Calling All [Music] Composers!

Photo: Head in the Clouds

To all the teachers and grownups who ever complained that I always had my head in the clouds: [insert vigorous *RASPBERRY* here]!

I said I would do it long, long ago, so ready or not, here goes: a passel of potential poetic [and other] lyrics. When I write, rhyming or rhythmic or not, I very often hear music in my imagination. Too bad I don’t have the musical chops to set my own texts, whether for solo or ensemble singing, accompanied or a cappella…or maybe it’s not sad at all: I also love collaborative arts. So join me, if you like!

I will likely publish some of this stuff in my upcoming books. The only published book so far, Miss Kitty’s Fabulous Emporium of Magical Thinking: Drawings & Other Artworks, Tall Tales and Weird Creatures (Volume 1), is up for your perusal as well—just grab a copy through Amazon.

[May I suggest that you use Amazon Smile—smile.amazon.com—where you can get Amazon to make a small charitable donation of your choice from their profits]).

This post is not an endorsement of Amazon, paid or otherwise, though I happily use the behemoth’s services extensively myself. Including as my book publisher, since I am far too “unmarketable”—thank you, gallerists, publishers, and agents of the past who classify anything non-repetitive, unprecedented, or wildly varied as impossible to package and sell. This post is not meant to be a whining snark-fest, either, since I am genuinely grateful that said business persons were honest enough with themselves to recognize their limitations in promoting unusual or unclassifiable works, and honest enough, in turn, with me to help me recognize that my vocation isn’t in making a living out of my arts but in making a life with and through them.

Meanwhile, I still love to join forces with other creatives, no matter what our project or theme, when the muse brings us together. I have collaborated with other artists to create numerous visual, written, and performed artworks over the years and am always delighted with the learning, bonding, challenges, inspiration, and joy that come from such interplay. If you find anything in here that sparks (no pun intended) your imagination, I welcome you to my playground. If you’re just here to read and—hopefully—enjoy, you are most welcome as well. I’m happy for the company.

Photo: Afire with Inspiration

Here’s hoping to fan the flames of your imagination…

To read any of the dozens of sets of poems and texts, grouped loosely by theme or topic or mood, just click here or on the freshly minted Poems & Lyric Texts link at the top of my homepage.

Photo: CHEESE!

I’m not above grinning at you crazily if you’re even remotely a kindred spirit. Cheese!

My Little Night Music

Invocation

From the settling of the evening to the whispering of dawn

Lies a tenebrously winding way that wanders bleakly on…

What’s ahead is hid in veiling; what has been, lost in a mist,

And with strength and spirits failing goes the wayfarer, who kissed

Fond farewell to all familiars, bade goodbye to every known,

And set off to see tomorrow; now it seems all hope is flown.

But a flicker in the darkness sparks the vision of a wing,

And the silence now is shattered as a voice begins to sing!

Glorious, the song is lifted in its swelling, sweet refrains,

And the wayfarer is gifted with new courage in his veins.

What a loveliness is in it when such music comes along

To illumine every minute; what great powers in a song!

When the journey seems unending and the dark rules every vale,

For whoever needs the tending, let me be

A nightingale.Digital illo: Nightingale

Should I Sing or Whistle?

Photo: Red-winged Blackbird 1

I can neither whistle nor sing as beautifully as a red-winged blackbird, but my heart is willing!

One of the most interesting exercises during my quick hospital pajama party the other day was the opportunity to watch while a cardiologist did an echocardiogram on me. I’ve had one or two in times past, but never when I could see the monitor and watch it in progress, let alone ask the person administering it what I was seeing and hearing, and I found it to be a surprisingly charming entertainment, along with the informative aspects. Primary, of course, in its pleasures was to be told that everything seemed entirely operational and quite healthy. Seeing how each chamber was measured and observing the various valves in action, watching the graphic representation of the individual parts’ particular and distinct  rhythms and patterns coalesce into a wonderful zigzag of electrical cheer while hearing the  live sound—this was all intriguing and encouraging in any number of ways.

But even more than my spirits, the actions and sounds of my heart had me feeling both surrounded by and immersed in song and dance. It was a lovely surprise to someone who has never known anything particular about the heart in the abstract, let alone had any chance to experience my own in action. The thrumming of my pulse changed with every move of the technician’s hand, each valve and artery having its own part of the whole melody, singing at its own pitch and speed. The view of each valve seemed like a tiny pantomime synchronized with the sounds, and some valves looked (from the side) for all the world like pairs of arms waving as the hands clapped in joy, or perhaps like the waving movement of an exuberant conductor coaxing a choir to sing; one overhead view was so like a mouth singing along with my own heartbeat that I thought perhaps I was seeing a surrealist movie of some marvelous conga-accompanied south seas musical number.

