Friday, October 31, 2008

The Doctor is In

As of today, I'm Dr. Pentimento.

The image above, "The Awakening Conscience" (1854) by William Holman Hunt, is one of the subjects of my dissertation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mourning Into Joy, Part 3: Is There a Doctor in the House?

Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sin is covered. Blessed is the one to whom
the Lord shall not impute sin.

-- Romans 4:7-8

I'm going back to New York in a couple of days to defend my doctoral dissertation, "Music, Sin, and Redemption in Victorian Visual Culture." It's an exploration of a mostly-forgotten aspect of the portrayal of salvation history in the visual arts -- a trope dating from the patristic era that equates music with sin, and its abandonment with redemption. This trope, or so I contend, for various reasons reapppeared in 1850s England, and can be seen in certain paintings (as well as literary treatments) of fallen women from that time. The preeminent example of the music-sin-redemption conflation, however, as I have discussed in previous posts, is no woman, but rather David, the great musician who became king, the egregious sinner who was nevertheless a man "after God's own heart" (Acts 13:22). David, after being awakened by Nathan from denial of his sinfulness (adultery with Bathsheba, resulting in a son who dies in infancy, and the contrived murder of her husband Uriah on the battlefield), casts down both harp and crown in mourning, or so he was commonly portrayed as doing in medieval illuminated incipits of Psalm 51 (the "Miserere"). David is shown above, in a sixteenth-century painting by Lucas Cranach, spying upon Bathsheba as she bathes; note that he has his harp with him; having not yet seduced Bathsheba, he has not yet discarded it in grief.

I am honored by the presence of Thomas H. Connolly, the authority on Cecilian iconography, on my dissertation committee, especially because his work has been a revelation to me both in my scholarship and in my journey towards God. His book Mourning Into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia is nothing less than a chronicle of salvation history, and his friendship has been a great gift. I was led to his work by various inexplicable events in my first week of graduate school, and to him personally seemingly by chance by a young woman who'd left the novitiate of the Sisters of Life to become a nurse, whom I met once and never saw again; she had been a member along with Connolly of a Catholic student-faculty consortium at the University of Pennsylvania, where Connolly taught until his retirement.

When I was confirmed, the bishop asked, upon hearing my confirmation name, if I were a musician. When I answered in the affirmative, he instructed me to "pray to Saint Cecilia often." I have often forgotten to do so; Cecilia is so far away from our own time and experience, and my main man these days is Fr. Hermann Cohen, like David a sinner, a Jew, and a musical penitent. But I would like to ask those readers so inclined to please speak to Cecilia about me, even if just one word, between now and October 31. I hope that my defense will not only earn me my degee, but will also afford glory to God, the true author and revealer of all beauty. Please also ask for help for my son, from whom I've never been away before, and his father, who'll be taking care of him solo.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Barack My Vote? UPDATE

I'm taking down this post, as it apparently enraged an esteemed friend of mine, a journalist who'd just written a McCain endorsement, and who accused me in an email of giving moral scandal by being an apologist for Obama's pro-abortion policies and suggested, perhaps rightly, that the spirit instructing me in my dream was that of the enemy (I suppose I should call him an esteemed former friend, because he also used the email to question the sincerity of my conversion and to break off our friendship).

I just want to reiterate that the original post was about a DREAM that I had, and that, as I stated previously, I don't usually believe in the truthfulness or accuracy of dreams.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Amazingly, my new neighborhood has a cluster of streets named after the giants of German and Austro-Hungarian classicism and romanticism. There are streets named after Goethe and Schiller (both pictured above), as well as a Mozart Street, a Beethoven Street, and a Schubert Street (sadly, no Schumann or Brahms), and the unidiomatically-spelled (and perhaps -pronounced) Haendel and Hayden [sic] Streets. Perhaps I will be happy here.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

On the Radio

All alone in my new home and feeling lonely and at loose ends, I turned on the radio to find one of my favorite pieces being broadcast, Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Handel, op. 24. This gave me one of those little shivers of deliciousness that affirm that we are never really alone, for someone else who knows and loves this piece was surely hearing it at the same time as I, and then, of course, God's hand is in all of it too.

