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How old are you?

I have often noticed and sometimes remarked on how, as I age, my self-image is different from what I see in a mirror. I’m not sure if any of us ever manage to coordinate the two. We continue to see ourselves as younger than we really are. There are a plethora of quotations from the famous and not so famous about the problem.

Said E. B. White, “Old age is a special problem for me because I’ve never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself – a lad of about 19.”

Charles Olson declared, “I remember way back when I was young, 10 years ago.”

And from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

My favorite of the more recent remarks I’ve read isn’t so much about old age as just aging generally. It comes from Margaret Atwood. “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.”

The most comforting statement comes from Madeleine L’Engle:  “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

Exactly.

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Nostalgia in old age

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As we age, I think many of our memories grow more poignant. We know in a way we haven’t before that the people, places and times represented by them won’t be repeated. Because they have that extra dimension, they’re more powerful. More moving. And therefore more important for art.

A utilitarian view of nostalgia.

Fragments of time

Most of us walk around with time strapped to our wrists, and most of our watches are digital. We see only one number at a time. On the other hand, for those of us who still use a circular clock face, that number is seen in the context of many others. It’s located by moving hands. Time experienced as analogue has a wholeness and flow that digital time doesn’t.

Does this have anything to do with the fragmentation of our lives?

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The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

The movies in my mind

I and most of the people I know who are my age, or almost, forget the most familiar names with a frequency that would be more alarming if there weren’t so many of us doing it. I’ve been told, and therefore I’ve known to expect that early and childhood memories will come back with greater pungency as I age. I like to think it will make up for all those lost nouns!  I hadn’t expected it to start happening quite this soon, but I do find, especially while I should be concentrating on practicing the piano, that memories of all sorts from decades ago cascade across my mind willy nilly. I may not get better at the piano, but I am enjoying the movies.

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When I get old enough…..

I am now 73 and still working hard at writing, still learning, still trying to form prose that says something and says it well. What gives me courage are other old artists. Take, for example, Louise Bourgeois who declared, “”I am a long-distance runner. It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do.”

Bourgeois made her greatest work after the age of 80. When she was 84, and an interviewer asked whether she could have made one of her recent works earlier in her career, she replied, “Absolutely not.” When he asked why, she explained, “I was not sophisticated enough.”

Practice what you know

Try to put well in practice what you already know; and in so doing, you will in good time, discover the hidden things which you now inquire about. Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.

- Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

 

Rembrandt took his own advice and painted many pictures of old age, and especially of his own aging.

Jonathan Jones, who writes about art for the Guardian, lists many painters whose attitude towards old age was either dismissive or negative. However, Rembrandt, he says, is “an artist to grow old with.”

“His unrivaled and sustained self-portraiture shows how he himself changed with time. As he ages, he sees himself more intimately: he stops pretending to himself. To compare his self-portraits at the ages of 34 and 64 is to witness someone grow in suffering and sorrow and, perhaps, wisdom. At 34 he looks proud, at 63 he simply looks human.”

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Morbid Curiosity

Have you ever heard of plastination? Somehow, I’d missed it. In the 1970s Gunther von Hagen of Heidelberg invented a process that preserves a corpse by flaying it, freezing it, soaking it in acetone, impregnating it with silicone. There have been religious objections to the procedure, but apparently, it’s become popular, and von Hagen’s Institute of Plasticity is thriving. It reminds me of Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Both are creations that inspire a morbid curiosity. In a recent essay in The Chronicle Review entitled “A Healthy Mania for the Macabre,” Stephen T. Asma suggests that we live in an age where morbid curiosity is becoming more important. Some cultural pundits think it’s because our culture is so concerned to ignore death and its inevitability. I may have suggested the same thing in one or more earlier posts. But I think morbid curiosity may be more interesting than that.

Several years ago when I started this blog I put up a blogroll featuring some of the most impressive websites I’d looked at. One of those was Morbid Anatomy run by Joanna Ebenstein, an artist and curator in New York who “sees morbid display as part of a nostalgic and almost reverential aesthetic….  My working theory on this idea [the morbid display] is that artifacts that flicker on the edges of death and beauty–or any other categories that seem to be in binary opposition–create a certain frisson, an ontological confusion. I think for some people this confusion and flicker creates pleasure, for others anxiety, and for some, an enjoyable mixture of the two. I definitely find that frisson very exciting.” It’s very much worth looking at her work on Morbid Anatomy.

