Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Joy in Grieving

Yesterday was the 6-month anniversary of San's last breath, five hours after my children and I blessed her and bid her leave to go as she slept away the last of her life of almost 68 years.  I did not think of her as "old" in any way.  Until her liver failed in the last couple of weeks, San never looked her age except in infancy.  The people who knew her thought I'd made a typo on her memorial service when I gave her birth year as 1940.  Her students may have thought of her as a mother figure.  To think of her as a grandmother was a real stretch.  I thought of her as my girl.  We were youthful with each other and for each other even as we neared the dimming of our days together.

I have done no research into grief.  I can't tell you about stages of it unless I notice I have moved from one form of it into another form.  I don't want to know the template.  I only want to know experience as I live it and look back on it, this experience, anyway.  In the history of the world, San was just a speck, as I am.  In the history of 2008 in the U.S., San was just one of 40,000 women who perished from breast cancer.  Yet, to say that is to reduce the dignity of human life to a statistic, and I am sorry for even putting a number into this memorial of grieving.  Every one of the 40,000 was one.  We do not live as a statistic, we live as a unity, a point of focus of the grand energy that spins life, weather, worlds, galaxies, epochs, sinners, and saints.  

The one is the one I bless here.  San was one and now she is one with the One.  I have only indirect knowledge of the One.  I sense that I am its instrument, but I can't tell you more than that.  The One is the source and also the final home of all the little ones.

So, rather than tell you all that I have done since my grieving began in July, I will tell you a thing that came to me from that source that feeds my imagination with metaphors.  A friend approached me at a conference in early November to ask sincerely how I'm doing.  I gave a sincere answer.  The words are somewhat different each time I give that answer.  That's OK; there is more truth than one telling ever can express.  Just as you can't talk about The Border War era in Kansas and Missouri in one voice, you can't talk about the loss of a spouse in one telling.  I said what my friend hoped to hear, that San had suffered no agony at the end, that the vigil at her side that last day was much like watching the tide go out.

Little did I know what I'd released with that metaphor.  Ten minutes later, while listening to an angel, who appeared in the person of the poet Naomi Shahib Nye, give one of the best talks I've ever heard, I realized that I had just received a poem.  It came in one piece admitting of no editing, and it stands as my report on the life that passes and the life that continues.

When I woke and sensed
the tide of her life
had gone out,
I knew I was not
the dry beach
but the ocean.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Style and Story in a Christmas Narrative

I wrote a piece last year, “Suggestive Pacing,” about the way the style of telling a story seemed to fit the story. Cormack McCarthy’s The Road was the object of my attention. I had never read any other examples of McCarthy’s work, so I formed the mistaken impression that the style of storytelling in that book was a unique stroke of genius. Later, when I read four other books by him, I understood that McCormack told all the stories in that style. It was accidental that the style seemed so apt to the story of The Road.

Now I’m engaged in another process of sorting through style and story, this time in a wonderful and challenging piece of music for Christmas titled El Niño. It’s an oratorio by America’s foremost composer, John Adams, who may be best-known for his “minimalist” opera, Nixon in China. The libretto is constructed of disparate sources, Biblical and otherwise. The emphasis of the work is a feminine perspective on the sacramental nature of conception and birth. To carry this theme through the work, Adams has chosen a group of poems by women who wrote in Spanish.

The overall effect is magical, but there is a stylistic challenge for the listener in the opening movement. That challenge is what prompted me to consider style and story again. As I thought of “barriers to understanding” in that opening section, I had to consider the challenge the composer took on as well. John Adams wanted to say something about the great mystery and divinity of all births by connecting the Christmas narrative with the present day.

I didn’t think of “barriers to understanding” until I played the opening of El Niño for my colleague, Patricia Zahn, during a drive to Hannibal a couple of weeks ago. A trip to Mark Twain’s town and the site of great stories…what better occasion to tell Patricia about Adams’ treatment of the Christmas story? Imagine us in the car now.

I tell Patricia about the minimalist technique of deconstructing a text, breaking it down to syllables, individual words, short phrases, and strewing these pieces of language as tossed confetti, or nuclear fireflies, or a swift immersion in madness. I tell her of the effect of a tsunami of sound at the moments of God’s presence in the story. Then I offer to play her the opening movement on the car stereo. She is eager to hear it.

And when she does, she is perplexed. I allow the recording to continue from the disorienting beginning to the strange quietude and clarity of the sung narration that follows the first big section. I sense her unease, then, and turn it off. The first word that comes to her mind is “annoyance.” She thanks me for preparing her for the experience. I imagine if I had not, she would have begun to look for a way to leave the car without injury!

Her reaction made me wonder why Adams would begin such an important story by subjecting the listener to an experience of incomprehension. There is a beautiful poem there; why would he deny the listener a chance at hearing how the words add up to a poem? Even after many hearings of this opening section, the most attentive listener will have no way of knowing the text. Then I realized that in performance, the listener has a printed text, either in the program or in projected supertitles. I thought of this printed text as a sort of “scripture.” The listener is placed into a relationship with a “scripture.” This is where style and story come into a relationship probably unintended by the composer.

“Why did you do this?” says Joseph to Mary later in the oratorio. It is a good way to approach the opening movement that so disorients and mystifies. I don’t know why John Adams “did this,” and it would be folly to think that I could read his mind. It is not folly, though, to observe what he “did” and then to think about how his choices are helpful, even miraculous, in making this well-known story fresh.

