Endless Sleep that Needs No Dreams

Cadence at Evening

Slow as the settling of the sun
Upon the western shore and lees
Where nightingales call from the trees,
Watching the honeyed daylight run—

Slow as the shifting motes of time
That sift and spin in lamp-lit rays,
Fall lazily to dust and haze
And love, ineffably sublime—

Slow as the sleeping breath when dreams
Have ceased, and thought receded to
The farthest corners, shaded blue
To inky black, to flow in streams—

Slow as the silently locked door
Was, to admit all at the last
Where wonder waits that, long held fast,
Now pulls us inward evermore—

Slow as the parting of that night
Which closes day with one last kiss,
Night languorous with hymns like this,
Draws us toward slowly growing light—photo

A Concert with a Wedding Attached

Seventeen years ago today I got married. And as all of you who have visited this blog with any regularity know, when I got together with the man who became my husband, spouse, best friend, partner and daily companion, I gained a world of music. Of course, music was a big part of my life already and distinctly a contributing factor in our getting together in the first place; I worked in the university art building, right next door to the music building, and spent plenty of quality time there going to concerts, meeting with friends and all of that sort of happy thing, and when the nice Director of Choral Activities asked me if I’d be willing to help spiff up the aging auditorium for the annual Christmas concert festivities I gladly said yes. That was only the first time I made banners for an occasion of collaborative fun with that nice DCA man. Less than eight months later I was making bunches of banners to fill up a church nave for our wedding.scanNo surprise that, since under friendly pressure from them we gave up on the attractive idea of eloping and just having a party with our family and friends on our return, we decided that the best alternative was to have a celebration with lots of music and just party all the way through the event. Turned out it was easy to do so.scanAssembling our wedding’s participants was easy-peasy. Relatives and friends from work, home life and church lined up and pitched in as planners, greeters, acolytes, reception hosts and much more. Clergy? Well, as the daughter of a bishop I didn’t have far to go to hunt up someone to marry us. The church’s lead pastor presided and Dad officiated, and a dear sweet retired pastor friend served as lector. Witnesses? Having three sisters, I had no problem lining up a team; Richard’s backup was easy to arrange as well: his sole brother, our mutual beloved friend Jim, and Richard’s colleague and partner in choral crime, also named Richard (Nance). Musicians were easiest of all for us to arrange, unsurprisingly.scanWe had an outstanding pickup choir of students and members of Richard’s choirs, past and present, and friend-colleagues playing horn and singing the processional solo. Jim, getting in some exercise during the service, was organist as well as standing up for us. That, as well as having helped us plan the whole service and choose its music, and set one of my texts to music for our congregational hymn. Richard N, besides joining the altar party, pitched in (no pun intended) musically as well, conducting the choir for us in a lovely collection of pieces capped by the premiere of the exquisite anthem he composed for the occasion (now a best seller for Walton Music!).scanYes, this is a brag post. Happily, all true.photoHappy Anniversary, my Love.

My Baroque Gesture

The first time I heard Early Music performed in period-appropriate style I experienced, not surprisingly I suppose, a full mixture of amusement, bemusement, mild horror and deep curiosity. It was in a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s seminal opera Orfeo at the English National Opera; I was a mere college stripling who had probably not even heard the phrase Early Music at the time let alone known what it might mean, and ‘performance practice’ was in something of a time of transition. Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang the title role with, if I remember properly, a rather nice overall sound, but a straight-tone and senza vibrato style and a strangely stuttering kind of ornamentation that might well have been an authentic recollection of the opera’s original character and an accurate and historically informed version of the way it would have been presented by its composer and first performers. I, having never been taught such things, merely heard sounds quite foreign not only to my ear but to my concept of skilled and artful performance, let alone prettiness. I do remember thinking that either this was all far over my head (entirely possible) or it was a pointless and poor imitation of what the ENO imagined the average amateurish opera company of Monteverdi’s day must have been capable of doing (less likely), or poor Mr. Johnson, who later went on to receive his OBE, just plain wasn’t up to the job despite a naturally pleasant voice.

Years later, I may not be much smarter than the young squirt of those days, but I’m far more experienced and have heard worlds more music, both the great and the terrible and, of course, a massive quantity in between. And I’ve been taught a thing or two about the fine points of what is beautiful and magical when it comes to singing or playing with any amount of vibrato–or none–and the many elements that combine to create tone and color and variety and character in a performance. I’ve learned some useful stuff that changes how I perceive both the level of virtuosity in playing or singing and its aesthetic appeal, two aspects that do not always coincide in my ear, mind and heart but when they do, that combine to create a kind of joy that is virtually unattainable in any other way.

