Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Church of Beethoven...or Berryman

My brother John Kennedy, of Santa Fe New Music, called my attention to this NPR story about the Church of Beethoven, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, founded by cellist Felix Wurman, who sometimes performs with Santa Fe New Music. Housed in an abandoned gas station along old Route 66, the Church of Beethoven offers an experience of music that goes beyond entertainment and the concert. It provides community, a spiritual experience, and "church for people who don't go to church." (I love the repurposed canoe that serves as signboard.)

The Santa Fe New Music site also explores community and the conceptual dimensions of music. It includes audio and video clips; if you head over there, you can catch a glimpse of what's new in New Music, filling your ears with beautiful sounds. John has been giving a lecture series at the Georgia O'Keefe Museum called "Beyond the Noise: Listening to Modern Music." The course is inspired in part by 2008 MacArthur “Genius” Award-laureate Alex Ross’ recent book: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

John suggests that writers could start a church of Berryman, and I've been wondering about that. I turned last night to my copy of John Berryman's unfinished novel, Recovery, in its 1993 Thunder Mouth Press edition. This book includes the 1973 introduction by Saul Bellow mentioned by Lewis Hyde, a spur for his argument that alcohol destroyed Berryman, dismantling his gift. Bellow claimed "Now came the poems. They were killing him." I think Hyde was very insightful to contest that.

Philip Levine's essay "Mine Own John Berryman", written in 1993, is a wonderful supplement to the novel, and to Bellow's picture of Berryman as his colleague at the University of Minnesota in the 50s. Levine describes in vivid detail the experience of being a student of Berryman the one time he taught a poetry writing class, at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1954. The portrait is of a man who "gave all he had to us and asked no special thanks. He did it for the love of poetry."

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