In Francis Ford Coppola's Cotton Club the relentless beat of the music undercuts far more profound events in the life
of the film. I have always felt that this persuasion is the true power of music, even though it operates in the abstract.
Like most of my pieces from the last fifteen years, Le Bonheur de Vivre is deeply rooted in the soil of popular American culture.
This time the titles of the movements have distinct references to movie titles or famous quotes from films. In this work, the music
could almost be imagined as underscoring the action of a movie, something I have studiously avoided in the past. "The Big Parade",
the title of Movement I is the title of an extremely famous silent film, which to me is emblematic of how civilians look at war.
We live in a time of perpetual war and perpetual peace, in the eyes of Gore Vidal, but the truth is that we live our lives in
constant conflict with occasional, unsatisfactory resolutions. Movement II, "Queen Kelly Lives", naturally refers to the extravagant
pageant by Von Stroheim, a classic ruin, even before the completion of the film (which did not occur).
The elegaic alternates with the artifacts of the ballroom, the formal gown defiled by an excess champagne and caviar.
In the days of Charlie Chaplin, a movie could be unaffectedly charming and make profound statements. Today there is a code of profundity: every movie by Herzog is a supreme masterpiece and all musical compositons by Elliott Carter are as edicts from the Pope. Maybe this stuff is just a bunch of pompous wind, full of pretension and devoid of affirmation (it is also relentlessly boring). I firmly believe this observation. I think that the inflated pretense of so called serious artworks in the end of the 20th century are the emperor's new clothes, an abomination and a pretense for real insight into human nature. The fact that so many of these works are devoid of any sense of humor should be the tip off: even Shakepeare's Hamlet has its lighter moments.
The piece owes a big debt to those few artists and critics in our age who are willing to dejate the fatuous balloon of high art. I take Ravel's brilliantly mordant La Valse as my point of departure: we can laugh at ourselves and learn about ourselves at the same time. The photo collages of David Hockney project a similar white light of truth.
My piece is cast in four movements, the Finale is really preceded by an entr'acte, "I Thought you died, man"., a mock-serious tombeau
for the basic foolishness of preoccupations with mortality. The title refers to a line uttered by the John Voight character in Hal Ashby's
Coming Home. That character, consumed by inveterate rage over his
paraplegic condition, brought about by participation in a war of lost values (Vietnam), wheels through the hospital ward,
obliquely confronting a fellow soldier with that line. Sympathy and alienation coexist in that moment for that
character: life and death are so close.
"Zez's Cartoon Cafe," the title of Movement IV refers to Zez Confrey, composer of Dizzy Fingers, Kitten on the Keys, and other piano novelties that always reminded me of cartoon music. It is in this arena that I make my last stand for civilization. In the giddy, seemingly superficial strains of these novelties an essential truth of human nature emerges: sometimes it is enough just to feel good about yourself. Of course, this commandment is the cornerstone of Preston Sturges's Sullivanís Travels, one of the greatest films to enlighten us to the human condition. I will admit that I am a true believer in the doctrine of Spencer Wells in The Journey of Man: we will ultimately be replaced by something better. In the meantime we have to make do with artistic buffoons who charm us in greasepaint. For the curious: the main title refers to the 1907 painting by Matisse, long hidden in the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, which shares the fanfare of modernism with Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Looking at this totally festive work has always made me feel glad to be alive. I hope that my modest efforts can convey a fraction of the intensity in the joy of life revealed in that picture.