Bach, like life, is so many things

WQXR in New York City is doing Bach 360 from now ‘til Easter. That means all Bach every day. It’s all wonderful and amazing. Bach is always so many more kinds of music and experience than I remember.

At the same time, I discovered two very different experiences of the composer’s music. The one is recounted on the WQXR website. At Stalin’s funeral in 1953, Sviatoslav Richter, one of the century’s greatest pianists, was asked to play the piano. He chose the longest and densest prelude and fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The authorities tried again and again to interrupt him to make way for another pianist, but Richter, involved in the music, could not be distracted. He was finally removed bodily by armed soldiers, certain he would be shot.

Then I ran into the very different experience of another very different musician:

“For the past eight years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning to me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, and a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.”

–  Pablo Casals, Joys and Sorrows, at the age of 93


A fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier

The extraordinary old

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!

Tony Bennett in 2003. Photo by Tom Beetz. Permission from Creative Commons.

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.

Magda Olivera at 100

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.

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.



It seems that every once in a while in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I discover another amazing musical experience. This one took place at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a lovely jewel of a place on the border with Quebec. Downstairs there’s a library whose stacks are mostly on the Canadian side of the border, but whose reading room with its high windows is on the American; upstairs there’s a theater whose stage is in Canada while most of the audience sits in the United States. It was the perfect setting for a concert by Choromondo, a choir made up of women from both countries, singing songs from over 30 countries. Plaster cupids watched from the ceiling. Border police watched from the outside.


Judy Carpenter, one of their Vermont members, is the mother of Leah, who was the star of a kid-created historical play of many years ago that I helped produce for the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, Vermont. The daughter was a delight and a joy, and still fits that description as far as I can tell. And so does her mother.

Judy and I run into each other now and again, and the question “How are you?” almost always elicits excited comments about Choromondo, which I had never heard of and knew nothing about. But here I was, finally, in the audience,  marveling at twenty-five or more women of every age and physical description, each dressed in her own many-colored costume, each with her own special relationship to the music.

They rehearse once a week from September to June. The songs become part of them, and while they pay close attention to the style and meaning of each one, both the music and the musicians are changed in the singing. They sang in Hebrew, Croatian, Bulgarian, the tongues of Native Americans and Africans, Spanish, Acadian, Sami and many more. Every introduction to a song was given in both French and English. I wondered how it felt to have all those sounds in your mouth, changing the way your tongue felt and the shape of your breath. I’m sure that they thought about the meaning of every word, even when the word was no word but a sound. All the nuances of love songs, battle songs, dirges and lullabies – our worlds expanded.

Choromondo was started by the Canadian musician/composer Allyna Harris in 1999. The choir has sung benefit concerts for farmers in East Timor, flood victims in Mozambique and orphans in India and Bangladesh. The night we attended benefited the Haskell Library. The women sang for world peace in a place where people have dreamed of more neighborhood between Canada and the United States, and sometimes achieved it. 911 changed all that. The barriers have been raised instead.


In the Haskell Opera House, Canadians and Americans helplessly made border jokes. But in this small, odd theater embracing two countries, on a lovely June evening, no matter what the border police said or did, Choromondo turned us all into world citizens.

The world as soundscape

My computer has been disabled-again-this time for nearly five days–but while the digital universe was silent, there was music, and especially last Friday night at a Warebrook concert where a flautist graced the stratosphere; a tenor declared love in German—and when the German is Richard Strauss speaking of love, it is most definitely about love; and the tenor returned to reinterpret life according to Vachel Lindsay, William Butler Yeats and local composer, Sara Doncaster. This is not to discount the delightful Irish tunes arranged by John Corigliano and rendered by the flautist and a perfect soprano. As they say, and with truth, you had to be there!

Sounds, especially organized sounds, make life so worth living.

Which brings me to the review by Jeremy Denk of “The Great Animal Orchestra, Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places,” by Bernie Krause.
We’ve all heard how nature sounds, some of us from walking in a meadow or sitting quietly in the woods, listening. Others of us from playing one of those audio tranquilizers for the sleepless. But Bernie Krause has been listening for decades, making recordings and archiving wild soundscapes:

Krause offers endless odes to sonic nuances: the timbres of waves crashing on the world’s beaches, the echo effects brought on by dew, the acoustics of night and day, the dry, hot rattles of deserts, the way baboons bounce their voices off granite outcropping, to send them deep into the forest.

He’s examined the many uses of sound in nature—from mating and hunting to self-defense and the marking of territory—all those and more. He’s listened to a wooded landscape before it was logged (selectively), and after, and while its devastation was difficult to see, it wasn’t hard to hear. He’s come to a fascinating conclusion: that “the healthier the habitat, the more ‘musical’ the creatures, the richer and more diverse their scores. Sound complexity is a measure of health.”

