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A Musical Gentleman of a Certain Age : THE NANTUCKET DIARY OF NED ROREM, 1973-1985 by Ned Rorem (North Point: $30; 624 pp.)

September 20, 1987|Chris Pasles | Pasles is a Times staff writer who writes on music and dance for Calendar in Orange County.

Am attracted by people who are attracted

by Youth; in twenty-two years I'll be fifty;

and then what.

--Ned Rorem, "The Paris Diary," 1952.

Well, for one thing, the heyday in the blood will be tame.

The tumultuous, sensual, narcissistic Ned Rorem of the "Paris and New York Diaries" (1951-1961) will have cooled off.

Gone will be the pell-mell rush to get down vivid anecdotes and gruesome details, to record what he terms the "horror of the carnal."

Already in "The Later Diaries" (1961-1972)--first issued as "The Final Diary"--the process is evident: scattershot fragments, sometimes in crystalline prose, but with the sweep of interest contracting ever tighter around the self, but not deeply into the self.

In this new volume, the composer's record is even more sprawling and burdened with excessive, trivial details.

The cumulative effect is wearying.

During the "Nantucket" years, Rorem wins the Pulitzer Prize (for "Air Music" in 1976), is elected to the Institute of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and composes seven song cycles and eight orchestral pieces, among other works.

These and other events are recorded with the same cool evenhandedness accorded to mention of food, name-dropping, his parents' moving into a Quaker retirement home, mediations upon death or the two-year-long mental crisis suffered by his lover, James Holmes.

About that crisis, Rorem makes brief entries: "JH's depression"; "breakdown"; "suicide note"; "collapse"; "catatonic crisis." And that is about all that is recorded.

But exactly what is happening to Holmes is never made clear. Nor how he eventually recovered. Rorem writes simply "JH cured."

The reader feels cheated.

Of course, as recurring references to the diary show, Rorem has deliberately chosen to write this way. "A public diary," he says, "is no more spontaneously composed than a symphony. . . .

"The very nature of diaries (is) based on the Importance of Unimportance. . . .

"After a certain age, certain subjects become embarrassingly dull and nobody's business. One of these is sexual intercourse, the other is the injustice of personal sorrow."

And his description of the diary is exactly correct: Begun in 1945 as "a release from shyness," the diary has evolved beyond "mere outpourings of love, viscous envy, or depressions oozing from the gray corners of alcoholism . . . into a travelogue, a recipe carnet, a social calendar with notes on works in progress. . . ."

But that does not make it interesting to a reader.

Entries reflect familiar Rorem preoccupations: the body's breakdown; the regular round of dinners, get-togethers and news events; music, music making and music criticism; himself; gay issues; fear of death; deaths; Paris and New York.

A number of remarks have been repeated from earlier diaries, which serve occasionally as rehearsal space to try out ideas for essays and program and record-liner notes.

From the mass of material, what is of most interest are Rorem's thoughts on music:

--His prickly criticisms of Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Lukas Foss, 12-tone music and compositional systems in general.

--His reminders that French music is greatly undervalued.

--His complaints about the disparity in financial rewards given to performers as opposed to composers.

Many of these ideas he has developed more fully in brilliant essays.

On being homosexual, Rorem writes: "I am a composer, not a gay composer. . . . Anyone can be gay--it's no accomplishment--but only I can be me."

Still, he takes up the defense as necessary against the disreputable sneers of Norman Mailer, Robert Crafts, Mary McCarthy, among others.

And simply for reflecting the history of our times, two entries stand out:

--"Paul Jacobs has GRID (Gay-Related Immunology Deficiency)," Rorem writes in April, 1982.

--By December of that year, he says, "AIDS (is) the new term for GRID," reminding us with a shock how this dreadful affliction was once so exclusively identified with homosexuals.

Otherwise, emotional resonances are provided mostly by others:

"Long phone talk with Father this morning. Last night he watched 'The Magic Flute' on the new color TV we took him on Saturday, and, he says, he burst into tears when Papagena removed her old woman's mask. (Mother's mask remains, we'll never be young again. . . .)"

But rewards such as these are for readers willing to slog through a mass of details.

In the North Point Press editions, the "Paris and New York Diaries" cover 10 1/2 years and run to 399 pages; the "Later Diaries," an 11 1/2-year period in 439 pages. The "Nantucket Diary" covers 13 years, and is 624 pages long. It is not an encouraging trend.

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