Today, a few days of rest and healing down the road from any sort of emergency, I am feeling so much better already that I have a slight sense of being ready to burst into song or dance myself, the larger (and far less graceful) embodiment of these inner workings. I won’t, of course, not least because I’d still tire in about two turns or trills. But when the songs, calls, and whistles of the grackles and cicadas, crickets and our newly ensconced red-tailed hawk neighbor ring through the trees, I am pretty nearly guaranteed to join right in myself. I think I’d forgotten how that felt, for a while.

Photo: Red-winged Blackbird 2

Good health is certainly a heartwarming bright spot in the day!

Sorry, You’re Not Exactly My Type

I’m strolling by an old oak, and as I approach am hearing a fantastic avian aria. I expect that, as usual, that little singer will fall suddenly silent when he senses my approach. Bet when I walk up to the low branch where he sits, on he goes.

There sits a feathered dandy, a handsome and hale male of the mockingbird persuasion, and as I stop to admire his good looks and impressive vocal repertoire, he looks me right in the eye and goes on singing. I whistle and chirrup and warble in as close an imitation of his excellence as I can manage, because it seems only polite to respond in kind, yet I feel not only inferior in my birdcalls but just a little sorry I’m not ‘available,’ let alone the right species for him. Ah, the biological imperative!

I can only assume that such a fine specimen of mockingbird-kind will find no shortage of applicants for the position of his tweet-heart. A creature so elegant, tuneful, and confident could never remain unnoticed by any ladies of his kind, and surely only a true birdbrain would mock his efforts.

All I know is that I couldn’t help whistling as I walked on, myself.Digital illo: Mr. Mockingbird

Singing Our Song

Photo + score cover: Singing Our Song: Rach Vigil

The original ‘our song’ I shared with my true love, because he was in the midst of rehearsing his choir for its performance when we came together—so intensely rehearsing, in fact, that in pretty much the only time I’ve ever known him to talk in his sleep, he whispered dreaming sweet nothings to me in Church Slavonic. Good times!

The expression ‘they’re singing our song’ refers, generally, to recognizing a tune or lyric that carries particular personal weight for a pair or occasionally, slightly larger group of people. It’s our school’s version of Alma Mater, the theme song of our organization, the song that accompanied a memorable first date, first dance, first kiss. Because of its power as a connective tool in communication and in recollection, music is bound to evoke potent responses and pull us into the examination of them, regardless of their current context. I’m one of that lucky class of people for whom music is a pervasive and positive element of my daily life, but I still have some specific favorites not only for what I find appealing about them musically or in their mood, style, and character—and yes, those range pretty widely—but also for the few that stand out in mnemonic and sentimental ways.

There are songs that reconnect me instantly with my childhood, something I suspect is quite a different experience for the younger generations than for mine and earlier ones. Until my youth, childhood songs came not exclusively from radio, films, television, and other distant, anonymous, fixed, or recorded sources but first from the relatives, friends, and teachers who shared them with us and often expected us to sing along. When my family sang in the car on a road trip, it might have sometimes been along with whoever was singing or playing the radio’s pre-packaged tunes, but as often as not it was singing folk songs we’d learned by rote, silly playground songs and game-narrative ones, bits of summer camp songs, rounds, and easily harmonized songs that were popular long before I ever stretched my little pipes to sing. I don’t imagine there’s so much of a lingua franca of family and playground singing not derived from Disney scores and downloads nowadays. There’s lots of delightful and even sophisticated stuff in those, to be sure, but I would guess that there’s a whole lot less that would be in any way distinguishable as historic, traditional, or regional, let along cultural, landmark music that’s just sung for fun anymore unless it’s loaded with undercurrents of market- or message-driven content. Is Mrs. Grady‘s daughter even known, let alone adored, by anyone under a half-century of age anymore?

It’s not strictly old-lady cantankerousness or being prudish, prune-ish, and nostalgic for what may be rose-colored memories that makes me sad for this sort of loss, though there are assuredly elements of those. It’s also a bit of longing for the subtle societal glue that resides in knowing a song: if I spontaneously start to sing an “old familiar lay” under my breath, will there be anybody within earshot who will hear, remember, and join in the song? Are all such endeavors relegated to prearranged flash mobs now? I had a couple of reminders of this urge, recently, and they renewed my quest for an expanded casual-singing culture of the kind that doesn’t require sets, costumes, death-defying choreography, and Auto-Tune.

