Dona Nobis Quatuor—Or, “F The Dominant”

[Eine kleine Festschriftenfantasieblöggen for Paul Lansky, on the occasion of his retirement]

May 2014.  I walk in the door to see eight or ten people I have never met before, gathered around a coffee table covered with neatly stacked piles of paper.   I exclaim, “Wow, you guys are hard core!”  One man says, “Who is this nice lady?  I bet she is a fine soprano.”  (Yes, I hope, and no, I lament.)  Jay, who until now have I known only aethereally, introduces me to each person by voice type.   It is a gaggle, a bevy, of serious singers, many with advanced degrees in fields other than music.  We spend hours with Finck, Obrecht, Byrd, and—my favorite, Josquin.  We sing his “De Profundis.”  One of them.  (Is it still his?  Let me know.)

Don’t worry; we’ll get to Paul in a moment.  There is plenty of time.

The singers debate politely about various translations of German texts and the symbolic significance of hyssop.  Judy quotes the opening lines of the Aeneid, in the original and from memory (which I do not understand), and there is an in-joke about Gesualdo (which I do).  We sing, “suscipe deprecationem nostram,” and I begin to think of tekka maki.  It is the first time I have ever attended a birthday party where I needed my reading glasses.  Departing, I say, “I have not done this in thirty years,” but later I realize I have never done this.  Ever.  I haven’t been this sound-silly since I was last in Cape Breton.

We read from scores made with software John invented; we are unencumbered by unwanted barlines.  There are sophisticated discussions about ficta.  I hide behind the skirts, metaphorically speaking, of an adept alto and join in when I can.  Every flatted note we sing feels like a warm bath.

But still moves delight,
Like clear springs renew’d by flowing,

June 2012.  I learn the tune “Frieze Britches,” also known as “Cúnla,” and I marvel at its Mixolydian flavor.  I travel from the southern tip of Cape Breton up to the Highlands, and I can’t stop playing it on my tin whistle, except when I grab my shakuhachi to record a second part to “She Moved through the Fair,” to accompany Riley’s recording of the tune he sent me from Kyoto.  I send Riley an email with a .mp3 of our disembodied duo attached.

I return to St. Peter’s, my “Frieze Britches” transcription in hand, and a guy says, “Look at that!  You can write it down?”  “More like, ‘have to,’” I say, in order to keep up and keep my memory straight.  (Today on FaceTime™ Charles rummaged around for my transcription, but it was not to be found.  It reminded me how inefficient notation is.  Eventually I found it in a pile of papers at my own place.)

The flat seven is so marvelous, the way it just tucks itself into the second bar of the tune without incident, radiating warmth.  It’s a note with humanity and humility.

Frieze With Key

“Frieze Britches” reminds me of the first movement of Op. 130, to which (to whom?) Elliot Forbes introduced me in 1983.  I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that F-natural in the cello that brings us from G major into a dalliance with C minor,—and then, whoa!—without warning, everybody slides back into B-flat.  (My Lea pocket score from El’s class is far away [in the next room]. . . .  Oh, look!—imslp has the first edition!)

Dichterliebe It’s like a filmic dissolve, a maneuver Paul and I both recognized in Dichterliebe one day in the Cone Room.  (—“Meanwhile, back in the disillusioned and lonely present . . .”)

Dichterliebe Fuck Dominant

Already in the downbeat of m. 9, after a few elevated and pointy G-sharps, the bass lumbers down to the subtonic, deflating any hope one could possibly take from an excited heart.

These dull notes we sing
Discords need for helps to grace them;

Spring 2006.  At Lincoln Center, I sit next to Paul for a performance of Eliot Feld’s Backchat, which he choreographed for Mandance using Paul’s Idle Chatter Junior.  It is so different from anything I would ever think to do, stunning in a way that makes my eye and ear both work new muscles.  The dancers all face the back and engage with a wall upstage.  There is something about the fixity of the recorded sound and the property line enforced by the wall, as well as the men facing away, that suggests a mysterious and allusive sort of vertical boundary, and the photographic quality of the music makes the visual, too, seem like a picture—a moving one.  Later we chat in the lobby about the way music touches choreography, and Paul says that it is less like counterpoint of two voices than like a sort of multiplication.  I have just published an article that says exactly that, and I think, perhaps I did not need to go to all that trouble of writing it down.

After intermission, back in our seats with Hannah, Paul and I discuss some department lore, and he says, “I’ll tell you that story sometime.” Maybe I’ll hear that one on Tuesday.

