New York State of Mind

I’ve never loved New York. I like it, for about three days at a time. It’s not a place I’ve ever found to be hospitable.  It’s not a city that troubles itself with your happiness.

I find it to be a place crowded with lonely people, moving together en masse, headed toward meetings or lunches or subways or home, caught in a tangle of moods and schedules and left to feel superfluous if one life’s pace doesn’t match another’s.

When I came up to ground level at 59th and Columbus Circle, the day was typical New York: raw, damp and gray, the color of fattened pigeons. I realized this was part of my New York construct – I’ve never been there during “nice” weather. I put my hands in my pockets and headed east across the bottom edge of Central Park. With my messenger bag slung over my shoulder, its strap crossing my chest, I was on my way to meet a former coworker for lunch on the Upper East Side.

When I made it to 1st Avenue, the Queensboro Bridge rose ahead of me, and I felt like I was on the edge of the world. I’d never been to this stretch of the city, looking at the lanes that take so many people out of the center of the universe and over to a somewhat marginalized borough. I’d been to Queens, once, but I’d been carried by a subway, left unaware of the terrain from Manhattan’s perspective.

When my friend’s lunch hour was up, I walked down to 53rd and 5th and headed into the Museum of Modern Art. My messenger bag checked as required, I wandered unburdened and unattached. I am not generally an audience for modern art, so I didn’t know what to approach. My first exhibit was a media work about the impact of the Iraq war. I listened and watched while video presentations brought me the thoughts of the artists, apparently read aloud by actors. Some seemed to be reading the material for the first time. I don’t take well to presentations roughened by missteps in the language and struggles to find the sense in a sentence, to static shots of ill-prepared participants. I only spent about 20 minutes in the room. I needed to see something that seemed complete.

Eugene Atget, 1857 - 1927, from Documents pour Artistes, Museum of Modern Art, NY

The photography exhibits were much more my style, and I perused wall after wall, reading the small bits of posted information, always wishing for more: who is this woman? what is she doing? why did the photographer take this picture? Absent a story, I felt separated from the image, disconnected despite wanting to be engaged. Was it me? Was I missing something?

On the sixth floor was a new and much talked-about exhibit from Cindy Sherman. She has

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #1531

been taking photos, almost entirely of herself, for decades. She uses the shots as a kind of forceful satire, a statement on who women are, who we want to be, who others see or want to see when they look at us or imagine us. The realizations, for me, came slowly. She takes all these photos herself, in her home studio. But you’d never know it. You’d think someone else took them, of her, as she lay in a bed looking unsettled, or sat in a chair dripping old money, or cowered in a gutter as though someone had dumped her there, full of gravel and damp. The costumes, the makeup, the wigs, the scenery… it must have taken hours on end to set up each photo. And there are hundreds. To dedicate so many years and so much time to telling the story of human identity and expectation was astounding. But it seemed like such an isolating pursuit. Did she ever leave the house without the intention of finding a piece of clothing for the photos?

I headed down to Times Square to meet Joey at his office. His newest off-Broadway play was running in SoHo, and it was the reason for my visit. We talked about the reviews as we rode the subway and then walked to the restaurant for dinner – a tiny Italian place, because Joey had declared a need for carbs – further indication that the reviews were bothering him. He told me that he hasn’t wanted a drink so badly in a long time.

Before the small house opened, I talked with a couple of Joey’s friends, one a slightly affected book publicist and the other an eager soon-to-be graduate of our alma mater, finishing his internship at a casting agency in the city and headed back to Ohio in two days. He was constantly smiling and nodding, hoping for acceptance and inclusion, the midwestern gay 22-year-old excitedly on the fringe of the life he hoped for, but would likely never truly lead. Musical theater majors who exude only the act of confidence almost never make it. I felt for the years of struggle he had ahead, even as I knew he needed them to temper his youthful enthusiasm.

Joey sat turned away from me, curled into the corner of the seat next to mine, as the actors gave life to his words. Knowing the play, knowing its genesis, its well-hidden roots in Joey’s late younger brothers, I found myself pleased by one actor and disappointed by another as they embodied the lines I had read. The play took much longer to watch than to read, despite the lines delivered in that hot-on-the-heels manner typical of so many productions I’ve seen. I wondered at the phenomenon of time.

When it ended, the small audience gave hearty applause and the cast took two quick ensemble bows before leaving the stage for good. Joey gave my shoulder a squeeze as he went to the little lobby to tend to the politics of playwrights. As I made my way there myself, I flashed back to the first reading of his work I’d attended, in the basement of our college campus center. This seemed so much the same. No matter how much small theater I see, I think I will always be a little surprised by the smallness. I think I will always expect grander houses for plays deemed worthy of an off-Broadway label. I think I will always wonder how frustrating it must be to spend what one hopes will flourish as a body of work, playing in sporadic runs to houses of 25. I never could have done it. It’s not that it isn’t honest art; it’s that it’s so much work that’s barely seen.

