Monday, December 5, 2005


Every morning I create the world anew:
When I die, the world dies with me.

You who carry the gentle illusion that it is you
Who freshen the world each day, not I,

Know that you too are doomed to obliterate
All you see and love. This is the only task handed on,

And carries no inherited virtue, for man’s life is vanishing thought.
Each generation flatters itself: the present is no runner’s baton

But simply a tide, receding in order to be forgotten,
Successfully wiping the world clean.


Monday, April 18, 2005

Robert Dean Frisbie (1896 - 1948)

Written in 2005 for Post Road

Largely forgotten seventy years after his death, his books rarely in print, Robert Dean Frisbie—a tall, humorous, skinny American who, just after the end of World War I, settled in the farthest reaches of the South Seas to write novels—was, in the words of James Michener, “the most graceful, poetic and sensitive writer ever to have reported on the islands.” Frisbie realized a fantasy many men dream about: a tropical vision of island beauty which included local maidens, a large family, solitude to write in, and surviving a hurricane. It meant tragedy, too, for after the death of Frisbie’s beloved Polynesian wife Nga, as a colleague wrote, “Paradise found his weakness and had no mercy.”

Robert Dean Frisbie was born in Cleveland in 1896 and grew up in California, nurtured on the South Pacific books of Robert Louis Stevenson. His health was frail; a wartime training camp left him under permanent threat of tuberculosis. In 1918 he received a medical discharge, a monthly pension of $45, and orders never to spend another winter in America. Frisbie happily obeyed.

Leaving behind his job as a newspaperman in Fresno, in 1920 he made his way out to Tahiti and was immediately befriended and encouraged by that patriarch of expatriate writers in the South Pacific, James Norman Hall, later of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. Within a year Frisbie had bought four acres of land, taken a Tahitian mistress, learned the language, built himself a bamboo-and-palm house, and acquired the name “Ropati” which he would carry for life throughout the islands. He also started his relentless reading of “great books” to make up for a lack of higher education. He began writing short pieces, sending them the long sea-road back to American magazines without success. He spent several years expensively refitting a yawl with a couple of friends. A 3,000-mile sailing voyage, through the Society Islands, the Tuamotus, and the Samoas, ended in Fiji after a heavy gale. Frisbie sold the wounded boat and returned to Tahiti.

Seeking an island more removed and deeply Polynesian, Frisbie in 1924 sailed from Tahiti to Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, with the legendary trading schooner captain Andy Thomson. Through Thomson’s intervention Frisbie got a job as the only copra trader and storekeeper on the remote northern Cook island of Puka-Puka, also known as Danger Island. Copra—dried coconut meat—was many South Pacific islanders’ only income.

Puka-Puka, with three villages and six hundred inhabitants, was over 700 miles from Rarotonga. Really three small islets in a lagoon formed by a barrier reef, it was about as far away from “civilization” as a Westerner could get. Left here by a supply schooner that would come only once or twice a year, Frisbie blossomed as a writer. He at last began publishing short sketches of his island life in the Atlantic Monthly—though the delay, of course, was immense.

To be Puka-Puka’s sole white man and storekeeper for four years was an ideal way to learn about locals’ character, and he became fluent in their language. As on Tahiti, he enjoyed a few mistresses, but soon Frisbie married a petite island girl, Ngatokorua (“Desire” and “Miss Tears” in his books). They had five children, whom the Polynesians called “cowboys” in honor of their American father.

Determined to write the great South Pacific novel, over the years he managed three, of diverse quality: Amaru (1945), Dawn Sails North (1949), and his best, the autobiographical Mr. Moonlight's Island (1939). It has a tremendous local color and feel for the society, but Frisbie lacked the sense of fantasy of a true novelist; his principal characters and stories never quite live up to his background material.

Frisbie’s memoir of his earliest encounter with the region, and the two memoirs of his time in the Cook Islands, are his supreme achievement. As visions of South Pacific life, written from deep within the dream yet harboring no illusions, My Tahiti, The Book of Puka-Puka, and The Island of Desire have never been equaled. To my mind they compare favorably with Thoreau—as the experience of a man living in a close relationship with nature while questioning the tenets of his own civilization, thankfully left far behind. And Frisbie’s writing is always sublime.

