Friday, March 27, 2020

Time Shall Be No More

There is a verse from the Book of Revelations that, slightly mistranslated, includes the phrase "Time shall be no more." Oliver Messiaen used this verse as the epigraph for his Quartet for the End of Time, composed during his time as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. It is hard not to imagine a certain autobiographical resonance in this; though Messiaen often experimented with very slow tempi and enlarged time schemes, it should be clear that being a prisoner would change one's daily experience of time considerably.

Those of use sheltering in place these days may feel a certain kinship, though I would advise caution in our application. A few hours ago someone on facebook was telling us that maybe now we knew how zoo animals feel, and while I can understand the desire to arouse empathy (which is usually a doomed quest), none of us are incapable of leaving our dwellings. Our imprisonment is voluntary, and our notions of hardship are a bit underdeveloped.

Actually, I was having some frustration making a recording from my home piano this afternoon because we live near a busy intersection and the noise of so many people "sheltering in place" at high speed was quite intrusive to my zen. This might explain why Pennsylvania is currently tenth in terms of Covid-19 cases and deaths. We are just too important to stop what we are doing, even for a few days (never mind several weeks).

The ones among us who are taking these quasi-orders seriously are currently experiencing time in a completely different way. It is much harder to know what day of the week it is now. And many of the deadlines and appointments that made up the weigh stations of regular life have disappeared. This could be terrifying, but since I happen to know what to do with vast quantities of time, it made me quite calm for a few days. Since my spouse happens to be in the medical field, and still has a job to go to each day, while I have been locked out of mine, I stayed home and practiced music not too differently than usual, spending my time on an art that is itself chiefly concerned with the passage of time.

In the last few days, interestingly, some of that calm has left me. It is natural for human beings to feel stressed, and, given new projects to work on, whether there is an upcoming performance or not, always seems to presuppose a deadline because my mind is never satisfied to make a reasonable amount of progress every day, but continually expects more of itself. Stress feels more natural anyway. It is useful to remind myself of this natural trick of the mind, however, or I could be easily overwhelmed. There is always so much music to learn--oceans of it. And never enough time, even when you have all that is available.

And there are still demands on my time anyhow, from a job that hasn't completely gone away but is trying to resurrect itself online, to persons with requests, mainly small, but occasionally even the easy things take far too much time due to device malfunctions and the like. It is curious how time, or the pressing demands of it, seem to be reborn out of the ashes, like a petulant phoenix. Time shall be no more? Eventually, but not this time. Not the time I know.

It may have slowed for a moment, but people still have things to do, and a pressing envelop in which to do it. Time will not stop for them until the next person kills himself at our intersection, and then, and only then, time shall have ended its tyranny.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Interesting Times

I don't mean to make light of a terrible situation, particularly in Italy, Iran, and China, but so far the United States is more in a state of tension that tragedy, and if we can't laugh at our fears a little we will succumb.

There was a drawing going around on a Facebook organist's group last week showing an organist protecting himself against coronavirus. He wore what appeared to be a plastic wrapper from head to foot, and was totally encased in protective fabric as he sat on the bench, save for a drinking straw (helpfully labelled "breathing tube") coming out of the top. Actually, he looked a little like a banana.

The British members of the group thought this was pretty funny, despite having several deaths to the disease already. The Americans, living in a country where few people have yet died, were offended.

My first thought, frankly, was how could I play the organ in that thing? I have enough trouble enmeshed in your standard robe.

Anyhow, the Google must not have thought it was funny either, because I can't find it. And the members of the Facebook page, after getting several nastygrams about it, seem to have taken their posts down. So you'll have to use your imagination.

If laughing at something is a substitute for action, or if it woefully underestimates the seriousness of a situation and thus causes irresponsible behavior then we certainly would not want to encourage it. There are, however, some of us who can both laugh at our fears and realize why caution is necessary.

It is not impossible that I acquired the disease myself, travelling through LAX two weeks ago. At the time there were a grant total of 6 reported cases in California, which has 40 million people. I thought it was highly unlikely we'd contract the disease. What we learned since was that cases have been severely under-reported, given that tests were not available, and after I got back I read that two health care works came down with it at LAX while screening passengers in late February. I've also read that 80% of the people who develop Covid-19 only experience mild to no symptoms at all.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the illness is that it takes upwards of a week to become obviously sick, during which time its host is unwittingly spreading the virus to others. I developed a slight tightness in my chest last week, which is only enough to be moderately annoying, and would be a great way to develop anti-bodies for the future with a minimum of suffering, but I would not want to pass the thing on to others who might have a much worse time of it. My symptoms are so mild I won't be getting tested so may never know if my hunch is corrected.

