Friday, June 24, 2011

Music and Memory, Part 22: Improvisation

The main reason that I was hired to do the translation I mentioned in the post just below this one was that the author of the original piece, who is not a musician but a scholar in another field, wanted someone who could translate from the Italian and who was also familiar with the terminology of free jazz.  I was his girl because, notwithstanding my training as a classcial musician, I am familiar with that terminology.  One of my brothers is a successful jazz player, in the sense that he's only ever made his living from gigging (although, in recent years, he's supplemented it with teaching).  Another brother started as a jazz player, later moving into music composition and criticism.  My two brothers schooled me early in the idioms of jazz, and as a teenager I wanted to make my career in it, too.  It was a boyfriend back then -- also, incidentally, a jazz player -- who suggested that, since I had a "real voice," I should continue my classical work and see where it took me.

Working on this demanding translating job has brought faded bits of my apprenticeship as a singer floating up like scraps of paper stirred up into miniature vortices by the wind on street corner. I thought of life with M., who, although he was a conceptual artist, always maintained that his greatest influences were not from other artists but werein fact from free jazz players.  The essay I translated dealt with the metapsychological bases for improvisation, and quoted several of the players M. (and my brothers) had admired, including Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill, and Steve Lacy.  As I worked late into the night to meet the publisher's deadline, I thought about my old life, which, though not perhaps influenced by free jazz to the extent that M.'s and my brothers' were, was yet marked by improvisation in just every one of its emanations.

Before I met M., I was rolling with a crowd of free-living theater and performance artists.  I had decided that the jazzer boyfriend who pushed me toward the classical style was hopelessly dull, and I eventually ditched both him and his advice.  I had become convinced that classical singing had no real meaning or place in contemporary life, and that I was called to do something more meaningful.  Toward this end, I planned vaguely to make theater pieces based on a fixed vocabulary of words and gestures, which would be determined by an aleatory system.  I actually started to make a deck of cards -- heavy paper on which I pasted various pictures culled from old Sotheby's auction catalogues, dried leaves, photos of friends, and images cut from zines --  that I was going to invest with a vocabulary of words, sounds, gestures, and meanings and use to create my pieces.  I never actually got around to doing this; instead, I met M.  He came to see me in a performance art piece at a downtown gallery, and thought it was silly.  "Why don't you just sing?" he wondered.  So, because he wanted it, I did.

I observed the way he worked at his own art.  He worked at a bread gig during the day, making just enough money to live on, and then painted far into the night.  He drank whiskey and listened to Steve Lacy and the Art Ensemble of Chicago while doing so.  He read art theory and experimental novels.  If I ever got sick (which I did rather frequently in those days, since I was poor and badly nourished) and couldn't sing for a few days, the whole world would become black for me; but M. advised me to work on my craft in other ways instead:  to translate my pieces, for instance, and to do harmonic analyses.  Cheered by this advice, I did, and I also created my own regimen of discipline that went far beyond these suggestions; I began to think about diction, and to ponder not only the sounds of the sung languages, but even the meanings of the sounds themselves.  I read my scores as if they were novels, and began to understand music on a new level as I teased out the answers to the questions of why the composer set each word the way he did.  I barricaded myself in the Lincoln Center Library's Rogers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound on Saturdays, where I would listen to every recording I could find of the pieces I was working on, the older the better.  After I went back to school, I read seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century treatises on vocal technique and pedagogy.  In short, I immersed myself in my art and learned everything I possibly could about it.

All of this changed me.  I was no longer an experimental hanger-on from the Lower East Side.  I was a serious artist.  As I became a good singer, and, later, as I began to get work in my field, I started to think about the greater implications of my craft.  What had been an individual discipline -- in some ways, a discipline that saved me from myself, and kept me from completely falling apart when life was at its worst -- became a key to something greater than the individual and her unique hardships.  What I wanted more than anything was to reveal the beauty of the created world and of the human spirit in the music I sang, and to do so in a way that would bring audiences with me to a profound experience of our shared humanity.  The further I went in my profession, the more consistently this shared experience was an outcome of my performances.