Here is what happens at the beginning. Instantly, simultaneously, I hear reminders of musical ideas from a long tradition of classical music. I think of obstinate rhythms in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Latin American polyrhythms and the harpsichord of the Missa Criolla of Ariel Ramirez, the jiggling violins and cellos from one of Bach’s Brandenburgs (which one???), the twinkling down of baubles of bright tones as if overlaying this hubbub, but in exotic scales; the gruff, irregular, huffing pronouncements from low brass, like the weight of received wisdom from a gang of old farts, or of encrusted church doctrines taken for granted; all of this with unflagging energy and momentum.

The experience is “layered” and evocative of Charles Ives, who imagined the effect of hearing several bands in a town parade, one near, the other blocks away. Mozart had imagined this too, in the 18th century, in the ball scene from Don Giovanni. There are three small orchestras at the Don’s ball, each in a different room, playing for a different class of people, each playing in a different meter, and we hear them all at once.

So this is the soup we’re in while El Niño engulfs us in sound and rhythm. Out of this energetic texture comes the sound of female voices repeating the single syllable, “mai,” which we know is not “May,” the month, because we are predisposed to depend on “scripture,” the program in our hands or the supertitles above the performers. They sing, “mai-mai-mai-mai-ma-mai- mai-mai…Mai-den!” as if acquiring the capacity for language. Then out of the hubbub comes the male exposition of the word, “King – King – King – King;” then, smoothly, “King of all kings – king of all kings – king of all kings” and other fragments of a beautiful poem given out in atoms of language. “So – still; so – still; so – still.” “He’s like the dew; he’s like the dew; he’s like the dew.” “Maiden and mother and maiden and mother and maiden; mother and maiden; mother and maiden.” Atoms, atoms! Atoms everywhere in this dense throb of human activity, as if the whole world is engaged in the cacophony of whatever this poem is.

The opening might seem pure chaos if not for the sense that it moves forward on the back of Jonah’s great whale, or on the great plates of the earth’s crust, which I think of when I hear the basses and cellos of the orchestra move from the one note they’ve sustained to its adjoining neighbor up or down.

This sense of “harmony” is in no way ordinary, yet it is sensed as a product of intelligent design; an extremely disorienting, counter-orienting experience is managed through intelligent design. I find this fascinating.

What kind of story begins with an incomprehensible experience? What kind of story posits a supernatural event in the context of an intelligent design? What kind of story requires an act of tolerance for disorientation and an act of enduring faith? What kind of story frightens the participant?

I give you the story of Mary, unwed teen mother, and her incredulous, humiliated, enraged, disappointed fiancée, Joseph, trying to judge their proper course of action in unbelievable conditions, and we listeners are a part of that story if we can resist the impulse to escape it, and what it may imply about what is important.

(The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will perform El Niño on December 13th and 14th, 2008.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Giving Full Value to Something

I’ve recently been inside a couple of museums where a lot of imagination is evident. This is not the exception, mind you. I think most of the small museums I enter these days are showcases of imagination. They might all look pretty much the same to the casual observer, but to the “collector of museum experiences,” which is what I have become, they are distinct from each other in terms of what I hear the guides tell me when I ask for a tour.

I always ask people to “show me what you really like in here, or what you think is special.” That question often starts a conversation, and if there would have been a memorized narrative on the entire collection, it can’t find a launching pad in a conversation based on personal admiration.

The really odd thing, and the point of this blog, is that you’d never know the special thing was special from the way the museum treats it! Its special qualities are hidden from the visitor.

Hiding special qualities from the visitor is like administering a sedative. If everything has equal value, and there are a thousand things in the room, then the experience is a growing need for a nap. It’s when we elevate something and assign it more importance than its neighbors, that we help the visitor remain alert, or at least awake. The museum experience needs contours.

For instance, consider the presence of a bugle in a glass case containing other military items. Every museum displays military items. I’ve seen bugles in several of the displays. But in none of the displays have I been invited to make sound on the bugle, though a bugle is indestructible, and in none of the displays has there been an audio station where I could hear someone play a bugle. There is no explanation of how bugle sound is produced, or why bugles are used instead of trumpets or cornets or harmonicas. There are no audios of oral history interviews with soldiers recounting the feelings of hearing taps while in a war zone or at a funeral. Lacking these, the actual bugle in the case is merely filling empty space. It’s just a “metal thing” among “cloth things” and “paper things,” and the sum of the experience is only slightly above zero.

Consider the presence of one of Porter Wagoner’s guitars in a glass display case in the Harlin Museum in West Plains. Porter Wagoner is a West Plains native and a living memory for the Baby Boomers and their parents. He died a year ago. There are any number of gifted guitar-players in West Plains and nearby. The guitar in the museum is not the big, booming Gibson you see in some of his pictures. He used a variety of guitars and he had a collection of them.

I was once a guitar player, so I have questions.

I suggested to the museum's board President, Kathy Wofford, that they upgrade the display of the Wagoner guitar with regular live demos of how it sounds. I imagined inviting someone like the folklorist, Matt Meacham, who knows his way around a guitar, to play the Wagoner guitar and try to ascertain when Wagoner used it, and in what settings. Maybe he only used it at home when doodling around. Maybe it was his “songwriting” guitar. Maybe there is nothing very appealing about its tone. I would want someone skilled to play that guitar as well as a few other guitars, demonstrating the way some models emphasize a rumbling bass while others emphasize a sweetness and lyricism in the treble, and still others are made to penetrate through competing sounds. If we’ve got a celebrity’s guitar, let’s play it well and put it into the service of beautiful thinking until there are no more people who remember Porter Wagoner or care to know what sort of entertainer he was. By that time there will be other guitars, or there won’t, but maybe there will be a bugle player in town who can bring tears to visitors’ eyes by playing taps in honor of honor itself, and in recognition of the pity of war and the fleetness of youth.

