Beach Pianos

This piece is a contribution to the Soaring Twenties Social Club Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for this issue is “Beach.” My offering is an extensive, if not exhaustive, showroom of soggy and sandy keyboards.

[Scent? And salt of course.]

The wooden crate sits, alone and abandoned, at the water’s edge. Ada runs across the sand and removes the packing to liberate the piano within. She begins to play, lush and expressive music, with agile arpeggios supporting an antique-sounding, folk-like melody. Ada’s hands dance over the keys, lithe and powerful. In case the sound itself does not signal this to us, the director makes sure to show us her face, which is ecstatic, even beatific. We know from the beginning of the film that the piano is her refuge, and even her voice, for she is mute.

Ada plays through the day and the evening. Her daughter Flora joins in on the upper end of the keyboard for a bit, tapping out youthful, staccato imitations of the swelling patterns down below. Their guide, Baines, paces thoughtfully.

But . . . something doesn’t sound quite right. 

This is a Broadwood square piano, crafted in London in the early to mid-nineteenth century, with a label declaring the company “manufacturers to Her Majesty.” This noble instrument has been torn from its comfortable Glasgow home, boxed up, subjected to incessant rocking in a ship traveling over the open ocean, doused with spray and salt, only to land on sand and still be besieged by waves rolling across the sand, and, quite rudely, over its tired wooden legs—and even then, only to be left there by Ada’s new husband Stewart. And who knows what other indignities it may have suffered on the beach in Ada’s absence! 

The abandoned piano, deposited on the expanse of beach, unable to take shelter from the elements, makes a poignant and striking image in Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano. This imagery has become canonical.

So, what is it that seems out of place? Only that the piano sounds . . . good. Not as in, “so bad it’s good,” or “good considering the circumstances,” or “a good illustration of what a soggy and out-of-tune piano would sound like in New Zealand in 1851”—just, simply, good. As if the music had been recorded in a studio on a Steinway grand with really sophisticated microphones and an expert engineer, not here in the beautifully staged scene on the beach. 

To be sure, it is not out of a hunger for realistic, unaltered representation of everyday life that we go to the cinema. (Nowadays, we have our phones and social media for that.) The filmmakers’ choices are neither outlandish nor unusual; they lie firmly within established conventions for placing music alongside moving images. Another facet is the temporal placement of this music cue. It is also not realistic, but a viewer is unlikely to be perturbed by the fact that Ada’s music begins to sound before she even reaches the piano. This sort of blur between onscreen performance and soundtrack is something spectators have been taught to accept within the artifice of film. In fact, in this context, using more realistic sounds would have been distracting and displeasing. The Piano inaccurately portrays the sound the instrument onscreen would make, in terms of both its construction and its condition. The filmmakers gives us the “wrong” piano, but it is the right piano for The Piano.

To state the obvious: the pristine, clean, professionally produced audio recording is not something Ada would have had handy in 1851. If the film had been made in 1851—well, I guess I’ll just stop there. We do not expect the film to look like it was made in 1851, nor do we expect it sound that way, even though Ada’s music is the primary focus of the narrative. 

Mokoia Island, Rotorua. Burton Brothers photography studio; 1880s.

Even as the viewer accepts the artifice of the filmmaking, the way the piano is portrayed within the film will affect how the film works on the viewer. One will react differently when the music is sanitized and idealized than she will when the soundtrack reveals the imperfections the pianist would reckon with. If one is so moved as to swoon at the spectacle of the piano vulnerable on the beach, one might also be curious to hear what such vulnerability sounds like.

Oddly, it is after this scene, when the piano has in fact been brought to a character’s home, that the piano tuner arrives. At this point I do have to wonder whether the filmmakers are trolling us viewers. The tuner observes, “Scent? And salt of course.” If only we could hear the piano he hears. 

[no strings attached]

If Campion’s Piano is meant to be ingested as fantasy, it finds resonances in current-day popular culture, which sometimes goes even deeper. In a YouTube video posted by Caters Clips in 2019, “Free Diver Plays Underwater Piano,” one sees a romantic image of a diver . . . not playing an underwater piano-shaped object. In a flowing dress, she dives down, perches on the bench, and touches the piano. Music plays, but it is not coming from the piano. 

 As in The Piano, the instrument, while central to the presentation, is silenced by a fantasy soundtrack. This video, though, reveals its artifice more readily. Viewers are likely to be in the know, as best revealed by their comments:

And one true curmudgeon:

I,d rather just hear it above water like a normal sane and logical person [Sidewinder Sid]

If only we could hear the piano underwater—with or without strings.

[Darling, it’s better down where it’s wetter.]

The dramatic expansion of the role of video in everyday life, coupled with the increased accessibility of recording equipment (traditional or newfangled), seems to have encouraged an effusion of piano/ocean encounters. Some pianists walk the talk, haul the beast, and play piano right on location. For example, Nathaniel Sheets has posted a number of novelty videos shot in different locations. These include “PIANO on the BEACH,’ in which he plays (fittingly) “Under the Sea,” from The Little Mermaid.

Here there is a functioning piano installed on the beach, with a performer playing. However, the music is still an isolated track. The camera moves freely, from one position on the beach to another, and even overhead at a distance. But as the positions change, the acoustic of the music stays the same, whether at a bird’s-eye view or a close-up on the edge of the poignantly worn keys. The disjunction is most striking in a drone shot that tracks a wave: the wave offers no sound, and the piano sound remains unchanged. This sort of maneuver is familiar from music video, where the real-life sounds accompanying  the images are removed and replaced by the soundtrack. (Compare this to the mix of The Piano, where the sounds of waves and footsteps stay in the mix. It would be jarring if they were absent.)

Sheets’s other videos advertise themselves by location as well, becoming increasingly virtuosic over time: the winsome “PIANO in a CREEK” (2018) is followed by “I played piano ON the TITANIC” (2019), which incorporates a string quartet and again makes use of a separate soundtrack of high quality and consistent acoustic. This past year brought a trip to an even more distant past: “I PLAYED the piano AT NOAH’S ARK” (2022). While Sheets’s videos have enjoyed rapid progress in production values, a comment at the end of the earlier beach video calls attention to the various challenges of oceanside piano performance.  He gives a commentary on the demands of on-location video production, emphasizing the labor involved in moving the piano. He calling attention to his project’s modest budget and resulting “mistakes,” saying “We’re not The Piano Guys.

