Monday, December 31, 2007

Two Years On

My son will be two years old this week. Everybody tells you that "the time goes so fast,” but it doesn’t seem real until you are looking at a big boy who just a moment ago, or so it seems, was a tiny newborn cradled against your heart. When he was born, I was afraid to revel in him; I always felt as if a Damocles’ sword was hanging over me, as if he’d be taken away by a cruel fate if I dared to fall too deeply in love with him. The days rocking him, holding him, nursing him seemed endless, but in my memory now they seem as if they were just one long day. There is so much I can’t remember.

My prayer for him is the same as any mother’s prayer for her child: that he’ll be happy and healthy, that he will know and love God, and that he will be free from the torment and strife that shaped my own childhood and adulthood. But I also hope that he will love the things that I love, not out of vanity, but because the things that I love, chief among them music and poetry, took the child of torment and strife that I was and helped to fashion me into something more graceful, more giving, and far better able to love what is beautiful in the world.

The French composer Oliver Messiaen wrote a song in 1930 called “La fiancée perdue,” a setting of his own text. The last words are, in translation: “O Jesus, bless her! Her! Give her your powerful grace! That she may know nothing of suffering, of tears! Give her tranquility, Jesus!” In spite of the exclamation points, the music in this final section of a very loud and fast song is extremely calm and restful, and dwindles away into silence. I also pray this for my son.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of lust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

-- George Herbert

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Womb and the Garden

In the late 1990s, a wealthy and eccentric widow gave me a small scholarship to further my voice training. I took the money and sought out the New York City opera coaches whose auras had the most sheen at the time. I had some interesting experiences, and got lots of advice, all of it different. One Famous Coach told me that if I sang repertoire that was just a little too light for my voice, I'd "work everywhere." Another plied me with martinis and explained his sudden infatuation (of which I was assuredly not the only object) by saying that I was the only soprano he'd ever met (I had not yet made the switch to mezzo-soprano) who could carry on a conversation about something other than her hair and her gowns, and who knew how to pronounce HUAC correctly. When I went to use this Famous Coach's bathroom, I found a Duane Reade bag hastily tossed on the floor with a giant box of Trojans spilling out of it. This same Famous Coach, after my first marriage ended, told me, with perhaps a touch of bitterness, that I had lost my ambition, and that if I didn't get it back, the only thing I'd ever be known for was the guys with whom I'd "hooked up."

But the most interesting of the Famous Coaches was an unusually funny, kind, maternal, self-effacing middle-aged woman. She worked almost exclusively with the breath, trying to tailor the way her clients breathed to the sound, size, and ethos of their voices and musicalities. I wonder what she's doing now; she really was a wonderul person. At that time, she was trying to have a baby, and I hope it happened, as she would have been a wonderful mother.

I worked with her during a terrible time in my life, the year when my first marriage was ending. She knew what was going on, and asked me one day, "Do you want a stack of programs at the end of your life?" "Yes," I said, not really understanding why she thought any singer wouldn't. "Is that ALL you want?" she asked more pointedly. "Ummmm . . . no," I conceded, none too convinced myself. "Then don't f*ck up," was her reply. That was surely the best piece of advice I got during my time of fancy, expensive vocal coaching, and one that I wish I had taken.

She told me something else that has stayed with me: the Hasidim believe that when we are gestating in the womb, we know everything that is going to happen in our lives. But at birth, God lays His hand on our heads, and we forget everything, because if we remembered we couldn't bear it. The mark of this action of God is the soft spot on the newborn's head.

I wonder if, according to the Hasidic legend, the infant in utero is like Adam just after he's eaten the fruit, before being rebuked by God; and if the newborn baby is like Adam after the fall.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

John Cage in Living Color

It's the end of what feels like a never-ending semester, and the other day, the student for whom I designed a grant-funded tutorial on extended vocal techniques performed John Cage's "Aria" before the university music department's diversity committee (the committee had funded my grant in the hope of attracting more minority students into academic music studies). I had been worried about how all of this would turn out; how does a nineteen-year-old black girl from Canarsie convincingly interpret what is now a rather stilted, static, and dated piece by perhaps the whitest of American composers? Well, my fears were laid to rest, because S. did an amazing job. Cage notated his score with colors and lines, asking the performer to devise a lexicon of vocal sounds, styles, and techniques to correspond with each color. The singer for whom he wrote the piece, Cathy Berberian, had designated styles like "folk," "Oriental," and "Marlene Dietrich" in the first performance in the late 1950s. S. reinterpreted the color notation, using what she had conceived as the voices of black Brooklynese, !Kung-style tongue-clicks, black female prophecy, and Pygmy growls, among others. She was wildly creative and subtle, and appeared before the committee in jeans, bare feet, and a white t-shirt emblazoned with one of Cage's notations from the score, a red squiggle set to the words "In Armonia." In spite of my doubts about the diversity committee's aims, I hope that S. will go into academic music studies. She was really impressive.

In a funny way, her performance also restored my faith in New York City for a brief moment; it seems to me that a talent like hers could only be the product of the strange nurturing of this fragmented metropolis.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Beautiful Day

Things I had forgotten about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood:

The music is excellent. The opening musical statement, the intro to “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which plays as the camera pans over the model town and the trolley rolls by, could be the lead-in to a Coltrane tune played on the electric piano.

King Friday XIII plays the upright bass.

The show is suffused with an autumnal melancholy. Watching it now makes me feel like a kind of Holden Caulfield, longing to protect the gentle world that Mister Rogers and his cast so lovingly created – a world that seems much, much further away now than it did when I first saw the program as a child, and not just because that was in the distant past. Am I wrong, or is the world meaner now? Sometimes it’s almost too much to bear to think that Mister Rogers’s young viewers will soon venture out into this fallen world, and perhaps fall themselves, as many doubtless have.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia

Today is the Feast of Saint Cecilia, a Roman martyr who suddenly began appearing in hagiographies in the fourth century. Her association with music seems to derive from a line in the Golden Legend which describes how, on the day of her wedding (a wedding she did not want, having consecrated her virginity to God), while instruments played ("cantantibus organis"), Cecilia sang to God silently in her heart, asking Him to keep her pure so that "I might not fall into confusion." A misinterpretation of this line became the source of much of Cecilia's iconography, which has her playing the instruments, usually the organ. Raphael's 1514 painting of Cecilia with SS. Paul, John the Evangelist, Augustine, and Mary Magdalene (above) -- all saints who underwent profound spiritual change -- shows Cecilia holding a portative organ upside-down and backwards, the pipes slipping out of their frame, at the moment she hears the singing of the angels: the moment, as it were, of her own conversion; broken instruments (the instruments of profane, earthly music) lie at her feet. Franz Liszt was entranced by Raphael's painting when he saw it in Bologna in 1838, writing in to a friend, "Isn't that virgin, ecstatically transported above reality, like the inspiration that . . . fills an artist's heart -- pure, true, full of insight?"

The definitive scholarly work about Saint Cecilia is Mourning Into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia by Thomas Connolly, with whose friendship in the past two years I have been particularly blessed. Connolly has postulated recently that Cecilia may have been a member of the Roman Jewish community of early Christians, which would explain a great deal about the ancient liturgy of her Station Day in Lent, which uses passages from the book of Esther. I took her name at my confirmation (a sacrament I received in adulthood) because of her association not only with music but also with profound spiritual change. May she bring blessings to all musicians today!

