Monday, January 28, 2013

Your Crooked Way

My children wake up during the five o'clock hour each morning, which means that I do too. I find waking up in the dark extremely demoralizing, though, and often am filled with dread first thing in the morning. In order to mitigate this sensation, I make a cup of strong coffee using this excellent device as soon as I get downstairs to the dark kitchen. The three of us then say a morning prayer, which always includes the petition that God will help us to make the world a more beautiful place that day, and we sing one verse of this, our morning song.

I've had a cold for the past few days, so the other morning, because I was losing my voice, I told my older son to lead the singing. "You can sing, Mommy," he encouraged me, "in your crooked way."

You can sing in your crooked way: I thought about this later, and the expression seemed apt. Hadn't I spent years, after all, singing in my crooked way? I remembered the period in my life when I thought that singing was all I had, my only pathway to salvation. As a young woman, growing up and going out on my own felt like launching a cobbled-together boat into dark and perilous waters, or flinging myself off a cliff into some dark void. The world struck me as unkind and unreliable, and love as fleeting and evanescent. If there was something I could do extremely well, I imagined, it could be my shield against the inevitable bitterness and heartbreak that love and the world would deal out. I could not trust love, nor my fellows, but I could wield my singing like a weapon to cut through the dangers they proffered. Other people might have more and better gifts than I had; other people might have the gift of love. But I could sing, and I loved to sing, and I developed a rigorous self-discipline that enabled me, over the course of years, to become a highly-skilled and effective practitioner of that art.

It's not uncommon even for singers at the highest levels to sing flat. I've heard it happen many more times than I can possibly count, including at the Met. Indeed, I've heard mediocre and even lousy performances there, as well as great performances marred by mistakes, bad notes, miscalculations, and musical train wrecks. It happens to everyone. I remember feeling particularly bad for Plácido Domingo one Saturday afternoon when he was singing the title role in the rarely-performed opera Sly, which ends with a tenor aria, and he flubbed the final sung note in the opera, leaving the audience not with the memory of a compelling performance but with that of a single lame high note. There's something touchingly human, though, about singing flat; it's as if the heart, the moment's emotions, the character's words, all cause one's voice -- or, to be technically correct about it, cause one's ability to accurately replicate pitch -- to fail, and doesn't that happen in everyday, non-singing life, too?

There was a period in my career when I was singing in the wrong fach.  I was a small-ish young woman, and my size, combined with my high energy, quick wit, and fast conversation, led some in the field to assume that I was the kind of soprano capable of high, fast, virtuosic singing. As it turned out, I could do the fast singing part, but I could never reliably sing the notes above high C, which is what the fach requires. A famous coach commented on my low speaking voice and the disparity between it and the high-sitting roles I was singing; an assistant conductor at the Met told me that if I even "went one fach lighter" I'd be "working everywhere." I tried to be lighter, higher, faster, perkier. Finally, though, when things were falling apart in my everyday, non-singing life, I began to remember the advice of people who'd known me and my singing for a long time, including members of my own (musical) family, who had always suggested that my voice would darken and deepen. I had wanted to be something else, someone else, but I was not, in fact, that person; and how can the voice be compartmentalized, treated as its own entity separate from the singer's own body and interior suchness?

I listened to my lesson tapes and watched my coaching videos and realized that, when I deviated from pitch, I was not singing flat; I was singing sharp -- above the pitch, even in repertoire that was, really, too high for me -- and I came to see that particular dysfunction as a metaphor for forcing myself into a box (fach, after all, means box) that was not the right size for me. Singing sharp, too, seemed very much in keeping with the use of singing as a weapon -- a sword is sharp, after all; a knife is sharp; so is  a switchblade. I switched to the lyric mezzo-soprano repertoire, a switch I've written about in more detail here, and everything settled into place technically; it felt comfortable, like finally finding clothes that fit after you've been wearing someone else's for the longest time.

I sang in my crooked way for years, and my aims, as an artist, were crooked too, in the sense that everything was predicated upon my singing. It was my heroin, the drug I immersed myself in when I was devastated, frightened, falling apart; it was my consolation when girls around me had husbands and families -- had love; I didn't need those things, or so I thought, since I could sing. It came before everything else in my life; I did not know how to have a life that did not heliotrope like a vine around the trellis of musical discipline and accomplishment. In fact, it was my life.

