A smudge and a smear

The description by James R. Oestreich (NY Times, April 25) of a concert of Bach’s solo violin music played in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York struck home. The headline was “Getting Inside the Mind of Bach.” The concert featured “performances of the three sonatas and three partitas for unaccompanied violin, spaced throughout the cathedral and side chapels.” The kicker is that the sonatas and partitas were played simultaneously.

“Daniel S. Lee led off, playing the Partita No. 3 from a central spot in the nave, imparting animation and spirit with free tempos and an improvisatory air. He held full attention for five minutes, until two players struck up different works from chapels on either side of the altar. Five minutes later came another fiddler in another piece, and the performances ran continuously, four at a time, for 90 minutes.”

“St. John the Divine is much too large and reverberant to allow for clear projection of individual melodies or harmonies, and that was the idea: that lines would partly vanish in a mysterious void and partly mingle to form a distant fabric of sound as a backdrop to whichever performance was close at hand as listeners roamed freely.”

I’ve gotta say that I feel a little like a listener roaming freely through my own life right now. I’m catching bits of recognizable music even as those bits collide with other bits of recognizable music, resulting in a smudge and a smear of the familiar.

Renovation work continues on our house. We haven’t had hot water in two months. Three rooms have been transformed – kitchen, bedroom, and a tool room – but are not yet habitable. A downstairs bathroom has been added. There are at least another three weeks of work to be done this year – with more work to be done next summer.

I threw my back out one week ago doing some raking in the garden. It did not feel like a big injury: I felt it but it did not scream at me to stop immediately. Four days later it was definitely on the mend until I spent 90 minutes driving up to Burlington. That trip, which contained no specific moment of “ouch,” set me back to Day One of the injury.

I presented three concert programs to be approved by two choral organizations in Montpelier and Burlington on Monday and Tuesday. The programs were approved, which is a relief because they took months of planning. Both choruses are in cities where there are a bunch of other choruses, and programming needs to reflect both what makes one chorus different from another, as well as performances scheduled on days when others aren’t. This is amazingly complex.

This week I finished reading Dave Eggers’ “The Circle,” a dystopian novel about the risk of sharing everything about yourself with people with whom you have no relationship. Welcome to the dark side of social progressivism. (Why am I writing this blog?…)

So I did stuff this week, but the feeling I have right now is of feeling weak. My body isn’t feeling vibrant. I’m dizzy.

I hate feeling physically and mentally weak. I need to figure out how to emotionally acknowledge current reality while still pursuing a positive future – without denying risk.

Now there’s fervent personal statement, right? Well, it may feel personal, but these thoughts about what the future holds as opposed to what the past has created, have become a focus of psychologists and neuroscientists. It’s discussed in an article that I read in yesterday’s NY Times, “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” by Martin E. P. Seligman and John Tierney. It’s well worth reading.


Memories of 3 decades

What are my most vivid life memories up to this time? What experiences do I think will most vividly influence my life in the next 10 years? I’m so glad you asked!

I am currently 63, so I will assign my recollection and projection of experience to those decades ending in 3.

Age      What do I, or will I remember best?

3-13     6 month trip to India in 1963

13-23    decision to make music my profession in 1973

23-33    early married life and vocal cord paralysis

33-43    role as a bread-winning father and professional

43-53    role as a bread-winning father and anxious, impatient professional

53-63    health blips

63-73    travel to places I’ve never been

73-83    discomfort about the future

83-93    assessment of my life

Where my head goes when I can’t talk

In fact, my voice is now slowly coming back, but it’s sketchy enough that I still can’t go public. But writing works. Here are a couple musings that have come to me in the last 24 hours.

In the current The New Yorker, if you read the descriptions of classical music performances that are to take place in the New York City area between April 26 – May 2, you will read the names of 46 performing singers, instrumentalists, and conductors. Guess how many of those are Americans? The answer: 15 or one-third of all the total performers listed. Classical music is clearly not identified by very many Americans as a viable or desirable career.

On another subject, yesterday I chanced upon a TED talk given in April by Pope Francis. I am an atheist, but having a career in choral music, I’ve had to spend many, many Sundays in church. I’ve heard many, many sermons.

And I’m not an easy listener. Having heard so many sermons, the percentage of sermons that stay in my memory for, say, 30 minutes after they’ve been delivered, is frighteningly low – maybe one in 20.

