Thursday, September 23, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 17: Old Wine in New Wineskins

Does anyone really believe T.S. Eliot about April being the cruelest month, "mixing memory with desire"?  The very presence of desire in the mix would seem to me to add a dash of hope to April's ethos.  But in the early autumn, no such hope -- of rebirth, resurrection, renewal -- is reflected to us in nature; just desuetude, dénouement, and fading away.  Schumann wrote a stirring setting of a poem called "Herbstlied" -- song of autumn -- which goes, in translation:  "The tender summer leaves fall from the trees;/Life with its dreams decomposes into dust and ashes . . . " (If you would like to hear a sample of this marvelous duet, go here and search for "Herbstlied," where you will find the redoubtable Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at it for a few seconds; unfortunately, I couldn't find a free download).

I am preparing for a gig in Boston at the end of the year which will require me to sing the kind of virtuosic repertoire in which I used to specialize, but which I haven't sung in almost ten years.  In the past, I used to use an elaborate, time-consuming methodology to learn florid music and work it into my voice and kinesthetic memory, and I will have to drag it again out of my body, mind, and memory.  But ten years ago my life was so very different from what it is today, and I wonder if I will be able to discover a new methodology, one that allows the singer to integrate old music into the new person.

This repertoire meant something different to me back then; it was my tool, and my ability to sing it well was my secret charm, my magic weapon, my mojo.  If other girls seemed to have lives so much better and easier than mine, or better apartments, or prettier clothes, or fantastic boyfriends, or happy marriages, I would console myself by reminding myself that they couldn't do what I did.  In my heart of hearts, I believed that my ability to sing was the only thing I possessed, and that my way in the world would be carved out through its use.  I would protect myself, keep myself safe and warm and afloat, by my abilities as a singer.  I believed this so strongly that, during my first marriage, my singing, that totem, always held its shining place first in my heart, and I considered my voice teacher a fractionally more important person in my life than my husband.

But then again, everything had become associated in my mind at that time with everything else.  My singing was my mojo, it was all that I had; I felt that with particular keenness after my abortion, which was also the time I began studying with the very influential teacher who was the most important person to me.  I remember how, right after the abortion, I realized that everything in my life had gone too far, and that it now had to stop.  It was a sunny Sunday two days later, and I left my then-just-barely-sort-of-boyfriend's apartment wearing my pajamas, feeling like I had to get out of there or die.  But I was so tired that I didn't make it to the subway, only to the park about a block away, where I fell asleep on a bench for a couple of hours, before heading for home as the sun was just beginning to set.

If my life in all its excess had hit the wall then and there, I would have to chisel my way out.  The only tool for that, as I had always believed, was my singing.  I began studying with the master teacher A.B., just at this time of year, and things began to appear to have more coherence.  He understood what I was trying to do as an artist, and he saw that I didn't have the technique in hand to do it.  He gave me that technique, and he showed me how to release the stream of artistic ideas -- musical phrases, sentences, whole conversations; creativity in collaboration with the composer -- through my voice, my intellect, and my body.

Then M. asked me to come back and live with him.  I did.  It was all I'd ever really wanted, anyway.  We got married a year later, and, as I see it now, that marriage was doomed from the start.  I never forgave him for sending me for the abortion, and we never, ever discussed it.  As Leonard Cohen sang, "Should rumour of a shabby ending reach you/It was half my fault and half the atmosphere."

Around the time I was last performing the music I'm going to perform in Boston, my marriage to M. had recently ended.  I was desperately trying to make someone else love me and stay:  the kind but pathetic Stoner Carpenter, the well-intentioned but ultimately weak sober alcoholic.  And I was having the busiest few seasons that I've ever had in my career before or since; I had management, some small recognition, a lot of gigs, and the belief that more would come.

Since my life in the ensuing ten years has turned out so completely differently for so many reasons, I am wondering how to relearn my old music.  We know from the Gospel that you cannot put new wine into old wineskins, lest the latter burst.  But what happens when you put old wine into new skins?


cnb said...

Music can tap into those memories in an especially vivid way, can it not? I sympathize with you, Pentimento, as you're living through those days again. I offer my encouragement.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Craig. I'm sure they are stored in the body, too, and need to be released, and the music relearned kinesthetically in a new way too; I hope I have time to figure it out.

Pentimento said...

And yes, I was just thinking today that there is some music I probably never should listen to again for the reasons you mention.

amazing grace music said...

There's some music that relates about our experience in life, that we wont like to remember.

Pentimento said...

True, AGM. If we must perform it again, there has to be a way to make it new.