As I neglected my home and family last week to finish the translating job, I began to wonder how I found myself there, sitting at my desk in Northern Appalachia with three different Italian dictionaries open around me, striving to turn Italian academic writing, which even at its very best is almost never good, into readable English. What had happened to my world of beauty, I wondered, and why had God put me here, in a place whose ethos I still don't understand, and where beauty and connection have so often been replaced by loneliness and strife?  I googled a few of my old art-world friends; they seem for the most part to be doing quite well and working steadily, though none will ever be famous.  I wondered at that, since I feel that I am making myself more and more obscure and unknown in every way.  I'm sure this is something necessary for my salvation as a semi-reformed diva bitch, but nonetheless, if God has given me the means and the tools to reveal beauty to those who are hungry for it -- who need it -- and if the pursuit of that revealing nourishes my soul as well, then why must I be so far from the former life, in which that pursuit made up the greatest part of my hours and my thoughts?  Beauty is so elusive here; other values, in this place, crowd it out.  Nonetheless, I believe it can be found, dug out, mined from any ground, and that in the place where I now live it is thirsted for more desperately, so I plod on desultorily, and try to put myself in its way.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bad Translation

In a thousand years I'll never be able to find this reference, but I swear up and down that the excellent New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast drew a cartoon titled thusly once long ago.  I saw it in a book, and it made me laugh every time I thought of it for years afterward, and the text even became a running joke which my old friend Bob and I used to repeat to each other at opportune moments.  That text follows here, as closely as I can remember it, panel by panel; just picture the matching illustrations: 

Peter Pan -- what is?

Is pan with personality what flies around.

Is likened by children.

And then another panel that I no longer remember.

All of this is to say that I'm on blogging lockdown for a few days because of an extremely demoralizing translation from the Italian that I'm working on for a forthcoming scholarly anthology.  I've already missed several deadlines, so must buckle down.  Oh, and I've learned a lesson that I will pass on to you here:  if you ever do any freelance work of any kind whatsoever, even if the work you're doing is, for, say, the friend of a friend, draw up a contract and have it signed by both parties.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Music and Memory, Part 21: Weaving False Dreams

As any classical musician in America can tell you, the Glee-like social ostracism of band, orchestra, and choir geeks doesn't end in high school, unless you go to conservatory right after graduating.  This was not the case for me; while I received my M.M. at a conservatory, and my doctorate in the music department of a large university, I attended a liberal-arts college, where I was a socially-ostracized-music-geek undergraduate voice major.  To complicate things further, I had a work-study job in the music library, with a shift on Friday nights, which limited my extra-musical weekend socializing, and to make matters even worse, the music building, which was open all night, drew me like a scrap of iron ore straight to the motherlode.  Turn down the chance to practice at two in the morning?  Not this girl.  And, having a key to the music library, I could also sneak in and study scores and listen to obscure recordings all night long, which is what I did, and which, moreover, is how I first discovered such gems as Harry Partch's Barstow:  Eight Hitchhiker Transcriptions:

and a large chunk of John Cage's recorded oeuvre, among many other treasures. 

One year, my piano professor wanted me to audition for the music department's annual concerto competition -- on the piano.  I knew I would never be able to practice enough to get to the technical level required, and that it would be folly to compete against real pianists when I was not one.  Professor R. was a real pianist with a solid performing and teaching career who commuted to my college from New York, where she also served on the faculty of a major conservatory, so I was surprised by and a little mistrustful of her enthusiasm for my playing.  She explained to me that I had innate musicality, a gift, she said, which can't be taught, and she wanted to bring my piano technique up to the level of my natural musical proficiency.  I was flattered, but I turned her down.  I was a singer, and it was hard enough bringing my technique up to snuff as a singer, let alone spreading it thin between two equally-demanding instruments.