I could do the same–take some pictures I mean. The Currier’s General Store in Glover, Vermont is haunted by a host of wild animals, all of them stuffed, many of them in the act of  eating or trying to eat others. Birds of prey hover around the frozen foods.

 

 

 

Most graveyards have at least one monument that’s disconcerting, edgy, funny. The other day I overheard a funeral director describing the funeral of a man who’d died in a motorcycle accident. His friends and family asked permission to bury the motorcycle; they placed the dead rider’s ashes in a box on the seat, and rocked the bike gently to and fro to send him on his last ride.

My morbid curiosity feels like something critical. As I get closer to the end of life, I’m more and more curious–perhaps desperately curious–about death. I want to look at it in a variety of different contexts. I want to throw ideas, images, anything and everything at it and see what happens. Will it look different? Will I be surprised? Will it make more sense? Or less?

Of life, death and music

My friend Pam died last Friday. I’ve already celebrated her life on this blog (March 20), and I haven’t too much to add. I’ll miss her presence, books and magazines cascading around her chair, Daniels Pond lighting up her face as she kept track of her neighbors’ water life or told stories of the ceramics that surrounded her (like an even wider circle, outside the piles of reading matter), and planned her purchases on her next trip to the antique shop. Since her heart was failing, I knew I should talk and fill the space so that she could be entertained and not exert herself. But she sat there, full of stories and thoughts— recounting a wonderful essay about Robert Frost in New York magazine, exclaiming once again over the wickedness of  Bronson Alcott, the erstwhile father of Louisa May (she’d only recently, for reasons of poor health, postponed reading a paper on the Transcendentalists at a yearly lecture series), and rejoicing about the concerts she planned to attend this summer, When it became clear that most of her summer months would be spent instead in hospitals and nursing homes, if she survived  it at all, she regretted not hearing the music long before she worried about the possibility of dying.  I’m sure she must have concerned herself about her mortality, but she almost never said anything  about it to her friends. She just kept on living, throttle out full, learning, admiring the beautiful and thriving in the face of the provocative.

I intend to listen to a lot of music for her this summer. I owe her that.

About music. The Warebrook Contemporary Music Festival just celebrated its 21st year. Not bad for an event playing what most people find  incomprehensible, or nearly so—not bad for a bunch of music wonks who come together to play some of the most adventurous combinations of sounds in our time. I’ll never forget listening to Steve Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint” (1982), in a Version for Eleven Flutes. Eleven flutes, playing the same patterns over and over again, but at different times and speeds, turning the audible world into a place of glass prisms, reflecting off one another all the colors that glass can embrace, that raindrops can hold. Nor will I forget the “Rilke Songs” of composer Paul Brust, singing, moaning, sometimes even screaming, of love and loneliness. Nor the lovely “Carl Sandberg Songs” of Sara Doncaster, lamenting and rejoicing by turns. There can be no more heartbreaking combination of instruments than the clarinet and viola.

I’m listening, Pam.

When I’m 97 ….

 

Every so often, when I’m driving through Vermont in the afternoon, I find myself listening to the NPR program, “The Story.” Recently, host Dick Gordon interviewed Frank Glazer, someone I knew nothing about except that I remember his name on an LP somewhere in my collection. Glazer is a pianist, and one who’s had quite an illustrious career, making his debut at New York’s Town Hall and  playing with the Boston Symphony, with an extended professional career at Eastman School of Music. For the last thirty plus years he’s been “artist in residence” at Bates College in Maine.  But that’s not why Gordon was talking to him. It seems that Mr. Glazer is 97 and still teaching and performing.

Most wonderfully, from my point of view, he’s still getting better. Last year he played all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in performance. That’s an extraordinary feat for any musician, much less one of 97.

Asked why he hasn’t retired, he responds,

“The reason I’m still doing it—all my life I wanted to be able to like what I heard when I play. Now I like it. Why should I quit now when I’m hearing what I always wanted to hear, but didn’t always hear?

My technique is as good as it’s ever been. I’m still getting better. I know better how to learn a piece, how to let it speak so that I finally get it. And the audience gets it—the essence and spirit of the music.”

What about arthritis? Nearly everyone is at least a little arthritic in their old age. He says his was never so bad that he couldn’t play through it, and now it’s gone altogether. Even the wear and tear that once affected his playing has diminished.

Glazer hopes to perform all 51 of Chopin’s Mazurkas and all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues in eight programs in his 100th year.

And I hope to be able to enjoy hearing myself play when I reach 97.

