Monday, March 30, 2009

Where Is the Memory of Yesteryear?

I don't understand this. I had the Milton Bradley board game Memory when I was little, and I remember very well the beautiful pictures on the cards. There was a white duck on a red background, for instance, a garden of posies, and a particularly enchanting one of a dark-eyed little girl with her hair swept sideways by the breeze. I just got the game for my son, and the pictures have all been changed to something this side of cartoonish. I'm deeply disappointed. Was everything more beautiful once, or am I making it all up? Où sont les neiges d'antan?

Friday, March 27, 2009

My Breasts, My Choice

An exellent short article that touches on the frequent (and counterintuitive) conflation of staunch lactivism with staunch support for abortion rights. H/T: Tea at Trianon.

What Painting Would You Be?

This painting, "Las dos Fridas" by Frida Kahlo, is the result I got when I took the Facebook quiz "If you were a painting, what painting would you be?" I saw it once at the Bronx Museum when it was on loan years ago; in fact, I had taken a special trip to the Grand Concourse just for that. It's an eerily apt answer to my quiz.

My Lord Jesus Christ help me!

This is very moving: a Coptic chant perfromed in English.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most

When I was a very young woman, I bought, one Sunday, a homemade cassette tape of the great jazz singer Betty Carter at the now-defunct Canal Street flea market. This tape helped me through a long, difficult period of heartbreak, in particular Carter's idiosyncratic interpretation of the Landesman-Wolf standard "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" (from her 1964 album Inside Betty Carter), which you can hear here. The lyrics convey the louche, wised-up attitude of most 1950s standards, and yet they are also resigned and truly poignant.

Morning's kiss wakes trees and flowers
And to them I'd like to drink a toast;
I walk in the park just to kill the lonely hours.
Spring can really hang you up the most.

The sparse arrangement and the understated playing of Carter's trio, suggestive of wide-open spaces not yet warmed by the sun or populated with blossoms, combined with her restrained, intellectual, and yet deeply affecting read of the lyrics, give this song a kind of verisimillitude, a true-to-life musical depiction of loneliness as the modern condition.

The funny thing is that I have always felt, no matter how hard the winter has been, that spring has come too soon. I am never ready for it. By the time March rolls around, I feel as if I've allied myself completely, inside and out, with wintriness, the essence and substance of winter, and that winter is the only state in which I will ever feel comfortable. In spite of the universal longing for spring, I feel that I should hang back (as the song says, "like a horse that never left the post"), and I would like to delay the warmth, the fecundity, the light-heartedness, of the new season.

The cold, gray days of early spring are, however, especially evocative and nostalgic for me, and in my mind I have always associated them with certain pieces of French Impressionist music that I had the great good fortune to study as an undergraduate. These pieces have always been a kind of balm for loneliness to me, not because they counteract it, but because they so marvelously depict and deepen solitude. These are pieces that (like "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most") convey a sense of wind-swept openness, and also of rushing movement, of forward motion without resolution. Whenever I hear Debussy's string quartet, I'm taken back in memory to New York. It is early March, a Sunday, and I am walking up Riverside Drive ("I walk in the park just to kill the lonely hours"); the huge trees are black and bare, with just the merest hint of a grayish-green penumbra shading some boughs to suggest the coming leaves; the air is cold, and the river is gray. To me Debussy's music is gray too, in many varying shades; it is the music of early spring, of hearts that lie dormant. Ravel's quartet, though it too suggests wide-open spaces with sweeping melodic gestures, is for later, much later, after hearts have begun to be awakened by the warmth of spring, awakened to love and pain.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Guns, Abortion, and Women's Rights

Blogging (as well as commenting on my favorite blogs) has been sparse lately. I'm trying to adhere to a Lenten technofast, and am also presently tending to my disabled mother. I read the following letter (excerpted) to the editor in her local weekly paper, written by a member of Democrats for Life of New York. Fallen Sparrow won't like it, but he's busy right now.

Kirsten Gillibrand, the new U.S. senator representing New York, appears to be an enigma. Because she supports abortion rights, she is thought to be a "liberal." Because she supports gun rights, she is a "conservative." However, a case can be made that both issues are connected.

Besides the obvious connection that both rights take life, both groups of supporters claim constitutionality. Gun ownders find theirs in the Bill of Rights. Abortion supporters find
[sic] theirs more recently in 1973 among the "penumbra" of rights in the Constitution.