And right on cue, The Piano Guys appear oceanside, playing “Over the Rainbow” and “Simple Gifts” on Oahu, Hawaii. 

The YouTube description here also calls attention to the physical and meteorological demands of the performance: “Getting a piano onto a sandy beach and then onto a big hill in a famous ranch within the SAME day (we only had 8 hours to film) was no small feat. The only thing harder would be to be predict Hawaiian weather, which ended up being our biggest challenge.” Although the description does credit the recording engineer and does  acknowledge the name of the studio, the commentary declines to call attention to the audio-recording aspect of the production.

While some viewers may suspend disbelief and happily watch an imaginary live performance on the sand and cliffs, even a moderately attentive viewing will reveal the artifice. Once more, the acoustic is too good and too consistent to have been captured alongside the video image; in addition, there are more tracks on the audio than we see. When I sent the link to a friend, he texted, “Was waiting for the orchestra to come out of the water. lol”

Why combine an impeccably produced studio audio recording with an impossible nature scene? Or vice-versa? 

The rapid and pronounced increase in accessibility of video recordings has had a profound effect on how listeners consume music—and on what listeners and viewers expect from musicians. (The requirements of the Covid pandemic also intensified the demand for video.) Some musicians release videos of themselves recording in the studio, even showing their headphones and separation from one another. This exposes the reality of the recording situation, and in watching a continuous performance, the viewer knows that the music has been edited and mixed afterward. Another way to make music into video is to combine a studio recording of a music track to related or unrelated still images or videos. Much of this happens outside the control of the musicians, as fans post videos online, or even as Apple TV starts playing images along with music, as if the sounds are not enough. 

A slickly produced video set on the beach in Oahu seems to negotiate and harmonize different possibilities and expectations. This form of “artifice in nature” allows for a carefully produced audio track (crucially, not a live, on-site recording) to meet up with the musician’s own mimicry of himself—of what he did in the studio. Viewers are already so accustomed to moving images and sounds being independent or unrealistic that this does not grate. As in the case of The Piano, a realistic plein-air recording, most likely, would be off-putting.

It is quite an undertaking to schlepp a Yahama concert grand to the beach in order to record just the visuals for a four-minute track, especially when the pianist frequently limits himself not just to one hand, but even to one note at a time. As much effort as goes into these musical performances, the moving of the pianos, and the separate audio and video recording, there is something wistful about them: the performers are almost always alone—within the frame, at least.

If only we could hear “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the beach.

[surely to the sea]

Pianos on beaches are often described as “surreal.” This is rendered more so by the status of pianos, culturally and financially. At the same time that technological developments make it easier to record musical performances on beaches, which inspires musicians to undertake the old-school physical labor of carting them–“Watch your fingers!“—acoustic pianos have depreciated to the point where they sometimes accrue negative value. Anyone who has tried to sell their spinet or upright on NextDoor has found that it’s easy to end up without a sale. One may even need to spend money to have a perfectly good piano taken away. (I once had to hire someone to chop up my beloved, aged console with an axe.) Surely some of these bereft instruments are the ones that end up on beaches, in creeks, and on city streets, where the phenomenon of the “public piano” has flourished.

And while developments in recording technology (both audio and video) have enabled more individuals to record on-site performances, this is happening at the same time as the proliferation of portable electronic pianos (which can play on batteries). These are good enough that some use them for performances. Yet it is the old-school piano, not the more portable one, that lounges on the beach. 

What is it about pianos that inspires their stewards to bake them in the sun and pantomime a version of music they already recorded, when their listeners/viewers know it has been assembled in Adobe Premiere Pro? What makes us want to see pianos in unlikely, inconvenient places? If we want to make music on the beach, it’d be easier to bring a guitar. Maybe a drum or two. And the voice is easy to carry, for it weighs nothing.  

Elvis Presley and cast members in Blue Hawaii (Norman Taurog, 1961).

Somehow, the romantic image of the implausible piano endures. It extends even into still photography, where the piano, like the real Broadwood or the underwater facsimile, makes no sound at all. In such images, the piano is often solitary. Perhaps she takes an occasional day off to practice yoga. A search for images at sunset suggests that pianos and yogis might run into one another of an evening.

[willing to go further]

Chain a ship’s anchor to the back leg of a grand piano.
Set the piano at the high tide mark, lid raised.
Leave it there until it vanishes.

—Annea Lockwood, Southern Exposure

This is the score to Annea Lockwood’s Southern Exposure, which is the fifth in her series of Piano Transplants. The composer situates instruments in outdoor locations, allowing the elements, environment—and people—to act on them. The series began with the “permanently-prepared piano” Lockwood constructed in 1966. This was “an upright with strings, hammers and mechanism exposed, which I attached things to, drilled holes in, cut a mouth shape in the side with large red lips through which a tube device blew bubbles whenever the soft pedal was used.”

In an interview with Irene Revell, Lockwood observed that the prepared piano presented a limitation, noting that John Cage, inventor of the prepared piano “always had to be very careful not to damage the piano.” She wondered, “what can you do when you’re willing to go further?” She proceeded to the startling work Piano Burning (1968), in which—yes—she set a piano on fire. This was followed by Piano Garden (1969-70), which sets the piano amidst growing trees and plants, to stay ‘forever.” After exploring fire and earth, Lockwood turned to the element of water with Piano Drowning (1972), which was installed in a cattle pond.

While Lockwood conceived of taking a piano to the ocean as early as 1972, Southern Exposure was not realized until 1995. And although Southern Exposure had to wait until the twenty-first century to be executed, its invention, along with the other Piano Transplants, predates many of the technological advancements described above. While The Piano and the beachy Youtube clips isolate moving images and sound to create an illusion of playing piano on a beach—exactly as expected for their respective genres—Lockwood’s Southern Exposure allows the piano to linger in the waves. she leaves it vulnerable to the elements and invites any interested passerby to walk right up to the piano, explore it and even play it. There is no worry about screwing up the video shoot or wind whistling through the microphone. 