Update: I never found out who the pianist was, because my husband and my son came home at the very end.

Get Out My Vote

I have tried to keep politics out of this blog, and I have little stomach for it in most cases anyway, but Fallen Sparrow has written another of his typcially breathtaking posts, this one about the current presidential political conflict in the context of eschatology, and it has gotten me thinking.

I will start off by saying that, unless I'm able to discern that I should do otherwise, I don't expect to vote in the upcoming election. This is not a glib choice, and is actually quite a personally painful one. As some of my readers know, I grew up in an idealistic and committed left-wing family, and the natural choice of my heart, and even of my blood -- my family has had an intergenerational commitment to the civil rights movement going back about seventy-five years, and, coincidentally, that branch of the family is based in Chicago -- would seem to be Obama. And in fact, though I'm not exactly sure what he stands for, Obama is a powerful and moving symbol to me of change, and of the hope that there might be a real chance of healing the festering racial misunderstandings and injustices that still divide our country.

I am, however, repelled by Obama's understanding of abortion rights, so I most likely won't be casting that vote. Still, I hasten to say that I think the furor raised over his stance on FOCA and the "Born-Alive" bill misses the point entirely. I am convinced that Obama, like many if not most pro-choicers, truly believes that, while abortion is a personal tragedy and even a moral scandal, the compassionate stance is to ensure that it's legal. I know, because I was on that side myself, and I can't tell you how many women I've met who say, "While I would never have an abortion myself, I think other women who need to should be able to" (I used to find that complacent opinion particularly devastating after I had my own abortion, and the question of need is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this attitude, but these are issues beyond the scope of this blog post). To call Obama (or any other pro-choicer) a baby-killer or a willing accomplice in evil is wrong and misguided, and only serves to further balkanize the debate. I'll say it again: pro-choicers believe that keeping abortion legal represents compassion towards women in need, and even towards children. If you disagree, as I do, then go out and change hearts. It's better to light one candle, etc.

Nor can I in good conscience vote for McCain, whom I used to respect but whose recent campaign has rather sickened me. To vote for the Republican ticket because of life issues would be, to quote Samuel Johnson out of context, the triumph of hope over experience. The president of the United States has virtually no say over the legality of abortion in those states, as we've clearly seen with the Bush 43 presidency. Regardless of who a President McCain would appoint to the Supreme Court, I don't believe Roe v. Wade will be overturned in our lifetimes. To do so would cause political upheaval; if the current Court overturned Roe tomorrow, there would be carnage in Congress on November 4. Does anyone seriously believe that your congressman wants to go back to his constituents and take a stand when he's finally in a position to vote on a piece of real legislation? High moral dudgeon is easy, but with a real, not sham, bill in Congress or a referendum on a state ballot, careers would be made and lost in an instant, and no one in power now wants to see that happen. And, even if Roe were overturned, abortion would undoubtedly remain legal (with some restrictions) just about everywhere.

I also think there are other criteria on which to choose the leader of the free world, and McCain fails my litmus test on most of them. Any symbolic pro-life aura reflected upon his presidency by his running mate would be seriously mitigated by his own stated support for preemptive war and the torture of prisoners.

In short, I am unable to determine who here is the lesser of two evils. I feel stymied, and, frankly, upset about sitting out this crucially important election, but at present I feel (to make another oblique Doctor Atomic reference) like Arjuna on the battlefield, who has lain down his arms and declared that he will not fight.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

New Home

I write from my new city. The move was something of a disaster, with more going wrong even than usual with this sort of thing. To make a long story short, the moving company's estimate of time and labor turned out to be wildly off the mark, and it took five men almost three days to pack and move a two-bedroom apartment. Granted, I have a piano, but it's a small one; there were also those seven bookcases. But, to compound matters, it turned out that the estimator had also made a gigantic error in estimating the cost of all this, and because so much else had also gone wrong, the moving company decided to write off the difference. So all's well that ends well.