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

-- W.H. Auden

Friday, November 16, 2007

Casting Artificial Pearls Before Real Swine

I'm grading student papers in fulfillment of a big assignment that I prepared my class for over the course of three weeks -- roughly seven classes in all -- with readings, discussions, listening, and in-class practice assignments. The papers are on the whole so bad that I'm not sure whether to be angry at my students or at myself. Some of them have missed the mark by such a long shot that I wonder if they are innately unable to understand or appreciate an aesthetic that's not native or familiar to them. It raises all kinds of questions in my mind about the validity of teaching music or writing at all. Does beauty, especially if it's presented in difficult or abstruse terms, have any meaning in our world? Is it important that people learn about the artifacts of beauty that make up our shared cultural heritage and spur us to a greater understanding of our humanity? Or not?

That said, two of the papers I've read are outstanding. One is by an Italian national who is consistently one of the best writers and most original thinkers in my class.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

From the Salon to the Carmel

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of another “musical saint,” Fr. Hermann Cohen (1821-1871, pictured above), known in religion as Père Augustin-Marie du Très Saint Sacrement. Hermann, a brilliant child prodigy pianist from a liberal Jewish family in Hamburg, came to Paris at the age of thirteen to further his studies, and became the friend and protégé of Franz Liszt. Liszt gave him the pet name “Puzzi,” meaning cute or darling, and Hermann grew his hair to his shoulders in emulation of the master and made the rounds with him of the fashionable salons of Paris It was in the salons, he later wrote, that he discovered the mid-nineteenth-century philosophies of

"atheism, pantheism, Fourierism, Saint-Simonism, socialism, riots, the massacre of the rich, the abolition of marriage, terror, sharing of goods, the common enjoyment of all the pleasures; these notions soon found a place in my fourteen-year-old head . . . . I soon became one of the most zealous propagandists of those sects which had vowed to renew the face of the earth."

In Paris, Hermann also became hopelessly addicted to gambling. He and Liszt eventually parted ways after Hermann was accused, most likely unjustly, of embezzling Liszt’s concert proceeds. Hermann’s career continued in England, where he became the recital accompanist of the superstar tenor Mario (scruples about his noble birth discouraged this singer from using his last name).

Little by little, conscious of a great spiritual longing, Hermann was drawn to the Catholic Church, and was baptized in 1847. He entered the Carmelite novitiate in 1849, and was ordained a priest in 1851, a remarkable act considering his recent baptism, and one which required a papal dispensation. Hermann (now Fr. Augustin-Marie) was soon well-known throughout France and the continent for his fiery preaching, and in 1862 was asked by Pope Pius IX to restore the Carmelite order to Britain. He sailed for London, where he established several convents and led the first Marian procession England had seen since the Reformation. Fr. Hermann also initiated the practice of nocturnal adoration, which soon spread throughout the world.

Fr. Hermann died in 1871 of smallpox contracted while ministering to wounded French prisoners of the Franco-Prussian war at Spandau Prison. I had heard that his cause for canonization is being examined, but a Fr. Hermann scholar I know has reason to believe that the process has stalled at the Vatican. For more, see this article which originally appeared in the Journal of the American Liszt Society in 1994.

Friday, November 9, 2007

"The Minor Prophets"

Many years ago, I think in 1991 or 1992, I read an essay in Harper’s by Michael Lind that impressed me deeply. I don't remember the name of the article, and have only a vague idea now of what it was about -- something to do with political power structures being opposed to communitarian values, if I recall -- but the writing was so captivating and beautiful that I wanted to read more (I soon found, however, that I couldn't continue reading Harper's; its editorial tone of unredeemed despair was just too depressing). Lind was at the time a young right-of-center think-tank intellectual from Texas who wrote like a poet. Thus I was delighted this morning when I opened up my web browser, whose homepage I am forced to confess is set to the web page of the NPR radio program "The Writer’s Almanac," and found that the poem of the day is by Michael Lind. This means that Garrison Keillor will be reading it on the air tonight in his gentle, world-weary baritone. It’s a good poem, too (to read it, go here and scroll down to today's date). Perhaps Lind is reviving the tradition of the policy-wonk poets of China’s literary golden age.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Sanctify My Soul

Last weekend I saw the movie Bella, which has gotten a lot of press in the Catholic community. I thought the film needed a good bit of editing, but I enjoyed it for many reasons, among them that it is a beautifully-filmed movie about New York; that it represents an intersection between the art house and the pro-life movement that’s pretty hard to find anywhere; and, not least, that it has an amazing soundtrack. When I got home I did some googling to see if the soundtrack was available on CD, but it’s not. I would see the film again just to hear the music, which is employed with great skill, and in my opinion served the story better than a lot of the dialogue did. There is one moment that I found particularly poignant, when the two main characters return to Penn Station on the Long Island railroad early in the morning; a wonderful Nina Simone cover of a spiritual, “Sanctify My Soul,” is playing on the soundtrack, and I thought that Dr. Simone’s combination of sophisticated musical restraint and heartfelt-if-slightly-intellectualized singing was a great choice.

I have my doubts about whether this film will play in Peoria. It’s too arty – and the heroes are Mexican immigrants, and we all know how that’s been going lately. But if you get the chance to see it, go – it has a few flaws, but it's excellent.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Musical Saints of Helfta

November 22, aside from being a singularly tragic day in American history, is the feast day of the Roman martyr Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians, whose name I took at my confirmation. I love that her feast falls at the denouement of autumn, when the beauty of the season is mostly past and everything is gray and barren; it cheers the heart. But November also marks the feasts of some other remarkable “musical” saints, a trio of women from the thirteenth-century Saxon monastery of Helfta, a Benedictine abbey that was a sort of hothouse of visionary nuns: Mechthild of Hackeborn (November 16), Gertrude the Great (who shares her feast day), and Mechthild of Magdeburg, whose feast day is November 19.

All of these nuns were party to visions of Christ in which musical sounds and imagery played an important role. Gertrude the Great, for instance, wrote of a visitation by the Lord in which he told her: “Listen to me, beloved, and I will sing you a song of love that is quite different from those sung by profane courtiers,” and then proceeded, in a voice that Gertrude calls indescribably sweet, to sing the following words to the hymn tune Rex Christe factor:

Amore meus continuus,
Tibi languor assiduous,
Amor tuus suavissimus,
Mihi sapor gratissimus.

(My continuous love,
Your persistent languor;
Your very sweet love,
a most pleasing savor to me.)

Mechthild of Hackeborn, the abbey’s choirmistress, was renowned for her own beautiful voice; her sisters in religion referred to her as “God’s nightingale.” She received a revelation in which Christ extended a harp from his sacred heart, explaining that the harp was himself, and the strings were “all chosen souls which are all one in God through love”; then Christ, the “high chanter of all chanters,” struck the harp and led “all the angels with delectable sound” as they sang the hymn Regem regum Dominum.

Mechthild of Magdeburg’s mystical writings are well known, and have been studied and appropriated by both feminist and Jungian scholars. The record of her revelations, the book The Flowing Light of the Godhead, is also filled with remarkable musical imagery, including a vision in which Christ tells her: “Oh, dear dove,/Your voice is string music to my ears./ Your words are spices for my mouth./ Your longings are the lavishness of my gift.”

I find the musical mysticism of Gertrude and the two Mechthilds of Helfta quite thrilling and encouraging. Their aesthetic – a sort of ecstatic rigor that, like all mystical writing, from Rumi to St. John of the Cross to William Blake, uses the language of poetry and eros – is so very far removed from our present understanding of holiness that it strikes me that many present-day orthodox Catholics would find it dubious and unsettling at best. But it seems to me an antidote to the both the meandering confusion of liberal Catholicism and the joyless legalism of modern-day traditionalism, and I'm happy that the Church in her wisdom has seen fit to honor these three nuns.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Year that Trembled and Reel'd beneath Me

I’m giving my writing class for musicians the assignment of writing program notes for George Crumb’s song cycle Apparition. I found a website from which they can download and listen to the entire piece, and I am putting one of my copies of the score on reserve (I bought two when I performed the piece several years ago, one for me and one for my pianist), along with an anthology of Walt Whitman’s complete poems that I’ve had for many years (the text of Apparition is taken from Whitman’s great lament on the death of Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”). I just had a very odd sensation as I wrote my name on the inside cover of this volume, as if I’d seen a doppelganger.

