March 28 Concert to Feature Compositions Based on Lax’s Poem “the hill”


On Sunday, March 28, 2021 (at 18:00, Budapest time) Frog Peak Music (a composers’ collective, aka FUGA) will present:

SONGS FROM THE HILL AND ELSEWHERE, featuring Nikolaus Gerszewski’s compositions “songs from the hill” (2012) and “new songs from the hill” (2019) will be presented along with composer Chris Newman’s “modest songs” (2012)

Gerszewski’s compositions are based on Robert Lax’s poem “the hill.”

The concert at the Budapest Architecture Center will feature Orsolya Anna Juhász (soprano voice) and Bálint Baráth (piano). It will be broadcast live on the group’s YouTube channel, where you can watch it later too: https://www.youtube.com/user/fugabudapest/videos

Before the concert, György Bartók and Nikolaus Gerszewski will talk about the works.

For more specifics about the concert and FUGA, go to: http://fuga.org.hu/fevent/ter-zene-sorozat-2/

  • (The image above, of Nikolaus Gerszewski, is from the FUGA website)

Here’s what Gerszewski says about his compositions:

I chose the lyrics from the volume “the hill” by the minimalist poet Robert Lax, who has lived half of his life as a hermit on the greek island Patmos. His poetic style transcends literary genres, sometimes oscillates between narrative prose and abstract lyricism, even touches the border of concrete poetry; the single word can be emphasized in its phonetic objectivity but is at the same time embedded in a descriptive context.

The music I wrote is sometimes chromatic, sometimes appearently modal, yet not following any musical system in its tonal shaping. The compositional technique is actually rather conceptual, in the sense of using a selfmade precompositional setup to reduce the possibilities of choices. Yet the music itself is very intuitional, which is not a contradiction. We have this relation of a conceptual approach with an intuitional, so to speak lyrical result in the works of many great artists of the conceptual period, like Ad Reinhard, Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin or Eva Hesse.

As regards content, these songs are all about solitude; a man living in a  world of his own creation, waiting for a companion who may never come.

Composer Chris Newman (image from the FUGA website)

And here’s Newman talking about her composition:

I think that art is definitely trying to get away from personal feelings that we all feel – this way or that way. Art has the ability to embody, make concrete & transcend, help us ‘get through’ those feelings. Not therapeutic, but transcendent.

When writing music I don’t use pitches or rhythms, I use musical material as a job-lot, not its components & really like a job-lot I take what it gives me. I apply ‘things’ to the job-lot of music. The vista of music, the panorama of music. I suppose what interests me is the phenomenon of music & our relationship to it, how it combines itself with us, or at least making models for this. The phenomenon of music & how it combines itself with us. I am wondering if the medium is also ‘merely’ a model for the outside world.”

Nikolaus Gerszewski was born in 1964 in Hamburg and lives now in Hamburg and Budapest. He is a trained visual artist and a self-trained composer of ‘experimental music.’

Since his early 20s, he has been engaged in non-representational art, as both a painter and a theorist. In 2005, he came in touch with Cornelius Cardew’s graphic score “Treatise,” and ever since he has developed his own musical notation, in form of graphic scores, text scores, alternative systems of signs, semi-conventional, and even fully conventional sheet music. In 2008, he introduced his own generic term ‘ordinary music’, expressing his view, that the making of sounds should be considered a natural means of expression, accessible to everyone, rather than being banished into the realms of art and entertainment; this having said he still considers himself a natural born artist.

Since 2013, Nikolaus has been teaching ‘experimental sound production’ at the university of fine arts, Budapest (MKE), and at the university of science, Pecs (PTI).

Chris Newman was born in London 1958. While a music student at King’s College London he found himself involved in translating Russian poetry into English (with Russian poet Eugene Dubrov) & this act of translation in the broadest sense – either from one artistic medium to another (this mediums in his case embrace music, poetry, performance, painting, video & dual presentations thereof), or from the act of perception into the artistic medium – has formed the basis of his endeavors. He moved to Cologne in 1980 & has more or less lived in Germany ever since.