Our new home is a half-house, two stories plus a basement and garage, for exactly half the rent of our old two-bedroom apartment in the inaccessible outer boroughs of New York. But my new hometown is one of the depressed cities of the Northeast, so I imagine the low rent is a reflection of the low desirability of my new city as a place to live. It is beautiful here, however. The city is surrounded by mountains whose names no one appears to know.

Before we left, I stocked up on British sweets. My old neighborhood, with its large population of recent Irish immigrants, featured an impressive selection of English and Irish candy in just about every deli and corner store. Devotees say that there's no comparison between the English Cadbury bars and the American version, and I don't know when and where I'll be able to find things like the Cadbury Flake bar (above) again.

And we just acquired a washing machine and dryer. I am giddy with excitement as I await the delivery and installation. In New York I would wheel my grocery cart down to the corner laundromat every week and do six loads of laundry at one go, but that's not how it's done here, except by students and the very poor. So, while my fabulous college-teaching wardrobe hangs unused in my new walk-in closet, I am poised to become more like the mother in We Help Mommy and do the wash every day; there's even a clothesline here to hang it out on. Perhaps my son will even become as helpful as the two little ones in the book. Right now, he's mostly interested in the novelty of our flight of stairs, and throwing things down them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Batter my heart"

Anyone who's seen Doctor Atomic, or clips of it on Youtube, will recognize the "Gadget," as the Manhattan Project scientists called it, above; there is an exact replica of the bomb onstage for the second act of the Met production (it was there for the entirety of the San Francisco version).

This site
gives a brief history of the actual event that John Adams's opera dramatizes, the test of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos in 1945.

H/T: The Big City

Happy Returns

No, not another post about pastry. Today is the birthday of Virgil, Nietzche, Italo Calvino, P.G. Wodehouse, and Maria Puzo (I'm not making this up).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Look to the Cookie

The mystery of the black-and-white solved: a brief history and a recipe here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Invisible Cites, Part 7: In Black and White

As I pack up our apartment, I find myself overwhelmed with nostalgia for my beloved city, and, strangely, missing terribly the friends who preceded me in exodus, like Soprannie, who is long gone, and Robot Boy, who left more recently to take a prestigious fellowship. Each of us had reasons to move, but I think we were all grateful for the excuse. Though I love -- and they loved -- our city profoundly, "our city" has virtually vanished from the collection of identities that New York variously assumes. As has been discussed in previous posts and comments, New York is no longer a welcoming place for young strivers in the creative fields, and, pace my commenters, this is less a reflection of these strivers' ability than it is of the fact that the artistic market has contracted severely in the past few years. A couple of examples: most of the dozens of regional opera companies that used to audition singers in New York each autumn now no longer send their people here; singers used to be able to cobble together an income from church and synagogue jobs, but, no matter how frugally one lives, it's no longer possible. I could go on, but won't.

Occasionally, I run into my old colleagues. One, a tenor, has a mid-level international career that requires him to spend ten months of the year away from his children and his chronically ill wife. Another, a bass-baritone, is working steadily, but I met him in Central Park walking home to the East 90s from a rehearsal at City Opera, several miles away, because his pay only allows him one subway ride a day. I ran into another former colleague, a brilliant soprano who created one of the female roles in one of John Adams's operas, at my university the other day: she's getting her Master's degree and is thinking about developing music history courses for learning-disabled high-schoolers. These are all splendid singers of the first rank, but none has attained the level to which he had aspired. And the artist's struggle in New York City is much harder now than it was even a few years ago.

