The Reach

I’m finally back in the chorus I hated to leave when I took my previous job, and the first challenge (aside from figuring out how to be a second soprano instead of a first) is a gut-wrenching piece called On the Transmigration of Souls. 

Transmigration is, for all intents and purposes, a 25-minute meditation on 9/11 in New York City. The New York Philharmonic asked John Adams (not that John Adams) to compose the piece. It involves a large orchestra, a mixed chorus, a children’s chorus, and a taped soundtrack of city noises and sirens and footsteps, and the voices of a young boy and a couple of adults saying things like “Missing” and reading snippets of the descriptions and names written on the fliers people put up all over New York City after 9/11. It’s dissonant and discordant, the time signature changes all over the place, it’s got doublets and triplets in weird spots. It’s oddly syncopated and counting the rhythm seems impossible. It’s full of chaos and disorientation and raw reactivity. It’s not hard to see why.

“People ask me what it is,” Adams told a radio host in 2008. “‘Is it a requiem?’ No. ‘Is it an oratorio?’ No. ‘Is it a choral symphony?’ No.

“I came up with the word ‘memory space,'” he went on. “Occasionally, when I’m in Europe, I’ll go into those great gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame or Chartres in France. And you go into this vast religious space, and people are very quiet. And you realize you’re in the presence of not only the living people that are there, but the ghosts, the souls of all the people that have been there in the past—this kind of spiritual memory space. And I wanted to create a musical analogy of that.”

He describes a particular passage of the piece where I think the most chaos and upheaval happens. He calls it

“a massive surge, a kind of tsunami of brass and strings that peaks with the chorus just literally shouting over and over again, ‘Light! Light! Light! Light!’ It’s not joyous. It’s almost a panic.

“I’m not exactly sure what I’m saying. I just know that when the event happened it was so shocking that we don’t know what our emotions were. But there’s always this desire to transcend horror and look for something comforting, and I think that’s the sense that you get at this enormous orchestral and choral climax of the piece.”

Until I found this interview, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be trying to evoke at that point in the piece. It seemed frantic to me, not at all comforting or calming like we’d like to believe is the case when a departed soul finds light. I wondered: did Adams see the passing of souls as something less than peaceful? That made sense, particularly coming out of the event that caused it—like the souls of 9/11’s victims were clamoring to find somewhere else to go, fast, because where they were was no place for a soul. Maybe moving on to another energy is kind of frenzied. 

But with this explanation from Adams in his own voice, I started to understand what the piece really seems to say in those measures. Maybe what we’re hearing there isn’t the souls of the lost. Maybe it’s the souls of the living, struggling to find something—anything—to give themselves some kind of solace. Like the bad-in-emergencies parent when a child seems seriously hurt, madly saying over and over, “It’s okay! It’s okay! It’s okay!” not because it is, but because they want it to be.

“Light! Light! Light! Light! Day! Sky! Light! Day! Sky! Light!”

Please please please let this hellish anguish end! Please let him find light! Please let me find light! Please let it make some kind of sense! Please, if you can’t save him, save me… or let me go.

  I’m reaching with the last strength I have – please let there be something to reach for! 

It’s telling, to me, that this part comes after that tsunami of brass and strings Adams describes, which comes right after what I find to be the most emotionally difficult passage: a place where the lyrics quote a widow telling someone, “I wanted to dig him out… I wanted to dig him out… I know just where he is… I know just where he is… I KNOW JUST WHERE HE IS.” We’re yelling it, all 120 voices, yelling those words on dissonant pitches between awkward breaks like choked sobs. It makes me cry every time, but now it also makes me feel something else: desperation. It makes me imagine the feeling that widow must have had for however long it took to find her husband’s remains in that pile, or however long it took her to accept that they never would… that breaking-point howl when she teetered on the edge of grief-stricken insanity, just reaching for whatever she could find that once was him. I know just where he is! Let me get him! You won’t find him, you’re taking too long, let me find him, I need to know he’s found, I know just where he is… I need to find him! I’m the only one who knows where he is!

It’s after that howl that the cacophony erupts, clashing and banging and fighting for every breath and shrieking for light and sky and day.

And then it’s strangely quiet again.

The names of the missing are only barely heard.

But now, it’s in memoriam.

Now on my bookshelf: The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

For Planning Purposes, Vis-A-Vis Your True Love

It’s entirely too early for this, since the 12 Days of Christmas don’t actually begin until Christmas Day. But in case you were saving up or trying to budget, I thought I’d share a little financial info with you. The 12 Days of Christmas Gifts? Are freaking expensive.

The folks at PNC Wealth Management, having, evidently, absolutely nothing else to do despite this cliff we seem to be hovering over, have worked out how much the 12 Days of Christmas Gifts would cost.

Hint: Your kids can’t go to college anymore.

First, the partridge. Pear trees don’t automatically come with partridges, you know, so you’ll have to fork over $15 for the bird. And then $190 for the tree.

Then there are the turtle doves. By the way, does anyone know what a turtle dove is, as compared to a regular old dove? And why they’re called turtle doves? Do they pull their heads and legs into their bodies when they get skeeved? Anyway, they go for about $65 each.