My advice on this subject is: pick something, anything, in the museum and let your imagination have a festival of new ideas, and then try them all.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Portrait of a Teacher

This is Sandra Bouman a year ago. I picked up a liking for calling her "San" from her lifelong friend, Maria Aquilina, who was her college roommate at Penn State and her best friend for fifty-one years. San was the optimistic, idealistic, youthful presence within Sandra. Unless I was joking and called her "Sandy," with the retort, "Mikey," she was pure San all the way.

My dear companion of thirty-two years died last month in one of the more fortunate ways to succumb to breast cancer, without much pain, with full mental and emotional responses all the way to the final sleep, and engaged in a sudden outpouring of affection from lifelong friends, colleagues, and students, most of whom only learned of her deteriorating condition four days before she slipped into the fog.

She had learned that her condition was dire the previous week. She had sensed the dizzying rate of her decline a week before she died, and so she and I had concentrated our 42 years of history, distilled it to the essence, and pledged to continue living until life took leave. There would be no death vigil in our house. Even as she lost her physical abilities from the failure of her liver, she and I invented ways to give texture or dimension to the smaller and smaller number of tasks or actions we could do with each other. In this I sensed a commitment to invest "sacramental energy" in every attentive deed, and I asked the congregation at her memorial service, "if we find the capacity to do this with someone when they're dying, why not try it when they're not?"

We blessed each other, and that is what now carries me forward into an active life.

Among the blessings others bestowed on her were messages of how her teaching had affected them. I'm going to quote a few of those messages. I think they convey a better portrait than any of my vast collection of images of her.

"After we spoke on the phone I felt that I wanted to put these feelings down on paper for you to have. I think you deserve to know what an impact you've had on me, and I know that I am only one of many.

"I'm sorry that I was too young to fully understand the depths of the gifts you were bestowing on me. I've just recently started to get it and I want you to know how grateful I am.

"Even though we haven't been a part of each other's daily lives for some time, it is obvious to me now that whatever I didn't come here with, I owe to you.

"You invested in me in a way that I couldn't understand until recently. Maybe I just needed to grow up a little.

"And somewhere over our years together, you became a part of me. Yours is now the voice I hear in my head. Your dignity and grace surround my voice. And your unfailing drive toward greatness will forever be my motivation.

"So thank you, my teacher, for these precious gifts you have given me so selflessly. I am eternally grateful. And wherever I go, and whatever I do, I will take you with me.

"With love and admiration, your student, (                 )"

The same day, this e-mail arrived from San's former student, Ruth:

"I wanted to take a very important moment to tell you how much you mean to my life. I just moved to England and was in the middle of looking for an apartment when I heard of your condition. My heart and prayers are with you. There is love all around you and your support and love has been a changing force in this world. I can clearly trace my life back to a certain point that brought me here to my PhD program in England and the confident and joy-filled woman I am today. That point was you. How you encouraged me to keep working; how you saw my potential and not the mess of poor technique I was then. You are my "musical mother" just as I said those years ago. That is true for so many young artists you have touched. Your support and motivation allows flowers to bloom.

"I love you very deeply. Ruth"

This one, from Emily, the day before San was mostly in a deepening sleep:

"I must admit that when I started school I was not terribly interested in the voice lesson part--it was just a means to an end for me--another class I had to take. I was also reticent to stretch myself, not really believing that I had any great talent, and that what I did have was good enough for my purposes. You, from the beginning, challenged all of that, and while I resisted at first, and resisted you!, I have to say that your demanding more of me than I was prepared to or wanted to give was probably the best experience of my musical "career." I am so GRATEFUL that I was able to learn from you, even it it was way too short a time. I don't think that there will ever be a time that I sing that I won't think of you, your indomitable spirit, and what you so diligently tried to teach me.

"Okay, so that is enough about me and my experience, now about you: You are quite possibly the strongest woman (or person) I have ever met. Your dedication to your craft and to your students has been inspirational. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to maintain your secrecy regarding your illness, and come to class day after day and give what you gave. I cannot express to you how much I respect you, and how grateful I am that you did fight so hard. I am glad to have had as much time with you as I did.

"Be assured that your legacy will live on in all of us that you have touched. I will take you with me in my singing and in my teaching, as will all of the rest of those that you have mentored. I have the tape of our lessons, which I will keep. I will try my best!! to keep my jaw out of my singing, to not say "n" before I start a phrase, and to breathe correctly.

"God bless you. Emily"

I have a file full of touching notes. In some cases, San had no idea about the capacity for fellow-feeling in the sender, and so she was all the more moved when they revealed that side of themselves to her. I, too, had no idea of the self-knowledge and the potential for eloquence in her students. I knew them mostly by name, mostly as people with performance or study habits that San was trying to transform into something more promising.

It was her nature, as it is mine, to see potential and try to bring it out. We fed off each other up to the last moment of consciousness, and that is some kind of blessing, I'll tell you!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

You're OK

Oh, no, not another quote from the title song of "Oklahoma!" Don't worry. The title of today's blog is a take on a book title from somewhere back in the era of helpful advice....I'm OK, You're OK.

I'm thinking about how the path to greatness begins with OK. It almost never begins with GREAT. With luck, it might begin with GOOD, but if greatness is the prize at the end of all the work, good is not usually something you achieve at the beginning.

It turns out that I am an expert on being no good at the beginning. When I was 18 or so, (OK, I'll fess up; when I was 20 or so), I thought that poetry was something that sounded like the verses we were trained to revere in high school, and I thought it was necessary to write sonnets, so when I noticed that all of what passed as "folk music" in the mid-sixties was pseudo-folk pop music, I composed a disgruntled sonnet that began:

Someone has fashioned an arid, barren plain
Where hordes of rhymesmiths forge false yesterday

I was right proud of the assonance in the first line, the aa sounds of arid and barren, and the way they struck the ear like small anvils in a forge. My pride increased when I noticed that I'd placed internal rhymes in the second line (hordes -- forge), and I nearly knighted myself over the repeated effs of forge and false.

