As a result, women may be expected to show heightened sexual preferences during peak conception times for men [sic] that [sic] are able to create more complex music. (Charlton, B. D. 2014, “Menstrual cycle phase alters women’s sexual preferences for composers of more complex music,” Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20140403, p. 1).
Let’s begin with a question: Which of these gents:
—has the best genes?
Or, moving closer to our own historical period, which of these guys:
would make the best long-term partner?
Fortunately, now we have a way of finding out. A scientific one. Benjamin Charlton has completed a penetrating and fruitful study—the first, to his knowledge—that offers “empirical support for the sexual selection hypothesis of music evolution by showing that women have sexual preferences during peak conception times for men that are able to create more complex music” (Charlton, “Menstrual cycle phase,” p.1). It’s been written up in The Atlantic, where Cody C. Delistraty builds on Charlton’s research to posit that Liszt “was arguably the first to figure out how attractive musicianship can be.”
The musical examples in Dr. Charlton’s study were created in GarageBand™ and were provided to 1465 female test subjects in MIDI format. (That is, the musical examples were in MIDI format; the subjects were in their usual analog state and were instructed to dress as they would for a night out seeking male companionship.) The first, simplest, one begins with a couple of chords in 4/4—specifically, two quarter notes of G in second inversion, doubled in right and left hands of the GarageBand™ Grand Piano—which move up, for beats 3 and 4, to F in first inversion. (Also quarter notes, also doubled, all as before.) This measure of the composition is repeated 3 more times; then, the quarter notes are augmented to half notes, and we have, therefore, a bar of G 6/4 (two half notes) followed by a bar of F6 (ditto), with an attack every two beats. Then—you might want to sit down for this—those two bars repeat. Do you follow? Are you feeling turned on yet? (By the composer, I mean—not by me!) Well, just you wait! Next, the left hand plays the G chord again, but the right hand doesn’t! It enters (hmm) a half beat later and introduces a syncopated scalar motive, ascending through an entire measure. Herewith my reduction:
Remember, we hear that alternation from G6/4 to F6 eight times, and each iteration of each chord is inverted. There is no root position chord to reassure us of our independence and stability. Moreover, as above, the rhythm changes from quarter notes to half notes. There is another very erotic rhythm at the end—NSFS, I fear. But you can see above the suggestive spacing of the final chord.
The other three, increasingly complex, levels are variations on this same material. To my ear, it is all complicated, because the compositional material remains deceptively simple even as it grows more and more complex. The material doesn’t really engage with musical syntax but is more a string of stimuli, and it becomes overwhelming in the most sexual way: it’s just like being in a club and breathing in pheromones without understanding what is being awakened in your most primitive self. How to choose? I mean, really, look at the cornucopia of breads below: which one do you think would give you the most enjoyment for an evening? And sustenance for long-term health?
(I did not notice any identification of a composer in the study, though I may have overlooked his [?] name. I could also imagine he would want to protect himself from unwanted attention now that his work has been exposed to the public.)
Anyway, it’s not until the third most complex example that we hear a root position harmony—and there are two in a row, going right from A major to F major, still doubled in both hands, so we have six fingers (three pitch classes) moving downward in the same direction—each one traversing a third! It’s pretty sly, to give us the root position, but only with “parallel everything,” as we sometimes point out to beginning students. (This is the sort of prank that got Debussy thrown out of the Conservatoire—but he showed them!) This progression creates a mix of comfortable familiarity and transgressive tension that makes one want to meet this composer and get it on. Only a stump could fail to be titillated by such a caress.
Now, continuing on, a spoiler alert: the fourth and most complex example has harmonies that rub up against one another, as a sixteenth-note A chord sounds in the right hand before the left hand catches up . . . it lingers behind, fetchingly, on G. This coy dance of darting ahead, falling behind, and occasionally coming together reminds one of those R-rated scenes in Mutual of Omaha™’s Wild Kingdom.
(A composer/performer would of course be the fittest to display this prowess, for he would know best how to pedal to show off the mischievous foreplay here.)