I was nevertheless delighted and honored when Professor R. asked me to be her page-turner for a performance of the rarely-heard Brahms Piano Quartet Op. 60, no. 1 in C Minor.  Chamber music is my great love, and I knew I would learn invaluable lessons about ensemble music-making by observing her and her colleagues at close range in their rehearsals, and I did.  I also came to know and love the gorgeous third-movement Andante, with its heart-stopping cello solo, truly one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written:

There was a beautiful young man at my college, with long, flowing hair, about whom I began to concoct elaborate romantic fantasies to the soundtrack of the Brahms Op. 60 no. 1 Third Movement Andante.  I never expected him to cast a glance my way.  Why would he?  The other girls at my school were beautiful and rich, and I was ethnic-looking, and from a family that my best friend described as "middle-class poor."  And to top it off, I was a music geek down to my very bones.  Besides, he had a long-time girlfriend.

One night I saw him eating dinner in one of the campus's smaller dining rooms.  On the table across from him lay a white rose.  "Would you like to have dinner with me?" he asked, as I walked past with my tray.  "I'm having dinner with a rose."  I couldn't believe it.  In a swoon, I sat down.  I have no idea what we said, but I remember that he was sensitive, poetic -- and he had that hair.

In the middle of our dinner, his girlfriend walked in, saw us, wordlessly plucked the white rose off our table, threw it with dramatic flourish into the nearest garbage can, and marched out.  So much for Brahms.

As the last post on the evocatively-titled, now-defunct music blog "Nihilism, Optimism, and Everything In Between" says about Brahms's Piano Concerto in D Minor:

Brahms, you old Master! You weaver of dreams, you liar! You encourage my “hopeless romanticism” and you know it! Life is not as colourful as you would have us believe! Of course you know that I know, and I can hear you laughing.

You dear Master, you! You—and the worthless dreams you sell me! No, keep them coming. Weave on and on. Go from here to the depths, then further into the depths, then rise up again—portray that impossibly rich, romantic world as you always do. If only life were really as romantic.

. . . . If only life were so rich.
If only life were so rich.

Last weekend I participated in a house concert here in my new town, to which, it seems, the toniest local classical musicians were invited to perform.  While most of the singers sang transcriptions of opera arias, I sang Brahms's incomparable art song "Unbewegte laue Luft" (my translation here), which has been called a "Tristan und Isolde of the Lied."  When I had finished, a sort of sigh rose up from the audience.  A very old woman told me, afterward, that she had cried, and  the head of the voice faculty at the local public university (who knows me and my work, but can't offer me even an adjunct position because of a statewide hiring freeze) said afterward, "I'm so glad you sang that.  People need to hear it."

Oh, yes, I agree.  People need to hear Brahms; they need that stirring, rushing, choking, devastating beauty, that beauty that makes their veins throb with teeming life.  Or maybe they don't.  It made an old lady cry, after all.  Perhaps the writer of the short-lived "Nihilism, Optimism" blog had it right after all, and Brahms -- or better, all music, all beauty, of which Brahms is only the exemplar -- is a deceiver, making us believe that life is so much richer, more poignant, more unifying, more exquisite, more imbued with meaning and deep feeling than it really is.

It seems to me sometimes that, as we grow up and grow older, we become more and more diminished by life.  It as if life strolled up to us with a surgeon's scissors every now and then to cut off a different little piece of us.  But we must go on, and so we go on wounded; and, if we're lucky, our wounds will remain open and tender, so that we can learn how to truly love other people.  Nonetheless, it is very hard for me sometimes to wake up and realize that my life is not at all the same as the music I spent most of my life studying, that it bears little resemblance to the mystical world of beauty hinted at, even whisperingly promised, by Brahms.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Baby C Has Arrived!

 God is good!  Mrs. C's beautiful daughter is here.  She is currently in the NICU for breathing difficulties.  Please pray.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Poetry Friday: Supper

 I heard this lovely poem on The Writer's Almanac the other day (the poet, April Lindner, also writes in another of my favorite genres, YA novels).


Turn the knob. The burner ticks
then exhales flame in a swift up burst,
its dim roar like the surf. Your kitchen burns white,
lamplight on enamel, warm with the promise
of bread and soup. Outside the night rains ink.
To a stranger bracing his umbrella,
think how your lit window must seem
both warm and cold, a kiss withheld,
lights strung above a distant patio.
Think how your bare arm, glimpsed
as you chop celery or grate a carrot
glows like one link in a necklace.
How the clink of silverware on porcelain
carries to the street. As you unfold your napkin,
book spread beside your plate, consider
the ticking of rain against pavement,
the stoplight red and steady as a flame.

