Forever Young

Katherine Bucknell is the editor of "Juvenilia: Poems 1922-1928" by W.H. Auden, and "Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951" and "Diaries: 1939-1960," both by Christopher Isherwood

"The fact that intellectuals are not musical, and that they aren't embarrassed about it, is a theme to develop sometime," wrote Ned Rorem in his diary on New Year's Day, 1971. Well, I am embarrassed. But Rorem is discussed, willy-nilly, by non-musicians, because he is a composer and also a writer. In addition, he has a special gift for setting words to music. Recently, I saw him mentioned in a daily newspaper as the greatest songwriter of the last 50 years. What can that mean? Several times in "Lies" and "The Later Diaries," Rorem mentions listeners who questioned the effect of setting to music poems that were conceived as complete works in themselves. One Sylvia Plath-lover told him, "You've missed the point, you can't write music like that to poems like that, they scan differently"; a critic found Rorem's settings of Wallace Stevens' poetry "an unnecessary intrusion"; John Updike--tactfully referring to "unknown composers"--told Rorem that settings of Updike verse sounded odd to him, "like taffy, stretching phrases out of shape."

When I first heard some of Rorem's settings of Auden, I was jarred to the point of discomfort. These were not Auden's rhythms. My reaction wouldn't bother Rorem; he writes in his diary, "Music does not intensify the sense of words, it changes their sense ...." The poem, then, still exists separately in its own right. This makes Rorem an interpreter, his songs hermeneutic--a word he quirkily professes not to understand. Rorem's naivete is dazzling: "Well, I never understand poetry, which is why I set it to music. (Both clauses of that sentence are untrue.)" His writing is also dazzling, and his diaries offer a portrait of a perverse, riveting, shy, unpredictable man.

On May 30, 1992, Rorem recorded a dream in which his concluding sensation was, "I am only a child, although sixty-eight years old." Four years on, he noted, "I retain the childish conviction that not only am I the center of the universe, I am the universe." Often in the diary he links child and creative artist; they share curiosity, powerful concentration, the quest for something new: "... [A]rtists, insofar as they are artists, retain their first childhood unto death." Rorem's newest book, "Lies," shows that his stunning intelligence can still be playful even though the pungent strangeness of his earlier writing has given way to a more effortful style and a dense, aphoristic turn of phrase. The breadth of his cultural interest is both instructive and greatly to be admired; there can be no doubt that Rorem has been vitally engaged with whatever intellectual and musical trends might be said to have shaped the 20th century. The child in him records personal details with the same attention he affords his major artistic achievements, and his tone is wide-eyed; he seems utterly confident that someone will want to know. His confidence, and also the lure of confidences, leads the reader on for many a page. Gossip, worldly experiences, gaffes are imparted with traffic-stopping candor.

A riffle through the index of "Lies" promises encounters with composers, singers, writers, actors, movie stars, socialites aplenty, many of them household names. There are detailed accounts of herpes and hemorrhoids, inappropriate lusts, inadvertent and occasionally hilarious insults, professional jealousies. The best laughs are at himself. Meeting deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, Rorem says he carefully mouthed, "'I really admired your deftness,' while wondering simultaneously why I chose the noun which I've never used before. Did she hear--see--the 't' in 'deftness'?" Self-revelations are pointed. He objects to popular fears about child molesting: "[W]hen I was a child I molested some adults." This theme culminates in the following statement about his own sexuality: "[We had a] discussion of homosexuals as women trapped in men's bodies. Well, I am not a woman, my body is a little boy's, longing to be defiled (not as a woman, as a little boy) by a grown-up, gentle child-abuser."

Rorem has a quality of innocence that nothing can ever besmirch, even his own cynicism, with which he mocks himself as he writes. At the same time, "Lies" also reveals a beaky shape of personality--opinionated, cranky, tentative and earnestly self-doubting. On music, poetry, politics and food, the reader wants to answer back--if he or she knows enough to answer well--and sometimes the book feels more like table-talk than a diary. There is really nothing private about its self-conscious charm nor about its old man's dismay, and Rorem's childishness is expressed above all in his wonder at mortality. Life runs on forever in front of those who are starting it; death runs on forever in front of those near the end. Much of this diary is about how Rorem can respond--personally and artistically--to the overawing challenge of death, death all around him.

"Lies" chronicles a return to the Quaker plainness of Rorem's background, which might surprise readers of "The Paris Diary" and its sequels, those fevered, extravagant, super-Proustian catalogs of intensely craved, intimate encounters with the snob culture of le tout Paris, the genius culture of Picasso, Cocteau, Man Ray, Dali, Balthus, Poulenc, Virgil Thomson (the list is endless) and the street culture of anonymous "experiences" (including sex) with strangers. Perhaps "Lies" records a kind of ultimate growing up. Exoticism, decadence and untrammeled creativity have given way to a smokeless, drinkless, celibate and very quiet domestic life ruled by the need to earn a living. More than once, Rorem observes that he composes music primarily or even only for commissions, whereas in adolescence he couldn't bear to leave off inventing at the piano even when he needed to go the bathroom and, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, "impulse gushed without censorship." He frequently conjures memories of the unanswerable appetites to which he was willingly susceptible in youth, but these appetites are now burnt away almost completely, so that the diarist seems to be a skeleton of willpower and intellect surviving the flesh's progress through life's fat meal of art and sensuality. He lapped up and was lapped up by an abundance of dangers and indulgences; somehow he walked away wiser and alive. Once a bingeing alcoholic and a promiscuous cruiser, he now treats himself to pastry and ice cream. He hates restaurants and most parties. With this special kind of sobriety comes heightened introspection; continually in "Lies" Rorem asks: What is life for? Why do I compose music? Why do I write this diary? These are real philosophical questions, not the same as the youthful, self-regarding anxieties: What kind of an effect am I having on other people? How can I become famous? How find sex?

