Back to Brokeback Mountain

Back to Brokeback Mountain

18 March 2024 / William Anderson / On the Beat, Compositions, composers

Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain

I come back to Brokeback Mountain from time to time. There are elusive mysteries lurking in Wuorinen’s great work and in Proulx’s short story. I’ve taken this dive before and each time I hope to get closer to some other side.

CS Lewis - “There is nothing in history that quite corresponds to a coastline or a watershed in geography.” This quote brings me back once again to Wuorinen’s fractal naturalism.

This comment is pre-Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot was the pioneer of fractal geometry. Jonathan Dawe & I met him through Charles Wuorinen at a Wuorinen 65th Birthday concert at Merkin Hall that I produced. I am very happy that my father got to meet Mandelbrot that evening. In the 90s Wuorinen and Mandelbrot did New York Notes with fractal talk with slides at the Guggenheim.

Those images — watersheds and coastlines — in CS Lewis’ day, denoted boundaries.

Mandelbrot’s insight:

D=log N/log S

renders a watershed or a tree’s branches or a coastline a perfect metaphor for the nuance of history, CS Lewis’ focus. The length of a coastline approaches infinity as the level of magnification increases.

CS Lewis reduces the watershed to “cis” and “trans”. Check out Malina by Ingeborg Bachman, in which she speaks of cisdanubian and transdanubian. I think that is in the fairy tale embedded in the novel.

CS Lewis’ coastline metaphor is valid for only the most crude parsing. He means cis/trans. A binary. You are on one side or the other.

The length of a coastline

Mandelbrot began his treatise on fractal geometry by considering the question: “How long is the coast of Britain?” The coastline is irregular, so a measure with a straight ruler, as in the next figure, provides an estimate. The estimated length, L, equals the length of the ruler, s, multiplied by the N, the number of such rulers needed to cover the measured object. In the next figure we measure a part of the coastline twice, the ruler on the right is half that used on the left.

Measuring the length of a coastline using rulers of varying lengths.

But the estimate on the right is longer. If the the scale on the left is one, we have six units, but halving the unit gives us 15 rulers (L=7.5), not 12 (L=6). If we halved the scale again, we would get a similar result, a longer estimate of L. In general, as the ruler gets diminishingly small, the length gets infinitely large. The concept of length, begins to make little sense.

“Watershed” and “coastline” have perfectly opposite meanings after one takes the fractal perspective. The two sides interpenetrate in a manner approaching infinite complexity. The complexity is broken only by the length of our gait.

Another shift in meaning occurs within the Wuorinen opera and is certainly evident in the source.

Charles & Howard were in agreement with Proulx, that the beauty of the Wyoming landscape as seen in the Ang Lee film was good for ticket sales and misleads the audience regarding the states of minds of the cowboys.

They were in a desolate place, as desolate as Melville and Poe’s vast and terrifying sea. Ishmael and Queequeg, snuggling together, fought off the desolation. Ennis and Jack do the same on Brokeback Mountain.

Notice, it’s not “Beautiful Mountain”. The cowboy lovers were imagined in a bleak, desolate landscape, huddled together against it.

In the early 70s my family travelled through Glendo WY in our hippie family van on the way back from Colorado. Our dog George got covered with nasty burrs. It was cold and windy, utterly desolate. Glendo is in the plains.

My brother now lives in Jackson Wyoming. We love the mountains around Jackson, and it’s hard for the hiker/backpacker types to feel it the way Wuorinen and Proulx intended. The mountains for us are utterly fetishized. Storied.

Proulx & Wuorinen agreed that the cowboys were in Glendo, with mountains. And there is bleak mountainous terrain like that in Wyoming.

This psychic terrain is *de-eroticized nature*. See Auden’s essay about the sea. We romanticize the sea because our ships are relatively safe and comfortable, but Poe was terrified of the sea. Melville knew that terror and embodied it in his monster.

De-eroticized nature comes up often in Harold Bloom’s writings. The flip side of nature is a gnosis. Once you see it, you cannot unsee it. Bloom mentions the Kabalistic “breaking of the vessels”.

