there was a large supportive White Russian emigre community. The final orchestration of four pianos and percussion changed the potential of an ensemble in ways still acknowledged today by composers as different as Pierre Boulez and Steve Reich.
First impressions last a lifetime, and my first hearing of Les Noces has never left me. The non-stop energy that clangs and clangs to an incense laden wedding benediction took me back to my first musical impression, of ringing bells at a Catholic Mass as a young altar boy at St. Stephen’s Church in Monterey Park.
My mom had no reason to lie to me when she told me that Stravinsky was often at Sunday Mass in West Hollywood at St. Victor’s Catholic Church on Holloway Drive. And when I read a newspaper article as a young person about William Kraft, and he talked about how being surrounded by the ringing of bells was a great joy, I knew I’d found an eventual mentor. Bill has made his entrance in my blog posts already but his association with Igor Stravinsky still never fails to urge me to dislodge one more morsel of wisdom from his experience. Whenever I go to see him at his home, I stop for a short moment and look at his framed score of L’histoire du soldat. His sticks from the recording sessions for Columbia Records are appropriately contained in the frame but it’s the autograph that never fails to move me from head to toe.
“Thank you – Igor Stravinsky.”
Allow me a brief diversion. The San Gabriel Valley is home to some of the most extraordinary Chinese food outside of the People’s Republic. Here’s a tip. Don’t miss Chengdu Taste, that’s for sure, if you adore spicy food. Love, food and music make life in the world worth living, but I don’t want to get distracted….
Back to Europe.
Mes amis, Biarritz is in France. That means that there is a big difference from coming over the border from Spain. That difference? I won’t spell it out for you, I’ll just give you a picture. Maybe a couple, but I don’t think you’ll mind.
And we’ve all read and enjoyed the 1001 Nights of Scheherazade (a nice Ballet Russe thougth, after all) but, mon Dieu, a 1001 Cheeses? Which by the way sounds better in French as Mille et Un Fromages. A sausage in the form of a Basque beret was a true one of a one. Thank you, Biarritz for one of the most adorable shops on Planet Earth!
My perceptions, thoughts, ideas, and curiosity about France are now indelibly linked to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. My blog has often featured stories of these countries from the old and justly forgotten French Indochina. When I’m in France, I can’t help but think of the struggle of the colonial world, so far away from cold Europe in the warm humidity of the tropics. Life is lived in a different color in Southeast Asia, something very distant and foreign to Europe and much of the United States. Your palate and appetite for life change once you’ve accustomed yourself to being over the International Dateline. The French don’t use a lot of cilantro or bird chilies, if you know what I mean.
I’ve not blogged for a few weeks as I’ve been absorbed in research for a book that’s taking shape about the musical meetings of East and West. My mom always taught me to do my homework. Since Thanksgiving I’ve been poring over the biographies of May-Ling Soong, The Last Empress by Hannah Pakula, Mao Zedong by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, and Deng Xiaoping by Ezra Vogel. I then moved on to the Embers of War about the French Indochina War from 1945 to 1954 by Frederik Logevall, fixed my glasses on Stanley Karnow’s epic history of the Vietnam War and am now enjoying William Duiker’s biography of Ho Chi Minh. For good measure I’ve read the brilliant novel about British colonialism in Malaya, Burma and India by Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace. To find the musical ideas bringing us together with Asia, I need to know the history – the two are bound up with each other. And I like a good story.
So hopefully you might share my surprise when I read that Ho Chi Minh spent a few weeks in Biarritz while his associates were at the failed Fontainebleau talks after World War II. It seems that Biarritz was a place to recharge, even for Uncle Ho. It would be his last trip to France, and as it turned out, he was saying goodbye to the culture that he admired and its ruthless sense of superiority he woud defeat.
I was jolted into memories about Biarritz reading about the failure of the Fontainebleau Conference. Ho Chi Minh avidly read the works of Victor Hugo, which ironically is the street of 1001 Cheeses. My spate of historic reading brings me front and center with the contradictions that compromise the West, as they often espoused the promise of conditional freedom masking racist ideology. The memory of our walk in Biarritz now took on a new dimension, so though my next photos aren’t in the exact spot as the pair above, we certainly walked the same path you see in the historic photos of Uncle Ho. Vietnam is a history of lost opportunities to avoid war.
Things often come full circle. Growing up in West Hollywood, Stravinksy was not someone I ever met, though my mom confirmed she often saw him at Sunday Mass at St. Victor’s (there wasn’t a Russian Orthodox Church anywhere close to him at that time most probably). He would compose an inspiring canon of religious music in his last years that waits to be embraced by a fickle public seduced by a few major works. Stravinsky hated the liberties of romantic musicians and took control of them by writing a music that changed the idea of interpretation. In every way, just stick to the notes and all will be well.
For a coda to my Biarritz memory, I want to share the liquid dreams I found of the past contained in a shop window on Rue Victor Hugo, just up from 1001 Cheeses and across from the please do not miss city market (which closes around 1 or 2 PM, so plan accordingly).
We can all agree on the need to digest life. Aren’t we all in the Olympics here on Earth?
Cognac, grappa, calvados, brandy, port, sherry, these intoxicating spirits are the best way to end a special meal. I’m allowed my favorite of these drinks, best enjoyed with an aromatic snifter glass, and that spirit would be a good, great or tremendous Armagnac from Gascony. I can’t afford the prices on these bottles, but just the vintage years alone make me wonder if busting the bank once in my life might be a good idea. Use full frame if you want to dream with me!
Time has a way of healing things. Maybe Uncle Ho and Igor Stravinsky can have a good shot of Armagnac tonight up in heaven as they compare notes about their time in Biarritz. That would be a nice conversation to overhear! I might be inclined to dream as well tonight, pour myself a reasonable facsimile of the Gascon elixir and drift off to sleep.
Sleep and dreams, it turns out, are most appropriate ways to remember France and what might have been…….
Best, best, best,