WTF License AnonSomehow we get on to functional harmony and modulation—à propos of what, I forget—and Paul says, “Fuck the dominant.  I like the flat side.”  (I wonder whether I need to bleep, or bloop, or -F-, the F-word, now that professors are being fired [and later rehired?] for commenting on their universities’ budget cuts, for posting unfortunate, pained, tweets [#NoKansasPleaseILovePrinceton], and for sending frustrated, hastily written emails.  But, I digress . . . )

What is it about the flat side?  The same year as that conversation, I was attending Susanna’s tai ji class.  Paul had told me about her years earlier, and I think he said Hannah learned the sword form.  (Did their young sons go too?  I think so.)  It’s as if the emphatic, bright, five, the yang, causes the four to seem even more itself, more steady.  This stable, imperturbable yin has no need to hit you over the head to show its strength.  (I remember what happened when my boy dog was joined by a new younger female: she played alpha, and he just sat around and snorted as if he could not be bothered.

Four, five: could we have one without the other?  Could it be that the harmony that can be harmonized is not the true harmony?

Ever perfect, ever in them-
Selves eternal.

That same month as the Lincoln Center performance, Lisa sits for her General Exam and tells us some things we don’t know about the different versions of Petrushka.  We all vow to save the handouts.  I still have mine.  In the course of the exam, which also concerns Stravinsky and Balanchine’s Agon and Orpheus, as well as the theme of “memory in music,” Paul has occasion to ask Lisa about gender in music. (In one of the ballets?  I am not sure.)  He turns to me, and since it is Lisa’s exam, I ask, “Why do you ask?”  Paul replies, “Well, you’re the gender.”  I’m told this Lacanian exchange is still talked about among the graduate students.  (Well, I was told that, back then.)  Later, Lisa writes about Antony and the Johnsons, relying on recent and sophisticated theory of transgender (and other) identity.  So, now Paul and I can ask students about transgender matters too.  (Way back when, Walter was described as having a “sex change.”  More recently this has been called “sex reassignment surgery.”  Just recently I heard the term “sex affirmation surgery,” which sounds so much nicer.  It’s fascinating how things change.)

Rose-cheek’d Laura, come,
Sing thou smoothly with thy beauty’s

1985.  It’s Killian Hall, I think.  (Can someone remind me?)  In those days, such concerts formed the electric ghetto within the new-music ghetto; but back then we (we?) felt happy to be off the menu, misunderstood.  And (parenthetical) redfish were nowhere on the horizon.  This is before MIDI, before the laptop, and before the return of the turntable.  The posters advertising “electronic music” attract the usual group of Cambridge/Boston eggheads.  We ride our bicycles to M.I.T. and leave our right pants legs bound through the evening (why not?).  Soon the DX7 will make itself available for us to eschew.  We furrow our brows in consternation and discuss the intricacies of FM synthesis and the LPC we are all waiting to try.  (Actually, I won’t learn about all that until the following year.)

I find this proudly esoteric brain-collective enticing and exciting.  Occasionally, one or two “outsiders” show up, expecting something else from the term “electronic music,”—Tomita?  Walter/Wendy? “The Popcorn Song?*”—and they usually start to giggle when the bleeps and bloops start, as if it’s the rest of us who don’t understand.  Perhaps they’ll turn out to be right.  Meantime, I like thinking that I am in the know and that they are unsophisticated: they are outsiders to the outsiders.  This music is reserved for just a few of us.

(*Did you see that the YouTube post mentions “no copyright infringement intended”?  I guess it’s the thought that counts.  A couple of years ago the social media specialist at Princeton told me that it is legal to share illegal material.  So, if Steve Carell visits campus and refuses to be videotaped, and some audience member makes a bootleg with a phone and posts it, Princeton can disseminate that further.  That seems odd.)

Back to Killian Hall.  Who is this Paul Lansky?  “As If” begins.  It sounds as if the string trio is tuning up.  The sounds relate to something I have heard before, something I hear at all the other concerts I go to, except these electronic ones, since the speakers are already calibrated. (Except there was that concert where the piano was a quarter-tone away from the tape and we had to wait for them to be brought into agreement.  This made Miller chuckle.  Which one adapted?)  For the “tape pieces,” an obsolete term we hang onto sentimentally, the house lights go down, and each twin speaker gets a spot.  This is romantically austere, but some prefer to include “real” musicians in order to liven things up.  (Many years later, Eric will note how many pieces from those days were composed at quarter note = 60, since we were thinking in seconds—that is, durational seconds.)

Soon after, I go to Briggs and Briggs (R.I.P.) to buy the album Computer Directions, which pairs Paul Lansky’s Six Fantasies on a Poem of Thomas Campion with James Dashow’s Second Voyage.  I hear the Fantasies (and Campion’s poem) for the first time, and I am stilled.  It gives birth to an ear-what?  It’s not a worm, because this is good.  An ear-worm is when someone says they want a Coke™ and my inner voice starts to teach the world to sing, or when I meet someone named Laura and get distracted by the theme from Preminger’s film starring Gene Tierney.  I hear someone say, “Don’t worry,” and depending on the inflection, I may or may not hear Bobby McFerrin rev up.  Paul’s Campion, though, creates something more like a blossom, but I cannot call it an earbud, can I?  Perhaps an ear-gem.  It stays in my memory and imagination over twenty-eight years, so far.  I still have the LP (actually, I am afraid not), and I am still, now, listening to it for the first time.  I’m not sure I even need to hear it from outside my own imagination.  Sometimes I worry about experiencing for a second time things I have been so taken with on first meeting: it’s Mark Epstein’s Lobster Roll Phenomenon.  Like ordering Shahi Paneer in Allston, being overwhelmed with contentment, and never quite finding the same masala again.  Or a flavorful red wine that enthralls at first, but later merely pleases.  Six Fantasies, however, has no such problem; inside or out, then and now, its sheen and richness, its elegance and grace, resound.

