By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Consider what the Rhapsody does. It takes a host of recognizably African-American and Jewish musical elements (blue notes and harmonies, glissandi both sensual and sad), a more traditionally "American" slow theme, and classic Western European forms, mixes in a propulsive beat and an exuberant brass section, and creates from these a new and modern New York sound. Some of the Rhapsody's musical themes came to Gershwin on a train ride from New York to Boston; the train's "steely rhythms," he wrote, inspired the work. "I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America -- of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness."
Many contemporary music critics -- a fairly formal bunch in the '20s -- immediately appreciated the piece not just for its musical innovations but for its sociological significance. As Deena Rosenberg recounts in Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin, Samuel Chotzinoff, music critic for the New York World, saw in the piece the "'stunning vitality' of the modern spirit, a national force that was ready to burst and was begging for artistic expression to make it comprehensible."
For other critics, though, what ä31 the Rhapsody made comprehensible was New York itself. The writer who most explicitly considered the piece to be a decoding of the city was Edmund Wilson, then just beginning his career as a literary critic. Wilson made this statement, however, in a work not of criticism but of fiction: his 1929 novel I Thought of Daisy. The protagonist, much like Wilson himself, is a Greenwich Village writer torn between worlds -- one of high art, Ivory Tower scholarship and a sense of tradition, the other of vitality, engagement, and the popular entertainment of the moment. Conveniently, he has two girlfriends who respectively personify these two worlds. There's Rita the poet (loosely modeled on Wilson's then-girlfriend Edna St. Vincent Millay) -- "brilliant but detached," writes Rosenberg -- and Daisy the chorus girl -- "vulgar but irresistibly vibrant and involved." The protagonist can't resolve his conflict, can't settle on a girlfriend, can't figure out how to fuse the old New York and the new. Throughout the novel, he keeps hearing snatches of a popular song that intrigues him for reasons he can't understand. The song is "Mamie Rose" by "Harry Hirsch." Finally, he hears the song in its entirety -- and from his description, it is clear that "Harry Hirsch" is George Gershwin, while the song that he describes sounds a good deal like one of the songs (most particularly, "The Man I Love") that Gershwin immediately derived from melodies and motifs of the Rhapsody.
Wilson writes: "What was original and unexpected was the repetition, in some sort of minor, of the pattern which had just gone before . . . [B]y breaking in that new accent, half agonized and half thrilling, he had enchanted the public . . . Where had he got it? The sounds of the street? The taxis creaking to a stop . . . some distant and obscure city sound? Or had he got it from Schoenberg or Stravinsky? -- or simply from his own nostalgia . . . for the cadence, half-chanted and despairing, of the tongue which his father had known?"
For Wilson, the thinly veiled Gershwin somehow had fused high modernism and Tin Pan Alley, an Edith Wharton townhouse with a six-floor walkup tenement to create something new -- a fresh sensibility that encompassed both the poet and the showgirl, that was simply and enduringly New York.
PLAINLY, L.A. DOESN'T YET HAVE ITS own Rhapsody. If that work does burst upon us, though, you can bet on the kind of person most likely to produce it: a child of Mexican or Central American immigrants, born here, knowing in his or her bones the city's fault lines, its harsh light, the ghost convertibles that still cruise its boulevards -- the story of the new city that rose atop the already immense old one, and the story of the old one, too. There are some artists, fitting this description, who have told parts of this story: the comedy troupe Culture Clash, for one. But the bulk and heart of that story are yet to be told.
And we need it. We need it both to know who we've been and who we are becoming, to draw the connections and the conflicts between Sherman Oaks and Boyle Heights, to make from them and a thousand other connections and conflicts something definitively Los Angeles. Absent this story, this civic identity, all Sherman Oaks knows about Boyle Heights is simply that it wants to kiss it goodbye -- soon, this November, before we've even begun to describe the essential Angeleno and the city that, at least until Election Day, he calls home.