Luckily for you, I can't remember offhand how that embarrassing beginning continued, and it is SO not worth the time to see if it is in my stash of saved garbage. I sent it to my high school English teacher, Reese J. Frescoln, Jr. He was tactful and kind in his note of reply, as I recall, stressing his happiness to have heard from me and saying very little about the sonnet.

About that time, perhaps a year later, I began to waste my free time writing pseudo-folk songs in the style of the day, which is to say, absurd on so many levels, yet so indicative of what might pass for "promise" on a bleak, dry day, where creative juices never flowed, but just formed dust bunnies.

I'd had it with singing covers of Bob Dylan tunes and Pete Seeger tunes and I decided to be a song writer at the lone coffeehouse in town, The Jawbone, an outreach program of the Lutheran Campus Ministry. So I wrote up a repertoire of love songs and topical songs and inflicted them on my peers.

Love songs had to include the phrase, "my love," I imagined, and there had to be some overt sensuality in the lyrics because Eric Andersen had changed the rules of the game with his "Come to my Bedside, My Darlin'."

I was sort of smart enough to realize that Andersen's line, "lay your body soft and close beside me/And drop your petticoat upon the floor" was horrible writing, as if "your body" were something disconnected from "you" and subject to being set down like a coverlet or shoe, but Andersen was BIG at the time, having written an even worse line in "take off your thirsty boots and stay for a while."

He was the one to beat, though, so I worked out a little musical hook that lay easily under my fingers and "wrote" a lyric that began like this...

Relax your mind and close your eyes and linger for a while,
And I will spin a thread of sound and it will be your smile,
And if you want to hear another song on my guitar,
Well, relax your mind, my love, I won't be far...
I'll save a song for you.

The highways of light are fading now to a gentle hue,
So let your spirit sail with me and I'll play you a dazzling view,
And you will feel your senses rise and float across the glen
To settle on the mornin' dew and then float back again.

It went on for a few more verses, and I can testify that this song did not turn out to be a "chick magnet." Nosir! It had most of the requisite veiled references to love, "morning dew" being a favorite of mine, but on any scale from OK to Great, this was "not OK." I fell into the same trap with "relax your mind," as if "your mind" were disembodied from "you." The remainder was earnest silliness.

This next perilous dive into the deeps of Metaphor was much admired by my friend Lynn, though not for the lyric. She smiled at the fetching little guitar hook I'd provided for it.

My love, my love, my lo-o-o-ove,
She greets me every morning with the dawn.
My love, my love, my lo-o-o-ove,
Her breath has made the sky no longer wan.

My love's a steady breeze of true devotion,
Blowing kisses in the sun from off her palm,
And I'm a lofty ship on the briney ocean,
Without her I'd be lost in a boundless calm.

I should have been jailed then and there for literary abuses, and I was still Not OK as a song writer.

In my senior year, inspired by a new knowledge of classical art songs and by a poem that began "Oh, death will find me long before I tire of watching you," I composed a one-verse song and recorded it at The Jawbone for an album that showcased all the student song writers.

Death will tire me.
Death will tire me long before I see your face again.
But everywhere will your swift shadow be:
Here your perfume in someone else's hair,
And here are lips like those in darkest night
That warned me not to share.

A little closer to OK, I think, but still struggling with overripe linguistic effects.

One rainy day two years later, in a state of angst, I wrote a song I called "Slowly Failing:"

Dark all day on the lonely side of town,
The light behind the clouds is slowly failing.
I will set my mind at peace before the night comes trickling down,
I'll provision all my thoughts and set them sailing.

The song never got beyond two verses, a rather tiny fleet to set sailing, and the persistent awkwardness in my style shines through unmistakably, though I like the feminine endings and the final metaphor. Not on the Map of OK yet and my sophomore year is at this point four years behind me.

Five years later I tried another, for my little girl:

One more night with the window wide open,
One more phrase of a song to recall,
All the sounds I could sing but a token
Of your bright spirit's rise and fall.

Ride a weathervane,
Ride a weathervane,
The wind, it will blow it,
I'll come if you call.

In my opinion, this one is on the map of OK.

Eighteen years later, with the sound of baby talk still in my mind, I wrote a song called "All The People," my daughter's way of requesting a repetition of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme. I worked out a tune that went round and round, postponing musical resolution, as if in suspended animation, and I put words together with an ear for elision, all syllables flowing together easily. My daughter was leaving to continue her education in Texas, prompting the line about "when they are leaving" near the end of the song. The year was 1991, and it's the end of my songwriting story. I'm very attached to this one, both music and verses, so whatever you think of it, this one and "Ride a Weathervane" are the peak of my abilities in a genre I was not meant to master, but where I made a little journey from Not OK into OK.

Someone's playing on a guitar,
Songs of long ago...
Swaying dancers seen from afar,
Round and round they go...
Gentle music over the lawn,
Rainbow, sunset, and sky.
I remember days that are gone,
Seen with a toddler's eye.

Sing me a ballad, sing me an air,
Sing me a girl with yellow hair,
Radiant hair, delightful to see,
Sing me the woman who married me.
Radiant hair, radiant eyes,
Sing me a ballad for all our lives.

Someone's playing on a guitar
All my bygone days...
Ocean water...rides in a car...
Rows of new-mown hay....
Conversation, people at ease,
Tying ribbons and bows...
Bedtime stories, all that we please,
Only Daddy knows.

