Musica celestis

The following was inspired by a captivating performance by the Chiara Quartet on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017 at their recital “Heavenly Voices.” The second half of the program consisted entirely of Aaron Jay Kernis‘ 50-minute work, “String Quartet No. 1: ‘Musica celestis'”. It was one of the most intense musical experiences I have had in recent memory. I was utterly and irrevocably changed. I can only hope that you may experience the same.

Mvt. I
An uneasy dance
between earth and sky,
heaven and hell.

A constant shuffling
since the dawn of time—
Not always heard—
but always felt.

Scratching at the edge
of consciousness,
Not quite unpleasant—
yet always unsettled.

Its strains have ever been
and will be ever after.

Mvt. II
The sun, it rises
through mountains grey
Cutting through the dark
of morning’s chill,
the life of verdant Spring
but a distant memory.

The rays catch a tear
falling down your cheek,
Night’s loss still too near to bear

And yet the light shines
from your face,
Hope lifting again a heart
weighed with care

As shadows vanish,
so death rescinds—
another day is born.

Mvt. III
In an improbable forest
dressed in fall
Comes two scallywags,
in an improbably stroll

Mozart, with deftness,
prances and tarries,
Stirring the leaves
in this sanctuary

While Bartok, whose feet
are caught in a jig,
with melodies effusing
from their harmonious rig:

Stately, yet folksy,
heavenly profane,
Won’t you come by
and dance again?

Mvt. IV
Frantically, desperately,
forever searching
for resolution —
starting, stopping, dashing
to cure

An insatiable yearning,
ever upward-turning
to find what has only been waiting,
breathlessly, patiently:

In your very heart,
Your Celestial Swansong!
Guiding your earthly footsteps
with heaven’s own grace

Leading you through
the paths you must follow,
Teaching you to sing
even in life’s sorrows.

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The Witching Hour

Witching_hour

In the Witching Hour
the clock strikes Three
As rain falls, dripping,
from the eaves,
While wiser eyes
close to the dark,
And against night’s creaks
with dreams embark.

In my Witching Hour
images glare—
Of Murder, Guilt,
Pain and Despair,
Haunting our hearts—
the ones who care—
Vacant, from those
with pow’rs to bear

Us from ourselves,
our freedom-lust
Snapping the weave of
our world’s trust.

Where do you turn
when Silver speaks
Louder than the
screams of Legions?
Where do you turn
when Reason’s voice
Is brazenly shamed
into silence?

The End Times—A Review

ichthyosaur

Can you imagine being the first to discover the ichthyosaur? Even better: can you imagine being the first to discover an ichthyosaur before anyone even knew dinosaurs existed?

It might be the current socio-political and economic climate. It might be that the world is getting smaller every day—and humanity’s darker side clambers to the top of every news feed. Not to mention the preponderance of earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires blazing across the land these days. It might also just be a strikingly odd coincidence that several books I’ve dived into recently have centered on natural history—and how it all points to our own eventual demise.

No, it’s not time to build a nuclear fallout shelter. (Not that that isn’t a good idea to begin with.) But we, as a people, have discovered troubling ripples fanning out across the animal kingdom, etched in the earth’s geological strata, and even stretching out into the future—including us, at its pinnacle. These discoveries come to us thanks to our development of rigorous studies in biology, natural history, and genetics.

It all began while I was working in the stacks of our local university’s orchestra music library. While digging through stacks of Stravinsky, mountains of Mendelssohn, and bundles of Brahms, I listened to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. For better or worse, the title led me to expect a treatise on humanity’s sociopolitical and cultural history, boiled down to fifteen hours of audio. I should probably get better at reading book synopses.

A Short History took me down a very different historical path, via biology and the earth sciences. With this unexpected detour, I found a new set of lenses to observe the world around me and discovered a new way of understanding our place in history—and perhaps more importantly, our blunders and ego-filled attempts to ascribe it.

In Western Europe, this understanding shifted radically from the likes of Cuvier (and his fossil collection), Lyell (and his theory of gradual geological change), and Mendel (and his discovery of units of heredity using… pea plants?*). At one time, we believed the world around us to be immutable and permanent; every creature had its place in the world and was perfectly formed to live it in. God, it was reasoned, was incapable of making faulty creations. Thus, everything that is, was, and ever will be appeared at the moment of creation, of genesis. The world around us was created for our enjoyment, benefit, and sustenance.

sweet peas
Who knew the humble pea would lead to the discovery of heredity—and a century-long fascination with eugenics and genetic purity? (Yes, I’m talking about Nazis. Bad logic warps good ideas in horrendous ways.)

This line of thought broke down with mankind’s population explosion after the eighteenth century. As humanity burst beyond their borders, explorers “discovered” new territories, bringing with them death and destruction wherever they roamed. Small colonies was more than enough to wipe out indigenous creatures, having lived for millennia without man’s influence. It was almost a joyous occasion from the settler’s point of view: in a strange new land, they discovered creatures who had no fear of man (or means to defend against them). In the span of decades, entire species disappeared. Slowly, it became obvious that god’s creation was not immutable. (While everyone points to the dodo, I find the Great Auk is a similarly classic and tragic example of such a careless case of extinction.)

Great Auk
Weirdest hobby ever: sailing out at odd hours to kill the last of a bird species in the middle of Scottish waters. It really happened.

Even as mankind effortlessly wreaked havoc on abroad, scientists and intellectuals at home bickered over whether the world was shaped by catastrophic forces (the Cuvier school) or by gradual ones (a la Lyell).

What becomes obvious in following this intellectual evolution** is that man tries very, VERY hard to wedge the facts into his own preconceptions. We are very skilled at fabricating meaning and relationships out of nothing—and subsequently pigeonholing everything that follows after right back into this cobbled framework, like endless round pegs into square holes. Simply listen to these interviews done by Vice with white supremacists at Charlottesville; it becomes apparent very quickly that we will do anything necessary in order to protect our own worldview, no matter how riddled with holes and inconsistencies it may be.