Six Fantasies sounded entirely different from those dispersive, confounding pieces I loved to listen to (and perform, and compose).  I don’t think those uninitiated spectators would have giggled at Paul’s Campion.  It was unlike anything I had ever heard, new or old, electronic or acoustic.  It began with a rich yet digestible D, gleaming, sounding a bit like a horn, Paul’s instrument.  Ooh, there’s the flat seven above: it seems to open up the airspace for a bionic woman’s voice to travel through, and she names, simply but sublimely, “Laura.”  The sounds go deep, but some come closer, and some lay back.  How can this “fixed” music have so many dimensions?  There is the horizontal trajectory of the poem, its setting, and its variations; the vertical window of the seventh and its transformations; and the perspective extending all the way from here to there and articulating all the places in between.

At any point in my life, I can exorcise “It’s the Real Thing” by thinking of this synthesis of “her song”:

Her Song

Of course, this is not how it goes.  But I remember those first two words, those four notes, and I cannot possibly forget what comes next.  You’ll have to check it out for yourself though: it’s Paul’s.

It seems both impossible and perfect.  How did he think of that?  And had he not, what else could possibly have gone there?

Again, there is something I recognize, though I would not dream of calling it the “I Got Rhythm” set.  It’s one of my own favorite patterns, though I prefer the inversion.  And when he gets to the gritty part, “her ritual,” it seems to make sense for it to be fragmented, filtered (is that right?), percussed, grained—groaned and moaned.  The Fantasies do not start here, inside a ruin, though; instead they grow and decay, so I know how they have arisen and descended from something I used to know.  There’s something that has been broken down, so you can listen backward and remember what it was once was.

Lovely forms do flow
From concent divinely framed;

The speaking gradually emerges, becoming itself, undressing, so that in the final fantasy—so to speak—I hear at last the unadorned, unfettered voice.  I wonder, who is this Hannah MacKay, who is reading the poem and whose speech is being transfigured into these fantasies?  (I’ll find out in 1998 and will talk to her about her studies in classics.  But first, in 1987, I will sit in Betsy Jolas’s seminar at the Conservatoire, and one of her most insightful students will describe Debussy’s etude “Pour les sonorités opposées” [no copyright infringement intended] as music that comes closer and recedes, rather than propelling one forward in time.  That seems about right.)

Only a year later will Barry teach me Music 11.  A veteran will warn, “Just you wait for the digital filters lecture. . . .”  Leaving that lecture and all the others, I will ride back up Mass Ave., right pants leg bound, camping-size backpack attached, back to Harvard Square to serve as waitron (I am not making this up)—at Souper (ditto) Salad.  Bob Lobel is a frequent customer.

The year after that, Ivan will initiate me into the wonders of reel-to-reel and a blade, then the Serge, then the Moog.  Each student will complete a realization of Douglas Leedy’s Entropical Paradise, and Ivan will assign us readings from William Burroughs, alongside an alchemy textbook.  Twenty-six or so years later, I will run into Mark Janello, or his avatar, again.  (Yes, I am moving backward in time.)  I remember asking Ivan whether he thought my disassembly of Lester Young and Billie Holiday had too much of an air of “musica reservata” about it, and he said no, he liked that aspect.

Back in 1985, I study Six Fantasies on a Poem of Thomas Campion in Peter Lieberson’s class, and without any particular rationale or even a trumped-up excuse, I write to this Professor Paul Lansky at Princeton.  I figured that when you study people’s music, you talk to them about it.  (Maybe it is a girl thing; they say we like to converse.)  I had to look him up in that old directory of college music departments, and, within a week, in what we then called simply “mail”—no gastropodular modifier was necessary, though at M.I.T. we did send aethereal communications back and forth, again feeling exhilaratingly disembodied—Paul sends me a nice note, enclosing “a couple of pages from Charles Dodge’s book,” Computer Music: Synthesis, Composition, and Performance, which was not yet published.  (Any Resemblance Is Purely Coincidental will turn out to be another piece that has something identifiable about it.)

