Friday, June 24, 2011

Music and Memory, Part 22: Improvisation

The main reason that I was hired to do the translation I mentioned in the post just below this one was that the author of the original piece, who is not a musician but a scholar in another field, wanted someone who could translate from the Italian and who was also familiar with the terminology of free jazz.  I was his girl because, notwithstanding my training as a classcial musician, I am familiar with that terminology.  One of my brothers is a successful jazz player, in the sense that he's only ever made his living from gigging (although, in recent years, he's supplemented it with teaching).  Another brother started as a jazz player, later moving into music composition and criticism.  My two brothers schooled me early in the idioms of jazz, and as a teenager I wanted to make my career in it, too.  It was a boyfriend back then -- also, incidentally, a jazz player -- who suggested that, since I had a "real voice," I should continue my classical work and see where it took me.

Working on this demanding translating job has brought faded bits of my apprenticeship as a singer floating up like scraps of paper stirred up into miniature vortices by the wind on street corner. I thought of life with M., who, although he was a conceptual artist, always maintained that his greatest influences were not from other artists but werein fact from free jazz players.  The essay I translated dealt with the metapsychological bases for improvisation, and quoted several of the players M. (and my brothers) had admired, including Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill, and Steve Lacy.  As I worked late into the night to meet the publisher's deadline, I thought about my old life, which, though not perhaps influenced by free jazz to the extent that M.'s and my brothers' were, was yet marked by improvisation in just every one of its emanations.

Before I met M., I was rolling with a crowd of free-living theater and performance artists.  I had decided that the jazzer boyfriend who pushed me toward the classical style was hopelessly dull, and I eventually ditched both him and his advice.  I had become convinced that classical singing had no real meaning or place in contemporary life, and that I was called to do something more meaningful.  Toward this end, I planned vaguely to make theater pieces based on a fixed vocabulary of words and gestures, which would be determined by an aleatory system.  I actually started to make a deck of cards -- heavy paper on which I pasted various pictures culled from old Sotheby's auction catalogues, dried leaves, photos of friends, and images cut from zines --  that I was going to invest with a vocabulary of words, sounds, gestures, and meanings and use to create my pieces.  I never actually got around to doing this; instead, I met M.  He came to see me in a performance art piece at a downtown gallery, and thought it was silly.  "Why don't you just sing?" he wondered.  So, because he wanted it, I did.

I observed the way he worked at his own art.  He worked at a bread gig during the day, making just enough money to live on, and then painted far into the night.  He drank whiskey and listened to Steve Lacy and the Art Ensemble of Chicago while doing so.  He read art theory and experimental novels.  If I ever got sick (which I did rather frequently in those days, since I was poor and badly nourished) and couldn't sing for a few days, the whole world would become black for me; but M. advised me to work on my craft in other ways instead:  to translate my pieces, for instance, and to do harmonic analyses.  Cheered by this advice, I did, and I also created my own regimen of discipline that went far beyond these suggestions; I began to think about diction, and to ponder not only the sounds of the sung languages, but even the meanings of the sounds themselves.  I read my scores as if they were novels, and began to understand music on a new level as I teased out the answers to the questions of why the composer set each word the way he did.  I barricaded myself in the Lincoln Center Library's Rogers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound on Saturdays, where I would listen to every recording I could find of the pieces I was working on, the older the better.  After I went back to school, I read seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century treatises on vocal technique and pedagogy.  In short, I immersed myself in my art and learned everything I possibly could about it.

All of this changed me.  I was no longer an experimental hanger-on from the Lower East Side.  I was a serious artist.  As I became a good singer, and, later, as I began to get work in my field, I started to think about the greater implications of my craft.  What had been an individual discipline -- in some ways, a discipline that saved me from myself, and kept me from completely falling apart when life was at its worst -- became a key to something greater than the individual and her unique hardships.  What I wanted more than anything was to reveal the beauty of the created world and of the human spirit in the music I sang, and to do so in a way that would bring audiences with me to a profound experience of our shared humanity.  The further I went in my profession, the more consistently this shared experience was an outcome of my performances.