 

Celebrating Black History Month with Camilla Williams

It’s a sad thing to read an obituary and discover that someone wonderful was alive for many years and you never knew it. It happens to me a lot. The only saving grace is that now, at last, I know about them and I know they made a difference and I’m grateful.

Camilla Williams. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1946.

Today, I’m grateful for Camilla Williams. That she died the other day, at the beginning of Black History Month, means that many people who have never heard of her will learn of her significance at just the right time. Camilla Williams was the first black woman to sing with a major United States opera company. She did that nearly a decade before Marian Anderson graced the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, only she sang with the Met’s poorer cousin, the newly formed New York City Opera.

 
Camilla Williams was born in 1919, the daughter of a chauffeur and a domestic worker in the then Jim Crow town of Danville, Virginia. Her family was musical,, but she might not have discovered opera if a Welsh singing teacher hadn’t come to town. He’d heard there were beautiful black voices in town: he wasn’t allowed to teach them in the white college where he worked, so the class met in a private home, and at twelve years old Camilla Williams learned to sing Mozart.

 
Because she had a voice that was operatic and marvelous, and despite the racism of the music business and the nation, she managed to embark on a modest concert career by the time she was in her twenties. Her big break came in 1944 at a recital in Stamford, Connecticut when she attracted the attention of one of the most important singers of the first half of the 20th century, Geraldine Farrar. Taken by Camilla Willliam’s singing, Farrar contacted an impresario with the suggestion that he manage her career. Remembered Ms. Williams, “He didn’t believe the great Farrar would take time to write a letter about an unknown little colored girl” and called Farrar to be certain the note was from her. “When [he] confirmed it really was Miss Farrar, he was dumbfounded.”

 

 

Farrar also contacted the director of the newly founded New York City Opera and suggested an audition.Two years later, when the war with Japan ended and Madame Butterfly once again became acceptable fare, Camilla Williams debuted as Cio-Cio-San, the same role Geraldine Farrar had introduced at the Met in 1907. “Raved the New York Times, “there was a warmth and intensity in her singing that lent dramatic force of no mean order to the climactic episodes, and something profoundly human and touching in her delivery ….”
Over the next eight years she sang roles like Nedda (Pagliacci), Mimi (Boheme) and Aida at New York City. She also appeared with the Boston Lyric Opera and the Vienna State Opera, and was a soloist with some of the world’s leading orchestras. She sang Bess for what was then the most complete recording of “Porgy and Bess” (Columbia Records), and toured worldwide as a recitalist.

 
Over the years, she crossed paths with Marian Anderson many times. At the 1963 March on Washington, she sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” just before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, substituting for Anderson who was caught in traffic. The two women were fast friends.

Even though Camilla Williams never achieved the fame of her friend, she enjoyed a life in music. Her voice is very different from the Anderson’s dark contralto. It’s a lyric soprano’s voice—light, bright and shimmering at the top. You can hear it on a recording of an early recital on YouTube. There’s also a brief speech that she gave at a tribute for singer Giulio Gara. Talking about some of the problems she’s encountered because of race over the years, she tells a wonderfully funny story of a tenor whose racism made it difficult for him to sing with her. Ah, but she inadvertently got her revenge when they did a love duet and “he touched me and something happened to his body—his face got so red and he was so embarrassed but I paid no attention….”
Of the racism she struggled against for most of her life she said, “There is no place for bitterness in singing. It works on the cords and ruins the voice. In his own good time, God brings everything right.”
Ms. Williams was married to a civil rights attorney for 19 years until his death in 1969. She taught singing first in New York City and then at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music at Bloomington, where she retired in 1997.
Which takes me to the part of the story I like best because it’s about the elderly Camilla Williams, who continued to charm everyone. She was always outgoing, vivacious, critical and “a consummate diva.” Recalls a friend, “She’d always dress as if she was going to be soloing at an opera. She never went out without a gorgeous hat, a beautiful umbrella, heels and a mink stole.”
In 1947, she had met Bulgarian-born pianist, Boris Bazala, who became her accompanist. The two traveled and concertized together for many years, and remained friends for the decades after. Bazala remembered the challenges she faced because of  her race. He insisted on riding in the back of the train when she was only permitted to ride in front; often, they couldn’t sit together in restaurants. After his wife died, the two friends lived together and continued making music together until he died at 100 last year. Every day was a celebration of their friendship— the refugee from Eastern Europe and the woman who “opened the door for Marian Anderson.”.