Slipstream

Digital illustration from a graphite drawing: SlipstreamPeople often speak of the person ‘behind the power,’ the right-hand associate who always plays a large role in making the boss look good or the spouse who remains relatively unseen in the shadows while his or her partner is the well-known face of the duo, but I rarely hear anyone mention the full benefits of this kind of relationship. There are, of course, plenty who abuse such an arrangement as purely a platform for self-aggrandizement and advancement and treat their faithful supporters as unseen and unacknowledged slaves. An image comes to mind of the great old Jean Cocteau film ‘La Belle et la Bête,’ wherein the prince’s entire household was condemned by the curse he’d earned and continued to serve him, but even more abjectly, as virtually invisible helping hands. Even in the case of spouses and assistants and supporters who are treated with fairness and generosity and given regular recognition, however, there remains the probability that in normal circumstances, one is more visible and probably more publicly compensated than the other.

There can be, though, a handful of fine, if unexpected, benefits to this arrangement for the person behind the scenes. I think I can speak with a certain amount of authority, having been in this position both by default and willingly in various ways all of my life. I have always traveled in the slipstream of the leader, the marquee character in the act; I fly somewhere behind the lead bird in the V formation, hunt behind the chief lioness, swim behind the flashing silver of the strongest swimmer in the school of fish. I live in the slipstream of those wiser, braver, and more skilled than I am. And I like that very much. It allows me to see at close range where I am headed, led by the example of someone better prepared, while maintaining a sense of safety in my innate introversion and fearfulness from having to set the example or blaze the trail myself It offers me opportunities to find ways to help showcase those I admire in what they are and do best. It puts me on the periphery of events I would never, on my own, have had access to and often gives me the awestruck feeling that my privilege extends, through those I love, respect and admire, beyond any level I could hope to achieve or acquire alone.

I started early: as the next sibling born to a first child who was, and is, extremely bright and wide-ranging in her interests and accomplishments and unabashedly her own opinionated, funny, clever and challenging self—and admired by a great many others for it—I could easily have been, or felt, eclipsed by her. Instead, I tended to feel shielded and guided from the start; others (along with me) generally found her a more interesting focus for their attentions, so she bore the brunt of any critical scrutiny before I would ever feel any, and if there was any entertaining to be done, she managed quite effectively to keep the occasion afloat intellectually and/or with her trademark smart-alec witticisms. That she did all of this shielding of me and leading the way without my hearing much complaint or entitlement either one from her remains a marvel.

On top of that fortuitous training of mine in playing a willing and contented behind-the-lead role, I had parents who were the leaders in their community, too, and in a particularly exemplary version of this star + supporting player arrangement. Dad, the natural extrovert, led active congregations in his primary work role as a pastor and later, bishop, but always had parallel roles as chairman of this, board president of that, and consultant or advisor to the other; Mom, as his one-woman entourage, managed the household so that he was both free to do all of this stuff and looked after enough to be healthy, fed, rested and prepared as well as possible to do so to the best of his abilities. She was also his sounding board at home for anything of import that was underway in his life away from home, helping him to find his way to tough choices and decisions and think through all of the permutations of those situations that anyone tends to carry outside of official work hours. She stood as his consort for official functions, his representative when serving on committees and boards and doing community work as well.

Besides that my father’s work and status allowed me, again, to be quietly in the shadows while attending and participating in all sorts of events and occasions I’d never otherwise have had opportunity or reason to do, my mother was equally quietly setting an example for how to take advantage of all of that in a way that was mutually beneficial. During and through all of those years, I saw Mom come into her own as an equally respected leader among their community, a person looked to for influence and inspiration and committed, intelligent work, but all in her modest and unfussy way. When I finished graduate school and started working at my undergraduate alma mater as a teacher, it was near enough my parents’ house that I simply moved back in with them and paid the cheap rent that put me close to work affordably and, it turned out, in a position to train as the next-level behind the scenes person. Living there, I could keep the household running when they were on the road for work, be assistant-to-the-assistant when they were home by helping to set up for a few of the social obligations or special events tied to their work, and even get assistance from them when I was beginning to have such obligations of my own. By the time that I first went out with the man whom I got to marry, I was remarkably well-versed in the ins and outs of this sort of partnership.

I did, of course, have to learn new variations and nuances to the operation when he and I got together. My spouse is a music conductor. He teaches classes, like I did, but beyond this similarity of standing in front of classes and the variety of preparatory work that gets teachers ready for the classroom time, he had, and has, a much more publicly visible leadership role when he is in conductor mode. I am very glad to stay out of the limelight at those times!