Often, sound is social. For example, he describes spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators about the location of any one individual. A jet soars overhead and the toads get out of sync. Their auditory shelter is temporarily lost and hawks swoop down, able now to locate individual singers.

Suddenly music, sound, has a deeper dimension and one more intimate to our earth and vital to its survival. Friday night’s concert was far more than it seemed. I already knew the lyrics contained birds and moonlight. I could hear that.  But the music and all of the earth’s soundings are kin. Listening is a far more delicate and ambitious task than I’d thought.

Learning about “maths”

Arithmetic has always been a problem for me. I understood the practical reasons for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and got through them despite the dull repetition of it, but when I reached the age for algebra and geometry, I was totally bewildered. No one explained to my satisfaction why I should know any of those abstruse formulas and odd lot symbols. Engineers and architects, maybe. But me, the perpetual English and philosophy student?

When I got to college, I found out about logic, which in those days was a very important part of the study of philosophy. So central in most college programs that I left the field. Nonetheless, even though I wasn’t much good at it, I came to like it and to understand, from that perspective, that mathematics was much more important than I’d thought. I have a vague memory of listening in a San Francisco living room to a mathematician to whom higher mathematics contained the secret of the holy grail. I came to understand that it was a way of describing the universe—the universe as it was understood centuries ago, and today. For many who worked in mathematics, it was a spiritual thing. If I’d known that when I was a kid, who knows what I might have learned—or at least wanted to learn?


I also began to understand that music is mathematical, and how could I not love it then, even if from a great distance?

The other day, I ran into the oddest article in Prospect Magazine, a United Kingdom publication. Entitled, “Playing with infinity on Rikers Island,” it’s about the author’s relationship to mathematics. “I had strong anti-mathematical and sentimental leanings as a child,” writes David McConnell. “Maths seemed to reduce pretty things like the moon and roses to ugly things like orbital periods and Mendelian tables.” I was only later that he had the revelation that mathematics was “pure thought.”

As an adult he found himself teaching prisoners and school dropouts who were working for their GEDs. When one of his students admired him as he struggled with a clumsy mathematical problem, because, unlike other teachers she’d known, he didn’t pretend “to know everything,” he writes:

I said it wasn’t the knowledge itself that was valuable—although she was going to have to master enough for her GED—it was, as my history teacher used to insist, the habit of thinking clearly.

I demonstrated this by showing her a habit I had when adding columns of numbers on a piece of scratch paper. Pen in hand, I wrote the digits in a column and made a bold line underneath,. I ‘added’ this way: I tapped the point of my pen on the paper the number of times represented by the digit I wanted to add. With ‘3’ I tapped the three points of the written Arabic numeral. With 4’ and ‘5’ I tapped four or five imaginary sections of each numeral. With numbers like “7” I tapped a little figure of dots off to the side.

As she watched my monkey-like literalness, my student appeared to doubt me as a math teacher. I argued that this was a primitive but pretty way of thinking mathematically. With my taps I was drawing the numerals out in time and space. I was translating the numeric abstractions of the column of Arabic numerals into an intuitive, music-like beating of time, a 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1…..

And besides this music of time, I’d also produced the tiny geometric figures my tapped points formed. Simplistic as it appeared, here was the multidimensionality characteristic of mathematical understanding. My student, who was much more talented than I, was soon capable of finding other, beautiful mathematical relationships—some I hadn’t even noticed myself.”

Ah, if only I had had a teacher like that. Maths would have added whole new dimensions to my life!


It filled the Hall and pushed the walls out into the night and lifted the ceiling up to the night sky.

Two weeks ago I was listening to music that sounded something like this picture.

I was in the Glover Town Hall with maybe 150 other people at a benefit for a woman whose house burned to the ground not long after the New Year. Glover isn’t quite like other Vermont towns because Bread and Puppet, a politically left puppet theater, has been in residence here since the 1960s. In the beginning and for some years, the theater and much of the community were at odds, but today Bread and Puppet is pretty much just another neighbor. Because the victim of the fire had been active in the theater troupe, the show that night was especially rife with talent, but as much or more came from the town: a very old fiddler, a very young fiddler and her guitar-playing little brother, some very funny skits, the singing proprietor of the general store…..

It was one of those nights. Kids ran up and down the aisles; people hugged; they shared homemade doughnuts, cookies and stories. But the most remarkable event for me was the singing of the Sacred Harp.
Twenty years ago, when I first came to this part of the world, I heard my first Sacred Harp music. Not many years later I noticed that a few young people had joined Vermont singing groups and the music had begun to spread. But only begun. A few more years and a dozen or more people had joined Elka Schumann at Bread and Puppet and were singing together every month. But now, suddenly, on a snowy night in Town Hall, half of Glover seemed to be in the front of the room, singing full out, mouths wide open, Elka Schumann, the mother of Bread and Puppet, beating out the rhythm. It was a powerful, throbbing, raw sound. It was amazing.

