[June 23, 2020.]
“The best thing about being dead is that you no longer have to say,
Walt Mundkowsky sent me this epigram, almost an epitaph, in 2016. Anyone who had the fortune to know him could not miss his wit, which tended, like his musical tastes, toward the dark side, always conveyed with a lightness of touch.
The most lovable of misanthropes, Walt is gone. Now I could throw away all that we honed together through the years, and write endless blather, and get personal and teary, but in his absence, and with me hearing him telling me to get on with it, I would rather spotlight some of what he treasured, and thus perpetuate the cycle as he so selflessly did.
First and foremost, readers could stop now and let Walt’s own words (he preferred, in his idiosyncratic way, “worts” and “wordz” at times) here. Picking any random article will be worth your time.
If you bother with my own words, let them be the following:
Excepting junk food, and the art of avoiding people (selected ladies and a few gentlemen aside), Walt cared about, and dove deep into, books, films and music. He was picky, for sure, but also broad-minded in ways that still surprise. The three subsets below give some guidance in terms of what he valued.
Apart from William Shakespeare, whom he quoted with ease (especially Henry IV and King Lear), and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, and among Americans, Herman Melville (“He’s all we’ve got, sorta”), Walt plumbed the depths of the international 20th century and sometimes beyond.
He cherished Philip Larkin, the curmudgeon of Hull; Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian purveyor of life’s absurdities; the full-frontal assault of Linda Lê’s Slander; the prosaic reality of Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster; the surreality of W. G. Sebald; the long and winding roads of László Krasznahorkai, Robert Pinget or Claude Simon; and, more generally, his “three Bs,” Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard and Maurice Blanchot. Of this triumvirate he claimed, “Nothing written after them matters a damn,” but exceptions were made, as you see.
Walt strove to stay away from lists, rankings and superlatives – and by extension actors and directors whom he dismissed as “biggies.” He did not deny, however, that his “all-time favorite film” was Je t’aime, je t’aime by Alain Resnais, a filmmaker with whom he otherwise had many issues. Like Walt himself, the film seems to stand aside its own time and place, both in terms of content and style.
In no particular order, he praised Chantal Akerman when she was in her 20s only to rue subsequent developments (with a few returns to form, he conceded), approved of some Robert Bresson and later Joseph Losey, and of many films by Raúl Ruiz and Jean-Michel Straub & Danièle Huillet, and of the early works of Dario Argento, David Cronenberg, Chris Marker, and Wim Wenders, was on-and-off with Lindsay Anderson, Ingmar Bergman, Sam Peckinpah, Jacques Rivette, and Orson Welles, was mostly off with Jean-Luc Godard, Volker Schlöndorff and Andrei Tarkovsky (except Andrei Rublev: “His style came to strangle his work”), was totally off with Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“problematic for everyone”), Peter Greenaway, Stanley Kubrick, Pier Paolo Pasolini (“He went from artless to artificial without ever touching art”), and Lars von Trier, faulted the “primitive” technique of Woody Allen and Werner Herzog, worshipped the first few Theo Angelopoulos features, and saw the virtues of Béla Tarr in theory.
Looking at Walt’s choices, it’s clear that the films from the late ‘60s – and here one must also include Jacques Tati’s Playtime – to mid-’70s continued to occupy the core of his cinematic canon, even while reviewing newer fare for much of his life. His mind was open, though: he admired Michael Haneke for his craftmanship, for example, and Abbas Kiarostami, though “prolly for the wrong (or irrelevant) reasons,” and he said farewell to his cinema-going days around the turn of the century with After Life by Hirokazu Kore-eda, then almost unknown.
Though directors cast the largest spell, actors mattered too. He adored Charlotte Rampling, independent of director. Bulle Ogier and Delphine Seyrig sometimes, too, and the young Isabelle Adjani. Among men, and British men, Paul Scofield loomed large, with James Spader singled out among Americans. I cannot resist pointing out that Walt loathed Jean-Pierre Léaud with a passion: he “ranks high among actors I can’t stand.”
The curious among you may like to know that Walt adapted three screenplays, one of which, Cobra Hunt, seems fascinating. Its scenes are all meant to be single takes; the film, in black-and-white with three color interludes, would have no music; and almost no action transpires, and much occurs off-screen.
