The silence of God is about the Divine as utterly incomprehensible. There is nothing we can say. All our language about God is meaningless because the Divine is beyond all our language–all our understanding.
But what about that pause when the symphony ends? Does art participate in a holy silence, the silence that is God? Almost certainly, I think, silence is present and central to art, literature, music.
Said William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
There is one small yet not at small all thing I’d like to examine briefly. It hasn’t anything directly to do with Boston.
Watching the interfaith service on television today, I was struck by Yo Yo Ma playing in that intense concentrated way he has. It doesn’t matter whether the music is complex or simple, whether the concert is a celebration or an occasion for grief. He is always there entirely, paying attention. It reminded me of a recent post by painter Deborah Barlow in her wonderful blog, Slow Muse. Her starting place was a quotation from Susan Sontag.
Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.
That’s what Yo Yo Ma always does. I’ve never been a runner, but I suspect it’s what runners do too.
Maybe it has everything to do with Boston. Maybe it’s what Boston is doing.
“Art is the only thing that’s left in the world,” said a homeless mixed media artist in Above Ground, a study of aging artists in New York City. He was 72.
I read somewhere the other day that the life expectancy of the average homeless man is 47; that of the average woman 43.
I was just in New York City, walking down the Broadway on the Upper Westside and fingering change in my jacket pocket, when a man approached me and asked for seventy-five cents and as it turned out that was precisely what I was fiddling with and I gave it to him. Not fiddling, I shook my head “no” to the next two probably homeless fellows who were still approaching the age of mortality. I felt appropriately guilty afterwards. No spontaneous generosity there.
I saw an overwhelming exhibit of the paintings of Basquiat, the graffiti artist who died of an overdose at the age of 27 in New York in 1988. Lots of large anger on public walls…. The art of street people, the art of the homeless. “It’s about 80% anger,” said Jean-Michel Basquiat of his work.
Years ago I remember watching an old black and white television program of the Grand Ole Opry. I was struck by how many older people starred alongside the younger ones–people who’d been around for years, and were still country music favorites. I wasn’t very old then, but I remember feeling comfortable in a way I didn’t usually. As if I were watching from a comfortable-old-couch comfortable. It was “a new normal” for me and I liked it.
There are old singers around, although not a lot of them. I think there will probably be more as the population ages. But mostly singers in every genre of music are young or still trying to look and act young. I’m so glad there’s a MickJagger(69), a Tony Bennett (86), and a Willie Nelson(79). Old people sing too!
I started thinking about all of this because of an article on WQXR by Fred Plotkin entitled “The Song of the Ancient Soprano.” He wasn’t just talking about older singers like Placido Domingo (71) or Mirella Freni (77) who have chosen their roles wisely and with their age in mind; he really was talking about “ancient singers,” people who were raised in a different musical culture, who knew Puccini and Strauss, and represented another way of singing. Frequently, they’re Italian: “No country seems to venerate ancient sopranos and tenors more than Italy, where a very old person who is still actively engaged in life and work is referred to as forte. This term implies not simply “strong” but admirable.”
He cites some formidable examples. Angelo Lo Forese (92) who was still performing at the age of 91 can be heard on Youtube singing music from Il Trovatore at the age of 90. The author gives special attention to Magda Olivero who was born in 1910. She made her Met debut at the age of 65 singing the role of Tosca. She was not only believable as the fifteen-year-old heroine, she was deeply impressive. Olivero is now 103; she sang in public well into her 90s. Not quite as outrageously amazing is Giuseppe Taddei who died in 2010. He made his Met debut as Falstaff at the age of 69. The role was age appropriate, but that’s the only reason his appearance was anything short of amazing.
Some people have questioned whether it’s helpful to the aged to hold up examples of those among us who are extraordinary, inclulding those who are athletically or academically gifted. Most of us won’t be singing or dancing at 99. I don’t know how much the extraordinary say about the rest of us. I do think it makes a difference for all of us when the aged and the young are all in the mix, whether it’s cultural, social, academic…. whatever. It reminds me of another time I felt similarly comfortable. The choreographer Bill T. Jones was in Burlilngton, Vermont doing a ballet based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The closing scene was a rousing one with all the dancers–very old, old, middle aged and young–naked and dancing. It was remarkably satisfying.
It’s always been fascinating to me when something very small makes a big difference – when a note is held just a beat longer and the song is changed.
