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.


Anyway

This is slightly old news, but it looks like I’ll be in residence at IRCAM off and on from 2022 into 2023 with composer Josh Levine! We’ll be working on a new concert work for harp and live electronics which is going to be pretty wild.

I’m grateful that Helen Leitner at Camac took some time to talk to me and Josh about it. Have a look:

Anyway


To Grantchester and Back

Enough time has passed since my last visit in 2019 that I have forgotten early spring mornings in Cambridge. Take your first steps out into the front court at King’s, and a gentle moisture envelops your face and hands without any biting or harshness. The chapel and the Gibbs Building glow in the early light to the point where it feels like midday. The only sounds are that of birdsong everywhere and a few bicycles creaking towards the few and faithful coffeehouses open before 8am. (Naturally, they are populated at that hour by US expats such as yours truly.)

Since my arrival, I’ve been practicing gently through the jet lag and getting acquainted with the harp I’ll be performing and recording on over the next week. Dinners and drinks are spent with Nico Muhly, a celebrity/familiar face in Cambridge. He emerges from the room next door dressed in solid black, that musician’s uniform which somehow seems innocuous in Manhattan but totally conspicuous in Cambridge. (Full disclosure: I’m not doing much better. Having been on a Club Monaco spending spree in December, my minimalist fag packing choices for this trip included patterned trousers which indicate I’m about to get cocktails in Flatiron at 3pm on a Tuesday or golfing in Boca Raton in 1973.) We imbibe and discuss what all people discuss in Cambridge: college, education, memories of development, the past. What did we read? Who taught us? What characters did we meet?

Old universities, be they Ivies or Oxbridge, have this bizarre self-conscious rigor in maintaining tradition, attracting eccentric and precocious undergraduates, who will either fly the coop into one or another greater cosmopolis or remain and become the eccentric professors who you can tell haven’t ever left. (In Cambridge, they dress in tweed, poorly tailored shirts or dull sweaters – signifiers of a chic frumpy austerity which seems never to change.) And yet, despite being in a scholastic paradise, the undergraduates one meets are hungry to know what awaits them on the other side. They inquire with alumni about how to get out, form a bridge into the real world, ditch the tweed and get into the city. It is then that one remembers that these universities, even big ones, are really very small places with a highly specific purpose: education. They put up paradoxic fronts of changelessness and authority for students, most of whom who will ultimately have an ephemeral existence here of only three or four years. The buildings, the clothes, the birds, the sunlight all remain the same, surviving the ages. It is we who are just passing through.

The other question students love to ask is “what is it like to be back?” For me, the only correct answer is “weird.” No alum is the same person as they were as an undergraduate. In my humble opinion, if misgivings arise, that’s ok. Before coming to the UK, I was driving my parent’s car through Tennessee listening to an excellent interview with writer Ocean Vuong. One thing in particular he offered resonates with me this week. He apparently tells his students that if they hate a story or an essay they wrote even month before, they should be congratulated. It means they’ve grown. Fortunately for me, feelings of regret or foreboding are fleeting, as there are a great many wonderful and beautiful things to do and see, which not many people care about unless you’ve studied here or have some romance with others have passed through. Here one can commune with any number of Saints, or at least with the imprints of their embryonic existence as students.

When I come back to King’s, I slip back into a routine. I sneak into the library, climbing two flights of stairs and grab a ladder to a row of tattered choral octavos. I grab a copy of Handel’s Israel in Egpyt and look on E.M. Forster’s signature in the front page. I peruse Messiaen scores with Sir Andrew Davis’ markings in them. I head downstairs to find volumes in the history section which (according to local lore) are filled with Salman Rushdie’s notes in the margins. I grab my running shoes and run through Coe Fen, the slightly overgrown bog past the Fitzwilliam Museum after which my old school’s favorite hymn was named (which includes the fabulous lines “Ten thousand times ten thousand sound Thy praise; but who am I?”). I work my way towards Sheep’s Green and into Grantchester. I stop at the church and sit before running past Rupert Brooke’s onetime abode before stopping again at Byron’s Pool, eavesdropping on a group of undergraduates talking about an article. Then it’s back over to Grantchester Meadow and zipping past Newnham College, reverse tracing Virginia Woolf’s treks to have tea at the Orchard. Grange Road takes me West Road. I pass the history faculty where I went to lectures and checked out stacks of books I know I’ve read but can’t remember reading. I run into the back of King’s and into front court. It’s no longer quiet, as the organ scholar is practicing Liszt at full throttle.

It’s funny that with the exception of grabbing a harp, I haven’t been back into chapel. But whenever I walk by, it seems as though the organ scholar is always practicing (which is likely the case). I know why I don’t go in to listen. I know full well the absolute sense of horror I would have felt if another ex-organ scholar came in to listen, even if for pure enjoyment. The pressure is always on. For as wonderful and easy as communing with the dead in Cambridge, somehow doing the same with the living is terrifying. Eminent alumni, musicians, Nobel prize winners and famous writers are on every corner, striking awe into the hearts of undergraduates either with their brilliance or perhaps their quickness in overturning your ideas with a simple question in a tutorial or seminar. They attend concerts too, they smile, they applaud, and yet it’s unfathomable that their critical faculties ever shut off. After all, they spend hours telling you to get your brain into high gear and to engage it as much as possible. How could it be any other way?

Ancestor worship in Cambridge is a weird and shitty way of coping with the pressures of self-expectation. When you’re a student, all those feelings get supplanted onto worries about the exams, the intellectual rigor, the teaching style (and evensongs and voluntarues), etc. As a result, it’s easy to look to the Immortals of Cambridge Yore to witness that there is life on the other side. For me, I latched onto the Bloomsbury Group, seeing a gaggle of misfits with wild ideas who somehow lifted themselves out of the self-imposed restraints that the atmosphere in the college somehow enables. In particular I devoured Forster and Woolf, being a pretentious literary queerling who had yet to figure a host of things out about what my sexuality meant (which in the end was very little, but at least the depressive book binges were good).