The very word “transplant” suggests both motion and grounding, the idea of a piano being brought to a new home. Lockwood, in creating a live, in-person work, has no need to “polish” the piano or to tear the visual and auditory elements away from one another. Or to create an illusion of something her transplant is not. She embraces the materiality of the instrument and acknowledges its full presence and transformation. In none of the examples above does one hear the piano as it actually sounds in its location, but that is exactly the point here. Rather than crafting impossibilities, Southern Exposure cultivates possibilities.

This piano, aged and worn as it may be, lacking its protective lid, somehow looks less lonely.

Annea Lockwood, Southern Exposure. Photo: Heuchan Hobbs.

[“raw is real”]

Lockwood’s pianos, to be sure, are not entirely removed from media or the internet, as evidenced the the photos included here (generously provided by the composer). And in the current day, one cannot prevent audience members and visitors from taking photos and even video of one’s performances. (Don’t get me started . . .)  But if feels significant that the Piano Transplants predate the time when screens and posts became so ubiquitous and so expected.

Piano Burning is about as old as I am. When I was in college in the 1980s, I encountered this photo: 

Annea Lockwood, Piano Burning. Photo: Geoff Adams.

I was captivated by the image. It made me wonder what a burning piano would sound like, not to mention how the composer conceived the idea and managed to execute it. There was no Youtube, no Instagram, and if I wanted to listen to music, I would go to the “listening room” of the library on campus. I did not expect to find any video or audio of Piano Transplants. So, in a way, Lockwood’s works did show an isolation of image and sound: in this case because audio and video recording were elusive, not as in the previous cases where audio and video are manipulated separately and then sutured back together to make an illusion of reality. Looking at the image of the piano burning, I had to imagine and wonder all on my own.

If only I could hear what it sounded like, I thought.

In  October 2021, Issue Project Room presented an online stream of Piano Transplants. The videos remain available online. 

So far, though, I have hesitated to watch the videos. Having spent several decades imagining the burning piano, I take pleasure in continuing to leave it to the imagination. As useful as documentary materials can be, there is something incongruous about experiencing installations and live performances onscreen.  This is easy to forget, as our listening and viewing experiences become farther and farther removed from live experience.

I’ll probably watch it though.

Annea Lockwood tells me that there is no audio or video documentation available for Southern Exposure. This too I find enchanting. I like to imagine it. It is a reminder that there are some experiences not available to me, and that my hunger to digest may lead to a diminished experience. 

[no anchor]

In fact, “impossibility” was also on the composer’s mind when she realized Southern Exposure.

Lockwood describes Southern Exposure’s inclusion in the 1982 exhibition Sonorita Prospettiche: Suono/Ambient/Immagine, in Rimini: Lockwood was invited “to submit a score for an impossible piece. . . . I submitted it thinking that no-one would ever give me a grand piano and ships anchor for this purpose.”

Annea Lockwood and Ross Bolleter playing Lockwood’s Southern Exposure. Photo: Heuchan Hobbs.

Some years later, though, the “impossible” piece became possible. Lockwood shares her recollections:

Southern Exposure was presented by the (Perth) Totally New Music Festival, 2005 under the inspired direction of the festival director, Tos Mahoney at Bathers Beach, Fremantle and made possible by Ross Bolleter locating a suitable little grand piano in a fine state of dilapidation. Ross is a composer, superb pianist and improviser, a Ruined Piano pioneer in Perth who has been rescuing ruined pianos from farmers’ sheds etc and placing them at an olive farm in the outback. The shot of me playing that piano with another musician is of me and Ross having a fine time while installing on the beach. It was pure play, that installations. Kids reached in and made great sounds, as they always do. People crawled under the piano. That night some people decided it needed rescuing again and 4 men and 1 woman carried it off to the hostel they were staying in, putting it under the ‘telly’ (TV). Tos Mahoney issued an all-points bulletin, alerted the harbor security, the police, the local radio station and TV station etc. and the manager of the hostel summarily told the 5 abductors to put the piano back on the beach. A wonderful story.

The next day we installed explanatory signage there and right after that a storm blew in on the Indian Ocean, ripping the loosely attached lid and all the piano legs off, two of which we found but one totally disappeared and the body of the instrument, of course, half-filled with sand. We couldn’t obtain an anchor. I had written, for the festival program: ‘needs. Defunct piano, and an anchor, and moving team. As I envision it- we would set it up on the sand, at the high tide line, attach the anchor, raise the lid, and leave it there indefinitely.’ (which radically underestimated that ocean’s power). ‘The idea is that it will only be in the water periodically, so it might remain sounding for some time. We watch the process of water, sand and wind working on it.’

It was great fun, pure joy. And ideal as the first realization of that Transplant, one which I’d thought could never be realized.

[should be beyond repair]

Having viewed so many images of pianos on beaches, and having heard sounds that either do or do not fit them—and now, hearing stories and seeing images of a piano transplant only those present were able to hear, I think of all the  associations the piano raises. History, self-expression, elitism, domesticity, seduction, labor, pleasure, injury. These and other threads weave their way through all the examples I have gathered into my piano warehouse. 

I would not want to attach too definitive or stable an interpretation to Lockwood’s beach piano. Just as the work will depend on circumstances of the specific piano, the location, the elements, and human actions, the work leaves itself open to circumstances and the unexpected—as in being carted off by “rescuers” without the composer knowing, as happened at Bathers Beach.

Annea Lockwood, Southern Exposure. Photo: Heuchan Hobbs.

As I write on the last day of September 2022, I am reminded of the relentlessness and fickleness of the ocean. Hurricane Fiona has left the Canadian Maritimes in disarray, and minutes ago Hurricane Ian landed in Georgetown, South Carolina. I have seen images and videos of less welcome juxtapositions of objects and water: a refrigerator submerged in Orlando, an electric guitar in a pile of debris in Newfoundland. There was even a video with police displaying a fallen traffic light as a warning, which (oddly) included a soundtrack of generically expressive piano music. To be sure, most will find losing a home more consequential than losing a musical instrument, but there is something poignant about wounded musical tools lying silent and soggy. Such images might remind me of Lockwood’s beachside pianos; or, conversely, Lockwood’s work might remind me of the vulnerability of human endeavors—whether serious or frivolous—in the face of circumstances beyond one’s control.

