Café Grumpy

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Café Grumpy, sat in the middle of West 20th Street in Chelsea, is a bit of a scene on weekday mornings. Most coffee shops in the city have a distinctive clientele: Blue Bottle in Williamsburg is half tech industry robots and half hipsters pretending not to work in the tech industry; Joe on Columbus and 68th is primarily moms and musicians. La Colombe on Vandam is solid early-30s professional types on break from advertising and general social media whoring.

This coffee haunt is not so dissimilar in that all the customers are in desperate need of coffee, but there’s a gentler vibe. One door down is Harmony House, a publicly subsidized building for low income and homeless people living with HIV and AIDS. Two doors down is the local police precinct. Gay bars and chic restaurants line 8th Avenue just once you get to the end of the block. You get the idea – West 20th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues is a strange intersection in the heart of Chelsea. As with most Thursday mornings, there are a number of bleary eyed queens recovering from Wednesday nights at Gym or the Eagle. But you also have cops, citizens waiting on friends to get out of the precinct, families and friends of Harmony House residents, as well as the slew of standard professionals who live in newer luxury buildings on 7th Avenue.

Another variety of customer is the pet owner, grabbing a cup of coffee prior to heading to the vet’s office on 18th Street. There’s always a dog owner there with a small breed dog, purchased at CitiPups and spayed or neutered at Heart of Chelsea across the street. Owners like me, often too overwhelmed by the prospect of finding a new vet, stick with the vet that first knew the dog, though the office may be 25 minutes away by train and extremely overpriced. But if the long and expensive trip to the vet were not enough, other matters have caused relations with my pooch to be a bit frayed in the last few days. On Tuesday, I had to head to the Juilliard Store to buy a new copy of Handel’s Harp Concerto, as my own copy had turned up someplace I had not expected: my dog’s anus.

I’ll be the first to admit that videos and photos of dogs surrounded by destroyed pieces of paper taken by good-natured owners are hilarious. But what they don’t tell you is that dogs don’t necessarily digest the pieces of paper they swallow. Indeed, one can certainly fathom my surprise when I went to pick up Lunchmeat (my dog) after a walk last week, only to find a dingle of feces trailing from her rear end, attached to her sphinctre by a thin piece of paper. Though disgusted, I spared my Corgi any further embarrassment and dutifully removed the turd and accompanying bit of paper. Indeed, it was only a sliver of paper, but its provenance was unmistakeable. I looked down and saw F-G-A-B-flat, the famous first four notes of the piece. Upon returning home, I looked under the kitchen table to find the remnants of my Andrew Lawrence King edition, missing the cover, preface and first page.

This is not the first time this has happened with Lunchmeat. It’s of course natural that her literary interests would range beyond music, and into current affairs. Her normal paper diet consists of Richard’s law papers emitting from his bag left unzipped in the kitchen, copies of Foreign Affairs from the living room, back issues of the New York Review, and even last month’s issue of Harper’s (which I never got to read). Indeed her tastes have advanced from her initial forays into paper consumption just 4 weeks ago, when she would eat her soiled pee pads when she got bored (I should like to add that these are even less digestible than Breitkopf editions of Handel concerti).

Ironically, the vet’s visit this morning had nothing to do with her bowels (or my sheet music) but with a certain build up of green gunk in her eyes due to rolling around in each and every dirt hole she can find on the west side of Central Park. As usual, Dr. Nguyen was fantastic with Lunchmeat. He’s an animal whisperer of sorts, able to get animals to stave off wiggling long enough to check their ears, look at their teeth and shove a thermometer up where the rest of my Handel resides (yes, I’m still annoyed).

Scores are replaceable, but markings aren’t. Fingerings are one thing, but some instructions about where to ornament, change octaves and how to dress up the piece were embedded even on the first page. But for this score there was some sentimental value too, as different teachers from New York, Paris and London had written comments over the course of my education. Fortunately the rest of the score was salvageable and I could transfer some markings, but the thought of losing this score entirely – as with many scores – is heartbreaking. After all, it’s the first “concerto” that we harpists learn. It’s a rite of passage, a milestone and something that we in return make our own as there’s significant room in the score to embellish.

