27 June 2010

The Problems with Soggy Manuscripts

Many debates in literary scholarship concern issues surrounding the interpretation and history of manuscripts, particularly as they inform understanding of what authors write and why they write.

This a particular problem in establishing version control and thus textual authority for literary works, particularly when different copies of the same works exist in one or multiple hands.

Happily, academics have come to consensus about some of these issues, which are frequently published in the form of established "critical editions" of literary works.

Unfortunately, as a scholar who studies the relations between Romantic-era poetry and music, manuscripts and their interpretation continues to cause problems. Indeed, rumors abound in relation to a poem by Shelley called variously "An Indian Girl's Song" or "An Indian Serenade."

Percy Bysshe Shelley died on 8 July 1822 when his boat capsized off the coast of Livorno in Italy. When his body and boat were found, several of his notebooks were also recovered, including one containing a version of the poem that begins "I arise from dreams of thee." On the back of damaged leaf containing a draft of this poem, Shelley appears to have jotted some words from the Italian aria "Ah perdona" from Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito. From this evidence, many biographers and scholars have concluded that Shelley intended his poem to be set to the music of this aria.

Knowing the poet's interest in music and passion for Mozart since early 1817, I find it entirely probable that Shelley did, in fact, intend for this poem to be set to this duetto from Mozart's Tito. The poem fits the music relatively well. I also argue elsewhere that he had similar intentions (though did not yet have the musical setting) for his lyrical drama "Prometheus Unbound."

Nevertheless, as a reader, critic, and music lover, I am highly interested in the assumption that leads one to the conclusion that this poem must go with Mozart's aria because the poet wrote the Italian lyrics on a page close to this draft of this poem in the manuscript. How do we know this?

The poem "I arise from dreams of thee" has a complicated manuscript history. Shelley, who famously left his first wife Harriet to run away with the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, had many semi-erotic relationships with women over the course of his life. It appears that Shelley "spontaneously" wrote several versions of this poem (with different titles) for several different women, including one written in 1819 for a young Englishwoman named Sophia Stacey, which did not include any reference to an aria by Mozart, and one written two years later for Jane Williams, who was perhaps the intended recipient of the soggy version that washed up on the shore with Shelley after his death. Since there are variances between these different versions over the course of more than a year, it has proved troublesome for scholars trying to pinpoint the "original" version of this poem and then, in turn, determine whether or not it was to be set to music.

As renowned scholars Donald Reiman, Michael O'Neill, and others have noted, it seems certain that Shelley originally wrote the poem in 1819 for Sophia Stacey after hearing her sing at a gathering of friends. In addition to the popularity of Tito on the European and British stage from 1810-1825, "Ah perdona" was a popular piece of drawing room music at time, which meant that Shelley likely knew the song well. In this way, it seems possible that he originally wrote the poem for Sophia Stacey with the intention of her singing it to this popular aria by Mozart.

Yet, again, coming to the conclusion that "I arise from dreams of thee" is meant to be set to this particular song is partially conjecture. Educated conjecture based on interpretation of primary sources, both from Shelley's own hand as well as others who knew him. But, conjecture nonetheless.

However, what interests me most about the soggy manuscript is what it may reveal about a writer's impulse to have one of his poems set to music. What did music mean to Shelley in 1819 and then in 1821? Shelley was no musician, though fell in love with music due to various experiences from late 1816 to 1817. Yet, it does not appear that he ever wrote a poem for his wife, Mary, with the intention of having it set to music, even though he wrote several for other, arguably more musically-inclined, women.

These are some of the questions I investigate in the book I'm finishing. I am a literary critic interested in maintaining a historical perspective while closely reading the works themselves. This approach, of course, necessitates interpretation, conjecture, and informed decision making based on a variety of sources, including soggy manuscripts.

And so the job of a researcher goes on....

This is the second post in a regular column appearing about art and my forthcoming book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.

For more on Shelley and opera, see--Jessica Quillin, "'An assiduous frequenter of the Italian opera': Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and the opera buffa," Romantic Circles: Praxis Series.

* Image above is from Fair Copy Manuscripts of Shelley's Poems in European and American Libraries, ed. Donald Reiman and Michael O'Neill, London: Taylor & Francis, 1997.

20 June 2010

Art, Unanticipated

Many people say that art is most powerful when it makes you think. I would take that further. Art is at its most powerful when you don't know you're being affected or, rather, when you don't expect to be affected.