The book, while I’m not sure if it was a gift from my former husband M., is one that I very much associate with the years I spent with him. I was deeply enamored of Whitman’s verses in those days, and used to read them as if they were sacred texts. M. did not share my love of the poet he called Uncle Waltie, but he indulged me. One night towards the end of our marriage, I remarked as we were getting ready for bed that I missed Whitman; I suppose I hadn’t leafed through "Leaves of Grass" for a few weeks. M. got out of bed and brought me the book, and, instead of being grateful, I was angry with him. I’m not sure exactly why; I suppose I was upset that he didn’t understand that I wanted to safeguard and savor my sense of longing, rather than have it fulfilled, and I concluded from this that he would never really see or understand who I was.

I’m chagrined now by my overweening pride and self-importance then, not to mention my utter foolishness. I still pray that M. will be able to forgive me for my thoughtless, careless, selfish unkindness to him (not only in that incident). I felt just now that I was being disloyal to him and to that time by writing my new, married name on the flyleaf of that old book.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lost in the Supermarket

While I generally find any kind of shopping an onerous chore, I happen to love grocery shopping, especially when I can do it alone. It is a secret pleasure for me to roam the aisles of a big, clean, well-lit store and look for bargains; it’s probably the closest thing to hunting that I will ever experience. I love to cook and bake, and I love the challenge of planning the week’s menu out of what I might find while stalking the sales. I try to find the freshest, best things for the lowest prices, and feel a sense of accomplishment, and even delight, if I can pull something off like happening upon a rack of Angus steaks on the day before expiration, when the manager is offering them for two bucks off, or finding Yuban coffee at two for four dollars (I would prefer to drink something more coffee-snobbish on a regular basis – my favorite coffees are Peets whole bean and the Route 66 Blend from Misha’s in Alexandria, VA – but Yuban is actually quite good for what it is, and I feel virtuous when I buy it because they include some fair-trade beans in the mix).

But if everything can be a catalyst for transcendence, then everything can also be a cause for heartbreak. Shopping alone gives you ample time to concentrate on the soundtrack being piped over the supermarket’s PA system. I’ve always wondered how these stores choose their playlists; I’ve heard music while shopping that I can only call astonishing, and a great deal of music that, as music does, evokes memories of the past, and those not always happy. Last night I had the whole store almost to myself, and I heard the Beatles song “You Won’t See Me” from Rubber Soul, one of my favorite albums of all time, which I received third-hand in childhood, and was flooded with cringe-inducing memories of my adolescence. Then, as I was checking out, an unidentifiable song by the Cocteau Twins came on, which evoked all kinds of painful mental images of my college days, when that band was all the rage among sensitive, artistic, goth-leaning girls because it featured the sort of wordless keening that seemed to express what we wished to call up out of our own souls, but could not in words.

As H.R. Haweis wrote in 1872, “When memory is concerned, music is no longer itself; it ceases to have any proper plane of feeling; it surrenders itself wholly, with all its rights, to memory, to be the patient, stern, and terrible exponent of that recording angel.”

Friday, October 19, 2007

Heavenly Grass

My feet took a walk in heavenly grass.
All day while the sky shone clear as glass.
My feet took a walk in heavenly grass,
All night while the lonesome stars rolled past.
Then my feet come down to walk on earth,
And my mother cried when she give me birth.
Now my feet walk far and my feet walk fast,
But they still got an itch for heavenly grass.
But they still got an itch for heavenly grass.
-- Tennessee Williams

I assigned one of the students in my voice class a setting of this poem by American cult author and composer Paul Bowles. The song is short and beautiful, written in a simple, folk-like style; the phrases that mention feet walking are conversational, while the phrases that speak of nature are lyrical and rhapsodic. We talked in class about how it mirrors the Romantic concept of Heimweh, which is more than just homesickness; it's the longing for a place which is not anywhere near the place you are, and which is in fact a place to which you can never return. I love the simplicity of Williams's poem; it reminds me of the greatness of other simple poems, like Yeats's "Brown Penny" and "Down by the Salley Gardens."

Sex, Death, and Mozart

When I was studying for my master’s degree in music in the early 1990s, I took a seminar on the operas of Mozart with a brilliant professor (his other specialty was the Japanese shakuhachi flute, which he played at the level of a master, and for which mastery he’d even received a spiritual name from a Japanese sensei). The class was one of those once-in-a-lifetime learning experiences that make you fall more deeply in love with a subject you love passionately already. I remember particularly well the section on my favorite opera of all, Don Giovanni. Professor B. suggested that when Mozart uses a chromatic descending figure in this opera, it is to illustrate sex – specifically, the destructive force of untamed sexual energy, in an opera in which such a force threatens to loosen society itself from its underpinnings.

That chromatic downward figure occurs throughout the opera; one famous moment is in the duet that Don Giovanni sings with Zerlina, whom he is attempting to seduce on her wedding day, “La ci darem la mano” (the scene is shown above in a photo from Sacramento Opera's production). This duet, wonderful in its simplicity, using such a minimum of resources to show so much about the two characters who sing it, is well-known not only to opera lovers but also to readers of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Don Giovanni tells the peasant girl that he will take her to his castle, where they will give one another their hands, and where she will say “yes” to him (as Molly Bloom says yes at the close of Ulysses). Zerlina is about to go off with him when she is rescued by another of the Don’s conquests, Donna Elvira, who, in the Don Juan legend but not in the opera, is a nun whom he has seduced away from the convent. The descending chromatic line appears in the orchestra at the duet’s coda, when the two are singing, “Andiam, andiam, mio bene, a ristorar le pene d’un innocente amor” (Let us go, beloved, to assuage the pains of an innocent love). Its function is to tell us the truth: that the love Don Giovanni offers Zerlina is far from innocent (he later tries to rape her offstage during a party at his house).

The other night, I turned on the radio and heard the third, adagio movement of Mozart’s great Piano Concerto no. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595, in a live performance by Imogen Cooper with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis on his 80th birthday. It took my breath away – not only the performance, which was full of both brilliance and insight, but also the music itself. I first heard this concerto on an LP that I begged my mother to buy at the supermarket when I was around nine (I don’t know why; I just saw it in a display of classical LPs for $.99 each, and I thought I would like it. It was published by Funk and Wagnall, and featured a nineteenth-century color engraving of Papageno, the birdcatcher from The Magic Flute, on its cover. She acquiesced, and I wore the grooves out listening to it). The elegiac adagio movement is heartbreakingly simple, its theme almost folklike; one can almost see one’s own life pass before one’s eyes when one hears it, in all the bittersweet folly that makes up any life. It also makes frequent use of a downward chromatic figure in the piano theme, later taken up by the orchestra. Hearing it made me think of the long-ago opera seminar. Surely in this autumnal concerto, Mozart was not thinking of sex, but of death; he wrote the concerto just a few months before his own death, when he was living in poverty, and was surely already gravely ill. Perhaps he really used descending chromaticism throughout his work when he wanted to indicate one of those moments of profound, unspeakable truth upon which everything else hinges.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 6: The Two Sopranos

In my yeoman’s days as a singer in New York City, I had a friend whom I loved and admired. We were very close, but we could never be best friends, because we were both sopranos, and such a thing simply could not be. We performed together once in a production of Figaro (she sang the Countess, I sang Susanna), and later in a concert with the group I had formed to present specialized repertoires. That latter gig was a stressful one for both of us. She was on her way to the venue when she realized she’d forgotten her gown. She went back to get it, and ended up warming up and doing her makeup in a cab on her way to the concert hall. She was also recovering from an ailment that caused her serious vocal distress. In an important segment of the concert, an extended duet cantata by Rossini, she found herself unable to continue singing. Although at that point I was pretty upset with her, I summoned all the love I could muster in myself and poured it out in her direction. Amazingly, she was able to recover her voice and finish the piece. I remember taking her hand at the end, during the piano postlude. In my dressing room afterwards I made a mental vow never to perform with her again. But she told me a few days later, in tears, that the power of the love she had felt from me had made the concert one of the greatest musical experiences of her life.