As I neglected my home and family last week to finish the translating job, I began to wonder how I found myself there, sitting at my desk in Northern Appalachia with three different Italian dictionaries open around me, striving to turn Italian academic writing, which even at its very best is almost never good, into readable English. What had happened to my world of beauty, I wondered, and why had God put me here, in a place whose ethos I still don't understand, and where beauty and connection have so often been replaced by loneliness and strife?  I googled a few of my old art-world friends; they seem for the most part to be doing quite well and working steadily, though none will ever be famous.  I wondered at that, since I feel that I am making myself more and more obscure and unknown in every way.  I'm sure this is something necessary for my salvation as a semi-reformed diva bitch, but nonetheless, if God has given me the means and the tools to reveal beauty to those who are hungry for it -- who need it -- and if the pursuit of that revealing nourishes my soul as well, then why must I be so far from the former life, in which that pursuit made up the greatest part of my hours and my thoughts?  Beauty is so elusive here; other values, in this place, crowd it out.  Nonetheless, I believe it can be found, dug out, mined from any ground, and that in the place where I now live it is thirsted for more desperately, so I plod on desultorily, and try to put myself in its way.

14 comments:

Lizzie said...

Beautiful. I'm trying to dig for beauty where I am too - I have been pondering that 'invisibility' too recently. These words of yours:

"I wondered at that, since I feel that I am making myself more and more obscure and unknown in every way. I'm sure this is something necessary for my salvation as a semi-reformed diva bitch, but nonetheless, if God has given me the means and the tools to reveal beauty to those who are hungry for it -- who need it -- and if the pursuit of that revealing nourishes my soul as well, then why must I be so far from the former life, in which that pursuit made up the greatest part of my hours and my thoughts?"

express so much more eloquently than I can my struggle too...
God bless you.

Mrs C said...

This is a beautiful post - I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for sharing this with us!

alfonso said...

But your life has, as always has had, the greatest and most important expectator: God himself. So, even in the darkest corner of the world, our lives are meaningful, aren't they?
It doesn't add too much to have (or not) also two or three thousand humans clapping at you.
Two things (by the way):
1. I would like to present myself: I am a Spanish school teacher. I read and enjoy your blog. I don't use to make coments, mainly because English is not my mother tonge and sometimes I don't understand completely the problem or I am not able to express my self accurately. I also fear to be too pretentious.
2. I suggest you two novels in case you find time for them: "Angle of repose" of Wallace Stegner (about a couple that have to move to Colorado from Boston at the end of XIX Century), and "Crossing to safety" of the same author. I have enjoyed these two novels very much and for some reasons, this post has brought them two my mind.

Pentimento said...

Alfonso, thank you so much for your comment and the book suggestions. I will look for the Stegner novels. I've never read him before. And your English is quite good, by the way.

And thank you for yours, Lizzie and Mrs. C.

Melanie B said...

"if God has given me the means and the tools to reveal beauty to those who are hungry for it -- who need it -- and if the pursuit of that revealing nourishes my soul as well, then why must I be so far from the former life, in which that pursuit made up the greatest part of my hours and my thoughts? Beauty is so elusive here; other values, in this place, crowd it out. Nonetheless, I believe it can be found, dug out, mined from any ground, and that in the place where I now live it is thirsted for more desperately, so I plod on desultorily, and try to put myself in its way."

This piece-- really all your music and memory posts; but this one especially this passage-- makes me want to run back to Eliot's Four Quartets. Themes of the purification of memory and desire. The "place of disaffection"

and "darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy."

and this:
"Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movement; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future."

and finally:

"This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past."

I'm not sure how far to pursue the connection. It might seem presumptuous. Just a few disconnected thoughts on a rainy Saturday afternoon while the baby dozes on my arm.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for the Eliot references, Melanie. I think I really needed to read them.

marie therese 1 said...

I pass by your blog daily, Pentimento. Today is my birthday and I would be remiss if I did not remind you that your journeys of 'memory' and truth and mercy and love have allowed me to engage in 'life' again still. May God bless you for it richly. You sing your songs still. Peace and Love in Christ.

Pentimento said...

Happy birthday, Marie Therese, and God bless you!

Maureen said...

A beautiful post. Do you write poetry? I would love to hear your music, too!

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Maureen. I don't write poetry, but I love to read it.

Rodak said...

Pentimento--
"Why?" is a question that has no answer, but which we can't help asking, even knowing that to be the case.
I can certainly relate, on a person basis, to your feelings of displacement and alienation (even if I do prefer hard bop to free jazz...)
Thanks for sharing. You always do manage to make me feel a little less lonely.

Pentimento said...

Rodak, as the coffee cup says, We Are Happy to Serve You.

It's funny how, when I write from the depths of my own loneliness, or sing from them, it seems that other people feel better. Once again, what the coffee cup says.

Rodak said...

It's not so much that "misery loves company" as it is that it's nice to be understood.

Pentimento said...

I totally agree.