The hens. Three of them, and French, s’il vous plait. They’re about $55 per bird, which makes them, surprisingly (since they’re French and all) cheaper than the turtle doves.

Now to the four calling birds. Why the hell did this song need so many damned birds? We’re looking at ten birds here, people. Ten birds of varying species, who may or may not even get along. This could be downright Hitchcockian in the end. Your true love winds up being Tippy Hedron.

Anyway, calling birds. I don’t know how they decided on this, but the calling birds in this scenario are canaries. Do you know how much a canary is?! AH canary is $105. Four of them? $520.

And we’ve killed so many in coal mines!

On to the five gold rings. Now, I don’t know the size of these here rings, because as I understand it, gold is presently $1,696.33. So these must be some really skimpy rings PNC Wealth is using, because the five of them only cost $750. By my calculations, that means each one of them weighs less than a tenth of an ounce.

Six geese, specifically a-laying. $210. Thirty-five bucks each. And more birds to crap all over your house. Plus they’re a-laying, so they’re about to multiply exponentially. I don’t think you have to pay for the chicks.

Seven swans, swimming. Again with the fowl. Swans are a grand each, and PNC doesn’t work up how much you’ll pay for whatever they’re swimming in. Also? Swans make a ton of noise, and they’re not pretty noises. They honk.

It’s a goddamned cacophony in the house at this point, and we’re just getting started.

Eight maids a-milking. Milking what? Goats? Cows? Themselves? Each other? I don’t understand. I also don’t understand PNC’s range for their prices, which they put at somewhere between $58 and $10,000. Not a typo. I’m more offended by the $58. Why would maids cheapen themselves so much? They’d be $7.25 each! That’s a fraction of the cost of one flippin’ bird! Is this minimum wage milking for exactly one hour?

Nine ladies dancing. Well, the cost of this depends rather obviously on what kind of dancing we’re talking about here, because any strip club patronizer might say, “Eh, throw a $20 at each of ’em, down your beer, call it a night.” But PNC figures the nine ladies would cost about $6,925, per performance.

Ten lords, hopping around and probably molesting the milk maids. They’re royalty, so that’s a pretty penny right there. $4,767 per ten, per performance.

Eleven pipers blowing it out their kazoos. (Does anybody have any Advil?) $2,430 per 11, per set.

Twelve drummers. Who the hell invited the damned drummers? One drummer isn’t enough?! $2,630 for the single night’s gig.

Now, if you take the song literally, the sender sends each gift on its given day, and then again each day after that. So by the time you’re done, you’ve got 12 partridges ($180), 12 pear trees ($2,280), 22 turtle doves ($1,430), 30 French hens ($1,650), 36 canaries ($3,744), 35 gold rings (by now weighing just a smidge over three ounces and having cost $5,250, but with a market value just under that), 48 gestating geese ($1,680) and 42 swans ($42,000), plus the 40 maids, who are apparently from Cambodia or something because they work for practically nothing and put up with entirely too many shenanigans from the lords. ($2,320).

That puts us at $60,534 over twelve days.

But we have to add in the performers. Thirty-six dancing ladies. Nine danced once, nine danced twice, nine got three nights, and nine got four. $69,500 total.

The lords: 10 played three sets, 10 played two, ten played one. $28,702.

The infernal pipers: one group for two concerts, one group for one. $7,290.

And the drummers who remind you why you never let your kid have a drum set: one gig. $2,630.

Hey, drummers. Make yourselves useful instead of just creating a ruckus. Gimme a drumroll.

Grand total for the 12 days: $168,656

Assuming the maids will go for the $58 deal, which I find totally discriminatory because they’re making way less than the pipers, drummers and lords (all of whom, I presume, are men) and way, way less than the sluts on the poles.

This does not include the cost of whatever it is the maids are milking, nor does it include the cost of clean-up, feeding, or the new house you might have to buy. I guess for feeding you could, theoretically, kill one set of birds a day and feed them to the performers, plus give them the milk from whatever it is the maids are milking… but you’d better hope these animals are all simpatico or it’s going to get ugly up in this piece.

By the time all of this is over and it’s the Epiphany, you’ve had one of your own: Your true love is a wackaloon with a set of seriously weird fetishes.

But he’s rich.

The Good News Is: I’m Not Paralyzed

I had an MRI Tuesday on my neck. Which is to say, I was buried alive for 25 minutes.

I’ve done this before, so I knew what to expect, which is helpful. I feel like you’re less likely to scream, cry, kick your feet, wet yourself and relentlessly pump the panic bulb if you’ve already been buried alive once before.

Not only had I had an MRI on my neck previously; I had done it at this very place. So I knew that some very clever and kind nurse-type person had climbed into that gigantic contraption with the iiiiiittttty bitty space for a human in the middle and drawn a purple smiley face right at the spot where you would see it if you opened your eyes during your scan. But I didn’t see it this time. I didn’t see it because I decided that the wisest course of action would be to close my eyes before they slid me into that thing and not open them until they slid me back out.

Generally speaking, I’m not claustrophobic. I have two weird caveats to that: I’m not claustrophobic unless it’s also dark inside the small space. So I wouldn’t do well inside trunks of any kind, or locked in a non-walk-in closet, or in an airplane bathroom during a loss of power. Though I’d expect we’d have bigger problems at that point, and then at least it’s good I’m near something that will keep me from soiling my pants.