A week or more ago, on National Public Radio’s “The Story” — which I only hear when I happen to be driving between two and three in the afternoon–an ex-con related how his life was changed by one of those small things. Ray Materson had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison for drug-related thievery. He was deeply depressed and angry at everyone, especially himself. The small thing was a pair of striped socks in the colors of the University of Michigan.
I guess they’d been recently laundered, but when I hear about socks worn by convicts in a California prison, I think of the smell of men’s feet. But Ray Materson thought of his grandmother’s embroidery and his own love of the University of Michigan. He decided to make a letter ‘’M” on his baseball cap, in lieu of not being able to go to the Rose Bowl and watch his team contend. He’d sewn on buttons so he saw no reason he couldn’t embroider.
It was the beginning of a career in art. Each emblem, most of them no larger than 2 ¼ to 2 ¾ inches and with 1200 stitches to the square inch, became more intricate and more extraordinary. Today, he has work in museums and galleries all over the country. His life has been transformed.
Years and years ago, I had a part in producing a United Methodist Women’s Assembly in Cincinnati. There were about 10,000 people there and I can’t remember which night–it might have been the opening–but it was, at any rate, for me, a never to be forgotten event when several small Korean women drummed the opening. The sound was loud, amazing, passionate….. and I’ve never forgotten it.
Since then, I’ve seen drummers and known women who drummed, but I had no idea that drumming is spreading among seniors in centers and homes, that it’s enabled the participants to make music, to share a beat, to build muscle, to make community. I wish my mother, lost in a world misshapen by Alzheimers, had been able to drum. She’d have drummed her anger until she felt empowered again, strong, and oh, so loud.
Someday, I think I’ll go drum. I’d like it to be with a community of people of all ages. I’d like some of them to be wonderful musicians. It would be another world, like meditation, but big and noisy.
Many years ago, in the middle of a project about the pillaging of the earth by various coal companies, I worried that America wasn’t America and never had been. There was no “shining city on a hill,” only a country with good and bad, strength and weakness, justice and injustice. It’s a fascinating country and one I love but, contrary to the nation’s odd array of Republican debaters, I’m not sure that it’s a country God loves better than any other.
That’s when I realized that America is a dream–sometimes almost realized, often not. Patriotism is not an unconsidered devotion to “my country, right or wrong,” but an allegiance to a dream and the work to to realize it.
Langston Hughes had already said it in the 1930s, and said it powerfully. Most of my readers are probably familiar with this poem, but it, more than most – and especially now – bears repeating.
Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
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.
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.”.
I’m not at home this week and so I’m making short, pithy posts. No running on and on as I tend to do. Just things that caught my imagination and made me think.
Today’comes from a woman on public radio. I was on my way from one place to another and she’s not someone whose name I remember, but someone city-bred, the daughter of a gangster, she had lived most of her life among people busily and professionally breaking the law. Sounded tough.
I was startled when she talked suddenly about God. “A God of your own understanding,” she said. Of course, I thought, it must always be a God of your own understanding. But what a perfectly wonderful way to express it.
And what will that God feel like and look like? Sound like?
Looking at people following people, as I did in my last post, I was reminded of another empathetic follower.
When I was much, much younger, I was caught up in the youthful works of Rainer Maria Rilke, and especially the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I think what I loved most about Rilke was the depth of his empathy. I’ve never forgotten the following excerpt. It’s a little long but, I think, worth it.
The narrator, out for a walk on the streets of turn-of-the century Paris, notices a group of waiters pointing and laughing together at something or someone ahead of him.
I expected, as soon as my eye had room, to see some unusual and striking figure; but it turned out there was no one walking ahead of me save a tall, emaciated man in a dark overcoat and with a soft black hat on his short, faded blond hair. I made sure there was nothing laughable about this man’s clothing or behavior, and I was already trying to look beyond him down the boulevard, when he stumbled over something. As I was following close behind him, I was on my guard, but when the place came there was nothing there, absolutely nothing. We both walked on, he and I, the distance between us remaining the same.