The marketers of abortion and guns use nearly identical "rights" language . . . [both industries play upon] the fears and insecurities of women. . . . one might [miss the fact] that this ad is sponsored by the National Rifle Association instead of the National Abortion Rights Action League [sic: that organization now calls itself NARAL Pro-Choice America]: "A gun is a choice women need to know more about and [feel] free to make. The NRA is working to ensure [that] the freedom of that choice always [exists]."

Both organizations fight any limitations or restrictions on those [respective] rights. Even measures like partial-birth abortion are defeated by the abortion industry. The NRA fights against [even] microstamping, which . . . simply [ensures] that a firearm's owner [can be] identified.

The Violence Policy Center . . . . charges that the NRA has forged a new "firearms feminism" by portraying handguns as the latest "choice" issue. Using the theme of self-defense, one gun ad reads: "One choice is a firearm, a deeply personal position. It's a choice guaranteed by our constitution, a right that can be as precious as life itself. Don't own a firearm if you choose not to. But never let anyone deny . . . your constitutional freedom to make that choice." This is taken almost verbatim out of an abortion-rights manual.

. . . . We women have fallen victim to these marketing campaigns, which have elevated violence to a new level in human history.

Senator Gillibrand is not inconsistent. She is wrong on both counts.

The cult of individual freedom taken to its extreme makes strange bedfellows. Certainly support for untrammeled abortion rights is, like that for unlimited gun rights, a libertarian rather than a progressive position.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Update on Urgent Prayer Request

C.'s wife told me that he made it through ten hours of surgery with flying colors. He will be blind in one eye and mildly facially disfigured, and there's a good chance that his brain damage will be slight, although the extent is not yet known. All of this is nothing short of miraculous -- thank you for your prayers.

C. will be in rehab for quite some time, however, and will probably lose his job. Please continue to pray for this very vulnerable family.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Best Poem Ever

New York Notes
1. Caught on a side street in heavy traffic, I said to the cabbie, I should have
walked. He replied, I should have been a doctor. 2. When can I get on the 11:33 I
ask the guy in the information booth at the Atlantic Avenue Station. When they
open the doors, he says. I am home among my people.

-- Harvey Shapiro (from How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems. © Wesleyan University Press, 2001).
H/T: The Writer's Almanac

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Binding of Isaac and the Problem of Happiness

In the first reading for Mass yesterday, God famously puts Abraham to the test (Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18). I sat in the pew for a long time after the end of Mass trying to puzzle this one out. Why would God, who abhors human sacrifice, compel Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac -- the child of destiny whose descendants God had promised would be more numerous than the stars of the sky?

We have come to think of Isaac as a young boy, but, according to ancient interpretation, he was in fact a grown man who, along with his father, dutifully obeyed the command of the Lord and allowed himself to be bound and led willingly to the holocaust. As Christians, we see the Abraham-Isaac dyad as a type, a prefiguring, of God's later sacrifice of His only son. We know God's later sacrifice too to be sui generis, unique in history, and yet it happens every day in bloodless form in the Masses that are said upon all the millions of altars throughout the world. Can we understand God's own sacrifice, happening both in time and in eternity, as therefore in some sense coming before Abraham's test, and also as co-existing in time with it?

It has seemed to me in observing the lives of some very holy people that God has sometimes asked them for what they love the most dearly. Again, I have to wonder why. The testimonies of priests and religious whom I know suggests that they are happy; that is, that only after giving up the fulfillments, both real and tenuous, of the wordly life have they been able to find happiness. Does this mean that, after giving up what God wants of us, we will be happy? I've never been convinced that living happily in this life is part of God's divine plan for His people. But if we are not happy, how can we serve Him? As the Psalmist asks, "Can the dust praise you?" How could Abraham fulfill his destiny if God took from him the only thing that had meaning and value for him -- that is, the only thing after God? And it is not any generic taking-away; God told Abraham to slay his son with his own hand.

The Binding of Isaac is a radical, shocking text, and I'm not entirely sure what it means. One thing that strikes me about it, though, is Abraham's attentive listening to the voice of God. When God and "the Lord's messenger" call to him, he answers, "Here I am!" with alacrity. Maimonides suggested that Abraham heard God's command to slaughter Isaac in a prophetic vision -- in this case, an auditory vision -- which suggests that we need to listen for the voice of God in a particular way. But how will we know when we hear it?

