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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 recent spat of radio silence on the blog has crossed my mind more than a few times these last few 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.


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For RG

Sunday morning was a typical summer service at church: five hymns, a psalm, some service music and a couple of anthems for the cantor. It’s pretty laid back, as the choir isn’t in session and the rector is out of town for the month (like much of the congregation). One might say the church feels empty, but it doesn’t – in a sanctuary that only seats 200 or so, a congregation of 30 lends a sense of intimacy, rather than sparsity.

As usual my mind wandered during the sermon, my thoughts turning to one of the hymns which I had selected for the morning. “The God Abraham Praise” (tune name Leoni) has an interesting place in most Protestant hymnals, as it’s not “originally” a Christian hymn at all. The tune was supposedly transcribed by a minister named Thomas Olivers after attending a Sabbath service at the Duke’s Place Synagogue in London. “I have rendered it from the Hebrew, giving it, as far as I could, a Christian character, and I have called on Leoni [the cantor Lyon] who has given me a synagogue melody to suit it.” To an extent Olivers remained true to the tune’s original text also, loosely translating the words of the Yigdal Elohim (a Maimonidean statement of faith, if you will) and giving it a certain Christian “flavor.”

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For church musicians, it’s kind of the “go-to” hymns for any ecumenical service, lectionary reading on the covenant with Abraham or any and all references to Christianity’s self-proclaimed inheritance from Judaism. We whip it out on World Communion Sunday, when we hear about Abraham’s close encounter with infanticide, etc. More often than not, it’s rather crudely referred to as the “Jewish” hymn.

While I was in Berlin a couple of weeks back, my boyfriend took me along to the Terror Museum. Located just blocks from Checkpoint Charlie, the museum tends to offer exhibits on the grim nature of the penal and surveillance systems in the GDR and on the the everyday nature of violence under National Socialism. A visit usually follows somber stroll through the Holocaust memorial, and upon leaving there is the option to go and see a large preserved portion of the Berlin Wall before taking a 15 minute spin in a refurbished car manufactured in East Germany. What’s strange is the sense of normalcy of the material in the exhibit is such that it sits comfortably next to a block of shops, stalls and entertainment vendors all selling Ostalgie kitsch. It seamlessly goes from the grotesqueness of violence to the tasteless of consumerism, with no apparent cognitive dissonance or self-awareness.

The exhibit we saw however was not to do with the Stasi or the GDR police state, but on the place of Martin Luther within National Socialist ideology. While I’ve seen harsh exhibits on the nature of participatory terror in the Third Reich, what I saw was genuinely eye-opening. Somewhere along the way, I managed to miss the memo about the extent to which both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in Germany not only lent institutional support to the Nazi Party, but were emboldened to do so by the priests and parishioners who actively sought to implement Nazi ideology across every aspect of German life. I guess I also knew that Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke up and acted out, but not from a wave of silence – it was a from a sea of willing support for the Third Reich’s destruction of Europe’s Jews. Again I’ll fully admit to a sincere amount of naivety and ignorance, as the Christianity I was raised in didn’t have any particular stance on Jews, except to affirm their covenant as being equal to that of the Christian covenant and a tacet acknowledgment Israel’s legitimacy as a modern Jewish state. In this sense, I never grew up with any dichotomy between Old and New Testaments – I learned that the Bible is flawed and picking and choosing for the sake of tolerance was normal. I guess from the historical standpoint, I didn’t see Nazi antisemitism as emanating from anything devoutly religious; I was taught that it was a “perversion” of Christianity.

The reality of the exhibit was that the ideological stretch from much Christian theology into violent antisemitism wasn’t a stretch at all. In short, Lutheranism didn’t just fit well into Nazi ideology, but rather Nazi ideology fit squarely into a long history of Lutheran ideas about Jews. One didn’t need to alter or change the context of Luther’s words to justify the destruction of synagogues, the boycotting of Jewish businesses, or even killing Jews. I needn’t quote Martin Luther’s treatise On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) to illustrate – the title alone is fairly illustrative. In fairly thorough detail, the exhibit showed the manner in which both individuals and denominations not only stood by and watched, but actively partook in the solidification of National Socialism and the crimes of the Holocaust.

These days, my own level of religiosity is relatively low, even by an Episcopalian church musician’s standards. Yes, I am “in sympathy” with the the broad non-confessional message that the denomination offers (the general expectation for a church musician in the 21st Century), and I’m certainly a beneficiary of its tolerance of its welcoming stance towards sexual minorities and free thinkers. But until I saw this exhibit, I didn’t really think I had a skin in the game – the exhibit to an extent still felt displaced by time and physical distance. The last section of the exhibit however was the one that hit home. Pages from a Nazi hymnal were put on display, showing an amended version of Ein feste Burg, Martin Luther’s most famous hymn and the unofficial “theme tune” for the Protestant Reformation (which celebrates its 500th anniversary this year). The informational display went on to explain the manner in which hymns were edited or altered to remove any Hebrew words (including “Hallelujah,” “Zion,” “Sabaoth”) and any connection between the new and old testaments (names like Jacob or Moses).

When I got back to the hotel in Berlin, a quick look around the internet showed that hymns were not the only victims of textual violence in the Church’s campaign for Nazification. Recordings of Germany’s world famous boychoirs, many of which were integrated into the Hitler Youth from the mid-1930s onwards, reveal some chilling examples. For instance, The first studio recording of Mozart’s Requiem, recorded in 1944 by the Kittelchor in Berlin, changes the text of the Requiem to remove the words “Abraham” and “Israel.” In 1941, the Thomanerchor’s recording of Bach’s Magnificat with the Gewandhaus Orchestra does the same with “Abraham.”