Nature is friendly and loving in our childhood gardens and in our mythological gardens. Negative nature is something that we learn. We have to bite some forbidden fruit. Some people never learn it. I had great difficulty explaining it to my father, who resisted vehemently. One’s words and verbal route to this do not necessarily resonate with another. For this reason, fuzziness is effective, which is why Baudelaire declare he despises anything “positif”. Something fuzzy can grab more people, provide more access to more people.

Sometimes, driving up I 91 to NEK, Vermont, the landscape starts to feel desolate and *unstoried* (although it is not unstoried!). This un-storying could come from some depressing circumstance that one projects onto the storied landscape. A storied landscape familiarizes the landscape. Unstorying de-familiarizes the landscape.

I’m not a sex expert, and my focus is not there. There are mysteries in the dynamics of the love affair as seen in the opera and in the short story. I want a sex therapist’s take on that. And it should be compared with Moby Dick and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer.

In Wuorinen’s treatment there is a fractal element. My effort here is to shine some light on some comments Wuorinen made in my hearing.

He said, “I’m not a mystical person, but I will get mystical about fractals because the universe is that way.” Fractals are everywhere. Ruminating on this for years, I’ve come to think of it as fractal naturalism or fractal Pantheism. Wuorienen leads us to invest erotic energy in (teaches us to love) fractal relationships. His music teaches us to love those relationships. It does so on the fly; we learn as we listen.

Fractals are nature, we are nature and our erotic connections to our environment have fractal boundaries, which is to say that the concept of such a boundary starts to make no sense at all. The desolate, de-eroticized canyons in Wuorinen and Proulx (not An Lee’s) Brokeback Mountain flicker. Depending on which glands are saturating our system, we will love the landscape or share its desolation. Those canyons are fractal, either way.

Wuorinen gets fractal through nesting. Dawe does so through nesting, Krenek/Stravisnky rotations, and through his pioneering of the musical ramifications of cellular automata (the Game of Life).

A critic said, regarding Brokeback Mountain, the opera: “drop the needle anywhere and it always sounds the same”. Yes, and couldn’t be said of plenty of minimalist music also? With fractal music, that’s the point, and moreover, at any level of magnification – in music that means, at any speed – it should sound the same. And nevertheless, Wuorinen devised an arsenal of techniques to build crucial moments. He had his affects, counterparts to the Baroque affects; those are the stories he paints from his unstoried palette. See note on late Wuorinen.

In short, Wuorinen’s music suggests a fractal boundary between self and other (fort!, da!). Those bleak Wyoming canyons are nature and Wuorinen found God in such. Although he did not put it that way. Suddenly Last Summer: the character who never appears is quoted saying he saw God in the horrific image of the baby turtles being eaten. For Wuorinen both sides of the primal scene are fractal. It’s the yin/yang interpenetration. Taoism felt that interpenetration.

Eventually – I hope to get back to the yin yang of eros & thanatos.


Late Wuorinen (Wonky)

He told me he shiften focus to tetrachords. In his sextet Cygnus, written for Cygnus, the chromatic trichord is multiplied by 5, mod 12 (aka, the circle of 5ths transform), creating a stack of 4ths or 5ths – a”tonal” chord, of the 7-note scale. But because something has a mathematical expression does not mean the process is unmusical. He does not press a button, he works his way there. This becomes a very palpable, audible then chromatic, now diatonic (of the 7-note scale). The drop the needle argment does not hold if one pays attention. Something very palpable happens over a hearty time-span.


Holographic Universe and Holographic Brain

Here I will go into Jonathan Dawe’s work a bit.

The brain is thought to be holographic. The brain scientists (I will consult brain scientist Barbara Colombo) have mentioned here and there that our memories seem to be in every part of our brain.

However, there are other aspects of our system that I find pervade everything we do. What is the current thinking is about left and right brain? If there is anything to that, it would find its way into everything we do.

And then we must recon with those aspect that we see in Alzheimers patients who can sing, with words, after they can no longer converse and no longer recognize their family. I call this the unwording that takes place when we sing.

Those two aspects pervade everything we do and we can find evidence of them in all that we produce. This is a kind of human holography.

Ted Hughes treats this exhaustively in his book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Supreme Being.

sketching now: Dawe, Shakespeare, Leonard Cohen’s “Halelujia” – double reality of quotidian and mythical. Do those two parallel universes interprentrate, or are they discrete? How do they interprentrate„ if they do so. The yin-yang symbol.