I am writing a book about a British poet,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose work I argue was greatly affected by his experiences with music. (For example, see "The keen stars were twinkling.") In Shelley's time, poetry was arguably more popular than music because writers and critics, many of whom were the paparazzi of their day, published the latest gossip, news, and political ideas in verse.

Poetry still does this in many ways (there is a lot of amazing work being written). Yet, it does not capture the public imagination the same way that music does. I am not here to declare the death of poetry, but rather its continual rebirth through its relation with other art forms. Poetry, in a very real sense, is everywhere--in song lyrics, advertisements, and magazines.

By corollary, art, in a very real sense, is everywhere. We are surrounded by it, from the statue you drive by everyday to the song you can't get out of your head all morning.

So, why does the very subject of art, particularly poetry and opera, cause people to groan or turn away in disinterest? Without pretention, I would argue that it's simply because people are no longer conscious of when they're experiencing art because it is so much a fundamental part of our daily landscape.

Art can be clever. Sneaky art: an unexpected experience with the creative expression of the human imagination that sticks with you. Obviously relative to an individual, but it's still art.

Here's an example. My guilty pleasure is the show "So You Think You Can Dance." But, the routines are sometimes forgettable, even if impressive in skill. However, one routine from the 2008-2009 season, choreographed to Pit Bull's "Calle Ocho (I Know You Want Me)," was literally the most riveting expression of human physicality I've ever seen--on television or the stage. (The
YouTube video of this routine doesn't do it much justice.) The combination of music, choreography, and dance presented a scene with an almost primitive energy that was mesmerizing. The screen went dark and the dancers took off. Incredible.

Having seen Pavarotti as Cavaradossi in Tosca and Domingo in Pagliacci, I cite this random television experience as another moment of artistic awe. It was sneaky art, totally unexpected from American television on a random Wednesday, but art nonetheless.

Look around you. You might find art.

This is the first in a column that will appear regularly on Mondays about art and my experiences finalizing my book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.

16 June 2010

Remembering Stravinsky

On the occasion of Stravinsky's 128th birthday, it seems fitting to reflect briefly on his contributions to music and his famous affair with legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel.

This month American audiences have a chance to get a glimpse into a chapter in Igor Stravinsky's life with Sony Classics' release of Jan Kounen's film "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky," much lauded at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Although the film has come under some criticism for lacking depth and sufficient background development to situate the events behind the affair between these two celebrated historical figures, director Kounen, in collaboration with author Greenhalgh, on whose book Coco and Igor the movie is based, nonetheless seem to have created a film that provides a fitting visual and dramatic landscape to accompany the composer's music, which understandably dominates the soundtrack.

Stravinsky, who was born in Russia on 17 June 1882 and established his career in Switzerland, Paris, and then the United States, firmly believed in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of music in the modernist tradition. In his book Expositions and Developments, he famously commented that when a composer writes music, he only apprehends "the contour of the form, for the form is everything. He can say nothing whatever about meanings."

Ironically, Stravinsky is celebrated for the rhythmic energy and musical intensity of his works. This is especially true in ballets like The Rite of Spring (whose premiere was the scene of the most famous riot in musical history), which he composed under the tutelage of Sergei Diaghilev, the founder and impresario of the Ballets Russes.

While he is known for his ballet music, Stravinsky also wrote 5 operas, including The Rake's Progress, for which W.H. Auden partially wrote the libretto, and The Flood, a 7-part work written for television that aired on CBS on 14 June 1962.

Although like Chanel, Stravinsky was famous as a revolutionary in his day, the significance of his contributions to music and musical aesthetics becomes more remarkable as we realize the lingering impact of his style, theories, and attention to rhythmic structure.

Happy Birthday, Stravinsky!

"Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" (2009) recently opened in New York and will be opening soon at Landmark Theatres around the US.

Poetry and Curriculum

Why is it useful for students to learn about poetry?

A former teacher asked me this question this afternoon. This led to a rather heated debate about the utility of teaching and assessing students in poetry and the overall function of poetry in the landscape of language arts curriculum.

The teacher argued that poetry draws student attention away from the task of learning to read and interpret prose, which is the most common form of writing that students will encounter in throughout their lives.