Right around that time, my former obsessive, driving ambition for success as a singer had started to crumble. My first marriage had ended, and at the same time I had switched fachs and begun singing the lyric mezzo-soprano repertoire. Although theoretically I might have gotten more work as a mezzo, where the field was not as crowded, I asked my manager not to send me on any more auditions. I simply couldn’t stomach continuing along the path that I believed, because of my ambition for it, had led my whole life astray. But I was very slow in learnng the lesson my friend provided during that fraught moment in Rossini: that the love with which we sing, and the love with which we regard our friends, is the better part.

My friend got married and started a family soon after, and I went to graduate school. She later moved across the country, and we have not been in touch for some time. I’ve been dreaming about her for the past few nights, though; I feel as if she is speaking to me in my dreams. She was always an incredibly tender and wise person, and in my dreams I have been able to experience her tenderness and wisdom. In spite of the real disappointments and frustrations in both of our lives and careers, she is someone I wish I could be more like.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

John Cage in Black and White

While working with my student on the Cage “Aria” the other day, I starting thinking that John Cage neatly and rather strangely sidestepped all of the most dynamic innovations taking place in the music of his day. “Aria” is a guided improvisation, and a great deal of work in the genre of guided improvisation was going on around the time he wrote it; but the lion’s share of that work was in jazz. The late 1950s saw the flowering of the sons of the bebop generation (like John Coltrane) and the turning of public attention to those who’d been neglected in bebop’s first wave (like Thelonius Monk). Their music was full of warmth, wit, humanity, and vitality. Cage’s music, on the other hand, has wit aplenty, but little warmth, and his aesthetic seems to have been untouched by the most interesting innovations in the music of his day.

The jazz musicians of the 1940s and 50s self-consciously modeled themselves on contemporary European intellectuals, with the ironic twist, of course, that they were black and American; they saw themselves as the true heirs of European harmonic and tonal tradition. John Cage, on the other hand, who admitted that he'd been unable to master the principles of harmony in his studies with Schoenberg in the 1930s, adopted instead the “cold” aesthetic of Japanese Buddhist thought, which, while it may have seemed like a salutary aesthetic cool breeze blowing what was non-essential out of the American ear, ends up going nowhere. This is why Cage has no real heirs in music.

I suppose there are two paths in the art and music of the twentieth century, one of which is a blend of European and African strains, and the other of which is an amalgam of nineteenth-century American transcendalism and authentic Asian practice. Although the ethos of the latter is intriguing, it circles around and bites its own tail; it is self-referential, and its influence is limited. As my brother says, American culture is black culture. Perhaps this is why Cage is so uncompelling: he is, as my friend put it, so short of negritude.

By the way, today is the ninetieth anniversary of Thelonius Monk’s birth. I also happened to see a MetroNorth train car this afternoon named, oddly, the Thelonius Monk.

Monday, October 8, 2007


I’m working one-on-one with a gifted young undergraduate singer on the John Cage piece “Aria” (the photo above shows an excerpt from the score). I got a small grant from my university music department’s diversity committee to design and teach this course; they have the earnest but perhaps misguided goal of trying to attract more minority students into academic music studies. A colleague of mine expressed some curiosity about how it would play out, seeing as John Cage is a composer, as he put it, “seriously lacking in what the French call negritude.” The more I work with my student on “Aria,” the more I see what he means, and the more I become frustrated with Cage’s real limitations. Obviously he’s a very important composer and thinker, crucial to our understanding of the post-World War II breakdown of previously-received systems and standards across the arts. He also represents the advance guard of what writer Rick Fields called “the swans coming to the lake”: the dissemination of eastern spiritual thought in American culture, which can be seen also in the works of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, J.D. Salinger, and many others. As such, he provides a kind of link back to the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau by way of Japanese Buddhism. But his music is beginning to seem maddenly boring, not to mention totally divorced from what music is meant to convey, i.e. meaning. What's more, I'm coming to the conclusion that Cage's musical ideology is just plain wrong. This is, after all, the man who said that duration in music is more important than harmony, and that Satie is a more important composer than Beethoven -- in fact, that Beethoven corrupted music. While Cage and Satie have their charms, I’m beginning to feel like I chose the wrong piece for my tutorial.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Music and Memory, Part 2: Neil Young

I had a friend long ago who once said that she wished Neil Young were her dad. While such a wish strikes me as misguided at best, my own opinion about Young has progressed from indifference to a respect that borders on awe. I first discovered his music while babysitting for hippies in the late 1970s. At that time, I was more attracted by the gorgeous harmonizing of his colleagues Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Young's quasi-tuneless, mournful, boyishly fragile voice and alternately morose and bitter songwriting seemed to me hallmarks of guy music, which didn't interest me as a rule; I preferred Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Phoebe Snow. But I recall riding on a city bus around that time and witnessing an older teen vandalizing the seat-back ahead of her with the iconic words: "Oh to live on sugar mountain, with the barkers and the colored balloons." The pathos of this scene touched and unnerved me,leaving me wondering if the adulthood I so longed for would leave me with a broken sense of longing (it has).

As a professional longhair with a limited amount of spare time, I'm pretty well out of touch with current pop culture, and I haven't heard Young's latest two albums. However, the shaky voice, seemingly without overtones, and the despairing songs of the 1970s-era Neil Young are so full of human loneliness and a kind of existential resignation to the uncontrollable strangeness and suffering of life that they resonate powerfully in my heart and memory.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

In Search of Lost Time

I had a dream last night that it was possible to trade the wasted years in one's life, in the manner of corporate polluters who trade pollution credits. There was some website you could log onto that hooked you up with a trading partner.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Beneath the Underdog

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the forced desegregation of Little Rock Central High this week, I had my students in the writing class I teach for music majors read an excerpt from Charles Mingus’s sui generis memoir, Beneath the Underdog, first published in 1971 (Mingus had memorialized the bigotry of Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus, to whom Louis Armstrong had referred in the press as an “uneducated plow boy,” in his famous tune “Fables of Faubus,” whose snide, insinuating opening riff is recognizable to jazz fans everywhere). It was actually very hard to find an appropriate passage to read in class; the book is indescribably obscene, and is full of exaggerations and outright lies, such as Mingus’s claim that he pimped his wives and girlfriends. I especially wanted the class to read Mingus’s exegesis of his own playing and compositional styles, but couldn’t find anything except a brief excerpt toward the end of the book, in a scene where he’s just been released from Bellevue and is playing a club date. Mingus uses the foil of a British interviewer coming over to his table, where he’s flirting between sets with the woman who will become his umpteenth wife, to expound for a page or so on his musical philosophy of “rotary perception,” an aesthetic borrowed from Eastern spiritual systems and also owing something, no doubt, to his drug use and mental illness. For all of its madness, offensiveness, absurdity, and ultimate disappointment, Beneath the Underdog is one of my favorite books in the whole world, written by a truly erudite and brilliant artist, one of the many in jazz who became victims of their own genius, and of their internalization of racial prejudice. Jazz in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s devoured its young.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Child's Introduction to the Orchestra