Another few years later, I have a friend in the graduate program at Princeton, and he ushers me into Woolworth, where we peek in the door to gaze at the legendary NeXT computers.  (It’s before the renovations, but I later realize it’s the same room where the graduate students—actually, what do they do in there now?)  I spy Paul in the corner, working with a student, and I think, “Wow, that’s the real Paul Lansky—the one whose record I have.  He sent me those pages from Charles Dodge’s book.”  Of course, I would never have dreamed of saying hello.  Before we do finally meet, in 1998, Mathew informs me that Paul has a new CD out.  I zip over to Audio Options to pick up Things She Carried.  There’s Hannah again, and she is speaking in a more everyday manner now, describing “a comb with several teeth missing,” “five credit cards,” and a “Social Security card.”

Paul’s is music of relationship: things meet up and talk to one another, whether remotely or face to face, whether, as he says, silicon or protein.  There is specialness made out of ordinary things: shiny pots and pans, distant casual conversation, even a reading of the utilitarian alphabet, and even the too-familiar sounds of the highway.  (This one says “I do not own any right.”  What about this one?”  Accidentally, I just let them play at the same time, a bit out of sync.  The colliding highways sounded pretty great.)  And there is the music of music: Andalusian-inspired piano filigree, the Baroque suite, and even a fragment of Isolde (whose modified form will be famously mutated by a few members of a younger generation).

These are all his.

I migrate to Paul’s schoolyard, and I hear the clock tick as a dancer explores the floor.  (There’s also the bunny with the vacuum cleaner.  I have scoured with Google, and it seems to be the only thing missing from the Internet.  I found Grady’s video imagery inescapably gynophobic . . . but that’s a different story.)  And later, music for horn, piano, percussion,—the kind that needs people to get on stage for us to hear it.  There are even, despite what even he might have predicted, songs:

I thought I’d write a song or two, so I tried, and tried again. It seemed like a perfectly natural thing for a young composer to do. Everyone else was doing it, so why couldn’t I? But nothing worked, it felt wrong, it sounded bad, awkward, self-conscious, pretentious, even ugly.

(It’s fascinating how things change.)

Paul often proposes,“let’s burn that bridge when we come to it.”  Or when I ask how he’s doing, he’ll say, “I’ve been worse.”  Last week, as he graduated from the ritual of administering graduate exams with the rest of the composition faculty, I finally dared to ask if I knew him well enough to inquire as to what he means when he asks students about orchestration in piano music.  He remembers my old silvertone email address and occasionally calls me babz.

1998. Paul suggests that I serve as Mary’s dissertation advisor and adds, “I hope you don’t think I’m just sending all the women students to you.”  I say that’s good to know, but I might not mind if he did; there is research that suggests same-sex mentorship to be of great value.

May 2014.  We lost Mary to cancer thirteen days ago. 

Only beauty purely loving
Knows no discord,

1985. In music history class, I learn about Josquin and become addicted to his Missa Fortuna Desperata.  (Is it still his?  Let me know.)  Like Paul’s Fantasies, the Agnus Dei is something I can conjure up without hesitation—not the piece itself, but specifically the Boston Camerata recording.  There’s this intoxicating, addicting riff, on the first syllable of “mundi”:

Josquin Mundi

It seems Josquin was drunk on this too, for he swims around in it for a while. A bit later, we hear the second syllable, and an inner voice sings:

Josquin 4th

I can’t imagine a more beguiling leap of a fourth.  But of course, this is not the music.  It’s more magical than that.  (Paul once asked me whether I ever cast spells, but that too is a different conversation.  [I don’t.])   It’s a stunning homophonic moment, where the voices join together, a congregation of mortals addressing the one who “takes away the sins of the world.”  Check it out and see where it goes next.  (“Miserere” is the text, so I’ll leave that aside for now, since this is a celebratory occasion.)

Heav’n is music, and thy beauty’s
Birth is heavenly.

(When he heard my “Sin,” a memorial to my mother that fantasizes on the old song Tain’t No Sin, Paul told me about some then-new-for-me things he heard.  One was “anger.”  He was right.  I was touched that he noticed.  A couple of years later, he delivered a compliment, something about sneaking up on a groove, or something like that.  I hadn’t thought of it that way.  Even later I visited his “pitch freak” seminar, and it seemed we both liked to maintain a distinction between white and black notes [transpositions allowed].)

Having had my first splash with Josquin last week—well, it was more like treading water—I thirst to sing this Mass, to hear the sweet discords and divine graces fill up the space between and around a circle of voices.  (I’ll just send this hint out into the  aether and see if anyone notices . . . )

A few years ago I caught the Boston Camerata recording of the Missa Fortuna Desperata on the radio.  I put it on in two rooms, one the “real” radio and one streaming, and as I walked between rooms, I noticed they were a couple of beats apart.  Another kind of swim.  This week I looked on the Internet for the Boston Camerata recording.  It has not been re-released?!  How can that be?  I listen to the Tallis Scholars, but their recording just will not do.  Fortunately, this one is one of the LPs I have kept on hand.  (This is true.)  I ask Dan and Darwin to help, and Dan digitizes it for me in a flash.  He says he’ll have a scan of the score for me next week.  I have the .ra files, but I hesitate to listen to it.  The memory is so good already.

Silent music, either other
Sweetly gracing.