With all the renewed attention to core skills training as a part of the new Common Core Standards, she pointed out that valuable teaching resources—and thus money—are better spent focusing on improving basic reading and writing before paying so much attention to higher level cognitive tasks like reading comprehension.

This point of view floored me. I could not and cannot fathom teaching students of any age how to read without introducing them to the myriad of ideas that are expressed through verse form. Never mind that so much of poetry is arguably more accessible than prose for its simplicity of form and stark presentation of ideas.

Ever since I scribbled my first haiku at the age of 9, I have been drawn to poetry for its creative form and for the endless possibilities of expression it allows. Somehow, it has always seemed to me an easier way to express core ideas and feelings.

Yet, this teacher’s attentiveness to the practicality of specific parts of English/Language Arts curriculum reminds me of the fundamental nervousness that is now a seemingly permanent part of the education environment.

If teachers and administrators are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of teaching anything that is not mandated within a prescribed curricular framework or is not specifically geared towards test preparation, then I have to wonder what we are doing to students.

Isn’t an instructional system supposed to be like a business plan in laying out 1, 2, and 5 year goals for student learning outcomes rather than a voice-enabled GPS system telling teachers where to turn and drive?

The second a former English teacher tells me that she thinks that teaching students poetry and its fundamental elements of grammar, syntax, and the differences between literal and figurative language—in other words, what I consider the building blocks of human communication, then I think we’ve got a problem.

So, I have to ask, with districts in many states, such as Florida, determining the cost and, therefore, relevance of the arts and other elective subjects in schools, are current efforts to focus on fundamental skills pushing creativity out the window?

09 June 2010

Blogging and the Voice of Fashion

There has been much mention since the CFDA awards on Monday evening of Marc Jacobs’ thank you to bloggers (and indeed everyone else). From the precocious Tavi Gevinson to the frequently discussed Bryan Boy, after whom Marc Jacobs indeed named a bag, bloggers have established a solid presence for themselves as a serious fashion commentators, bringing new scope and external verification to fashion criticism that can so often fall just south of insularity.

As a writer, I only recently have begun to explore applying my knowledge of fashion to my job. This was half because my previous job had nothing to do with fashion and half because the fashion industry has always seemed, well, purposefully impenetrable.

It is somewhat paradoxical that fashion, from a certain point of view, exists at the opposite end of the spectrum of the academic world in which I’ve spent much of my life. Although fashion, literature, and cultural criticism meet in the pages of Vogue and in my own research on aesthetics, fashion can seem pure pleasure, unnecessary, yet alluring.

Supporting my own argument about importance of maintaining the élan of luxury, the glamour of the fashion world, like Hollywood, is what makes it compelling and thus is a fundamental of industry marketing.

Fashion is a complicated mixture of art, design, and craftsmanship. Haute couture, for example, is, by its very nature, high art because it represents an individuated concept, whether that concept is designed for a specific consumer or is meant as a self-styled artifact, existing only on the runway.

Yet, as any fan of “Project Runway” can tell you, an undeniably important component of fashion is also to sell—to make clothes that someone somewhere wants to wear. Even the most abstract designer is keenly aware of that at least some part of their work has to involve a functional component, if he or she wants to make money from his or her own creations.

For example, when asked by the Financial Times a few weeks ago what he thought of the new Vuitton Bond St store, Marc Jacobs commented that he didn’t know what it looked like, stating that his job as Creative Director is “to create products,” rather than be concerned about store design.

But, when it comes to marketing—which is an essential component of fashion writing, fashion has to have the right balance of art, glamour, and functionality. Whether on the runway or on the high street, a fashion brand has to give its collections and point of view an almost linguistic quality, creating a narrative glamour for itself in order to separate itself from other brands. For most brands, this is something that has to be constantly reinvented, even while maintaining a consistent voice in the marketplace.

So, what does this all have to do with blogging?

Until recently, many fashion designers, particularly luxury brands, have eyed the internet with skepticism as the wild west of business due to its lack of regulation and its all-inclusive critical environment. In this way, some fashion journalists think that we’re witnessing the fashion world embracing the inevitable by seeing designers inviting bloggers to fashion shows. Others think that this is new age for fashion and fashion criticism, as blogging makes everyone a critic and opinions instantly accessible to a mass market.