The administrative and preparatory work, the selection of literature, score study, negotiations with guest performers, board interactions, service in the community, publicity commitments, writing program notes, collaborations with commissioned composers—these and so many other aspects of backstage life remain hidden from the public yet can’t be accomplished without time and concentration that are harder to afford if I’m not there to keep him in clean clothes and check that he’s had a meal or two, to chauffeur him to and from places where there’s no parking close enough to get him to a rehearsal on time, and yes, to be a sounding board for him when tough choices or decisions loom. I’ve learned a few things about music along the way, but not so much that I fancy myself anything like a musician or music scholar. But it’s the other parts of his life that I consider the arena for my contributions and participation. It’s the stuff that gets him to the podium that I think I can do best.

When my husband is conducting singers and/or instrumentalists in a concert, my role is to happily sit in the audience and bask in the music along with everyone else. My vocation, my modest part in earning our living, is to slide along in his slipstream and do what I can to keep impediments from holding him back or dragging him down, and whether that happens because I stand near him and shake hands with his bosses and supporters after a concert or because I took the car in for service while he was in administrative meetings doesn’t matter. I’m happy to be a small fish in the big pond as best I can.

I Love You Like Crazy

Acrylic mural: Tongue-in-Cheek, after Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun It’s probably inaccurate in more than just the politically correct sense to say that I love my husband like crazy, because it would imply that my affections are only similar to complete madness, and we all know I’m much closer than that in reality. While I flatter myself that I maintain a reasonably plausible façade of normalcy, everybody knows that I’m pretty nutty about my spouse. And those who know him don’t blame me.

He really is a lovable guy.

But aside from the stuff that is evident to the general public, that part about him being a thoughtful colleague, a committed and skilled teacher, a nuanced and inspired conductor of singers and instrumentalists, and all that other excellent and admirable kind of thing, he is smart and curious and kind as a person. I know that when we are together, I matter as much to him as he does to me; that he is a safe retreat from both the minor perturbations of the day and the greater dangers of the wide world when I am in need. And I have in him the great friend with whom I would rather while away the hours either in intensive work or fully at play than with anyone else on earth.

Most of all, I know he not only understands my particular brand of craziness but shares in it as well. Each day, each year, is a surprise package of a kind, and every one of them is somehow richer than all of the foregoing ones as more than the sum of their many parts. Love and admiration and respect and support are all well and good, but if they don’t have the kind of holy hilarity that life with my partner has, they can never be enough.

With that, I wish my beloved the happiest of birthdays, and many more of them yet to come, each in succession with new and astonishing delights.

Peter Pan vs. Mother Earth

Maturity is a hard concept to nail down. So few of us would willingly embrace the larger idea of maturity after all: the implication is too much doused with the odor of aging and the loss of innocence, playfulness and joie de vivre.

But if I can move away from those irksome, unflattering aspects of maturation, there is a whole world of better and more admirable traits awaiting me. To refuse to grow up, as so famously done by Peter Pan, one has to reject all of those pleasures and opportunities afforded only to those willing to submit to the passage of time.

I will continue to avoid becoming ensnared in the traps and trials of aging as long as I can get away with it, and probably further. Who wants to become exclusively serious, constantly responsible or particularly predictable? Not I! Age may force me to slow down my physical pace or even make me willing to concede that there is such a thing as a skirt too short or heels too high or a blouse too fitted to be quite seemly for my years, never mind that choosing certain forms of entertainment or places to go or goals to achieve are not particularly well suited for me anymore.

But I am also glad to let down the barriers to other aspects of maturity, and to embrace my aging with a certain relief when it comes to those. I care less and less, for example, about whether I look fashionable or impressive, so the heels and hems can be whatever altitude suits my comfort and mood. I’m happier in my own skin with every year spent getting to know and define and design it.

That, my friends, is the greatest gift of aging: I am freer from the worries, demands and expectations of the world around me and can work at shaping who I am, what I want, and how I feel more deeply and contentedly than when I thought there was a greater need to conform. Youth is not nearly so unfettered as we idealize it as being; so long as more mature people own our territories of home, school, work and even play, they also rule our lives. So long as we concern ourselves with comparison, competition and popularity, we let others have the power as well. When we learn to fit in and find community by being our truest selves, it changes the tune entirely. This is the richness, ripeness and harmony–within and between–conferred by true maturity.digital illustrationAnd while I’m thinking about musical metaphors, I really must give you a link to my husband’s latest YouTube appearance, conducting the beautiful and magical Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 with the Collegium Singers and Baroque Orchestra of the University of North Texas, with some tremendous guest artists singing and playing alongside the artful student and faculty musicians. This production was the premiere performance of the new edition of the Vespers that was developed by UNT professor Hendrik Schulze and ten of his graduate students, and among the instrumentalists playing on marvelous period instruments were some of the greatest players now gracing the halls and stages of the Early Music genre. Enjoy!

A Pearl Dropping into a Well

graphite drawingWhen the singing is sublime, it’s as though everything else stops. The air ceases to move. Thought stills. Time ripples ever more slowly and delicately, and only beauty exists.

