Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Year that Trembled and Reel'd beneath Me

I’m giving my writing class for musicians the assignment of writing program notes for George Crumb’s song cycle Apparition. I found a website from which they can download and listen to the entire piece, and I am putting one of my copies of the score on reserve (I bought two when I performed the piece several years ago, one for me and one for my pianist), along with an anthology of Walt Whitman’s complete poems that I’ve had for many years (the text of Apparition is taken from Whitman’s great lament on the death of Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”). I just had a very odd sensation as I wrote my name on the inside cover of this volume, as if I’d seen a doppelganger.

The book, while I’m not sure if it was a gift from my former husband M., is one that I very much associate with the years I spent with him. I was deeply enamored of Whitman’s verses in those days, and used to read them as if they were sacred texts. M. did not share my love of the poet he called Uncle Waltie, but he indulged me. One night towards the end of our marriage, I remarked as we were getting ready for bed that I missed Whitman; I suppose I hadn’t leafed through "Leaves of Grass" for a few weeks. M. got out of bed and brought me the book, and, instead of being grateful, I was angry with him. I’m not sure exactly why; I suppose I was upset that he didn’t understand that I wanted to safeguard and savor my sense of longing, rather than have it fulfilled, and I concluded from this that he would never really see or understand who I was.

I’m chagrined now by my overweening pride and self-importance then, not to mention my utter foolishness. I still pray that M. will be able to forgive me for my thoughtless, careless, selfish unkindness to him (not only in that incident). I felt just now that I was being disloyal to him and to that time by writing my new, married name on the flyleaf of that old book.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lost in the Supermarket

While I generally find any kind of shopping an onerous chore, I happen to love grocery shopping, especially when I can do it alone. It is a secret pleasure for me to roam the aisles of a big, clean, well-lit store and look for bargains; it’s probably the closest thing to hunting that I will ever experience. I love to cook and bake, and I love the challenge of planning the week’s menu out of what I might find while stalking the sales. I try to find the freshest, best things for the lowest prices, and feel a sense of accomplishment, and even delight, if I can pull something off like happening upon a rack of Angus steaks on the day before expiration, when the manager is offering them for two bucks off, or finding Yuban coffee at two for four dollars (I would prefer to drink something more coffee-snobbish on a regular basis – my favorite coffees are Peets whole bean and the Route 66 Blend from Misha’s in Alexandria, VA – but Yuban is actually quite good for what it is, and I feel virtuous when I buy it because they include some fair-trade beans in the mix).

But if everything can be a catalyst for transcendence, then everything can also be a cause for heartbreak. Shopping alone gives you ample time to concentrate on the soundtrack being piped over the supermarket’s PA system. I’ve always wondered how these stores choose their playlists; I’ve heard music while shopping that I can only call astonishing, and a great deal of music that, as music does, evokes memories of the past, and those not always happy. Last night I had the whole store almost to myself, and I heard the Beatles song “You Won’t See Me” from Rubber Soul, one of my favorite albums of all time, which I received third-hand in childhood, and was flooded with cringe-inducing memories of my adolescence. Then, as I was checking out, an unidentifiable song by the Cocteau Twins came on, which evoked all kinds of painful mental images of my college days, when that band was all the rage among sensitive, artistic, goth-leaning girls because it featured the sort of wordless keening that seemed to express what we wished to call up out of our own souls, but could not in words.

As H.R. Haweis wrote in 1872, “When memory is concerned, music is no longer itself; it ceases to have any proper plane of feeling; it surrenders itself wholly, with all its rights, to memory, to be the patient, stern, and terrible exponent of that recording angel.”

Friday, October 19, 2007

Heavenly Grass

My feet took a walk in heavenly grass.
All day while the sky shone clear as glass.
My feet took a walk in heavenly grass,
All night while the lonesome stars rolled past.
Then my feet come down to walk on earth,
And my mother cried when she give me birth.
Now my feet walk far and my feet walk fast,
But they still got an itch for heavenly grass.
But they still got an itch for heavenly grass.
-- Tennessee Williams

I assigned one of the students in my voice class a setting of this poem by American cult author and composer Paul Bowles. The song is short and beautiful, written in a simple, folk-like style; the phrases that mention feet walking are conversational, while the phrases that speak of nature are lyrical and rhapsodic. We talked in class about how it mirrors the Romantic concept of Heimweh, which is more than just homesickness; it's the longing for a place which is not anywhere near the place you are, and which is in fact a place to which you can never return. I love the simplicity of Williams's poem; it reminds me of the greatness of other simple poems, like Yeats's "Brown Penny" and "Down by the Salley Gardens."