My own career had changed a great deal even before motherhood, and in the past few years I've mainly performed chamber concerts of rare repertoire in the regional U.S., which, though I've loved it, has been no way at all to make a living. I'm not sure what I will be doing musically in my new city, but, if all goes well, I'll soon have my doctorate.

So I've been reminiscing about friends and a way of life already long gone. But I'm going to miss concrete, physical things just as much, things that transcend the limitations of time and memory, like black-and-white cookies. I'm not sure if they exist outside of New York, and to be honest, if they do, I don't think I will want to try one; they can't possibly be the same.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Voyage à New York

A piece about my hometown by the Frugal Traveler in today's New York Times contains the fortuitous observation that "New York offers . . . the earnest expectation that one day, out of the blue, your real, true life will finally begin."

As Frank O'Hara wrote in his 1951 poem "Song":

I'm going to New York!
(what a lark! what a song!)
where the tough Rocky's eaves
hit the sea. Where th'Acro-
polis is functional, the trains
that run and shout! the books
that have trousers and sleeves!

I'm going to New York!
(quel voyage! jamais plus!)
far from Ypsilanti and Flint!
where Goodman rules the Empire
and the sunlight's eschato-
logy upon the wizard's bridges
and the galleries of print!

I'm going to New York!
(to my friends! mes semblables!)
I suppose I'll walk back West.
But for now I'm gone forever!
the city's hung with flashlights!
the Ferry's unbuttoning its vest!

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Great Purge

One of the worst parts of moving is the necessary winnowing of one's possessions, so many of which are laden with memories. And for me the very worst part of this process is trying to decide which books to jettison. I have seven six-foot-tall bookcases (one of them is devoted exclusively to scores and sheet music, and another is for my son's books), and some of their contents will have to be consigned to the flames. But the process of going through them has unearthed some forgotten treasures, making it difficult to choose. There is, for instance, the tiny second edition (1912) of Rainer Maria Rilke's long poem "Requiem," published in Leipzig; someone has written on the flyleaf: "En revenant toujours . . . " and dated it the 22nd of February, 1916. I admit I've never tried to read this book; though I can read German (with a dictionary), like Bartleby the Scrivener, I would prefer not to. I suppose it's the handwritten inscription that has kept me tethered to it all these years. Was it a gift to a lover, a friend, a sister? And the inscription "En revenant toujours" (always coming back) might well be the motto of my own imagined family crest, or at least of this blog.

Then there is Best American Short Stories 1998, which I confiscated from a former boyfriend because it included a wonderful story I'd read that year in the New Yorker, "Every Night for a Thousand Years" by Chris Adrian, a fictional account of Walt Whitman's time as a Civil War nurse (the story can be read in its entirety here). Much later, when I got around to reading the rest of the book, I found another terrific story, "Cosmopolitan" by Akhil Sharma (read it here). Interestingly, neither Chris Adrian nor Akhil Sharma is exclusively a fiction writer: Adrian is a doctor, and Sharma an investment banker. I've read both stories multiple times, but I think this collection is one of the books I'll carry with me to my new home.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"If Classical music is the data of a human census, Romantic music is the anecdotes, the telling of how things were . . ."

Great post on music, suffering, and consolation by George Grella at The Big City.

In the last song of his Neue Liebesliederwalzer, the moving Goethe setting "Zum Schluss," Brahms said it all:

Now, you Muses, enough!
In vain you strive to show
how misery and happiness
change places in the loving breast.
You cannot heal the wounds
that Love has caused,
but solace comes, dear ones,
only from you.