Sing me a ballad, sing me an air,
Sing my family then and there.
All the people here tonight,
When they are sleepy, bid them good night.
All the people ever I'll know,
When they are leaving, let them go.

Sing me a ballad, sing me an air,
Sing me a daughter ever fair,
Sing me a boy who looks like me,
Sing me a woman happy with me,
All the people in my song,
May they be dancing all night long.

Update, August 4, 2008: I found a recording I made of this song in 1991, shortly after I wrote it. I had adapted it for a friend's 50th birthday, so "yellow hair" became "auburn hair" in the first verse. This is an mp3 recording.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

An Halucinatory Oratory

"An" is a pesky word. People are afraid of sounding natural or appearing uncouth, so they stick "An" in front of a word with a voiced H, such as "historian." The strict grammarians who taught me some of what I know stressed the importance of smooth elision. They said that "an" only belongs in front of an unvoiced H, such as one might hear in a Cockney accent....'istorian. Used in a sentence, 'e's come up i' the world, 'e's an 'istorian.

Actually, that's far-fetched, it's an honor to say.

I shouldn't, but I shudder when someone writes "an historian," but I don't pass a remark on the subject.

In honor of dear, misplaced Anne, I wish to report "an" halucinatory incident this morning while taking Lola the Poodle on her morning constitutional. I saw an white egret looking for breakfast at the well-stocked pond at Lewis Park, and, just beyond th' egret, I saw a fish bicycling fast in the opposite direction, but getting nowhere.

How this story turns out, I cannot say. Th' egret was 'appy to 'ave me snap a picture or two, as long as Lola and I kept our distance. So 'ere is the evidence, that I am not crazy.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Storyteller and the Editor

Recently I finished reading a story that held my interest week after week, reading a half hour here, and hour or so there, until I got to the end. The book is Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs. I don't intend to summarize the story here or to review the book. I like to read them for myself and make up my own mind, and I suspect you do, too.

This blog is about a sentence I found after I finished the book. "Nat Sobel has made every one of my books better, but he absolutely saved this one." Until I read that, I'd been wondering about the role of the editor in this book, and here it is...he improves what the author creates.

A year ago I performed an editorial service for a friend who had written an essay that no one would touch. I wanted to publish it because it was an interesting account of culture shock and compulsive reading as a therapy. What interested me in it wasn't coming through clearly, though, so I wrote back with some suggestions for reshaping the piece. My friend wrote back that I was the only person who had actually engaged his text, and he said he would work on it.

We went through this process of back-and-forth revision and critique a couple of times and he lost interest in further shaping of the piece. I think he didn't see the reader interest I saw in it, and so it wasn't worth the time to him that it was worth to me. Maybe he'll pick it up again some day and see what I saw in it.

Back to Bridge of Sighs now. What I absolutely loved about this book is the distinctive and consistent "voice" of the characters, particularly the central character, Lou C. Lynch, who has taken to writing a summary of his life as he approaches retirement. This is a relaxed, thoughtful voice, and the life is that of a person who lives in a small town that has been cursed by the toxins of the industries that kept it alive for generations.

Structually, the story Russo unfolds is complicated by shifts of focus and shifts of narrative voice. Lou C. Lynch tells his own story, first-person. At the end of Chapter 1, Lynch speaks of his boyhood friend, Bobby, who has been much on his mind of late.

The narrative voice of Lynch is replaced by an omnicient narrator in Chapter 3, when the scene shifts to Venice and the focus shifts to a man named Noonan, who we later surmise is Lynch's old friend, Bobby Marconi. We are in the dark, though, about the name Noonan.

I was drawn into this story as Lou C. Lynch unfolded the details of his childhood, of his father's and mother's natures, and of their relationship with the gritty secrets of the Marconi family. Late in the book, though, I began to notice passages, turns of phrase, that I thought belonged in a discarded draft. What I have to say about those passages is pure guesswork. I haven't contacted the miracle-worker, Nat Sobel, or the masterful yarn-spinner, Richard Russo, to confirm. This is what I think happened:

Russo delivered a mountain of typescript pages to his publisher, and Sobel spent many days in a very careful reading, making copious notes, just as I did last year with my friend's essay. Sobel prodded Russo to preserve and protect the integrity of that distinctive voice and tone of Lou C. Lynch, and to sharpen characters or scenes, and to cut passages that didn't really advance the story. Russo got back to work and sent revisions. Sobel sent more suggestions.

Meanwhile, time was running out at Alfred A. Knopf, publishers. Knopf wanted to release this blockbuster just after the start of school in 2007, when people are looking for something to read again or to buy for the Holidays. As the deadline approached, did Nat Sobel tire of the constant process of tuning the book? Did Richard Russo grow weary of the work? Or did they just run out of time?

What I noticed is that there was more than one "omniscient narrator" in the book, and that is a flaw. There are passages where the narrative voice resembles that of a guy making wisecracks with you in a tavern. There are other passages where the narrative voice is psychoanalyzing the book's characters. I thought I was reading the equivalent of notes Russo wrote to himself about what was going on in the mind of his characters. Given the quality of the first half of the book, this sense of "mission creep" for the impersonal narrative voice was unwelcome. I would gladly have put up with many more pages of the real thing rather than the fewer pages of this new voice.

