Sunday, October 15, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #53: Der Studio der Fruehen Musik: Troubadors, Trouveres, und Minnesänger

[Thanks to all readers for their patience while I got dug-out from the first half of the semester...and especially to those who took the trouble to contact me and tell me how much they missed "100 Greats" posts. Can't guarantee I'll get back to one-a-day, but it's nice to feel wanted.]

I loved Tom Binkley and he infuriated me.

I first met him in 1987, just after Dharmonia and I had moved to Indiana (which felt like the back of beyond from where we’d come) so that I could do a Master’s with David Baker, my revered jazz and composition teacher (I’ll tell the story of the lies the IU Dean of Music Admissions told me another day). Robert Prins, former horn with Stokowski, and my composition and orchestration teacher at U Mass Boston, had suggested graduate school (“Have you ever thought about graduate school?”… “No!” “Have you ever thought about Indiana?”... “NO!”), and, after a mid-summer “southern route” (Route 70) trip in an un-air-conditioned car that found us driving in the dark up and down West Virginia hills behind a semi-trailer loaded with a carnival carousel (we had visions of Dumbo flying off the back of the truck on one of those inclines and coming at us right over the hood and through the windshield), we had arrived in Bloomington, to stay with old apartment-neighbors and tour the school. With masterfully-poor planning, we’d picked the one summer weekend when the School of Music was not in session, and so we toured the deserted halls of the FOUR music buildings (at UMass, the Music Department had occupied six rooms on half of one floor), growing more and more silent as we began to grasp the scope and caliber of the program. We sneaked into the backstage of the opera facility (a backstage designed on the precise model of the Met Opera house) and prowled through the stuffy, dimly-lit halls. I remember the exact moment, standing looking at a four-foot-long printout of the music courses to be offered in the Fall ’87 semester, when I said to Dharmo, “Oh, shit…We might have to come here.” And she remembers the moment, on the 3rd floor of another building, when we passed a glass display case that was labeled “Early Music Institute,” and she realized that the IU faculty included not only David Baker, and at least a dozen other people who were probably tops in their field (as well as a sizable number of others who were dysfunctional egomaniacal sociopaths—and were typically enabled in their conduct by the then upper administration), but also Thomas Binkley.

I have to reverse course and supply some back-story here. At the time that Dharmo went to college, the historical-performance movement was in its infancy, at least in the USA. Going all the way back to the ‘30s, various and sundry musicologists, philologists, linguists, and random loonies had been exploring the radical notion that perhaps music of a certain time period might actually sound best—and might actually better reveal the originators’ intentions—if it was played with an attitude, and using instruments and techniques, appropriate to the time and place of origin. But they were mostly loonies, or lone-wolves, or otherwise disconnected with a wider discourse of musicians and audiences. The few who could play were mostly classical musicians only very gradually inching their ways back toward the medieval period, whereas those interested in medieval/Renaissance idioms were mostly scholars dealing with attempts to "reconstruct" "authentic" sounds--a chimera if ever there was one.

So there wasn’t, at that time and place, much in the way of resources for Dharmo to find out that the world of historical performance existed, or that there were ensembles playing and recording medieval music, or even—if you were able and knew of their existence—places where you could go and study and learn to play it yourself. It was only years after undergraduate school that Dharmo encountered the LP’s (in beautiful, academic-looking packaging from EMI/Reflexe, with wild Dali-esque cover art (it was always easier to be an early-music specialist in Europe—the damned government would pay for your recordings) of a group called Der Studio der Fruehen Musik, a band name translated, inexplicably and with considerable mundanity, into English as “The Early Music Quartet.”

Tom Binkley led that band. Born in Ohio in the early ‘30s, he was one of that generation of Americans in the late ‘40s/50s who sought a bigger canvas and a wider experience in Europe. In the Beats’ case, it was Tangier and Paris, ganja and literature; in Tom’s case, it was Munich and Basle, manuscripts and old instruments. He had a quintessentially medieval mind—a mind attuned to patterns, encyclopedic in its cross-disciplinary synthesis, and about as logically-organized as the Scriptorium in The Name of the Rose, and a mind that was disinterested in the received wisdom of anybody else as regards why old music was the way it was and how it might have sounded. In his colleagues in the Studio, particularly the brilliant, quirky Estonian mezzo Andrea von Ramm (truthfully—and sadly—I think Tom never recovered musically from the cessation of their partnership) and the bowed-string virtuoso Sterling Jones, both of whom stayed with the Studio for its entire 18-year existence, and a succession of loony tenors.