This morning I read about attempts to develop a blood test to check for the presence of anti-bodies to the disease which would of course indicated that a patient had contracted the virus, which would be helpful to medical experts to determine the scope of the spread and check for herd immunity. It would also answer my question.

Meanwhile, I, like you, am staying home and avoiding contact. I am keeping up on the latest covid-19 statements from everyone I've ever known at any level. So far my dentist, my eye doctor, and my gas company have seen fit to issue emails about how they are dealing with the disease. My grocery store, the library, my congressman and my landlord have followed suit. Also my gym. I am not making any of these up. I am kind of peeved that my mailman has not come out with his own statement about covid-19. Nor have I heard from the gas station down the street. How are they dealing with the spread of this contagion?

While we all hunker down and try to adjust to a completely different lifestyle, remember to wash your hands, for 20 seconds. Every time you are stuck for something to do, go and wash your hands. Some day, some young person is going to wonder why the old dude keeps washing his hands all the time, and for so long. It will become the weird thing that is part of my experience, the way my grandparents hoarded money under their mattress because of the depression, or my parents hide under their desks whenever they hear a civil defense siren (I think they stopped doing that a while back, actually). And I, like Lady Macbeth, will keep washing my hands. It's not such a bad tic to have, actually. And now I know what interesting times I will have seen when I am old enough to share stories of the times I survived. I just have to survive them first. And so do you.

As Edward R. Murrow used to say*, "Good night and Good Luck!"

*I'm not old enough to remember when he used to say that, I just know some history! working from home edition is available today. The PianonoiseRadio program, "Music in a Time of Plague," should be ready Sunday.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Reflections in the water

I'm putting together a PianonoiseRadio program for next week entitled "Music in a Time of Plague" and in the process of looking for recordings stumbled across one I had nearly forgotten about. The piece is based on the hymn tune "Shall We Gather at the River?" and its appropriateness is suggested in the following remembrance by the author of both its text and tune (which is unusual), one Robert Lowry, as found in E. W. Long's "Illustrated History of Hymns and their Authors:"

On a very hot summer day in 1864, a pastor was seated in his parlour in Brooklyn, N. Y.  It was a time when an epidemic was sweeping through the city, and draping many persons and dwellings in mourning. All around friends and acquaintances were passing away to the spirit land in large numbers. The question began to arise in the heart, with unusual emphasis, 'Shall we meet again? We are parting at the river of death, shall we meet at the river of life?"  "Seating myself at the organ," says he, "simply to give vent to the pent up emotions of the heart, the words and music of the hymn began to flow out, as if by inspiration."*

The piano piece based on this hymn by my friend Marteau is simply titled "River" and I made a recording of it in late February 2016. This makes it one of the 'tumor' recordings. At the time I had a very large tumor in my chest. I felt unwell, had trouble breathing normally, and tended to cough every time I exhaled, which made it miraculous each time I was able to get through an entire take without coughing. The tumor would be discovered a week after the recording was made, after which I had the better part of a month to contemplate my own imminent mortality before receiving a much more positive diagnosis. At the time, however, I already knew something was very wrong.

It was my own personal plague, though in this case, all of my friends who were not dying around me; in fact, the lingering cough they'd had all winter had finally gone away and only mine remained. But it does lend an interesting additional layer to the recording I'll share with you next week.

The program includes pieces which were written during and about times of rampant disease, but also music of comfort as well as grief. It is a reminder that the music many use to escape life (i.e., as pleasant noises in the background to make us feel better) actually deals with the whole of life, giving voice to a variety of human expressions on a panoply of subjects, the music itself written during daily harrassments and dramas and threats to our existence.

It may be a little dark for some; I've been hearing from you folks all my life, including my favorite comment from the time we did a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (!) in which the king dies of grief at the end. A handwritten note delivered after the play said "We prefer happy endings." Using music as a way to constructively deal with negative emotions rather than suppressing them has its analogue in the real world where denial can often lead to a lot of damage. In fact, one can lead to the other, as music which dares to be negative can lead to emotional growth. That isn't really the point here, but it may be a nutritive side effect. It may also somehow contain a message of hope in dark times, of which there have been many on planet earth and of which many wise composers and authors have left us records of their experience.

