Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 2

Many years ago I was a student in a small, exclusive, private liberal-arts college, which ironically is very close to where I now live, but might as well be a million miles away. The college was in a beautiful green bower separated from the daily world of dirt and commerce, and my current neighborhood, just down the road a few miles, is mired in that daily world (as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil”). The college was rich, and even the poor girls there, like me, were able to feel that we were in some intellectual aerie where we could live joyously in the realm of our lofty thoughts. My neighborhood, on the other hand, is mainly working- to middle-class, and you don’t get the sense of much lofty thinking going on in these parts (though lofty drinking is another story). Sometimes, in fact, I feel discouraged to be writing my dissertation in such an anti-intellectual milieu. But I suppose we should bloom where we’re planted.

In spite of all the beauty and the intellectual cosseting, I really hated that small private college. First of all, I was one of the aforementioned poor girls, and it pained me that I could never have the beautiful things, wear the beautiful clothes, or even be as beautiful as the rich girls who dominated the student population. And rich girls are indeed beautiful, because, as my friend Robert explained, powerful men marry beautiful women. But the place was also seething with darkness, with a kind of extreme adolescent amorality. Hard drugs and outré sexual experimentation abounded. Although I was not immune to their powerful allure, at the same time I felt an almost physical repulsion for the things I saw in my midst. I think that on the whole, the college was a very sad place, full of students on antidepressants and professors desperate to feel that what they were doing – educating the decadent rich – was a morally important endeavor.

At this college, however, I learned to sing. My happiest times were spent in the music building, where I would practice late into the night. I had a work-study job in the music library, and my Friday night shift was an orgy of delight as I raided the LP collection, discovering Puccini, Satie, and Harry Partch. A young graduate of the college worked there too, Mary L., who was then getting her master’s in voice at another institution. She became a lifelong friend and mentor to me, and her voice remains to this day the absolutely most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard in my lifetime. My hair used to stand on end whenever I heard her sing. She excelled especially at French mélodie. She never had a career in music; a difficult divorce, and later the demands of mothering a large family, preempted the energies that would have gone into making a career if that had been her priority. Her voice is one of the great, overwhelming secrets hidden from and by the world.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Average Boddhisattva

My first husband, M., was a cradle Buddhist, who liked to say that he had lost his faith because of an episode that took place at a childhood sleepover, when he was terrified by the sound of grandfather clock. and his supplications to the Buddha brought him no consolation. As an adult, however, he began exploring his childhood faith again, as I was to do later, and his second marriage was performed in a Buddhist ceremony. Around the time that he started attending Buddhist services again in the late 1990’s, while we were still married, a prominent Buddhist priest and scholar came to his temple to speak. At that talk, a fellow member of the sangha mentioned the freedom that came to her when she realized that she was just average; not a “special” person, as we all want to believe and are encouraged to believe we are, but just an average one with average abilities and average hopes and dreams. The prominent Buddhist speaker replied that he was filled with admiration for her, bowed to her, and called her an “average Boddhisattva.”

Nothing could have rubbed me more wrong than when M. told me this story. I think it bothered me so much because I found it so terrifying. I was “special,” after all, and had been brought up with a clear recognition of my special gifts and what I assumed were the privileges that came with them – privileges such as the right to fulfill my appetites and curiosities without regard for average rules and morals – and I was convinced that I must never descend to the everyday world of the average person. It took me a long time to recognize that I am more average than I care to admit. I think that I am one of the millions who do not live up to their early promise, and I don’t know whether that’s a tragedy of epidemic proportions based on massive failures of parenting and society, or simply part of the human experience in a fallen world. It’s taken me a string of failures and catastrophes in the realms of health, relationships, and career to recognize my averageness, and in a way I wish for more of it, because perhaps if I could embrace my averageness, I could have some peace, and then offer others kindness instead of bitterness, and perhaps even become an average Boddhisattva.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone

I switched on the radio today and was startled to hear a piece of music that I consider a masterpiece, “Apparition” by George Crumb. Crumb wrote the piece, set to excerpts of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” for the great Jan DeGaetani, who premiered it in 1981. The first time I heard the piece was in 1993, when my friend Mary Nessinger sang it in a recital she gave as a competition winner, and her performance remains one of the great musical experiences of my life. I had the privilege of singing the piece myself in 2003, at which time an audience member unbelievably told me that she considered my interpretation to be the “definitive” one. That is simply not true, though I don’t think she was maliciously lying, just caught up in the moment.

