FutuRetro

One of the things I so love about travel and touring is getting a much more powerful sense of history; standing in and on the places where events and lives long past have happened, whether grand or insignificant, utterly changes my understanding of those people and occurrences. My first trip overseas, that Grand Tour I was so privileged to take in college with my older sister, was an awakening I never expected. I hoped the trip would be a cure for my sophomore blues, and indeed it was, beyond anything I could have planned or dreamt before, but more than that I was startled by how connected I felt to history.

The drizzly and cold autumn day when we visited Canterbury Cathedral was atmospheric enough in its way, but I remember standing on stone steps worn into a soft bowl by the thousands of footsteps that had passed over them in the centuries of its existence, looking up into a palely gold ray from a lamp, seeing the motes of dust whirling in it, and feeling that time itself was floating down around me in delicate pieces, that the spirit of every person who had ever set foot on that same smooth hollow in the stone was present there with me in that very moment. It was almost as though I could hear their voices and see the scenes of the past play out in the faint gloom around me, all overlapping and yet perfectly present. I felt my own place in the whole of the human timeline in an entirely different way than I ever expected, tinier than ever, yet surprisingly more concrete and tangible.

This was reinforced later in the same journey many times, as we passed through or visited (not necessarily in this order) England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and stood in the very footprints of many a person, going down the winding passages and cobbled side-streets that had seen multitudes of significant moments long since fled. As this was the first time I visited Norway, the rooting ground of my ancestors from every branch of my family tree, it is no surprise in retrospect that many of those potent realizations came to me in that place—but as usual, hindsight is ever so much clearer than was my youthful wisdom in those days. It was moving, more meaningful than I can express, to get to know the relatives in Norway with whom my family had maintained contact: my maternal grandfather’s sisters and brother-in-law, nieces and nephew. These were days before cheap telephonic long distance, let alone email and internet communiqués, so we had only briefly even met most of these people when they visited America once in my younger years, yet they not only took us in as visitors, Tante Anna and Onkel Alf kept my sister and me with them for a full month and took us to see the family’s two longtime farms, the graves where many of our ancestors were sleeping underfoot. This was incredibly touching, a genealogical history lesson, but the more so because it was taught by the eldest of our remaining family there.

What moved me the most, in fact, was when on arriving in Oslo at our mother’s cousin’s home before we even came down south to be with his parents, we explored the great city a little on our own during the days, while he was at work and his wife and children off having their own day of adventures. It was all so humbling and so magical to feel for the first time that I understood a tiny bit more of my own family lineage and how our people fit into the larger world. We did visit many of the obligatory and famous tourist sites, knowing that there was no direct link to our ancestors, only cultural ones. So I was quite stunned when we visited the Viking Ship Museum and, standing before these ancient vessels, I was absolutely electrified with a sense of shared history coursing through my veins. My forebears were undoubtedly humble subsistence farmers, not the bold and violent and adventurous Viking strain we know through film and television, never mind through the great Sagas—but I felt for the first time something connecting me to those long-gone people all the same.
Photo: Enter the Time Machine

By now I have traveled a fair amount more. I have been on this planet more than twice as long, and I think I might even be a little bit wiser through my experiences in that life than I was back then. But I approach every narrow stone passageway, every weathered door, every window with its rippling antique panes presenting everything that’s beyond them like a warped post-impressionist fiction of itself, I expect to learn something not only about what is there in front of me and around me, but what is inside me. And I know that I will learn something, too, about how I fit into that larger, and ever so mysterious, world if I am wise and patient and alert enough to notice it. So much has gone by. So much remains ahead, yet unknown.

Enlightenment

photoGetting smarter is a lifelong thing, in and out of school–for the fortunate and attentive.

Me, I’m sad at the end of every school year. Those students and colleagues of my husband’s who have become such a big part of our lives and are now graduating or moving on to other jobs or retirement are about to disappear from immediate view. Even the ones who remain close with us after relocating are now to be infrequent contacts rather than the people we happily run into in the hall on a casual basis. I get lonesome for them even before anyone leaves.

The lovely inverse of this, happily, is the ingathering of ongoing and new compatriots as the school year is once more underway. New faces, new voices and new personalities are integrated into the weave of the community and once again it becomes the rich underlay of the year, the pleasant buzz of the bass line, the light up ahead growing ever so slightly brighter as the weeks and months pass and we travel through them.

It’s funny that I sort of forget this changing of the guard between times. Between my years as a student myself, the nearly two decades of my own teaching, and the time spent observing my husband and his colleagues at work, you’d think I would be so irrevocably inculcated with the cycles of the academic and concert seasonal years that I would have a sort of song of it playing internally at all times. In real life, though, I am not so consistently observant.

It’s only when I am right in the moment of it that I recognize what is such a piquant part of my emotional life and I mark these transitions. It’s in these times, in fact, that I most benefit from my spouse’s longtime practice of getting his choirs and groups to sing or play through transitions. In music, this helps performers to internalize a multi-movement piece as a whole and not be stuck performing it as a disjointed, choppy conglomeration so that it loses its sense as a unified entity. It helps a song avoid sounding horribly like a bunch of unrelated anecdotal verses interrupted by further disconnected refrains that act more like speed bumps than gateways between the events of the expedition.