A Musical Respite for Saturday

We all need, if not good news, then at least some relief. Though cannot heal our wounds, art, as Goethe noted, has the power to assuage them.

Please enjoy this beautiful Scottish folk song, sung by The Corries along with their audience.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Very Urgent Prayer Request

Dear readers, please pray for C. and his family.

In spite of several stints in rehab and a great deal of therapy, C. was unable to overcome the addictions that enslaved him. He transferred his obsession from drugs and alcohol to transgressive sexual behavior, tearing apart his family in the process. He was estranged from his wife and young daughter and in the process of a divorce.

Two days ago he attempted suicide with three gunshots to the head. He is in an intensive care trauma unit right now and is in very bad shape. I don't know his prognosis. He and his wife are both from big Catholic families, but both have fallen away. Please pray for him, his wife J., who is a good friend of mine, and their little daughter.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Cradle for Sorrow

When I taught both studio and class voice in my university system, I tried very hard to discern what sort of a person each of my students was, and to choose the right repertoire for each based not only on vocal characteristics but also on everything the student presented to me: his ethos, if you will. Most of my private-lesson students were older than I was, returning students who had been sidetracked by life from finishing their bachelor's degrees at a more usual age. The music department offered two bachelor's degrees in music, the B.A. and the more prestigious B.M.; all of my private-lesson students were B.A. students, with the exception of one frighteningly gifted M.M. candidate. A few of them hoped to transfer from the B.A. in Music degree to the B.M. in Music Performance degree, a switch that was based entirely on an audition before a faculty committee.

I loved my students, and I spent a lot of time worrying about them. They were from wildly divergent backgrounds. One was the daughter of a famous Puerto Rican bandleader who had discouraged her from a career in music, her true love; she made a living selling gloves and hats from a table outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One was a Haitian Seventh-Day Adventist, a highly intelligent woman who spoke German as well as French and whose singing revealed hints of a magnificent natural instrument -- if only we could have freed her physically and psychically to the point that she could have accessed it. Another was T., a shy, socially-awkward man in early middle age who worked as a paralegal, and who confided after three lessons that he was a recovering alcoholic (this didn't suprise me; I had had some experience with the language of the Twelve Steps, which I noticed that he used with some frequency). All of my students were profoundly wounded and heartbroken people. They didn't have to tell me so; the dynamic of the private voice lesson is so transparently revealing, and the rough areas in the voice provide such an accurate mirror of the catches in the soul, that I didn't need to look hard to grasp their woundedness, if not always the nature of their wounds. This is why it is so essential that a voice teacher be compassionate. The voice -- that intangible, ethereal instrument played by the passage of air over two threads of gristle in the throat -- can be not only a diagnostic gauge of the inner singer, but also, ideally, a means of healing for both the singer and her audience.

T. surprised me in our first lesson by bringing in a song he was working on on his own. Occasionally students did this, the song generally being from the Broadway repertoire. T.'s choice, however, was Schumann's "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden," number 5 of the Op. 24 Liederkreis, settings of poems from the Buch der Lieder of Heinrich Heine, the greatest poet of German Romanticism (and also a notable Jewish convert to Christianity, who famously declared on his deathbed in Paris: "I know that God will forgive me my sins: c'est son métier"). This was an ambitious choice. I usually started my students on one or more of the shopworn Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (known unkindly in the trade as "Twenty-Four Dago Ditties"). But T.'s German was excellent, and he even directed me in how he wanted me to accompany him in the piano part; he had rather well-formed ideas and opinions about how the piece should sound, one of the hallmarks of a true musician.

"Schöne Wiege" starts off as a gently-rocking strophic berceuse, then turns quickly into a rhapsodic, though brief, through-composed scena, with the off-kilter rhythmic phrases and the melodic angularity typical of Schumann. Its subject, and the subject of the song cycle in which it is the pivot, is that great theme of German Romanticism: unhappy love that forces the wounded lover on a journey which, in some treatments, ends in death (as in Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin and Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) or madness (as in Schubert's Winterreise). My translation follows:

Beautiful cradle of all my sorrows, beautiful tomb of my repose,
Beautiful city, we must part: "Farewell," I call to you.

Farewell, you holy threshhold where my beloved wanders;
Farewell, sacred spot where I first saw her.

And had I never seen you, beautiful queen of my heart,
The wretchedness I now endure would never have befallen me.