Now came a street-crossing, and there the man ahead of me hopped down from the sidewalk with uneven legs, somewhat as children walking now and again hop or skip, when they are happy. On the other side of the crossing he simply made one long step up. But no sooner was he there when he drew up one leg a little and hopped on the other, once, high, and immediately again and again. This time too one could quite well have taken the abrupt movement for a stumble, had one persuaded oneself that some small object lay there, a pip, a slippery fruit peel, anything; and the strange thing was that the man himself appeared to believe in the presence of an obstacle, for he turned round every time and looked at the offending spot with that half-annoyed, half reproachful air people have at such moments. Once again something warned me to take the other side of the street, but I did not obey and continued to follow this man, fixing my whole attention on his legs.
I must admit I felt singularly relieved when for some twenty steps this hopping did not recur, but when I then raised my eyes I noticed that something else had begun to annoy the man. The collar of his overcoat had stood up, and try as he would to pat it down again, fussing now with one hand, now with both at once, he did not succeed. That happens. It didn’t bother me. But then I perceived with boundless astonishment that in this person’s busy hands there were two movements: one a rapid, secret movement, with which he covertly flipped the collar up, and that other movement, elaborate, prolonged, as if exaggeratedly spelled out, which was meant to put it down. This observation disconcerted me so much that two minutes passed before I realized that in the man’s neck, behind his hunched-up overcoat and the nervous activity of his hands, was the same horrible, bisyllabic hopping which had just left his legs.
From that moment I was bound to him. I understood that this hopping impulse was wandering about his body, trying to break out here and there. I understood why he was afraid of people, and I myself began cautiously to test whether passers-by noticed anything. A cold stab went through my back when his legs suddenly made a slight, jerking spring, but no one saw it, and I thought out the plan of myself stumbling a little in case anyone began to notice. That would certainly be one way of making the curious believe that some small, inconspicuous obstacle really had been lying in the road, on which both of us had happened to tread. But, while I reflected on helping, he had himself discovered a new and excellent expedient. I forgot to mention that he carried a stick, well, it was an ordinary stick, made of dark wood with a smooth curved handle. And in his searching anxiety, the idea that occurred to him of holding this stick against his back, at first with one of his hands (for who knew what the other might yet be needed for?) right along his spine, pressing it firmly into the small of his back, and thrusting the curved end under his collar so that one felt it hard and like a support behind the cervical and the first dorsal vertebra. This attitude was not striking, at most a little cocky, the unexpected spring day might excuse that. No one thought of turning round to look, and now all went well. Wonderfully well. It is true that at the next crossing two hops got out, two little, half-suppressed hops, but they didn’t amount to anything; and the only really visible leap was so cleverly managed (a hose-line lay right across the street) that there was nothing to be afraid of. Yes, things were still going well; from time to time the other hand also seized the stick and pressed it in more firmly, and at once the danger was again overcome.
I could do nothing to keep my anxiety from growing nevertheless. I knew that as he walked and made ceaseless efforts to appear indifferent and absentminded, that awful jerking was accumulating in his body; in me, too, was the anxiety which he felt growing and growing, and I saw how he clung to his stick, when the jolting began inside him. The expression of his hand then became so severe and unrelenting that I placed all my hope in his will, which was bound to be strong. But what could a will do here. The moment must come when the man’s strength would be exhausted; it could not be long now. And I, walking behind him with quickly-beating heart, I put my little strength together like money, and gazing at his hands, I besought him to take it if he needed it.
I believe that he took it; how could I help the fact that it was not more.
At the Place Saint-Michel there were many vehicles and people hurrying hither and thither, we were several times held up between two carriages, and then he would take a breath and let himself go a little, by way of rest, and there would be a slight hopping and a little nodding. Perhaps that was the ruse by which the imprisoned malady sought to get the better of him. His will had given way at two points, and the concession had left behind in the obsessed muscles a gentle, enticing stimulation and this compelling two-beat rhythm. But the stick was still in its place, and the hands looked annoyed and angry. In this fashion we set foot on the bridge, and all was well. All was well.
But now his gait became noticeably uncertain; sometimes he ran two steps, sometimes he stood still. Stood still. His left hand gently let go the stick and rose, rose, so slowly that I saw it tremble against the air; he thrust his hat back a little, and drew his hands across his brow. He turned his head slightly, and his gaze wavered over sky, houses and water, without grasping anything. And then he gave in. His stick had gone, he stretched out his arms as if to take off and fly, and there broke out of him a sort of elemental force that bent him forward and dragged him back and made him nod and bow, flinging dance-force out of him in among the crowd.
For already many people were around him, and I saw him no more.