Back in the States, my friends will tell you that since the pandemic started, I never shut up about Hesse. As Time has passed, I’ve steered towards his novels about getting out of one’s own head, rather than the melancholy wallowing which one finds in Mrs. Dalloway or Orlando, or the strange moralistic smugness of Maurice or Howard End. At the end of one of Hesse’s more famous novels, music obsessed protagonist (The Steppenwolf) is guided through hell by Mozart, who invites him to look on at Wagner and Brahms slaving away and laugh at them as they travail in their aesthetic ideologies. It’s then you realize the entire novel is about one man’s realizations that all our chosen ancestors were not all immortal at one point, but human. Likewise, our isolated existences and identity formation see us come emerge from our shells, transforming our wolf-like, self-protective tendencies into softer, more human impulses.

“I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket . . . I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.”

If anything, I’ve not laughed as much at Cambridge as I have the last few days. The town’s love affair with the tradition is beautiful but comical. There is no reason that walking on a patch of grass (a privilege reserved for Dons, alumni and ducks) should have the same thrill as unprotected sex (or any other shot of adrenaline). Punting (rowing a boat in a shallow river using a 12 foot pole) is a fundamentally stupid and inefficient means of getting anywhere. That one bell-tower that peels thirteen times at noon is ridiculous. And yes, it is comical that there is in fact a phantom-like creature practicing the organ at such a volume that it can be heard in the street on a busy afternoon.

Returning is complicated but freeing, as one gets to see the other side – the peace of some unforeseen transcendence. The conditions of my return are something I actually could not have imagined a decade ago. If someone had told me undergraduate self that in a decade, I’d be (1) living splitting my time between New York and Cleveland, (2) playing the harp for a living and (3) hearing Mozart emanating from Nico’s Muhly’s room next door, I might tell you that you were out of your mind, or else wonder if its another expectation which needed achieving in order to “live up” to the magnanimous and imposing aura of my chosen university. Time heals, but laughter is the best medicine. (Try as I may, I can’t describe how great it is to be back.)

NOTE: this blog is supposed to be about music. I swear I’ll get back to it… eventually.


Omolu

I had a great time doing a little write up for Camac Harps on my collab with Marcos Balter for the Miller Theatre at Columbia University. Sometimes getting into the nitty gritty of how to approach a new work gets bogged down in a little too much specificity, so I was lucky have an outlet where I could nerd out!

EN: https://blog.camac-harps.com/en/latest/demystifying-new-music-parker-ramsay-marcos-balter-and-omolu/

FR: https://blog.camac-harps.com/en/latest/demystifying-new-music-parker-ramsay-marcos-balter-and-omolu/


Hitchcock and Poulenc

Irrelevant Reviews
#8
Rope (1948)

At the suggestion of a friend, I returned to Hitchcock’s Rope and was shocked yet again by the outlandish flaunting of homosexuality in a film produced in 1948. The plot is not complicated: two WASPy aesthetes kill one of their old prep school classmates (David) and hide him in a trunk. A dinner party ensues, whereby one of the murderers (Philip) is racked by guilt while the other (Brandon) is hoping to get caught by another former classmate, played by James Stewart. Brandon proudly flaunts the rope used to kill David and placed candelabras and linen on the trunk where the body is hidden, while Philip (a professional musician) turns to the piano several times as a means of concealing his guilt or creating a distraction.

The murder serves as a metaphor for sexuality, as Philip and Brandon go through the pageantry of diverting attention to grant friends and neighbors the benefit of a doubt that the evening’s entertainment is just a simple dinner party: curtains are drawn to hide moments of intimacy (such as the murder itself), affairs with women are discussed (though the women are not seen), and despite the being filmed in a large Manhattan apartment, a bedroom is never in view, as the drama only ensues in the dining room, living room and foyer. There is subterfuge, but no ambiguity. Hitchcock’s self-appointed mission to make a film about “it” (i.e. homosexuality) is blatant and obvious, as Hitchcock even went so far as to make sure that both actors were gay, as to ensure a saucy dynamic on screen.

While the cat and mouse game is fun, I found the diegetic use of the piano to be utterly fascinating. Each time Philip is racked by guilt at the sight of the rope, he doesn’t sit down to play just any piece – he plays Poulenc’s Mouvement perpétuel no. 1, chosen by Hitchcock himself because of the constant rhythmic motive and strange harmonies which aptly mirror the machinations of a guilty conscience.

One performance in particular on the screen stands out, as James Stewart puts on the metronome as he interrogates the softer of the two murderers as he plays. Despite the metronome’s steadiness, he continues to rush and struggles to maintain his cool, lashing out that he can’t play along with the steady tick-tock used to expose a musician’s rhythmic flaws.

(It’s interesting to note that Francis Poulenc was also gay, and while living under Nazi rule in Paris used various codes to signify resistance to the occupation in his concerts: poems associated with the resistance were set to music, particularly those by Paul Éluard in Figure Humaine; songs such as “Vous n’aurez pas l’Alsace et la Lorraine” were hidden in works like Les Animaux modèles. He was a founder of the Front National (the musical wing, that is) which continued to maintain close ties with banned composers like Darius Milhaud and Paul Hindemith. Of course, while Mouvement perpétuel dates from much earlier in Poulenc’s career (being composed in 1918), it’s a fitting coincidence that his music should be used in a film bartering in themes of code, behavior and transgression.)

Overall, a great film, only 80 minutes long and an excellent visual (and musical) meditation on the stakes of concealment.