The Studio, it is not too ambitious to say, transformed the conception of what medieval music had been and of what it could do, as an expressive art form. Binkley, Andrea, and Sterling (and that succession of loopy tenors), in every performance, every program, every recording, played with an intensity, virtuosity, and full-blown ferocity that made specious arguments about “relevance” or “the contemporary audience” irrelevant. Musicologists on one side and dim-witted critics (always scurrying to get in front of the crowd so that they can claim to be “leading it”) might carp and sniff the idiosyncrasy and the world/folk elements in the Studio’s approach (they were notoriously referred to as “Radio Baghdad”), but no one who ever saw them perform live was unaffected. The much-mourned scholar and singer Barbara Thornton, probably the greatest Hildegard interpreter in the world, who studied with Binkley in the ‘70s. told a hilarious story of a late-‘60s visit by the Studio to, of all places, Sarah Lawrence, at which Andrea made an elaborate, wildly-diva-esque production of unrolling her elbow-length satin opera gloves. Barbara told us, years later, that she had carried the tattered newspaper clipping of a review in her wallet for years after, taking comfort, somehow, from simply knowing that those people were out there (it’s a source of great joy—and not a few tears—to share “Tom stories” with other Binkley students of other generations; there have been wonderful late-night, red wine-fuelled, post-concert bull sessions sharing exactly that, in various hotels around the world. Like Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Bill Monroe, one of the measures of Binkley’s greatness as a teacher is the relish with which every one of his students will offer his/her own comic Tom imitation). He later accepted a post at the Schola Cantorum in Basle, where he built a historical-performance program that produced, let’s face it, most of the musicians who in subsequent generations went on to transform and spark a small-“r” renaissance in the performance of medieval music: Paul O Dette, Crawford Young, Margriet Tindemans, Cheryl Ann Fulton, Barbara Thornton, Benjamin Bagby, Laurie Monahan, Montserrat Figueras, and literally dozens of others. He tried to retire to family land on the top of a mountain in Northern California, but the late-‘70s economy, and an offer he couldn’t refuse, brought him to Bloomington in 1979.

Dharmo, in the late ‘80s, was in the process of rediscovering historical performance, after years in rock and then folk/trad music (when she met me and Larmo around 1979—another story for another day—she says “I felt like I’d run away with Gypsy Davey”). She’d had the good fortune to start lessons with the superb Boston soprano Nancy Armstrong, and we’d sat through some concerts by certain “pre-eminent” early music ensembles (who weren’t fit to carry the Studio’s cases), but she was heading that way.

So, that hot day in 1987, in a stuffy, dim-lit hallway at Bloomington, when she saw Tom Binkley’s snaggled-toothed portrait grinning out of a display case at her, she said “Shit, I might have to go to school here too.”

So we did. I enrolled in the Master’s program as a jazz guitarist (after cutting through the first of what would be literally decades of lies from various administrative types) and Dharmo in the Master’s program in historical performance. I’ll leave it to Dharmo, and to my colleagues in that last and final generation of Binkley students, to comment more directly about Tom as a classroom professor (thank God, I never had to receive a grade from him), and I’ll talk about the common ground on which he and I met.

Around spring of that first year (1988), Tom took it into his head that he wanted to stage the first modern production of Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo of 1647. Unlike Monteverdi’s masterpiece of 40 years before, Rossi’s version of the tale was utterly and completely over the top, with battle scenes, huge choral forces, a full string orchestra and two continuo groups, and (among other things) a giant onstage serpent and a deus ex machina that required a goddess to appear from the skies on a cloud.

Tom’s approach was equally over the top: it wasn’t enough that he would stage the first modern production of this opera (some things are meant to go out of the repertoire), but he would also create the first modern edition, using an early computerized notation program which his editorial assistants would have to learn at the same time that they were creating the score, and they’d somehow take a score which was over five hundred pages long and cut it down to fit within the union-mandated time limits of the Musical Arts Center, and that he would teach a whole cast full of plus-sized opera singers Baroque gesture, and use both continuo groups and the IU Baroque Orchestra, led (with remarkable forbearance, all things considered by Stanley Ritchie), and that they would use Baroque stage-design, dressing, and machinery—oh, and that Tom would conduct the production, in tie-wig and knee-britches, beating time (the downbeat “One” exclusively) with a rolled-up score a la Lully.

