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

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

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

birdegg-copy-224x300

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

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

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

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

Turtle-300x225

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

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

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

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

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

Co-opValues-e1364834965182-224x300

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

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

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

BerlindEmptyFiltered-300x200

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

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

TulipTear-e1364748247178-224x300

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

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

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

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

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

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

chant_smoky_lotus-copy

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

 

When Live-Saving Turns Life-Threatening

The wound and the eye are one and the same. From the psyche’s viewpoint, pathology and insight are not opposites—as if we hurt because we have no insight and when we gain insight we shall no longer hurt.
—James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, 1975.

First, a recollection:

About seven years ago, I began taking an anti-cancer medication, Tamoxifen, after months of fretting about whether or not to do so. I had learned that in a very small percentage of patients, it could kindle or worsen depression.  Although it was very rare for that to happen,—my surgeon had never seen a single case, my oncologist maybe one or two—I was indeed one of the “small percentage” to be felled.  It took me some time to identify what was happening, but it really hit me that January when I caught a bad cold and had to stop my vigorous daily exercise routine. That habit was likely what had been keeping me afloat, and the sudden need to forgo it was devastating.  After a period of perilous despair, during which I felt increasingly disinterested in the next week, day, and hour, I realized that the medication I was taking in the hope of staving off a life-threatening illness was itself life-threatening. For me. (Those last two words are crucial.) Fortunately, my doctors understood this and supported my choice to discontinue the medication. Any doubts I had ever had about the chemical aspect of mood were dispelled that January. There are so many debates and opinions in the offing about whether medication is necessary, helpful, virtuous, and so on. Having had such a severe depressive episode instigated by medication—the inverse of the usual—proved once and for all to my bodymind that chemistry can drive mood. I was not as in charge as I would have liked to think. I could not just repair my mental state with talk, toughness, or the right course of action. Sometimes there is no best course of action available. Sometimes one engages in revivifying exercise and finds it helps. And sometimes one gets a cold and realizes that the bank of endorphins has been used up for the time being. Sometimes Whole Foods runs out of fish oil.

think what you are

Next, a reflection:

It’s easy to think we know what depression is and to think we have wisdom about what is best for another who has experienced despair and anguish. But we know little. As many point out, the casual of the use of the d-word,—“Maleficent isn’t playing any more?! I am so depressed!”—hinders understanding. The mysterious and “yin” nature of the disease does too. Its darkness is powerful and seductive. It’s resistant to illumination. Even those who spend their lives experiencing mood challenges, and treating them, acknowledge the limits of their understanding. Some say that those who die of suicide are selfish, or that they failed to ask for help. Some say that pharmaceutical companies are agents of the State, that their medications are designed to break down the body’s natural chemicals, and that they will inevitably lead to a cure worse than the disease. (Tell that to someone who’s planning to take her life this week. A decline down the road might not be a bad alternative.) That one may eschew the word “suffering” and choose spiritual practice over medication, as long as one meditates in the “right way.” These are all things I have read this week, and I have been especially disheartened to hear some who identify themselves as spiritual practitioners reveal such self-satisfaction, such a lack of humility and compassion. I remember when I was diagnosed with and treated for cancer, dealing with (some) others’ responses was infinitely more difficult than accepting my own morbidity and eventual mortality. I’ve felt similarly pained by much of what I have read this week.

I cannot help but think that the persistent misunderstanding of depression and other mental health conditions relates closely to the fear of decline and death that is so evident in US culture. There are so many claims about superfoods and antioxidants and kale. (Oh, right, kale has been dethroned; is that right? Oops!) However, such apparently “positive” possibilities to engineer über-health inevitably reveal a dark side: all too often, such a desire to be well conspires with a similarly American rush to judge others and to express opinions that arise less from knowledge than from unconsidered attitudes—and, I suspect, from fears. Why else would one police another’s kale consumption? I see this in the discussion about cancer as well: the notion that one can outrun it in one way or another, that it can be cured. I have yet to hear anyone besides me ask in response, “And then what? No death? A better one? Worse?”

I find it hard to imagine that such a “police state of mind” is good for anyone’s mental or physical health. Yet there continues to be a cultural emphasis on the transaction: do this, and you’ll get this. Thing is, there is not always a thing to do, and if there is, it is sometimes comes with a heavy tax. Risk more cancer? Or risk suicide with a drug designed to fend it off? Fortunately, I had a reasonable alternative available. But not everyone does.

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light . . . it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
—Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill (1926)

An invitation:

For those who have not had the “opportunity” to experience depression personally, or to look into its eyes in some other way, might you consider acknowledging your unknown knowns? Might you be able to tolerate the not knowing, as in Keats’s notion of negative capability? Might you emulate my doctors, who understood that their vast experience did not grant them omniscience, and who were able to accept that, even though it was statistically improbable, a life-saving medication could cause life-threatening side effects? Had they not, I might not be here to be wondering about this.

Here is the invitation, should you choose to accept it: For every opinion you express about depression, or other mental-health issue, read one article or essay about it. Or better yet, talk to someone who has lived with mental-health challenges, and instead of nursing your own opinion about how they should handle it, ask them about their experience, choices, and outcomes. It might be good for your own mental health too.

There’s No Map, But—

Below are some links that regarding mental health, depression, and well-being. They do not all agree with one another or with what I write above. I don’t always agree with myself either.

These two posts from The Belle Jar are especially informative:

When Getting Better Is No Longer An Option

Life as a Mountain Hike (Guest Post)

HuffPo Canada Living has had some good articles this week:

Arti Patel, Robin Williams’ Death Reminds Us Of The Impact Of Words Like ‘Sadness’ And ‘Depressed'”

Shannon Fisher, “Suicide Isn’t A Product Of Not Trying”

Spiritual Practitioners Discuss Depression

Lodro Rinzler, Meditation Isn’t Enough: A Buddhist Perspective on Suicide

Krista Tippett discusses her experience of depression (among many other things) on The One You Feed” (podcast)

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.

Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

― Stephen Fry

—Posted by Barbara A. White

Mythic Birds of Brigadoon

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