When a singer’s voice takes hold and sways me, I imagine a pearl dropping into a deep, deep well. Its subtly rich sheen and its smooth look of perfection rolls at speed through the air yet seems to flow through it with an attenuated grace as though purity and love buoyed it up delicately and cradled it gently downward. At last, reaching the depths, the note, the pearl, begins its plunge–the fulness of the water embraces its fall–the ear draws in the note and pulls it soul-ward.

When the choir breathes out in flawless song, I am lost in the jeweled depths. Gorgeous and welcoming, the magnificent impossibility of such beautiful sound carries me, too, in its cradling care. And I fall–in darkness, in love, in joy.

Silence may not be Golden, but Control of Noisemaking Keeps Everyone Safer

photoPractice as though Your Life Depended on It

Two singers strolled into a wood, and I

Followed the one less skillful; why?

Starved beasts will flock to an anguished cry,

As they did that day; in the wink of an eye,

I was on the road less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

[With sincerest apologies to Robert Frost]photo

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

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

The Way It Ought to Be

graphite drawing + textI’m not what you might think of as a big traditionalist in the ways of romance–at least, if you think of those things packaged in the way that American commercial enterprise would have us think the norm or the appropriate mode. It may be that I’m a little too tomboy at heart and in physique to wear either the girly or the sexy look with any credible panache. There’s more than a small chance that I’m too lazy and cheap to buy cards and flowers for my nearest and dearest with any regularity. Chocolates, yes, but you know that I’m going to expect to share in their consumption. I’m far from selfless enough to be a true romantic either, I guess. Otherwise, around our place the romantic expressions are more often found in filling an empty gas tank, caulking the shower door, making lunch, washing socks. All of that sort of glamorous stuff.

I’m so unromantic in the popular sense, in fact, that despite being both shy and kind of prudish, I moved in with my intended life partner before I married him–yes, before I even warned him of my intent to marry him. Or to stick to him like glue for the rest of my life if he was shy of the whole getting-married thing, having done that before. Despite my love of pomp and circumstance and ritual, I was prepared to forgo the whole dress-up extravaganza and either commit to the partnership in heart and hand only or just keep the legal transactions simple and stand in front of a Justice of the Peace somewhere and then party later with family and friends. (Because, let’s face it, any excuse for a good and love-filled party is not entirely to be passed by, wishes for simplicity aside.)

As it turned out, we had a pretty spectacular wedding day, but it was really icing on the proverbial cake. One of the central beauties of that day was an anthem composed for us by our dear friend, with a text my intended chose from the enigmatic and marvelous Song of Songs that includes the phrase ‘love is as strong as death’–this accompanied by other close friends playing organ and horn and a superb choir of yet more friends (also conducted by the composer). Hard to get more romantic than that. But that was all well after I’d realized that a big spectacle wasn’t necessary to validate the spectacular thing that had already happened within.

All of this because at some point pretty early in our relationship, I knew with complete and unshakeable conviction that when I was with this person I was where I ought to be. It was so clearly and plainly the place and state in which I was meant to exist that I felt it in my bones. I was at home in his house the first time I stopped by for a visit–even though you all know full well that I reinvented that physical space from Day One around the two of us. The music that I heard was not just the glorious sound of his choirs welling up around me but was also a new rhythm in my heartbeat that was more confident, more joyful, and more purely contented than it had ever felt before, in those days before I even knew it could feel this lovely new way. A new sense of the world skewing into proper perspective that suffused my brain.

And that, to me, is how true romance ought to be. Genuinely loving and playful and silly and passionate and supportive and all of that, yes, but most of all, merely having the recognizable quality of a homecoming, every single time we come together. Flowers and candy and frills and thrills are all very welcome in their own right, but they have nothing on a sense of wholeness that only grows with time and no matter how it evolves and changes iterations over the years, will not go away. It is both transcendent and, when it’s so well ingrained and incorporated in the truest sense, also wonderfully, perfectly ordinary.

Today, on my beloved‘s birthday, I have another reason to remember all of the reasons why I am grateful for him and his place in my life and my love–and I in his.

Beloved Mysterious

Beloved Mysterious, if you could see

The blood-dark river hid inside of me

With longing deep as chasms unexplored

Through which, from which, in which that love is poured

In endless flood of hope and of desire

As hot and wild and dangerous as fire

Then you would know the depth, the liquid breath

That carries love for you beyond my death.

With a Full Heart

graphite drawingA Song of Farewell
Ends Only the Beginning

A fond farewell should only end the start
Of what emerged from nothing to become
Much greater than its origins, a home
For all that’s good and gracious in the heart–

What had begun in silence has grown deep
And richer than imagining could guess,
A tapestry of joy and tenderness,
A score of blended notes that time will keep–

Whose voices came together first in this
True confluence of sound and sweet accord
Cannot again move aught but closer toward
Such harmony as, now it’s found, is bliss–

For in love’s benedictory refrain
Awakens what all hearts must sing again.

graphite drawing

With gratitude to all at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, Texas,
and especially to the choir, for welcoming us so kindly during this past year.

Kathryn Sparks
August 2012

‘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!