Then there are small turns of phrase that hit the ear like lead. When seventeen-year-old Bobby Marconi moves into a vacant room above the drug store, it is a sorry, run-down place with a toilet and sink over on one wall, unenclosed, and when the toilet is flushed, the whole setup shakes and rattles "like an epileptic." In a book in which Lou Lynch has mounted a map of town and placed a black pin on the location of every death from an exotic form of cancer, the epilepsy metaphor is both unique and utterly out of place. It's the kind of writing one expects to see in college fiction-writing classes. It's amateur, just as Russo was an amateur at one time, and Nat Sobel no doubt would have red-lined it if time or energy had not run out on them. Nat would have also raised an eyebrow, I imagine, at the alarming similarity of the scene in which Noonan sees Sarah Lynch through the window of a departing train just as a wierd physical event wracks his body. It's too much like the movie death of Dr. Zhivago, so we're reminiscing instantly on the film careers of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and the miraculous cleanliness of their clothing in that winter they spent in the abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, probably with no running water. Richard, what were you thinking???? But the clock ran out on Bridge of Sighs and it had to go to press, ready or not, and it was not...quite...ready. There is a finer book in there than got into print, and I highly recommend it, even so.

I mentioned this "editorial fatigue" to a writer the other day. He said it's common in the publishing world. Once a writer scores with a hit, the publishers are afraid to do serious editing any more for fear of deleting the magic. He named several best-selling writers who complain about lax editing and bloated books.

As I say, I have no idea if I've guessed right about Bridge of Sighs. There was one opportunity for a huge misstep that Russo either avoided or Sobel averted, and I won't tell you what it is because I think it would spoil some of the mystery and magic of this wonderful story.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Social Networking With Books and Ideas

Social Networking is one of those expressions that creates less interest rather than more. There is one unnecessary word there, “Social,” making the expression a (stand back!) pleonasm. Just when you thought “tautology” was the only vocabulary word you’d need to express this verbal excess, along comes “pleonasm,” which our intern, Kara, just found on the internet when I explained the need for a term. Isn’t “networking” enough?

Now I can pretend to have a vocabulary!

I know “social networking” from email discussion groups called “listservs.” I subscribe to several of them and participate in few. In the few I read regularly and contribute to, I have the feeling that I’m engaged in a real community and I have the sense that my contributions “shape” those communities. Participation has that effect, even if it’s negative in tone.

Last month I wrote about Facebook in connection with the readmoremissouri.org web site. There’s a social networking possibility for people who want to talk about The Starcatcher Trilogy by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. I signed up for a Facebook account, wondering what in the world I would do with it. In setting up my Profile, I had to respond to a question like, “Do you have religious ideas?” or some such thing. Rather than write a confessional, I responded, “Yes, much of the time, don’t you?” No one in this vast social network has taken me up on that, and probably no one has seen it. However, I did receive an immediate e-mail from a county library employee who reads my newsletter and subscribes to Facebook. I suppose that is how social networking begins, with a neighborly “howdy” across the electric fence. But after, “howdy,” what is there to say, unless you have a common interest?

Now it seems that Amazon.com is trying to implement social networking on its bookselling page. I stumbled upon their attempt while looking for a digital image of the cover of Goodnight Moon. I Googled for the title, clicked one of the links that came up, and landed on a page devoted to the “board book” version of that title. Here is the link I clicked:


Behold! There is a small set of family photos depicting parents and children with that book. What a great idea! I thought some of the pictures were truly charming, so I tried to contact the parents who uploaded them to ask for permission to use those pictures on a Family Education web site.

That’s where “social” and “networking” broke down completely. There was no way to directly contact those parents as there is on a photo-sharing site like Flickr.com. I had to try to do it indirectly, by clicking through layers to their “Profiles” and then clicking something that provided me a way to invite them to become my “Friend.” Doing this made me feel like a stalker, but I did it, explaining who I am and giving the URL to my completely legitimate web site at the Missouri Humanities Council. That was on March 14, and I have not heard a peep in reply.

There are several possible reasons:

  1. Amazon hasn’t created a way to get such an invitation to the intended party, not yet, anyway. Amazon makes no mention at all of “social networking” in its vast array of topics about managing “My Account,” so maybe Management at Amazon doesn’t know that something new has been rolled out.

  2. Amazon has created a dumb way, such that the recipient only discovers the message when they log in to their Amazon account, which may be very infrequently.

  3. OR, Amazon has done this smartly by sending the invitation directly to the e-mail address the recipient provided; but the recipient has changed email accounts recently, doesn’t use the account they gave Amazon, or doesn’t check email that often.

  4. My invitation for Friendship was lost in a Spam folder somewhere or turned over to the local Police or FBI.

  5. My invitation was received but was viewed as an unwelcome intrusion.

  6. My invitation was received but was saved for “later” because the baby needed changing, and “later” now means “forgotten.”

In any case, Social Networking at Amazon is not functioning two-way at the moment. It’s just one-way, and that’s a surprise and a letdown. I think there’s a great opportunity there to make it easy for parents to share ideas about the benefits of books in the home. I think it’s such a great idea that you’ll find it implemented on our own family reading web site ASAP.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Art of Lieder Singing

After I bought my iPhone, I discovered a treasure of classical music on YouTube. Here is one by the German Baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This one performance is sufficient to convey the essence of German Lieder singing, what we aspired to do and be when we first learned this repertoire as undergraduates.

The song is “Gute Nacht” by Franz Schubert. It is the first song in a sequence of twenty-four in a cycle titled “Die Winterreise” (Winter Journey). There is a lot of commentary about this song cycle on the web, and you can spend a day or so getting into the context of German art songs, German Romantic poetry, and Schubert’s place in the history of song.

I suggest you look at the performance first, and don’t fret about the lousy video quality. It’s probably from an old source, as the performance dates from 1966, perhaps on Japanese TV. Look and listen, and then follow along as I describe what I see and hear, and why this would suffice if all other Lieder recordings were suddenly to disappear.