Robert Lax: The Artist as Collaborator

I spent several hours recently looking through my collection of Robert Lax books, booklets, pamphlets, recordings, letters, and drawings and thought I’d post images of a few of them. The ones I value most, of course, are those Lax gave me himself, inscribing them to me. But others have special meaning as well. Among them are:

The multi-language version of The Circus of the Sun I was amazed to find in a Seattle bookstore just months after I first met Lax (the first of his books I owned); the pristine copy of the original hardcover version or The Circus of the Sun its publisher, Emil Antonucci, sent me after I interviewed him; the copy of A Poem for Thomas Merton Lax’s cousin Soni gave me one of the last times I saw her (image below); and the four copies of the extremely fragile and rare Pax broadsheet Lax sent out to friends and a few paying customers in the 50s and 60s (which I was able to purchase online before prices for that kind of thing rose out of sight).

Signed pages from Lax’s “A Poem for Thomas Merton,” designed and illustrated by Emil Antonnuci.

What struck me most as I looked over all of these treasures was the sheer number and variety of people Lax collaborated with or simply allowed to use his poems in whatever way they chose. The two most consistent and therefore important publishers of his work were Emil Antonucci, who started Journeyman Press just to disseminate Lax’s poems, and Gladys Weigner und Bernhard Moosbrugger, who did something similar with Pendo-Verlag. But there were countless others: poets, painters, photographers, lithographers, musicians, radio personalities, magazine editors, and multimedia artists. All of them were touched by something in Lax’s writings but also by something in him: a spirit, a way of seeing, an ability to bring the world and ourselves into clearer focus. And all of them found Lax to be a willing and enjoyable partner.

While musicians are generally used to collaborating, most artists and writers create alone. And many of them—of us—are difficult to work with when a collaborative opportunity comes along. Even playwrights, who work in a collaborative medium, often have a tough time letting go of their work so directors and actors and stage designers can turn it into something alive on stage.

A few of the many stand-alone Lax poems printed and illustrated by Emil Antonucci

But although Lax lived alone and wrote his poetry alone, he was a natural and cheerful collaborator. His first collaborations were with his college friends—in creating issues of Jester at Columbia College and when they lived together during college summers at the Marcus cottage. Out of these times—and his later observations of jazz musicians jamming together and circus acrobats perfecting their timing with one another—came his view of the ideal life: not only living fully in the moment, under God, but also performing whatever art or practice you have worked to perfect—spontaneously, in a spirit of love, in community with others.

May we all learn from Lax to be better collaborators and enjoy the synergy that can be released only when we trust and say yes to one another.

Cast for Philip Glass/Robert Lax Opera “Circus Days and Nights” Announced!

Renowned Swedish soprano Elin Rombo will headline a talented and diverse cast of singers and circus performers in the May 29th premiere of Philip Glass’s “Circus Days and Nights,” based on poems by Robert Lax.

To read Rombo’s biography, listen to an audio clip of her singing, and watch her in two short movie clips, click here.

For a full list of the “Circus Days and Nights” cast, click here.

Philip Glass Circus Opera Based on Robert Lax’s Poems Will Premiere as Scheduled on May 29, 2021

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the schedules of virtually all arts organizations. Malmö Opera, where composer Philip Glass’s circus opera based on Robert Lax’s poems is set to debut, is no exception. The opera house has been dark since December. Happily, though, the premiere of “Circus Days and Nights” will go on as scheduled on May 29, 2021.

Here’s what Henrik Sundin, marketing manager for co-producer Cirkus Cirkör, just wrote to me about the potential audience for the premiere: “At the moment, the restrictions in Sweden is 8 persons. But it’s reviewed every month so we don’t know. Maybe it will be a digital premiere. Maybe we will have 8, 50 or 300 in the audience.

Because of the uncertainty, ticket sales have been suspended and the dates for the opera’s world tour are yet to be set. I’ll pass on further information when I have it.

You’l find more information on the opera, including costume sketches and set models here.

