Gene Smith & Great Plains Opera

Recently I made a resurgent plunge into my book-in-progress for FSG, Gene Smith’s Sink.  It’s a biography with, maybe (if I can do it without making the book about me), a bit of my 15-year detective saga intertwined.  The new work has me pondering Smith’s devotion to classical music and opera and all kinds of traditional music.  He had a penchant for appearing at photography conferences and talking for 90 minutes about music (Wagner, Beethoven, Messiaen, Bartok, Monk, Tristano) to frustrated photographers.  Then he’d claim that everything he said pertained to photography.  Was he grandstanding, being his melodramatic self?  Or was there something to it?  Some folks in the audiences were baffled, others inspired.

You can find evidence of many of Smith’s adult characteristics in his childhood and youth in Wichita.  For example, by age sixteen he was driving his mother’s station wagon with the words “W. Eugene Smith, Photographer” painted on the side.  But what about his obsession with music?  How can that be traced to his early years?

With that in mind, this recent blog post by the New Yorker’s outstanding Alex Ross intrigued me.  His quote from a protagonist in a Willa Cather novel is money:

“The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer bought than those of war.”

My wife Laurie gave me a haunting 7-cd set of Messiaen’s organ music as a gift last week.  We learned about that set from Alex’s blog, too.  I’ll be thinking about that music in two weeks as I’m walking through St. Mary’s Cathedral in Wichita again.  It’ll be my third trip there.  I wrote about my last trip there for Paris Review.

St. Mary's Cathedral. Wichita. April 2011. Photograph by Kate Joyce.

St. Mary's Cathedral. Wichita. April 2011. Photograph by Kate Joyce.

-Sam Stephenson

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