My Tahiti (1937)—long unavailable except for the odd bootleg edition—is an unmatched portrait of one of the most written-about islands on the planet. His Tahiti was already obsolete when he wrote the book; it would rapidly become more so with World War II. Here's how he gently describes his first night with a young companion: “I began to think how fantastic it was that the same world should hold cities and armed men, and this strange and beautiful creature. Only a score of miles away was Papeete with its scheming traders, grasping officials, Chinese slum; while farther away was civilization, where the fundamental beauties of life had been lost ages ago.”

In The Book of Puka-Puka (1929) he wrote, “Without a thought for the white man’s code of ethics, I have been happy, enjoying a felicity unknown in right-thinking realms.” He described how natives “sink into trances with perfect ease, bolt upright, eyes open, completely unconscious of the world about them,” and he learned how, too. He had no illusions about Polynesians, seeing them as full of fantasy and short of memory—except for their family trees and poems, some of which he translated. “Puka-Puka is, perhaps, the only example on earth of a successful communistic government,” he wrote, “ . . . due to the fact that no other community equals this one in sheer good-natured indolence.”

What makes his work so vibrant are the islanders: Sea-Foam the Christian and William the Heathen; Bones, the old wrestling champion, with his mouth organ; Ura the drunken chief of police; the beautiful Little Sea and her more tender cousin, Desire; the village debates, the gambling, fishing, gathering coconuts; the sensual dances by moonlight; the life of gossip, habit, and ease.

In 1928 Frisbie and his wife left Puka-Puka for Rarotonga, and began two decades of moving from island to island. They had a happy and productive few years on Tahiti and neighboring Moorea, even though Frisbie published little in that time and was beset by horrific fevers and elephantiasis. The solution to his acute physical torment was rum, and both followed him thereafter. He and Nga ended up back on Puka-Puka, but in 1939 his wife died of tuberculosis, and from then on Frisbie—no matter how much he produced—was a haunted and doomed man. He wrote his old friend James Norman Hall on Tahiti: “If I could only kill this cursed desire to write I could be happy. How can you expect a man who writes in English and thinks in Puka Pukan to be able to know what kind of work he is doing?” Frisbie would die penniless.

The Island of Desire (1944), his final masterpiece, begins with him back on Puka-Puka and describes with great sweetness his renewed life there until Nga’s passing. The book’s second half covers his experience with his children on Suwarrow, an even more remote and uninhabited atoll of twenty-five islets where he took his motherless family in late 1941. This desert island paradise was all but destroyed by a monstrous hurricane, and Frisbie’s account is unforgettable.

Time after time, he caught exactly the sense of island life: “Of a sudden I understood: all this land and sea, dormant by day, had awakened at dusk, refreshed, hungry. . . . ” He described an old woman “singing a little song as silly as it was beautiful” and the “great seas bombarding the reef” in a hurricane, in which he had to strap his children high up in tamanu trees so they were not washed away. Most moving of all, he described, after the death of his wife, a visitation by her ghost.

“I hunted long for this sanctuary,” he wrote. “Now that I have found it, I have no intention, and certainly no desire, ever to leave it again.” But this wasn’t to be. Rescued from Suwarrow, always unhealthy, he took his family back to Rarotonga, then Puka-Puka, then Tongareva, where he contracted tuberculosis. (A Lieutenant Michener was put in charge of bringing the dying American writer back to the hospital in Pago-Pago.) Samoa had use for him as a teacher once he recovered, but his fevers and drink got to him badly and he ended up on Rarotonga. The administering New Zealand government, disgruntled at his alcoholism, tried to kick him off the island, and his last years were frustrated by official bickering. Meanwhile, his books failed to achieve what he hoped, partly because war had brought a newer story to his isles.

In our era of infinite electronic memory, it is still easy for a great writer to slip between the cracks. I happened on Frisbie’s work not because I wrote professionally about the South Pacific many times over the years and did copious research—my sources never heralded him—but because of the accident that he was a family friend. My father, a war correspondent, at Hall’s suggestion met him on Rarotonga in 1943 while en route from Aitutaki to Bora Bora, brought together by Captain Andy Thomson; they stayed in touch, and years later, coincidentally, my father brought the sad information of Frisbie’s passing to Tahiti, and Hall. (He also did his best, via an extensive readership in the Chicago Daily News, to raise money for the now-orphaned “cowboys”.)