There is also the flirty root movement of a tritone, in regard to which I can only invoke George Bernard Shaw’s commentary on the closing to Act I of Die Walküre: the music “is brought to a point at which the conventions of out society demand the precipitate fall of the curtain.” And so, I shall keep mum for propriety’s sake. (Regrettably, there is also insufficient time and space here to investigate the unexpected and provocative appearance, after so many inverted triads, of a quartal harmony. One suspects a revisionist history of Hindemith’s private life is forthcoming.)
Following upon the by-now familiar, but (in this most tantalizing fourth example) mischievously syncopated G6/4, D6/4, G, and A, we suddenly hear this dizzyingly complex triad. It’s gripping. I misread it at first, thinking it was another D chord (with the A# an F#), moving entrancingly from second to first (!), but no—its a, well, you know—it’s that one. (Sorry, I just always feel a little funny saying it out loud.) Honestly, if I had been one of Dr. Charlton’s test subjects, I would have found it difficult to choose among all these eligible sonic stimuli. It’s a little bit like trying to decide which line in the optometrist’s chart would make the most appealing companion:
But if I am to admit to my most primal, procreative urges—which I’d better do soon, because the clock has no plan to stop ticking—I must agree that the most complex one, Bachelor No. 4, would win in the end. It’s just that—that je ne sais quoi of the A-sharp, which itself has a bit of a sophisticated Parisian tinge to it. It gives me the feeling that I’ll never understand the composer who conceived of it, and this, of course, makes him all the more alluring.
(Is it getting a little hot in here? Or is that just the clock ticking?)
It’s hard not to feel for the wallflowers toiling away at their simple music, seeing the most Lisztian composer go home each night with a new ovulating lady. But there is a silver lining for the modest: the ladies who listen, it turns out, hit on the composers of complex music for quick encounters only, aiming to breed, but not to forge long-term relationships. Thus the real usefulness in this study is for the gents—those who desire ladies and are looking for one (or more). The lesson seems to be the following:
- If you seek a fun fling, you will need to work very hard in order to develop the sort of composition chops that will attract the ladies to your DNA. But don’t expect to see her, or any resulting progeny, again; she’s just looking for a quickie and a deposit to satisfy her maternal needs. Since these will all be brief meetings, though, you will be able to re-use your portfolio and program on each lady you desire.
- If you prefer to take long walks on the beach, file joint taxes, cook lasagna for five, and snuggle, well, no need to worry so much about the working hard part. You’re already poised to attract a long-term listener/partner with your half notes. In fact, if you compose too well, you might find yourself approached by the wrong sort; and I’d hate to see you get hurt.
The two available objectives certainly sync up with the priority-setting and time-management required to foster them—which just shows that science, once again, has given music meaning and purpose.
If you would like more dating tips, you can purchase 30-day access to this study for only $29.25. (I am not making this up.) That’s thirty days, a couple of days longer than most women’s cycles, so it will give you plenty of time to bone up on your rhythm.
And if you would like a playlist to give you an idea of the typical childbearing-age lady’s—because this is all determined by our fluctuating hormones, you can count on a lot of shared interests—iPod cycle and help you warm up for your own masterpiece, see the list below.
I await further research on the use-value of my own (complex?) music. Meantime, having read the study—full disclosure: I was not at my most rational when I finished reading, as I am sure you will understand—I have begun to wonder whether experimental and analytical acumen, like compositional skill, occupy a special place in terms of sexual selection. Dr. Charlton, have you had a lot of response to your publication?
Copyright-free photos of historical composers from http://www.8notes.com.
Photo of blurry suited men courtesy of Princeton University Music Department.
Other images royalty-free from shutterstock.com.
For another response to the study and The Atlantic’s coverage, see Jonathan Bellman, “Romantic Power of Music, The.”