On the train to Brooklyn, Joey told me he was going to take a break this summer. No writing. He said he was thinking of giving it up. “I’m making no money at it,” he said, “and it’s so demanding, and for what? These tiny audiences and bad reviews?” The reviews were not bad; they merely made assumptions about Joey’s intentions and then dismantled them. Joey’s whole life has been geared toward this work, and I couldn’t imagine him giving it up. I don’t believe he will, but I understood his existential debate. Writers write to be heard. It matters. Without it, there’s only the tedium of finding the right words, and turning them loose to echo into empty space.

Tea Lounge, Park Slope, Brooklyn

I woke to a quiet morning in a borough where I’d never been, comfortable in a big, soft bed. The window looked out on a half-full lot of jalopy cars and unused delivery trucks tagged with spray paint. The sky stretched out gray and solid. I had lunch with Joey’s mother Mary Ann and her partner George, just in from Ohio with plans to see the play themselves. After, I had a few hours to kill until I needed to catch the R train back to Manhattan and connect with the PATH train to Hoboken to visit Brad, Carrie and Max before hopping Amtrak for home. I was weary as I walked a few blocks to a coffee shop where I would sit and write this post by hand. My shoulders ached from the messenger bag, and my thighs were numbed from the damp, chilly air. In the coffee shop, I listened to four women talk about a community effort to do something with their kids, the group of them a personification of desired diversity: two African-American, one Asian, one white, older and odd. Hers was the highest enthusiasm level and wordiest support, full of catchphrases that brand the Borough Mom. I wrote, in my own world, while listening to worlds turn around me, and once again felt the tinge of isolation amid a crowd. It is the tinge I always feel at the thought of eight million hearts beating on a concrete island.

Music Monday #3: The Ahhh Factor

I’ve been feeling pretty anxious the last few days, due to factors in life that can’t be controlled or changed. Usually, if anxiety shows up, I clam up, which means I don’t do anything with music other than listen to it. That might sound perfectly lovely, but I generally sing along. If I find myself riding silently while U2 is playing in the car, I know I have a problem. So I have to force myself to sing along, instead.

I can’t be sure why this helps, but I have my theories, one of which is that singing (properly) requires controlled breathing and controlled posture. Sorta like yoga. And controlled breathing can really help with those times when your nerves are shot. It doesn’t really matter what you sing; all that matters is that you sing. At least, that’s all that matters to me, because I always wind up feeling better. Even if all I’m singing is U2.

So with that in mind, I was trying to think of something I’ve sung that I’ve found the most relaxing. And what I realized is that, although some things go much farther toward relaxing me if I’m just listening… it doesn’t matter what I sing; the effect is the same. More fodder for my controlled breathing theory. The other theory, for me at least, is simply that singing puts me in a better place, and a place in which I have to concentrate if I want to do the job. I can’t – and don’t – think about anything else once the music starts. My focus has to be completely on the notes, the language, the conductor (if applicable) and the demands of the piece. The fact that the complexities of music simply shove everything else out of the way makes singing work better for me than any other form of stress relief.

All this is very helpful… for me. But if you need something to which you can just listen and be relaxed, I think I have the piece for you. And it’s not even obscure. It’s the Flower Duet from Lakme’. You may think you’ve never heard of it, but I bet you’ve heard at least four measures.

Lakme’ is an opera composed by Leo Delibes. It’s set in India, under British rule in the mid 19th century… but it’s sung in French. (That happens a lot in opera. Stories set in China but sung in Italian, etc.) Lakme’ is the daughter of a Brahmin priest. She, of course, falls in love with a British imperialist soldier. But Lakme’s father is enraged that the soldier has been on his property and vows to avenge his daughter’s honor, yadda yadda yadda. The Flower Duet’s actual title is “Sous le dome epais,” (there should be some accents in there that I can’t make happen… an ^ over the O in “dome” and a ‘ over the E in “epais.”) It’s sung very early in the opera… first thing, in fact. It’s called the Flower Duet because Lakme’ and her servant, Mallika, are singing it together while they gather flowers from a riverbed.

It’s been used in a lot of commercials, which drives me crazy, because a few of them have taken some liberties that I find offensive. Anyway, British Airways and Godiva Chocolates have both used it in major ad campaigns in recent years, and it can be heard playing in the background of a scene in Aaron Sorkin’s “The American President” when President Shepard goes to Sydney’s house for dinner. (I can’t find a clip online. Grrr.)

What entrances me about this piece, and particularly this recording from Dame Joan Sutherland and Jane Berbie’, is how absolutely flawless it is, and how effortless it sounds. If you don’t sing this kind of music (arguably a coloratura, which Sutherland was famous for), you have no idea how hard it is to make a duet this closely composed sound like it’s a walk in the park. The lilts, the ebbs and flows, the turns of musical phrase in perfect symmetry in volume, accent and tenuto (which means a sort of drawing out of a note) are astonishing. Opera singers are often divas and don’t really worry about whether another singer can keep up, but Sutherland and Berbie’ clearly listen to each other so well and so closely, and the music is written so impeccably, that the recording can do nothing but make you feel good. So, sit back, relax, close your eyes and click here. (And then possibly click the play button, I dunno).

Happy Music Monday.