I’m not sure I’ve kept my tenses straight, but then, that tends to happen when there is so much to remember.  So many gems and fancies to discover, hold, gather, drink in again, and cherish.  So, this has gotten sort of long. But then, so has our association, and Paul’s works list even more so.

Congratulations on your graduation, Paul.  I’ll see you Tuesday for sushi.  Please let me treat this time.

—Posted by Barbara A. White

[Quotations are from Thomas Campion’s “Rose-Cheek’d Laura” and from Paul Lansky’s “I Thought I’d Write a Song or Two.”]

Fingers With A Beat—Or, The Eternal X-Ray

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.
Marcel Proust, “Remembrance of Things Past”

Supine, I say that this is my favorite music of all I have heard here.  (Hint.)  The technician x-rays my teeth with a nifty new device resembling a thumb drive—it’s a lot better having a thumb in my mouth than that old behemoth, and the result shows on the screen immediately.  Frank Sinatra begins to sing, “The Shadow of Your Smile.”  I point out that the song seems to fit the moment, and she agrees.  And as she polishes and scrapes and I wince and try to keep my clarinetist’s rogue tongue out of her way, Frank coos, “a teardrop kissed your lips.”  Indeed.  Later, when the doctor, the one of the three brother-dentists I see the least frequently, enters, and I wait for him to poke and prod some more, I tell him too that I like today’s music.  (Hint.)

Now I hear an instrumental version of “Laura,” and I tell the dentist: “This is a nice one.  Do you know it?  It was composed by David Raksin.”  He pauses, pick in hand, cocks his head for a few moments, and replies, “Are you sure?  I think it might be Johnny Mercer.”  I say, “Hmm . . . maybe he wrote the lyrics? This is in the film ‘Laura’—have you seen it?  It’s great.  It has that wonderful actress Gene Tierney; she’s female but spells her name the male way.”

I learned this well before I knew of the movie, when once, completing a crossword, I tried to cheat by filling in the name “Gene” for a famous actress, and my mother told me it was indeed correct.  This cannot possibly be true, but it is what I remember.  Anyway, Gene Tierney always brings my mother to mind.

Who Is Laura Tierney

 “I teach this film to my students, so I am sure it is Raksin.  Raksin also tells a story about how his wife left him and he wrote the song at 2 a.m. in despair.”  (I think of the opening titles and the unresolved patch of melody, the way the tune is subjected to variation after variation throughout, asking the question , “Who is Laura?” but only obscuring the possibility of an answer.)  My dentist tells me my teeth are in perfect shape and asks if I have a few minutes for a non-dental question.  I say sure and ask if he is polling his patients on office decor.  (Another hint: the Batman poster is getting faded. [Actually, though the poster really is faded, I asked about decor because I truly did not know what was coming.  I hoped it did not concern politics.  Or Girl Scout cookies.])

He returns with his iPad and looks up “Laura,” then asks, “Laura—Is that directed by Preminger?”  I tell him I think he is right.  We confirm that it is Preminger, Mercer, Raksin, and Tierney.  I exclaim, “Teamwork!”  He then asks to show me a YouTube video of his 15-year-old son playing “All of Me.”  (When he can’t get it to play and keeps pressing “ pause,” I offer to help, and we both man the tablet together, our fingers batting into one another. I don’t think my fingers have ever touched the dentist before, except perhaps for a cursory greeting.)

The video starts.  The kid plays stride!  And he is really good!  When the clip ends, I say as much, and the dentist says, “I think he’s got something.  Do you think he’s good for a 15-year old?”  I give an enthusiastic yes, and when he asks for more, I tell him that the playing is very clean, varied and balanced, so he can play really virtuosically, but he places and shapes his performance well, so the different forms of playing really seem to make sense.  He says,”Yeah, he comes back to the tune.  I tried to get into progressive music, but I really always want them to come back to the tune so I know what they are referring to.” I mention that that sense of form within an improvisation is what I have always loved about Miles Davis.

 I remember my Harvard student, when I was a teaching assistant in only about 1990, who transcribed “Bye Bye Blackbird” and blew my mind with his analysis.  And I later transcribed Miles’s solo from “So What” and wrote a paper on it, for no particular reason or obligation.  This was in the LP era when transcribing was transcribing.  Last week a student of mine  brought the published scores to “Birth of the Cool” to his exam.  I confessed that I’ve always found “Birth of the Cool” a little too—cool.  (I like attack.)  I add, though, that the tune is practically David Lewin-approved. (Does anyone know what that means?)  And when Gerry Mulligan starts his solo, I hear nuance and detail.  (I picture the footage of Gerry Mulligan from 12 or 13 years later, in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” where he is so—cool.  [And now I start to think of Anita O’Day’s hat.])