—Posted by Barbara A. White
Last Friday, my bass clarinet and I arrived at Music Camp on the Canal in St. Peter’s, Nova Scotia to learn that the wonderful American composer Lee Hyla had just died. I did not know Lee all that well, but I admired his music greatly and was always happy to run into him and to encounter his calm, respectful manner. It’s probably entirely due to Lee that I learned to play bass clarinet, thanks to hearing his “Mythic Birds of Saugerties” put into flight by the inimitable Tim Smith years ago. Mathew and Eric introduced me to Lee’s music and Tim’s playing back in the early 1990s, when a piece like “Mythic Birds” circulated on precious, lossful, multigenerational cassettes and when its inventor could remain a mystery—no website, no Facebook™ post, no blögue, and maybe one CD released so far. Lee’s pre-tweet birds opened up a sonic world I could never have foreseen: the bass clarinet splatting and grooving down below, then sailing up into the stratosphere to play a plaintive, mournful tune. There was a pulse!—contrary to the “music of avoidance” identified around the same time by Scott Wheeler in his Contemporary Music Review article. I’d never known contemporary concert music could be so raucous and moving at the same time.
When I first came NoSco and encountered Cape Breton’s traditional music, far from the concert-music scene down South, I joked that I felt like I was visiting Brigadoon, the Scottish village that appears for one day every one hundred years and disappears again. I thought I might just disappear into an enchanted mist of Celtic music, never to return. I finally confessed to a Caper friend that I believed he lived on a magical, mythical island. I thought he would talk me down from the heavens, or out of the mist, but instead he said, yes, this is a magical place. People who live here seem to recognize and appreciate what they have.
Saturday night the Music Camp faculty all played the All-Star concert at the church. For the second time, I was stunned to be on a program with so many of Cape Breton’s musical luminaries, while I am a part-time performer and new to Celtic music to boot. Even more, this is the only venue where I look out into the hall and see that maybe 80% of the audience could easily be up on stage playing their own tunes. The musical culture here is extraordinarily sophisticated, as well as generous, and it’s astonishing how much shared understanding there is. One person starts singing “The Island” or “The Mary Ellen Carter,” or “Heading to Halifax,” and the whole crowd joins in. A fiddler plays a reel and someone puts down a beer and gets up to dance. A banjoist and a bodran player trade instruments and play one as expertly as the other. A twelve-year-old girl leads a band that includes men five times her age. But the bass clarinet, I gather, has seldom driven across the causeway to honk along. As it turned out, I was making my bass clarinet debut in our All-Star concert, in my duo Fork and Spoon, with Charles playing guitar. We cooked up some jigs, reels and airs, and I ventured down to the lowlands where the tunes don’t usually go. Here in the land of the fiddle and the mando, my bass clarinet—dubbed by Charles as “The Big Fella”—made quite a few friends. (Later Bob called it “The Bazooka,” and added, “I mean that in a complimentary way.”) Highly aware of my role as little fish in this great pond, it was very gratifying when Roger said, “It was worth coming home just to hear that low note at the end.” (Or did he say, “to hear it end?” Probably not—that’s not the way musicians talk to each other over here.) Later Roger asked me about the bass clarinet, commenting specifically on its wide range. I told him a bit about the way the instrument breathed its way into concert music, moving from a low-register extension to a solo vehicle, expanding the sonic palette of notated music. And even when it’s played up high, where the regular clarinet could go—well, why not have that bass clarinet cry its lonely song instead? Why not make it a little more difficult and dangerous, and thus more poignant?
After meeting Lee’s music all those years ago in the remote island we call “contemporary concert music” (do we?), I got to know the intrepid Jean Kopperud and was fortunate to work with her on a project or two. And there are too many other wonderful bass clarinetists/wind players to mention: Michael Lowenstern, Ned Rothenberg, and the wonderful duo Sqwonk, made up of Jeff Anderle and Jon Russell. (I was telling Roger how high these guys can play. Also a composer, Jon writes fabulous music for bass clarinet, including one for nine Big Fellas.) Perhaps others were onto its beauty/beast appeal along with or even before before Lee and Tim. But whoever broke the four-minute mile mark, there’s now a whole crew running around the tracks. Dianne Heffner and I played in a band years ago; Alan Kay glowed through one of my CDs; I’ve met Michael Norsworthy only briefly; and I know Demetrius Spaneas only from Facebook™. I am looking forward to working more with Amy Advocat and Matt Sharrock of Transient Canvas—Amy plays clarinets, and Matt plays marimba, another instrument that has worked itself into prominence in recent decades. It seems fitting that these two outliers meet up in center stage. I have begun to dream of rumbling low Cs. Perhaps this meeting of strangers is something like my unfamiliar bass clarinet groaning through the Celtic tunebook. I wonder if Lee liked strathspeys.
