Armistice

A century of human existence and memories since the end of the war to end all wars. Sigh…if only World War I could have reached that implausible goal. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month in 1918 marked the armistice that was really only a temporary end to the fighting. As history showed, an actual treaty wasn’t signed for another seven months and unresolved anger smoldered for nearly twenty years more before erupting into another world war. A somber world does mark this centenary, however, and my mind went to an unlikely musical commemoration of World War I – Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.

This is an elegant set of six pieces which takes its cue from Baroque keyboard suites, with many of the movements based on archaic folk dances. It was written between 1914-1917, published in 1918 and premiered in 1919, with each movement dedicated to a friend of Ravel’s who had died in the war. Ravel himself served as a driver in support of the troops near Verdun and was eyewitness to war’s harrowing brutality, an experience which unsurprisingly left him ill and depressed.

But this is not music of war. It’s charming and dance-like. A suite of piano pieces, later orchestrated, based on the ideals of an earlier time, ideals of gentility and gracefulness. Ravel’s musical response to horror might seem incongruous, more escape than commemoration. Where is the anguish or anger heard in other composer’s works? Vaughan Williams captured such a sense of aching loss in his post-war music, others such as Elgar and Parry sought to inspire and console their broken countrymen.  Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, begun in 1914, reveals the absurdity and doom of a pointless war.

So how does Le Tombeau de Couperin, a composition inspired by music from two centuries earlier, speak to the pain of living through the destruction and death he was seeing all around him? This is music of color and even of joy. When asked about this seeming paradox, Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Everyone mourns in their own way, and grief takes many forms. Much of Ravel’s music could be considered somewhat emotionally detached. Perhaps he found solace in approaching grief from some distance, and there was so much to mourn. Deaths of young friends, destruction of the French countryside turned into battlefields, and what may have seemed at the time like the end of French culture and civility.  And so he wrote a tombeau for all of those things – for his friends as much as for the elegance and order that the music of Couperin represented. He would leave it to other composers to express their grief and loss in more graphic terms.

Ravel instead chose to write music of memory. Perhaps he had moved beyond the stages of denial and anger and depression to a place of acceptance. Perhaps he needed to counter inexplicable ugliness and cruelty with the light and beauty of ancient dances. Perhaps he knew that an armistice is, like everything, only temporary, and chose not to dwell in hopelessness.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

Can We Talk?

Comedienne Joan Rivers used to ask that during her shows. It was her way of saying that she wanted to be honest with her audience, that it was time to cut through the b***s***.  Unfortunately, plenty of things regularly remind us that, no, actually we don’t seem to be able to talk.

It’s been a fantastic summer for me – with lots of opportunities to catch up with friends and meet new people, to travel and to make music.  As some of you know, I travelled with a small group of singers to a fairly remote part of France this summer, where a parish priest in one of the churches that hosted our concerts was concerned about our program.  He needed confirmation that we would be singing only Christian music.  “Well,” the native French speaker among us reluctantly began, “we will be singing one piece with a Sephardic Jewish text”…”Oh, that is fine,” he told us.  “It is the same God, one God…” and he sped off before she had the chance to tell him that we were also singing a set of pieces based on the Hindu Rig Veda. Many gods in that case, but words that were equally expressive of that same human need to connect with the divine.

More recently, I was talking to someone about an organization of community choirs which she had founded.  She said that there were people in her choirs who refused to sing the word “Jesus.”  The wall between sacred and secular could not be breached it seemed, though I suspect that the wall was actually between a perception of conservative Christianity and everything else.

Can we talk?  Or in my world, can we sing at least about things which are not part of our heritage or our personal piety?

I don’t often quote The Washington Post‘s George Will, but his editorial last week (August 5, 2018) sparked an idea in me that I had long felt to be true. Quoting from a book by Robbert Dijkgraaf, Will wrote about a need to rail against “philistine utiltarianism,” and about the “practicality of unobstructed curiosity that sails against the current of practical considerations.”  In other words, not everything needs to make immediate sense, nor should our ideas and efforts solely follow a narrow path of usefulness. Wonder should not be cheated.

Will was writing specifically about science, but in my own mind I broadened his meaning to include all of those ideas and experiences which add to our understanding of, well, everything. Our institutions, Will writes, should create a “culture of curiosity.” Our institutions – like churches and community organizations, government and universities. We can’t know what will lead someone down the wider path of understanding, but when we tear down walls then conversations happen, and who knows what that might cause us to wonder about.

Fugues are the musical equivalent of conversation, albeit an Italian conversation where everyone is talking at the same time! Just for fun, here is a favorite fugue of mine performed in a way that feels just right for summer: Bach, Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542

Peace,
Sonya

PS  Thank you L.S. for encouraging me to begin writing again! Discipline and inspiration have been lacking of late, but September will bring, I hope, hefty doses of both.

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

More Resilience

As for most of you, it’s been a remarkably busy time for me too, so I updated a post from last summer in part as a time-saving measure, but also because the word “resilience” keeps coming up for me in various ways.  As a reminder? An aspiration? What’s clear is that resiliency is a place where failure means something.

Did you know that the word “resilience” has the same roots as “sally,” as in “sally forth?”  To leap forward, to burst out, or to simply set forth, one foot at a time.

These are stormy days and the quality of resilience is one that I find more desirable than ever. And I do mean literally stormy – hard rains and harsh winds that cause trees to bend and plants to bow down under the weight of the rain. But, of course, I also speak metaphorically.

Carya

I am again collaborating with friends to put together a Carya Ensemble event – this time a tour in France for 8 voices and harp –  and I think resiliency is an idea that will always be attached, for me anyway, to my Carya projects. To remind some of you, or illuminate for others: Carya is a botanical genus which includes hickory and pecan trees, and resiliency is a particular characteristic of this grouping of plant life. To be resilient implies, as it does for trees, a flexibility to adapt to our environment and the ability of our wounds to heal in ways that build on the strength of scar tissue.

Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” provided a vehicle for me to think about the many personal qualities, including resilience, which contribute to building a happy life.  

Goldberg Variations, 28 (Resilience)

The trills in this variation are relentless, providing an inner energy that fuels sparks of detached eighth notes. Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk, in his NPR musings on The Goldberg Variations, uses words like “zany” and “manic” to describe this music, and conjures up the image of Mickey Mouse’s endless supply of brooms in Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section. Chaos ensues, but Mickey survives, resilient as always.

I don’t recommend manic behavior as a survival technique, but there’s something to the idea that, as with those trills, we should just keep moving – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Getting unstuck from unhealthy behaviors, shutting down conversations, grudges, toxic “friends,” or dulling places in our lives all seem like good first steps on the path towards resilience.

Throughout your life there were times when you knew you couldn’t go on. And yet you did, one step at a time.

Peace,
Sonya


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For 32 weeks in 2017 I posted one of the variations and wrote about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection was obvious, but more often was unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings were made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.