Art, Music, Books & Film

The Convivium of the Castro

I’m luxuriating in a marvelous piece of Baroque music that I discovered quite by chance while browsing at the Metropolis: Adam Michna’s The Czech Lute (1653). Despite the title, there is no lute to be heard. Rather it’s a suite of thirteen arias each prefaced with an instrumental introduction, set to the rhythm of a dance and sung in a kind of musical dialogue.  I’ve tried to track down the text for these songs, even recruiting the help of our librarian (the titles of the songs indicate that the suite is a meditation on the mystic marriage of the human soul with Christ), but in vain. Perhaps it’s better that way. Not knowing the words I can write my own. At turns, joyful, beseeching, serene, plaintive, the arias sound like the conversation of courtship—fragments d’un discours amoureux set to music, though more tendresse than angoisse.

The music itself is a reconstruction of fragments of the original. As Michael Pospíšil  writes in his liner notes for the edition, the music for the Czech Lute was not originally printed as a complete score, but instead divided and printed in three books; one book for the vocal parts and texts, another for the basso continuato accompaniment and overture, yet another for the instrumental parts. The first two books were damaged, the last lost. In supplying the missing instrumental ritornelli, Pospíšil drew inspiration from the practice of music-making in 17th century Bohemia and in particular the convivium of a Marian brotherhood at table. He writes, “the convivium was the ideal occasion for people of different classes to play together, forgetting for a moment the social gulf between them. A favourite piece would “travel” round the table, changing according to its difficultly, the mood of those present, their ability and – not least – the instruments being played.” There was apparently room at table for both the virtuoso and the apprentice.

In 15th century Florence, Marsilio Ficino, the guiding light of the Florentine Renaissance (and beyond), had also called the artists, musicians and poets that he had invited to the Villa Careggi convivium. At these gatherings, each of the guests at table —poets, singers, musicians, philosophers—would contribute to the occasion with his own talent and inclination. In Ficino’s words, “The Convivium is rest from labours, release from cares, and nourishment of genius; it is the demonstration of love and splendour, the food of good will, the seasoning of friendship, the leavening of grace and the solace of life.” (in Noel Cobb’s translation, cited in Darielle Richards’ “Convivium with J. R. R. Tolkien: An Old Idea Coming of Age”, an interesting text in which she explores Tolkien’s literary fellowship, the Inklings, and imagines what a modern-day version of the convivium might look like and could offer us).

Michna’s brotherhood of musicians and Ficino’s Careggi were not only loci of learning but also a community of friends. And I thought, leaving the cinema where I had seen Milk with the Crew of Four G’s—Georgia, Giorgos, Giannis (the Short) and Giannis (the Tall)—how apt a description convivium would be for the early days of the gay Castro community so inspiringly rendered in the film. Milk’s circle of activist friends in the Castro—the Harvard graduate, the hash dealer, the dancer, the runaway kid from Phoenix who used to turn tricks on Polk Street—form a community of friends that if not for their sexual identity would probably never have come together. Almost certainly not in the straight world. (Curiously enough, the convivium is also used in ecology to denote “a population exhibiting differentiation within the species and isolated geographically, generally a subspecies or ecotype.”) Granted, Milk and (I think to a lesser extent) his campaign provide a kind of social glue that binds them together more closely. But still, this community of friends is quite remarkable for its heterogeneity and cohesiveness.

What is fascinating about this group of engaged friends is how its members learn and, particularly in Cleve’s case (the kid from Phoenix) come of age. I think of the gay friends and lovers with whom over the years I have sat at table. Dispersed in time and place, these men are my own convivium. They have shown me wonderful things and taught me much about life and music and food and architecture and a hundred other things, even though none sought to be nor donned the persona of a teacher.

I grew up in a working-class family where music was something you heard on a TV show. We didn’t have a stereo system or even a phonograph. If I listen now to Michna’s Czech Lute, it is perhaps because of Keith, or at least Keith was the first to nudge me along a path of musical exploration. He was a man I met and fell in love with at college. He wrote poetry and played the guitar. Though he mostly played his own compositions, sometimes we would sit on his bed in the dorm and he would play pieces from Bach’s works for lute, his mane of black hair glistening with the sweat from our lovemaking. The music was entrancing, though admittedly I was in a post-sex euphoric high. He would play parts of it again for me, and point out the rhythms of the sarabande and gigue. Though you’ll never know how much, I thank you, Keith…

And David, who initiated me into the finer points of Lucille Ball’s comedy;

And Daniel, who showed me that the space that isn’t contained in a sculpture is just as important as the space that is;

And Thomas, who first showed me that sex isn’t just fucking;

And Mark, who taught me that sauces are created, not spooned out of a jar;

And Mischa, who helped me see things like bowls, ears, legs, and beaks in letters;

And Eugene, who made me confront the racism I never suspected I harbored;

And Waclaw, who unlocked desire in ways I never imagined possible;

And Jörg and Giorgos and Dieter and Nikolas, who continue to nourish and teach me.

P.S. The image in this post is a work by the Iranian photo-realist artist, Iman Maleki. Though probably not the intention of the artist, the work dramatically depicts the potentially subversive nature of the music, knowledge and friendship of the convivium.

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