I found Pope Francis’ TED talk (alias sermon) to be unbelievably powerful. And  “unbelievably” is, in fact, a carefully chosen word. As I think about what he said and what he considers to be the source for truth, I would never have believed that I would react with such an emotional response. Pope Francis’ religious beliefs bear little resemblance to mine and yet he succeeded in drawing me into his head and heart, so that I believe that what he believes is important.

Have I not just described both a memorably fine sermon and a great piece of music? Like a fine sermon, the ideas and impact of a great piece of music cannot be described or assessed by any scoring system.

Greatness in music and greatness in preaching are determined by the composer or preacher’s ability to communicate on a personal level with many people.

Very occasionally, there is greatness. When that happens, we believe.


Rest in peace

Today is the 152nd “anniversary” of the day that Lincoln was shot. On April 14, 1865 it was also Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Those anniversaries coincide this  year.

Lincoln died on April 15.

Lincoln and I don’t have much in common, but there is no famous person whose life – and death – stirs me as Lincoln’s does.

Rest in peace, Abe.


Bringing back Bach

Bach has never gone away, so bringing his music back is easy. But bringing back Bach’s influence on another composer’s music – that is more of a challenge.

Bach is not everywhere. Beethoven, Berlioz, and Bartok, to choose just a few “B” composers, are not Bach’s musical children.

But Brahms is.

Preparing for last night’s rehearsal with the Burlington Choral Society I was struck by how much of Bach’s musical language is still present in the Brahms “Requiem.” Obvious are the fugues. Less obvious are the smaller gestures: the appogiaturas, the suspensions. Most interestingly and surprisingly, though, was the discovery of the similarity between Bach and Brahms’ text-derived rhythmic gestures and phrase shapes.

Baroque music and “performance practice” have become a broadly spoken musical language of many experienced singers, instrumentalists, and conductors, but for whatever reason, I had not thought of Bach’s music and our modern understanding of Baroque performance practice to be a part of the language of the “Requiem.” But it is.

(I must confess I like the sequence of that realization. Very often, at least in my case, one gets good ideas from others. But this one was mine!)

Sadly for my ego, it turns out that I am hardly the first to explore this idea. There is a recording of the Requiem conducted by John Elliot Gardiner that uses a great deal of this early music mentality. I found it interesting and “authentic,” but somehow without the emotional authenticity of a really great performance.

The challenge, I think, is to try and think like Brahms. He loved the music of Bach, but his respect for Bach was not made manifest by literally copying Bach’s language. His respect was more subtle. Bach’s language had endured for over 100 years when Brahms wrote the “Requiem” and one senses that the ghost of Bach is there in 1868, the year that the “Requiem” was completed, but Brahms is in control. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, Part I,  there is “the line and the predicament / Wherein you range under this subtle King!”

Brahms’ “Requiem” is both beautifully original and beautifully respectful of Bach’s subtle musical language. I aspire to bring that to light – and to sound – in the upcoming performances.


Bring back the pain

How many people die? That’s one statistic that, shall we say, doesn’t change. Everyone dies.

But how many people that we know well die? In the U.S., the size of the family has declined. The average American in 1850 lived in a household of 6.7 members, the average American today lives in a household of only 3.5 members, a 48% drop. This means that, in the United States at least, the deaths of people we know well have become fewer. Death is growing more distant.

Can that partially explain why, when a news headline tells you how many people died in _______ because of _______, we in the U.S. don’t feel it as viscerally as we would have 200 years ago? Here are some headlines accessible online at 9 am this morning on CNN: “Death toll rises in Egypt church bombings.” “News anchor learns her husband died in story she’s reporting.” On NPR: “US-led coalition troops, rebels push back ISIS attack.” “Sweden attack suspect had been ordered to leave.”

To me these headlines feel like news rather than death, and I’m embarrassed.

Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angles of Our Nature, argues that violence in the world has in fact declined, but that “because of the vanishing communication gap, today, the number of reportings of violence has risen, giving people an impression of rising rapes, abuses and other violent activities.”

Curse “the vanishing communications gap!” I know too much about violence, about distant death, and don’t feel the punch in the gut the way I should.

Uncle John

Last night I has a dream about my Uncle John, a jazz pianist, songwriter, arranger, and composer. He was married to my Aunt Peggy, my mother’s sister. He died in 1999.

