LHR —> JFK

This morning, on last day in Cambridge, I ran into my friend S, a physicist who flits between a Cambridge College and CERN. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen her in everything from her running gear (at her laptop) to a flowing black academic gown (swanning out of a high table in hall, having just charmed American biotechniks with wine, cheese and biting erudition). A brilliant physicist, she’s an archetypal Cambridge academic, at once able to talk gibberish about dark matter if prompted, but also about the realities of academic life in teaching undergraduates. (Among the gold nuggets from Saturday morning: “term has started and I saw all of my students this week and none of them cried.”) Seeing her every few days over the last few weeks has provided some consistent comfort, as she always has a refreshing honesty about life in the most ivory of all towers. In short, there is both tedium and joy, and slightly awkward or even uncomfortable experiences (such as encountering an undergraduate willing to be open about some personal obstacles in their path) herald growth via candor.

My encounters with S made me realize how absolutely loath I’ve been write or talk about the trenches of music making, which (I’m told) are actually interesting to quite a lot of people. In particular, I’ve been procrastinating about opening up my iPad and typing out any account of one of the most tedious processes that musicians undertake: recording. Steadfast attempts were made to post lovely photos of the harp amid the audio rig beneath fan vaulting at King’s, as if to give the notion that the technology’s encounter with late medieval architecture offered either offered inspiration or coolness. In reality, the acoustic amplifies your best attributes but is equally unforgiving of your flaws, like a bitchy gay friend who thinks it appropriate to fuse sentiments of admiration with gratuitous discussions of your personal shortcomings (naturally with little reflection of his own).

The English have a wonderful use of the word “boring,” where the definition not only encompasses sensations of inertia, but of annoyance and endlessness. Recording at King’s is boring in that sense. If there’s a noise in the instrument’s mechanism, the room amplifies it x3 and the microphones (which I think were more expensive than the harp I played) x5. A gate into the neighboring courtyard opening and closing? Make that… 20 takes of the final chord of a movement marked ppp (translation: a pretentious notation indicating that one ought to feign inaudibility, though it takes quadruple the effort of playing deafeningly loud). Inebriated undergraduate shrieking that she’s dropped her chips on the pavement? That’s a good take of a courante made that much more unusable. Add in change ringers at any number of the churches in the center of Cambridge, a birds chirping so loud that you could swear they were paid to sit outside the chapel, and the fact that the harp’s natural resonance itself requires some shutting up (in this case, by stuffing a sock between the instrument’s lowest 7 strings), the recording process is about the art of patience before it’s ever about the art of interpretative subtlety and poise.

On top of that, as you listen to takes directly after you make them, you have to keep an eye (or ear) toward what the final product will be. Repetition is also undertaken to offer a usable array of takes and tracks from which the producer can choose to create a viable digital product (which, we know, is not the same as a live concert). Yes, I’m technically performing the same music I might be on stage, but my role is very different when sat in front of the microphones. I’m one (albeit, an important one) of several elements which go into documenting what a work is. Cynics call it an artificial process, while others call it an “art form” in and of itself.

I think I’ve therapied myself into a tight corner on this one, acknowledging that recording just comes with a huge amount of embarrassment, and is a process that many people rightly see (or would be interested in seeing). Over coffee, S said it sounded like I was having to create rough draft after rough draft of an article or paper, but one which was designed to stick around in perpetuity (for an editor to appropriate into making a recording). I’m inclined to agree, as I don’t think many of us could imagine watching a writer free write or create drafts on a computer would be a pleasant experience. Indeed, if we go see drafts of a major literary work behind some exhibition glass, it’s for a chuckle or a brief moment of awe, as one encounters the absolute fucking chaos that comes in trying to codify an idea or concept into something remotely intelligible.