In the Cape Breton church of tunes, no one seemed impatient or uninvolved; I didn’t see any covert (or shameless) glances at glowing screens to find hockey scores (though I confess I was checking them later after the concert ended—the double overtime went almost as late as our jam session). After Fork and Spoon finished our first set in the All-Star Concert, ending with Chris Crilly’s blistering “Jack McCann”—which requires me to shift the Big Bazooka into overdrive and to huff and puff to blow Jack up—the audience gave an unrestrained round of appreciative applause. I told them I don’t see that too much at classical concerts. (After we left the stage and the others played their sets, they continued to cheer, all through the three-hour program.) But if we were to work on our cheering technique, Lee’s music would be a great place to start.
As I finish writing, by the Bay overlooking Jerseyman’s Island, a heron flies by. A heron sighting is one of my greatest delights—perhaps made even more special by its infrequency. Julia says they look like dinosaurs. They might be mythic birds. Thank you, Lee for the birds of Saugerties; I would not have brought the Big Fella to Brigadoon if I had not learned your myths all those years ago. And condolences to those who were close to Lee; I know from your own words that you have suffered a great loss in his departure.
—Posted by Barbara A. White
[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 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!)
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.
Somehow 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-
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”:
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.
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”:
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:
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
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
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.
“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.])
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?
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
[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
Last Friday, I attended a symposium on my campus and listened raptly to scholars from various fields discuss the myth of Phaedra. Inspired and unsettled by the centrality to the myth of Phaedra’s false accusation of rape, I delivered a talk about sexualized violence and its representation in “truth” and “fiction,” focusing in the ways that women’s stories are sometimes denied credence and respect.
A few days later, on April Fool’s Day, I read an article in the Harvard Crimson that detailed the Harvard administration’s handling of a case of sexual assault. Unfortunately, this wrenching essay had much in common with my talk. But it told an even more troubling story.
How eerie that Sexual Assault Awareness month begins on April 1.
In my talk, I projected news accounts and still images I took from the Internet. Most were images of women used in advertising. There were “Photoshop fails,” and there were advertisements for drinking glasses engineered to detect any intrusion of date-rape drugs, with big words flaunting the technology: “SAFE” on the ordinary glass and “UNSAFE” on the one activated by Rohypnol. There was an advertisement showing a steamy, stilettoed woman, accompanied by a caption proposing that—I’ll say in advance: no, you are not misreading this—organ donation is “probably the only way you’ll get inside her.” With trepidation, I talked about the young Raehtaeh Parsons, who took her own life, not directly after being sexually assaulted at age 15, but later, after one or more images of the alleged assault were publicized and she was taunted and shamed by abusive, misogynist language. She lived to be 17. Having seen her image saturate my screen in disquieting and familiar fashion, I created a speedy montage of headlines, most with the same image, hoping that the flickers and flashes exposed overwhelm more than they created it. But I was not sure. And I continue to wonder, if I shudder every time I see the image of her with her dog, what must her last weeks have been like?
I discussed the ways in which violence against women, physical and otherwise, is curated in so-called real-life.
To be sure, an assault, an ensuing account of it, and an artistic response are very different things. But post-traumatic stories, whether real, adapted, or imagined anew, present many possibilities: the possibility of effecting catharsis or kindling compassion; and the possibility of cultivating healing, understanding, perhaps even wisdom. They also present risks: the risk of aestheticizing violence, the risk of being targeted as prey again, the risk of being dismissed by those who do not want to hear such a truth, the risk of being retaliated against for speaking truth to power. It’s commonly said that one aspect of healing from traumatic experience lies in the telling of one’s story, but doing so presents limitations and dangers as well as possibilities. It sounds good in theory, but it is not so simple to break silence and voice the unspeakable. Nor is it easy to deal with the consequences.