Dharmo, who was singing in the Pro Arte early-choral ensemble, was drafted by obligation, but I was operating far away from this whole undertaking, sweating out David Baker’s “Bebop History” class, learning his 101 bebop licks and playing them backwards-cycle-5 through all keys, transposing saxophone and trumpet exercises to the guitar, and encountering the genius of Peter Burkholder in his inaugural Charles Ives seminar. I heard from Dharmo, late at night in our rented student digs on the north side of town behind the all-night Adult Bookstore and general-purpose cruising ground (very interesting cavalcade of local notables sneaking down the alley behind our house), of the madness that was ensuing night-after-night on the MAC stage—and I thought I was well-clear of it. ‘Til one night she said Binkley had told her to ask me to come to the rehearsal the next night, after inquiring “Your husband, he’s a plucker, right?”

So I walked out on the MAC stage the next night into what looked not a little like Bedlam, with the strings down in the pit (and Stanley fuming, in his understated Aussie way), and a continuo group of gamba/violone, harpsichord, triple harp, theorbos, and various eccentrics on each wing, multiple teary sopranos who really Just Wanted to Sing Puccini, and Tom in the middle of it, glasses down on his nose, hair awry, with his (brilliant, sainted, and long-suffering) assistant Marika Kuzma at his elbow. He grinned that snaggle-toothed grin at me, shook hands, and threw me an English guitar (or “cittern”) at me: a double-coursed, wire-strung instrument with a short neck, crude threaded metal tuners, a yellowed ivory fingerboard, and holes drilled through the fingerboard for an old-style bolt and wingnut capo. The headstock on the thing was inscribed “1718” (and I’m convinced it was a dog in 1718—should have been left to hang on the wall of the barber-shop and never played), and it was in a weird rentrante tuning (where the pitch of the strings, from thickest to thinnest, goes up and then down again: completely alien to a poor bebop guitar player), and Tom said, “Here, play all that flowery stuff on the top.” I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

But I went over to the other continuo group, the one that didn’t have a Baroque guitar, and sat down, and introduced myself to the other sufferers. They were obviously somewhat more inured to (but no less put-upon by) the Binkley approach (and several of them went on to distinguished careers themselves: after Tom anything seemed easy). They were looking at a poorly-dot-matrix-printed score that had the note-heads in the wrong direction and many missing basso continuo figures. At this time, I knew what figured bass was, but I had never tried to play from it. The nightmare was exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t know the tuning, and that I’d never played figured bass—but I was rescued by the fact that the people around me were already playing the chords, that I was used to play over a bassline (not dissimilar to a jazz lead sheet, except upside-down), and that Tom wanted me to play the “flowery stuff”—in other words, it was OK to improvise lines.

I worked my ass off on that thing, literally going through it chord by chord and figuring out both the sonorities and the fingerings that were required to make something coherent come out of the cittern, and I sat on the MAC stage night after night while this behemoth came together around us.

It was like every other Binkley production I would ever wind up playing, though I didn’t know that at the time: over-ambitious, confusing, changing direction from one night to the next, full of people at sea and scared that they weren’t going to be able to accomplish—or even understand—what the hell the man was driving at. A full Baroque orchestra, two continuo groups, onstage trumpets and drums, a full chorus, at least 18 soloists, a working script that literally changed every night as they fought to get a coherent story out of the libretto while still cutting two-thirds of the material, opera studio faculty who would squat in the house, trying to protect their little (or not-so-little) darlings until Binkley’s scary eccentricities chased them away, the Dean of the School hovering nervously in the wings and wondering aloud if the idea of a “collaboration” (hah!) between the Early Music Institute and the Opera Theatre had “been the best idea,” and in the background, the continuo players, subverting concentration between acts, playing bluegrass on lutes and theorbos. I still remember the night they tried staging the as-yet-unpainted giant serpent (in Rossi’s less-tasteful version of the tale, Euridice is bitten and dies onstage) and this 8-foot long papier-mache animated pink cylindrical thing swooped out from the wings chasing Euridice, and a tenor lisped “Well! No wonder she died!” and Euridice collapsed in laughter. And I remember the wings just before the dress-night curtain, when Tom said off-handedly to my brother-in-music Kim Pineda, flutist extraordinaire but drafted as a bass for the on-stage opening battaglia chorus, “Oh, yes. In the opening chorus, I want you all to fight.” Now, people spend their whole professional lives training to be fight designers, and actors spent months rehearsing the combat scenes in a given production, but here’s Tom dropping the ideas 40 seconds before the curtain—an archetypal moment. Kim, who’s as big as me (6’4”), a martial artist, and of Apache/Chicano ethnicity, says “O.K., Mr Binkley, if you say so,” and the curtain goes up on the wedding-cake Baroque grandeur of the set, and 60 people in tights 'n' hose race on from the wings, and the chorus begin flailing at one another with their prop swords. Needless to say, it was a trainwreck-scaled disaster.