After checking Lunchmeat’s weight and only gently fat-shaming her (she’d grown 25% in three weeks), he took out an orange paper strip and touched both of her eyes with it. Immediately, they were filled with bright orange dye. But before looking into her eyes, he took a bottle of saline solution and washed it all out of her eyes. I admit I was slightly puzzled. The vet saw the look on my face and smiled. “It’s counterintuitive, I know. Put the dye in, only to wash it out, right?” I laughed, and asked why. “You have to wash it out to see where an injury might be. If there’s a slice in the eye, the dye will seep in. But you can’t see it unless you clear out the rest of the eye first.” He proceeded to turn the light out and take a UV lamp to Lunchmeat’s eyes. Again, she remained totally still as he held her and looked into her corneas, somehow put at utter ease by either his voice or his touch.

In trying to practice the Handel over the weekend without the score and my markings, I felt a level of exposure I hadn’t felt before. There’s a clarity that comes when you rely on only one or two of your senses – in absence of seeing my score, I had only my ears and my fingers. Whether or not certain embellishments were necessary or constructive occupied the majority of my practicing on Monday, as I came to terms with what every musician fears the most: that one might actually be doing injury to the music one has spent so much time interpreting. After a while, I decided that getting a replacement score had been put off long enough, and so I grabbed one from the Juilliard Store, just down the street from my office. I was fortunate that they had the right publisher, editor etc. But in looking at a blank score, there was a sensation that I was looking at a new piece of music entirely. Devoid of my scrawls and my teachers’ markings, this pristine, sterile urtext edition challenged me on some gratuitous liberties I had become accustomed to taking since I learned the piece some 10 or 11 years ago.

Starting from scratch is often synonymous with inefficiency, right? When we musicians have a problem, we’re supposed to isolate it immediately in order to save precious time and energy. But one problem may be symptomatic of a larger issue. There are times when taking the extra step back to clean everything out takes care of the problem more quickly than we might think. There are times when the train to Chelsea is worth every minute.


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I’m back in Oberlin. After a few hours’ organ practice, I headed up to the third floor of Mudd Library to sit in a “womb chair” and read. I try and get here as often as I can, as the depth of these rotating sofa pods work in conjunction library’s designated quiet zone to lend the same sense of isolation I can normally only get in a practice room. They feel protective.

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Since speaking with Alice Goodman by phone a few weeks ago, I’ve been working my way though Paradise Lost. It’s the 350th anniversary year of the poem’s publication, so I suppose it’s as good a time as any to have grabbed a fresh copy. For certain, it makes more pleasurable reading than the countless mind-numbing books on the political revolutions wrought either by Donald Trump in 2017 or Martin Luther in 1517 (men equal in their social charms, from what I gather).

The last time I read Milton was as an undergrad, so I’d since forgotten the little chuckle that one has upon reading the introduction to Paradise Lost. Milton makes it clear that you’re about to embark on a mega-poem adventure with no rhyming. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. It is, apparently, “barbarous,” “troublesome,” “unnecessary,” “restrictive,” and apparently no longer used in Spain or Italy. But with Milton, you don’t need syllabic symmetry. That which is poetic lies in Milton’s gratuitous conjuring up of images to evoke aural sensations. It’s not surprising – he was blind, after all. And yet the sheer number of constant references to the Bible, Dante, Virgil, Ovid, and anything Greek and mythological feels astounding. One can almost imagine Milton working through a checklist of myths and legends about heaven and hell, one by one, variation by variation. While each idea feels familiar, every presentation feels fresh or spoken anew. One starts to hear voices of characters that seem close, real, tangible. Indeed, in encountering the band of fallen angels gearing up for war in Book I, one can’t help but be but drawn in.Screen shot 2017-09-24 at 07.32.24Whence the chaos, torture, brimstone, lava, colorings of red and black? It’s clear that these aren’t demons or fork-tailed devils that we think of when we think of hell? They still seem angelic.