In the post-traumatic aftertalk, stories may be denied and erased—even though nowadays some offenders record evidence of their actions, as is said to have happened in the Raehtaeh Parsons case. So, this week, a student at one of the most prestigious colleges in the country wrote to her institution, “I am writing to let you know that I give up.” In “Dear Harvard: You Win,” the writer describes her unsuccessful efforts to have her assailant moved to a different House (“dorm,” in purposely idiosyncratic Harvard parlance). Her letter was published anonymously. So before you say it: no, I was not there. Only she and the alleged assailant were. And her name has not been given. Yet, as much as I would like to doubt, to find such a story implausible, I know from past experience that it is anything but. So, it is true that an investigation would have to have been completed before her request could have been granted, but an investigation, Anonymous was advised, would not likely lead to a satisfactory outcome. And that is a much too familiar story.
There are the overwhelming sensations that arise from traumatic experience, and there is the reliving of those moments in memories, often disruptive and unbidden. There is disclosure and there is the shaping of experience into story. There is overwhelm in witnessing and receiving such a story, and then, if an account is contested, distorted, stolen, or erased, another kind of confusion, even violation, ensues.
The Phaedra myth offers many invitations to unease, one of them being the significance in the narrative of Phaedra’s supposedly false accusation of rape. But is it truly false? Who put those words in her mouth? Anonymous, I think—but a different one.
What is especially chilling in the Harvard case is that it shows how, even when the report of assault itself is believed, the aftermath can be gruesomely re-traumatizing.
I continue to wonder about images and words, about experiences and stories, about Phaedras and Raehtaehs and Anonymouses. I am no longer surprised that some stories are unwelcome. Yes, in stories about grisly truths, complexities may be overlooked. Much as simplicities can be.
The feedback loop between experience and story is of particular interest to me for numerous reasons. Here is a violation of a different sort, one that bears just a little similarity in outline to the experience of Anonymous: some time ago, I learned that my work had been misappropriated in a published document that had been widely distributed. When I contacted those responsible and suggested that together we take steps to remedy the problem, I was perplexed by the response (or, rather, non-response) I received (or did not receive). After a while, another party delivered deflecting, pacifying, palliating statements. When these did not soothe me as expected and I persisted in asserting my authority and authorship, the cooing gave way to deafening hostility. I was stunned that my assertion of authorship and authority was perceived not as necessary and responsible, but as a sort of transgression and aggression in and of itself.
Now, let’s pause for a moment. I want to invite you to observe (just to yourself) your response to what I just disclosed. Might you have felt an impulse to doubt what I said, to assign me culpability, to imagine that there must a different narrative I have missed, or that you must supply? Do you think you know better? Might it seem I am just a little too uptight and should share more generously? Does it seem I might be angry? Might you by chance have thought I invented this story about the theft of a fiction? If so, that is not surprising. It is something we learn to do. I have done so myself. So, you decide what to think of my story of the violation of my work concerning violence. Whose violation is it?
The work in question, if it exists, concerns female sovereignty,—that’s sovereignty in the sense of self-determination, not royal status. It reveals the trauma, perhaps, that results from sovereignty being assailed. And so the refusal to collaborate with me in restoring the story to its proper form—in turn silent, calculating, and loud, if it happened—created an uncanny association between various kinds of stories in which women are asked to make ourselves small. We do so to get by in various ways, out of fear of the aggression that may come our way if we do not comply. We do so to pacify those who have the privilege of ignoring our stories and even rewriting them—those who may be as powerful as they are fearful. We choose covert, unacknowledged self-betrayal instead of speaking up and risking explicit and humiliating defeat. It’s not an easy choice, and the sad truth is that it may be smarter and safer to give in and play along. To give up. To say, “you win.”
Women (and other people, sometimes) cannot be sure that our sovereignty, as in our authority over our bodies, will be recognized. We cannot even be sure of ownership of the stories we tell, reluctantly and bravely, about violence perpetrated against us. Phaedra made it up, you know. But who made up Phaedra?