*from John Julian's "A Dictionary of Hymnody" (1907) as found in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (1993) p. 592

Friday, March 6, 2020

What it was like

Greetings from the west coast.

Not that it really makes any difference where I am. Or where you are, for that matter. We're both here now. Sort of.

I've always found it interesting that we are a species that can communicate over vast distances. I may be playing the piano right now for people on the other side of the world. Or they are reading something I wrote several years ago when I was in a very different spot on the planet myself.

We can bridge great distances in time as well. Most of the people whose music I play are dead (some just live thousands of miles away) and many of them have been dead for several centuries. And yet their music is still having an effect on somebody somewhere.

On Tuesday night we attended a concert at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. It was a chamber music concert consisting of the music of Ives and Dvorak. They started with Ives. I've always felt like maybe I had something of an inside track with the gentleman from Danbury. I also grew up in a small town that was becoming much larger as I reached adulthood. My family attended a white wooden Presbyterian church with a steeple and we sang many of the same hymns the Ives knew and used in his works. When I was in graduate school and an academic pointed out in a dry, informative way that Ives quoted this particular hymn tune in the 5th measure and extended that one as the bridge to the second theme I already knew it because I recognized the tune and had maybe even sung it or played the organ for it the previous Sunday. My cultural upbringing and Ives's milieu had some things in common, even if I was born a hundred years later.

This seems important for another reason. Ives wrote in words, too (Memos and Essays Before a Sonata being two important sources) and often spoke of trying to capture his boyhood experiences in sounds. For him music wasn't about the expositions and the modulations to the submediant--in fact, he liked to make academic procedures and analyses a target. Instead, he used musical quotations in a very different way: to conjure up not only the musical memories of his time and place, but to record the way those musical sources made him feel. That's why snippets of tunes drift in and out, veer off in unexpected directions, flow contrapuntally, or get extended in surprising ways. Ives employs a host of useful compositional procedures to make symphonies out of tunes that just want to be tunes, but the effect explores the psychology of the composer in a way that is not so obvious with other composers. It may be the closest thing we have to Freudian composition.

I wondered how much of that would translate to the stage of Disney Hall. Already, in her opening remarks, the violist for the Dvorak piece that was to come later had introduced the Ives and informed us that the quartet wanted us to know that the place where Ives is in two meters at once is supposed to sound a little sloppy so we shouldn't think it was their fault. This is virtuosity anxious that it is being undermined by something that isn't. I don't think Ives would have been happy.

The performance was quite correct, of course. And more, I think. It was lively, and not at all sterile. But I wonder how much the performers knew about Ives and his world and whether they wanted to enter into it. It must have been very different from what they knew: A world of constant practice and perfection meeting a world of experimentation and scoffing at boundaries. They made a fine performance out of it, but was the result really Ives or some other fine composer borrowing his notes?

The audience was enthusiastic. They may have been a bit too enthusiastic. I don't want to be a snob here, but it would have helped if they waited until the movements were over to being clapping loudly. I am not much of a purist regarding not clapping between movements; in fact, some of the time I think it is perfectly appropriate, and other times not so much. But after the slow movement, which is really an unusual time for a major display of enthusiasm, parts of the audience which had been set on hair-trigger applause all night burst into raptures before the group could resolve the final chord. It would be as if I told you that

You can tell that sentence isn't finished, right? It needs more words to finish the thought. Music works the same way, only people don't speak music, and some of them can't tell when a musical sentence is over. I wish they could. One of the most wonderful moments in the entire concert got interrupted by the sound of many limbs smashing together because several people couldn't wait for everyone else to know how much they were enjoying themselves. I hope it was at least genuine enthusiasm, but it may have been because they wanted everyone to know how cultured they were, in which case it backfired.

In any case, it was an enjoyable concert. I don't mean to interrupt your cheery Friday, but if we aren't brave enough to consider where we may be falling short we will never grow. An immature spirit will naturally assume that playing the notes on the page means communicating the intention of the composer. A more courageous sort is strong enough to ask whether that is really the case.

I should mention in passing that the Disney Hall organ, which some have compared to a pile of french fries or pick-up stix, is actually far more chaotic looking in real life than in 2-dimensional pictures. I rather wished I had brought my organ shoes and persuaded the management to let me play Ives's Variations on America at the intermission.

This week Marches on.