The Hook

What grabs me by the imagination and won’t let go? Practically anything, depending upon the time and my mood and a few other factors. Frequently, it’s simple visual attraction. Ooh, shiny! (Rusty! Unfamiliar! Pretty!) I am nothing if not shallow and superficial.photoOften, though, I will give myself credit for going beyond the surface in my examination of the objects of my attention-if-not-attraction because I become genuinely interested to know the who what when where how and why of them. In this, too, I may be simplistic and not wish to make a research project out of every thing that catches my eye or piques my interest. It’s safe to assume that not only will much of that information ultimately prove to be above my pay grade and beyond my ken, but other than generalizations and suitably dumbed down explanations I will have little use for the storehouse of data hidden behind every shiny object, the masses of wisdom contained in each moment’s distracting find.photoStill, like the musical phrase that wiggles its way into my subconscious as I pass by a practice room, leaving me wondering hours later why a passage from Lieutenant Kijé‘s signature theme popped into my head as I passed a group of three oranges at the grocery store, the associative and evocative qualities that serve as the hook to snag my mind will never cease to amaze, amuse and ensnare me with their alluring and mysterious delights.

DIY Weddings are Easy When . . .

. . . you have a world of friendly resources at your beck and call. So, technically, it’s not DIY at all of course but rather Così fan tutte. [Ed: roughly translated, ‘Everybody’s doing it’.] It’s not, even then, for the faint of heart, because let’s face it, unless you’re having the always admirable super short, informal adventure of standing in front of a Justice of the Peace or of surprising your immediate family in the middle of dessert one weekend with a five-minute ceremony, there are a host of details that might need to be given eventual consideration. Beyond simply making sure that the two people who are getting married actually show up at the same time in the same place, there are a handful of legal elements that generally should be taken care of before the event, if it’s to have any official standing. And from there, the possibilities expand exponentially. I suppose it’s not wholly shocking that the process might lead to the development of a few dysfunctional bumps and bruises among family, friends and support staff along the way.photoBut I hate confrontation and stress, and the very idea of becoming such a parody-inspiring Marriage Monster appalls me. And when we decided to marry, I don’t doubt it occurred to me that my intended, Richard, might equally abhor the idea of a painful process and wedding day. So we were both very happy to treat the whole thing something like an elaborate concert performance, perhaps a cheery semi-staged operetta, and to act as artistic directors and performers, yes, but also to let a great slew of friends, relatives and acquaintances carry out as much of the heavy lifting as possible along the way. After all, though we intended to have a good time and hoped everyone else would too, the real point of the occasion was that at the end of the day we would be more married than we were at the beginning of it.

Being a visual artist, I had no shortage of ideas about how I wanted various things to look, from invitations and service bulletins and guest books to the floral arrangements, wedding party dress and church decor, to the tables and food at the reception. And I had pretty extravagant ideas, at that. But I didn’t have a huge quantity of money to invest in it (nor did my parents) and I deeply dislike the idea of spending ghastly sums on a single event that, while important and hopefully happily memorable, is still only one actual day of life. What, I should spend my life savings on a single party?

That’s where one’s personal fortune in community has so much more than monetary value, though I’ll readily grant you that ours, in sharing their talents and efforts with us for the occasion, saved us a ton of money. We married in the church across the street from the university where we both worked, since not only were we members there but it was so handily located for so many of our friends, students and colleagues who were also part of the university community. I had a fairly easy time imagining how to use and decorate the church, since a few years previously, I’d served on the committee that oversaw a massive renovation of the space, taking part in all elements of the design from seating arrangement to finishes, and designing the new altar, font, pulpit, rail, crosses and incidental furnishings that were built for it.photoSo I opted to fill the space with a different kind of design, making a couple dozen banners to hang on walls, fly from the light boxes in the ceilings, display on stands in the narthex and chancel, and be carried in procession by fine young friends strolling in en route (to light candles) and out (to the reception hall) along with the wedding party. Already a banner maker for church and event commissions, I had lots of material and experience, so I sewed, painted and otherwise assembled the banners myself (from the flying ones at about 36 inches in length to the main chancel banner that was about 26 feet), and I got good help with putting together the stands and hanging mechanisms and installing them all at the last minute when we could get into the nave to do the work.photo montageThat’s a constant with weddings and parties in all sorts of venues other than Home: no access for prep and installation and other setup work until the last minute. So because I am a control freak, a design nut and also someone who really wanted to just have fun and enjoy my actual wedding day, I plotted and planned and prepped everything I could, along with my Intended and a slew of family, friends and other helpful conspirators. First, of course, it was essential to get all the actors on board and ‘synchronize our watches’, since it’s a busy crew and driven by a multitude of crazy calendar iterations. Once that was established, the work of service and reception planning commenced.