-- April Lindner, from Skin. © Texas Tech University Press, 2002.  (Above:  Automat by Edward Hopper.)

More Poetry Friday at Picture Book of the Day.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Fruits of Blogging, Part 2

There is arguably no time more beautiful in New York City than right now.  At the cusp of summer the air is still fresh, with still another two or three weeks before it hardens into a solid wall of brass-smelling heat that assaults you (the pedestrian and subway rider) the whole day long.  The little patches of green you encounter, especially in the outer boroughs -- the grass at the curb and the modest little gardens that front the low brick two-families that are a staple of Bronx architecture -- seem so much lovelier than they would in the suburbs or the country, because they give solace and respite to souls conditioned to asphalt and concrete.  This time of year is more than usually evocative for me of other times passed in the city in which I lived most of my life, especially times passed in the largely-untrodden and -unsung regions of Brooklyn and the Bronx.

We went back to New York this weekend to go to a wedding.  The marriage was between two Portuguese-Americans, and the welcoming, relaxed warmth and ease of the bride and groom's families and wedding guests, as well as the fantastic music and food, gave both me and my non-Latin husband a sense of nostalgia for our old home town above and beyond that inspired by the beauty of the season.  I found myself thinking of Walt Whitman's great poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:

I too lived -- Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;           
I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan Island . . .

Walking those streets, one feels as if one has a purpose, as if one is working as part of a unified organism oriented toward a goal larger than oneself -- a feeling I do not have living in semi-suburban semi-isolation in the small city where I live now, a city where no one walks the streets except at the end of the day, and then either in jogging suits with arms pumping, or with dogs in tow.  There is nowhere really to walk to, after all, and no sense that you are walking along with others.  On the rare occasions when I pass someone else in my solitary perambulations, the other pedestrian, more often than not, will turn and look away.

But there are reasons we are here aside from the obvious one of my husband's work, I am sure of it, though I'm not entirely sure yet what they are.  Life has unfolded here in a way altogether different from the way it did for all those many years in New York, and, if it's lonelier, it's also been blessed by some incredible friendships with some fellow lady-bloggers and commenters. I attempted to write about the wonderful recent visit from New Zealand of Otepoti, who blogs at Reading for Believers, before my post was demolished when Blogger crashed earlier this month.  Then, just a couple of weeks ago, I had a delightful real-life visit from Mr. and Mrs. Darwin and their children as they drove through my patch of northern Appalachia on the way to see family in New York.  And finally, while in town for the wedding last weekend, I met Mrs. C of Adoptio, which was, for me, one of those rare experiences when you can almost palpably feel the presence of the Holy Spirit fluttering around you. 

Mrs. C is a lovely, graceful, accomplished woman, and also the rare sort of person who has a truly mature faith.  Because of her deep understanding of our faith - an understanding born, in part, of suffering - and because of her great love for Jesus Christ and His Church, she also has a heart full of compassion.  Believe me when I tell you that - as you may already know - these are rare gifts indeed, even (or perhaps especially) in orthodox Catholic circles.  I feel as if her friendship itself is a very generous gift.  And she is the one who introduced my husband and me to little Jude, who is in a Chinese orphanage awaiting adoption (another selfless gift on her part, and in which process we are currently waiting for fingerprint clearance from Homeland Security).  I have asked Mrs. C to be his godmother.

She and her husband flew to Texas yesterday, where they are awaiting the birth of their daughter.  Please pray with me that all will go well for them.  She is going to be an incredible mother.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bring the Wounded to the Church

[Project Rachel founder Vicki] Thorn said that the abortion debate “is so emotionally charged, not because it is a moral and philosophical debate, but because it is a heart experience. I believe that everyone knows someone who has had an abortion.

“We must always speak with gentleness and not condemnation, because it is our charge, as laid out by Pope Benedict XVI, to bring the wounded to the Church for healing.”