Even in the time since my own life has settled into patterns more closely resembling other, more usual ways of living, I haven't quite known where to fit singing into those alignments. I still sang, taught, researched, and performed after becoming a mother, but without the same . . . graspingness. I still believe that the ability to sing is a gift which, I now realize, God would have me cultivate (like all His gifts) in the interest of bringing beauty and consolation to others. I'm still trying to understand how to do that.

But I don't know if, in this life, I can ever leave my crooked way behind. I'm reminded of Auden's poem "As I Walked Out One Evening," in which the narrator, on a walk through London, overhears a lover declaiming the usual platitudes. Suddenly the declaration of love is cut short by "all the clocks in the city," who argue that

In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day. . .

and exhort the lover and his listener to

. . . stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.

I know now that my singing isn't the only thing I have; the only thing I have is my crooked heart. And because it's all I have, it's all I can give to this world; my crooked heart is the only means through which I will ever be able to live out my daily prayer to make the world more beautiful.  I pray that God will bring beauty and consolation out of my own crookedness.


Elise Hilton said...

Beautiful reflection.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Elise.

Sally Thomas said...

I agree. Gorgeous.

And I don't know how old that Ely Cathedral Choir recording is, but my older son's best friend from our time in England was head chorister at Ely from about 2010-11 until . . . this year, maybe? Last time I spoke with his family, his voice hadn't changed yet, but I forget when that was, and he's almost 14 now . . . Anyway, I remember Isaac as a comic little boy and feel very choky whenever I hear that choir, because I imagine I'm listening to the singer he became after we left. I remember being astounded when he went to the choir school at 8 -- his parents seemed like the last people on earth to send a child away to boarding school, though they eventually moved up to Ely so that he could live at home. But this was apparently what he really, really wanted to do.

Which is a total digression, of course!

Pentimento said...

That choir is excellent, too, Sally.

Sally Thomas said...

And I love that hymn. I'm a sucker for those Irish tunes.

Otepoti said...

On a morbid note, years ago when we first made wills, I left instructions for that hymn to be sung at my funeral.

Pentimento, that post isn't displaying correctly on my monitor - I can't think why - but it cuts out after the words "my singing isn't the only thing I have; the only thin-" - and there it stops. So I'll fill in.

You have love, and neighbours to love. So do I. How blessed we are.

Best (oh I wish I could join in with your sung morning office.)

Pentimento said...

I wish you could too, Otepoti. The boys sound great!

Here is the rest, but you did fill it in.

"I know now that my singing isn't the only thing I have; the only thing I have is my crooked heart. And because it's all I have, it's all I can give to this world; my crooked heart is the only means through which I will ever be able to live out my daily prayer to make the world more beautiful. I pray that God will bring beauty and consolation out of my own crookedness."

Sheila said...

This is wonderful. Even though I haven't been here in a long while, I love reading your thoughts.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Sheila; happy to see you here.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I love that hymn too.

And that's always been one of my favorite lines from Auden.... love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart. I love how you spin that out in your reflection.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Melanie. There's actually a wonderful art song setting of the Auden poem by a twentieth-century English woman composer, Elisabeth Lutyens. I would have linked to it but I couldn't find a Youtube of a performance. She was a serialist but this song is tonal and is really, really good (I actually sang it in one of my doctoral recitals).

Clare Krishan said...

With Ash Wednesday falling on the eve of Valentine's Day perhaps Lent will be one of tender reflection? If so this wee Trivium of the sacred heart may cheer a fragile spirit?
Quirky Baroque poetry 'grammar, rhetorick and logick' in The school of the heart, or, The heart of it self gone away from God, brought back again to him, and instructed by him in 47 emblems
(a Catholic work in its original Latin, this 'Cavalier' version in English is High Church Anglican)

Pentimento said...

That's cool, Clare! Thank you.

Clare Krishan said...

Cool? Not half so much as this t-shirt

Pentimento said...

I may have to get these for my rock band.

Karen Edmisten said...

Beautiful, beautiful.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Karen.