The images above are of the cover and information page from the original hardcover edition of Lax’s The Circus of the Sun (only 500 copies printed).

It’s Official! Philip Glass Circus Opera Based On Robert Lax’s Poems to Premiere May 29, 2021!

Click on the image above to watch a five-minute video introduction to the show.

I announced this several months ago but now it’s official: “Circus Days and Nights,” the new circus opera by Philip Glass, based on poems by Robert Lax (with libretto by David Henry Hwang and Tilde Björfors), will have its world premiere at Sweden’s Malmö Opera on May 29, 2021.

Cirkus Days and Nights is a co-production between Cirkus Cirkör and Malmö Opera. After its premiere at Malmö Opera, Cirkus Cirkör, Scandinavia’s leading contemporary circus company, will take it on tour.

Here’s a description from the press release sent out this week:

“An entirely new work meets an entirely new form: Circus Days and Nights is a circus opera in three acts, written by legendary composer Philip Glass. Its inspiration is Robert Lax’s masterwork Circus Days and Nights, a collection of poems that draws us into the poet’s fascination with acrobats and the circus lifestyle and takes us on the road with him when he “runs away” and joins a circus in 1940s America. For Lax, the circus becomes a metaphor for life itself – the cycle of life and death –and for human yearning and striving. Circus Days and Nights will be a boundary-crossing performance that brings the circus ring into the opera house.”

You can read the full press release here and see photographs of Cirkus Cirkör shows here.

Philip Glass and Tilde Björfors. Photo: Mats Bäcker

Some quotes from those who created the opera:

”I have had the rights to the poem for about ten years, but I couldn’t write the piece because I hadn’t found my circus. When I saw Tilde’s staging of ‘Satyagraha’ it struck me: Here’s my circus.”
–Philip Glass

In Robert Lax’s poem and vision of the circus as a metaphor for life, I discovered a soulmate and ever since, Circus Days and Nights has had a permanent place on my nightstand. In Philip Glass’s music, I heard the ultimate circus music, music that commingles with the circus disciplines. Having the opportunity to bring together these two sources of inspiration is dizzying and fills me with a sense of humility in the face of life’s breathtaking leaps of faith.”
–Tilde Björfors

“I read the poems and I was really touched by their beauty, their simplicity in a sense, and yet their profundity. The way Lax envisions Circus as an act of creation and the cycle of putting up a show and taking it down is the cycle of life itself.”
–David Henry Hwang

Choral Work Based on Robert Lax Writings Misses Out on Grammy But Inspires Italian Magazine Spread

I mentioned in a previous post that The Crossing’s recording of Kile Smith’s “The Arc in the Sky,” a choral composition based on Lax’s poems and other writings, was up for a Grammy this year. Unfortunately, it didn’t win. But the Italian online magazine Vengodalmare has a piece on Lax inspired by Smith’s composition. The piece is in Italian, but it includes several Lax poems in English: “Jerusalem” and “so bird, so spirit…” along with selections from “sea & sky.”

If you scroll down below the “sea & sky” excerpt, you’ll find a short video of a Los Angeles group performing part of Smith’s work.

Painter Abbey Ryan Talks about Her Series of Meditations on Lax’s “the light, the shade”

kohlakoura beach, lipsi, greece (the light / the shade), oil on linen on panel, 5×4 inches, 2017, painting by Abbey Ryan, from her website

Painter Abbey Ryan has spent a half-dozen years creating postcard-size oil paintings inspired by Robert Lax’s book-length poem “the light, the shade.” She painted many of the images in the series in 2017 while living on the Greek island of Patmos, near where Lax spent the last years of his life.

In this video, Ryan talks about how Lax’s attention to simplicity and presence has inspired her in her painting and approach to life. The video also shows a beautifully designed display of her Lax-inspired work at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania.

published by Pendo-Verlag, 1989, currently unavailable

Grammy Nomination for Choral Recording Based on Lax Writings

(Image from the Clipart Library)

I just learned from composer Kile Smith that The Crossing’s performance of his composition “The Arc in the Sky,” a choral arrangement based on Lax’s poetry and other writings is a finalist for a 2020 Grammy Award!