Here is where matters get complicated. There is no way to reduce or simplify. Walt saw no contradiction in loving a Charlotte Gainsbourg song as much as a Josquin Desprez mass, so why must I?
“I was intensely involved with mainstream piano repertory from childhood to the mid-1960s, when early music gradually took over,” he wrote, and he even liked early music on the piano, combining the two. Walt suitably maintained a fondness for Wilhelm Kempff while also citing Peter Serkin in his early stage and Alexei Lubimov and Andreas Staier at times. “I’m not part of the cult” of Glenn Gould, he asserted, and had both problems with and praise for Sviatoslav Richter (and of live recordings overall, greatly preferring studio takes).
Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven were his piano standards, but only subsections of either output; he was far from a completist. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played almost no rôle in his life, except the Requiem, and though “Haydn’s as crucial as anyone,” the only Franz Joseph Haydn he bothered with was the string quartet incarnation of the Seven Last Words. He embraced the organist Helmut Walcha, and the harpsichordists Bob van Asperen, Thurston Dart (in John Bull, in particular), Pierre Hantaï, Gustav Leonhardt, Edward Parmentier, Rafael Puyana (and Walt loved the Manuel de Falla harpsichord concerto, besides), and Colin Tilney.
He viewed the baroque with suspicion, usually found Johann Sebastian Bach to be too bouncy (while owning plenty of cantatas with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Karl Richter), but reveled in Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber or Jan Dismas Zelenka, for instance, and returned often to French baroque leçons de ténèbres. The Renaissance was more to his taste, both for individual composers (Josquin Desprez and Johannes Ockeghem as well as the later Heinrich Schütz, Christopher Tye and Tomás Luis de Victoria, and many other less-prominent figures) and for selected performers (A Sei Voci, The Clerks, Graindelavoix, Pomerium, only occasionally The Tallis Scholars). He had a special affinity with the chanson Malheur me bat and the various mass settings built around it: “I can relate, dognose.” John Dowland, by default, stands supreme in the “songs of sadness” trope.
Though Walt claimed, “I’ve fallen into mentioning depressive pop in part to indicate that most classical is lost on me,” he made exceptions. He tended to prefer male singers in Winterreise, especially Christoph Prégardien. He did, however, find Christine Schäfer irresistible if too devastating to return to often. For pop, sad and slow, as it must be, there was of late a revival (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Aldous Harding) added to his earlier fondness for Nico or later fondness for Mazzy Star. And, of course, the nexus between high art, punk and technology as exemplified by Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division or Wire (WIR), or even This Mortal Coil, however one classifies that short-lived group, continued to preoccupy his listening.
Not only voices, I hear you say! And true, for Walt, the viol consort was the bedrock of instrumental music, even more than the string quartet that followed (though he did return repeatedly to a few of Beethoven’s contributions to the latter medium). Orlando Gibbons, William Lawes, Matthew Locke, Christopher Tye here too, whether with Concordia, Fretwork or Phantasm, need to be mentioned.
Some works obsessed him despite their composer. Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1 is an excellent example, or Jean Barraqué’s Sonate, or Othmar Schoeck’s Notturno, or Frederic Mompou’s Música callada. He preferred late Igor Stravinsky and small-scale Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Other works, and indeed complete genres, he avoided; after all, life is short: orchestral music was not for him, and opera was out of the question. He did, however, once admit to a passion for Leoš Janáček and Bohuslav Martinů, especially the latter’s Julietta, which violates both categories – but it was music of memory, not music that he would have collected.
He rued that slow jazz was not a well-mined trough. Jazz as a rambunctious unit did not appeal to him. He followed Charlie Haden closely, and revisited Annette Peacock earlier this year. He claimed of Paul Bley that “not much in music is more crucial to me.” Best to leave this survey, partial and incomplete as it must be, here, then.
“A long life seems ghastly,” he had confided to me once, and in his own words, in 2018, “Given my lifestyle (diet, lack of exercise) I can’t see how I reached 74.” He almost reached 76, in fact. His birthday is today, would have been today, always will be today. Walt is gone, but is he? Everywhere I look the reminders greet me, the gratitude pours in. Walt is perennial, the blossoms burst forth in all seasons, it’s a bumper crop, let’s partake.
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