From a certain point of view, the idea of blogging as a new front in fashion criticism impacts the luxury sector most particularly because it makes the inaccessible suddenly more familiar and thus arguably less desirable.

Yet, from an artistic and even marketing perspective, the proliferation of educated, market-savvy, passionate commentators from an array of backgrounds seems nothing but positive because it does what all art should do—it gets people talking.

Even if a sale cannot be directly attributed to a blog mention, the sheer fact that blogging makes it possible for informed and innovative content—whether from a teenager or an editor from In Style—to get noticed on an international level keeps fashion and fashion writing interesting, particularly as it opens up the possibility for new designers or innovative collections to make their mark more quickly.

These are hardly new points, of course. Yet, from a sheer academic point of view, this actually represents a seismic shift in the field of aesthetics, as the lens of criticism about beauty and culture continues to widen.

02 June 2010

Luxury and the Flagship Store

The recent opening of the Louis Vuitton flagship store on Bond Street in London is symptomatic of a trend among fashion houses to establish a more permanent presence in influential cities around the world. Now a model that seems half brand marketing and half conceptual art, the idea of a “flagship” or large scale atélier has evolved significantly since the foundation of the first luxury fashion houses over 150 years ago.

Yet, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, what does the concept of a flagship store represent, particularly in the multi-country model that many companies adopt as well as in the face of an increasingly digital-oriented retail market for fashion?

It’s funny to think that the luxury goods giant Vuitton had its origins in humble suitcase design. Louis Vuitton was a licensed layetier, or travelling case manufacturer, who was hired by Napoleon III to design luggage for his wife, Empress Eugénie. From this base, Vuitton began marketing his label from his studio on Rue Neuve des Capucines in Paris in the mid-1850s and eventually opened his first store on Oxford Street in London in 1885. The Vuitton building on the Champs-Elysées, which was spectacularly renovated in 2005, did not open until 1913, by when the company had become the largest travel goods manufacturer in the world.

Vuitton, then, have come full circle, launching their “most luxurious store to date” on Bond Street in London, only a few streets away from their first retail space. But, what does this new store signify for the brand and for the luxury market in general? The 2005 refurbishment of the Champs-Elysées store established an updated presence, confirming the brand’s permanent position on the elite roster of luxury brand stores on what is arguably the most famous shopping street in the world.

A recent article from the BBC suggested that the depreciation of the Euro has decreased costs and increased sales for luxury goods manufacturers whose primary business is overseas in the United States and Asia. As the BBC points out, this trend suggests that part of the impetus behind the choice of London for Vuitton’s new flagship store is to target the tourist and ex-pat market, which continues to grow.

Yet, almost in contrast to any sensible market-driven purpose, the new Vuitton store has started a quiet media frenzy on its own simply because it’s new, gorgeous, and Vuitton. The name, not surprisingly, sells as much as its product, presentation, and store location. Why? It is luxury or haute couture, we say, which represents the culmination of money, power, beauty, and fame. In short, luxury is a tantalizing, unreachable, yet desirable aesthetic.

Jean Bergeron, former president of the Comité Colbert in France, defines luxury as “part dream, but its reality is excellence…. Yes, the superfluous is essential and luxury is the stuff of dreams. Dreams are what create all human adventures. It is not money, but dreams.” (Translated from a brochure from L'Agence Regionale d'Information Strategique et Techologique de Paris)

Of course, the popular conception of haute couture as representing all luxury fashion is a misnomer. In fact, the French actually own the rights to the term haute couture. Technically, it refers to custom-order fashion, as opposed to ready to wear (prêt-a-porter). In France, to qualify as haute couture, a fashion house has to meet a set of qualifications and then be approved by the Chambre de commerce et d'industrie de Paris in order to call themselves true artisans of haute couture.

Technicalities aside, then, the new Vuitton store is a further embellishment, in a way, in the fleurissance or flowering of its international brand. The concept of a flagship store is a living cultural artifact: a way for luxury brands to make their mark, setting up a type of cultural permanence. This seems comforting in the face of so much impermanence in the virtual world established by online media. Even the multiplicity of flagships, i.e. a company having “flagship” stores in select cities across the world, is arguably a quiet form of cultural diplomacy, even if from a profit-driven standpoint.

So, the next time you’re in airport duty-free or at a shopping mall or on the high street and spy the characteristic Vuitton “LV” logo, think of luxury and admire its sheer necessity.