Anita O'Day

I tell my brother-of-a-dentist that I like how his son’s playing is not overly smooth; that it has some bite to it, a percussive quality.    I ask whether the son always plays in older styles, like stride.  “He has a good left hand,” he replies.  “He plays all sorts of things.  He’s really good at classical music; he is learning all the Chopin Etudes.  He’s been invited to do a performance in memory of a woman, very well respected, a Holocaust survivor, who played Chopin—that’s how she survived the camps.“  I say I am not surprised he plays classical music; that was the one thing I wondered about; maybe it is too clean, even.  “Yeah?”  I say, “There was this one spot where he let his syncopation get a little wild; I liked that.   I would love to hear more of that.  Also, he probably knows the the Billie Holiday versions of “All of Me,” but if not . . . those are my favorite, she really composes the tune.  I teach that one too.”  As he gets ready to leave, I say, “Oh!  And one of my very favorite pianists, who he may or may not know, is Lennie Tristano.  I studied with one of his students.”  One of my dentists tells me that Tristano taught a lot, and that he himself wanted to study with another of Tristano’s students, but that the man was on the road too much, so it didn’t work out.  “Ah, my teacher was Harvey Diamond, and he seemed almost like a  hermit.  He was home a lot teaching, and I could only catch him live a couple times a year.”  My dentist and I are both grand-students of Lennie Tristano.

 I remember Harvey’s intense-but-gentle manner and how his daughter Hanna Rose used to intrude on our lessons.  She was maybe 3 or 4, and he would lovingly tell her to go play or seek out her mother.  But she never did, and every time, he eventually gave up and she hung out with us. Wow, it’s been a while.  I wonder what Hannah Rose is up to now.  Ah, this.

 One time, Tristano-drunk, I played a low-register improvisation in a lesson, and Harvey said, in his laconic way, “Barbara . . . you’re really . . . playing . . . the piano.  Yeah.”  Those of us who clustered around Harvey believed that this statement, uttered only at special moments, was a compliment, that the goal was to . . . play . . . the . . . piano.  And I think we heard him right.  The first thing he had me do, though, was to sing solos, both vocal and instrumental—without transcribing them.  I chose Billie Holiday, from “Lady in Satin,” and sang “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”  He told me, “Well, those recordings with the strings . . . um, check out her early stuff.”  “You Don’t Know What Love Is” was also one of Lennie’s tunes; I loved the way the tune begins on an F minor seventh chord with a G in the tune.  I could not get enough of that dash of 2 (or what sound to me like the deceptive resolutions to D-flat, or the subtonic in the tune that comes later, in the bridge).  And once I heard someone play it at one of Harvey’s house concerts, where he featured his students and colleagues, and the guy made it friggin’ Phrygian.  Friggin’ fabulous.

 It’s easy to find lead sheets these days.  Back then I had to go into the Store 24 across Mass. Ave from Berklee—as we said, Berk-lee-ee—and whisper a request for the “Real Book.”  Upright to a fault, I experienced more tremble than frisson.  I still haven’t had enough of that second scale degree, and the rest.  I used to rehearse there with Linda Chase’s Chamber Jazz.  Which was so enjoyable.  And Beth was there with her soulful jazz violin; she arranged some Mahler for us.  And Dianne.

I didn’t play jazz for too much longer after that, but I gave a concert in North House, thanks to Jeff Nichols, including Edison Denisov’s clarinet sonata and some tunes alongside what I liked to call, with a nod to Gerry Mulligan, “my pianoless trio.”  Somehow I invited Doug, who was also a lutenist.  (Doug, thanks to this data point, I was able to retrieve your last name online just now.  But how could I forget that you are Doug Friendly?)  Once, after a rehearsal for Marcela’s “A Harlequin at the Edge of My Desk,” Doug and I stopped at Pizzerio Uno, on that corner in Allston where I totaled my car about 15 years later, and Doug told me that he could have coffee after dinner because it actually made him calmer.  I also remember him picking up Kentucky Friend Chicken for visiting family even though he didn’t eat meat himself.  (Is that right?)  And Marcela matched me up, sound unheard, with Mark Burdon, a percussionist she had not heard, but who was in her tai chi class.  I hoped he could play quietly.  He could.  He contributed a piece evoking certain birds of Brazil.  And there was that one we cooked up together, where I played microtonally with what I always felt a little odd describing—but he did so, so what the hell—as his Thai nipple gongs.  I am almost certain this is the current Mark

Both of my parents especially liked my, and our, version of “In My Solitude.”  I can still feel that bend up from E to F in my third finger, and I still do it as often as I can.  But thinking not so much of the Duke as of my friend’s photograph,though I cannot remember the title. . . .  Oh, wait; found it: Visitación.  Marcela introduced me to him too; what was his name?

Jara Visitacion

 I did ask Geoff for a couple of jazz lessons, maybe eight or ten years ago, so I could better demonstrate “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “All of Me” to my class.  Geoff and I met, maybe, in our early twenties, when I gave him a copy of my first—actually, second—piano piece, and then we got to know one another when he played my Lennie Tristano homage in 2001.  And a bunch of times since.  When I played my root-position, fully voiced chords, with lots of 9ths, Geoff, I think, suppressed a smile.  I didn’t mind.  These days I call in visitors, like Sean and Konrad.