Here’s what Smith wrote about the news on his website this morning:

When The Arc in the Sky was thrown into the Grammy hat a couple of months ago, I thought the chances were slim of its advancing, just because of how large the pool is at that stage. And since The Crossing won Grammys the last two years in a row, those chances, to me, felt even slimmer. But now The Arc is one of the finalists, it’s up against all worthies, including great friends of mine, and so here we go. See you January 26th!”

January 26 is the date the Grammy Awards will take place and the winners will be announced.

Here’s a full list of the finalists in Best Choral Performance:

  • Boyle: Voyages, Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)
  • Durufle: Complete Chroral Works, Robert Simpson, conductor (Ken Cowan; Houston Chamber Choir)
  • The Hope of Loving, Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (Conspirare)
  • Sander: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Peter Jermihov, conductor (Evan Bravos, Vadim Gan, Kevin Keys, Glenn Miller & Daniel Shirley; PaTRAM Institute Singers)
  • Smith, K.: The Arc in the Sky, Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)

You can read all about Smith’s composition and The Crossing’s recording of it (under the direction of conductor Donald Nally) here.

You can buy the recording here.

You can see the complete score at MusicSpoke here.

And here it is at Navona Records, and on Spotify.

Congratulations to Kile Smith, Donald Nally, and the entire ensemble of The Crossing!

Listen to Robert Lax Poem “Jerusalem” Set to Music

Last June, a group called The Crossing performed composer Kile Smith’s “The Arc in the Sky,” a choral composition of Lax poems set to music by Smith. (See my write-up about the performance here.) The concert was widely praised by critics and a CD of the full performance is set to be released soon.

In advance of its release, Smith has posted one of the tracks, “Jerusalem,” in which Lax writes of “lovely, ruined Jerusalem.” You can listen to the choir’s haunting rendition here.

I’ll post details when the CD is available. For now, enjoy this taste of the combined talents of Lax’s words, Smith’s music, and these excellent choral voices. (I’ve included the poem below so you can follow along as you listen.)

Jerusalem by Robert Lax

reading of lovely Jerusalem,
lovely, ruined Jerusalem.

we are brought to the port
where the boats in line are
and the high tower on the hill
and the prows starting again
into the mist.

for we must seek
by going down,
down into the city
for our song.
deep into the city
for our peace.
for it is there
that peace lies
folded
like a pool.

there we shall seek:
it is from there
she’ll flower.
for lovely, ruined Jerusalem
lovely sad Jerusalem
lies furled
under cities of light.

for we are only
going down,
only descending
by this song
to where the cities
gleam in the darkness,
or curled like roots
sit waiting
at the undiscovered
pool.

what pressure
thrusts us up
as we descend?

pressure
of the city’s singing

pressure of
the song
she hath witheld.

hath long witheld.

for none
would hear
her.

–Robert Lax (1915-2000). Used with the permission of the Robert Lax Literary Trust and the Robert Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure University.

Recently Opened: An Exhibition of Paintings Inspired By Lax’s Poetry

Painter Abbey Ryan, whose parents were friends of Lax, traveled to Patmos in 2017 to visit his former home and complete a series of paintings loosely based on his poem “the light / the shade.” Now, 14 landscapes and still lifes from that series are on display in the Quick Center at St. Bonaventure University in Lax’s hometown, Olean, NY. The show runs March 25-June 2, 2019. Abbey will be on campus Thursday, April 11 for a 3 p.m. gallery talk.

You’ll find full information about the exhibit here–and more about Abbey and her Lax project here. If you like what you see and read, check out Abbey’s website, where you can view (and purchase!) more of her magnificent works.

Abbey’s work has been featured in a number of publications, including Oprah Magazine, Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?, FOX’s Good Day Philadelphia, BoingBoing, Artists & Illustrators, Making It In the Art World, New Markets For Artists, Fine Art Connoisseur, American Art Collector, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her art is in more than 1,300 private and museum collections on six continents.