Lockwood’s instructions point to this fragility: she writes that the pianos used in her works “should be beyond repair.” Piano Transplants does not luxuriate in destroying or mangling useful instruments but honors their fragility, offering them another chance to be of use. I begin to anthropomorphize the instruments, picturing these behemoths being collected and ushered around to experience new environments and meet new people.

[Greetings]

As the story about the piano being carted away exemplifies, Lockwood’s Piano Transplants continue to take place even when she is absent. She allows them to continue on their own. Another story from the composer describes a moment of serendipity that, to my considerable surprise, recalls the historical fiction of Campion’s film The Piano.

Lockwood’s fifth Piano Transplant was realized again in 2013, this time “titled ‘Eastern Exposure’ because Harwich is on the East Coast of England.” She describes a scene that could not have been staged and that was not filmed, and that even began in her absence. A visit from passersby perhaps allowed the instrument to remember its distant history. Lockwood reports:

There’s a curious little story attached to this version. When I went down to the beach the morning after the piano was placed there, also sans anchor, I found two women in full Victorian costumes, one seated at the piano (a piano stool had thoughtfully been left there, it must have been calm overnight), the other leaning on it, as if singing, just like old daguerreotype images. They turned out to be greeters, there to meet travelers from the Hook of Holland-Harwich ferry and tell them about the town’s attractions, and were delighted by the piano’s sudden appearance. Delicious.

Unidentified woman in theatrical costume. Matthew B. Brady, created between 1844 and 1860. Half plate daguerreotype, gold toned. Library of Congress.

Notes

Hearty thanks are due to Annea Lockwood for discussing her Piano Transplants with me and for kindly providing photos.

Away

This piece is a contribution to the STSC Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for this upcoming issue is “Home.”

“How long are you home for?” 

The question comes from someone I have just met. It is only my second time on this remote rural island, and I am just getting my bearings, but she refers to “home” as if I have always lived here too. I am touched by her warmth, but it’s not really about me. To her, the place we are standing is the center, and everywhere else stands in relationship to it. To her, I am not “visiting”; I am not simply “here” in this spot. I am not “on a trip.” I am “home.” 

At least, this is the impression I get. But I am new here, so perhaps I am making this up. I am “from away,” as people sometimes say.1 But here does feel like a center. It’s easy to envy people’s feeling of rootedness. Being here means being away from the fancy college town where I spend most of my time. I don’t miss it.

I would not say I am “home,” ever, really, whether I am talking about here or there or someplace I left behind in the past. I feel distant from this word and seldom use it. I can’t quite pronounce the words “at home” when I refer to the fancy college town. A statement as simple as “at home, the traffic is brutal,” or, “at home, we call it ‘the shore’,” feels like a misrepresentation. I usually stop myself before I say it, and instead I name the town or the state I live in, more generically and antiseptically. I do not claim these places as my own. They are more like GPS locations with user histories.

***

In an online session, a woman I admire affects the accent of the region where I grew up. She is playing around, saying something like “I am having a hahd time finding the pay-pah.” It is not clear why she is doing this all of a sudden.

It’s always unsettling to hear such a cartoonish rendition of these sounds. They have significance and history to me; they bring rich and painful memories. They may seem like a costume, available to anyone to put on for fun. But these sounds can also be torn off. Long ago, I lost my accent. When I moved away, people could not understand me. In response, I learned to speak “normally.” I still get confused saying “Marlborough” though.2

This accent is often imitated, badly. Impersonators are so obsessed with leaving out the “r” that they get the vowels all wrong. 

This way of speaking has class associations, of the lower variety. Think Laura Linney in Mystic River.

Whether or not my friend means to emphasize this, I cringe when I hear the caricature, as if my schoolmates and cousins are being mocked.

***

Away again. On the island, they seem to delight in pronouncing the “r”—or more accurately, I delight in hearing what is ordinary to them. I linger in the garden, eating a lemon bar. I drink in all those consonants I missed growing up, and I hear them seeping into my own sentences. I wonder if it might sound like I am imitating someone else’s accent.

I call the island Brigadoon, after the magical town that seems to exist outside of time. But the thing is, real people live real lives here, every day—not just one day a century, and not for the consumption of an audience. This is not a movie.

I call the island The Land Without Latte, my tongue in my cheek, I insist. But then a café opens that does make latte, and I am disappointed. My scenery is smudged.

Back in the fancy college town, which is located in the most densely populated state, I can order sashimi or falafel, ma po tofu or tandoori chicken, kale salad or martini shrimp—or even a cheese steak from the place down the road that’s been there forever.

On the island, for amusement, I log into GrubHub, and the app reports, “Sorry, no results were found. We’ll notify you when restaurants become available in your area.”

However, on the last day of the season, a neighbor brings three lobsters, and as we are cooking them, someone else shows up and interrupts the lobsters with a bucket of crabs. 

The island also offers pie made of moose, deep-fried pepperoni, and a sort of spiced meat sandwich, with condensed milk sauce, that somehow got here from Turkey. And oatcakes. There is something called “bed lunch,” which involves neither bed nor lunch—not in my understanding of those words, anyway.

It’s easy to wax poetic about the island, but I often think, the upside is that people have to rely on one another, and the downside is that people have to rely on one another.

Sometimes, to avoid getting carried away, I silently list of all the magical elements to myself and then make myself continue on to remember, “and then there is the occasional vigilante murder.” But I do not say that to anyone else, only to myself. It’s not my story to tell. Sensational, cute headlines by reporters from cities far away were rightly criticized for being crass. It’s not a movie, though it will be soon.3

Alienation is not sophistication. Not necessarily.  Sometimes it is just alienation.

***

“I lived in New York!”

[Spoiler alert! This is much funnier onscreen; in fact, it is only funny onscreen. Please watch it!]

This is the character Britta on the satirical television show called Community, set in Greendale Community College in Colorado, boasting (again) about her (flimsy) Manhattan credentials. In a running gag, she repeatedly invokes a tenuous connection to the city to prove her worldliness.

But her naïveté is exposed yet again. When she brings in a baker’s dozen of what she calls “baggels,” her classmates object and correct, informing her that the word she means to say is pronounced “bagel.” Undeterred, she insists, “I lived in New York. I know what a baggel is.”

The satire is as intricate and knowing as anything performed Lincoln Center, made even more delicious by the legend that the show’s creator pronounced the word “baggel” himself, before he ever heard it spoken aloud.

