Saturday, January 24, 2015

Music and Memory, Part 32: Piano Karma

Back when we were struggling singers in New York, my friend Soprannie once mused that everyone -- at least everyone in our station in life -- had piano karma, a principle whereby, when it is ordained that you should own a piano, a piano comes your way. This principle was necessarily tinged with both superstition and fatalism, because it is nearly impossible for a struggling singer to acquire a piano, even a crappy one, in New York. But Soprannie had a piano, obtained under mysterious circumstances. And then one day, my own piano karma came up. An older, richer colleague -- a formidable coloratura soprano who had created the role of Madame Mao in John Adams's opera Nixon in China -- was getting a Steinway, and she offloaded her battered Ivers and Pond console onto me for pocket change.
(Trudy Ellen Craney, offloader of my karmic piano, as Madame Mao in Nixon in China. She enters during the ballet scene at 2:27.)

I was entirely grateful for what seemed like a gift from the fates. The piano had no overtones. When it went out of tune, the upper register would go sharp, and the lower register would go flat. Certain notes stuck, others didn't sound, and still others would reverberate on and on even if you weren't holding down the pedal. It had a crack in the soundboard. Nonetheless, it was a piano: a huge step up both in sound-making capacity and in prestige from the three-quarters-size keyboard that I'd had for years, and on which I'd learned all my repertoire. When we moved away from New York, the Ivers and Pond moved with us, over my husband's half-hearted objections. "It's a piano," I reminded him. In fact, the piano was my prize possession. By chance, a friend of mine from graduate school, an academic musicologist, was already living here in northern Appalachia, and was teaching a course in American minimalism -- the music of John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass -- at the local university. I told him that he should bring his students over to my house to see the piano upon which Trudy Ellen Craney had prepared the role of Madame Mao in Nixon in China.

The other day my piano tuner called. There was a piano in the area that he thought would be a good piano for me. It was a Kimball console in mint condition. I should go and take a look at it. 

I should note here that, while in New York City a cheap piano can't be gotten for love or money, northern Appalachia abounds in them. People are always getting rid of pianos here. I suppose it's because people die, people move, people go into assisted living; this is the kind of place that has an aging population, because young people with talent and ability leave here for places that have jobs. Pianos are a casualty of this migration, and also of the gradual movement away from the practice of making actual music on real instruments, so small pianos seem to be widely available in this area at prices that would be considered shocking in New York.

I went to look at the piano. It was a lovely little console, about the size of my karmic Ivers and Pond, but in much better condition, with a nice solid action. Evidently it had been rarely played. Kimball was at one time the biggest piano manufacturer in the world; there were Kimballs in many of my elementary-school music classrooms, as well as in the practice rooms I haunted as an undergraduate, but those markets are dominated now by Japanese makers. The Kimball's owner, a former band instructor, was in assisted living, and his brother was sorting out his possessions. The brother was a kind man, well into his eighties himself. His father, unbelievably, had been born in 1868, and had been an engineer on the Lehigh Valley Railroad. We had a lovely chat, I played the Kimball and sang a little, and he gave me the piano for free.

The new, free piano was moved in the other day, and my old Ivers and Pond moved out. The mover was a gruff man, who said in an accusatory way, "I don't know why you're getting a Kimball. You can't get rid of them. They're crap." I blanched for a moment, but I said goodbye to my old karmic piano, the instrument on which a great artist had learned a role that she created in a great and groundbreaking work of art.  I imagine that Trudy Ellen Craney had brought the Ivers and Pond from her childhood home in New Jersey to her loft in SoHo; it was that kind of piano, a family piano. Our old voice teacher, who lived in Washington, D.C., used to give lessons at Trudy's loft when she was in town, so, besides being a tool in the furtherance of a great work of art, that piano had accompanied a lot of other great singing besides (I do not mean my own; our teacher had some really fantastic students). I had had the Ivers and Pond for fifteen years, and it had taken me through a new stage in my career -- when I transitioned out of opera and into the concert performances that grew out of my archival research into rare repertoires -- and into new stages in my life as a graduate student, wife, and mother. My older son had recently begun playing it. 

I wanted to sing "Vecchia zimarra" to it, but there wasn't time. I wonder where it will go; to a church basement or a VFW hall, perhaps. And no one will ever know the part it played in the creation of a great opera, nor in the hidden joys and sorrows of the lives of a few struggling artists.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thickening the Culture

I know. I haven't posted here in ages. I'm really too busy to keep up this blog right now. Homeschooling has been hugely time-consuming, and I have to get the first draft of my book to the publisher within the next very few months. Besides, though my thoughts are often scintillating to me, I doubt that they would be to you. And no one has time to read blogs anymore, right? Where we once all connected, we've gravitated to Facebook instead, which takes so much less thought and deliberation.

I am guilty of of this too. I read blogs very rarely these days, even those written by my friends. I just don't have the time. I get up at five a.m. to try to do a little bit of research and reading before the day begins, and, once it does, I'm rarely sitting down, unless it's to drive somewhere. (Which means, come to think of it, that I'm actually sitting down quite a lot, since I seem to have become some sort of simulacrum of a suburban housewife, constantly driving to places that neither promise nor supply either satisfaction or rest.)