One of many rabbit holes I went down during the pandemic was a look at the process through which T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was written. I had been reviving Britten’s Death of Saint Narcissus for a “virtual recital” (two words in conjunction which still make me shudder) and decided to take a closer look at why Eliot, a heterosexual from middle America, wrote a poem about death, hagiology and butt sex in seemingly fluent gay Anglo-Catholic code. (N.b. for the nerds: the poem was written more than a decade before his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism and even longer before Evelyn Waugh would use The Wasteland as a prop for faggotry and fopper in Brideshead Revisited.) Though Britten’s setting of the poem holds musical interest, the poem is comical in its employment of unsubtle metaphors to describe sodomy. The opening has some plausible deniability.

Come under the shadow of this gray rock –
Come in under the shadow of this gray rock,
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow sprawling over the sand at daybreak, or
Your shadow leaping behind the fire against the red rock:
I will show you his bloody cloth and limbs
And the gray shadow on his lips.

But the end of the poem kind of lets you know what it’s all been about.

So he became a dancer to God,
Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows
He danced on the hot sand
Until the arrows came.
As he embraced them his white skin surrendered itself to the redness of blood, and satisfied him.
Now he is green, dry and stained
With the shadow in his mouth.

(*** Dear Reader, you’ll be pleased to know that I decided to spare everyone photos of my botched index finger which I sliced open with a brand new chef’s knife exactly 6 weeks prior to a world premiere of a concert length work for solo harp. There was blood EVERYWHERE.)

Also compare this with excerpts from a poem he wrote at the same time, The Love Song of Saint Sebastian:

I would come in a shirt of hair
I would come with a lamp in the night
And sit at the foot of your stair;
I would flog myself until I bled,
And after hour on hour of prayer
And torture and delight
Until my blood should ring the lamp
And glisten in the light…

I would come with a towel in my hand
And bend your head beneath my knees;
Your ears curl back in a certain way
Like no one’s else in all the world.
When all the world shall melt in the sun,
Melt or freeze,
I shall remember how your ears were curled.
I should for a moment linger
And follow the curve with my finger
And your head beneath my knees—
I think that at last you would understand.
There would be nothing more to say.
You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me.)

In both poems, we’re invited in to witness transfiguration via sexual violence and sado-masochism. Narration carries us through each as historical characters reach their own demise via sexual ecstasy. It’s perhaps more convoluted in The Death of Saint Narcissus, where Saint Narcissus, Bishop of Jerusalem, is fused with the mythical figure Narcissus chasing after Echo, or indeed with Saint Sebastian, the beautiful Roman centurion who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows until he bled to death (for further info, please consult Oscar Wilde or your nearest homosexual with a Bachelor of Arts degree). It’s so explicit, that I’m constantly embarrassed when I read it (and I hope Eliot was as well).

The final results of all this are seen in something altogether more interesting and subtle in The Wasteland

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

It’s perhaps less creepy or less explicitly sexual, but it’s no less unsettling. What’s interesting is that instead of talking in code about elusive or esoteric saints, it discusses the figure of Christ (“the Son of Man”) and the crucifixion (“the dead three that gives no shelter), while also alluding the ministry in allegories of dust and water (I’m particularly reminded of the oft-quoted lines from the Mishnah: Let thy house be a meeting-house for the wise: / and powder thyself in the dust of their feet; / and drink their words with thirstiness, though whether Pound or Eliot knew them is up in the air).