Note the slipperiness of “lived in.” Not “I am from New York,” or “I spent x number of years in New York.” She grasps at a prestige that is not rightly hers.

In Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie does actually live in New York, where she has achieved great success. However, she has to return to the town where she grew up in order to take care of unfinished business. Often, female characters who go back where they came from—“home”?—are subjected to domestication or suffering: they need to be “corrected” somehow. One character has to regain the warm-heartedness she lost in the big city and stop wearing black all the time. Another comes home to fulfill a family obligation, which entails revisiting childhood trauma. Sometimes there is a twist, and the worlds get blurred, or the character solves a murder.

Roger Ebert is “tired of the premise” of Sweet Home Alabama. He asks, “Isn’t it time for the movies to reflect reality and show the Melanies of the world fleeing to New York as fast as they can?” The artifice of the rural, modest, unpretentious place—whatever the details of the plot—is ripe for revision:

The fact is that few people in Hollywood have voluntarily gone home again since William Faulkner fled to Mississippi. The screenwriters who retail the mirage of small towns are relieved to have escaped them. I await a movie where a New Yorker tries moving to a small town and finds that it just doesn’t reflect his warm-hearted big city values.4

Home, when rural or socioeconomically modest, brings up shame and cheap shoes. In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter luxuriates in calling his  adversary, FBI Agent Clarice Starling, a “rube.” He’s superior, whether it’s due to being a psychiatrist or a murderer or both.

***

Here and there. Or vice versa.

“She divides her time between Hudson and New York.” 

“He divides his time between New York and Los Angeles.” 

Once, in a clothing store on the Upper West Side, I heard a customer say, “I’ll wear sleeveless upstate, but not in Manhattan.” 

I never hear anyone say, “I divide my time between Youngstown and Cleveland.” 

What does it mean to “divide time”? What else gets split up?

***

The island of Manhattan comprises about 23 square miles. My magical island of Brigadoon takes up about 17. They are of comparable size, geographically. 

If I were to take the population of the rural island and multiply it by 1064, it would have the same population density as Manhattan.

There is more space here. But many people clear out, sometimes because they want to escape to Seventh Avenue, like Melanie. There is a long history, though, of going to the city, or all the way out West, in order to find work where it can be had. It seems that part of being home is feeling the absence of those who have left, and wondering  whether one will need to go elsewhere in order to make a living. Knowing that the roots could be torn out at any time. Away is always here. 

There are several local songs about departure. One of them, in the words of someone who has reluctantly left, ends, “Whenever a fiddler rosins a bow, my first and last thoughts are of home.” Whenever anyone sings this song, the crowd joins in and sings along in harmony. Most everyone knows the song and the real-life story it portrays. It is startling and moving to hear such groundedness and such community. I can’t hear this song without a tear, even though I only know the stories second-hand.5

***

There is a housing shortage on the island—in fact, throughout the region. It is a seller’s market for the first time anyone can remember, and prices rise suddenly, taking even modest properties out of reach. People are sleeping in tents. The weather turns cold. Experts say the province needs 50,000 additional units within the next eight years. Even those who have financial means are out of luck, because the inventory is so low.

Real estate listings used to be informal and minimal, geared toward the local population who know their way around the island. Now, glossy advertisements aim to entice buyers to relocate from faraway cities, touting the beauty of the landscape to those who are not used to shoveling or mowing or washing their own electric cars. Members of the laptop class have become accustomed to working remotely, and they want to keep doing so. They want to work even more remotely, way out here in Brigadoon.

(I am a member of the laptop class.)

***

What would it be like to be rooted in a place that was not defined by being away from another place? 

What would it be like to end up where you started out, to stay put, even? 

What would it be like to swim in experience, rather than discover it or compare it or escape to it? To stop feeling the distance between “here” and “there”?

***

In classical music theory, “home” is another word for “tonic.” It is also called the “center.” These terms all describe the sounds that are shaped to seem fundamental, stable, desirable, and satisfying. However, the idea of the “center” shifts from piece to piece and over the centuries. It is not one thing, not one place, and not always secure: challenges and subversion are part of the deal. 

We can only know here if we know away. (In classical music, anyway. A lot of compelling music sticks around to explore home, or wanders without such a feeling of obligation to return to what is known.) Much—most—classical music begins “here,” on the tonic, only to move “away,” and then return “home.” But the ending is most crucial. In medieval plainchant, the “final,” the place where the devotional sung melody ends, gives the mode its identity, letting us know what other chants it claims as family. The ingredients alone are not enough; they need to be arranged through time and space in a way that we can place. 

Later idioms of classical music, more likely to be secular, introduce more movement, manipulation, and individuation. The music knows that we know the arrival is coming. A composer teases the ear, wandering and interrupting and withholding the resolution. Tension and release drive toward completion, closure, and, ultimately, silence. Home is where the music goes to die.

***

Notes

  1. For the last ten years, I have heard that outsiders are referred to “Come From Away,” or even “CFA,” but it is only outsiders I have heard refer to outsiders that way. “From away” does come up. The phrase “Come From Away” is in use though, as evidenced by the 2013 musical of the same name, which concerns the unplanned stopovers of dozens of planes in Gander, Newfoundland in the wake of the September 11 attacks. 
  2. MSNBC newscaster Lawrence O’Donnell reports that he grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Every so often, he deliberately drops an “r,” such as when he refers to the name of former Boston Mayor “Marty Walsh.” For those of us from the area, it can feel pretentious or artificial not to pronounce certain words (names especially?) that way. On a few occasions I have heard O’Donnell’s accent emerge in a way that seems accidental. Interestingly, he has also referred to pronouncing words “wrong” in the past, although he was simply referring to delivering them in an accent. 
  3. This involves a 2013 murder case that took place in the fishing community of Petit-de-Grat, Nova Scotia. In his 2020 posthumously published book, Blood in the Water: A True Story of Revenge in the Maritimes, Silver Donald Cameron addresses the ways in which the events were sensationalized and (my words) packaged for an audience.  He writes: “The phrase ‘murder for lobster’ will stick to this case like a burr to sheepskin. It will be in headlines and stories all over the world.” (Silver Donald Cameron, Blood in the Water: A True Story of Revenge in the Maritimes, Viking/Penguin Canada, 2020). Sharon Montgomery-Dupe’s article in Saltwire discusses the sensitive issues raised by reporting on, researching, and writing about the case. In a sterling example of the Streisand Effect, this and other articles include the phrase “murder for lobster” even as they strive to combat the sensationalism.
  4. Roger Ebert, Review of “Sweet Home Alabama,” September 27, 2002.
  5. The song is “Heading for Halifax,” composed by Alistair MacDonald, probably in the 1970s.