The other caveat is that I’m somewhat claustrophobic in MRI machines.

You might, then, see what’s coming. If I have my eyes closed, it’s dark. And I’m in a small space.  But if I have them open, well… it’s impossible to pretend I’m anywhere other than in a super-small space because my eyes go crossed trying to look at that smiley face that’s only like three inches from my nose.


Adding to this is the fact that my head is lying in a kind of cranium cradle, buffered by padding on either side to keep me still. There are plugs in my ears. Also there’s a brace of some sort bridged over my neck. All of this, I guess, was so that if whacking my head on the top of the machine’s tunnel didn’t do the trick, these things would keep me from escaping. This is exactly the sort of thing you want rigged up when you remember, whilst lying in the cocoon, that your father (a sizable man) got freaked out during his MRI when he started wondering what would happen if the machine caught fire. Because you never thought of that possibility, but now that your father has shared his thought with you, it’s in your head.

I immediately began a reasonable pattern of full, calm breaths and sort of vaguely thought about a beach somewhere. Happily, there’s something to distract you during an MRI. There’s amazingly loud and almost unrelenting noise. It’s particularly great because it’s booming in your ears while they’re plugged up, which makes it harder to hear the tech tell you from the other room that the machine has caught fire.

You’d think that with all the science and whatnot, they’d figure out how to quiet the thing down.

I remembered that there was noise, but I didn’t quite remember what it was like. When it started this time, I was immediately struck by the notion that it reminded me of something (besides the last time I had one of these things). It didn’t take me long to figure out what it was.


This was a less-than-awesome realization for me for one basic reason:

That song scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.

So I lay there all confined in my little tube of horrors, listening to all the pulsing and pounding rhythms of the MRI machine and thinking through “Iron Man” in its entirety. If you’re a believer in “immersion therapy,” the theory that one should directly confront that which one fears most, then this is your ticket. Just lie there in your tiny wormhole of noisy hell, listening to the screeching metal and pounding drums and creepy autotune of “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath (who, when I was a kid, may as well have actually been the devil), imagining a vengeful, wrathful metal man and wondering quietly to yourself how you would extract your body from the machine were it to suddenly go up in flames.

But since I’m a total nerdy nerd, the other thing I thought about, besides imminent death and immediate subjugation to evil unhumans, was what the films would look like. I mean you see these pictures in science books and stuff and you’re all, “Huh, that’s kinda cool,” but then when it’s actually your spinal cord and brain and stuff that you see, it’s totally amazing. I’ve been the same way with near-death CT scans and what-the-hell-is-your-problem ultrasounds. So my happy place turned out to be a series of films in my head, showing degrees of disc degeneration compared to the last set.

The answer: the disc that was messed up 4 1/2 years ago is still messed up, to approximately the same degree. No real surprise there. The “bummer” about it, as my chiropractor put it, is that there are two, maybe three other cervical discs that are also bulging and rudely intruding to some degree into my spinal column. In case you’re wondering, you only have six cervical discs, so we’re at at least .500 here. Plus there’s some calcification in the joints, for fun. Now, as it was explained to me, it is possible in these goofy creations we call bodies that the disc that looks the worst is not actually the one causing the most problems. This is apparently why spinal surgery is often a failure. Exciting information, no? But also, it seems that we could put any one of you people in that MRI machine and find discs out of whack, even if you don’t feel any pains anywhere. I don’t plan on having surgery if I can avoid it, since cervical spinal operations require someone who very likely had a drink the night before to literally slit your throat and go tunneling through the front of your neck, around minor things like your carotid and jugular arteries, vocal cords, these sorts of things, to get at the pesky problem all the way in the back, there.

No thanks.

I’ll take the chiropractor. And physical therapy.

And Black Sabbath.

Hey, wait, don’t leave yet! Turns out, I’m up for a Major Award over on Peg-O-Leg’s page. Now, there are four other totally deserving bloggers there, like k8edid and Renee Schuls-Jacobson from Teachers & Twits, and Darla the Maineiac and Misty of Misty’s Laws.

But my thing’s better.

Go vote for it, please? Thanks. You’re swell.

You can leave now.

What? Go already. Sheesh.

Live In Concert: Me. In My Car.

One of the best things about my schlep to work is that, when the weather is nice, I get to rock out for a whole hour. I don’t really do that when the weather is crappy or when it’s cold. I tend to be more subdued in those conditions, but if it’s warm and spring-like and sunny, look out. I’m crankin’ up some Springsteen and we’re gonna car-dance. Pushin’ 75 on the highway with one hand on the wheel. We’re ridin’ out tonight to case the promised land.

You cannot NOT rock out to that song. I’m sorry. You just can’t.

Yesterday was such a day. Except it wasn’t Springsteen, because I’d done that twice and needed to change things up. So I pulled out a mix CD (yes, I listen to CDs… my car doesn’t have an MP3 system). It’s a pretty damned good mix, I don’t mind telling you. From mile three of my trip, my fellow drivers were treated to a Car Star.

