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!

Deep Sea Wishing

Digital illustration: Psychedelic PstarfishPsychedelic Pstarfish

Seems sillier than psyllium to sing of starry seas,

Yet so the ocean’s silken shore’s sufficient proof of these

That sparkling in such shady deep, something is sure to gleam

In stunning stellar specks and sparks in that submergèd stream,

So sing we sweet and shining songs of starfish as we wish

Upon the evening star to see a firmament of fish

The Hours of the Day

Some pieces of music have an especially profound affinity with particular times of day. Those composed deliberately for such hours are of course likelier to fit so well, but even among them there are certain works that are so miraculously fitting they almost seem impossible to separate from their appointed times. Much music composed for the divine offices and devotions of the Roman Catholic church recognizes such affinities because, like many prayers and devotions in other faiths, these practices are meant to be performed at specific times of the day and evening. Like the muezzin‘s call to the mosque, a moving chant or song suited to the hour sets the heart and mind in just the right place for the meditations and oblations of the time.

I wrote this poem long ago and came across it again, remembering that it was written while listening to a specific Angelus played on the organ—Marcel Dupré’s, if I’m not mistaken—and being struck by that wonderful meeting of sound and spirit in it.Painting + text: The Angelus

For Love of Singing

Digital illustration from photos:  I Sing for JoyI Sing for Love

I sing for love of singing, For music, sweet and strong

That carries me from joy to joy, Amending every wrong—

To hear clear voices ringing Across the dawn of day

Makes purest gold, without alloy, My every waking way—

As day approaches evening, A lullaby, at last,

Gives night delight, believing As I do that in the vast—

Infinite—constellation Of voices in the night,

I will find deep communion With the song that sets me right—

I sing for love of singing, For in the choir’s heart

Is all the song of blessing That I longed for from the start.

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

When the Snow Lay Round About

Yes, it’s the 26th. The Feast of Stephen. And, amazingly, it is snowy. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this idea. I know, we’ve seen snow here before and even in much larger quantities, but after the overall increased heat and diminished precipitation of the last couple of years I was certainly not expecting anything snowy to happen, least of all right on the great day of Christmas itself. So it’s kind of amazing to have snow on the ground a whole day later. Oh, and pretty.photoThe snow is lying round about, all right, though not so deep. Relatively even, yes, and it’s definitely crisp. And did I mention pretty?photoHappy winter. Happy holidays. I’m happy to be looking out the window at sparkly, snowy, gleaming prettiness. Sure hope the ice on the road doesn’t slow us down any tomorrow, though, or my shallow delight and appearance-centric enthusiasm will undoubtedly flag. Unless King Wenceslas wants to come out and blaze the trail for us, which might be kind of cool. No pun intended. Aw, what the heck. Let it snow!

Aloft & Alighting

graphite drawingAngels in the Aviary

Of winged and wondrous beings shall I tell,

Whose incandescence fills the deepest wood,

With brilliance, dazzling, pretty as it’s good,

And singing lays clear as a silver bell–

Take wing, you also, soaring wide abroad,

To sing elated tales of what is seen

From over oceans, forests rich with green

And storied mountains–palisades of God–

Let each take flight, to race the sands of time;

To see along the universe’s rim

All future iterations growing dim,

As at such speeds our eyes glaze up with rime–

Of angels such as these I tell my tale

And bid you join their swiftest ranks to fly

Above the oceans, forest, land and sky

To loveliness beside which all falls pale–

And cry, sweet birds, for happiness that we

Are joined in such angelic company.