Good news, especially for my two older brothers. The greatest out-of-print LP ever made, Alec Wilder’s “A Child’s Introduction to the Orchestra,” is available for free downloading at the Children’s Vinyl Record Series site (thanks to Bloggerythms for the heads up). This recording was a great favorite of mine in childhood, and was probably one of those random influences that made me (not to mention my two brothers) into a musician. It introduces each member of the orchestra with a little tune sung by a singer representing the instrument, followed by a solo on said instrument; there are Antoinette the Clarinet, Newt the Flute, Mellow Fellow the Cello, even Max the Sax in a very hip number. Well, hip for a child’s recording made in the late 1950s; it will never be reissued, because it is in fact hopelessly square in an age when They Might Be Giants are cutting kids’ CDs. It is really fantastic, though. Alec Wilder’s music and arrangements, conducted by Mitch Miller, are very forward-looking, anticipating the work of Gil Evans. The singers are excellent too: a high, Irish-type tenor sings the part of Bobo the Oboe (one of the most beautiful numbers on the LP); a basso profundo sings Old Muldoon the Big Bassoon (“they call me the clown of the orchestra, but it’s not necessarily so”); the sole girl singer is a kind of legit-slash-lounge type; they all do a great job. It all sounds remarkably corny, but it’s not. I’m so happy to have rediscovered this gem of children’s music. My son is digging it hard, too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Musicologist Banned

I'm tempted to joke that more musicologists should be banned, but this is positively chilling. Nalini Ghuman is a member of the "Elgar Mafia," some of whose members are colleagues of mine, and whose only vices are far too boring and abstruse to mention here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 5: Music and Memory

“Memory is the great perturber of musical meaning. When memory is concerned, music is no longer itself; it ceases to have any proper plane of feeling; it surrenders itself wholly, with all its rights, to memory, to be the patient, stern, and terrible exponent of that recording angel. What is it? Only a few trivial bars of an old piano-forte piece – “Murmures du Rhone,” or “Pluie des Perles.” The drawing-room window is open, the children are playing on the lawn, the warm morning air is charged with the scent of lilac blossom. Then the ring at the bell, the confusion in the hall, the girl at the piano stops, the door opens, and one is lifted in dying or dead. Years, years ago! But passing through the streets, a bar or two of the “Murmures du Rhone” brings the whole scene up before the girl, now no longer a girl, but a middle-aged woman, looking back to one fatal summer morning. The enthusiastic old men, who invariably turned up in force whenever poor Madame [Giulia] Grisi was advertised to sing in her last days, seemed always deeply affected. Yet it could hardly be at what the actually heard – no, the few notes recalled the most superb soprano of the age in her best days; recalled, also, the scenes of youth forever faded out, and the lights of youth quenched in the gray mists of the dull declining years. It was worth any money to hear even the hollow echo of a voice which had power to bring back, if only for a moment, the ‘tender grace of a day that was dead’.”

(H.R. Haweis, Music and Morals, 1872)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Burl Ives--Noah Found Grace In The Eyes of the Lord

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 4: Burl Ives

When I was little, I had a beloved LP, “Burl Ives Sings The Little White Duck.” There was one song on it that I particularly loved, “Buckeye Jim,” a beautiful, tuneful, gently-strummed song that in Ives’s high, light tenor sounded like the sweetest melody ever. This is one of the few favorite LPs from my childhood that have been released on CD, and I got it for my son. He listens to it as if mesmerized, and also loves “Buckeye Jim.”

The only things I knew about Burl Ives growing up were that he was the singing snowman in “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which came on TV every Christmas, and, more importantly, that he had “named names” before HUAC, which trumped everything else if you grew up in my family. But I was allowed to have that LP anyway, so perhaps this was a rare instance in which parenting took precedence over politics.

Much later, I found out that the most famous name he had named when he was subpoenaed was that of Pete Seeger (we had some of his children’s records too, of course). Evidently Seeger forgave him; they appeared together onstage in 1993 at a benefit concert, before Ives succumbed to cancer a couple of years later.

John Rockwell, the former chief arts critic of the New York Times, said of Burl Ives's voice that “[it] had the sheen and finesse of opera without its latter-day Puccinian vulgarities and without the pretensions of operatic ritual. It was genteel in expressive impact without being genteel in social conformity. And it moved people.”

I’m about to post a really dated and corny but also interesting and nice clip of Ives singing a white gospel song.

Incidentally, the star of one of my other favorite childhood recordings, Jack Gilford, who narrated “Songs and Hums of Winnie-the-Pooh” (strictly pre-Disney), was also blacklisted in the Red Scare of the 1950s.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Dunque è proprio finita

"So it really is all over," Rodolfo says; "goodbye, dreams of love."

But, because the winter is so lonely, the lovers decide to wait until spring, when no one feels alone, to part.

(The sad thing is that they really do part; Rodolfo retreats into his writing, and Mimi finds a rich lover; but she comes home, to the poor garrett that Rodolfo shares with his friends, to die.)


This is from a live performance of Bohème at La Scala in 1979. The radiant Ileana Cotrubas is Mimi; the conductor is mad genius Carlos Kleiber. Mimi sings, "Addio"; Rodolfo whispers in disbelief, "Che? vai?" (What -- you really are leaving?) Pavarotti's expression is even more real, more nuanced than the one I described in the Karajan recording. Immediately following this scene is the famous quartet, perhaps the most poignant scene in all of opera. I'm about to post it.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 3: In Memoriam Luciano Pavarotti

As I was getting my son dressed yesterday morning, I switched on WQXR. They were broadcasting Pavarotti singing “Nessun dorma,” live from his concert in Central Park in the summer of 1993, and I wondered briefly if he had died. My premonition did not lessen my shock and grief when the announcer related the news. I sat down in the rocking chair and wept. I was at that concert, incidentally, with my then-husband, who came to love opera in the course of his endeavor to understand his perversely elusive wife, and a young, up-and-coming character tenor, K., who shortly thereafter had a mid-career flame-out when his repressed memories of childhood abuse began surfacing, bringing with them the realization that, like so many of us, he had thrown himself into singing as a way to save himself. How many like us were among the hundreds of thousands gathered on the Great Lawn that summer night long ago?

Pavarotti’s death is another terrible loss to the world of music. It is not as tragic, perhaps, or as shocking as the death of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson last year, or Jerry Hadley’s suicide earlier this summer. But somehow, the world will not be the same without Big Luciano, one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, and one of the last of a breed of Italian lyric tenors. His incredible musicality in, say, the Act III duet from La Bohème in the famous von Karajan recording with his townswoman from Modena, the divine Mirella Freni– the way that he almost whispers, “Che? vai?” when he realizes Mimì is really leaving – is an object lesson to artists of all kinds everywhere: the verisimilitude of grief, sadness, tenderness, resignation, and regret in that brief, half-sung phrase captures all the ironic fleetingness of youth and the bitterness of youth’s impossible love affairs. Those who have read the Mürger stories on which the opera is based know that Rodolphe eventually drifts away from Bohemia and enters the world of the comfortable middle class, with nary a thought for the great loves and adventures of his impoverished salad days. I am going to listen to the von Karajan recording again and try to determine whether that, too, is in the phrase. R.I.P., Big Luciano.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Whiskey in the jar

The first time I heard this song, it was already old. I don't mean old in the sense that it was, of course, an old song; I mean old in the form shown here, as a cover of an already very old song by a rock band. The Irish band Thin Lizzy, fronted by black Dubliner Phil Lynott, recorded their groundbreaking version of the traditional ballad in 1973, and I first heard it on a college radio station as a high school senior in the early 1980s. On that first hearing, I was filled with a strange and not unpleasant feeling of great loneliness, as if a vast plain were opening up in my soul. The despair of the song, coupled with Lynott's aggressive delivery and the mournful guitar riff that repeats throughout the song, spoke to my own loneliness in a convincing way, a way that would later be echoed by other (arguably better) music, such as Stravinsky's "Les Noces" and George Crumb's "Apparition."