I was moving from the opening measure of Annie Lennox’s “Ghost In My Machine.” Head bobbing, I motored onto the beltway. By my first lane change, I was belting out the lyrics. Mouth wide open. Window down. Inhibitions rendered non-existent. The Stones’ “Satisfaction” only served to up the attitude and the volume, and my left leg jangled because I got the moves like Jagger. Until Janis’ “Me and Bobby McGee” brought a more thoughtful and subdued but no less superstar beat. I skipped Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” on the grounds that it’s too depressing, even though it’s a fabulous recording done in 2000, decades and a lifetime after her first version, and offering a tremendous bookend to the original, youthful recording. The 2000 version makes a listener smile because her voice has aged with her mind and her soul and it’s clear now that she really knows what she’s singing.

So, yeah, skipped that. Moved right on to the next jammer, wind in my hair.

That’s a lie. I rolled up the window because the road noise was too loud and turned on the air conditioning instead.

So, fine. Moved right on to the next jammer, air conditioning in my hair.

There is nothing that makes you feel quite as good as a car concert. When you can release your inner rock god or goddess, pour out some energy and use your hour-long commute for a purpose that lifts your spirits before you resign yourself to a windowless basement for the next eight or nine hours, you do yourself a solid that helps to keep you going when you don’t have half enough coworkers to complete a project in any sane way and yet are still required to make all your daily deadlines without exception, excuse or error. It keeps you up when you’d rather bind and gag your constantly yelling, beat-boxing, open-mouthed chip-chomping, singing, swearing coworker and wheel him in his chair to another room and leave him there in the dark. It keeps you positive when a micro-managing temporary supervisor who has the same job as you any other day of the week stands breathing down your neck waiting for your TPS reports.

That was an “Office Space” reference.

I believe you have my stapler…? It’s a Swingline…?

When work is done and it’s super-late at night, the car concert doesn’t happen. Instead I listen to NPR or C-SPAN radio all the way home, learning stuff. Lower the lights, take it down a little bit. Make sweet sweet love to my mind.

I know. My idea of mind-love-making is… um… disappointing.

But today? If the sun is shining and the weather is warm, You had better expect to see me boppin’ down the highway, loud and proud. Mock me if you will. Move along. I got this.

Incidentally, you might have noticed that a good many of the songs on my Car Concert Mix CD are quite old. In fact, they all are. Let me give you the full playlist. Keep in mind I’m a girl:

“Ghost In My Machine” – Annie Lennox
“Satisfaction” – Rolling Stones
“Me and Bobby McGee” – Janis Joplin
“Both Sides Now” – Joni Mitchell
“Passionate Kisses” – Mary Chapin Carpenter
“Have A Little Faith” – John Hiatt
“The World I Know” – Collective Soul
“Einstein On the Beach” – Counting Crows
“Old Love” – Eric Clapton
“Dreams” – The Cranberries
“Breathless” – The Corrs
“Personal” – Fergie
“Natural Woman” – Aretha Franklin
“It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – REM
“Home” – Michael Buble’
“Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley
“The Rising” – Bruce Springsteen

Given this list, leave me suggestions for any music newer than, oh, 2005, that you think I’d like. I’m already on the Adele thing. DO NOT give me country.


On the Eighth Day of Christmas

The eighth day of Christmas should have been sparkly and shiny and new. I should have woken up to find that all kinds of things were different and everything was positive and diamonds had rained down from the sky during the night. The eighth day of Christmas was New Year’s Day, and none of that crap happened.

None of it.

It was sunny, though, which was good for my fuzzy head. No, it was not fuzzy from a night of partying. (See previous post.) My head tends to get a little cottony on New Year’s Day, I think precisely because I expect things to be different and they’re totally not, except there’s a whiff of some sort of expectation in the air and everybody’s off and I get the feeling like everybody has something to do, and I feel bamboozled by the whole magic trick-that’s-not-really-a-trick. “Oh! Behold! A shiny new year!”

“Madeja look.”

New Year’s Day is a holy day in the Catholic church: the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The purpose is to honor the role Mary played in bringing about the salvation of the world. I’m not the most religious person – mild to moderate at best. But I am a cantor at my church, and I sang the noon mass. Just me, my favorite accompanist and the contemporary group, who showed up ready to really play. Music is an alive thing, breathing and morphing, and sometimes the group just doesn’t gel. But other times, it really gets into a groove. And the instruments tend to change from week to week, which keeps things fresh even though it’s mostly because someone flaked out and another person stepped up. (A violin this time!) As a singer, I get inspired by this kind of stuff – people who just know what they’re doing and don’t need much direction, who can look at the music and play, and elevate the experience without saying a word. When you’re Catholic and a music person and a good two decades younger than nearly all of the people you see in front of you, you will take every chance you get to change things up and get them out of the rut of the status quo. The people in the pews usually respond.

I think they respond because the music becomes a spiritual power boost, which everybody can use. It doesn’t have to be some big thing. It doesn’t have to scream “religion” or “God” or “miracle” at you. It can just be an old hymn you hear in a new way, by virtue, even, of where you do and don’t take a breath. Like reading a poem and not stopping your momentum at the end of a line. Oh! That’s what that means!