When my husband conducted a production of Orfeo over a quarter century after the first one I’d heard, I had a whole different understanding and appreciation for what the many performers were doing and why the stage director would expect them to do so both from a visual standpoint–training them, along with other coaches, in appropriate ways of moving and posing and gesturing as well as in those of vocal ornamentation, since she is a superb and well-trained Early Music singer herself–and an historically suited musical one. Just as there are countless styles and types of music known to us nowadays, which you can multiply by the number of individual teachers, performers and audience members to get a rough sense of the variety you’ll encounter, there were historical strictures and structures and stylistic trends and ideas that shaped earlier generations (centuries) of music and musicians and listeners, and while some have perhaps remained relatively unchanged since their inception, many more evolved over the ages. Our expectations of music have certainly changed, and our guesses as to how it was first conceived and perceived are only as good as the lines of scholarly inquiry and oral tradition can attempt to make them.

In all, it makes rich fodder indeed for both the ear and the imagination, and I for one am mightily pleased that I have had the opportunity to live a life immersed in all kinds of music and to learn along the way. I still like much of what I heard, whether ignorantly or not, in my younger days, and much of what I like now I learned to love along the way. While my form may be far from historically accurate or artistically impressive, I will still happily bow and curtsey to all the musicians who have shared their gifts with me in my life, and to all of those who work and are inspired to play more, to sing onward.graphite drawing

Good Conduct Medal

graphite sketchesEvery season of music has its marvels, masters and moments. In my life of following a conductor and his fellow artists around, I am privileged to be on hand for more such fine pleasures than most, and I never forget that this is a great bit of good fortune indeed.

Still, not every instant is guaranteed to be a glowing example of the highest and best of the musical arts. After all, there is all of the practice that must come first, and to be fair, no amount of practice can assure us of perfection. Mistakes happen; if  we’re lucky, learning happens as a result. But the distance between first-try and performance may be a long one indeed, and sometimes the distance isn’t quite long enough.

So I am grateful all the more when I attend a performance and hear something magical and meaningful and magnificent. I know that it took the performers a lot of concerted effort to come from wherever they started the process to this peak, and I am all the happier and richer for it. I know and appreciate, too, that it takes massive amounts of effort and energy and other resources on the part of organizers, managers, fans, logistics handlers, boards, angels, financiers, educators, ushers, ticket dealers, audience members, and all of those other assorted friends of the arts needed to make this work pay off in any way beyond the artists’ own satisfaction in the process, and that’s yet another level, another realm of generosity entirely that makes my little spot in the aural universe fuller.graphite sketches

Most of all I give my fervent thanks to all of the singers, players and conductors who strive to make this miracle happen again and again. Without your dedicated pursuit of the musical muse, there would be no such happy task for all of the friends of music who are not musicians ourselves. And unquestionably, the world would be a far less beautiful place.graphite drawing

You Phony, I Thought You Said You Understood Euphony

digital artwork from a photographAfter Oktoberfest, Paying the Piper

There was a player of the horn who made it so euphonious

That every creature ever born was drawn to hear him play,

Until one sad, hung-over morn, its noise was deemed felonious

And all his beer-braised friends, forlorn, plugged ears and ran away.

The sweet euphonium was heard no more in that green-wooded land–

The deer and nightingale ne’er stirred, and Prost! rang out no more–

His fellow players, quite deterred, closed up their merry oompah band

Like some cage-covered myna bird, and silent, hid full sore.

What have we learned from this sad tale, so stricken, deleterious

And dark as Death’s bleak lowest vale, wherein musick’s so frowned

Upon the hornist sought a gale of storm and rain delirious

And in the deluge, shaking, pale, turn up his horn and drowned?

The moral, though you might just miss it, e’er so hard ye strive to think:

‘Tis sadder to have died like this than surfeited of hoppy drink.