Frisbie died of tetanus in 1948 and is buried on Rarotonga, across from the Avarua library, in a simply-marked grave beneath a paw-paw tree in the Catholic cemetery. His eldest daughter’s own writings show us Frisbie as he would wish to be remembered—the inventive father, reading to his remarkably self-reliant children (“Ropati’s Slave-Labor Gang”) from the thousand books brought to a remote isle. No outsider ever lived closer to South Pacific culture, lore, and daily life than he, nor recorded so eloquently what it taught him, before he struck his own reef.

Today Robert Dean Frisbie is known mainly to those travelers through the South Pacific who look past the more familiar names and hunt down copies of his books—which were in their day well-received in England and the States. “A man who destroyed himself through the search for beauty,” is how Michener described him. In some ways Frisbie’s extraordinary journey also seems the “standard” American literary life: so much purity of expression ending in frustration and drink. Yet Frisbie’s poetic touch, his gentleness, his sympathy, are rare, and anyone dipping into his books feels immediately the unique warmth and tone of his voice. I like especially to remember a letter Frisbie sent to his brother—

“The old man looks long across the lagoon and reminisces on his past futile days. Then he wades out until the water comes to his shoulders. He swims with long strokes until he is a mile or more from shore, and quite exhausted, and realizes that now it is absolutely impossible for him to return. He rolls over on his back and stares heavenward, then he looks to land, and suddenly he smells the fragrant mountain wind, sees the moonlight throwing the shadows of articulated ridges across the water. He for the first time in his life realizes that there is beauty.”

[Those interested in the life as well as the work may wish to read The Frisbies of the South Seas (1959), by his eldest daughter, Johnny Frisbie, as well as her earlier book, published when she was only fourteen, Miss Ulysses of Puka-Puka (1947), which Frisbie co-wrote. The Forgotten One (1952), by James Norman Hall, contains an illuminating ninety-page essay on Frisbie, with excerpts from his letters. James A. Michener’s memoir, The World Is My Home (1992), has a brief portrait, too.]

Monday, January 24, 2005

Rey de la Torre (1917–1994)

Written in 2005 as the booklet essay for the Bridge disc Works for Guitar

José Rey de la Torre (Dec. 9, 1917-July 21, 1994) was one of the greatest classical guitarists of the 20th century. This is the first CD issue of any of his thirteen LPs which, recorded from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, are treasured by connoisseurs but long out of print. It also includes a previously undiscovered live track.

Born in Gibara, Cuba, like many virtuosi Rey got off to a fast start as a child prodigy (“El Nino”). When the family moved to Havana, he took up the guitar at age ten under the guidance of Severino Lopez ((1907-1978), a “young and shy” former pupil of the Catalan Miguel Llobet (1878-1938), who was the foremost guitarist of the era. Rey made fast progress: his first solo recital in Havana, at age twelve, included Sor’s variations on a theme of Mozart, “Granada” by Albeniz, Tárrega’s “Capricho Arabe” and “Recuerdos de la Alhambra.”

In 1932, at fourteen, his family sent him to Barcelona to study with Llobet. Rey wrote a detailed portrait of the master and a tender account of those two and a half years in Guitar Review (Winter 1985). What he left out was his own success there just before returning to Cuba, when Llobet presented him in concert—his programme included a work still at the outer limits of guitar technique, Alfonso Broqua’s “Ritmos Camperos.”

Rey received raves from the tough Barcelona critics, who compared him not only to Llobet but to Casals; composer Jaime Pahissa declared Rey the most complete guitarist he’d ever heard, with “a sweet but powerful tone and an extraordinary technical perfection that permits him to play the most difficult passages with ease.”

The composer and pianist Joaquin Nin-Culmell (1908-2004) recalled meeting Rey back in Havana just after his return. “As a young performer he was astounding. His playing was aristocratic and exact, quite different from the romantic, improvisational school of Segovia. He had a truly purist mind; this purism went into his concept of technique, which he got from Llobet but which he took much, much further. He was one of the very few guitarists with a respect for the musical text. And I’ve met very few musicians as well read as Rey, a man of extraordinary culture and interests. Even when he was twenty, he had a tremendous literary, cultural, philosophical, and political point of view.”