The earliest necessity, since I didn’t want predictable or expensive floral arrangements but love flowers, was to plant and tend flowers in Mom’s garden and that of our good friend Claudia, next door to her. By the time our July wedding rolled around, I had gathered the ribbon and wire and other essentials and been offered by the lovely Linda, a friend who was chief florist for the university’s official events, that if I handed over the materials she would provide us with her gorgeous bouquets and boutonnieres and corsages for all and sundry, so all I needed to do at the last minute was go a-gathering in their yards with my two beloved garden-gnome ladies and then give buckets full of fresh beauty to Linda on the day.

Meanwhile, much brainstorming and list-making was underway with the able assistance of others, so that everything essential would be pre-arranged too and not worrisome. All of the print materials derived from a combination of my photos of iris leaves, text typeset by one of my sisters in fonts I’d chosen, getting printing done by the local quick printers (with whom I’d done many work projects) on their green ink printing day of the week and then doing all of the black ink stuff on copiers and folding/collating things myself while I was calligraphing the invitation envelopes, closing them with an inexpensive gold seal and a swash of purply interference paint and a rubber stamp message noting that the music would begin a full half hour before the service. We did, after all, know that there would be lots of my fiance’s fellow musicians both participating and attending.

Clergy? That was about the easiest part to decide, since as a cleric’s daughter I could just tap Dad. So the church’s lead pastor presided, Dad officiated, and a sweet retired pastor friend served as lector. Since Dad was robing up for the pastoral gig, I decided to have one of my uncles sashay down the aisle with me, and he kindly acquiesced to my request for an escort. Our organist, our great friend Jim, was also standing up for us, so he did a bit of trotting up and down the aisle, but in great Jim style. As one of four sisters, I had the easiest time choosing three attendants, but it was simple for my groom to line up the perfect support team, too, between his one brother and Jim and another of our close friends who happened to be Richard’s choral conducting partner at the university as well. Friends from various places rounded out the team, serving as greeters, acolytes, and our wonderfully hospitable reception hosts. One of our brothers in law was chief photographer, taking a batch of group wedding party photos just before the church began to fill, and all of the rest of the pictures came from a combination of photos friends sent us and the box full of disposable cameras we’d distributed on the reception tables and collected for development at the end of the day. This proved a serendipity because it both gave us some fun candids from the kids’ point of view and kept some of the younger partiers entertained during the reception as well.

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I designed and made stoles for Dad and the presiding minister, too.

My sisters readily agreed to help pick out simple black dresses they’d actually have a hope of wanting to wear again later, and we managed to find a great deal on them and choose a design that, happily, was made of a very stretchy fabric, since it turned out that one sister was curvaceously pregnant by the time our wedding day rolled around (no pun intended). I sewed a violet voile shawl edged in emerald green for each of them, and a scarf of the same to tie back my hair rather than having a veil, something that would anyway have looked a bit odd since I didn’t want to wear a white gown. Besides that I tend to look a little too much like a corpse when wearing white, I too wanted to have a dress with reuse potential, especially if I was investing a couple hundred dollars in all of the fabrics, so I made my shawl from iridescent emerald voile, the same fabric that I lined with dark emerald taffeta for the body of my skirt and bodice. The bodice, made in a sort of weskit shape, I stitched with self-colored silk soutache. While I cut and serged all of the pieces of my layered fabric for the dress and made my underskirt, my mother generously did all of the finish sewing on the top and skirt. Designing and sewing just the soutache provided enough adventure for this semi-skilled seamstress. I did, however, go dress shopping with both of our moms, and we found one a perfect-condition consignment dress for a great price and the other, a clearance two piece dress/jacket combination for $10. The guys wore rented tuxes, mainly because the groom owned a white tie and tails conducting getup and nothing like a plain black suit, and I figured if I was going to have a wedding more formal than a zippy elopement, I still did want to get all spiffed up. Not averse to having fun, and all that jazz.