The technician and the striding son’s dental dad show my films on the screen.  I can see all the way through my head and compare this year’s images to last year’s.

That was quite an x-ray; the new technology seems to have penetrated fully.  Is there something about putting things in the mouth that inspires reverie?  I have yet to read Proust, so I hope my epigraph is accurate.  Last fall, one of my freshmen told me he’s read the whole thing.  And many other things I have not gotten to yet.  (I’m not sure I will, but I learned at last that at least I am ahead of him on Virginia Woolf.)  And I owe him an email.

Back then, a cookie was a cookie, wasn’t it?  


It is hard to find a picture of a solo madeleine on the Internet, but there are many still lifes with multiples assembled in formation.  Do we really need them all?  It seems a bit extravagant.

I have never been able to keep the three brother-dentists’ first names straight, and they have always seemed like mythic archetypes anyway.  There is the athlete, an affable and imposing man who tells me about his trips to Gold’s Gym, and his brother, the unassuming nerd.  I used to call today’s brother, who is the mellowest of the crew, “the burnout,” but only in my head, for the term does not exactly seem complimentary—even though I myself meant to judgment one way or another.  But still, it never seems quite right to refer to a doctor who tends one’s oral health in a way that recalls the kids hanging outside C wing during fourth period.  All the more so, now that I have actually seen and heard him, not just felt his fingers in my mouth and heard him say “looks great” behind my head as he dashes out the door.  Plus, we’re second-cousins-in-Tristano, or something.

Now I know: Doctor Number Three, the student of a student of Lennie Tristano, shall be anointed “The Beatnik.”

—Posted by Barbara A. White

Everything Happens, Maybe

“Everything happens for a reason.”  (Marilyn Monroe)
“Everything happens for no reason.”  (Nietzsche)
“Nothing happens for a reason.”  (Sartre)
“Nothing happens for no reason.”  (Buddha)
“No reason.”  (Žižek)
“Right.”  (Dolar)
“No.”  (Barthes)
“Absolutely not.”  [Later:] I miss you, Roland.” (Derrida)
“Quite possibly.” (McLuhan)
[Unearthed:]  “Mom?”  (Barthes)

—Posted by IAmNotMakingUp

See You Next Year, Maybe 

[in memoriam Mary Wright]

“I don’t want to see you for a year.”  These are the words I most want to hear from my oncologist.  This morning I passed inspection: I have been cleared for another twelve months of impermanence.

Yesterday afternoon, I learned that my very first dissertation advisee died the previous Sunday.  I had half-seen a note about her being ill, but had not really digested it, and only when I was able to follow up did I realize how serious it was and that she had departed already.

I have always been uneasy about eulogies and elegies.  Yes, those of us who remain conscious and breathing need to acknowledge our loss.  However, there is the risk of making it into an “enough about you; now about me” rite that not only comforts us in grief but also reassures us what good people we are.  It’s easier to honor people when they are gone, when they ask nothing of us.  I did not know Mary that well, and we were in touch only minimally after she finished her Ph.D., so I do not want to claim a relationship that says more about my own sadness at her passing than about her own experience, which she can no longer relay to me or to anyone else.  As I asked in a seminar I taught last year on music criticism and other topics, why do we so often critique one another while we are here together and then turn to accolades when one of us goes away?  (A note to those who outlive me: be sure to talk about all my annoying traits after I die.  Better yet, tell me about them now and give me the chance to do better, maybe.)

I first met Mary at my Princeton interview in February 1998; I think she was a third-year student then.  When I told her I had heard about her from her mentors, she asked whether it was because she had a child, and I said, no, it was because of the CD recording of her piece “Lizard Belly Moon.”  She was my teaching assistant in one of my first courses, and Paul Lansky “fixed us up” when it came time to identify an advisor for her dissertation.  I’ve long recognized that all of us are, or can be, one another’s teachers; I like how Ben Boretz refers to his teaching career as his “learning.”  Looking back fifteen or so years later, I see even more clearly how Mary was one of the students who, whether they liked it or not, inevitably played the role of “test subject” for me as a newly approved Ph.D. and professor finding my way.  When I joined the faculty at Princeton, a good number of the graduate students were older than I; Mary had five years on me, then.  I was so impressed with the program that I often joked that I should resign and apply to be a student.  I reminded myself frequently that while the students were very accomplished, they had not yet completed a task I had,—writing a dissertation—and so I endeavored to marshal my experience to be of use.  It wasn’t easy for me, and probably not for them either.  I wonder how my own anxieties and uncertainties might have affected Mary’s experience at the time, and I wonder what Mary would say about me if I had been the one who died last weekend.