When Rey began his career, the present worldwide popularity of the classical guitar, so easy to take for granted, was still many years away. The guitar was, as Rey wrote, “practically unknown to musical audiences and. . . largely ignored by the classical performers.” Beginning with his Barcelona debut in 1934 at sixteen, for over four decades Rey concertized across North America, Europe, and parts of Central America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, and did much to bring the instrument the worldwide respect it enjoys today. His New York recitals (mostly Town Hall, but also Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully, and the Metropolitan Museum) became annual milestones. He made countless radio and TV appearances.

For the historical record, Rey gave world premieres of Joaquin Nin-Culmell’s “Six Variations on a Theme by Milán” in (Town Hall, N.Y.C., Nov. 10, 1947); of José Ardevol’s “Sonata” (Woodstock, N.Y., Sept. 3, 1950); of Julián Orbón’s “Preludio y Danza” (originally “Preludio y Toccata,” in 1953); and of Carlos Chavez’s “Three Pieces for Guitar” (Alice Tully, N.Y.C., Nov. 14, 1969; written back in 1923). He also performed in the premiere of Villa-Lobos’ “Introduction to the Chôros” (N.Y.C., August 1962). And I believe but cannot confirm that he was the first guitarist to perform in its totality the seven-movement suite, “Evocaciones Criollas,” of Alfonso Broqua.

Rey made the first recordings of works by Sor, Giuliani, Tárrega, Cervantes, Falla, Grau, Torroba, Rodrigo, Ponce, Lee, as well as the Boccherini, Nin-Culmell, and Orbón pieces included here. He may also have been the first guitarist to record duets by performing both parts himself.

As Michael Lorimer says, “When the guitar world had few great performers, Rey gave a standard of excellence to which to aspire. As the outstanding student of Miguel Llobet, who was the most distinguished performer in the school of Tárrega, Rey directly linked us to that fountainhead of guitaristic tradition. At the same time, Rey’s collaborations with composers provided the literature beautiful new vistas.”

When the two recordings presented herein were made, Rey had built a busy concert career in the USA over the years since his 1938 New York debut. He’d also made five prior LPs which, for various reasons, were unsatisfying to him. However, once he met the two Shulman brothers, his recording luck changed. Though their Philharmonia proved a short-lived label, Rey accounted for two of Philharmonia’s dozen releases, and under several titles the solo LP thrived for many years as a Nonesuch LP and cassette.

It remains one of the essential guitar recordings, with all the glories of Rey’s poetic, precise playing evident a half-century on—his rich and nuanced tone, his exquisite phrasing and sense of line, his bravura technique and profound musicality. (Let those who insist that today’s players have surpassed those of yesteryear consider the fact that this recording was made without any edits.)

The Boccherini Quintet in D—of which this is the first recording—was done just three days before Rey’s 33rd birthday. He had recently received his first of two superb guitars from Hermann Hauser I, arguably the preeminent luthier of the era, and this instrument would prove his beloved “workhorse” for the rest of his career. (Prior to the Hauser, Rey faithfully performed and recorded on a 1931 Simplicio chosen for him in Barcelona by Llobet.)

The Stuyvesant Quartet was one of the finest mid-century chamber groups in the U.S., with a repertoire of remarkable breadth. The quartet’s founders, Alan and Sylvan Shulman, had started Philharmonia, and this disc was the label’s second release. (Side Two was Gian Francesco Malipiero’s “Rispetti e Strambotti,” already reissued on CD.) Apart from its historical importance, the Boccherini performance is notable for a warmth and dynamism that remain unsurpassed. One reviewer pointed out that “the guitarist. . . fits into the quintet group as though he had been a regular member of long standing.”

Here the famous ‘castanets’ passage in the closing Fandango—usually handled by the cellist, tapping the instrument’s body—was played by Rey with his fingernails on the side of his new Hauser, while cellist Alan Shulman took over the pedal figure from the guitar part. (According to Rey, this was Alan’s idea; he was trying to protect the finish on his cello, made by Joseph Dalaglio in Mantua, circa 1800.)