The next night, I remember, they had fixed the whole "fight/no-fight" issue--Tom, in typical style, had cackled unapologetically at the morning's production meeting, and said "Heh heh...guess that was a bad idea!" and promptly forgotten all about it. So the next night it all starts again, and the strings hit the opening chord, and the curtain goes up, and there’s an audible gasp from the audience, and the string orchestra crashes into the opening battaglia fanfare, and the chorus suck in a giant shared breath for the first sung chord, and Tom, who is staring open-mouthed over his half-glasses at the stage, obviously entranced by the fact that this whole ungainly albatross of a production is actually going to happen, completely… forgets… to give the downbeat.

And that opening rallantando string chord is stretching verrryyy longgggg and then the heroic soprano Maria Goncalves, a fantastic Portuguese singer, belts out an unintentionally-solo All’assalto Assalto and the entire chorus comes crashing in on the next downbeat, and you hear the reaction from the audience, who scream their applause for three full minutes after the opening number.

And, sitting on that stage in knee breeches, with an instrument you don't really play, playing music you don't really understand, you realize that, for months, this picture has been in Binkley’s head, and that he knew all along what he wanted (criminally unable or unwilling to explain it, of course) and that it’s that vision—that infuriating vision—that saw further and differently than anyone else did which has made him your teacher. Afterwards, the Dean came running backstage at the intermission, and exclaimed “Thomas, Thomas….it’s a miracle!” He didn’t know the half of it.

It happened again and again with Tom. Again and again he would take it in his head to do something, usually something utterly unrealistic, far beyond the expressive or technical capacities or experience of his student players, and there would be months of agony—and usually a lot of infuriation—and then something miraculous would happen. I remember his production of the Greater Passion Play from Carmina Burana, the centerpiece of which was a naked Adam and Eve--in Indiana!--being hounded out of the Garden by a pair of shawms playing a quarter-tone apart—on purpose; in which the great choreographer Jacques Cesbron, who knew nothing about medieval dance but was game for anything, said “I don’ know—I just look at a lot of Brueghel painting, you know? And then I hope for ze best”; in which, after one marathon rehearsal, Tom handed me the gitarra saracenica (basically a medieval saz) that he himself had played on a record whose grooves I'd worn out, pointing to the most mincing of the counter-tenors, and said “here, teach him that piece—he can’t read worth a shit”; the performance which, my old friend Jann says, made her, during her audition week, decide to come to Indiana (going home to her husband and saying “Yeah, and they’ve got this rock guitar player on saz”).

I remember our recreated performance of the Moroccan nawba originally recorded by the Royal Ensemble of Fez at the Schola in the ‘70s which some lunatic Swiss had laboriously transcribed with all the barlines in the wrong place (Tom spent a lot of time in Morocco in the 60s, where I’d guess he managed most of the recreational activities the Beats had discovered 15 years before), when the Azeri lead singer drafted for the performance insisted that Tom’s Moroccan Arabic was “all wrong,” and told the soprano-star-of-the-moment, preening herself over her “phonetic” pronunciation, that she “might have been ordering ‘amburgers,” and Tom insisted that the three sopranos playing tambourine in the complex shifting rhythms of the nawba and muwashshsah should improvise their parts (a process, as well as an instrument, about as far away from those girls’ aptitudes as it was possible to get and still be in the realm of music), and Tom, deciding the concert was too short, hauls out some manuscript written in his inimitable (beautiful, precise) notation and hands it to us, and says "read this!" and I look at the pencilled notes on the manuscript, and, seeing the written command "watch Sterling's bow!" realize that he's handed me the actual pages from which the Studio sight-read.