As so often happens, I wish I had kept in better touch, and I wonder whether I could have been of more use after she completed her Ph.D., but that is really my own regret to manage, not something to lament in public.  I’ll resolve to keep in better touch with friends and colleagues, and I probably won’t.  Mary was one of those teaching assistants who would prompt me for the next organizational task on the horizon before I had had a chance to think about it.  (My teaching assistants regularly praise my organizational acumen, but they also continue to offer such prompts, so perhaps they are just being polite.)  Mary asked a lot of herself: I remember her suffering from a bad cold or bug and pushing herself to get into her class, telling me she kept going on coffee and aspirin.  I worried at the time, even though it is so common for us to put introducing 19-year-olds to Satie Gymnopédies above our own well-being.  I also remember at that time that the graduate dorms were poorly heated, and Mary told me about her efforts to stay warm while working on her dissertation.  Thinking back on  her managing that sort of discomfort gives me a chill.

Mary’s dissertation essay, the first I ever advised, is titled “Fly Flip Music Clip: The Music of Competitive Cheerleading”; maybe it’s not the only dissertation to call upon Debord and Baudrillard and Kracauer to explain the surgically altered clips of Jim Carrey and Guns N’ Roses then used to accompany young women in bright short skirts performing acrobatics to cheer on—no team!  It’s an inspirational cry sent into the void, as weird and sunny as Beckett.  I had not heard of this manic, deracinated sport/art before, and a quick ProQuest search suggests that Mary’s study remains the only one on this topic (though there is one from the 1970s on the effect of cheering on the voice).  Mary brought pompoms to her dissertation defense—in Princeton colors, orange and black—and, throughout the proceedings, she periodically picked them up for a shake and a Mary-like “Yay!”  The pompoms remained in our seminar room for many years, alongside the black-and-white photos of the faculty of yore.  I wonder what Roger Sessions would have made of “Fly Flip Music Clip.”

I often think, “cancer is like . . . a cancer.”  The disease provides its own metaphor, one that reflects its peculiar and deadly manner of effecting decline through abundance.  For various reasons, I do not feel shocked or traumatized by my own cancer experience; I’m more curious and intrigued than I am frightened or repulsed.  I’m interested in impermanence and dismemberment, spiritually as well as physically.

In a poem called “Cell,” Margaret Atwood describes cancer as ravenous and fanatical about its own life:

It has forgotten
how to die. But why remember? All it wants is more
amnesia. More life, and more abundantly. To take
more. To eat more. To replicate itself.

I like that idea, that my tumors might be—might have been, I mean—a sign of excessive enthusiasm more than of decay; though the truth is, despite the oft-stated notion that after cancer “every day is a gift,” I do not always feel that way.  There are various reasons for that, and they change over time.  These days I find myself navigating toxic territory, hostile to growth.  I’m just trying to advance as an ordinary, healthy cell, to contribute to the whole, and somehow,—well, never mind, I’ll just say that it is worse than cancer, truly, outlandish and embarrassing for all concerned.  Is it because of this that I did not see the note about Mary’s illness until it was too late?  Well, I hate to say so, but the answer is, yes, probably.

There is quite enough suffering to go around; why make more?  Why invent unnecessary metaphorical cancers rather than treat the real ones that remain stronger than us?  Why not soothe those who suffer before they leave us to write our remembrances?

See?  I have indeed turned my admiration of Mary back to myself and my own struggles.  Enough.  Just one final memory: in the course of her dissertation research, Mary introduced me to a marvelous and zany film from 1934, Busby Berkeley’s “Dames.”  (Go watch it, right now.)  It’s a riotous example of what we call Mickey Mousing, the practice of joining movement to sound in close synchrony.  Mickey Mousing is often derided by composers, but exploring, even defending it—to a point—has become one of my primary vocational objectives.  (I cannot recall how much Mary’s and my shared interests were correlative or causative.  Eventually all learning becomes one’s own in some way, I suppose.)  In “Dames,” pairs of women rise out of bed (!) to greet the day: then they preen at their respective vanity tables.  We see doll-like ladies approach the screen and smile directly at us: a counter-example to the phenomenon known as “the gaze,” which would be articulated forty years later by scholar Laura Mulvey.  Here women become abstract “material” for visual manipulation, reminiscent of the dancing whisks in Léger and Antheil’s “Ballet Mécanique.”  They fly into the air toward the camera, accompanied precisely by swooping sound effects.  The group of mostly indistinguishable women are chopped up and refracted into kaleidoscopic patterns.  Womanly cells proliferate, make a whole and devour one another.  It’s eerie to watch this with cancer in mind.  I think about unbridled growth.  About dismemberment.  And about synchrony.  About parting, coming apart—and about meeting up again later, hopefully, when circumstance line up once more.

At least I did manage to tell Mary how much I loved this film,—many times, I bet‚—and how much I appreciated her giving me such a gift.  I have thought of her each and every time I have watched it, and she has enriched my own students through me.  That is another kind of growth, expansion, and proliferation.  I shall continue to think of her every time I marvel at those dames.

—Posted by Barbara A. White