I think Thin Lizzy's rock version of "Whiskey" is far superior to the rousing version by the Dubliners. It's a song sung from behind prison bars, after all, by a desperate man.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 2

Many years ago I was a student in a small, exclusive, private liberal-arts college, which ironically is very close to where I now live, but might as well be a million miles away. The college was in a beautiful green bower separated from the daily world of dirt and commerce, and my current neighborhood, just down the road a few miles, is mired in that daily world (as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil”). The college was rich, and even the poor girls there, like me, were able to feel that we were in some intellectual aerie where we could live joyously in the realm of our lofty thoughts. My neighborhood, on the other hand, is mainly working- to middle-class, and you don’t get the sense of much lofty thinking going on in these parts (though lofty drinking is another story). Sometimes, in fact, I feel discouraged to be writing my dissertation in such an anti-intellectual milieu. But I suppose we should bloom where we’re planted.

In spite of all the beauty and the intellectual cosseting, I really hated that small private college. First of all, I was one of the aforementioned poor girls, and it pained me that I could never have the beautiful things, wear the beautiful clothes, or even be as beautiful as the rich girls who dominated the student population. And rich girls are indeed beautiful, because, as my friend Robert explained, powerful men marry beautiful women. But the place was also seething with darkness, with a kind of extreme adolescent amorality. Hard drugs and outré sexual experimentation abounded. Although I was not immune to their powerful allure, at the same time I felt an almost physical repulsion for the things I saw in my midst. I think that on the whole, the college was a very sad place, full of students on antidepressants and professors desperate to feel that what they were doing – educating the decadent rich – was a morally important endeavor.

At this college, however, I learned to sing. My happiest times were spent in the music building, where I would practice late into the night. I had a work-study job in the music library, and my Friday night shift was an orgy of delight as I raided the LP collection, discovering Puccini, Satie, and Harry Partch. A young graduate of the college worked there too, Mary L., who was then getting her master’s in voice at another institution. She became a lifelong friend and mentor to me, and her voice remains to this day the absolutely most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard in my lifetime. My hair used to stand on end whenever I heard her sing. She excelled especially at French mélodie. She never had a career in music; a difficult divorce, and later the demands of mothering a large family, preempted the energies that would have gone into making a career if that had been her priority. Her voice is one of the great, overwhelming secrets hidden from and by the world.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Average Boddhisattva

My first husband, M., was a cradle Buddhist, who liked to say that he had lost his faith because of an episode that took place at a childhood sleepover, when he was terrified by the sound of grandfather clock. and his supplications to the Buddha brought him no consolation. As an adult, however, he began exploring his childhood faith again, as I was to do later, and his second marriage was performed in a Buddhist ceremony. Around the time that he started attending Buddhist services again in the late 1990’s, while we were still married, a prominent Buddhist priest and scholar came to his temple to speak. At that talk, a fellow member of the sangha mentioned the freedom that came to her when she realized that she was just average; not a “special” person, as we all want to believe and are encouraged to believe we are, but just an average one with average abilities and average hopes and dreams. The prominent Buddhist speaker replied that he was filled with admiration for her, bowed to her, and called her an “average Boddhisattva.”

Nothing could have rubbed me more wrong than when M. told me this story. I think it bothered me so much because I found it so terrifying. I was “special,” after all, and had been brought up with a clear recognition of my special gifts and what I assumed were the privileges that came with them – privileges such as the right to fulfill my appetites and curiosities without regard for average rules and morals – and I was convinced that I must never descend to the everyday world of the average person. It took me a long time to recognize that I am more average than I care to admit. I think that I am one of the millions who do not live up to their early promise, and I don’t know whether that’s a tragedy of epidemic proportions based on massive failures of parenting and society, or simply part of the human experience in a fallen world. It’s taken me a string of failures and catastrophes in the realms of health, relationships, and career to recognize my averageness, and in a way I wish for more of it, because perhaps if I could embrace my averageness, I could have some peace, and then offer others kindness instead of bitterness, and perhaps even become an average Boddhisattva.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone

I switched on the radio today and was startled to hear a piece of music that I consider a masterpiece, “Apparition” by George Crumb. Crumb wrote the piece, set to excerpts of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” for the great Jan DeGaetani, who premiered it in 1981. The first time I heard the piece was in 1993, when my friend Mary Nessinger sang it in a recital she gave as a competition winner, and her performance remains one of the great musical experiences of my life. I had the privilege of singing the piece myself in 2003, at which time an audience member unbelievably told me that she considered my interpretation to be the “definitive” one. That is simply not true, though I don’t think she was maliciously lying, just caught up in the moment.

Today, however, I was shocked to recognize the voice of Renée Fleming singing the piece. Her voice is very recognizable, of course, but even more so are her vocal “tics,” such as the way she has of overemphasizing certain words, consonants, and syllables. While I admire her as an artist in her own genre, I thought her interpretation of Crumb to be entirely wrong. It was, first of all, too loud. The score indicates extremely scaled-down dynamics throughout most of the piece. And it was too operatic, too outwardly-directed; the piece is intensely inward-looking, truly innig, as the Germans say, escept for two movements. And finally, it calls for great humility. When one looks at Crumb’s elaborately detailed, handwritten score, one knows that one is expected to toe the composer’s line. It’s about submitting totally to his soul, his genius, and that of Walt Whitman, something that Jan DeGaetani and Mary Nessinger both did in spades in their performances (DeGaetani's is recorded on Bridge Records), which is a big part of what makes them great artists.

The only opera singer I can think of who might do this piece justice (though I know it’s also been assayed by Dawn Upshaw and Christine Schaefer; I haven’t heard their versions) is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died tragically young last year.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Old New York: August

I have always loved this time of year in New York City. There are rare, uncanny patches of silence in the day, holes in the constant noise through which you can almost hear angels passing. I love the smell too, the sort of pungent, slightly overripe green smell of the late-summer flowers of New York permeating the air: trees-of-paradise and mimosa, gutter trees that will grow anywhere. Their fragrance, a little too sweet, is a prelude to the burning smell of a New York autumn.

I remember the first summer here I lived all alone here.  The subway cars were hotter than a sauna, and covered with graffiti. I lived that summer in Flatbush, which was almost entirely Jamaican. Young men would offer to walk me home from the subway in order to protect me. I remember getting off at the wrong stop in Manhattan one morning and walking for a bit before finding myself in what seemed like the bustling port of Hong Kong; I had walked south and east, and was in the deepest Chinatown. Later, I would go back and wander around, buying rice face powder and packets of the gold-printed square paper used for Chinese New Year to write letters on. I wonder if Chinatown is still like that; it’s a long time since I’ve been there; twenty years ago it was almost a foreign land. Do you still see rows of seamstresses at their sewing machines in sweatshop windows as the D train crosses the Manhattan Bridge? New York is a different city now, and much has been lost: the sense of a patchwork of many small neighborhoods, the relative ease with which you could get by with no money, the bittersweetness that hung in the air at this time of year.