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A notice board for the Thomanerchor in Leipzig, 1937

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Adolf Hitler with the Regensburger Domspatzen, 1938  (



After Sunday’s service, I went digging on the internet yet again to take a look at the history of Leoni. Having spent a few weeks ruminating about all this, I had a feeling that maybe the hymn wasn’t as “inter-faith” as I had previously assumed. In searching the web, the story was pretty much the same across countless Evangelical blogs and hymn-enthusiast websites: the hymn “born in the Synagogue” is just that. But a lone hymnologist in 1923 pointed out the background to the hymn, and the manner of its publication in a London Calvinist magazine in 1775. Apparently, accompanying the hymn was the story of “a young Jewess who had been baptized into the Christian faith, and in consequence was abandoned by her family. She fled to the home of the minister, poured out her heart to him, and as if to show that, after all, her joy in her new-found Saviour was greater than all her loss of home and family, she sang, The God of Abraham Praise.” In a way, it was as if the story had been lifted straight out of the The Merchant of Venice, and this was somehow Jessica’s lost song of triumph upon leaving her father. The context for the hymn seemingly changed, as the text was no longer just a Christian acknowledgement of the religion’s Jewish inheritance, but an act of differentiating the New from the Old covenants, with an explicit message as to which one is better.

While I’ve been told that a hymn like Leoni and an alteration of liturgical texts in the Third Reich aren’t really comparable, one can not ignore that they are rooted in the same impetus to negatively separate Christianity from Judaism. Try as we might, systematic Christian theology still has difficulty finding ways to repudiate the time-honored stereotype that Judaism is a religion of the Old Testament, concerned with laws and retribution, and not with grace or compassion. After all, look at our Easter Acclamation:

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;
therefore let us keep the feast,

Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.

It’s all well and good for Christians to affirm the Apostle Paul’s assertion that the Abrahamic Covenant holds fast (despite the innumerable scriptural examples that indicate otherwise), but again and again in our liturgy and in our message of compassion and redemption, it’s all underpinned by a rather dark idea that prior to Christ’s resurrection, Judaism and the Old Testament had it wrong anyway. The message that comes through is that Christianity is “better than” rather than simply “divergent from” Judaism.

I suppose the exhibit in Germany made me uneasy because the place of church music in Nazism has not something I’ve ever remembered discussing or learning about in my church music training. Furthermore, in conferences and workshops across the country, musicians learn about both the history of church music and how to move it forward in terms of musical diversity and inclusivity. And yet there is virtual silence on the matter of antisemitism. In discussing this with a reformed Jewish friend, she simply laughed and said “this train is never late.”

The manifestation is not necessarily violent in any manner, and I don’t propose to accuse any of my colleagues of hate crimes or hate speech. But in Episcopal Churches across the United States, Christianity’s antisemitism problem rears its head in other ways. Though Episcopalians are instructed to pray for peace throughout the world, it is often the case that the State of Israel is never mentioned by name, but is called “The Holy Land” or “Jerusalem” or “The Middle East,” all the while countries such as Jordan, Egypt or Lebanon are mentioned by their names regardless of their reference to ancient geographical areas or modern states. I admit I grate my teeth, as very often when the word “Israel” comes up, the pronunciation of Israel (“Iz-rail”) is delineated from that of Israel mentioned in the scriptures (“Is-rah-el”), as if any active association between the two might just acknowledge the legitimacy of a Jewish State. Again, no other geographic territory in the bible really receives this treatment. But the desire of some of our clergy to be compassionate, loving and sensitive to global affairs (read: progressive) has the effect of maintaining the same double standard that several LGBT showcased this year: a desire in no way to avoid legitimizing the State of Israel’s existence or policies in the occupied territories through symbolic acts of distance. (I fully acknowledge that this is not Episcopal Church policy, but the frequency with which I’ve encountered it with both clergy and choirs has shown a fairly consistent trend.)

Far more extreme have been the use of slurs and attempts to ban Stars of David at Pride events this year (note: several Episcopal friends on Facebook active support for groups’ attempts to exclude Jewish symbols from parades).

My boyfriend is Jewish, and this the second long term relationship I’ve been in with a Jew. Topics such as these have come up again and again, and I admit a certain astonishment at the silence surrounding the issue of implicit antisemitism and progressive and progressive Christian values. To be blunt, as with other forms of progressivism, antisemitism always falls to the very bottom on the list of priorities.

(For my fellow Obies reading this, one need only see the activities of the Divest movement on campus, the slow pace of Joy Karega’s removal from her post, and removal of the Kosher-Halal Co-op from OSCA to see the extent to which antisemitism is alive and well at our nation’s [supposedly] most progressive liberal arts college.)

I admit to having gotten to point of having no answers when confronted with difficult questions about Christianity’s inconsistent stance on Judaism, and on a greater level, American progressives’ ever growing antisemitism problem. To a large degree I don’t even have those answers now. What worries me is the silence around the issue, and the assumption that good intentions and the sheen of religiosity somehow make unsightly prejudices or assumptions impossible. If anything, due to messages of universality that religions deliver, our liturgies and arts and music are just as susceptible (if not more so) to being used in tools on political bandwagons.