Sunday, July 8, 2012
Music and Memory, Part 26: Heroin
About fifteen years ago I began the transition from pursuing a standard career as an opera singer to pursuing a recital career based mostly on the fruits my own research, a transition that would become final when I left my opera management the day before September 11, 2001. This change was precipitated by my meeting F., a wonderful Italian collaborative pianist and musicologist, on Saint Patrick's Day, 1996. Before long, we were researching and performing together, and he was my exclusive recital partner until he took a teaching job in Europe in 2005.
One day we were on our way to a gig in one of the mid-Atlantic states. We had walked from our late lamented neighborhood across the George Washington Bridge to Fort Lee, New Jersey, to rent a used car, had driven back to get our stuff, and now were on our way. On that drive, my colleague F. said two things that astonished me. The first was in response to my putting a Joni Mitchell CD in the car's player: he ejected it, saying, "Life is too short for bad music," and replaced it with a live recording that he had pirated himself at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy (I continue to disagree with his assessment of bad music in this case). The second happened a little further down the road, as he told me about the sunsets, mountains, and animals he'd seen while on a concert tour in Brazil. "Really, Pentimento," he asserted, "all of that is far more beautiful and important than music."
I was speechless. How could that be? Music was my elixir; no, my medicine. Thinking more about it, I wondered if it might not, more specifically, be a sort of chemo drug, a life-saving medicine that carried the risk of certain potent side effects. Nothing was more important to me. It came before, preempted, and supplanted what should have been my most important relationships. My early life had been so tenuously established, my adult life so undisciplined; music was the only constant, and sometimes I felt it was a thing even more essential to my existence than a chemo drug would be: it was oxygen itself, the most basic ingredient for my survival from one day to the next. I clung to it like a vine that heliotropes its maundering way around a trellis to get to a patch of sun. Or maybe music was my heroin, the jab that could deliver a few hours of beauty and a sense of agency into an otherwise bleak life.
Performing -- even rehearsing -- with F. has been one of the high points of my life. Our musicalities complemented one another in a way I'd never experienced before. We had plenty of conflicts in our working relationship, but working with him was one of the essential steps in my maturation as a singer and musician. We performed together just once after he moved abroad, when my first son was one year old and I was pregnant again, though I didn't yet know it. Having a baby meant that I could no longer practice obsessively, as I'd always done before, and, as we rehearsed before the gig -- the only time we had -- F. stopped and said, "How is it that you're finally singing the way you always should have sung?" I suppose it had to do with lowered expectations, with not predicating a hundred other things upon my success in that one particular performance, and with having my single-minded focus distracted and dissipated by the needs of another person.
Now F. is far, far away, and so am I. And I wonder if there is some way to convert the heroin of my former life as a singer into some kind of methadone, to ease off my addiction to that intense inner world with a duller, less devastating version of it. It's been said that pop music anchors the listener to the place and time that he heard it -- that particular summer, that one party, that boy or girl -- and that, as such, it's a mnemonically static form, whereas classical music is redolent with all kinds of associative possibilities. I'm not sure I buy that; hearing any of dozens of classical pieces evokes for me the time and place when that piece entered my life, directed my thoughts, dominated the world of my senses. It's very difficult for me, for instance, to hear Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 without seeing a hundred moments from the years of my childhood to the years of my doctoral study; sometimes I cry when I think that Beethoven has to be dead, but I wonder if I'm not really crying for the past in general.
But the past is receding like a world seen through the wrong end of a telescope, and I must remind myself every minute to be here now, in post-industrial America, in crumbling northern Appalachia, a wife and mother, in the land where my own mother is dying and where my family members are wandering desultorily or struggling desolately, and where I seem to have lost the power and agency I once had when I was a young singer who lived for and through music.
(Above: Dame Maggie Teyte sings "Oft in the Stilly Night," which is not a folk song, as the announcer states, but rather one of the Irish Ballads of Thomas Moore, set to music by John Sullivan in the early years of the nineteenth century).