I bought that Webern you had before I left and I’m listening to parts every day [The Complete Works, conducted by Robert Craft]. I think I’m so smart, because when you played me one piece I immediately thought it seemed like the musical equivalent of Klee. Now, according to the notes, Webern was actually a member of the Blue Rider group…I still can’t take very much of the songs. For one thing, those voices aren’t too good, even if accurate, but I am crazy about some of the short instrumental pieces. They seem exactly like what I’d always wanted, vaguely, to hear and never had, and really “contemporary.” That strange kind of modesty that I think one feels in almost everything contemporary one really likes–Kafka, say, or Marianne [Moore], or even Eliot, and Klee and Kokoshka and Schwitters…Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time. Well, maybe I’m hearing too much. (–and admission of final ignorance!)
From one of Elizabeth Bishop‘s beautiful letters to Robert Lowell, published in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (2008), which I have been reading as if it were my job. I’m not sure how I got into it, as I’m not much of a poetry buff, but the life stories of these two artists are so sad and sincere, that I’ve felt a voyeur’s pleasure in getting to know them. When they praise or critique each others’ poems it forces me to crack open the anthologies, and I experience their casual, pitch perfect poems as frozen music.
Elsewhere in the letter she mentions she is at her home in Brazil listening to this music with Flávio, her partner‘s 15-year-old nephew. “He’s converting me to cool jazz and I’m converting him to Webern,” she writes. “I should think he’d be bored to death up here.”