Lots of ink has been spilled as to how much the final product of The Wasteland was indeed Eliot or the heavy editorial hand of Ezra Pound. With the eventual publication of all the drafts and all the poems from which The Wasteland was drawn, many of us Eliot buffs got a peek into just how painstaking and lengthy a revision or editing process is. (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/masterpiece-in-the-making/)
It’s of course sick and voyeuristic to go in and look at the drafts, as if to dissect a living object and rearrange its composite organs to suit your neurotic need to know how the bowels of a beautiful creature might operate. I admit my own motives had to do with Britten and Eliot’s respective places in my mind and adolescence. Britten remains the the composer’s composer for the harp, as his work with Ossian Ellis produced a body of work for the instrument, the likes of which had not been seen before or since (A Ceremony of Carols, A Birthday Hansel, Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, innumerable opera and chamber parts which make orchestral work tolerable, if no enjoyable, etc.). But towards the end of his life, he drifted towards dealing with more and more explicitly uncomfortable themes relating to sexuality. In Canticle V, there’s the reverie of sexual violence written on the heels of Death in Venice, arguably Britten’s most explicit confrontation of pederasty and homosexuality (unlike Billy Budd, Peter Grimes or Turn of the Screw, where the sexualized adolescence is shrouded in very eerie musical code). I tend not to dwell too heavily as to why, but I always thought it ironic that Britten would end up setting a bad poem written by a heterosexual to get into the nitty gritty of anal sex. Eliot’s poem also sticks out in my mind. I was originally told to buy the score by a teacher of mine in high school, and I chuckled when I opened it, because it wasn’t just gay and violent, but shrouded in Anglo-Catholic double-talk. For me this was also ironic, as Eliot was neither gay nor Anglo-Catholic when he wrote it, but a relatively fresh arrival from a Protestant family in St. Louis (though of course, he would go on to become more English than the English in his faith, politics and demeanor). Something about the meeting of the harp, religion and sex has always resonated so strongly as I spent my high school days flitting between evensongs at a cathedral and practicing the harp, dealing with the knowledge that I was an outsider at British boarding school (albeit a very friendly one) and denying my sexual orientation.

I digress. In revisiting Eliot’s drafts, some of which are crystallized in a VERY strange work for tenor and harp, I gained a bit of perspective not just on the editing process, but the freedom that comes with changing one’s mind and not permanently attaching one’s identity to the product being created. In 1921, Eliot wrote in an essay: “I see no reason why a considerable variety of verse forms may not be employed within the limits of a single poem; or why a prose writer should not vary his cadences almost indefinitely; that is a question for discretion, taste and genius to settle.” (It should be noted that he spent some six years compiling The Wasteland with Pound.)

The pandemic has been long, but in many ways offered a welcome break. The last album was recorded 6 months before the disaster struck, and this most recent one has been recorded in the early stages of my professional emergence from a long quiet period. Recording still sucks, listening to the tracks that need editing will suck, but the repetitive process of dealing with some embarrassment and confrontation of the realities of a creative process has its benefits. What doesn’t get better is the pressure for musicians NOT to talk about it. We all have to record, practice and rehearse and yet never, EVER let people know about the slog unless we’ve got a smile on. I’ll never forget the absolute most toxic instruction given to me first term at King’s College, Cambridge when I was told “you’re an outsider here. For this to work, your job is to make it look easy.” Perhaps I’m now a bit too resigned to my own shortcomings, but I can’t abide the pervasive attitude that we have to keep quiet about the processes that go into doing what we do for listeners to consume.

(Here, the writer inserts a rant about social media: TL;DR.)

***Dear Reader, coming to a graceful cadence after expression of vitriol against invisible forces is difficult, so I won’t try. I’ll bring this all to a grinding halt instead give a few life updates.

(1) I’ve moved to Cleveland for a while. I’ll be here working with Josh Levine on an upcoming residency at IRCAM in Paris, which I’m excited about.
(2) I’ve got a room in New York, thanks to a wonderful diplomat and an oncologist who let me use a spare bedroom and practice when I’m here.
(3) The US premiere of Nico Muhly’s The Street will take place on June 7 at the Spoleto Festival. Come if you can!
(4) I remain tempted to blog about the fact I nearly chopped my right hand index finger off, as my motivation to write formally/in a time consuming manner is LOW.

1 thought on “LHR —> JFK”

  1. Now I have to re-read The Wasteland. I was married to a poet and literature professor for 14 years, and he never explicated it the way you have here. Keep going. Also, I love hearing about the trials of being a musician. It’s a sort of lovely bit of schadenfreude.

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