The solo LP, which Rey remembered as “a work of love,” was made over the course of a couple of days in July, 1952. As legendary engineer Norman Pickering recalled, fifty-two years later, “Rey and I had a short but intense relationship. He was a wonderful man, and a wonderfully sensitive musician. I liked him enormously; to this day I’ve never heard another guitarist like him. He was so smart, so easy to work with. He didn’t have any problems, he was totally non-temperamental about recording. He would play things over and over with no objections so I could get the right sound. Complete takes, with no splices—this was how I always worked. Both discs were recorded in the same church. It’s large, of rough stone, with a long reverberation time. I used a single microphone recording him solo, and for the quintet too, placed carefully: a Neumann U-47.”

Rey’s abiding memory of the session was carpets hung in the church to help the sound, and a touch of whiskey being drunk by those listening, not working.

We have included Rey’s original liner notes, which appeared in part on the Philharmonia version of the LP (and an Elektra reissue) and in full on the Nonesuch version. It would be difficult to praise this recording too highly. Though Rey’s later five Epic LPs are superb, revered within the guitar world and awaiting CD reissues of their own, they were made under trying circumstances, far removed from the ease and camaraderie of working with Pickering and the Shulmans. The present two LPs were an Eden in Rey’s recording life, and he looked back on them with pleasure and pride.

It’s worth noting that the pieces in whose development he had a hand have some aspect which is entirely new on the instrument (like the “false harmonics” in the final crescendo of the Orbón). Because of his deep friendships with Nin-Culmell and Orbón, as well as Llobet’s urging, Rey always thought of the guitar in orchestral terms. His attention to dynamics, muting, and registration, his devotion to finding ways to give a score maximum life on the guitar, came from constantly thinking orchestrally.

The Villa-Lobos Etude #11 shows how electrifying a live performer Rey was. Having already recorded the piece for Epic, his interpretation reflects a longstanding friendship with the composer (who praised Rey for playing his work “like a great guitarist and like a true Brazilian.”). This track was only recently unearthed.

As his career flourished, Rey began to have increasing trouble with his right (plucking) hand, a problem unrelated to the later rheumatoid arthritis which would end his concertizing. During the late 1950s and 1960s he found his middle finger weaker and less responsive, with a tendency to under-reach; having never had any problems with technique, he was forced to compensate via complex re-fingerings.

The solution came through Marianne Eppens, a Swiss physical therapist whom he met socially. She realized the problem was due to Rey pampering his right hand to avoid injury or breaking a nail; the delicate mechanism of muscles had become imbalanced from unnatural under-use. She encouraged Rey to put his hand back to active everyday use, and in months he was cured. In 1969 he and Marianne married and left New York for California. Except for two years on Staten Island in the mid-70s, Rey spent the rest of his life in the San Francisco area.

In 1975 Rey was diagnosed with the rheumatoid arthritis which soon twisted his hands and left him crippled. His final concerts, in ’75 and ’76, were played while heavily dosed on anti-inflammatory drugs. The last twenty years of his life were spent in severe pain, and his courage in the face of major setbacks (both knees replaced, a quadruple bypass) was heroic. His marriage to Marianne was profoundly happy and her devotion was, as he put it, “saintly.”

He continued to teach until even that became too arduous. It was inexpressibly poignant to see him during this time—a giant who had once played the most difficult pieces with grace and ease, now unable, as he said, “to play even first-year positions.” Still, even as illness ended his performing at its zenith, it made him a better teacher. Childless, he was loved by students as a surrogate father. Rather than clinging to the faded splendor of what his playing had been, he tried to pass on all he knew, sharing his knowledge (as he wrote of Llobet) as one shares one’s daily bread with a friend. He could explain anything.

It is unfortunate that we have had to wait so long for these discs to see the light of day again. Sometimes it is difficult to grasp how very quickly the vagaries of time can erase a performer’s legacy; the familiar name becomes an unfamiliar ghost. Now, at least, the classical guitar audience will have one of the instrument’s great poets, at his magnificent best, before them again, more than a half-century later. May he never be forgotten.