The first such occasion was, unsurprisingly, in a church setting. Western churches of many sorts are still places where communal singing is common and many songs known to many of the participants by heart. I was at a Protestant church service where, as is typical during communion, the church choir sang anthems and the congregation then sang a hymn or two as well; when the high attendance at the service made communion stretch far longer than expected, the experienced organist got right on the task of keeping the flow going by playing an old hymn. After a few seconds, choristers started softly humming or singing the lyrics along with him, then grew bolder and harmonized, and gradually a number of congregants in the pews were joining in as well. It was really quite sweet, and I certainly thought it perfectly appropriate to the whole concept of a Communal event. But even there, I quickly realized, the truly familiar old hymn couldn’t quite be carried in the old way, because even the choir members clearly only knew one verse by heart, and while it was a lovely bonding experience for everyone, it was fleeting; at the end of Verse 1, a collective dive for hymnals to search for the words (what’s that eponymous first line, again?!), then the resignation to repeat the first verse or fall silent.

Another reminder came in one of the places where such random burst-into-song things do still exist beyond the borders of the performance hall but are perhaps not exercised as often as they used to be: a choral convention. The regional and national gatherings of musicians devoted to choral music—the composing, conducting, rehearsing, singing, performing, and yes, enjoyment of music made for groups of singers—are a great source of education, entertainment, and vivifying energy for me as the partner and follower of a choral musician. And even at these, it’s not as though I hear people breaking into song together, unless they’re rehearsing to perform for each other. Attending an enormous regional musicians’ convention recently, followed ten days later by an equally huge national one, was both exhausting and energizing. And at such events, I don’t often find people gathering to sing together outside of the so-called All Sing sessions, which are of course organized, arranged, led, and regulated nearly as much as any choir’s regular rehearsals.

The point of such conventions isn’t necessarily to build ‘casual relationships’ with singing. But mightn’t it be a fine thing, really? I would guess that the expectation that singing just because, at unplanned moments, with other people, could in fact lead not only to greater interest in and better understanding of more formal choral experiences but also to a more connected social world than social media alone can provide. As the 1971 Coca-Cola advertisement—yes, a commercial jingle—encouraged such idealism and eventually did indeed manage to build into a hugely popular, ex-post-brand-name sing-along song, I [would] Like to Teach the World to Sing. But obviously I can’t do it alone.

Photo + score: Singing Our Song: Nance 'Seal'

This is, in a unique way, truly Our song, because Richard Nance composed it as an anthem for our wedding, and it both became widely popular as an exquisite modern choral piece and remains deeply personal as a gift to my beloved and me from one of our dearest friends.

I Dream the World

I dream the world will learn to sing ‘Til joy suffuses everything—

When peace and happiness abound, I dream a song will be the sound

Most widely heard by every ear Around the globe that longs to hear

A note of kindness, care; of grace, When melody wraps its embrace

Around us like an angel’s wing—I dream the world will learn to sing!

 

I dream the world will learn to sing And make earth’s darkest corners ring,

Will throw aside all warring ways, Mend brokenness, take up the phrase

That calls to harmony all souls The way a carillon bell tolls,

First, lone and softly, then a pair Joins in, and more, and then the air

Is filled with song, like bells a-swing—I dream the world will learn to sing!

 

I dream the world will learn to sing And this, the message it will bring:

We must not wait in silent nights, Unsung ’til happiness alights,

‘Til care and kindness, sweetness, peace, Miraculously buy release

And save us from our voiceless state: If we don’t sing, it is too late,

So let our song rise up and ring—I dream the world will learn to sing!

Celebrate Anyway

Christmas day means nothing at all to a whole lot of the world. Even some fairly devoted Christians are either skeptical about the accuracy of modern guesstimates of when the historical person Jesus appeared on earth or, in some cases, just plain weary of the commercial kidnaping of Christmas as a secular holiday. Beyond that, there are innumerable people and nations so impoverished or endangered as individuals, as communities, or as entire regions of the world that the last thing they can afford to pay attention to is an arbitrarily set date for recognizing anything as a reason for joy and revelry.Photo: Cymbals

There are no gladly clashing cymbals, no brass choirs trumpeting their huzzahs to the skies, no parades or packages, masses or meditations that can fill the void in hearts and homes oppressed by war, famine, disease, hatred, or inner turmoil. The very thought of happiness and reverential bliss, if it can even pierce the noise and violence, the stress and terror holding such people hostage, seems hollow and artificial. Goodness and light are as distant and unimaginable as the most ridiculous fiction.
Photo: What a Lot of Brass

These sufferers deserve to have their sorrows and their pains lifted from them, obliterated by any and all who dare to change history. No one knows better than I that not everyone has the strength and wherewithal to be so bold in action. But if we cannot do so with our physical labors, we must do so with our hearts and minds, our words, our plans, and our constancy in spirit. One voice at a time, one solitary note sung by a tiny, quavering voice, is the only way to begin moving toward a day when others, also one by one, will join and build to a worldwide song of peace. Only when we direct our every breath toward healing, harmony, and hope will the song come fully alive. Every atom of our being will whisper, speak, sing, and shout until the whole of humanity rings with echoing gladness.
Photo: Stringed Instruments

One moment’s pause, one hour of cease-fire, one hospital patient or lost child or elderly neighbor rescued for one single part of a day at a time makes space for the sound to bloom. We need to make room, and lest the horrors should return to fill the void, we must fill it up instead with songs of hope and joy and celebrate any way we possibly can. The other voices will someday, if we sing for long enough, follow.