And, if you do believe my story, what do you think should be done about it?
The perplexities and paradoxes of the current-day academy include what may well be the beginning of the end of the romance known as “academic freedom.” The Kansas Board of Regents recently proposed that it had the right to “to suspend, dismiss, or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.” “Improper” use of social media is described as that which is “contrary to the best interests of the university.” In the current climate, academic freedom, even as it awaits full-on siege, permits a journal to publish a titillating review by scholar and woman Camille Paglia of new scholarly books about bondage. But, after leafing through and leaping off the pages of such forward-thinking discourse and returning to her campus office, a woman and scholar may find herself bound in a different way. As may her students. A tweet in poor taste about the National Rifle Association is grounds for dismissal. As is a skit about prostitution. But there is a Harvard student who has little choice but to pass daily by a classmate who, it appears, expected her to acquiesce to his violent compulsion—and, likely, to his perverse satisfaction in overpowering someone who until that moment considered him a friend.
They used to say, “The hardest part about Harvard is getting in.” Maybe that’s not true. Maybe the hardest part, for some, is getting justice. And staying in. It appears that some get in a bit farther than others. Anonymous’s story points out some subtle and important points: it may be true that a formal case would not have reached satisfactory closure under the “current” (i.e., written in 1993) policy, so perhaps it was indeed prudent to forgo a complaint with the Administrative Board. But to be advised by her resident dean that living in the same House as her assailant was akin to “a divorced couple working in the same factory?” (“Factory?”) I picture a young woman slouching thorough the same corridors and entryways that Al Gore, Al Franken, and Susan Faludi frequented; past the Senior Common Room with its portraits of illustrious forefathers; hearing her dejected footsteps echo through the squash court on the way to the laundry room; and seeing her classmates across Memorial Drive, on the Weeks Bridge, waltzing to Strauss in their in formal wear. (Do they still do that?)
Are you wondering whether I made this up too? No, these are images I carry from the 1980s, when I was a student in Harvard’s Dunster House. I was fortunate that I never experienced violence from a supposed friend in the way Anonymous describes. In my case, it happened off campus and before I arrived at school: I was betrayed by a mentor just a week before I entered Harvard Yard. I showed up, still wide-eyed, belongings packed into my parents’ crotchety Dodge Aries. (I inherited it a full twelve years later, and it still wouldn’t start.) But I was no ram, just a wounded 17-year-old with no idea that I should ask anyone to help. Or that I could even tell anyone what had happened. When, twenty-one years later, I stopped protecting the man with my own silence, I was the one who was penalized and shunned by the tribe (though he, to his credit, stepped out of their protection, took responsibility, and endeavored to make amends).
Anonymous tells us she is writing her article in the dining hall, her assailant visible “a few tables away.” I do not know which House she lives in, but I have vivid memories of the Dunster House Dining Hall. I saw my first Maya Deren film there, presented by the Dunster House Film Society; it’s a film I now show to my own undergraduates. One of the Masters, Sally Falk Moore, had been an attorney at the Nuremberg trials in her youth. My Secret Santa gave me a book of Norse myths. I remember lots of yogurt, cheese, and tofu warmed in the hot water intended for tea; I am glad to see that the dining halls now serve vegetarian and vegan food for those who do not want to harm animals. Even as it serves those who harm human beings. I wonder if the alleged assailant is a vegetarian. And if there are others who tremble when they see him get back in line for a second tempeh burger.
One begins to suspect the existence of a secret club where the smartest of sadistic boys are encouraged, “Study hard. Get into Harvard. You’ll make connections and enjoy untold liberties. With no consequences.”
I completed my freshman year thirty years ago this spring. The very first Harvard lecture I attended was presided over by the formidable Marjorie Garber, who began her course on Shakespeare by quoting, “I say there is no darkness but ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.” We students chuckled at her dusty pun on the name of the lecture hall in which we sat, in the bowels of the university’s Fogg Museum. Only later did I become initiated into the old-school practice of hissing when a faculty member’s humor proved too pat, usually on purpose and with a wink, I figured. Legend had it that that my prof—who later published a book called “Sex and Real Estate” and another about cross-dressing, not to mention my favorite, about the culture of academia itself—disagreed with her Shakespearian colleague Walter Kaiser about whether to teach the plays by genre or chronology, and thus the English majors had to shuttle between laughter and tears, ever confused between years.