Sex, Death, and Mozart

When I was studying for my master’s degree in music in the early 1990s, I took a seminar on the operas of Mozart with a brilliant professor (his other specialty was the Japanese shakuhachi flute, which he played at the level of a master, and for which mastery he’d even received a spiritual name from a Japanese sensei). The class was one of those once-in-a-lifetime learning experiences that make you fall more deeply in love with a subject you love passionately already. I remember particularly well the section on my favorite opera of all, Don Giovanni. Professor B. suggested that when Mozart uses a chromatic descending figure in this opera, it is to illustrate sex – specifically, the destructive force of untamed sexual energy, in an opera in which such a force threatens to loosen society itself from its underpinnings.

That chromatic downward figure occurs throughout the opera; one famous moment is in the duet that Don Giovanni sings with Zerlina, whom he is attempting to seduce on her wedding day, “La ci darem la mano” (the scene is shown above in a photo from Sacramento Opera's production). This duet, wonderful in its simplicity, using such a minimum of resources to show so much about the two characters who sing it, is well-known not only to opera lovers but also to readers of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Don Giovanni tells the peasant girl that he will take her to his castle, where they will give one another their hands, and where she will say “yes” to him (as Molly Bloom says yes at the close of Ulysses). Zerlina is about to go off with him when she is rescued by another of the Don’s conquests, Donna Elvira, who, in the Don Juan legend but not in the opera, is a nun whom he has seduced away from the convent. The descending chromatic line appears in the orchestra at the duet’s coda, when the two are singing, “Andiam, andiam, mio bene, a ristorar le pene d’un innocente amor” (Let us go, beloved, to assuage the pains of an innocent love). Its function is to tell us the truth: that the love Don Giovanni offers Zerlina is far from innocent (he later tries to rape her offstage during a party at his house).

The other night, I turned on the radio and heard the third, adagio movement of Mozart’s great Piano Concerto no. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595, in a live performance by Imogen Cooper with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis on his 80th birthday. It took my breath away – not only the performance, which was full of both brilliance and insight, but also the music itself. I first heard this concerto on an LP that I begged my mother to buy at the supermarket when I was around nine (I don’t know why; I just saw it in a display of classical LPs for $.99 each, and I thought I would like it. It was published by Funk and Wagnall, and featured a nineteenth-century color engraving of Papageno, the birdcatcher from The Magic Flute, on its cover. She acquiesced, and I wore the grooves out listening to it). The elegiac adagio movement is heartbreakingly simple, its theme almost folklike; one can almost see one’s own life pass before one’s eyes when one hears it, in all the bittersweet folly that makes up any life. It also makes frequent use of a downward chromatic figure in the piano theme, later taken up by the orchestra. Hearing it made me think of the long-ago opera seminar. Surely in this autumnal concerto, Mozart was not thinking of sex, but of death; he wrote the concerto just a few months before his own death, when he was living in poverty, and was surely already gravely ill. Perhaps he really used descending chromaticism throughout his work when he wanted to indicate one of those moments of profound, unspeakable truth upon which everything else hinges.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 6: The Two Sopranos

In my yeoman’s days as a singer in New York City, I had a friend whom I loved and admired. We were very close, but we could never be best friends, because we were both sopranos, and such a thing simply could not be. We performed together once in a production of Figaro (she sang the Countess, I sang Susanna), and later in a concert with the group I had formed to present specialized repertoires. That latter gig was a stressful one for both of us. She was on her way to the venue when she realized she’d forgotten her gown. She went back to get it, and ended up warming up and doing her makeup in a cab on her way to the concert hall. She was also recovering from an ailment that caused her serious vocal distress. In an important segment of the concert, an extended duet cantata by Rossini, she found herself unable to continue singing. Although at that point I was pretty upset with her, I summoned all the love I could muster in myself and poured it out in her direction. Amazingly, she was able to recover her voice and finish the piece. I remember taking her hand at the end, during the piano postlude. In my dressing room afterwards I made a mental vow never to perform with her again. But she told me a few days later, in tears, that the power of the love she had felt from me had made the concert one of the greatest musical experiences of her life.

Right around that time, my former obsessive, driving ambition for success as a singer had started to crumble. My first marriage had ended, and at the same time I had switched fachs and begun singing the lyric mezzo-soprano repertoire. Although theoretically I might have gotten more work as a mezzo, where the field was not as crowded, I asked my manager not to send me on any more auditions. I simply couldn’t stomach continuing along the path that I believed, because of my ambition for it, had led my whole life astray. But I was very slow in learnng the lesson my friend provided during that fraught moment in Rossini: that the love with which we sing, and the love with which we regard our friends, is the better part.