Early Music for Breakfast

Digital illustration + text: Haiku on the Least Supper

If you haven’t already crossed paths with Thomas Tallis‘s landmark Renaissance motet Spem in alium, I highly recommend it. It’s a truly astounding piece of European music history, representing the confluence of the political and artistic competition for primacy in that time period; it’s believed to have been composed as England’s answer to Italy’s Alessandro Striggio‘s own, earlier 40-part motet, or possibly to Striggio’s 40-60 voice mass. I’m no musician, but I’ve learned, mostly through witnessing a few performances of the Tallis by different groups led by my husband and his colleagues, just what a feat this piece really represents.

While the creation of Striggio’s works for 40 and more independent voices is amazing in its own right, the 40-part motet he wrote specified that the voices be doubled instrumentally. That is impressive enough. For my fellow non-musicians, think of it this way: a typical piece of music for a mixed choir requires singers to perform different notes and lines of music, often at the same time, so that what is heard is not one single series of notes, one after the other the way we sing by ourselves, but layers of notes that become deeper and more distinctive expressions of the words being sung. Instrumental doubling means that some or all of the vocal parts are supported by one or more instruments “singing” the same notes at the same time. This can intensify the effect of that singer or section’s line, and it can sometimes also help a less skilled singer or choir stay on target with the line.

In any event, the more typical choral works tend to have soprano, alto, tenor and bass voice parts, or singing lines, (or some combination of those) and generally, not more than eight or perhaps twelve different lines intermingling at once. Anything more than that means that every singer in a moderate-sized choir is responsible for knowing and performing his or her own notes, on pitch, at the right moments, and with exactly the right loud-soft dynamics and flow at every point throughout the piece. Being in a choir is a thrill; being in a good choir is a real intellectual and artistic and even physical challenge.

What makes the Tallis Spem so incredible is that it comprises not only forty individual, fully independent singers’ voices all singing their own distinct parts of the song, but indeed, doing so entirely unaccompanied. Every one of the singers has to be spot-on at all times without the support of either a fellow singer or any kind of instrumental doubling. If one singer goes off the rails, there’s the possibility that others will be thrown off of their pitch, timing, or even their place in the whole work. It could well lead to a musical train wreck. Think you’d be intimidated by doing this? I think any sane person should be!

But it’s powerful stuff, when it’s well done. I’ve had the privilege of hearing this feat beautifully accomplished by singers surrounding me in a cavernous cathedral space, and by singers standing onstage in a modern performance hall with a carefully engineered acoustic. I’ve experienced it in art galleries where Janet Cardiff‘s intriguing installation of forty high fidelity speakers on stands are placed in a circle in the otherwise rather bare room, each playing in synchrony the recording of one of the singers in a performance of the Tallis, so that one can stand outside the circle or in the center of it surrounded by the speakers, or can move to stand at one individual speaker at a time, getting entirely different effects depending upon which part of the score is being performed and where one stands in relation to the speaker playing that part.

No matter how it’s done, once you’ve gotten a little of the idea how this piece of music intertwines voices that seem at first to be operating without a clear relationship but then, more and more, to be converging into a meditative, chant-like, layered song, it is quite mesmerizing. There are some recordings and performances out there on CD, iTunes, and YouTube worth a listen, and if you get the chance to visit the Cardiff installation, called simply Forty-Part Motet, do it. Best of all, of course, is if some fine choir nearby offers a live performance that you can attend. It’s rather haunting and ethereal, and made all the more impressive by the knowledge of its complex origins.

Meanwhile, I have given you this bite-sized humorous meditation on the work. A haiku seemed the ideal vehicle for acting as either commentary on or antidote to a choral masterpiece so complicated and virtuosic. And I sort of wonder if, in the process of composing this grand work, Mr. Tallis had any chance to stop for rest or was so deep in concentration that he barely had time to do the Renaissance equivalent of opening a tin of luncheon meat and dining directly from it, pen and parchment in one hand and dripping Spam juice on the other. Thankfully, it doesn’t appear that this effort of his was entirely detrimental, let alone leading to his personal version of the Last Supper, since he went on to compose other fine works up until nearer his death some fifteen years later.