Music for a Thursday: Doctor Atomic

I was all set to blog about Gilbert and Sullivan today, but that post is being preempted, because yesterday I happened to be in the right place at the right time to receive the unexpected gift of tickets to the final dress rehearsal of John Adams's opera Doctor Atomic, which took place at the Metropolitan Opera today. I'm extremely grateful for this gift. The opera is about the scientists of the Manhattan Project as they prepare for the test explosion of the first atomic bomb in the summer of 1945, and the curtain opens on an astonishing set: the cross-section of an office building -- the lab at Los Alamos -- divided into many cubicles, each big enough to represent the office of one of the Manhattan Project scientists; these cubicles are covered with window shades, on which the actual security clearance photos of the real Manhattan Project scientists are projected. Then the shades are pulled up from within each cubicle by the excellent singers of the Met Opera Chorus, one per cubicle. The singing was exceptional from all parties; Gerald Finley, above, shone in particular as J. Robert Oppenheimer. My only complaint is that John Adams's compositional style does not allow for the development of character through music -- each character's music is pretty similar to that of the others: long, slow-moving vocal lines over a tense, fast, minutely-subdivided orchestral beat. Adams instead uses text to delineate character, and the libretto of the opera was compiled from many sources by Peter Sellars: not only the obvious historical sources and Oppenheimer's and Edward Teller's own writings -- and the Bhagavad Gita, which Oppenheimer famously quoted at the actual test of the atomic bomb in 1945 -- but also the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, Baudelaire, and John Donne. Oppenheimer's magnificent first-act aria is, in fact, a setting of Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIV":

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

If you are in New York this month, try to see it; it's one of the most remarkable works of music-theater I've ever seen at the Met, or anywhere.

On my way to the Met, I was fortunate to have another great musical experience: an encounter in the subway with the traditional string band The Ebony Hillbillies. I'm a fan of old-time music, and in fact one of my best friends is married to the frontman of one of my favorite bluegrass bands, The Crooked Jades. The Ebony Hillbillies struck me as a very fortuitous find. I bought one of their CDs, and hope to hear more of them in the future.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Blogging Brooklyn Ferry

My time in New York City can be described as a journey, geographically if not literally, from the bottom to the top. My first home here was in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in a predominantly Carribean neighborhood (I was very young, and young men used to chivalrously walk me home from the subway at night upon catching sight of me, usually after saying something along the lines of "Miss? What are you doing here?"). I gradually moved north from there, making stops in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn; the Lower East Side; the Upper East Side; Manhattan Valley, as it was then called (I believe it's now being remarketed as "SoHa," South of Harlem, but it remains the scariest neighborhood I've ever lived in); a long sojourn in Washington Heights; an Italian neighborhood in the eastern Bronx, and, finally, the furthest point geographically north you can stand and still be within city limits. (I'm going to try to blog a little about my neighborhood before I leave it for good; I've always liked the outskirts of large cities, which seem to have their own cultures and characters, usually more like those of small provincial towns than the cities of which they're technically a part).

Yesterday I went to my sister's baby shower, which took place as far geographically south as you can stand and still be in New York City, in a little waterfront neighborhood at the end of Brooklyn called Gerritsen Beach. It's more than thirty miles away from my home, and it took more than two hours to get there by subway and bus. But the ride included the memorable Manhattan Bridge crossing; two of the train lines that serve the most marginal areas of the city actually cross the Manhattan Bridge overpass (above, seen from the Brooklyn side), and it's a thrilling sight to see the East River, Brooklyn Heights, the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges, and the opening of New York Harbor in the setting sun from that high vantage. This is the way I used to go from my very first Brooklyn apartment (served, as it happened, by one of those marginal train lines), and I was flooded with memories of that long-ago time, especially of the glimpse of women at work at their sewing machines in small-time Chinatown sweatshops that I would catch after the train crossed the river, before it headed underground. Though the Brooklyn ferry is long gone, I was reminded of Walt Whitman's stirring words:

FLOOD-TIDE below me! I watch you face to face;
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose;
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

. . . . It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.

. . . . I too lived — Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it;
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.

. . . . It is not you alone who know what it is to be evil;
I am he who knew what it was to be evil;
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant;
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting.

But I was Manhattanese, friendly and proud!
I was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street, or ferry-boat, or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small. . .