The mass was a minute from starting when I looked at the accompanist and pointed to sheet music that was sitting on top of the organ (which she wouldn’t play today – the contemporary group is more of a piano crew). “Are we doing this?” I mouthed.

“Oh! We can,” she mouthed back.

“Offertory?” I suggested. It’s the moment when the altar is prepared for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the gifts are brought forward by parishioners. Technically, this piece is not liturgically correct to sing at that time, but it’s the only place to do it without making the mass longer. And nobody likes it when the mass is longer.

She nodded. “What key?”


The contemporary group zinged up the music enough that we were fairly enjoying ourselves from the beginning of the service, and I could tell the Frozen Chosen were, as well. Cantoring is like teaching, I think: you look out at a sea of dead faces and you’re trying to think of something that’s going to wake them up and bring light to their eyes. Music can do that if you play and sing it right. Even the old stuff. Plus it helps that we’re still in Christmas carols.

But when it came time for the Offertory, we took it down a notch. The contemporary group left their instruments. On the piano, the accompanist played the first few measures of Schubert, measures most people recognize very quickly. And I sang.

Ave Maria, gratia plena…

It is one of my favorite pieces to sing. The only trick is that it’s a bit of a pressure piece. It’s not something you sing all the time; it’s for special occasions. Weddings. Funerals. Feasts and solemnities of Mary. So when you do it, it has to be special.

It has to shine.

I sang the Ave Maria for my grandmother’s funeral in 2007. She had basically ordered me to do it, and I knew if I chickened out, or sang it badly, she would haunt me with murmured “That was nice, dear” sentiments that really meant, “I would have thought my eternal sendoff would be a bit better.” I was medicated and prayed to every saint I could think of for help as I climbed the stairs to the choir loft to sing it. I didn’t love how it went, but it was enough, thankfully, to keep my grandmother quiet.

I sang it for my sister’s wedding in 2002. Sister 2 played piano.

I sang it for my brother-in-law’s grandmother’s funeral two weeks ago. The family had requested it. They remembered it from the wedding.

It’s a piece that matters, that means something to people. A piece they close their eyes to. A piece that rings in their breath-filled chests when it’s over.

If you do it right.

For me, the only way to do it right is not to sing it myself. Rather, I have to open my mouth and let it come through me from somewhere else. Otherwise I worry too much about tempo and tone and where I can breathe, and it just doesn’t do. I run out of air, I go a little flat, I push a little. I make it about me, and it loses something. It loses shine.

On the eighth day of Christmas, I turned it all over to the gift I’ve been given instead of the brain I use, and I let it come through me instead of from me. I sang it for my grandmother all over again, for my sister and her husband, for his grandmother. The pews stilled. Eyes closed. My cottony head cleared.

It shined.

And a new year began.

Legends In Their Falling

Remember when Janis Joplin died?

I don’t, but take my larger point as I set it up for you, please:

Today the world learned that singer Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her London flat. She was 27. And almost instantly, the cyber-verse was alight with cynical commentary about it. So far, Scotland Yard has not ruled on a cause (one can only assume that, had it not been shuttered, News of the World would have immediately begun hacking into her cell phone to find out what she last said and to whom she last spoke). But the conventional wisdom is that she died of a drug overdose, or drank herself literally to death.

I’ll go along with the theory.

A lot of who we have come to regard as amazing talents died at 27 from drug and alcohol problems. Hendrix. Joplin. Belushi. I wonder… if there had been Facebook and Twitter then, would everyone have been so cynical?

You can argue with me that Winehouse is not a name that belongs in the above group. You might be right. Frankly, I don’t know her stuff well enough to say for sure, although I do know she did have a great deal of talent, and a tortured soul: two things required for admission to that club. And I would remind you that Joplin’s biggest hit, “Me and Bobby McGee,” wasn’t released until after she died, at 27, with the whiskey-and-smoke voice of a woman who had lived far beyond her years. In “Just Kids,” Patti Smith waxes both plain and nostalgic about seeing Joplin in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, a relative unknown but for the artists’ circles in which they both traveled. She was nobody then. A rebellious girl with attitude and a gift not everyone cared to hear.

Like Amy Winehouse.

I wasn’t around when Joplin and Hendrix died (I was for Belushi). But if the collective consciousness of cultural memory serves, they were regarded more as up-and-comers than entrenched legends then. Hendrix might have been a little more established; he’d already done the National Anthem on his guitar. But we tend to sanctify the dead after they’ve gone. We don’t know what legends they would have become if they had lived beyond their late 20s. They could have flamed out and been forgotten. It’s the romantic tragedy of their deaths that catapulted them to their culturally contributory fame, really. Though their talents and heft of legacies varied, the same could be argued for all who have died too soon: Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Patsy Cline, Robert Mapplethorpe, even John Lennon. They were sainted in death. In life, they might have wound up merely played out.

We live in different times now, certainly. In the convictional chaos of the 60s and the experimentation that lived through the 70s, it was easy to find depth and poignancy in the gone-too-soon nature of an artist’s death. Did those not belonging to the chaos – those standing outside that particular cultural fire – not regard those artists’ deaths in the same way? At the time, I’d venture the answer is that they didn’t. But now, they probably see it differently, with the glow of history surrounding it and the knowledge that they were part of that revered and reviled generation, whether they were at Woodstock or not. Now, in the digital age, news travels even more quickly than it did then, and universally– to those who don’t share the convictions of the ones who bring them word. Our reactions, now, seem to skew farther toward the wry than toward the gut-wrenched. Amy Winehouse probably won’t be a legend in death. But it would be nice if we valued her life a little more.