But why flutes? While Paradise Lost is an epic poem, Milton doesn’t look back to Homer, but to the historian Thucydides’ account of the Battle of Mantinea (418 BC). Screen shot 2017-09-24 at 07.59.09
Milton’s reference is pointed: Of the many battles of the Peloponnesian Wars, Mantinea was Sparta’s battle of pride after being barred from the Olympic Games by the Athenians in 420 BC. It might seem trivial at first, but Sparta’s isolation was not merely symbolic, as the Olympics constituted a religious ceremony on Mount Olympus, the dwelling place of the god Zeus. To be barred from the Olympics was to be cut off from Zeus entirely. Both Thucydides’ Spartans and Milton’s angels thus march to sounds of flutes so that they might regain an audience with God, and not simply to return to the place from which they were expelled. The flutes inspire order and stoicism, as the Spartans and fallen angels fight not for revenge, but for dignity.

Milton also says that they’re playing in a “Dorian mood.” It’s a clever play on words, referring at once to the modal system in music, as well as the moods that beset the soul upon hearing certain musical keys or tonalities. In The Republic, Plato declares some modes as useful and not useful: the Lydian mode was too relaxed and melancholy, supposedly “not even fit for women” (yikes); and the Phrygian mode is energetic and lively. But when he gets round to the Dorian mode, Plato is often quoted as talking about militaristic affect. But the longer quote actually reads:Screen shot 2017-09-24 at 08.00.51
The Dorian mode is that of assertiveness, sure, but also that of last resort even. It’s not aggressive. It’s as if the fallen angels are somehow trying to shake off their sense resignation.

The references back to Thucydides and Plato in just ten lines of poetry feel dense and profound. But I see a glaring problem: the flute generally signified something very different in Milton’s day. It doesn’t quite line up with, say, Shakespeare’s famous lines about the recorder in Act III of Hamlet:

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Hamlet’s paranoia is in full swing by this point in the play: he’s putting on a play to tap the conscience of his uncle Claudius, depicting a fictitious king being poisoned in the ear. Recorders here are no instruments of war, organization, or resolve, or of anything really; they are but reflections of those who breathe life into them and maneuver them – instruments to move the souls of others. Such a notion was set forth beautifully by St. Augustine:Screen shot 2017-09-24 at 07.32.47But Augustine’s erudition is Hamlet’s pain. Hamlet feels himself a pipe, and his father’s ghost the piper. Here flutes have no perfection, no phalanxes. They don’t serve to organize. They sing to move, to discombobulate.

And what of modes? What of the moods they inspire? Especially if the ancient Greek Dorian and Phyrigian modes known to Plato were not known to Milton. The modes of Milton’s day were Church modes, which over the course of centuries inverted the Phyrigian and the Dorian.Screen shot 2017-09-24 at 07.33.00Milton’s Dorian was the same as our own today. If you sit at a piano, it’s just a scale which starts on D and works its way up the white notes. It’s wistful, but also somewhat duplicitous. When you get to to the sixth note, B, it’s always higher than you’d expect. It feels like you’ve started a minor scale all over again on A, as the last four notes mirror the first four notes of the scale. One gets the sense that two sad keys sitting side by side in the same scale. It’s what gives Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair that peculiar  edge of melancholy when they sing “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” the first time round.

Conversely, Plato’s Dorian mode is the same as our Phryigian mode. It’s the one that’s a bit of a drag. If you head over to your piano, start a scale on E, and work your way up, it’s the second note that sounds too low. When you head back to home base or your home key, there’s no avoiding a certain depressive quality to that single too-low note.