So, prithee, play all on your trumpets, flutes, euphoniums–be not shy–

But keep them quiet, knaves and strumpets, post-drink mornings, lest ye die.digital artwork from a photograph

‘Twixt Heaven and Hell

graphite & pastel drawingMuch of the repertoire categorized as Early Music by us modern folk was, whether religious or secular in nature, directly connected with the ideas of Heaven and Hell. Not surprisingly, a great many of these songs used love–doomed or newly married, joyful or unrequited, chaste or wildly earthy, or whatever brand was of interest in the moment–as the vehicle for exploring the concepts of Heaven and Hell. We are only able to conceive of and interpret any grand philosophy or construct through the lens of the familiar, and best so, through what excites our attention and preoccupies our waking hours. Love, in all of its myriad aspects, is a logical choice indeed for such explorations.

The programs sung and played thus far this week at Berkeley have been unsurprisingly full of love, lust, longing and loneliness and all of their cousinly affections, then. I had to laugh when a humorous piece contrasting Heaven and Hell included text and visual references in the performance that made Hell seem remarkably likely to be just another name for Texas, but that’s merely a reflection of this same recognition factor that makes songs of love such a universal language, so globally appealing.The whole festival this week is in itself a fine microcosm and affirmation of this communal language, created by not only the sharing of these great and even the not-so-great pieces of music, but also richly by the sharing of our common interest in music and the arts and the newly fledged acquaintances and enriched relationships that come from our all crossing paths in this event, by coming together as it were to sing the same song and revisit our sense of love and its wonders.

Now, let the players and singers strike up another chord!

Perfectly Imperfect in Every Way

In a comment on my gardening post last week, Ted reminded me of the inimitable Mary Poppins, and I was in turn moved to recollect her frank self-description as ‘Practically Perfect in Every Way‘. In the case of that charming fictional character, it was simply and inarguably the truth. The rest of us, mere mortals, can’t quite go that far if we’re honest.

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Saints Cury, Cecilia & Goar. I selected these for portraiture in this modern-medievalist piece because of very earthly interests: Cury is one of my birthday saints and famed mainly for his 'miraculous' hospitality; Cecilia is the patron of musicians (for my husband, of course) and even sometimes purported to be the inventor of the pipe organ; Goar's feast day is celebrated on our anniversary and he, sometimes portrayed as a potter, was thus also an artist. He also happens to have a lovely little town on the Rhine named after him. There *can* be perks to being a saint, even a minor one, apparently . . .

Which is why I like saints. It’s doubtful I’d really enjoy meeting them in person, to be precise: it’s the nature, the character of them, that really fascinates me. Because, as I understand it, what separates the saints from the rest of us ordinary slouches is not that they were born or made saints but that they became saints by rising above the ordinary way they began. Unlike superheroes and the majority of fairytale protagonists, it’s not often a transformation that’s accomplished by the wave of a wand or inadvertent exposure to radioactive substances, but rather is brought about by internal change and will and choice.

There is hope for me in the idea that most saints–and I gather this is true of the heroines and heroes of many significant belief systems, along with many of the major religions–start out as plain, simple, unimpressive and very mortal humans and for one reason or another are moved to do the things they do that gradually re-shape them into extraordinary beings. Some of those avatars, indeed, start out as pretty sketchy characters, if not outright jerks, despots, and other first-rank varieties of meanies. It’s the process, the journey, and the ultimate commitment to do and be something else that makes them extraordinary.

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Saint Monica could be the perfect example of overcoming obstacles--much of her sainthood was earned just through working to see that her ne'er-do-well son shaped up, the outstanding troublemaker who eventually reformed enough to become himself Saint Augustine of Hippo. Apparently her efforts did not go unrewarded . . .

Chances are beyond-excellent that I will never become a saint of any sort. But the real hope and inspiration in the lives of heroes, saints and exemplars is that nearly all of them began their lives as someone or something far less extraordinary than the way they ended them, and if so there’s always a possibility that with a little thoughtful effort I might actually improve along the way too. Don’t hold your breath, but I might just turn out slightly better than expected. Apparently, miracles do happen.

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Saints Valery (a French abbot) and Finian (an Irish bishop)--hereafter known as the Feastie Boys since they're also among my birthday saints. They remind me as well that one can come from different places, times, backgrounds and any number of unique circumstances and rise beyond them all to distinctive heights . . .

The Sun Always Returns to the Sky

digitally doctored acrylic painting on canvasThis week that is far from a fatuous statement, even from a happy-go-lucky bit of fluff like me. I am always well aware that my life is, was and (I hope) ever shall be a dance party, a dessert buffet and a self-indulgent lounge-by-the-pool compared to most others’ lives. I am grateful to be such a spoiled, blessed or insulated–depending upon your definition; I would admit to all of them in vast quantities–person and like to think that I would never take such wealth for granted.