I did not wish to touch your heart; I did not seek your love --
I wished only to live a quiet life near the place where your breath flutters.

But you yourself drive me from here; your mouth speaks bitter words.
Madness takes hold of my mind, and my heart is sick and sore.

And I drag my weary, weakened limbs away, leaning on my wanderer's staff,
Until the time I might lay by tired head in some cool, far-off grave.

I was astonished by T.'s innate feeling for this difficult piece, and we quickly came to the point where I felt like I was serving him badly by accompanying him. I hired a student accompanist, an excellent pianist from Sweden, to come to our lessons, paying her myself. Out from behind the piano, I could work with T. more intensely on his breath and his phrasing. This ushered in one of the most thrilling times I've had as a teacher. Working on "Schöne Wiege" in the studio with T. and the accompanist, I felt as if we were riding a cresting wave together as three musicians. T. achieved moments in which there wss a synergy between his line and the equally important piano part, and when not only the melody and the meaning of the text, but even the sounds of the words themselves created multiple layers of meaning in his performance. Especially stunning was the way that he was able to sing each repetition of "Lebewohl!" (farewell!) differently, drawing one out with rubato, clipping another. I would leave these lessons feeling elated, as if I had finally found out what God wanted me to do, and was privileged to know the joy of doing it.

T. wanted to audition for the B.M. degree, so we started working on an audition program. I gave him a piece by Fauré, an Italian piece, the identity of which, oddly, I can't recall (oddly, because for most of my performing career I specialized in Italian music), the aching tenor showpiece "Lonely House" from Kurt Weill's Street Scene, and "Der Lindenbaum," the best-known piece from Schubert's great Winterreise. "Der Lindenbaum" (The Linden Tree) also treats the theme of being made to leave home forever, driven on by the unforgettable pain of love gone wrong, and it has become a kind of folk-song in the German-speaking lands. In one stanza, the narrator describes how, in the course of his journey, the cold wind has blown his hat away, and yet he does not stop. T. mentioned something that I hadn't considered: that in Europe in the 1820s, a man outdoors without his hat would have been unimaginable; the fact that the narrator doesn't turn back for his hat, T. suggested, showed the desperation of his plight, and was a clear foreshadowing of the madness into which he almost willfully descends at the end of the cycle. This was the kind of student I had dreamed of teaching, one who gave serious thought to the meaning of the text and the music, and to the reasons composers might have had for writing as they did.

When the time for T.'s audition came around in the spring, he clutched. I had instructed him to start the audition, at which I was not allowed to be present, with one of his best pieces - the Weill or the Schubert - but he second-guessed the audition committee and decided that they would probably want to hear the Italian piece that I can't recall first. A mistake. He wasn't admitted, and the following year switched his major from voice to music composition.

Near the end of the school year, I organized a recital for my students. T. was to sing "Lonely House" and "Lindenbaum." He rushed in just as the recital was starting, an etiolated, sickly-looking man who I realized was his boyfriend in tow. He told me at the intermission that he almost hadn't come. His beloved cat was near death, and he was beside himself. He got through his pieces, though he didn't shine.

This made me think about all the dreadful times in my life when I had kept on singing. There was simply nothing else to do; many times singing had seemed the only thing left to me. In our next lesson, one of our last, I mentioned obliquely some of these occasions in my own life, which included my abortion. An artist, I explained, has to be cool-headed even in the face of great personal suffering. C'est son métier. It's his job to sublimate his own suffering into a balm that might touch those who hear him, and give them the healing that he seeks for himself.

I never saw T. again after that. He still has a CD I lent him, the wonderful "Tryout," which features recordings of Kurt Weill singing and playing his own songs in rehearsal for his Broadway shows.

To hear fine performances of T.'s repertoire, go here for the Schumann, here for the Schubert, and here for the Weill.

Misremembrance of Things Past

I used to work the night shift in the word processing center of a global investment bank with a lovely Pakistani Englishwoman. She would start every evening with a cup of Twinings Prince of Wales tea, taking her own tea bag to the cafeteria and filling a styrofoam cup with hot water, sugar, and milk. She made it for me, too, and it was the most delicious thing I'd ever drunk. I tried to duplicate this beverage at home today, even going so far as to brew it in a Spode china cup, but it ended up tasting like sweet dirt. Is there a trick to this, or am I misremembering how ambrosial it was?