You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tc_GCguYgHw

The first thing one notices about the song is the regular pattern of sound that the piano lays down. It evokes the thought of footsteps. The minor key is somewhat somber. There is no figuration in the piano part, just the steady “footfall” of block chords. We know from the title that the time is night and the season is Winter.

The job of the singer is to create a sense of the personal situation that prompts these lines of poetry, set in just this way by the composer. The text is not a play, so the actor’s craft here is to imagine what sort of “character” utters these words.

Now is a good time to have a look at the text with a line-by-line translation by Professor Celia Sgroi from the State University of New York at Oswego (by coincidence, the place where I had my first college teaching job).

What is distinctive about Fischer-Dieskau’s art is his ability to “place himself” in the currents of emotion that lie between the lines and between the stanzas. In this song, he must be observed by the audience as he mutters to himself about what has just transpired. In many art songs, there must be no direct eye contact with the listener. This song is a soliloquy.

Someone has lost in love and is leaving town after everyone has gone to bed. “A stranger I came, a stranger I leave.” When you watch the video again, just look at his body movements. I think all of them are expressive of the emotional currents in the text.

As you watch, listen very carefully for changes in vocal tone and intensity in the text. At the start of the second line, when “Fremd” is reiterated, did you hear Fremd? He leaned on “stranger.” It pains him.

Then when he sings “Die Mutter gar von eh’” the second time, it’s a blow. The mother even spoke of marriage, (and now look where I am)! But then, in the space between that line and the next one, Fischer-Dieskau takes a hard slap to the face. You can see it. He is stricken to think of the reversal of fortune, and we believe it. We are no longer watching Fischer-Dieskau, we are watching the unnamed fellow who is, literally, left out in the cold and on the way to who-knows-where?

He modulates the sound in the next phrase, “Now the world is so gloomy.” And after the repeat of that phrase, I sense shame in his downcast look. He leaves with a sense of disgrace; can’t face the people in town, or the girl he lost, or her mother.

Then a fleeting look of resignation to his fate, and the soft utterance of his powerlessness to affect his course. The active word is wählen in the second line. Listen closely to how the character of the tone changes on the important word. Then, as soon as he comments on the darkness, he thinks of the moonlight overhead and sees it before he sings it. But then, as he sings of deer tracks in the snow, his mind is obviously back inside the house he is approaching, where his former love lies sleeping.

His art consists of knowing what to transmit; certainly not deer tracks in the snow, but the emotional affliction that sets the scene for what is to follow.

The next verse is edgy, combative, and he avoids the sophomoric trick I’ve seen recommended elsewhere on “Lass irre Hunde heulen/Vor ihres Herren Haus?” The trick is to exaggerate the rolled Rs to mimic the growl of dogs. To do that is to draw attention to a detail “on the outer surface” of the performance, when the whole point of this song is to draw attention to the inner life of the sufferer.

And then a shift of mood toward “distraught” on “Love loves to wander, it’s God’s plan.” Listen to how he spins “einem” and “andern,” “one” to “another.” Then he backs the sound off into bleakness as if to say, “God meant me to be the loser.”

As the piano finishes that verse, Fischer-Dieskau weaves in space as if blown about by the winds of a cruel fate. The interpretation continues through the spaces in the text.

And then, amazing!, Schubert suddenly changes the key to major, and any sensible pianist makes the slightest delay in the forward motion of the rhythm just before entering "the atmosphere" of those major chords, and then the walking rhythm is as before. And even before this major tone is sounded, the singer is bereft, and his vocal utterance a moment later is delicate, bordering on inaudible, but with the slightest emphasis on “shame” in the second line.

The climax of the piece is “an dich hab Ich gedacht,” On you I thought! The musical peak is “An dich” but there’s a slight portamento downward to “dich” to continue the sense of emphasis. (None of these nuances are notated in the score). At this point, you can hear something new in the way the pianist is presenting those repeated chords. There is a sense of small blows falling, again not notated, but part of inhabiting the spirit of the story.

You may have noticed that there is no sense of physical effort in his vocal production. He will not be exhausted physically after twenty-four songs without a break, but you can already imagine how emotionally drained he will be. This level of commitment is what distinguished Fischer-Dieskau when he launched his career at the age of twenty-two in 1947. He was forty-one when he gave this performance.

If you listen another time or two, you can make a study of “perfect” legato delivery. True legato is a seamless flow of sound from one syllable to the next while retaining clarity of words. In this performance, legato is the norm, and any breaks are for textual clarity or emphasis.

You can see quite a few other examples of Fischer-Dieskau’s art on YouTube. I was so enchanted with this that I bought two DVDs of full performances of this song cycle and Schubert’s other big one, Die Schöne Müllerin.

I remember when I first heard his name. I was a college freshman on a tour with the Penn State Singers, and our leading student baritone was going on and on about the quality of Fischer-Dieskau’s sound. It would be two years before I first heard him on recordings, about the time I was first assigned some Schubert Lieder for my senior recital. Then in my senior year, my voice teacher organized a group trip to hear him give a recital in Carnegie Hall. I was wonderstruck. I started collecting his records. My teacher said I would never succeed at that; he was the most-recorded voice in history.

I saw him in recital again in Montreal in 1975, and again in Carnegie Hall for a series of recitals in the mid-1980s. One of my DVDs is of a Schubert performance he gave in 1992, a couple of months before he decided that he was no longer meeting his standard of excellence. I can hear the voice of a man of 67 in that recital, but only now and then. For most of the time, I hear the same quality of sound he always had, and the same world-stopping penetration of the emotional life of the songs.

For me, Fischer-Dieskau did not “interpret” a song. He was the song!