Friday, August 10, 2007

More Bad Dreams

We went to Promisek for a few days of respite. I had a dream that my husband and I were dating, and that after a few years he decided to break up with me. In the dream I was forty-two (my age now), and I was struck with fear that I would never marry, and would now have to revert to a way I used to relate to men, having sex with them in the hope that one of them might fall in love with me and perhaps even consent to spending his life with me. In the dream, I made a mental note to buy condoms, which seemed like a necessary ancillary to my new (old) life. It was a horrible, resigned feeling, and I felt myself looking down the road to a life of loneliness. I fear that my dream is the actual experience of many women in their late thirties and early forties, and it makes me horribly sad to realize that women have internalized the practice of giving so much in order to get so little in return from men, who in the old days recognized their role of caring for women and children and protecting them. In spite of whatever advances we seem to have made, I will not budge from my conviction that women want to marry, want to take care of men and children, whether they admit to it or not. It seems to me that the sexual revolution has done great harm to the idea of healthy relationships between the sexes, each of which now is always sizing up and second-guessing the other (He: “What does she want from me? I hope she understands that a roll in the hay doesn’t guarantee anything”; She: “Maybe if I perform really well in bed, he’ll want to see me again, and I’ll be his girlfriend”) while trying to avert and evade their real responsibilities to one another. But, at the risk of sounding medieval, I am willing to bet that most men who haven’t been profoundly damaged emotionally actually want to take care of wives and children, and that most women, even those who espouse second-wave feminist non-essentialism, want to have husbands and children.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Fritz Wunderlich Recital: Mozart-Zauberfloete Tamino's Aria

My 18-month-old son loves to listen to a live 1966 recording of the great German tenor (who died tragically just before his 36th birthday that same year) singing Beethoven's 1796 song "Adelaide." I couldn't find a video recording of it, so please enjoy instead this live performance of Fritz singing Tamino's aria from "Die Zauberfloete." He presents the music and himself with disarming simplicity and humility; one gets the sense that he puts himself wholly in the service of Mozart and his intentions.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I started to miscarry naturally over the course of two days. It was the most pain I've ever been in. My nine-months-pregnant friend took me to the ER (she went into labor and delivered a 10-lb. baby boy at home the next evening), where I eventually had an emergency D&C in the middle of the night. I got up at 3 AM to pump and dump some breastmilk for DS so as to cycle the anaesthesia through my bodily fluids more quickly. I have been ambivalent about weaning him, but he seemed able to get to sleep fine after a bout of crying in the middle of the night. I told him we couldnt nurse, but rocked him and sang "Buckeye Jim" in my voice cracked from the anaesthesia tube.

I will never believe the "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" ethos and scenario that most people espouse around this type of event. It assumes that some -- any -- people are good, and "Why callest thou me good? No one is good but one, that is God" (Mark 10:18). Nor will I believe the new-age platitudes that people whom I respect for reasons other than their ability to reason have beeen offering, along the lines of "that soul chose its destiny (which was to gestate in me and perish at eight weeks, then be scraped out of my womb) as a service to you . . . there's no judgement; everything is perfect as it is," etc. The one thing that resonates with me is the concept of God's justice. We like to focus on His mercy, which some say trumps his justice; in fact, St. Faustina emphasized that his mercy was his greatest attribute, or so he told her in his apparitions. But there must also be balance and proportion; there must also be justice. Could be, as my confessor suggested, that I am being chastised for my many, many serious sins. Not punished, but chastised; made chaste, as it were, purified in the consuming flames of suffering. If this is the case, I pray that it will work this time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Dear Son and Soror Vitae

My Brilliant Career

I suspect I’m becoming one of those graduate students whose dissertation starts being supplanted by her blog. On top of everything else, I’ve come down with a brutal sore throat. Among other things, it’s preventing me from singing, but that bothers me a great deal less than it might. After my last pregnancy loss, an ectopic that ruptured and took one of my ovaries with it in March of this year, I immediately plunged back into my work. Work alone remains, I thought; Arbeit macht frei. But now everything that has meant so much to me for my entire adult life and in fact much earlier – music, philosophy, beauty, and an exaggerated idea of my own abilities to contribute to these things – is like a bouquet of dried weeds lying on a barren patch of ground. Instead of picking it up, I turn away.

Many years ago, in the early days of my apprenticeship in classical music, if I were sick and unable to sing for even a day, the whole world would turn black for me. It just came to me today that my zeal and discipline for the serious study and work of singing only began a month after my abortion seventeen years ago. I believe that it was again partially a case of Arbeit macht frei. With nothing else but a bottomless pit to peer over, there’s only, and always, work. Also, with the bottom kicked out of who I thought I was, I thought I might as well make something of myself. The man who caused the abortion, whom I’d loved, obsessed over, and pursued, suddenly seemed like a much less good prospect. However, as I found out years later, it was the abortion itself that made him regretfully realize that he did love me after all. Afterward, he invited me in, so I stuck with him, not sure of what else to do. He was a brilliantly disciplined man both professionally and emotionally, and I took on his discipline partly to impress him, and partly because I truly believed that discipline would set me free.

So I became disciplined and hard-working, and also competitive and shrewd. I was so disciplined that I spent every spare minute I had studying scores, making translations, haunting the Rogers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the Lincoln Center Library for obscure recordings of whatever it was I was working on. My obsession for work certainly enabled me to eventually become an accomplished musician, and my passion for study helped me immensely with the project that would occupy the greatest part of my singing career, which would involve the study and performance of specialized and neglected repertoires.

When the marriage to that man ended, I stopped singing opera. I believed somehow that my cool-headed pursuit of a singing career had led me down a path that was totally wrong, a self-centered path that had ended up wreaking destruction in my life and many others’ as well. I just could not do it anymore. I fired my agent and stayed in bed for a long time.

But I didn’t stop singing, though perhaps I should have. Rather, I went on with the specialized repertoire projects, singing mainly for academic audiences. My engagements allowed me to travel fairly often, and in the course of those travels, I came to know my wonderful friend, now deceased, John Stewart Allitt, whose example was among the many phenomena that led me back to my faith.

Now I’m writing in my dissertation about the patristic theological trope of abandoning music pursuant to a spiritual conversion. Perhaps I shall have to abandon music too. Right now I don’t see the point of going on with it. It is not balm to my soul, not now anyway. Whatever God wants, hopefully He’ll make clear to me.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mother's Day

On Sunday evening, after the party ends
and family have gone, you’d love to say
how you can’t bear this gathering each May.
Your thoughtful husband usually sends
a rose bouquet, but changed his mind this year:
a special gift, it makes your finger shine
with emerald and ruby. “Too much wine,”
he banters as he wipes away your tear.
But you and I know, mother, what he can’t -
your April foolishness; how bit by bit
they snipped me out of you, took care of It;
how through the years I’ve been your confidante,
the reason for this night’s unraveling,
the garnet missing from the mother’s ring.