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I’ve kept returning to that passage over the last few week, wondering exactly how it is the fallen angels are moved in that passage. As I write, I ponder if the distinctions are arbitrary – it’s such a small difference. But as I read and reread, I have trouble hearing Thucydides and Plato. Shakespeare and Purcell are somehow engrained in my musical sensibilities. I can’t “unhear” them.Screen shot 2017-09-24 at 07.32.24


Alice Goodman got back into reading Milton while talking to me about The Death of Klinghoffer in an interview for VAN Magazine. She’s republished her libretto in its entirety without any cuts.  In some ways she’s a real hero of mine, as the libretto of Nixon in China puts me on edge every time I hear or read it. But the questions I have after talking to her are ones that only time will answer. I wonder whether people will be able to “unhear” John Adams’ opera. After all the fuss, the protests, the sheer noise, I wonder if people will be able to hear Alice’s when they read it. It’s as if we now have two operas: we have “Klinghoffer” as it’s referred to colloquially, and we have The Death of Klinghoffer, a work of poetry embedded in Alice’s new book, History Is Our Mother. But sat here in my womb chair in Oberlin, I can’t help but wonder if it’s another arbitrary distinction

The Mickey Mouse March

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Fear not, the quiet on the blog has crossed my mind more than a few times in recent weeks. It’s been a full month since I’ve written. Excuses could be concocted, sure, none of which might be inconceivable: Practicing has been the priority lately, other writing projects have been eating away at my time, work is picking up in the new academic year, school has started back again, etc. To an extent it’s true that all these have chiseled away at writing time, but I’d be amiss to say that they’ve been at the front of my mind.

The day will come when I will stop getting antsy about putting “personal stuff” up on the blog. However for today, I’ll settle with a brief explanation: my boyfriend has been ill, off and on, for about a month now. An extended period of not knowing what was wrong with him seemed interminable, and though he hasn’t been diagnosed with anything chronic or fatal, the last few weeks have been enough to lend some new perspective. Indeed, while the first Sunday back for the choir at church usually marks a highlight or a point of excitement, today’s service felt somewhat perfunctory. After a brief visit to the ER last night in Lenox Hill, and a few hours of anxiety-ridden slumber, I somewhat lost my capacity to really care if the choir got through the Byrd and Parsons anthems this morning.


Fortunately, my boyfriend has started doing better. His energy levels are returning to normal and he’s once again started singing the “Mickey Mouse March” (you know, the one where you spell out Mickey’s name?) with lyrics about our 14-week old corgi puppy. (Never mind that “Lunchmeat” has two fewer letters than “Mickey Mouse” – he’s made it work somehow).

In a way, as he’s gradually gotten better, I feel like I’ve had my own straightening out. There’s no doubt in my mind that my practice time, my studies back in Oberlin, performing, my church job and the blog matter a huge amount to me. But for the first time, they don’t carry the same weight as they did before. I suppose I heel guilty to an extent: with each and every lowering of stakes, my playing seemed to improve. I’ve struggled with performance anxiety since I was a child, but for the first time in years, I gave a performance with no anxiety – or at least with a level anxiety incomparable with that of the concern I had for my boyfriend and his health.

In other areas of life as well, my instinct to always engage affirmatively seems to have died away. Charlottesville was rough, but I don’t know what I could say that others aren’t screaming at the top of their lungs. I suppose my return to Oberlin’s campus would have been invigorating in this respect, but the atmosphere seems so divorced from reality that I don’t know what I could take from it. Even on a musical level, coaching Bach’s settings of Nun Komm’ der Heiden Heiland felt just as abstract as coaching a harp etude in Juilliard did. While Juilliard was seemingly all about virtuosity and technical sanitization, literally removing bumps or shades from lines in romanticized Baroque transcriptions for the harp, my last lesson at Oberlin comprised of sitting down at a one-of-a-kind organ in Warner Concert Hall to add articulation and miniature temporal idiosyncrasies. I was jokingly told that I was going to need treatment for the Juilliard “disease” of making everything a bit too smooth and monochromatic.