Featured image from

Music Monday #7: Working the Steps

Today I’ve decided to post on a piece I’m actually working on right now, as opposed to something I’ve sung in the past or with which I’m familiar. It’s an Italian aria (aria=opera or oratorio solo, usually focusing on one particular theme) called Selve amiche, written by Antonio Caldera.

No, you should not know who that is. But so that you will: he grew up in Venice and was a choirboy at a basilica. He became the conductor at the court of the Duke of Mantua (you shouldn’t know who that is, either). Two years later, at the age of 31,  he wrote an opera now referred to as Opera pastorale. Of interest in this opera is that it uses the same libretto (lyrics) as La costanza in amor vince l’inganno… which was another opera written by Caldera. But he wrote it all to different music for Opera pastorale. 

Why did he do that? Well, La constanza was written for a public theater in Macerata, with paying guests who bought tickets. Anybody who wanted to see it could see it. What’s distinct about Opera pastorale is that it was performed in Rome in a private theater with invited audience members… and that meant (drumroll, please) women were allowed to perform in it. The character who sings Selve amiche is called Sylvia, and she was played by a woman in Opera pastorale. That wasn’t allowed in Rome’s public theaters at the time, which is how we wound up with a bunch of eunuchs singing soprano.

Poor guys.

Selve amiche is very short and not terribly broad-ranged. It only covers an octave, and a moderate one at that. My voice teacher let me choose from three pieces to study next, and I chose this one for two reasons: I need to work on getting more resonance in my middle range, and I need to work a little more on the close intervals that this piece exhibits in its “runs” (phrases containing a string of relatively fast-paced notes). You don’t care about why I chose it, but I wanted to show you the value in a piece that’s relatively simple, even in opera. They’re not all unapproachable and complicated, and since this aria’s quiet plea is simple, I think its composition matches it well.

Apart from that, it’s just pretty. In the opening scene of the opera, Sylvia is struggling with matters of love, and she wanders into the woods to try to find some solace.

Lyrics and translation:

Selve amiche, ombrose piante, fido albergo del mio core,
Friendly woods, shady trees, faithful shelter of my heart,

Chiede a voi quest’alma amante qualche pace al suo dolore.
This loving soul asks of you some peace for its sadness.

With that simple request, in this simple piece, I ask that you simply close your eyes and listen to Suzana Frasheri sing. Happy Music Monday.

Featured image from

Music Monday #6: Wheel! Of! Fortune!

If that’s an apt way to describe Carmina Burana, then Carl Orff is Pat Sajak and the chorus is the announcer guy.

“Tell him what he’s won, Bob!”

“Iiiiiiiit’s a lifetime of struggle and miseryyyy! Interspersed with periodic excitement and falling in love with flirtatious young maidens, or at least lusting after them, you’ll endure a lifetime of hardship! mayhem! and mental anguiiiiishhh! Happiness may be fleeting, but it’s still worth the ride! And! You get to get drrrrunk!”

That is a decidedly less artistic and poetic way to sum it up… but still valid. And not altogether far off from Orff’s approach, really, come to think of it.

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a litany of Nots: It’s not an opera. It’s not that old (Orff wrote it in the 1930s). It’s not even all in one language. Some of it is in Latin, some German (and not even just plain German… Middle High German), and allegedly, some of it’s in French, though I can’t find it identifiably in my score. Which means… it’s not all one cohesive work.

What it is is a rip-roaring good time.

Carmina is actually a conglomeration of old poetry that Orff found and cobbled together and made work in a comprehensive form. And he wrote it to showcase dancers, not singers.

Wouldn’t know it by listening, I can tell you that. Or singing. This is some exhausting stuff. It is relentlessly rhythmic. It requires a ridiculous amount of concentration. Nobody gets a break, ever. Orchestral percussionists least of all. One of the times I performed this work was on a stage too small for the full orchestra and 120 voices needed to carry the piece. I stood on the percussion section. There was a bass drum about six feet from my right ear. The little drummer boy (as I called him) kept stealing my water bottle. Thought he was funny.

He was wrong.

One of my singer friends and I once drove the percussionists crazy with questions. They have to pull out all the stops (and, seemingly, all the intstruments) for this piece, so we were loaded with inquiries.

“What’s that?”

“A cabasa.” 

“A keilbasa?”

Unamused glare. “No. A CAbasa.”

“Oh. What’s that?”

“A vibraslap.” 

(Cue giggles.) “A vibraslap?!?!”

(Another unamused glare.) “Yes.”

“C’mon (gasp) you made that up.” 

“No. I didn’t.” 

“What’s that thing that looks like an egg?”

“That’s an egg shaker.” 