If You See My Superhero On The Street, Kill Her

The women whom I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out.  They got that way because shit went wrong, and they handled it.  They handled it in a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it.  Those women are my superheroes.

—Elizabeth Gilbert (Facebook Post, March 26, 2015)

Women are not required to suffer and “handle it” for me to admire them. They do not need to be superheroes.  They do not need to do anything to serve me.

We all suffer and manage as we can—or not. If one is going to invoke the greatness of “handling it” when “s*** happens,” it might be useful to distinguish between the inconvenience of waiting for the bus in the rain or finding that one’s favorite restaurant is out of squid pasta and the outrage of being undervalued, overlooked, underpaid, harassed, threatened, stalked, abused, beaten, raped, or killed—all of which happen to women every day simply because they are women. Idealizing “superheroes” who “handle it,” without elaboration, risks giving the impression that one approves of those things, that one is content with inequity, exploitation, even atrocity.

Replace “women” with “men,” and see how that sounds.

By admiring “s*** handling,” one disregards the matter of injustice—and we are not obliged to “handle” that either.  Not on our own.

Sure, rhapsodize about the gifts of suffering—there are many—but rhapsodize over one’s own, not someone else’s.

There is a tired old myth still circulating out there about women—a myth that says that we must be rescued, that we are fragile and helpless, that without external validation we collapse, and that disappointment and heartbreak and loss will destroy us.

—Elizabeth Gilbert (Facebook Post, March 26, 2015)

Another tired myth is that it is noble for us to withstand, to endure, without any expectation of relief or release.

If a woman loses her nerve, falls short of her goals, crumples in despair, or takes her own life, she is not failing to serve her purpose as my “superhero.”  She does not have to “handle it” for my sake.  She has the right be destroyed when destruction finds her.

Women (and others) who romanticize women’s suffering and endurance in the face of adversity—or outright injustice—have my compassion but not my admiration.

No matter; their value is not dependent on my admiration.  My opinion is irrelevant.

A Paglia Reduction

Chuck Jones Dover Boys Pimiento U
Listening to Dark Powers: Camille Paglia on CBC’s Ideas

 

Rather than illuminate her dark women, Paglia turns the light on her true subject: herself. She offers reductive comment after reductive comment, promoting herself and smearing the intellectual community, while claiming other scholars are reducing art to ideology. Did no one advise her to cite sources?  Who is it who claims that “a few laws and sexual harassment committees will make it all [misogyny] go away?”  Is she unable to distinguish between opinion and idea, between attitude and inquiry? And how is it that with all her time on the stage she cannot deliver a single sentence without “uh, ok, you know” and a parade of em dashes?

 

Paglia claims, “Academics on the whole have absolutely no idea about how art is made or how the artistic mind works. This is one of the main reasons for the utter incompetence and sterility of so much academic criticism about the arts.” Apparently, all scholars, except Paglia, lack any understanding whatsoever of vision, ecstasy and peak moments: “All of that is completely gone from any kind of discourse on the arts. What passes for criticism of the arts in the academy is absolutely,—ok—it’s useless, and it has driven away several generations of young people from the arts.” Well, there are plenty of young people in my arts community, at my university, in my courses and private lessons.  They are mentored by devoted, probing scholars and artists who refrain from—fasten your seat belts—reductively reducing all other scholars to ideologues who see nothing but ideology in art.

 

Paglia claims that “art is deeply interconnected with the dream process.” Indeed, her fictional account of a uniformly bumbling, incompetent, unimaginative academic community is quite a dream.  (Bumbling comes easily, but one of the many things we academics are not good at is consistency and unity.  [Oh, that’s two things.  See what I mean?])

 

Perhaps Paglia would like to read Brandon LaBelle’s commentary on the dream nature of Hildegard Westerkamp’s sound art; or Daniel Albright on the “inhumanly intense orgasm” in Yeats’s pseudo-Noh plays; or Malcolm Turvey’s account of the “machine aesthetic” in Ballet Mécanique.  I’m sure she could find a full reading list if she were to give a moment’s notice to the scholars she terms “incompetent” and “provincial.”  There are many subtle and invigorating critical writings to be found.  Or are listening and nuance also “useless” to Paglia?

 

And what about those of us who are both creative artists and scholars? Does Paglia understand art-making better than those of us who . . . um, ok . . . practice it? And who sometimes collaborate with full-time scholars to consider exactly the phenomena she insists are “completely gone” from the sterile work of us blunderers who have “absolutely no idea about how art is made or how the artistic mind works”?  I guess, when I step out of my studio and into class, the composer region of my mind goes to sleep and I am suddenly seized by the delusion that all artists are “political sign wavers” in order to “drive away several generations of young people from the arts.”  No wonder I have been so tired lately.

 

It is telling that Paglia casts ad hominem aspersions rather than exploring the ideas and insights of these unnamed scholars.  We hear about “the people who are teaching in humanities departments,” accompanied by crude, unattributed caricatures.  I would rather focus on Paglia’s inquiries rather than her infantile persona, but it is difficult to do so when she herself cannot get past the players to see the play.  Paglia energetically describes herself as “persona non grata in academia”: apparently that self-description gives her street cred.  At a time when universities are becoming more and more corporatized; when academic freedom and intellectual inquiry face extinction; and when most higher-education instructors are overextended, under-compensated adjuncts with little time available to misunderstand art in the way Paglia condemns,—and when dozens of universities have been investigated for Title IX violations for mishandling sexual assaults—it is not only sensationalistic, not only irresponsible, but abhorrent to flog the entire scholarly community for imagined sins.  Who is it, again, who is driving young people away?