In life, I’m working to find the balance between living and operating while fully engaged in the present, letting that part always be led by the best of the past, and moving toward the best of what is yet to come. I know I’m enjoying the present verse immensely even though some of the singers, players, conductors and teachers of the last semester have moved on to other places and joined in other songs, and I expect that the current moment will lead to yet more marvels of music and camaraderie. I just need to pay attention, follow the score, and be ready whenever a bit part is offered, because I keep humming along in the background and every passage tends to be more illuminating than the last.photo

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

Love Enough for Everyone

Yes, it is Valentine’s Day. I can’t help–whether I buy into the modern version of the  commercially enhanced holiday or not–being reminded of my many loves. And, external motivations aside, I am glad and grateful and even gleeful when I think of how much love is in my life. I have wealth and happiness beyond what anyone might think to wish for, let alone deserve, and I revel in it on Valentine’s Day and every other moment when I stop to think about my many loves.digital collageI have you to thank for it, for my life in worlds of immense happiness! I am fortunate beyond reason in being surrounded by the love of so many, and in turn, to be able to love you all right back. So I send my profound thanks and my joyful love to all of you, especially on this day of all days. To my parents and my sisters! To my sisters’ spouses and offspring. To our grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. To in-laws and to those who have been adopted into our family as additional and also much-loved sisters and brothers and extended family.

I send thankful love, too, to the many friends who have populated my life with such warm affection and care and company from all the parts of my life outside of my parents’ home: my playmates and classmates, my neighbors and teachers and mentors, my roommates and housemates. To the colleagues and students who made my years of teaching so much better by your presence, and the years beyond it by your memory and continued vitality, I send love. To my gracious and hilarious and tender-hearted and wise readers and commenters here at the blog. To those far-flung friends all around the world whom I can visit only indirectly but can carry in my innermost heart easily all the time. Most of you who are among these many loves of mine may never know what an imprint you left and continue to make on my heart and mind, but you do; oh, how beautifully you do.

My good fortune in a much-loved life is crowned with spending my days and nights in the delightfully daffy and deeply caring companionship of the partner spouse who is as integral to this life of love as the air I breathe and the pulse that knocks my heart and mind into these momentary recognitions of such goodness. I love you, my sweetheart! digital collageAnd I send love to all of you others who have shared and continue to shine the sunlight of your kind and cheering ways on my happy life. Happy Valentine’s Day, every one, and may you be as loved as I am! The holiday ought not be the only time you say so, but it’s certainly an excellent excuse and reminder to tell the ones who love you and whom you love that they are dear to you, too. And yes, I might as well add my own thanks to yours, since those who warm us with their love teach us, and make us able in turn, to go out and love others. That is how love works best.

Drawing on Your Beginner’s Luck

The nice blogger from Zara–A Writing Story stopped by recently and her post said she is working at starting to draw. I’m delighted to have another person join the ranks of happy visual artists via drawing–a collection of skills that come in quite handy (no pun intended, especially since there are artists who use their mouths or their feet to make artworks) for far more than strictly a pleasurable activity or visual entertainment. Drawing, a foundational skill in all sorts of visual art, is also a means of communication that differs from and can work in wonderful tandem with writing, singing, signing, and any number of other ways of personal interaction and transmission of information. In addition to the practical application of the end product of the process, the practice of drawing itself has great power as a mnemonic device, a tool for problem-solving, and the training of the brain in such useful skills as eye-hand coordination and (as I know from experience) the correlated motor control of working through tremors to achieve refined movements.

But beyond that, as I said to my blogger colleague, the act of drawing has elements of physical pleasure in the mere action of arm and hand and body that can be worth the pursuit, not to mention the mental and/or emotional pleasures possible. The act of drawing as a form of meditation, even without regard to any possible ‘product’, is quite desirable on its own.

As I said to my correspondent, she needn’t be intimidated in the least even if she’s a rank beginner: By even making the effort to learn, you’re worlds ahead of lots of others! A book I often referenced when teaching my beginner students in college was Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain–it has exercises that aren’t too hard even for someone who’s never attempted to draw before, and because her focus is on how the brain works in visual activity, she offers insights into the process and possibilities that few others do. There are, of course, innumerable excellent how-to books for those who want to draw, many of them favorites of mine as well, but because of Dr. Edwards’ [then] ground-breaking work in recognizing the character of right-vs-left brain function and how it played out in drawing, I always found her work particularly helpful.

Because drawing can engage so many diverse cognitive processes like this, it can be complicated and overwhelming to know just where to start learning how to draw. As I remarked in my note to my fellow blogger, All of that aside, simply making marks on a surface is the beginning of drawing. Sometimes the least intimidating way to begin is to take a piece of paper, make some totally random marks on it, and then see where that takes you. Even if all it does is make you comfortable making the arm movements for a start, that’s helpful. If, as with most people, you look at it and think ‘that looks like . . . ‘ or ‘that doesn’t look quite right . . . ‘–well, then, you’re already making editorial decisions that can help you move toward drawing the way you want to draw.

