All Kinds of Music

Drawing/painting illo: Three ComposersIn my head, there is music. Mostly, it’s a rambling, meandering thing without much form or direction, just a little ditty that my subconscious seems to hum to itself along the journey of the day. Once in a while, it’s an earworm, some tune or phrase caught in the soundtrack of my brain and put on long-term Repeat because I heard it or remembered it recently and didn’t have another thing to replace it with soon enough. Often, when I’m drifting off to sleep or marking time while I wait for something to happen, there’s a sort of internal theme song of mine, a mere snippet of a melody that might be a simple part of a Bach invention or might just as well be something of my own invention inspired by Bach or some similar composer, a line that becomes more or less complicated, turns from something slightly Baroque to a more Classical seeming style for a bit and then becomes a very plain little row-your-boat kind of canon before returning to its silent corner to wait for my next moment of internal quiet. On rare occasions, there might be words attached or an obvious external source of whatever song seems to have sneaked and snaked its way into my frontal lobe for a lope or two around my one-track mind.

Yet I have not the gift of composition. When I think about it in a more determined and purposeful way, I have all sorts of ideas about how I would probably set a particular poem or story text of mine if I did have compositional skills, how I might voice the piece or what instrumentation I think would be just right for the words and ideas therein. But it would be helpful, if I really intended to do any such a thing, if I had the slightest notion whatsoever of music theory or how to read a score (let alone write one), of what certain instruments can and cannot do, and whether the human voice is actually capable of making the sounds that might be required of such a project.

I am ever so glad that there are composers in the world capable of carrying a musical idea to magnificent, magical fruition. I sincerely doubt that any of them would set any text, mine or another’s, in just the way that my moseying mind seems to believe it would—for good or ill—and that is the way the universe operates. Each of us has skill sets and desires and training and passions that make us better, or worse, fitted for the tasks and arts that we imagine to be useful or pleasurable, and each has limitations even on our own abilities to recognize where we will excel and when we might fall short. What a wonderful thing it is that, though I’m not a composer myself, there are excellent composers who can and will set my words to their own music, because after all, choral music is one of the most clearly collaborative of activities anyway.

What a wonderful thing it is that, though I will most likely never master bringing what rings inside my skull out of it in an intelligible way, let alone anything like the one I imagine in its internal incubator, somebody out there is busy penning loveliness and longing, drama and dreams, that will carry their music forth into the hearts, minds, and ears of a waiting world’s humming silence.

Under the Arches

I walk into the room after the rehearsal has begun, and the men are working on a slow passage of Handel. Choirs I and II sing the same tenor, baritone and bass parts at this part of the piece, and they have unified their pitch and the round warmth of their Latin vowels so that despite having only ten of them singing a relatively soft phrase, the sonority is beautifully intense and sweeps me into the room on an almost ecstatic wave.photoI sit and finally have a look around. The doctoral student assistant is conducting, and one of the voices raised is my husband’s, from where he’s joined Choir II. I close my eyes for just a moment to listen to the lilt and roll of the men’s voices.

When the women rejoin and the full ensemble begins to move forward, picking up speed and volume as the text becomes more buoyant, I feel myself lifted further on the waves, transported far from this concrete box of a room and its cold fluorescent lights.photoSuddenly I am under the morning light pouring through a cathedral’s oculus, gazing up into the curves of the arched nave and dome. I am pacing sedately through the arcade of a cloister, the afternoon sun warming my heels as it peers into the intervals between the pillars. I am in the garden, watching the sun set on the curled canes of the roses climbing there,the bows of the water leaping in the fountain, the draped arms of the willow as it leans out to embrace the day’s last rays of light.

This is the sweetness of music, and in this wash of light and dark, cool and warmth, joy and meditation I can gladly lie for a thousand years.photo

Musick has Charms

The charms of music can, indeed, soothe the savage breast–and it can bring the terrible savage right out of the calm breast just as well. It’s a power that few can resist, love the music or not; it gets under the skin and slides on into the soul. The marvels of music are not, as you know, unknown to me and yes, I have been both incited and soothed at various times by it.

But I haven’t lived the life of total immersion. That is, as are most fully engulfing passions, left to the titans of the art. Not necessarily people known and celebrated by a large and laudatory world, indeed, but those who, whether in that pop-culture celebrity way or from deep in the dark of the behind-scenes action or somewhere in between have shaped history in whatever bold or subtle way their particular art could do.

I said I was going to be a bit dark and Halloween-ish these days, but I was reminded that this day deserves a different kind of recognition, being a memorable date of another kind altogether: the birthday of one of those titans of musical arts aforementioned. So you get a break from my grimmer humors while I bow to a great musician and a lovely man.pen & ink drawing

My husband, you ask? No, I would surely call him both as well, but I refer just now to one of the musicians who helped pave the way for my spouse, inspires him in his work, and befriended him both professionally and personally in ways that made it more possible for my partner to be quite the accomplished musician and artist that he himself is. I’m talking about the man sometimes known as the godfather of Swedish choral music, Eric Ericson.

He is celebrated by far more than just his family and friends, more even than his numerous choirs’ members and his almost countless students, because he stood at the center of an almost unbelievable burst of musical art flowering in the little Scandinavian nation of his birth and spreading throughout and beyond Europe quite immediately after World War II, sooner than it should have happened by rights except that his own country remained neutral and mainly untouched by the physical depredations of the war, and enough so that a number of outstanding leaders in culture took refuge there during and after the war, creating a remarkable hothouse where those fertile minds could put their restless art to work, and often did so together.