That same semester, I began studying music theory, which I now teach to eager Ivy-league undergrads myself. I took private lessons with a gifted composer who later left to run a Buddhist training center. The son of a renowned ballerina and a record-industry VIP, he stayed at Harvard just a few years, and there is a small group of us who benefited from his genteel and eccentric mentorship. Entering college, I owned just three LPs of classical music and had attended one orchestra concert in my life. When a teaching assistant referred to the unconscious-probing analyses of Heinrich Schenker,—I think of him as the Freud of music theory—I thought she was referring to an Indian sitarist. My Expository Writing professor told me I was being condescending when I wrote a short story about working-class people, not knowing, I guess, that I was not one of the Andover-Exeter set. (Though I would have thought it rather obvious.)
The same year, I inhaled a lecture course with Stephen Jay Gould; at the time he was said to be experiencing a miraculous remission from the cancer he outpaced, or lived with, for 19 more years. On a Harvard tour the spring before, we all snuck into a minute or two of a lecture in which Gould showed a slide of “The Fly That Ate Cleveland” or some such, made for a B movie. He went on to observe that the monster displayed preposterous proportions: it was an illusion that could not be replicated in physical reality. (That was the minute that made me want to go to Harvard.) For Anonymous, it’s physical reality that cannot be registered in the face of others’ illusions. I think of Gould’s term “punctuated equilibrium,” so innocuous to me at seventeen, and now it makes me think of a young person, perhaps a student in his successor’s lecture, whose equilibrium has been punctuated. Or punctured. Students should be studying fake carnivorous bugs, not suffering through nightmares about being bitten against their will.
No one can speak for Anonymous, of course, but what hits me so hard about her story is the lack of understanding she encountered in those charged with managing the aftermath. Sexualized violence is more monstrous than any city-devouring insect. It is life-changing and traumatizing in any case. Yet to be denied any genuine or effective response, to be offered platitudes and ineffectual suggestions even as the speaker claims to offer “support”—it’s another way survivors’ stories are erased and diminished. Somehow, I myself am always at least as disappointed by those who stand by and fail to take action as I am outraged at the original offender. As much as I wish it were not true, I am aware that offenders will offend. But I like to think the rest of us (us?) can at the very least offer consolation and remediation, however partial, after the unthinkable has taken place. If I understand correctly, this is not a false Phaedra story, nor is it a true-or-false art-theft story like mine: it sounds as though Anonymous was believed, but that she received no useful action in response. (In such circumstances, perhaps authority figures are relieved even of the burden of doubting: it seems almost irrelevant whether such stories are true, since there is so little recourse available anyway.)
Anonymous writes, “I know deep down that all those administrators are not bad people.” It’s good of her to be so charitable to those who failed her. But I wonder. In a case like this, what is the meaning of “deep down?” How does a “good person” suggest that it was Anonymous’s drinking that led a classmate to bite her neck and breast and refuse to stop? While I myself do not tend to distinguish between “good people” and “bad people,” I wonder how I might make sense of a circumstance in which professionals “want to be supportive, and they really try to be but have not been trained sufficiently.” Who is in charge of such training, and have they noticed that it is needed?
Anonymous clearly has the training, though. She knows to seek help from various professionals: she has an attorney, and she has a psychiatrist, who tells her she is depressed. She understands that a policy from 1993 does not serve her. She knows about Title IX, and that it is not just about sports. And she knows to request remediation from those who have failed to provide her a safe educational environment. These are all things I was pretty unaware of back in 1983. Anonymous, in brief, is more informed, and likely much smarter, than those who are supposed to watch out for her.