"The Later Diaries 1961-1972," republished in paperback, shows how Rorem gradually returned to risk-free, unadorned domesticity. Reading this earlier volume is like watching time pass before your very eyes. Over and over again, Rorem finds another new way to evoke the transformation of experience as it is anticipated, occurs, is over. The anticipation and above all the recollection last far longer than experience itself, and the experience is changed by the time Rorem catches it down on paper with his pen. This brings him both pleasure and pain. The flight and absolute loss of time, accompanied by significant midlife agonies--the "publicized flop" of his opera "Miss Julie," the prickly reception of "The Paris Diary" by the intimate friends whose secrets he told in it, the death of his adored former patron the Vicomtesse Marie Laure de Noailles and various failed love affairs--can be seen to contribute to the sobering up of Rorem. But from late December 1967, when the initials "JH" first appear in "The Later Diaries," a sea change is in train. By April Fools' Day, 1970, Rorem writes: "... [M]y domestic life has changed so radically that the frenzied highs and lows which characterized the earlier years are gone. I do not smoke or drink or [expletive deleted] or use foul language. I work and proselytize, and am content and bitter."

Jim Holmes was Rorem's companion and "the love of my life" from 1967 until Holmes' death from the combined juggernaut of Crohn's disease, cancer and AIDS in January 1999. By the weighty and steady application of his rather dark and no-nonsense personal steadfastness, Holmes settled and absorbed Rorem's Apollonian restlessness. Entry upon entry in the diary shows how Rorem's obsession with originality and change was balanced by Holmes' commitment to routine and chores, both domestic and professional. If Rorem is a professional artist--seeking always to create something new--Holmes (though he composed a little) is a professional musician, continually practicing the pieces he admires, either on the church organ or with his choir, in order to perform them again and better, no matter how many times. Rorem records with bitterness and pride that Holmes, who was organist and choirmaster at St. Matthew's Church in New York City, never missed a Sunday service in 25 years. As Holmes' illness progressed, Rorem lost his ability to care about anything except what was happening to his friend: "He's worth all my music to me, and I'd never compose another note if that would save his life." Holmes' condition becomes, for Rorem, the only news, horrendous as it was: "The priorities for this diary now are strictly to monitor JH. Everything else, even composing, seems frivolous. Yet Jim perseveres with the work he loves (practicing "Messiaen," preparing for the choral program, complaining about the criminally recalcitrant organ tuner), though the new pill knocks him out, almost." When Holmes was approaching death's door--wasted by chemotherapy, unable to eat and continually in pain--he planned a concert to mark his 56th birthday, immersing himself in rehearsals with the community of singers and musicians he had attracted to the church over the years. This is just one of the complicated tasks he set himself until the very end.

Rorem prefaced the year 1961 of his diary with this epigraph: "Great works of art, being unique, are final; they do not open doors, they close them." He seems to walk away from his own finished works. Performances of his music are only occasionally satisfying to him and always make him nervous. Sometimes, as he tells in the diaries, he is bored on hearing his own earlier works played again. Repetition somehow empties music and words of meaning. But for Holmes, repetition put meaning in: gardening at their Nantucket house, cooking for hungry people he had hardly met, paying taxes, playing or listening to music (above all "Messiaen" ). Half a year after Holmes' death, Rorem recalled: "'You don't have enough respect for your own music,' Jim used to say in reaction to my ho-hum attitude once I'd experienced the thrill (or horror) of a first (or fifth) performance. In fact, my 'performances' dwell in the composing; the bringing to life seems always less ... well, necessary. Jim himself was every inch a re-creator: He could live with a piece--of Brahms, Faure, Messiaen, myself--for years, remolding, kneading, whacking it anew every day. The work he did with his beloved church choir for a third of a century involved constant rethinking, friendship, and patience." When Rorem asked, "What do we do?" about the illness, Holmes yelled at him, "You learn to live with it." Does life have meaning and purpose right up to and through the moment of death? Holmes' life had ritual, both private and shared. If a diary can have a hero, the hero of "Lies" is Holmes, pious and dignified, humbly serving the God he did not believe in but in whom, according to his own diary (which Rorem briefly quotes) he liked others to believe.

Holmes' absence is evident even in small details of Rorem's writing. Near the end of "The Later Diaries," Rorem says, "For a fortnight JH and I have been trimming the fat from this volume, fat being the truth that endangers." Elsewhere Rorem refers to Holmes reading galleys and proofs for him and making indexes. Sadly this edition of "The Later Diaries" has no index, and "Lies" has some oversights and typos. JH would surely never have allowed Rorem to print Auden's title "Their Lonely Betters" as "Their Lonely Belters." But the crazy title works, because on the night Rorem's song was performed at Avery Fisher Hall--as an unlikely contribution to a spectacle of operatic blockbusters--there were, in Rorem's view, too many belters on the stage.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Thursday June 28, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction Book review--The name of French composer Olivier Messiaen was misidentified as a musical composition in a Sunday review of Ned Rorem's "Lies: A Diary 1986-1999." FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Thursday June 28, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction Book review--The name of French composer Olivier Messiaen was misidentified as a musical composition in a Sunday review of Ned Rorem's "Lies: A Diary 1986-1999."
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