America’s Sacred Harp music began in the churches of New England more than two centuries ago. Four-part, it is a cappella. Not even a pitch pipe is used. The only instrument is the “Sacred Harp”—the human voice. The singers read a music that consists in “shape notes.” The circles, triangles, rectangles and diamonds correspond with the notes of the scale. They provide visual cues to help everyone sing the intervals between notes.

The music began in England, and the first shape note music in this country was written and taught by teachers of singing schools. They had marvelous names like Supply Belcher (Maine), Ebeneezer Child (Vermont), Timothy Swan (Massachusetts), Justin Morgan (Vermont)…..  They were also shopkeepers, school teachers, local government functionaries, farmers—Justin Morgan, for example, is better known as the man who bred the Morgan horse. Not surprisingly, most of the music has a religious bent and was sung in churches.
Sacred Harp music disappeared in New England as another smoother, more formal and mostly more sentimental music replaced it. But it soon took root in the rural South, and by 1900, it thrived there.  By the 1920s and ’30s, folklorists began to notice it, and in the 1960s, New Englanders, and especially Vermonters, rediscovered it. Today, it has become popular across the country and singing conventions take place from Seattle to Boston to South Carolina.

In the Glover Town Hall, the music was driving, vital, very physical, very emotional. It filled the room and pushed the walls out into the night and lifted the ceiling up to the night sky.

In the March/April 2011 issue of Vermont Magazine, there are some wonderful comments from singers and listeners of Sacred Harp. Here are a few.

“When I first heard [Sacred Harp], it was like someone hitting me over the head with a frying pan. The four-part harmony just does something in your head.” After he (Paul Gauthier) traveled to a National Convention in Alabama: “It was a real revelation to sing with the old barrel-chested guys who have been singing all their life. It was like being in a pipe organ.”

“It’s very emotive, even cathartic—particularly with a number of people, their voices washing through me while I am singing. It’s a fantastic feeling.” (Ian Smiley)

“Singing loud and high—it’s a moving experience… it’s about life, eternity, the big questions–joy and grief.” (Chelsea Rose Sargent)

You can hear Sacred Harp singing on YouTube. Most of the performances are poorly recorded, but you’ll begin to understand it. And next thing you’ll be singing it.

Sacred Harp music from the songbook Northern Harmony

A God of your own understanding

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?








Now, it’s your turn….

Shared peace

Photo by Tony as part of the Commons: Wikipedia Takes Manhattan project, April 4, 2008.

On the Monday after the death of Bin Laden was announced, I was at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City immediately east of the 911 carnage. So odd—the old, old church (c.1764), where George Washington worshipped, survived without a scratch, not even to its graveyard where many of the city’s most prestigious historical characters are buried. (Though the organ did suffer some smoke damage.) The 911 site today is a construction site. On that particular Monday, the celebrations seemed to be ended, except for two men with crudely lettered signs praising the death of Bin Laden loudly and angrily as if there were someone among the milling tourists and lunchtime office workers arguing with them.

We’d made the date for the concert some time before Bin Laden’s death: it was one of three months of Bach cantatas and poetry on Mondays at 1:00. The violist was a niece and the date was purely fortuitous. The Bach cantata performed inside the chapel was a much more moving commemoration than that of the angry men outside. Not a celebration so much as a somber taking note, an honoring of the human beings who had been hurt by the man, a hope for a new beginning which is what we all hope for at times like these. “Grant us peace graciously, Lord God, in our time….” The young musicians and singers playing it seemed clear-eyed, like Bach’s music. They made it possible to believe in a world where “we might lead a quiet and peaceful life in all blessedness and honor.”

Two days later I heard a story that I won’t be able to repeat verbatim, but perhaps my mangled version of it will help to convey a point. My host was at a church event in Finland near the Arctic Sea where a Russian and an American discovered over dinner conversation that both had been on military submarines in the area. Then, the American had been hunting the Russian sub (or vice versa?) Now, here they were together in another time and place. The two men stood and saluted one another.

Aren’t we curious creatures? We wait for those moments of peace; we find them when we least expect them. My trip to New York from Vermont and back was by train. So wonderful to see the world in its back yards. Plastic toys in primary colors were encamped here and there. Those ubiquitous white plastic chairs and tables were set out for all the barbeques to come. In the woods, spring flowers bloomed. Warehouses and the flat, brown backs of shopping centers were groped by new weeds.

We came to a small village, pulling into a station where there seemed to be no one, and pulling out again. From a window a child who looked like he might have been Downs syndrome, and a woman (his mother?) waved eagerly at the train, the boy excited, the mother delighted. The train whistled its long, melancholy sound and most of the people on it and many the quarter-mile ahead and behind, remembered other train whistles and other times, fondly, gently. A shared moment like a Bach chorale or an unexpected salute.

Train Tracks. Photo by Jeremy Wayne. Flickr. Creative Commons.