In the dream I was a student at some music school. I was in conversation with the director of the school at a party when I said that John Benson Brooks was my uncle. The director became very excited; he was a real admirer of John but had never been able to tell anyone.

I felt the intensity of this fellow’s admiration, and in the dream decided to focus all my aspiring professional attention on John’s music.

This is really interesting to me because I have never been strongly attracted to his music. John wrote most of his stuff in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and is best known for his compositional range. There are pop songs, among them “Just as Though You Were Here,” a hit for Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra as vocalist, and “Where Flamingos Fly” which is on a recording by, amazingly enough, by The King’s Singers – and a range of jazz. He worked with Zoot Sims and All Cohn on a recording “Folk Jazz U.S.A.” and created a 12-tone composition called “The Twelves,” which is based on improvisations on twelve-tone rows. This became part of a LP called “Avant Slant.” To those who truly know 20th century jazz, this is an amazing range of compositional styles.

And yet, we never connected musically. His musical language was foreign to me.

This makes my dream especially interesting. Uncle John does not himself appear in it, but a stranger, who really admired him, does. And this interaction with a dream stranger prods me to inquire again into his music.


City power

I heard an interesting discussion on the TED Radio Hour last Tuesday. It was about the rise in significance of city-level politics. As someone who, as a democrat, represents less and less power at the national level, I found this encouraging.

I hope that I wasn’t stupidly encouraged – that this isn’t just wishful thinking – but the premise is that as the US govenment becomes more and more dysfunctional, its influence as a legislative force will get less and less. The interests of “the people,” 70% of whom live in cities, will rise at that local level, and that’s the level that will come to have the greatest significance.

Montpelier, where I live, is in far too good shape to attract attention as a place that needs a lot of change. But a security researcher named Robert Muggah spoke in the TED Radio Hour about How Are Some Fragile Cities Tackling Their Worst Problems. The primary references in his talk – these “fragile cities” – were located in other countries (he is based in Rio de Janeiro), but towards the end of the nine minute interview – at about 7’30” – he says that groups of mayors, police chiefs, and public transport officials from US cities, including Baltimore and Chicago, have come down to Rio to talk about that city’s success in dealing with problems that seemed almost fatal as recently as 10 years ago.

I hope that I wasn’t stupidly encouraged by the hope I felt – that political engagement on a local level is not just wishful thinking – but stupidly or not, I was encouraged.


Do you hear music?

I heard a concert Saturday night that included a new piece for unaccompanied chorus by Bruce Chalmer, a setting of the poem “Clown in the Moon” by Dylan Thomas. I liked the music. I loved the poem. It’s one that I’ve never known.

I can’t tell you exactly why I responded so strongly, but it made me want to read some more Dylan Thomas poems, so I did. I now have – tentatively – the words for a new piece I want to write.

Does this poetry stir up music in your mind? If so, let me know. If not, go smoke some pot. (OK, that’s not exactly medical advice, but it’s my fervent wish for you to be as turned on by the poems as I am.)

Dylan Thomas lovers please forgive that I only want to set the first verse of “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”


Shall Gods Be Said To Thump The Clouds

Shall gods be said to thump the clouds

When clouds are cursed by thunder,

Be said to weep when weather howls?

Shall rainbows be their tunics’ colour?

When it is rain where are the gods?

Shall it be said they sprinkle water

From garden cans, or free the floods?

Shall it be said that, venuswise,

An old god’s dugs are pressed and pricked,

The wet night scolds me like a nurse?

It shall be said that gods are stone.

Shall a dropped stone drum on the ground,

Flung gravel chime? Let the stones speak

With tongues that talk all tongues.

Clown In The Moon

My tears are like the quiet drift

Of petals from some magic rose;

And all my grief flows from the rift

Of unremembered skies and snows.

I think, that if I touched the earth,

It would crumble;

It is so sad and beautiful,

So tremulously like a dream.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

And death shall have no dominion.

Dead man naked they shall be one

With the man in the wind and the west moon;

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.

Under the windings of the sea

They lying long shall not die windily;

Twisting on racks when sinews give way,

Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;

Faith in their hands shall snap in two,

And the unicorn evils run them through;

Split all ends up they shan’t crack;

And death shall have no dominion.


And death shall have no dominion.

No more may gulls cry at their ears

Or waves break loud on the seashores;

Where blew a flower may a flower no more

Lift its head to the blows of the rain;

Though they be mad and dead as nails,

Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,

And death shall have no dominion.