 

Has Paglia based her own ideology on scholarship about bondage?  Has she noticed that we did not agree to her terms?  And does she know that that makes her words an assault?  Or does her insistence that revulsion is part of our “dream life” extend to fantasies of whipping her comrades, enacted through words?  What about the “dream life” that depicts students overpowered and violated by their peers in their own dorm rooms?

 

Few women are accorded a stage where they can construct themselves as rebels and iconoclasts, where they can believe their own hype. Such honors usually go to the Steven Pinkers and . . . those other guys. One does not want to come down harder on Paglia than on the unbuttoned noblemen who—you might want to sit down for this—trade on their institutional privilege to pretend to puncture the very establishment that provides the pulpit from which to do so.  But why Paglia? Is it because she proffers shallow, vacuous, easily digestible propaganda, bullying the tenants of the university rather than scrutinizing the master’s house? Does her hemming and hawing invite the spectator to look down on her inarticulate bluster even as he makes an ostentatious display of cheering her wild transgressions?  Does the anti-intellectual state maintain order by “allowing” her to play the maverick, as long as her performance does not threaten the royals who continue to exclude true iconoclasts and risk-takers from the banquet? (A meal laid out on a table being dismantled even as she critiques the entrée.)

 

Now that would be reductive. And ideological. And useless. To some of us, at least.

 

—Posted by Barbara White

 

Fourteen, and Fourteen, and Fourteen More

Fourteen Poems of Fourteen Words,
contributed to 14 Words For Love
—Barbara White


Granny_Smith_Apple_02

They say, “love the one you’re with.”
But what if I’m with Granny Smith?


Can’t sell me Love™, but keep on trying.
I’m sure someone else is buying.


256px-Ruth_Bader_Ginsburg,_official_SCOTUS_portrait,_crop

Fourteenth Justice

Ginsburg is better than lingerie.
Congress, in truth, is not always play.
Even today.


Vegetarian Valentine
To South Carolina Senator Thomas Corbin

You call me a lesser cut?
My loin’s too tender for your tasteless butt.


Valentine’s sentiment is but a veneer
To obscure the outrage that we live in fear.


A Song for Keats

Keats was sweet on unheard music.
If only he’d lived long enough to sing.

[Keats’s Grave.  Photo By Giovanni Dall’Orto, via Wikimedia Commons.]


We’ll be ashes before long.
Shall we gasp the Valentine song?
Is that wrong?


If it’s not love, it need not—can’t— do.
Gamergate, Rodger, Rice.  And you?


After Miles Davis

“My Funny Valentine”:
Chromatic inner line.
I’d walk miles to hear that muted trumpet.

[“Miles Davis by Palumbo” by Tom Palumbo from New York City, USA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.]


Billie_Holiday_1949_b

After Billie Holiday

“My man don’t love me;
Treats me awful mean.”
[Repeat first line on subdominant.]


Fourteen
lines:
Shakespeare’s
love.
Quatrains,
couplets.
Five
feet.
Prithee
love
faster:
our
minutes
hasten.

Young_Dorothy_Parker
“One of you is lying,”
Dottie says.
I think her lie
belies her truth.

Buddha Cracks Filter
“Be a lamp unto yourself,”
the pot-bellied sage advises.
Or, unto one another?

Number’s Up

Fourteen, and fourteen.
Fourteen more.
Spent am I.
Time to stop, sleep, and snore.

 

Who is Qualified? A Quiz.

As the Columbia University student tells it, the encounter was harmless fun: A female freshman invited him into her suite bathroom, got a condom, took off her clothes and had sex with him. But as that young woman later described it to university officials, the encounter was not consensual. The university suspended him for a year.

—Ariel Kaminer, New Factor in Campus Sexual Assault Cases: Counsel for the Accused

Quiz
What is the point of view of this passage?

  • First Person
  • Second Person
  • Third Person Objective
  • Third Person Limited
  • Third Person Omniscient

Show your work.

From Jonathan Bellman’s Post on Disparagement

Ironic dismissal of passionate commitment to ideals, or indeed to anything, is as unsophisticated as anything on earth—simply a sneering “Huh-uh, no you can’t” with more syllables. Beyond being lazy, it is cowardly: the tacit acknowledgment that someone’s commitment, passion, and action have called you out, and cast your ironically superior pose into the light for what it is.

—Jonathan Bellman, “On Disparagement,” posted on Dial M For Musicology, September 19, 2014.

“Moving At the Speed of Thought”—Or, A Drop of Liquid Sunshine

[dedicated to Alice, with gratitude]
Peter Sellars On Art, Ethics, and Opera*
Department of Music at Princeton
March 30, 2013

[I remember one year ago today: temperature in the 60s, or 70s even, blossoms effortlessly and joyously emerging.  Today, I see a crocus here and there, a mangled snowdrop, and the spring seems elusive still, hard won.  But the birds persevere, beckoning into the next season.]

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Peter Sellars—I first heard tell of his legendary Adams House swimming-pool extravaganza thirty years ago when I was a freshman and years later had something of a fit when I saw his Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez during my first years of graduate school—darts in and begins by honoring his hosts, referring to musicology as a “place to create a zone of integrity,” saying that “the story behind the story is going to save the world.”  He describes the value of many minds, rather than a single authoritative one, and speaks in favor of reciprocity and inclusion.  He acknowledges the physical body that creates the music and describes Bach’s as a “music of questioning,” noting that the texts of Bach’s works are discussed less fully than are their ostensibly abstract principles.  I think of the lecture hours my undergraduates and I have been spending just upstairs considering the norms and questions that inhere, but do not quite cohere, in Bach’s chorales, stripped of their texts and contexts.

[Three hundred sixty-four days and nineteen hours ago, in a theater across campus, I picked up my bass clarinet to sound the first notes of my opera, Weakness.]

Sellars speaks of ritualization, cooperation, reciprocity, inclusion, and the involvement of the “congregation” (audience).

[Weakness concerns trauma and healing, and the entire process of putting the work together was blessed by mutuality and cooperation even as it was bedeviled simultaneously by thoughtlessness and disregard.  The final two weeks of preparation go beyond the expected pre-premiere strain, past the irritating but inevitable underfunctioning and jockeying, to insupportable dysfunction and outlandish aggression.  And, as I warned at the time would happen, the damage is still resounding a year later.  I have spent much of the last twelve months lathering, rinsing and repeating, but despite all my elbow grease and scrubbing, my opera remains grimy.]