Anonymous also knows when to give up. She knows that the merger of Harvard and Radcliffe (or, more properly, the assimilation of Radcliffe into Harvard) should signify that women have equal access to education on campus, but that they do not. (I was in one of the last graduating classes, I think, to have both Harvard and Radcliffe seals on my diploma. Even today, I like seeing then-Radclliffe President Matina Horner’s signature on the bottom.) And I lament that Anonymous had to learn this so early, that she could not believe for a while longer that she was valued as a student and a human being. She could not count on authority figures to ensure that she had reason to hold such a belief. I held on to that untenable belief a few decades longer than did Anonymous did, but I too see reasons why one might surrender in such circumstances.
Back in the 80s, I cleaned the rich kids’ bathrooms to pay for my books. (I was later promoted to trash collector.) I never thought myself a master (or mistress) of the universe. I was one of the uninitiated, always catching up, who spent the summer in a missile plant punching computer cards rather than interning at the Museum of Fine Arts of the Boston Symphony. My first boyfriend, after a double date in the North End, told me I did not know how to dress. (I really liked the calico skirt I made myself, and the knee socks in the same hue of cornflower blue.) It did not occur to me to keep my clothes on and find another companion until a while later.
I have always felt mostly fortunate that I was by some stroke of fortune invited to take a tour through the world of Bach Societies and Masters’ Sherries and French Tables where classmates chatted with others from “the city”—that is, the only city that counts as such, which I had yet to visit. But I never really felt like part of the club. Thirty years later, as a full professor at another Ivy League college, I still don’t. That’s because I am not. It’s a truth Anonymous should not have to know. It’s a truth that should be rendered false, impossible, unthinkable.
There are cases that are hard to investigate and address. I know this: I watch Law and Order. This may be one of those cases. So it may not be possible, according to current policy, to move the Predator Who Eats Dinner to a table across campus. But think big, Harvard; there are many ways to cultivate a campus where Anonymous learns about Title IX because she plans to go to law school,—where, hopefully, she’d learn that Title IX is no longer needed—not because she was violated by another student. Where she doesn’t have to take on a second job fighting to be treated like she belongs at the educational institution that admitted her. She does belong, and at a place where she can just put her dinner tray on the conveyor belt and have a postprandial cup of coffee with her roommates without needing to worry about running into her assailant.
I’ve never shouted a “rah-rah” for Harvard, nor have I sung its song. I have never considered attending a reunion. I am grateful for my education, but I do not see the Harvard “brand” as a big part of my identity. Like one of my classmates, I used to feel self-conscious telling people I studied there; I didn’t like dealing with their responses, complimentary or otherwise. (My favorite, from a distinguished feminist author, was, “Heard of it,” uttered with a glint in the eye.) But right now I feel even farther away from my days in Cambridge, even more reluctant to celebrate my pedigree.
My ambivalent relationship with my alma mater is a first-world problem of the highest order. But uneasy intersections of privilege and exploitation characterize the ways in which women like Anonymous are still denied equal opportunity. (That’s putting it mildly.) And, of course, it’s not only Harvard undergraduates (male, female, other) who deserve better; but Harvard University is one place with the resources that should enable them to provide better, and perhaps to make a difference outside Johnson Gate too.
I am ashamed for Harvard. I blush crimson. I see red. Not only because of this case—it’s still true that I wasn’t there, and I do not know the intricacies of the bureaucracy involved—but even more because one of your undergraduates has become an expert on the unthinkable reality of violence against women. This is not in her curriculum; she is on campus to learn other things, and you compensate professionals to ensure that she is able to do so unimpeded. Not just because you care; because it’s Federal law.
This is my Veritas.
“Fair Harvard,” you should know better. And I hope you will—soon.
Anonymous, you say you have given up, but you have given much to others by telling your story, though that’s probably little consolation. And it’s even more work for you on top of the second shift of consultations with attorneys and deans, not to mention the burden of managing nightmares and pharmaceuticals you should not have to worry about. But you devoted even more time in order to tell your story. Let’s hope Harvard listens to what you have so generously shared.
Anonymous, I wish you well.
And by the way, Harvard, one more thing: if you think this is what winning looks like, you lose.
Barbara White ’87, RI ’01