Maybe the practicing has really taken over in my life, as I’ve increasingly started seeing life through the prism of my time at the organ bench this summer. In a way I can’t help but connect my impatience with the political extremities in the States to my increasing disillusionment with ideas that music somehow requires an affirmative “additive” or “subtractive” approach to get it across. Don’t get me wrong, my lesson was immensely enjoyable, but I know that the utility of any such lesson goes only so far as my ability to adapt and compromise when I head to another instrument. There’s a Juilliard disease maybe, but the protective atmosphere at Oberlin needs its own reality checks.
I realize I’m rambling in an attempt to vebalize what’s been going on. There hasn’t been a major shift I guess – I’ve probably just changed how and where I’m happy to compromise/prioritize/whatever  in my life. Perhaps it’s even just temporary, but there’s a part of me that hopes that it’s not. I’m happy to quit harping on for the moment. Perhaps I’l lpipe down instead. 

(Richard, I’m glad you’re feeling better.)



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HarpingOn / Uncategorized

After having her little operation on Monday, our new Corgi puppy has been recovering at the puppy shop in Chelsea (yes, you are welcome to judge me for getting a dog at a puppy shop). In the mean time, R and I have been visiting her every afternoon and indulging her passions for fashion and anatomy as she chews on his arm, my hands, his pants, my bag, his shoes, my socks, his nose, my ears, an Australian exhange student’s brunette ponytail. (She really is very well-rounded.)

Smitten as I am with my own puppy, I admit I find it hard to focus on one dog at a time in the shop. On the one hand, the barking, the crowded cages and the constant smell of cleaning products makes me uneasy, but also after a few days, I’ve started to recognize some of the other dogs’ odder traits and habits. There’s the escape artist Husky who jumps out of the playpen at every opportunity in order to greet the entire store; the indignant Pug and her dozy French Bulldog companion who both gaze upon you expectantly from the display window; a Pomerian that literally pees everywhere, without fail, whenever it sees a human (while the shopkeeper isn’t supposed to assign names, he nicknamed this one Geyser); a stalkery Shiba Inu who tends to stand up and stare at the nearest human from within his cage, while he prariedogs a turd in and out of his anal sphinctre. My dog may be gnawing on my big toe, but I can’t help but continually lock eyes with this hypnotic Shiba with poor bowel control, who somehow looks into my soul, sensing my discomfort, doing his very best to make it worse with every clench and release of his anus. I’m transfixed. 

Of course, my own dog doesn’t notice. She’s attending to important matters (at this point, I think it’s my left shoe). I can’t help but see irony in the fact that that despite being two months old, she has the ability to focus on chewing intently without being watched or judged by the other dogs, while I, a 25-year-old human, really just want to get away from the Shiba-shitter at all costs. The initial idea is that we’d name her Brünnhilde, only natural for a strong, persistent female Corgi (R rejected the idea of naming her after Elizabeth Warren). However, we realized over the course of a few days what it took most people about 5 seconds to figure out: a Corgi named after a Wagnerian opera heroine is a tad pretentiouis. Coupled with the fact that she is in fact two months old, has two dads and lives near Lincoln Center, it would just be downright precious. (Also, to my slight disappointment, when she barks, it in fact does sound like “bark, bark” and less like “ho-yo-toh-hoe.”)

So, what to name her? Let’s talk aesthetics. Corgis are adorbale, right? Their feet are too short, their bodies are too long, they can’t really run all that fast, they can’t really climb up on to the couch before pre-adulthood or post-arthritis, etc. Theire utility is rather, um, stunted. Usefulness aside though, they are really only recognized as being cute because Corgis are some of the stupidest looking dogs on earth. Some think they look like loaves of bread (thanks to the square, tailless, wiggle-butt), but ours is a bit more tubular in appearance. Some say they look like bats, but they’re a tad too long for that. Really, ours just looks like a bat-eared salami.


Readers, allow me to introduce the latest addition to our household. Her name is Lunchmeat.