I’ve been fortunate enough to perform four runs (three- to five-performance series of concerts) of Carmina, with four different conductors. The first time, it was sans dancers. Second time, mit dancers. Third and fourth time, non dancers. When I found out about the dancers the second time, I was flummoxed. Wouldn’t they just be… distracting? How would they handle the 5/4 time in the “Raia” movement? That’s a dance movement, but in 5/4 time it’s pretty damned tricky to count for dancers. It must be a nightmare for choreographers. Dancers count One-Two-Three One-Two-Three or One-Two-Three-Four One-Two-Three-Four or One-Two-Three-Four-Five-Six One-Two-Three-Four-Five-Six or the ever-popular Five Six Seven Eight!

But… One Two Three Four Five One Two Three Four Five…?

That’s just messed up.

Not the point, though, today.

The point is, Carmina features one of the most recognized but least understood pieces of music in the “classical” realm, in my opinion: “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi.”  Commonly known as “O Fortuna.”

Which I’ve always thought sounds a bit like an ode to a canned fish.

 Carmina is a powerhouse work. I mentioned it’s exhausting stuff, and it is; singers run through the vocal ringer on it. It’s more than an hour long and we almost never stop (“Raia” being the only brief movement out of 22 that doesn’t have a vocal scoring). It’s worse for the men than for the women; the men have an entire sequence (subtitled “In Taberna”) about a rousing drunken festivus of drunkenness and what happens after that.

It features a soliloquy from a black swan as he’s roasting on a spit (which is evoked by an intentionally squeaky clarinet) and a dude who’s won some sort of King For the Time Being Contest… until the people who are presently celebrating him eventually kill him.

Also there’s something about riding a horse.

Told you it was wild.

Like life. Which is, of course, Orff’s whole point.

“Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” serves as a bookend for Carmina. Not only is it sung in the beginning of the work; it’s sung at the end, too. Thereby completing the cycle. Closing the circle. Rounding out the wheel.

You’ve heard it in movies, commercials, viral videos, etc. etc. etc. But you may never have known what it was about.

A portion of they lyrics and translation:

O Fortuna O Fortune,
velut luna like the moon
statu variabilis, you are changeable,
semper crescis ever waxing
aut decrescis; and waning;
vita detestabilis hateful life
nunc obdurat first oppresses
et tunc curat and then soothes
ludo mentis aciem, as fancy takes it;
egestatem, poverty
potestatem and power
dissolvit ut glaciem. it melts them like ice.
Sors immanis Fate – monstrous
et inanis, and empty,
rota tu volubilis, you whirling wheel,
status malus, you are malevolent,
vana salus well-being is vain
semper dissolubilis, and always fades to nothing,
obumbrata shadowed
et velata and veiled
michi quoque niteris; you plague me too;
nunc per ludum now through the game
dorsum nudum I bring my bare back
fero tui sceleris. to your villainy.
Sors salutis Fate is against me
et virtutis in health
michi nunc contraria, and virtue,
est affectus driven on
et defectus and weighted down,
semper in angaria. always enslaved.

It’s intense.

There are astounding variations in dynamic (volume). That’s on purpose, to reflect both intensity and the changing winds of fate. Do not adjust your speakers… unless you want to really hear the words, which are damned difficult to articulate well sometimes. If you want to download a version, I highly recommend the Bournemouth Symphony and Chorus, Marin Alsop conducting, if you can find it. Without further ado… “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” from Carmina Burana, written by Carl Orff and performed, in this case, by Chor der Deutchen Oper Berlin, and the Orchester der Deutchen Oper Berlin. Video here is irrelevant; I try to find the best musical representation of the work, not the best visuals.

Hang on tight, close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.

Featured image from Angela Sterling/

Music Monday #5: Nice Place You Got Here

I always nearly forget about my Music Monday post, and then I always freak out a little trying to decide what piece to give you. But this time, I remembered early enough to keep both things from happening. I was sitting in church yesterday, between song-leadings, listening to the readings while trying to keep my bra from peeking out of the neckline of my dress, and one of the readings was about the many rooms in God’s house, and that led me to this week’s post.

It’s one of the better-known movements in the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem. It’s called “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.” Translation: “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” Though it was composed in German, it is often sung in English, so you might recognize the piece and not the words. The scripture is quite familiar to Christian singers and classical composers alike; it is taken from the book of Psalms. But the reason for the piece is much more touching.

Brahms lost his mother in 1865, and it was a loss so devastating that he needed to write an entire work to help him cope. Ein deutsches Requiem is a requiem in the emotional sense, but not in the literal sense. As I think I mentioned in last week’s Music Monday post, a requiem is a traditional Catholic funeral mass, using the rites of Christian burial as prayers, imploring God for the forgiveness of sins. But Brahms defied tradition when he wrote this work in a way that would have scandalized Vienna, where it was premiered, movement by movement, over the course of a couple of years.

First, he wrote the thing in German.

That’s not right.

It’s supposed to be in Latin.

Second, he wrote it in the wrong key. Requiems are written in the morbid and sad D minor. He wrote his in the more uplifted and hopeful D major. By the second note of the first movement (“Selig sind, die da Leid tragen”), the audience would have realized his folly. Ornate fans would have stopped flapping so people in powdered wigs could mutter to each other in shock over his defiance and sacrilege.