Today, however, I was shocked to recognize the voice of Renée Fleming singing the piece. Her voice is very recognizable, of course, but even more so are her vocal “tics,” such as the way she has of overemphasizing certain words, consonants, and syllables. While I admire her as an artist in her own genre, I thought her interpretation of Crumb to be entirely wrong. It was, first of all, too loud. The score indicates extremely scaled-down dynamics throughout most of the piece. And it was too operatic, too outwardly-directed; the piece is intensely inward-looking, truly innig, as the Germans say, escept for two movements. And finally, it calls for great humility. When one looks at Crumb’s elaborately detailed, handwritten score, one knows that one is expected to toe the composer’s line. It’s about submitting totally to his soul, his genius, and that of Walt Whitman, something that Jan DeGaetani and Mary Nessinger both did in spades in their performances (DeGaetani's is recorded on Bridge Records), which is a big part of what makes them great artists.

The only opera singer I can think of who might do this piece justice (though I know it’s also been assayed by Dawn Upshaw and Christine Schaefer; I haven’t heard their versions) is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died tragically young last year.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Old New York: August

I have always loved this time of year in New York City. There are rare, uncanny patches of silence in the day, holes in the constant noise through which you can almost hear angels passing. I love the smell too, the sort of pungent, slightly overripe green smell of the late-summer flowers of New York permeating the air: trees-of-paradise and mimosa, gutter trees that will grow anywhere. Their fragrance, a little too sweet, is a prelude to the burning smell of a New York autumn.

I remember the first summer here I lived all alone here.  The subway cars were hotter than a sauna, and covered with graffiti. I lived that summer in Flatbush, which was almost entirely Jamaican. Young men would offer to walk me home from the subway in order to protect me. I remember getting off at the wrong stop in Manhattan one morning and walking for a bit before finding myself in what seemed like the bustling port of Hong Kong; I had walked south and east, and was in the deepest Chinatown. Later, I would go back and wander around, buying rice face powder and packets of the gold-printed square paper used for Chinese New Year to write letters on. I wonder if Chinatown is still like that; it’s a long time since I’ve been there; twenty years ago it was almost a foreign land. Do you still see rows of seamstresses at their sewing machines in sweatshop windows as the D train crosses the Manhattan Bridge? New York is a different city now, and much has been lost: the sense of a patchwork of many small neighborhoods, the relative ease with which you could get by with no money, the bittersweetness that hung in the air at this time of year.

Friday, August 10, 2007

More Bad Dreams

We went to Promisek for a few days of respite. I had a dream that my husband and I were dating, and that after a few years he decided to break up with me. In the dream I was forty-two (my age now), and I was struck with fear that I would never marry, and would now have to revert to a way I used to relate to men, having sex with them in the hope that one of them might fall in love with me and perhaps even consent to spending his life with me. In the dream, I made a mental note to buy condoms, which seemed like a necessary ancillary to my new (old) life. It was a horrible, resigned feeling, and I felt myself looking down the road to a life of loneliness. I fear that my dream is the actual experience of many women in their late thirties and early forties, and it makes me horribly sad to realize that women have internalized the practice of giving so much in order to get so little in return from men, who in the old days recognized their role of caring for women and children and protecting them. In spite of whatever advances we seem to have made, I will not budge from my conviction that women want to marry, want to take care of men and children, whether they admit to it or not. It seems to me that the sexual revolution has done great harm to the idea of healthy relationships between the sexes, each of which now is always sizing up and second-guessing the other (He: “What does she want from me? I hope she understands that a roll in the hay doesn’t guarantee anything”; She: “Maybe if I perform really well in bed, he’ll want to see me again, and I’ll be his girlfriend”) while trying to avert and evade their real responsibilities to one another. But, at the risk of sounding medieval, I am willing to bet that most men who haven’t been profoundly damaged emotionally actually want to take care of wives and children, and that most women, even those who espouse second-wave feminist non-essentialism, want to have husbands and children.