He is celebrated also because, as one of the central figures in this new bloom of music, he helped to shape the whole modern state of choral music, both in the church and in secular circles, in Sweden and to foster its wide spread via his own work and travels, via that of his artistic and intellectual partners and rivals and colleagues, and especially via the many, many young musicians that between them they all trained and sent off into the wide world. Their collective influence, expanding at the virtual rate of plant cell division and sending tendrils around the globe, is a rich and vital gift that will long outlive them all.pen & ink drawing

Thankfully, Eric Ericson, for one, is going to give that theory a run for it, as he has attained more than ninety years already himself. And his artistic offspring will undoubtedly keep the music sounding and growing for a very long time too, and for that I am happy and grateful indeed. We who love choral music today owe him thanks.

With that, I will say that the gracious and generous kindness that he and his dear wife have shown on a personal level to both my husband and me makes me as glad as anything to think of him on this day with great admiration and fondness. I hope that every note I have seen him conduct, heard him play on the piano while conducting and discussing the finer points of music or listened to him hum under his breath as he recollected another bit of his own fascinating and incredibly complex history as a musician will linger in the atmosphere for many years yet to come, and that in turn, no matter where on that spectrum of artistic or intellectual accomplishment any one of the rest of us happens to perch, we too will make our own kind of music echo happily in the hearts of all those whose lives we touch.

Happy birthday, Eric Ericson, may the music you hear always soothe and delight you.pen & ink drawing

Here in Music-land

photoWhile our neighbors, housesitters, et al., languish in the rain and heat back home in north Texas, we are enjoying the gentle zephyrs of coastal breezes, California-fresh seafood, and the retro-rrific air of counterculture that still wafts about in the refined west coast air of Berkeley. More than that, we are reveling in the good company of my spouse’s musical compatriots: his Collegium Singers from the university, many longtime instrumentalist and singer and arts administrative friends from all over, and fellow enthusiasts attending the Berkeley Early Music Festival. The Collegium crew sang, appropriately, like angels in their concert this morning, performing the Victoria Requiem they’ve been refining with such jewel-like precision and sweetness that I wouldn’t be surprised if the dead had resurrected just to listen in, had it been a true funeral service. Instead it was exquisitely meditative and left me–and clearly, the rest of the audience–feeling newly alive.

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It’s lovely enough to be back on the Left Coast and greeted with such stellar weather, to have my first glimpses of Berkeley’s laid back, live-and-let-live pleasures as a city, and to be in yet another university town where the average walk down a street takes me past representatives of countless countries and cultures, avidly breaking down the latest puzzle of physics or chattily discoursing on the political influences on the contemporary literature emerging from central Africa. It’s a delight to see (yes, and eat) classic dishes from France, Thailand, India, and almost any other culinary heaven imaginable, all within a quarter mile’s stroll of each other in the heart of town. And it’s unspeakably fine to smell the familiar resinous breath of the redwoods, firs, pines and cedars, to see olive trees and palms and Strelitzia reginae and succulents cheek-by-jowl with purple rhododendrons and lawns full of tiny English daisies. California. It’s been a while.photo

The musical immersion is as marvelous as always at festivals and conferences devoted to the art: the rehearsals, the post-concert critiques and deconstructions among friends and colleagues, and hearing fabulous pieces old and new is so invigorating. Heard in concert this afternoon was a vocal-instrumental ensemble that included in its quintet a dear former student of my husband’s, as marvelous a person and musician as ever, and among the works the group performed that were new to me were a pair of certainly not new (ca. 13th century), stunning anonymous compositions from the Montpellier Codex that simply took my breath away. Everything old is new again. Not least of all my amazement at the beauty and variety of music out there in the depths of the melodic pool whose surface I’ve barely begun to skim.photo

The other charms of Berkeley are many, including some of the most outstanding examples of nineteenth century American architecture anywhere. We took a short side trip on our first day in town to stop in and see the superlative work of Julia Morgan, perhaps best known as the designer of Hearst Castle, that monument to extravagant American ego, but to my mind better represented by the Berkeley City Club, a more refined and slightly more restrained palace of culture originally meant to house and host the many women’s clubs of the city. Every inch of the place speaks of thoughtful attention to detail and the cultivation of gentility. Signs of Berkeley’s longtime perch on the front edge of tech development and IT culture are everywhere, too, from storefront displays of vintage technological hardware that seem remarkably antiquated and quaint for being relatively recent iterations of what we now consider so commonplace. The constancy of the city’s citizens in bucking any idea that feels imposed or compulsory is still seen in the posters plastering every flat surface to promote individual choice, dedication to intellectual pursuits and challenges to anything that smacks of dull pedantry or legalism.photo

There was much more marvelous music this evening and will be tomorrow. Today alone, there were concerts at 11 am, 2:30, 4 and 8 pm–with a Heinrich Schütz reading session led by my husband sandwiched in between. Oh, and lunch with another wonderful former student. I can certainly guarantee there will be plenty more enthusiastic eating, drinking, visiting, strolling and happy wool-gathering in the sun as we idle (or dash) along on the way to the next event. For now, a brief pictorial and a wish that everyone who loves music may have an opportunity to attend some such grand events in their own places and times.photo