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Mr. Sellars—I think it’s time I call him Peter—speaks of the St. Matthew Passion: “Two weeks ago you thought you were going to change the world, and now you are standing around a tomb. What happened in these last two weeks?”

[Indeed.  One year later, I am no longer surprised that a staging of the unspeakable conjured up more of same offstage, but I do still mourn it, and I think how after all this time, I am still recovering from the trauma attendant upon the trauma.  I marvel at my profession’s expectation of constant activity (often confused with productivity, which is not at all the same thing) and the disinterest in addressing what has been damaging in favor of getting the next gig and making another mess.  My naïve youthful belief in the academy as a sanctuary for contemplation, in the arts world as a setting for what Keats called “a vale of soul-making”—

—But here I veer dangerously toward taking others’ inventory, which is never a good idea, so I’ll just leave it at this: In a conversation with a cherished colleague, months after the beauty and horror that was Weakness, I found myself saying, “You say you have not had a moment to reflect in the past few months, and that is all I have been doing; you have reached outward, while I have been looking inward.”]

Peter speaks of the Passion inspiring one to look inward rather than outward.  He speaks of Dorothy Day—I mentioned her to Charles just yesterday, and though I know little of her, she has always intrigued me with her compassionate Catholicism, so different from the one I was indoctrinated into and to which I am now violently allergic—and her growing dissatisfaction, many years ago, with the “emptiness” of the worlds of arts and politics.

There is talk of mutual dependency and of Haydn and Mozart constructing a model of democracy in the configuration of the string quartet, where every voice is essential.  “What would equality look like?  What would it sound like?”

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Later I thank Alice, who invited Peter, for making space for these words and thoughts.  She and I acknowledge, again, the dangers of discussing openly the ubiquitous and pressing topic of trauma.  I say, realizing it for the very first time as the words exit my mouth, that I have encountered more resistance, even retribution, in response to performing trauma onstage than I have when I have addressed the topic in scholarly prose.

Peter has spoken about his staging of Handel’s Hercules  in Chicago—coincidentally, a work I first heard and fell in love with a month or so ago—and how the performance was attended by veterans and complemented by discussions of PTSD; he stresses (no pun intended)  that  the opera was meant to inform the understanding of PTSD rather than the other way around.  One veteran heard a countertenor for the first time—David Daniels, to be precise—and described the sound as “blood coming out of his mouth.”

[Years ago, Tom taught me a Druidic expression: “Wisdom makes a bloody entrance.”  Perhaps its exit is also messy.  I excised the line from my libretto, for it perplexed my collaborators, who, while sensitive and knowing, fortunately came to Weakness from their own experience rather than mine.  I appreciated their input, and I return again and again to that saying as I try to imagine my next work.  I am currently editing and polishing the documentation of Weakness, so that I may share it with others in audio and video format.  Nevertheless, I am leery of mounting it again, of risking that the trauma story may engender yet more trauma.  I have had enough bleeding for now.  Perhaps it is better to leave my four years (and more) of labor aside.]

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Peter says, “Bach is an incredible composer of disappointment” and recognizes what it means to live “with your idealism in such a state of profound despair.”  The first and only performance of his St. Matthew Passion was “ a mess,” and Bach, realizing his work was not meant for the milieu in which he found himself, “put it away for the rest of his life.”  Somehow this bad news is good news to me, much more so than the familiar narratives of dominance, of success, of triumph over adversity.

Peter talks about one’s “moral standing as an artist,” and while that is a difficult notion to explore without seeming righteous or judgmental, without seeming to congratulate oneself, and without denying the real, tangible, practical matters of survival that can be so far removed from the luxury of the proscenium, he manages somehow to inspire rather than to preach.  Likely this is in part because he himself moves between the palaces of culture and glitterless venues in a way that many of us only talk about.  He expresses a desire for all of us to resist the “gossip and infighting in the classical music world,” saying that “we are actually here to do something much bigger.” 

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It’s one of those days when I marvel at the way strands and shards weave together unexpectedly, offering solace and inspiration when they are most desired, in ways that could not possibly be anticipated.  Peter talks of magic and transcendence, but all I am seeking is awareness, good faith, and perhaps a bit of company in cultivating a more equitable and nurturing space for us all.  Afterward I say to Alice that these are the most worthwhile almost-three hours I have spent in this building this year.  I can’t help but feel sad that such conviction, such searching, is the startling exception rather than the norm, that this talk seems so out of the ordinary in our profession, but it’s a glimpse, at least, of something more expansive and generous, more aware and committed, and I am beyond grateful to hear some of my own values reflected and affirmed.

These simultaneous sensations of dark and light, of desolation and hope, remind me of a Hawai’ian expression Riley taught me: “liquid sunshine.”

March 31: the anniversary of the closing of Weakness.  Also, Easter, a holiday I appreciate without really celebrating.  The birds continue to beckon, and I think they might win out at last, for a while.  I think of the volunteer chorus members who contributed so much to Weakness a year ago today, and especially of the family of three with whom I have become friendly.  Yesterday they sent me dozens of candids they shot as we put Weakness together.  I looked at the images as at the record of a dream, tearing up just a bit.  Maybe I’ll give the chorister-alums a ring today and see what they and their new puppies are up to.

Gangplank-225x300“The speed of thought”: the speed of my thought, I see, is slow, its path recursive, its destination hidden.  Sometimes it feels less like a path and more like a gangplank.

March 29: I attended Emi’s show, a musical about gender-neutral parenting. As we began working together, I explained that I do not really care for musical theater’s syntax or aesthetic, but that I was happy to mentor her, and to my surprise, I was pleased to dip my ear in to this world.  Her songs are incisive, thoughtful, brave, and moving—youthful and idealistic to be sure, but also more mature and ethical than what I hear from many middle-aged artists.  It’s this sort of blossoming that keeps me motivated as a teacher.

April 1: a good day to post at face value.  Time to listen to the birds, head out,  and see what sorts of blossoms are popping up.

chant_smoky_lotus-copy

*”Moving At the Speed of Thought” is another phrase of Mr. Sellars uttered in this same discussion, exemplifying the content in the form of his improvised paragraphs.  “On Art, Ethics, and Opera” was the title of his talk.