Monday, January 14, 2008

i phone, i tune, and now i tube!

For a long time I thought iTunes was software for someone else. I even deleted the software and its icon from my desktop computer to minimize personal cultural shock. Little earphones and tinny little tunes, so I thought, were not for my high-expectation ears. Note that I wasn’t being a snob, please. It’s not the tunes I disdained, but what I supposed was the audio quality.

Then I bought an iPhone, which is a dressed up iPod to some people and a tiny entertainment device-with-phone for others. I underestimated the entertainment potential when I decided to buy it, and then many things changed.

I no sooner decided to buy the gadget than I decided to learn to use the iTunes music library as a real library for myself. I decided to create a little sonic autobiography on my laptop. I started to remember songs that were so vividly woven into memory that I recalled scenes and situations related to each song. Please Mister Custer, a song I didn’t want to hear again, is still in my memory of riding in a car with my friend, Jim Nickell. We played in a little rock band in high school and we palled around now and then as we both got drivers’ licenses. Jim was driving in the day I remember, the car was a big blue Buick, I think, and he turned up the bass on the radio so that Please Mister Custer really boomed out. I remember the joy of that moment, how we both relished the things that could be done with sound.

I browsed the iTunes library for some old favorites like The Drifters singing Under the Boardwalk and Judy Collins singing The Hills of Shiloh. The more I browsed, the more I found alternate possibilities for the songs I remembered, and the more I found music I’d never heard of but which I wanted to have for repeated listening.

I’ll give one example. I wanted to look up the title of a tune on the CD “Meeting By the River” by Ry Cooder. I looked up Ry Cooder and discovered a world of recorded music I hadn’t known anything about. One of his old CDs was titled “Bop Till You Drop” (1979). It is a joyous look back at infectious material from the 50s and 60s. Little Sister is my favorite track. It has the feel of informality, horsing around, in the vocals, but with very clean, tight instrumental backup. The utter lack of “rehearsed” ensemble when the gang sings “oo-oo-oo-oo” in the refrain tells me this is about the fun of playing the music, and not about the what the lyrics are narrating.

I finally imported Ry Cooder's rendition of Isa Lei from the CD I own. Once I knew the title, I found it in other versions and discovered an outstanding guitarist, Ed Gerhard, who I hadn't known about. Wow, the things you discover!

The earphone experience was another revelation. Those inconvenient little ear buds that come with the iPhone created surprising amounts of listening pleasure in the few moments the buds remained lodged in the right position. Real earphones made a huge difference for me. The surprise was how good everything sounded. A minor addiction was under way. I imported a vast number of songs from my CD collection and in no time had nearly 800 items on my computer and iPhone and still more than half of the iPhone’s storage space available. Listening to Joni Mitchell's All I Want from the "Blue" album is a great example of "earphone music." With the ear buds in, Joni and her dulcimer sound like they are in the center, between my ears as it were, and I hear other distinct things on the right and left. On the right, as I imagine things, sits James Taylor, who is listed as a guitarist on this song.

As I listened to my newly-captured tunes, I began to organize some into a “playlist” and started to goof around with the order of things so that my chosen songs made sense in their juxtaposition. The making of a playlist can be a creative project, and I’ve derived a lot of satisfaction from working up a long one.

I spent much of yesterday surfing YouTube for video versions of some songs I liked. The “library experience” at YouTube is much like the one at iTunes. You can type in a song title or you can type in the name of an artist. Either way, the search results show you some related material that you can easily browse.

One type of music video is a photo montage over the audio recording, there being no video of the artist performing the piece. A gorgeous example of this is thomasj157’s upload of winter pictures to go with Gordon Lightfoot’s Song for a Winter’s Night.

Another style is the candid video of an artist either in rehearsal or in a non-concert setting. I love the one I found of Joni Mitchell singing Night Ride Home in someone’s back yard.

She recorded the CD in 1991, so I guess this video is from the 1990s. I like it a lot better than the “produced” music video she made.

There are a lot of gems in the list of Joni Mitchell clips on YouTube. I like to watch her play guitar in the distinctive way she developed over 40 years ago. Distinctive lyrics, distinctive guitar, she’s one of the songwriting giants of that long era.

“Produced” music videos, for me, are less interesting than live performances or informal renditions. I looked up Kathy Mattea's Asking Us To Dance because the listening experience was outstanding with those little iPhone earbuds. I found a produced music video from 1991 with a "ballet" of sorts intercut with a secondary ballet between the camera and Mattea's wonderfully expressive face. I had seen these things before....where? Aha! The choreography and cinematography were taking ideas from recent movies: a sex-in-a-downpour scene from 9 ½ weeks (1986) and the after-hours dances in Dirty Dancing (1987). The video is a sensual viewing experience, not R-rated by any means, but Kathy Mattea’s mocha mezzo voice is the loser here. A voice like that deserves earphones-only listening, eyes closed. She’s photogenic, though, and the camera tours her face like a lover’s lips.

I prefer the style of Mike Reid’s Walk on Faith video from 1990. It’s like looking at a college yearbook for me. I knew Mike years earlier, when he was an All-American defensive tackle at Penn State and a classical piano major studying in Earl Wild’s studio. I was a few years ahead of Mike, but I saw him give impressive, piano-shattering performances in student recitals, and I watched him play pro football with the Bengals on TV. I had no idea back then that he wanted to sing and be a songwriter, so I treasure my CD of his music and this video of him in lip-synch with his recording. It’s a really cute montage of images, and it captures the Mike Reid I remember, though with a thinner neck and more hair than when he was a Nittany Lion!

p.s. If you liked that one, I think you'll have fun with another of the same era, Poor Boy Blues, with Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler.