Monday, September 29, 2008

Rainy Days

It rained for a couple of days last week, and we were stuck indoors. I had recently acquired a second-hand copy of the Eloise Wilkin/Golden Books classic We Help Mommy (above) at Really Rosie's recommendation, and I attempted a social experiment by reading it to my two-year-old repeatedly; he was game at first, and even declared that he wanted to help Mommy, but that help consisted mainly of emptying the waste baskets onto the floor. So I went to the wonderful Children's Vinyl Record Series website (about which I've blogged previously), and my son and I downloaded some of the old LPs that some marvelously generous soul has converted to .mp3s and posted for all to enjoy. Our picks included Everybody Sing! International Folk Songs, which made me nostalgic for my left-wing childhood (can anyone tell me whether children in right-wing households learn international folk songs too?) and A Child's Introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan, which was a big hit, as my two-year-old is already a fan of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. The site has some real treasures, and is evidently part of a Christian initiative to reclaim and reform the arts, which is not a bad idea altogether.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What makes Brahms Brahms

Including an explanation of his use of the V 6/5 chord (featured prominently before the recap in the piece linked to below), by the inimitable Jeremy Denk.

Brahms: Intermezzo op. 118, no. 2 in A Major

I found this subtle, unusual performance of one of Brahms's most autumnal works last night. The pianist is a young Mexican, Citlalli Guevara. She uses a great deal of rubato, and has a remarkable sense of which inner voices to bring to the forefront of Brahms's dense pianistic texture. Enjoy; I thought it was remarkably beautiful.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Invisible Cities, Part 6: Orkenise

Chanson d'Orkenise

Through the gates of Orkenise
a carter wants to enter.
Through the gates of Orkenise
a tramp wants to leave.

And the sentries of the town
rush up to the tramp and ask:
"What are you taking out of the town?"
- "I'm leaving my whole heart behind."

And the sentries of the town
rush up to the carter and ask:
"What are you bringing into the town?"
- "My heart: I'm getting married."

What a lot of hearts in Orkenise!
The sentries laughed and laughed.
Oh tramp, the road is dreary;
oh carter, love is heady.

The handsome sentries of the town
knitted superbly;
Then the gates of the town
slowly swung shut.

-- Guillaume Apollinaire (pictured above in a painting by Maurice de Vlaminck; translated by Peter Low)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Most Ingenious Paradox

Another commenter has taken me to task for “whining” about what she calls the “tragically unremarkable” losses I spoke of in the previous post, and for calling myself broken when in fact I am blessed – among other things, to have a husband who generously married me “in spite of” all my apparent, well, brokenness. I understand what she means, for indeed I am very blessed. At the same time, I do feel that I’m called to an open position of mourning, for the very reason that the circumstances of my life have been tragically unremarkable. If our culture of abortion is so prevalent that even a Catholic woman, as I am assuming the commenter to be, can tell one of her sisters who’s suffered from it to “stop whining” and “deal with it,” what measure of compassion can we expect from those who consider themselves pro-choice, but who are, essentially, anti-woman and anti-child? I feel like my mourning has to bear some sort of witness to this very unremarkable tragedy. If the mourning of those like me is allowed to go forth, perhaps more hearts will be changed.

And as for being blessed, yes: God is so good and His mercy is so unfathomable. As Christ told Saint Faustina, those who deserve His mercy the least have the most right to it. This is truly one of the most amazing paradoxes of Christianity. Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 20:1-16, about the workers who arrive at the eleventh hour and are given a full day’s pay) illustrates it well. Man is limited by justice, but God’s mysterious mercy is higher and deeper than our imaginations can conceive. I pray that God may pour out his Divine Mercy upon all those who read and comment on this blog.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Refuge of Losers

As some readers of this blog know, a commenter recently took it to task for "[making] the Catholic Church into little more than a compensatory prize for the losers in life," and implied further that I was one of them.

I have no doubt that she is right on both counts. I have experienced devastating losses -- the loss of my first husband, the loss of four of my unborn children, the death of beloved friends, and rather many bitter heartbreaks -- some of them the results of my own ill-considered actions. I think it is safe to say that I have been completely broken by these losses, and will most likely never recover (does anyone ever really recover?). So, am I a loser? Indeed so.

In the midst of some of my most painful periods of loss, I kept singing. In fact, I usually did my best singing when I was going through some horrible crisis or other. My singing was my weapon, my tool in the world; I used it to attract, to deflect, to barter, to attain, to compete, to triumph over, and to escape from. And yet, at a crucial moment, when I was starting to build some career trajectory, had signed with opera management, and was getting auditions with important conductors (one of whom told my manager, though he didn't cast me, "she has everything"), I abandoned the career that seemed to have fed so much upon personal tragedy and impure ambitions, and decided to go into academic musicology instead. So, am I a loser? Undoubtedly so.

As for the Catholic Church, yes, again: I will admit that I have thought of it as a compensatory prize in my recent years of bitter pain. Since my reversion to my childhood faith in 2002, it has been a refuge I've clung to. If, as Christ said, we have to lose our lives in order to gain them, then the repository of wisdom and consolation that is the Catholic Church should be the compensatory prize for all believers, and we should all strive to become the kind of losers that Christ intended. (Mind you, I am not this kind of exalted, transformed loser; I'm more of your common house-and-garden sort).

Some of my readers also know of my great fondness for Fr. Hermann Cohen (a.k.a. Père Augustin-Marie du Très Saint Sacrement), above. Hermann is one of the subjects of my nearly-completed doctoral dissertation (I'm defending in October), which treats the subject of what I call "musical conversion" in the nineteenth century. I have studied the few extant sources on the life and conversion of Fr. Hermann, as well as his compositions, both published and in manuscript, from both before and after his conversion.

Hermann was acclaimed as a genius in the 1830s and '40s. Liszt wrote of his protégé, describing a concert in Geneva:

Hermann’s pale and melancholy appearance, his beautiful dark hair and frail physique, provided a poetic [image] . . . . The dear boy gave further proof of that precocious understanding and profound feeling for art which already set him apart from the ordinary run of pianists and lead me to predict a brilliant, fruitful future for him.

Perhaps this was true at least of his playing. The results of my study, however, have shown that as a composer, Hermann was pretty run-of-the-mill. Might he have become another Liszt, who was, along with Wagner, the arch-proponent of the Music of the Future? We cannot know, because Hermann abandoned the life of an adulated musician and retreated to the Carmel following an unhappy love affair. During his novitiate, he was forbidden both playing and composing; afterward, however, he was allowed to live as a musician again, but a transformed musician, offering praise in the form of sacred hymns and canticles, some of which remained in the liturgical repertoire in France until the turn of the twentieth century.

Was Hermann a loser? He was a loser in love, to be sure. He lost powerful and sympathetic friends, among them Liszt (with whom he much later reconciled) and George Sand. He was a compulsive gambler whose losses at the table were legendary, and produced the kind of dreadful consequences in his personal life that the behavior of addicts generally does. Could he have survived prodigy-hood to become a serious musician and composer? In my assessment, this question is unanswerable at best.

But was the Catholic Church a "compensatory prize" for him? Perhaps it might be alleged by those of us who don't like to think of ourselves as losers that he retreated to the Church as a refuge from his losses. What better thing could he have done? He found the compensatory prize to be the true prize, the "pearl of great price," and I believe that he is offering transformed musical praises in heaven right now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Invisible Cities, Part 5: Raissa

My first husband, M., was a conceptual artist who was probably more influenced by music and literature than by the visual arts. He was particularly fond of Italo Calvino, and one night when we were dating he read me his favorite story from Calvino's 1972 novel Invisible Cities, whose narrative is composed of fifty-five very short stories told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. Each story describes a city visited by Polo, and falls under one of several categories (Trading Cities, Thin Cities, etc.). Raissa is among the Hidden Cities. This story is one of the things that made me love M.; in spite of having undergone terrible trials while still a very young man, he was aware of the tug of the thread of grace throughout. Later, while browsing at a bookshop, he picked a baby-names book from a display and said that whatever name appeared at the top of the page at which it fell open would be our first child's name; the name was Raissa.

In Raissa, life is not happy. People wring their hands as the walk in the streets, curse the crying children, lean on the railings over the river and press their fists to their temples. In the morning you wake from one bad dream and another begins. At the workbenches where, every moment, you hit your finger with a hammer or prick it with a needle, or over the columns of figures all awry in the ledgers of merchants and bankers, or at the rows of empty glasses on the zinc counters of the wineshops, the bent heads at least conceal the general grim gaze. Inside the houses it is worse, and you do not have to enter to learn this: in the summer windows resound with quarrels and broken dishes.

And yet, in Raissa, at every moment there is a child in a window who laughs seeing a dog that has jumped on a shed to bite into a piece of polenta dropped by a stonemason who has shouted from the top of the scaffolding, "Darling, let me dip into it," to a young serving-maid who holds up a dish of ragout under the pergola, happy to serve it to the umbrella-maker who is celebrating a successful transaction, a white lace parasol bought to display at the races by a great lady in love with an officer who has smiled at her taking the last jump, happy man, and still happier his horse, flying over the obstacles, seeing a francolin flying in the sky, happy bird freed from its cage by a painter happy at having painted it feather by feather, speckled with red and yellow in the illumination of that page in the volume where the philosopher says: "Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dead Musicians

From you, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart,
The substance of my dreams took fire.
You built cathedrals in my heart,
And lit my pinnacled desire.
You were the ardour and the bright
Procession of my thoughts toward prayer.
You were the wrath of storm, the light
On distant citadels aflare.

Great names, I cannot find you now
In these loud years of youth that strives
Through doom toward peace: upon my brow
I wear a wreath of banished lives.
You have no part with lads who fought
And laughed and suffered at my side.
Your fugues and symphonies have brought
No memory of my friends who died.

For when my brain is on their track,
In slangy speech I call them back.
With fox-trot tunes their ghosts I charm.
"Another little drink won't do us any harm."
I think of rag-time; a bit of rag-time;
And see their faces crowding round
To the sound of the syncopated beat.
They've got such jolly things to tell,
Home from hell with a Blighty wound so neat . . .

* * * * *
And so the song breaks off; and I'm alone.
They're dead . . . For God's sake stop that gramophone.

- Siegried Sassoon, Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918)
H/T: Soho the Dog


I live in a neighborhood that may have one of the highest concentrations of Irish bars in the five boroughs. These bars tend to be self-segregated according to the county from which their denizens have emigrated, and some of them you wouldn't really want to go into, though my wedding reception and my son's baptism party were both held at one of the nicer ones.

Along with this phenomenon comes what I would deem -- admittedly based on anecdotal evidence rather than hard numbers -- a higher-than-usual rate of midday public drunkenness. Imagine my suprise, then, walking down pub alley the other day, when I passed by The Celtic House and saw that someone had left the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous in the open front window.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

They Are Giants: In Memoriam

I'm at my university trying to finish my revisions to my doctoral dissertation, "Music, Sin, and Redemption in Victorian Visual and Literary Culture," in advance of turning it in to my adviser, so naturally I'm simultaneously devising all manner of time wasters, and wondering how students managed to do this before the Internet. I will miss my university. I remember how, during my coursework years, I would walk back and forth between my classes and my day job, and how, the minute I came through the university doors, I always knew I had come to the right place and never wanted to leave. Today, however, there are police in full riot gear milling about outside; the university is across the street from a major New York City landmark, and as much as we New Yorkers try to deny it, we live in a dangerous place in dangerous times.

During those coursework years, I was dating a man who was required by his job to move to New England. A lifelong New Yorker, he told me that he nevertheless was happy to get out of a city which would one day undoubtedly see the explosion of a dirty bomb or worse. I remember being angry at him for that. In a strange way, I thought such a threat was actually the best reason to stay, and that we New Yorkers should accept the dangers of life in our great city and band together in the face of them. But soon, I'll be leaving too.

Last night I watched the lovely 1971 film They Might Be Giants, starring George C. Scott as a judge who believes he's Sherlock Holmes. The title comes from a conversation he has with his analyst, played by Joanne Woodward, who likens his madness to that of Don Quixote. The judge counters that Quixote was indisputably mad, because he believed that all windmills were giants; he himself, on the other hand, is not mad, because he simply accepts the possibility that they might be. It's a quirky love letter to my beautiful city, and it was especially poignant on the eve of the anniversary of the day when so many of my brave fellow citizens met their deaths. To me and the others who survived the attacks, our fallen comrades are, and always will be, giants.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Culture Wars for Losers

Although this blog does not generally delve into political issues, I'm going to suspend that unofficial policy just long enough to attempt to articulate what is most heartrending for me about the upcoming election. Ironically, my feelings resonate on some level with a previous commenter's rather snarky remark about "the losers in life."

In a recent blog post, Tertium Quid suggests that, though the culture wars may be waged by intellectuals, their rank and file members are those who consider themselves, in some sense, to be numbered among the aforementioned losers:

If Barack Obama expresses aspirations bottled, stifled, busted, almost lost, and possibly resurrected, Sarah Palin expresses such things for a different kind of voter. Governor Palin will suffer much during the next few weeks, an intense dose of what Senator Obama has become numb to, if not used to. I am afraid . . . that we are going to have a brutal election because a vocal and malicious minority in each party is sure that America is too small a country to nurture the aspirations of both those who cheer Senator Obama and those who nod their heads and smile at the words of Governor Palin.

So Obama and Palin (let's face it, the election is really between them) personify the intense longing of those on each side who believe that they have lost in the culture wars and that their time has now come. The sad thing is, neither Obama nor Palin, nor any other politician in post-utopian American, can fulfill that longing, which is, in many ways, not political but spiritual.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Motherhood, Mediocrity, and Marjorie Morningstar [A Guest Post by Really Rosie]

[The third commenter on this recent post suggests that my blog makes of the Catholic Church "little more than a compensatory prize for the losers in life, at least the life they felt entitled to," and reminds me that "[t]he arts are for people with TALENT." I suspect that the losers to whom the commenter refers include me, and that the people with TALENT do not. I won't quarrel with her opinion, though I doubt she's familiar with my work as either a singer or a scholarly writer, but I do wonder who it is she believes the Catholic Church is, in fact, for.

At any rate, her provocative comment called to mind a conversation that Really Rosie and I have been having (much interrupted by our toddlers) since we first met, and I have asked Rosie to write a guest post about it. The post is long, but it's wonderfully engaging, much like Really Rosie herself. -- Pentimento]

When I was seventeen years old and facing a future that included attending an elite women’s college in New York City and then embracing what I hoped would be the life of a successful actress (filled with poverty and struggle at the beginning, yes, but ultimately leading to artistic fulfillment), my aunt gave me her favorite book and asked me to read it, because, she said, I reminded her of the main character. The book turned out to be Marjorie Morningstar, Herman Wouk’s 1955 bestseller about love and frustrated ambition (a scene from the 1958 film, starring Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly, appears above).

Marjorie Morgenstern, a bright, beautiful, and articulate Jewish girl living in 1930s New York, has ambitions that go beyond her parents’ dream that she marry well: she wants to be an actress. Calling herself “Marjorie Morningstar,” she does summer stock, goes on auditions rounds, and sits at the drugstore counter with the other girls, waiting to be discovered. Along the way, she meets Noel Airman, a songwriter and a cad, the antithesis of her parents’ hopes. It is an on-again, off-again romance. Determined to remain a virgin until marriage (preferably to him), she nevertheless abandons her good-girl mentality and her religious faith, becoming Noel’s mistress, yet still cannot convince him to marry her. By the end of the novel, she has neither an acting career nor Noel; rather, she has become a prematurely gray housewife in suburban Westchester, the mother of four, and an Orthodox Jew. Even more disturbingly, she also seems to have become a heavy drinker and to have forgotten her past. When her old friend Wally comes to visit, he tells her:

“This much you can be sure of, you’re a hell of a lot happier than Marjorie Morningstar could ever have been.” She turned and stared at me, and for a flash there was contact between us. Just for an instant, the old Margie was there in the blue eyes of Mrs. Schwartz. And she said, “Good God, do you remember that? You would. You and your steel-trap mind. I don’t believe I’ve thought of that name in a dozen years . . . Marjorie . . . Morningstar . . .” There was something extremely poignant in the way she drew out the syllables, and smiled.

The ending made me angry. I returned the book to my aunt and told her I hated it and would never be like Marjorie. A few years later, after college, I bought my own copy, re-read it while waiting in line at various open-call auditions, and again swore I would never end up like Marjorie. I was too ambitious, too talented, and I would never let myself be derailed by love.

So now I’ll tell you a little about my illustrious acting career. In my first professional touring gig, a children’s musical, I was hired to replace an actress who had left the show due to bronchitis. I was supposed to learn the show in two days and be ready to perform on the third. I realized when I got the script that it was a role for a belter and dancer, and I was a soprano and no dancer. But I was finally acting and getting paid for it, so I knew I had to learn the part. The schedule was grueling. We had to unload and assemble the set each day, do two to three shows one after the other, then break down and reload the set into the truck. After that, we drove the van and truck to the next venue, usually six to eight hours away, often in another state. By the time I was finally comfortable in the role I was thrust into, about a week and a half after I joined the show, I was sick. I had a fever of 104, and my coughing fits were so bad that I was afraid they would destroy my singing voice. I took some Vicks 44, then rode in the van half-awake and hallucinating about putting the set together. I remember reaching in front of me to grab a phantom hammer and pegs. Not long after that, the tour played my hometown. My entire family showed up to see me in my first professional role, and the sound engineer turned my mic to the highest level so they could actually hear me, since I could barely speak, much less sing. I gave that show my all, then was fired by the stage manager in the dressing room afterwards. I went home sadly with my parents and saw a doctor the next day. Diagnosis? Bronchitis. The costume was never washed between actors.

I could tell you about the two tours I did after that or the original musical about the life of Phillis Wheatley that was quite good, but never seen by most people, since it was performed way out in Queens. Or the wretched student films (I once played a fantasy woman who came out of a vending machine . . . then tried to kill my paramour with a pair of scissors.) Or my ongoing extra work on a certain national soap opera: I’m clearly seen in each episode in which I appear, but I never get to speak.

But most maddening of all was a certain non-student film in which I played the lead. The director wanted to work in the style of Mike Leigh, and so for a month I had one-on-one improvisation sessions with the director in which I built my character, and for the next month I had more improvisation sessions with the other three actors in the film. I was also encouraged to explore my character out of rehearsal, and since she was an Orthodox Jew and I am a secular one, this involved reading volumes on Judaism, memorizing certain prayers in Hebrew, and even appearing incognito at Jewish services and events. I got to know the young Orthodox community well, even accepting impromptu invitations to Shabbat luncheons and dinners. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked on a character in my life. By the time shooting began, I was practically living the character. My husband was slightly afraid of me. And I had high hopes for the final product because I knew I could use it subsequently as an audition tape to get more work.

Unfortunately, the finished film was unwatchable. The inexperienced director not only chose not to shoot any close-ups, but placed the camera so far away from the actors that their facial expressions are unreadable. In a crucial scene in which I did some of the best acting of my life, he placed the camera behind me, so all you could see was the back of my head.

I met my husband when I was twenty-four. By the time I married him, three years later, financial considerations (he was unemployed) caused me to cut back on the acting classes, coachings, and voice lessons I had previously attended with regularity. Yet I still continued to work, even earning jobs that afforded me membership in the professional unions of AFTRA and the notoriously impossible-to-join SAG.

Even after I had my first child, I got work. When my son was five months old, I did an internet commercial that got a lot of attention, and when he was fifteen months, I was cast as a lead in another film. With the latter job, I was thrilled, left my son with a sitter for the first time ever, and congratulated myself that I could devote my time to my family and still have a career. Ironically, while on the set of this film, both my wedding ring and my engagement ring were stolen from my backpack, from a room that should have been secured, but wasn’t. The film’s director, in a nasty email exchange, asserted that I was lying about the theft of the rings and trying to extort money from him. The case had to go to SAG’s legal department before I was awarded half the original purchase value of my rings. I soured on acting after that. It took me many months before I could bring myself to even go to an audition again, yet eventually I did.

And here I am, like Marjorie, a mother to a three-year-old, and newly pregnant with my second child:

Yet she is dull, dull as she can be, by any technical standard. You couldn’t write a play about [Marjorie] that would run a week, or a novel that would sell a thousand copies. There’s no angle.

I re-read Marjorie Morningstar again this past winter, then lent it to Pentimento to read this summer. We’ve been discussing it a lot lately. The ending still makes me sad, though less angry than it used to. It is the unanswered question of the novel, but perhaps Marjorie really is content with her fate. Perhaps most frustrated artists eventually are. Perhaps even, as John Zmirak suggests, every artist or intellectual who comes to New York with a dream must instead be content with compromise.

Or perhaps not. Maybe my dreams are merely on hold. I don’t think I’m ready to give up acting just yet. I don’t think Pentimento is ready to give up singing, nor do I think she should. What does the future hold for us, the discontents, the bruised dreamers?

Pentimento wrote me an email today in which she said, “I think lives are multifaceted and contain many threads within them, but you can't knit with every strand at the same time. Some have to be woven in sooner, some later.” I think, I hope, that she is the wise one.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mea maxima culpa

I did something once of which I'm deeply ashamed and which continues to haunt me today (okay, that part about "once" was a little joke): I wrote a paper for a man I was in love with. I saw him yesterday after many years; he's just entered my graduate program as a new doctoral student. It must have been a good paper.

Monday, September 1, 2008

"I Must Away Now": The Dubliners

One of my favorites (also a favorite of my two-year-old's; he can sing almost all the verses). The singer is the legendary Luke Kelly (1940-1984). Enjoy and happy Labor Day.