But it wasn’t folly at all. Brahms wasn’t writing the traditional requiem, because the traditional requiem focuses on the dead, and his or her supplications and appeals for forgiveness, as well as the appeal for eternal rest.

Brahms wanted to focus on the living, those left behind.

(Apparently, the Rapture would have made this selection apropos, as well, if it had happened. There’s wifi in heaven, right?)

When I performed this work with the chorus I belonged to, our director gave us a great little piece of history for reference. Brahms was writing Ein deutches Requiem while the Civil War was ending here. Not so long ago, really. Our director also shared this incredible tidbit: Ein deutsches Requiem ends with a sentiment about one’s works living on after they’re gone. As Brahms was nearing the end of his life, he one night sat in his kitchen with a friend, throwing manuscripts into his wood-burning stove.

Throwing manuscripts into the fire.

Because he didn’t think they were good enough, and didn’t want them to be found after his death.

Um, Hey, Johannes... you've LOST YOUR MIND! STOP IT!

I’m sure they would have sucked. Seeing as how they were Brahms.

Killin’ me, Johannes. Killin’ me.

Here (linked with the word “listen” below) is a recording of the Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus, under the direction of Otto Klemperer. It was digitally remastered in 1997, but originally recorded in 1961. It is generally regarded as one of the best and most faithful recordings of the work. (Apparently, Brahms is hard to conduct; my own director calls himself “Brahms-impaired,” though I can’t understand why.)

Close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.

Music Monday #4: Holy Commercial

Last week, I regaled you with the amazingness of the Flower Duet from Lakme’ and mentioned how it’s been used in commercials. I think it’s sort of bizarre when commercials use classical and opera pieces that are seemingly completely unrelated to the product they’re pushing. Case in point: this week’s Music Monday sampling.

I have Comcast cable, and the monopoly company has been running an ad lately in which people and objects sort of jump out of a television screen at a viewer who’s rather blown away by the whole thing. Nevermind that I don’t want that to happen in my house, ever, and I find it to be a fairly meaningless ad. The reason it caught my attention at all is because of the music it uses.

It’s the “Sanctus” movement from Mozart’s Requiem.

Ah, Mozart’s Requiem. I said in my first Music Monday post that I have had a love affair with it for years. I sang it in France. I’m letting that sentence fall flat because of the link; I don’t want to launch into the whole thing right now, so you can read a bit about it in that previous entry if you want. Point is, the Mozart Requiem is a very well-known work in choral circles, and it absolutely rings and echoes and soars in French churches, be they made of marble or humble stone with dirt floors. We did it in both, plus a more modern, plaster-walled place, just because we could.

The work has a back story that’s almost mythical: Mozart was commissioned to write it for the late wife of a stranger. Our Wolfgang and his wife Constanze were desperate for money and she was getting increasingly anxious about it. (Wolfgang was a bit devil-may-care about things like this; he had other things to worry about, like the Emperor.) But Mozart was becoming increasingly ill, and seemingly going mad; he felt the work would kill him.

He was right. Though he wrote the foundation of the entire work and had completed parts of it, he died in the middle of writing the “Lacrimosa” movement (coincidentally, the only movement in the work that concentrates on grief).

With her husband dead, Constanze was left to search out someone who could finish the commissioned piece so she could get the much-needed payment. Constanze was not a gold digger… she was just really strapped for cash, with mouths to feed and a husband dead at 36. Eventually, she convinced one of Mozart’s associates, Franz Sussmayr, to complete the work.

That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

The “Sanctus,” for those unfamiliar with the Catholic rite of worship and, more specifically, the funeral mass (which is what a requiem traditionally is), is the part of the mass that translates to the Holy Holy Holy. It beatifies God during the consecration of the bread and wine, in the liturgy of the eucharist. It’s a song of praise, and Mozart makes it triumphant in the midst of mourning and fear and heartfelt requests for the forgiveness of sins… but it still has plenty of the darkness that comes with the fear of God in that moment when a soul hovers between Earth and either Heaven or Hell.

Which is why I find it odd that Comcast uses it in their commercial.

There are so many beautiful moments in the work, it’s almost impossible to pick a favorite, but the “Sanctus” movement is one of mine, for the sake of one single line. Throughout all the rehearsals and performances of the Requiem, I was next to my friend Bill, who has a gorgeous tenor voice. Every time we got to this one phrase, when my soprano part dipped lower and his complementary tenor part soared higher, it was all I could do to keep my sound going; the phrase just takes my breath away. It boils down to one note, really, but Mozart was so brilliant in the way he structured the chord that it just opens the whole thing wide. Below, the link to the movement, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. I regret that I do not know which choir he is conducting or when and where the recording was made. The phrase I adore begins at 1:09, and the tenor note to listen for is at 1:14-1:15. As usual, I encourage you to find better quality recordings on your downloadable music provider of choice; if you do, I suggest a recording on the London Digital label, of the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Georg Solti and featuring Cecilia Bartoli, Arleen Auger, Vinson Cole and Rene Pape as soloists, with the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsoperchor. (That’s a choir.) It was recorded live in Vienna in 1992, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death. If you want to buy the CD, the cover looks like this:


Apart from checking on the time for that tenor note… close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.

Mozart Requiem, K 626, V. Sanctus