-- Catherine Chandler

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Recuperation From the Dead Love Through Christ and Isaac Babel

by Mary Karr (published in The New Yorker, February 12, 2007)

If you spend all night reading Babel and wake on an island
metropolis on your raft bed under a patent-leather sky
with the stars pecked out, you may not sense
the presence of Christ, the Red Cavalry having hacked up
all those Poles, the soldiers hugging each other
with their hatchets. This morning, my ex-man
is a caved-in box of disposable razors to ship back.
He wore a white Y on his baseball cap. Night
was a waterfall down his face.
Marry me meant You’re a life-support system
for a nice piece of ass, meant Rent
this space. Leaving the post office, I enter
the sidewalk’s gauntlet of elbows. All around me,
a locust buzz as from the book of Job. Yet I pray, I
pray: Christ my Lord, my savior,
and my good brother, sprinkle me
with the blood of the lamb. Which words
make manifest his buoyancy in me.
If the face of every random pedestrian is prayed for,
then the toddler in its black pram
gnawing a green apple can become Baby Jesus.
And the swaggering guy in a do-rag idly tossing an orange
into the crosswalk’s air might feel Heaven’s winds
suck it from his grasp as offering.
Maybe the prospect of loss—that potential emptiness
granted his hands—lets him grin so wide at me.
His gold teeth are a sunburst.
When the scabby man festooned with purple rags
shoulders an invisible rifle to shoot him, he pirouettes,
clutching his chest. Light applause follows
his stagger to the curb. The assassin bows.
These are my lords, my saviors, and my good brothers.
Plus the Jew Isaac Babel, who served the Red Calvary,
yet died from a bullet his own comrade chambered.
That small hole in his skull
is the pit on the map we sailed from.


I first read this poem in a copy of the New Yorker that I lifted from the open bag of a colleague in the office shared by adjunct instructors in my university department. I was so impressed by it that I took the magazine to our department's administrative office to photocopy the poem, intending to return it immediately to my colleague's bag. Coming back to the adjunct office a few minutes later, however, I was chagrined to see that he had left in my brief absence, making me the reluctant owner of a magazine pilfered from someone I respected from a distance.

I am an admirer of Isaac Babel. For some reason, Red Cavalry was the book I brought with me to the hospital to read while recovering from my son's birth. I stayed up those nights in new-mother exhaustion, underscored by horrified sadness at the brutal fate of the Jews in early twentieth-century Russia.

And I'm also a New York woman who has more than once lived through the crushed, dazed, hopeful and equivocal feelings that Mary Karr describes. By this time, however, her poem, though skillfully and beautifully written, strikes me as winsomely, almost pathetically over-optimistic. She is smiling bravely through her shocked tears and attempting to recuperate from the dead love by distancing herself from it, applying the prism of aesthetics to her broken heart. Yes, the poem suggests, life does and must go on. I like the addition of praying for random strangers, an act of charity akin to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, by which the suffering of random strangers is accepted and taken in by the practitioner and peace is given back. But Karr's poem also implies that the fate of a modern woman, especially a modern intellectual woman, is that she must use her abilities to reason, to remember, to recognize or perhaps invent allusions, and to compare the particular sorrows of her life to the universal sorrows of art, to pick her way through the minefield of modern love. Why must it be this way? Why must modern women expect so little from modern men? Why are we left to heal our own hearts by trying to find some cosmic universality to our personal suffering? I do not say that a universality doesn't exist. I simply believe that modern love, such as it is, has caused modern women too much pain, and it saddens me that we must use such paltry tools to heal our own hearts.

That said, however, I remember reading long ago in a book by an early-twentieth century Indian scholar of English literature that the aim of literature was the total eradication of sorrows and miseries. If only it were so easy. As Goethe wrote, addressing the Muses, "You cannot heal the suffering that love inflicts; yet assuagement comes, dear ones, only from you."


I was raised in one of the many 1970s-era Catholic homes in which Catholicism was fiercely clung to as a source of ethnic identity, but proudly dissented from in actual practice. My parents were not only white ethnics who’d emerged from the working class, but were professional liberal intellectuals as well. I had a very confused notion of what constituted a sin until rather recently in my adult life. As I suspect many young Catholics do, I lived a life that was in violation of many of the Ten Commandments, but I didn’t think that restricted me from receiving Communion. At one point, I was a cantor, and in spite of being in serious sin and by that time also having mostly rejected the Catholic faith, I still received in full sight of the public. Somehow I thought it would help me, would heal me, would bring me closer to God, but I didn’t grasp the simple fact that I needed to confess my sins first. In spite of his open dissent from the Church, my father had the good sense not to receive Communion during a time when he was, by his own admission, in a state of mortal sin; even though my catechesis was spotty, I might have learned in this case from his example.

The odd thing is that as a child I had a strong consciousness of the reality and the weight of my own sinfulness. This feeling persisted into adulthood, but by that time it had become annoying and, according to my friends and therapists, neurotic, so I tried to shake it by delving deeper into the temporal pleasure of sin. I was thinking homeopathically, that like cured like, so sin would be the antidote for sin. I thought I was special and specially gifted and privileged, that living life to the fullest meant claiming every experience that was gratifying to the senses and the ego. In spite of my current penitence, it’s still hard to lose the feeling of special privilege by which I became my own authority on what was sinful for me. It’s a miracle that God drew back such an incredibly disobedient soul to Himself. I am suffering now, but I have heard that a hundred years of suffering on earth are better than one hour in purgatory.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Two Poems by Robert Herrick

To God.

Make, make me Thine, my gracious God,
Or with thy staffe, or with thy rod;
And be the blow too what it will,
Lord, I will kisse it, though it kill:
Beat me, bruise me, rack me, rend me,
Yet, in torments, I'le commend Thee:
Examine me with fire, and prove me
To the full, yet I will love Thee:
Nor shalt thou give so deep a wound,
But I as patient will be found.

Another, to God.

Lord, do not beat me,
Since I do sob and crie,
And swowne away to die,
Ere Thou dost threat me.

Lord, do not scourge me,
If I by lies and oaths
Have soil'd my selfe, or cloaths,
But rather purge me.

Bad Dreams

I've been tormented lately by horrible dreams of a dreadful person I once loved. If I'd been acting reasonably at the time I would have seen that this person was dangerous; I can quite easily imagine a future for him that includes prison time. In my dreams, I will get into a taxicab and suddenly out of nowhere he'll jump in next to me; I shove him forcefully out of the cab and tell the driver to step on it. Or he's always at my shoulder and I can't shake him. There is so much that I wish I could forget, so much humiliation and grief in remembering who I have been and what I have done. A priest who had a conversion told me once that it's Christ who separates our old life from our new, but that it's salutary to remember from where we came. Is it? Is it also then salutary to harbor regrets, and to know that only God can set right what we have made wrong? And can we trust Him to do that, even if it happens at some later time and we are forever unaware of it? How do we go on with a knowledge of our past, which highlights how undeserving we are of the gifts of the present?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

House Special Coffee Ice Cream

A friend has reminded me that when St. Faustina received Christ's visits, her spiritual director, in order to test whether the visions wre truly coming from Christ or from His enemy, advised her to ask the apparition what she had said in her last confession. The vision replied, "I do not know. I have forgotten," which convinced the priest that the Visitor was in fact Our Lord, for God told Jeremiah that He would forgive his people's sins "and remember them no more" (Jer 31:31-34).

Still: I'm about to have a D&C for a missed miscarriage, my second pregnancy loss in four months and the second that will require an invasive procedure. I'm supposed to be 12 weeks pregnant but the baby died at 8 weeks. Seventeen years ago I was 8 weeks pregnant when I had my first pregnancy loss, a self-chosen abortion. My mind has been flooded uncannily with minutely-detailed memories of that time, down to what I wore, the shade of my lipstick, the menu that my then-boyhfriend good-humoredly and ruefullly drew up for the "last meal" the night before, with a menu card promising "House Special Coffee Ice Cream." (That good man [for he was good in many ways, in spite of this horrible mistake, which I'm sure he regrets] is long gone. We married and I did most things imaginable to ruin it.)

I must remember, then, that this is not punishment for those sins of long ago, for God has forgotten them, even if I have not. Then how am I to understand it?