There are always sharp reminders for me in the family, friends and friends-of-friends who are doing valiant daily battle just to be alive, and if able, to maintain a modicum of quality and dignity in that life, when they are the unwilling hosts of those unwelcome shadow companions of chronic illness–physical, mental, and/or spiritual. I do wish that there were some magic wand I could wave that would miraculously lift away all of those torments and remove the dense dark clouds of them forever, from all people. That is simply a dream, and I know it. But this week I have particular reminders quite close by, and in many ways, of how fortunate I am, and yet also how resilient and remarkable the people and the world around me are as well.

I mentioned yesterday’s storms: the tornadoes that shredded roofs, trees, tractor-trailer trucks and neighborhoods as though they were so much tissue paper. The hail that shattered shelters and windows and destroyed crops. The rain that immersed the already open wounds of the storm-beaten regions in additional water damage. And of course the early high temperatures in the area that will contribute to faster decay and more difficult cleanup and repair work to follow. And not one little iota of the damaging aspects of that touched our home or us personally. Even my tiniest dainty garden sprouts are still thrusting their green leaves upward today. In brilliant sun.

As oversized as All Things Texan can be, the moods of the weather at its wildest are for the most part quickly forgotten by the broad Texas sky, which today is intensely blue and dotted with the mildest of cotton-wool clouds and polished with blazing warm sunlight. The trees, following a light pruning by the winds that mainly took off deadwood and weak twigs in our neighborhood, are lifting their green crowns in thirst-quenched pleasure once more. Barring nuclear winter, it seems that the sun in north Texas always tends to return rather quickly after the darkest and angriest of nights.digital painting of acrylic painting on paper

The thunderclap that affected me more directly this week was not from the stormy skies of a tornado system but via a telephone call from ‘home’: Mom’s recovery from her pair of spinal fusion surgeries hit a serious setback. Her pelvis cracked in a stress fracture. What does it mean? Many more weeks of immobility and pain for someone who has already endured years of it. Another surgery–tomorrow–for the installation of yet more hardware to stabilize her fragile frame. Total bed-rest for what must seem an eon to someone who has been a virtual shut-in for a long time, the woman famous for a lifetime of being out and about taking care of all the rest of the world before her stenosis, scoliosis, Parkinson’s, and joint inflammation all combined to beat her into submission. But whose telephone calls have never ceased to be mainly aimed at reassuring those around her that she maintains her love and concern for themus–and is bracing for whatever the next phase of her fight brings. I hang up from the call and rather than going to pieces in sadness, frustration and anger over the cruelties that her health has dealt her incessantly in these last years, I am weirdly comforted that her doctors are keeping a close eye on her and have a plan for dealing with the current circumstances; that she and my father are, however nervously it may be, committed to seeing through yet another surgery and recovery process; that my sisters and relatives living nearby are keeping a close eye on them and my aunt yet again stepping in willingly to assist with Mom’s care. And that across the world we have a collective host of family and friends who are all cheering them on, willing her well, hoping and supporting in the one way that we can when we are not physically on hand or trained surgeons either one.

In the midst of all of this, the choir-conducting member of my household has the particular and specially challenging time of year that so many western musicians find mighty intense: Holy Week. Never mind that my spouse is in rehearsals for several major upcoming concerts with his and other groups at the university: yesterday afternoon he had rehearsal at 2 pm for next week’s concert with his Collegium Singers (early music choir) that will join them with the university’s Baroque Orchestra, so at the end of that rehearsal he went straight to conduct the orchestra’s rehearsal; when that one finished at 6 pm, he dashed straight over to conduct a rehearsal of the Grand Chorus, which is a combination of his Chamber Choir and Dr. Jerry McCoy’s A Cappella Choir for a major concert on the 25th of this month. Amazingly, he still made it (just) in time to meet me at 8 pm to attend A Cappella’s own concert with Dr. McCoy.

And, oh yes, I was talking about Holy Week. Because of course as my husband is still the interim choirmaster at the Anglican church, he had last weekend’s Palm Sunday services (and Evensong) to conduct, tonight’s Tenebrae service (a ‘service of darkness’ that may have special meaning for many after yesterday’s intense weather slamming the region), tomorrow’s Maundy Thursday evening service, these all interwoven with the usual things musical and administrative continuing at the university; midday and evening services on Good Friday, Easter Vigil to fill with music on Saturday evening, and Sunday morning Easter services. And all the while, day becomes night, night passes, and the sun takes over the Texas sky once more. That’s how it goes.

