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Popocatepetl: A Noodling Reminiscence

Threepenny Review | Wednesday, Jan 01, 2003


The giant seethes and belches whilst down below the anchorfolk stammer and flail.


It’s been eighty years since the last major eruption of that powerfully looming volcano, forty miles north of Mexico City, and perhaps a lifetime since any of the gentle anchorfolk were required to pronounce its name.

Popocatepetl (POH-puh-KAT-uh-peht-l).

Stammering, flailing, they try to wend their way about the word’s impossible convolutions, as if attempting to tie a cherry stem into a knot inside their mouths, using only their tongues—to cite the metaphor de-ployed recently by a novelist who was describing the obverse challenge of some old Southern California Chicano trying to overmaster a commonplace English locution.

Popocatepetl (POH-poh-kuh-TEH-peht-l).

As it happens, I was having no such problem: Popocatepetl. Popocatepetl. Popocatepetl. See? I can say it hundreds of times without the slightest hitch.

But that’s only because of my grandfather.

My grandfather, Ernst Toch, was a prominent composer in 1920s Berlin at the time he invented the then entirely new musical idiom of pieces for spoken chorus. Weimar Rap, as it were. Nobody had ever tried such a thing before. The most famous of these confections of Toch’s was a Fuge aus der Geographie, the Geographical Fugue, in which he arrayed the names of cities, countries, and other such landmarks in strict fugal counterpoint, exactingly casting them amongst separate a cappella soprano, alto, tenor and bass sections, to stirring and quite telling effect: Ratibor! Und der Fluss Mis-sis-sip-pi und der Stadt Ho-no-lu-lu und der See Ti-ti-ca-ca…

And presently:

Der Po-po-ca-te-pe-tl liegt nicht in Ka-na-da, sondern in Me-xi-ko, Me-xi-ko, Me-xi-ko.

And so forth (Ka-na-da Ma-la-ga Ri-mi-ni Brin-di-si). From its first performance, in June 1930 (a few years, as it happens, after Popocatepetl’s last major eruptions), at the Fest der neuen Musik in Berlin—its phrases repeating and expanding, looping in and out of one another in a strictly cadenced delirium—the three-minute piece proved an immediate sensation, indeed becoming one of Toch’s most performed pieces, though Toch himself considered it little more than a trifling diversion.

The years passed, Hitler rose to power and Toch fled, presently surfacing in Southern California, where he took to composing for Hollywood, and himself now began trying to overmaster the daunting sinuosities of the English language (like trying to tie a cherry stem into a knot using only his tongue).

A few months after his arrival, in 1935, there came a knocking at the door of his rented Pacific Palisades home, and he opened it to find a diffident young man inquiring, “Excuse me, sir, but are you Dr. Ernst Toch?” Confirming, with some difficulty, that such was indeed the case, the young man pressed on, “The Ernst Toch, composer of the Geographical Fugue?” Yes, yes, my grandfather assured the young fellow, but seriously it was just a joke. No, no, the boy insisted, that Fugue was a major piece, one of the most significant of recent years—no, no, my grandfather interrupted, trust me, it was just a joke. On the contrary—and so forth, their little talk proceeded, until at length the kid was able to extract Toch’s permission to see to the work’s translation and promulgation in America, for starters by way of his friend Henry Cowell’s seminal periodical, New Music. The young man at the door was John Cage, recent graduate of Los Angeles High School.

Cage was as good as his word: the piece was translated (a pretty straightforward operation with the exception of the replacement of the German “Ratibor” with its rolling R-sound, so pivotally crucial at the Fugue’s stirring crescendo, with an English approximate: “Trrrrrrrrrinidad!”), and it did indeed go on to receive a wide exposure. Indeed, though Toch, for his own part, went on to considerable success (three Academy Award nominations, a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony) and continued prolific to the end of his life (seven symphonies, an opera, countless quartets and quintets and trios and pieces for piano solo), the Geographical Fugue remains probably the piece for which he’s best known (I keep running into people who encountered it in high school and college chorus classes). For his own part, Toch eventually got quite good at English, and even managed a reprise of the spoken chorus idiom some years later with an elaborate parody of American cocktail party chatter recast in strict three-fourths time, his 1960 “Valse” (My how super-dooper—Hold your tongue, you strapper—Let’s behave, not like children, but grown-ups—She is right—She is right.)

Toch died in 1964, and a good twenty years later, when I happened to be profiling the indefatigably spry nonagenarian musical lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky for The New Yorker, I myself had occasion to knock on the door of Slonimsky’s dear friend John Cage. No mean gleam himself, Cage proved immensely sweet and cordial, and when I mentioned that I was the grandson of the composer Ernst Toch, his face brightened even further. “Ah, Toch,” he said, “Toch—was he onto some amazing stuff, what with those pieces for spoken chorus and some of those other experimental works. Why’d he then have to go and squander it all on all those damn string quartets?” He was smiling sweetly as he said it, the look of a benign sage who would have saved them all if he could.

Anyway, somewhere in there I’d become the improbable executor of my grandfather’s estate—improbable in that I’m pretty hapless, musically speaking. I do what I can. And at one point, this must have been over twenty-five years ago, I found myself producing a sampler LP of the old man’s music, including a rendition of that Geographical Fugue. As everybody else may already know but I sure didn’t at the time, recording a piece of music hardly consists of simply herding the musicians into a room and laying down a sequence of takes until you got the piece just right. That—and, even so, we’re talking about twenty, thirty, fifty takes—turns out to be just the beginning. Then you have to take the tape (and in this predigital instance, we were still talking about spool upon spool of the unwieldy acetate stuff) into the studio, and day after day, night after night, you and the engineers pore over the tapes, snipping a syllable here, an ambient pause there, an intook breath, an exhaled exclamation, razor-cutting and Scotch-splicing the most nearly immaculate possible performance into existence out of thin, or rather thick, thick air.

So don’t talk to me about Popocate-petl. Believe me, I know from Popocatepetl. Sometimes, still, to this day, I dream Popocatepetl.

And hearing the gentle anchorfolk spraining their tongues in their mangled attempts at proper pronunciation, I was brought back to those endless hours in the cramped studio, relentlessly calibrating this “popo” and that “catep” and the other “etl” to the point of bleary stupefaction. Suddenly I remembered one of the noodling exercises by which I’d endeavored to stay awake through those long hours, a memory which sent me back to my files, where indeed I managed to retrieve the document in question, a painstaking back-of-an-envelope transliteration of my grandfather’s Geographical Fugue into a more contemporary idiom—a medical fugue, to be specific, to wit:

Medical Fugue
an elaboration of Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue

by Lawrence Weschler

Trinidad and the big Mississippi
Syphilis and the pig trichinosis

and the town Honolulu
and the tight tendonitis

and the Lake Titicaca
and that clap gonorrhea

The Popocatepetl is not in Canada
The psychosomatical are just hysterical

rather in Mexico Mexico Mexico
and not reliable liable liable

Canada Malaga Rimini Brindisi
Stamina famine and muscular dystrophy

Tibet Yokohama Nagasaki
Rickets euthanasia apoplexy



Hunh, I find myself thinking. I wonder what that would sound like. Probably wouldn’t need to change much to bring it up to date: maybe replace “and muscular dystrophy” with “immuno-deficiency.” Anyway, “psychosomatical” could serve as a good pronunciation guide for “Popocatepetl,” in case anybody was asking.

In the meantime, the anchorpeople stammer and flail, and even further down below a grandson fancies and flits.