But I did read Melanie's thought-provoking post the other day, and have been turning it over in my mind. Melanie notes the movement among Catholic mothers -- or at least those who have an online presence -- to revive lost traditions. In the end, she finds herself mourning the loss of a "thick" Catholic culture (a term I love), one that draws American Catholics together in shared celebration, fellowship, and purpose:

We create ersatz holidays that have passing reference to the farmer’s world, we yearn to be connected to the seasons in a liturgical way, but most of us are grasping at straws, we have no idea really what we’re yearning for . . . . We have in our day no harvest feasts or mystery plays, no Michaelmas goose to share with out neighbors. But let us… Let us what? Let us be received? Certainly we are received at Mass, but is that enough? Time and time again I hear that it isn’t. It’s not enough to live the faith on Sundays, it must permeate our lives. And we try, we Catholic mommy bloggers. We try to revive an authentic Catholic culture in our domestic churches. But it seems to me we must do more. We must somehow make these traditions live outside the four walls of our homes, we must make our parishes as well as our homes the seats of authentic Catholic culture 

This is a real cri-de-coeur, to which I unite my own. How does one do this? How do we re-create what has been lost? Melanie suggests that we go outside of our homes, that we make common cause with other people in real life. But will we?

I started this blog in 2007, and the very next year we moved from New York City, where I imagined I'd always live, to northern Appalachia. The difference between the two places, in social customs and much else, is hard to overstate. When you live in a walking-around city, you make friends. When you're shut up in the private realm of your own automobile, you don't.

I assumed that, in a new place, I'd always make friends at church.  But I didn't. There is a vibrant community of orthodox Catholic mothers here, but they did not invite me in; I was so different that i might as well have moved here from Mars. When I received my doctorate and posted a picture of myself in my cap and gown on Facebook (at Lincoln Center, no less,  where my university holds Commencement), one of the mothers in this group said to me, "I didn't know you were still in school," evidently a shocking and bad thing for someone of my station. As a matter of fact, it was only this fall, six years into our sojourn here, that I was invited to one of this mothers' group's weekly meetings, and it was only because someone had gotten wind that I was homeschooling; I would never have been invited in if I had kept my older son in public school, evidently (I declined -- not because I'm too proud, but because it seemed futile).
(This is an actual real-life picture of me, a first for this blog. Did you know that when you get an advanced degree in music, your hood is pink, and your gown has pink trim?)

I'm convinced, sadly, that syncretizing a newly-vibrant Catholic culture out of recipes and crafts cobbled together from Pinterest and other mothers' blogs is destined to fail, or at least to fail to "thicken," and that the main reason for this is that we are all doing it in our own homes with our own children, and then posting about it on the internet. In short, we are not going out to meet each other -- not even in church, much less in the street. And if we don't meet each other, we can't invite each other over. We are not breaking down barriers; we are, in fact, raising them a little higher with our lovely photos of what we've accomplished and you can too! But comboxes do not make a community, and those crafts, no matter how lovely, are not a substitute for traditions and lore passed down from generation to generation.

I was particularly touched by Melanie's mention of making challah from a recipe of her husband's great-grandmother. I have often felt wistful about Jewish culture, which, in some ways, is the original "thick" culture. Jews -- at least religiously observant Jews -- have a shared sense of purpose and fellowship. They have jokes. They have excellent liturgical music. I used to sing the High Holy Days services in an eight-voice choir at a well-heeled synagogue near the U.N., attended by many diplomats, and the music we sang truly imparted to me, as a performer, a powerful sense of God's wonder and awe. That hasn't ever exactly happened to me at church. At synagogue, the elders fuss over the youngsters, and help guide them in the faith and inculcate in them a shared sense of cultural and spiritual endeavor. Some oof the ultra-Orthodox, like the Chabad Lubavitchers, have what can only be called a cult of joy. I had a Lubavitcher student back in New York who used to play at all the big Hasidic weddings in Brooklyn -- he was a jazz drummer -- and he often invited me to attend them. I didn't feel comfortable crashing, especially as an outsider, but I longed to witness the ecstatic music and dancing I had heard about. Joy! And what do we have? Well, if it's joy, I haven't tasted it, at least not in our culture or our so-called fellowship, in our music, in our gatherings, or in the ways that we deal with one another at Mass or outside of it. The Catholics here are cold, cold, cold.

I do not know if it's the same elsewhere. I've heard that midwestern Catholic churches are legendary for their outreach and hospitality; certainly the Protestants have that all over us, too. A few years ago there were some faint stirrings of a new Catholic agrarian-localist movement, inspired by the writings of people like Eric Brende and the briefly-Catholic Rod Dreher; but I don't know anyone who attempted such a lifestyle or whether it worked out for them.

I think in the end one has to assess the place where one finds oneself, and try to push into it, to knead it a little -- indeed, to thicken it with one's own flesh-and-blood actions. How do we do this? I don't know, but I suppose each in her own way, utilizing her own gifts. I think we have got to get out from behind our screens and do something in our communities, however small. I think of this often in my car as I drive around my down-at-heels new city (though it's not so new now), looking out at the depressed and impoverished pedestrians walking for necessity, not for joy, against the bleak landscape. Sometimes, at those moments, I find myself chanting aloud: "Make the desert bloom! Make the desert bloom!" I'm quite sure we are called to do this, though I'm not quite sure how.