The bottom line, if you will, for me is that I feel more alert, more attuned to potential solutions when everyday problems arise, and generally just plain happier when I draw. It’s not because every drawing turns into something fabulous–far from it–but because the process of drawing opens up my brain and spirits in useful and unexpected ways. Many times, my drawing produces nothing more than scratches that are shorthand for bigger and more complex and, I hope, better things to come. But the exercise itself is valuable to me, and a glance back through my sketches can often kick-start me into drawing a work that is more successful than the twenty previous ones.

line drawing

Exploring pattern in a sketch.

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Playing around with volume.

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Faces and flowers show up often in my sketchbooks.

line drawing

Hands can be pesky subjects, so I play with sketches of them frequently too.

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Any little vignette that pops into my mind is worth scribbling at least a few times.

Ultimately, whether I’m in gear for serious drawing or just fiddling with a pen or pencil to pass the time, it’s good practice and feels worthwhile. If nothing else happens, at least I have given my brain some thinking-room between the lines and I might figure out what to make for supper, how to cut through the piece of metal that is in the way of my completing a repair in the garage, or who knows–I might even remember where I set down that book I was reading days ago before it ‘disappeared’. It’s doubtful I’ll come up with any Nobel Prize-worthy inspirations while drawing, but then again, if I don’t draw, I’ll never find out!

The Fine Art of being Meaningless

When I was teaching, I hated grades and grading. Even more than when I was a student. I understand the desire, even the need, for being able to assess and evaluate and compare and all of that sort of thing, but my idealism would much prefer to believe in a world where people do the very best they can at whatever they are doing and that, all by itself, is grand enough. I know plenty of practical reasons why this fluffy fantasy can’t work 99% of the time in reality but it certainly never affected my intense dislike of the whole quantitative approach, most especially when it had to be applied–as empirically and evenly as possible, of course–by yours truly in some areas that are arguably quite subjective.

So I set up criteria as clearly as I could and identified particulars of skill, technique, fact, synthetic application of knowledge and so forth that I considered worthy of the study, and took what measures I could to insure that all students got equal access to those resources and had the opportunity to learn, incorporate, express and otherwise use them. And I gave out grades. It was my job.

But in that aforementioned reality, my own version of which I quite happily embrace post-teacherhood, I am not bound by any requirement to make or evaluate anything on the basis of comparison with anything remotely real, not even the stuff of other people’s invention and making. And I must say that I do appreciate my freedom. Sometimes there’s simply nothing more satisfying than writing or drawing or otherwise making decidedly unreal, if not impossible, things for the pure fun of it. Maybe it just appeals to the rebellious kid in me. Maybe it tickles my fantastic fancy. Who knows but what a miraculous accident could happen one day and I might invent a magnificently useful Thingummy of some sort.

But that’s not the reason to make these things anyhow, now, is it? What is most pleasing of all about the creation of any object of ridiculous and pointless nothingness is the act itself. It’s a fine thing to make artwork of any kind just because one can, to enjoy the creative process without regard to the outcome’s being anything but entertaining for me, myself and I. Yes, that’s what I like. No grading, no evaluations, no need to worry about whether it’s beautiful or meaningful, let alone realistic, because this is my own reality, my own personal little world.

And you’re welcome in it, as long as you know the only rule is that there are no rules, and the only value assessment I’m after on the occasion is whether I had a good time and got some valuable yet enjoyable practice in the process of creating my little graphite universe or my textual treasury of the moment. Well, there is a second rule: you, too, should feel free to visit my place of creativity without being required to grade anything, including your own experience of the stuff, and free as well to leave without being expected to like or dislike anything. Though I sure do like it when anyone is moved by my selfless acts of ridiculousness and leaving my meaningless soul exposed in public to do the same, without fear of recrimination or evaluation, and with the infinitely happy sense that such silliness is not only permitted but encouraged in this neck of the woods. Have fun, y’all. I am.

graphite drawing

A Machine for Making Nonsense

Art Imitates Life Imitating Art

A little ditty I wrote when teaching drawing classes . . . graphite on black paperAye of the Beholder

Teacher mustn’t be too choosy,

Guiding student artists through

Projects in which they redo

The works of masters from Brancusi

to Vermeer or Frankenthaler

Or da Vinci; every student

Has a vision of what’s prudent

And what fails, as artist-scholar;

Though they may have witticisms

And have skill and wisdom plenty

As artistic cognoscenti,

Few have true twin criticisms–

Expectation must diminish,

Open-mindedness then flourish,

So the student brain can nourish

New great art from start to finish;

This is what the child of three meant

When she said no one had told her

That the Eye of the Beholder

Never met complete agreement:

Genius art is the dominion

Of the Artist, true; and yet, it

Is the critics, I regret it,

Who know Genius is opinion.digital drawing image