Forging Sound into Words

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An Interview with Bernard Holland

After almost 30 years as music critic of The New York Times, Bernard Holland weighs in on everything from Cosima Wagner’s diaries to Springsteen and the overuse of the meaningless word “great.”



Q. You rarely go to concerts or operas. Does this mean you are tired of music?

A: I’m not tired of music. I’m tired of the music world. In retirement I see classical music from the outside and not as a practitioner. It looks pretty artificial from out here. I’m tired of audiences bullied into ritual obedience  – sit in the dark and shut up; don’t make noise unless I say so; Music up on a stage. Listeners sitting in the dark terrified of coughing, foot shuffling or program rattling; musicians dressed up like waiters.

I have no idea how to fix this.I just went to a friend’s recital and heard five Schubert songs. They were so beautiful I nearly cried..

Q: Do you read about music? Do you keep up with what’s going on?

A: To a degree. Writing coherently about music is rare; I like to see how others do it these days. The doings of the Geffens, or music directors on the move or backstage backstabbing at the Met doesn’t get me going anymore. I pick up Cosima Wagner’s diaries every few years. Fascinating. I may actually finish this winter.

Q: What are you listening to?.

A: Not a lot. Having music going on in the background all day would drive me nuts. You listen or you don’t. I do more at our summer house in Canada . I like CBC2 radio in the car. At night I shuffle through odd piles of cds. Lots of Linda Ronstadt (purest voice I ever heard), Frank Sinatra (I am in awe), Little Richard (amazing for about 10 minutes), and then Haydn string quartets, Schubert piano sonatas. I always go back to Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. I like Shirley Horn depending on how much scotch I’ve had. There’s nothing quite as beautiful as the mourning doves in our East Village garden.

Q: What are you reading?

A: Just finished, the new George W. Bush bio, some Balzac and Teffi negotiating the new Soviet order. Next Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell”, Joe Lelyveld’s Roosevelt book, Robert Gottlieb on editing, and especially the new Bruce Springsteen. I don’t expect it to be like Keith Richards’ “Life” (the first chapter of which is among the funniest things I have ever read.) Richards is the sardonic observer. Springsteen is the guts and the nerve endings of a culture. Much to do.

Q: Who are the greatest composers?

A: Someone told me recently about a colleague who is writing a book on what makes great music great. Posited, I assume, is a greatness gene, some rare chemical compound that separates the Fortnum and Masons of music from all the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery Stores of Garrison Keillor fame.

It’s a fool’s errand. “Great” is another one of those aerated buzzwords that float beloved into the stratosphere and mean nothing.“Great” seems to invoke size (lots off people like It) and durability (they like it for a long time).

I remember sitting in the Beverly Hills kitchen of a friend and denigrating Arnold Schoenberg’s limited appeal for later generations to Leonard Stein, who was Schoenberg’s longtime assistant and advocate. My argument: history says Schoenberg is great but very few people listen to him. Stein: that Schoenberg deeply moves only a small number of people in no way minimizes his worth or status.

Leonard Stein is right. I am wrong. Technology makes me even wronger. The number of seats filled at Carnegie Hall is not the measure it used to be. The hierarchies of “greatness” are now many and hand-held. We are not one audience agreeing on what is great. We are millions of play lists, each with its own decider.

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After the First Death, There are Many Others



When Dylan Thomas wrote “After the first death, there is no other,” we immediately knew what he meant. He was talking about that moment when you see death up close and you realize how fine the line is, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t nature of being.

After that first experience, death becomes a little less shocking. You have a sense of what might happen. You certainly have a sense of how you might react. Our ancestors lived side by side with the grim reaper in a way we cannot imagine: Your children were dead by 2 and your husband or wife at thirty. In America (the only place I can speak about with any authority), the departed were lovingly washed, laid upon the dining table, mourned and buried. Embalming didn’t begin until the Civil War, a revolting practice that has polluted quite a bit of good dirt.

In Saying Goodbye to Our Mothers for the Last Timeeditors Thayer and Harrison examine the all too specific aspects of death through the eyes of a son or daughter. Losing a mother is a devastating generational transition. It is also an organic transition wired into most lives that would be much easier to handle  if we talked about it, if we had healthy discussions about loss and death.

I spent the last night of my Mother’s life with her in hospice. I finished reading her mystery and we found out who did it. We slept, I went out, and when I returned my father was sitting near her head, quietly singing as she took her final breaths. I finally learned what “fearsome beauty.” It was the ending of my long long affair with her and it was a gift.

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Skinny Green Smoothies









I have been editing, writing and publishing for about 25 years in New York City and it took a trip to Hollywood to get my head straight. That’s right: Hollywood. The light came on when I was jamming a giant turkey burger down my wattle at the Warner Brothers’ commissary.  My lunch partner and partner partner said it. It was electrifying.


“The treatment lacks subtext and continuity,” she said, smiling over tiny blanched vegetables.

For some reason, this word “continuity” word blasted through my brain in a way “arc of the narrative” never could.

“Bullshit,” I said.

“No, we’re fixing it,” she said, tiny purple carrot at the edge of her ruby red mouth.

I looked over at George Clooney’s basketball court and squinted.

“You know, I think you’re right,” I said.

You see, the hardest job a writer will EVER have is writing short. I had written a novel that had to be boiled down to a treatment (think beef glace here) and I wasn’t experienced or instinctive enough to achieve that goal. Three hundred pages needed to be thirteen. We got the action compressed but not the detail and back story that make a story a story. It had no ecology. We needed later pages of the treatment to feed off the first pages and I hadn’t put any tiny fish or plankton in and everyone was starving. At least INSIDE the book, I had extra Doritos.

This of your stories as you think of a pond or a meadow. One thing must fit into and feed off the rest. Nothing is separate, ever. (Quantum theory or a hallucinogenic drug trip explains this, you decide which.) This ecology must be intact no matter how short the joke, the paragraph, the chapter, or the book. No one can read your work and still be hungry.

Try writing short. It’s really hard. And because we know that, we’ll soon have something for you that will change your approach to writing forever.

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Why Noah Hawley is the Guy



Noah Hawley is the ultimate in creative cool and Before the Fall proves it. (Click on the title to order: Noah needs a little more dough.)  He is a polymath of form, creating Fargo the television show for FX.  He’ll also produce and write the pilot of FX’s Legion, based on the Marvel comic character. He signed a deal with Universal for a film in their monster series and will write the screenplay for Before the Fall for Sony.  He’s about to direct a film by a first-time screenwriter. Noah is a busy dude.

Before Before the Fall, however, Mr Hawley published four books with four different publishers. Why, I can’t imagine. If I got my hands on a writer with the Porsche engine of Noah Hawley, I would have never let him go.  (As an editor, sillies.) I don’t know what the history with those 4 books and those 4 publishers was, but I doubt it was that great. Writers stay where they are supported. They move on if they are not.

But his publishing past is moot. What Noah did was extraordinary, a gift I’d been waiting for, praying would happen. Noah fused the wild velocity and back and forth time travel of the best of on-demand storytelling.  He surprised at every corner, keeping you endlessly off balance (kinda like the world).  He even turns his ending on end: It’s the petty and mundane that kills in the end.

Noah Hawley is the guy. The velocity of his writing is spectacular and all I can think about is,  When will Fargo start up again? When is Noah publishing his next book? Can I see his directorial debut yet? 

Velocity.  My company – – has some. It’s not Noah Hawley, but it’s fast. Try some of it out sometime:  Hair Club Burning   The Gringo Maniac Murder Spree   Women in Black

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