My friend got married and started a family soon after, and I went to graduate school. She later moved across the country, and we have not been in touch for some time. I’ve been dreaming about her for the past few nights, though; I feel as if she is speaking to me in my dreams. She was always an incredibly tender and wise person, and in my dreams I have been able to experience her tenderness and wisdom. In spite of the real disappointments and frustrations in both of our lives and careers, she is someone I wish I could be more like.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

John Cage in Black and White

While working with my student on the Cage “Aria” the other day, I starting thinking that John Cage neatly and rather strangely sidestepped all of the most dynamic innovations taking place in the music of his day. “Aria” is a guided improvisation, and a great deal of work in the genre of guided improvisation was going on around the time he wrote it; but the lion’s share of that work was in jazz. The late 1950s saw the flowering of the sons of the bebop generation (like John Coltrane) and the turning of public attention to those who’d been neglected in bebop’s first wave (like Thelonius Monk). Their music was full of warmth, wit, humanity, and vitality. Cage’s music, on the other hand, has wit aplenty, but little warmth, and his aesthetic seems to have been untouched by the most interesting innovations in the music of his day.

The jazz musicians of the 1940s and 50s self-consciously modeled themselves on contemporary European intellectuals, with the ironic twist, of course, that they were black and American; they saw themselves as the true heirs of European harmonic and tonal tradition. John Cage, on the other hand, who admitted that he'd been unable to master the principles of harmony in his studies with Schoenberg in the 1930s, adopted instead the “cold” aesthetic of Japanese Buddhist thought, which, while it may have seemed like a salutary aesthetic cool breeze blowing what was non-essential out of the American ear, ends up going nowhere. This is why Cage has no real heirs in music.

I suppose there are two paths in the art and music of the twentieth century, one of which is a blend of European and African strains, and the other of which is an amalgam of nineteenth-century American transcendalism and authentic Asian practice. Although the ethos of the latter is intriguing, it circles around and bites its own tail; it is self-referential, and its influence is limited. As my brother says, American culture is black culture. Perhaps this is why Cage is so uncompelling: he is, as my friend put it, so short of negritude.

By the way, today is the ninetieth anniversary of Thelonius Monk’s birth. I also happened to see a MetroNorth train car this afternoon named, oddly, the Thelonius Monk.

Monday, October 8, 2007


I’m working one-on-one with a gifted young undergraduate singer on the John Cage piece “Aria” (the photo above shows an excerpt from the score). I got a small grant from my university music department’s diversity committee to design and teach this course; they have the earnest but perhaps misguided goal of trying to attract more minority students into academic music studies. A colleague of mine expressed some curiosity about how it would play out, seeing as John Cage is a composer, as he put it, “seriously lacking in what the French call negritude.” The more I work with my student on “Aria,” the more I see what he means, and the more I become frustrated with Cage’s real limitations. Obviously he’s a very important composer and thinker, crucial to our understanding of the post-World War II breakdown of previously-received systems and standards across the arts. He also represents the advance guard of what writer Rick Fields called “the swans coming to the lake”: the dissemination of eastern spiritual thought in American culture, which can be seen also in the works of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, J.D. Salinger, and many others. As such, he provides a kind of link back to the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau by way of Japanese Buddhism. But his music is beginning to seem maddenly boring, not to mention totally divorced from what music is meant to convey, i.e. meaning. What's more, I'm coming to the conclusion that Cage's musical ideology is just plain wrong. This is, after all, the man who said that duration in music is more important than harmony, and that Satie is a more important composer than Beethoven -- in fact, that Beethoven corrupted music. While Cage and Satie have their charms, I’m beginning to feel like I chose the wrong piece for my tutorial.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Music and Memory, Part 2: Neil Young

I had a friend long ago who once said that she wished Neil Young were her dad. While such a wish strikes me as misguided at best, my own opinion about Young has progressed from indifference to a respect that borders on awe. I first discovered his music while babysitting for hippies in the late 1970s. At that time, I was more attracted by the gorgeous harmonizing of his colleagues Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Young's quasi-tuneless, mournful, boyishly fragile voice and alternately morose and bitter songwriting seemed to me hallmarks of guy music, which didn't interest me as a rule; I preferred Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Phoebe Snow. But I recall riding on a city bus around that time and witnessing an older teen vandalizing the seat-back ahead of her with the iconic words: "Oh to live on sugar mountain, with the barkers and the colored balloons." The pathos of this scene touched and unnerved me,leaving me wondering if the adulthood I so longed for would leave me with a broken sense of longing (it has).

As a professional longhair with a limited amount of spare time, I'm pretty well out of touch with current pop culture, and I haven't heard Young's latest two albums. However, the shaky voice, seemingly without overtones, and the despairing songs of the 1970s-era Neil Young are so full of human loneliness and a kind of existential resignation to the uncontrollable strangeness and suffering of life that they resonate powerfully in my heart and memory.