I merely follow in the wake of all these events and life dramas, taking up the slack in the sails of our little boat as I’m able, and keeping us provisioned with food, clean clothes (keep plenty of black shirts laundered for concerts and services!), and my numerous and sundry checklists of what to do, where to go when, and things we mustn’t forget to bring along. It makes me tired to think of doing what everyone else around me is doing; I’m just glad if I can keep fairly close as I follow them. But I suppose I’m just a little bit like the elephant-following sweeper who is reluctant to ‘leave show-business’, as I wouldn’t trade this Job, however modest it may appear, for anything else on earth. Because the sun, when it shines on me, is so incredibly life-affirming and bright and joyful that I can’t say no to its urgings to come out of the dark and Do things, however small they may be.digital + mixed media

The Very Music of the Air

My husband’s parents are longtime travelers and music lovers. In addition to being their son’s chief cheerleaders and supporters in his musical career from the beginning, they have always enjoyed listening to all sorts of other music, particularly jazz, and in that, particularly big band and swing music. They love live music and have gone many times on road trips to various jazz festivals over the years, and Mom called this afternoon with an enthusiastic review of their just-completed trip down to the Newport Jazz Festival. They don’t do any of this by halves: it’s a serious pack up the car and leave home expedition for these two, in this case a drive from east of Seattle where they live on south down the Washington corridor to Astoria (just over the Oregon border) to meet a couple of good friends at a restaurant before they trek their last couple of hours down the coast to Newport, Oregon where they stay for the festival. They attend a number of concerts and events every time, and this time opted for the additional festival closing candlelight dinner with its own live music. And of course, being Mom and Dad, they also took a couple of side trips to see an old friend (possibly younger than they are) who doesn’t get around as much, and to go a bit farther down the coast for an extra stay in a seashore place they love. And the centerpiece of the trip is, on these expeditions, certainly still the music–they take such contagious joy in the variety of performers and styles and pieces and concerts they hear each time and, I think, are fueled by them with a bit of a new lease on life each time too. Music does do that to us, as I might have mentioned once or twice in these posts . . .

digital drawing imageI think of all the lives that have been changed by music–and the music-makers who have changed the lives of us listeners who get to experience it–and am astounded yet again by the potency of this communal experience. What would it be like to [shudder!] have a world with no composers, no violinists, no Dave Grusin, no African drummers, no klezmer bands, no Ray Charles, no Elly Ameling, no Chinese opera, no Eric Clapton, no mariachi, no Baroque oboists, no ZZ Top, no reggae, ska or zydeco music, no Ella Fitzgerald, no oud or sitar, no Jussi Björling? An unimaginably dark place, that world, if you ask me!digital drawing imageI’m always immensely pleased to hear Mom and Dad have had another marvelous time out exploring and savoring the countryside. Of course there’s the simple delight in knowing they’re happy. But besides that, through these adventures of theirs they keep up with an enormous cadre of family and friends all over the country, take interest in a mind-boggling range of cultural and historical sites and sights along the way, admire the breathtaking breadth of the American landscape and its ever-changing character, meet and adopt fascinating people everywhere they go, dine at whatever local favorite watering-hole captures their imaginations, and come home to tell the tale and renew our interests in such things–either over the phone or, if we’re lucky enough to all be in the same part of the country at the same time, over dinner.

So much of this started in part as a response to their love of music and the pull it has to bring them across this sprawling land. I think of the composers, music theoreticians, and other artists and philosophers worldwide and over the years who have posited a cosmic musical scale, heard music in the ambient overtones of the atmosphere in which we exist, and built art and ideas around that in ways the speak to the inherent musicality of our existence. It’s entirely possible to conceive of the existence of something that very literally attunes us to one another and to the universe in which we exist, that urges us irresistibly to live in harmony somehow.

digital drawing imageWhether there is some quantifiable and empirical way of knowing and understanding this, I as a non-musician and madly un-scientific person can’t tell you fully. What I do know is that there is something so inherently compelling in music that almost all of us are drawn to its power in one form or another. And that there is plenty of good reason for us to attempt harmonious living of whatever kind we can, and if there is no other way to achieve such things I think that in music might very well lie the key to doing so.