I remember the concert where he said to Dharmo, 3 minutes before walking onstage, “Hey, do you know the version of Sancta Maria strela do Dia from our record?” and expected her to go out and sing it with zero rehearsal—which she did. The epochal Collegium Directors’ conference, in his last year of teaching, convened when Tom already knew he was dying of cancer but was hanging on in the job until he could thrash a far and full financial package for his wife and daughters out of the miserable tightwads who’d hired him in the first place, when we were the featured ensemble, and Tom sat three feet away from us, gray with pain and grinning from ear-to-ear as we played. I remember those times.

The last time we spent much time with Tom Binkley, when the malcontents and remoras who preyed upon him had finally left the EMI, and he was about to retire on full pay, we were in San Francisco, and we went to see him, at his family’s country place on a mountain in the hills of Northern California, where he’d built a geodesic dome in the early ‘70s, thinking, after the wildness of the Studio’s ‘50s and ‘60s, that he’d retire there. It was almost a dream getting there: driving my sister’s borrowed little red Mazda convertible, switchback-after-switchback up into the dry hills, up the single-lane, barbed-wired-lined dirt road that led through the US Army installation that ringed the highest hill like a monk’s tonsure, until we pulled into the live-oak shaded dirt yard of what looked like a classic post-‘60s hippie homestead. There was a tractor at one side of the dome and there were mobiles hanging in the trees. Dharmo was deathly ill with carsickness, and promptly puked after the hellos.

Dharmo picks up the thread:

He said “Well, that’s a fine thing, you come all the way up here to see me, and then you get sick,” and then proceeded to fuss over me like a mother hen and try to get all kinds of ginger tea and herbal whatevers into me. When I recovered about 2 hours later, I wolfed the rest of the turkey chili. He tried very hard to get us to stay overnight, plying us with stories about the star-viewing attributes of the mountain. One of my great regrets is that we did not stay – if I could turn back the clock, I would have stayed the night and most of the next day. At that point I think I did not really believe yet that he was going to die.

But I believed it. I knew it. I knew we were going to lose him. Tom was chagrined but animated…and thin, thin, thin (I never realized so much as at that visit how much he looked like my by-then-deceased father). When Dharmo had recovered, we sat on the wooden front steps and talked—of all things and at Tom’s insistence, about Time. About how time was experience, and perception, and subjective, and that it was all happening Right Here, Right Now. And always had been.

Afterwards, he took us on a walk up to the pond he was building, while he said hello to the mule deer who grazed fearlessly next to the house (“Hello, Mabel. Hello, Marge.”) We looked at his pond—in Northern California, a crucial and valuable bit of landscaping—and he and we knew that he was never going to finish it. When we said our farewells, I knew that it was a last good-bye. He and we both knew that we wouldn’t see each other again. At least, not soon.

That was eleven years ago.

I could never claim to speak for Dharmo, or for all of Tom Binkley's students, or even for those Binkley students who were my contemporaries and beloved brothers-and-sisters in the lineage. I hope that they are telling their stories of him and of all the passion, intensity, infuriating intellectual curiosity, and sheer love with which he used his time here. He didn't waste any days.

As for what Tom Binkley gave to me, and to Dharmo, and to the colleagues of my own Binkley generation, and to the generations of the Binkley lineage before us, and to our own students who, through the imperfect and reduced medium of our own teaching, meet Binkley’s genius and continue his lineage, my gratitude is beyond words. Or at least beyond prose.

I loved him. And he was my teacher. This is a poem for him, and for the lineage.


He was our teacher.

People ask how it was,

and it’s hard to know how to reply.

Frustrating, we know,

Infuriating and inspiring;

Internally contradictory (“question everything,” he said),

and inimitable.

If the past is a foreign country,

then he taught us to be ethnographers

of time;

to go there gradually, but again and again,

leaving behind received perspectives

customs and norms;

to discover what the landmarks, rocks, and trees--

the songs and stories--

would consent to tell us,

and to return

bearing those insights.

What was it like?

It was like growing up

and

learning music, a cradle tongue,

a parent’s face,

or the voice of a beloved teacher,

in a distant country

now gone.

--in memory of Tom Binkley, 2.21.03

3 comments:

Marita said...

What a perfect picture of him. Thank you.

Christopher said...

It was my privilege to know him. Thanks for reading.

Marita said...

Ya, I still think of him for one reason or another almost every day!