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[Ed: No, we weren’t all pretending to be The Dread Pirate Roberts–I’m just providing a dash of privacy for family and friends.]

The fabrics and ribbons left over from manufacturing banners and dresses and shawls got trimmed and saved up for dressing the reception tables, along with a multitude of candlesticks from home that I loaded up and lit. To keep reception food fuss to a relative minimum, we opted to have the party in the fellowship hall at the church. That way, also, there was no monkeying around with additional travel, hall-finding and parking issues, party setup in a separate venue, or the time required for all of those add-ons. And we figured the social aspect was the primary reason for having a reception at all, not fussy edibles meant mostly to impress people, so we went to our favorite farmers’ market and bought a bunch of lovely fresh fruits to complement the array of nuts, chocolates and home-baked cookies that were the main bites. Friends and relatives gifted us with many of the cookies, and the baked centerpiece was a traditional Norwegian kransekake (more a stack of crisp-chewy almond meringue biscuit rings than cake) made by our Norwegian brother-in-law and my mother. As it turned out, yet another set of friends surprised us with a second lovely kransekake, so we were all in cookie heaven. A very fine place, indeed, and not only on a wedding day.photo

As If She were Our Blood

 

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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

Another Good Thing about Waving One’s Arms

 

Waving my arms is something I may think about more than the average person does. From when I was pretty young I was conscious of arm movement as being mighty significant in a seriously diverse series of ways. First of all, there was that childhood training we all enjoy, if we’re well inducted, in the art of waving hello and farewell. I have almost always preferred the former to the latter, but in either case, whenever the occasion was deemed genuinely worthy of such a gesture, I knew that it was a sign of love or affection, and that made it pretty darn worthwhile.

Then again, I also had an early fondness for wagging my crayon-gripping fist over a piece of paper (or whatever flattish surface was convenient) to make squiggly lines and, if I got lucky, get them to coalesce into picture-like concoctions. I  might be sitting off in a cozy corner at Grandma and Grandpa W’s, scribbling away, with the faint sounds in the background of parental and grand-parental chatter as they sat drinking their coffee intermingled with the slight chattering sound of Grandpa’s cup doing a little jitterbug against the saucer, because he had a mild tremor in his hand. Of course, his arm-waving was hardly dramatic, but it was one of those delicate underpinnings of my early memory that became part of the whole subtle weave of my perceptions.

Sometime in my early teens or thereabout, I found that the family resemblance extended to my having my own familial tremors, occasionally in my head and neck but mostly in my hands and arms. There have been times when it was more pronounced than was entirely convenient for a person wanting to draw, but fortunately it’s rarely been at problematic extremes, more often merely requiring that I find ways to compensate for or control or use the tremors to advantage in my art-making. In any event, keeping my hand in (no pun intended) as an artist has tended to keep the inevitable interactions of these two kinds of arm-waving present in my attentions. Meanwhile, my other grandmother had her own kind of arm-waving to lend to the family skill-set: Parkinson’s Disease.

Typically, Granny had the wit and will to battle her Parkinsonism not only with great tenacity in staving off the ravages of the illness for many more years than is typical but also with a lot of good-natured humor, because that was her style. So whenever we had a family gathering, she was the first to offer her services for tossing salads and making milkshakes. That my mother has followed in the Parkinsonian lineage would make her forms of arm-waving far worse to behold, knowing that the same sort of insidious progression lay ahead for her, and to be fair, including the knowledge that the odds are a bit higher for me than for some that I will eventually join the parade, but she too has maintained a bright attitude about it all. Besides that, I am very slightly suspicious that her particular skillfulness when it comes to shaking the dice gives her a unique edge in the evening board games.

But the top of the list when it comes to magnificent ways and reasons to wave one’s arms has surely got to be the one I’ve been witnessing so much now that the concert season is well underway again: conducting. Bands, orchestras, operatic performances, choirs. No matter what the form of the musical art, if there is a conductor up there waving his, her (or, particularly, my beloved husband’s) arms, the love that fills the air is what makes all of the arm-waving a worthy and beautiful thing. It brings hearts and minds into focus and, often, into community, and it makes the world a more wonderful place to be.

And that makes me want to stop waving my arms altogether, just opening them wide enough to embrace that better world and anyone I can in it.digital image from an acrylic painting on canvas

 

. . . and While I’m on the Subject . . .

Oh! I wasn’t? Well, maybe I wasn’t talking about it, but I was thinking about it, and in my household, that constitutes a continuing conversation rather than a festival of non-sequiturs. That’s the way we operate. First, someone says something that appears to be completely out of the ether, Left Field, or a secret portion of the anatomy generally best left out of conversation. The ensuing stretch of interminable seconds is usually occupied with the second person working out madly in his or her head what the remark meant, how on earth it had any relevance, if it is possible to decipher, and–oh! There it is! Suddenly, the very long and convoluted train of thought that led from a comment or conversation long since ended (or so one thought) reappears, not having stopped at the station or even derailed but instead having wound through uncharted territory and visited innumerable exotic towns along the way before returning to view.

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Sometimes it's as though I'd taken some sort of strange potion and time shifted . . .

As my spouse and I have just returned from a theatre viewed the Metropolitan Opera‘s live-transmission broadcast of Giuseppe Verdi‘s ‘Ernani‘, I can say that we two are evidently not alone in this discombobulating sense of the very tenuous connectivity of perceived reality. I was quite delighted with seeing the broadcast, our whole reason for attending in the first place being the Met live-broadcast debut of the exquisite-voiced Angela Meade, who ‘graduated’ university with my husband in a sense, being a senior student and outstanding soprano soloist in the choir he conducted and took on his farewell Scandinavian tour as he left the university where he’d been teaching for 18 years. Besides her very lovely persona, we knew and admired the beauty of her voice then and she proved again today that it has only further ripened into full bloom. Frankly, she could open the poorly translated operating manual for a lawn mower and sing from it and it would be musically and artistically fulfilling and entirely worth the hearing.

While I’m being frank, I’d have to say in addition that I think the libretto of ‘Ernani’ could be surpassed in literary merit, coherence and comprehensibility by the aforementioned lawn mower manual. Opera is, admittedly, rarely sought out for its exemplary logic and natural progression or, probably, for much resemblance to the real world and its history and human actions therein. That’s not why we go to the opera. But among operas I’ve seen and heard, ‘Ernani’ is mighty high (and I use the word advisedly) on the short list of the most wildly improbable, disjointed and just plain wacky so-called plots. That train not only left the rails right out of the station, it went straight off a cliff.

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Let Elvira sing Hey, nonny nonny, Ernani, you ninny!

Meanwhile, back in his studio, young Signore Verdi was either smitten enough with the romance of a love quadrangle to ignore the outrageously outlandish pastiche on a plot-line, or perhaps had merely imbibed an entire Jeroboam of Barolo by himself, because he took that absurd libretto and proceeded to set the whole thing to equally incongruous music. Three hours of it. Thankfully, whether the Barolo had any chance to or not, Verdi eventually matured into writing stuff that had some relationship to the text, however ludicrous the latter happened to be.

Opera is at least so honest as to call itself ‘work’, it’s just not entirely up-front about the post-compositional work remaining to be done by audience members who might find it quite the laborious process to decipher what’s going on, with whom, and how. Never mind when, where and why. But I mustn’t pick at nits too freely; after all, our nice little cozy home conversations might just as well constitute the storyline of some incipient opera themselves. I have no musical compositional skills, so I couldn’t compete with Verdi even at his most immature, but maybe if I gloss over my melodic shortcomings with a few additional high Cs and a royal assassination or two thrown in no one will even notice that I’ve wandered far and constantly from my original subject. I may have mentioned that I tend to do that. I forget. Oh, well. It happens. And while I’m on the subject . . .

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Ooh! Pretty flower! Now, where was I?