This becomes even more troubling as we consider how we are still wreaking havoc across the planet. The Sixth Extinction explores this havoc, giving a gripping play-by-play of the development of natural history and paleontology into their current-day forms, all while recounting the stories of numerous species either on the brink or over the edge of extinction. (I seriously got a little teary-eyed at the bit regarding white-nose syndrome in bats in North America. Seriously, what did they do to deserve such devastation?***)

little brown bat
There are estimates that 80% of bats in the US Northeast have died from outbreaks of white nose syndrome—a fungus which causes bats to use up more energy than usual while hibernating, They literally starve to death. Where did the fungus come from? Europe, where their bats are already resistant. It likely jumped the pond from human activities.

It quickly becomes obvious that the world around us is constantly changing—and we are vastly capable of changing it. Questions arise as we as a species continue to grow and wipe out ever-greater shares of the biodiversity around us (and subtly shifting the makeup of our oceans and atmospheres). Yes, a species’ first prerogative is to be fruitful and propser—but at what cost?**** When is destruction of the world around us “natural”, and when is it needless?

What becomes obvious is that there are many forces at work in our world, and any time we consider any of its events to be sudden, inexplicable, or inevitable, we simply haven’t studied or paid attention long enough to understand the actual processes taking place.***** Even disasters are simply the tipping-point of long and slow processes. It is vitally important, however, whether we decide to continue exploring these mechanisms and how their interrelationships shape the world around us—or continue to pigeonhole the facts into convenient mindsets. Just because we do not understand it yet does not mean it will forever be inexplicable.

Besides, we’re human. Figuring out how things work is what we do.

###

*Trust me, this humble-sounding experiment (and its even humbler husbandman) was the unassuming spark that began the wildfire into genetic study and inquiry.

**It is probably more apt to compare this evolution as an all-out war between different schools of thought. Darwin, originally an understudy and close friend of Lyell, was cast out after the publication of his seminal The Origin of Species. Science circles can be so fickle.

***Luckily, we’ve found a cure for our flying, furry friends. Long live batsy.

****It’s really not very hard to cause a major extinction event. Even bacteria can do it.

******Seriously, we used to believe that cancer was caused solely by viruses, and that we could find a “cancer penicillin”. That was within the last sixty years. What will we learn in the next sixty?

An Impossible Grain

When time is ticking
and life is slipping —
flowing without restraint

Your heart is empty,
your soul is draining —
For what is there to wait?

The sun is shining,
the world is smiling —
for them it is a game

My feet are stumbling
my mouth is stuttering
as along I try to play.

A broken shard
is what you are
forever without a home

And so you slash
your heart against
your own impossible grain.

Word by Word: A Review

Can everyone just think for a moment about how wonderful words are?

A jack of all trades, our humble tongue bends at our every whim to classify, qualify, and gratify our expressive needs. Some craftsmen create expository labyrinths, as dense and impenetrable as the thickest of New England fogs. (I’m looking at you, Hawthorne.) Others simplify—nearly to the breaking point. (Cummings.)

But how do we know what these words mean—and not only that, but that they are being used in the right way? Who makes certain that “impact” is used correctly (never a noun!)—besides furious English teachers everywhere? Who decides how words should—or, more importantly, shouldn’t—be used?

Many would point to the dictionary, that long-established cornerstone of the literary world. Where else would you find such a holy tome explicitly classifying with exactitude and brevity the acceptable meanings and uses of every word in the English language? Where else will you discover that “inveterate” is a stand-in for “habitual”? (Which should never be confused for “invertebrate”—although you can likely say that “His inveterate lying showed him to be an invertebrate.”)

In the onslaught on inveterate vs. invertebrate, its/it’s, impact: noun or verb?, dictionaries are our eternal stalwarts, keeping watch over our doddering tongue.

Or are they?

Enter Kory Stamper, my new favorite author. She just published her first book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, in March of this year. And boy, is it a page-turner. (No sarcasm here.)

I not only enjoyed a beautiful and witty exposé into Merriam-Webster’s inner workings, but also discovered a kindred spirit and word-lover. Stamper, a true wordophile, draws us into the quiet halls of Merriam-Webster; here, you can physically feel the concentration of dozens of editors and lexicographers as they glean the meaning of every word used in print. This, naturally, requires that everyone is quietly reading.

Yes, you read that right: this is a world where you are paid to read. To read! Magazines, articles, books, journals, correspondence—if it’s in English, it’s fair game for consideration as part of the next dictionary edition.

I must confess: I think this might be my next profession (unless it dies out first.) I am likely one of .5% of the population who reads absolutely anything and everything, no matter what the content. I can’t help it. How can you tell your brain to just stop reading… everything? Letters, cereal boxes, bus ads, newsprint… My parents teased I would even read ketchup packets if they were within reach. (What else are you supposed to do while eating your McNuggets? Talk to your classmates?)

And how else do you learn what words mean, short of reading the dictionary? Context give words meaning. People give words meaning. And lexicographers  boil it all down into a single, short, and sweet definition:

in·cred·i·ble \(ˌ)in-ˈkre-də-bəl\ adj : too extraordinary and improbable to be believed <making incredible claims>

Someone sat down, looked at every use of incredible in (nearly) every magazine, book, and article—and came up with that definition. Isn’t that just incredible?

However, there is a dark side to this coin. Everyone believes dictionaries to be a voice of authority on language. Which, by all rights, dictionaries themselves have been touting ever since the early 19th-century dictionary wars.

(Yes, they are a real thing. Capitalism makes liars of us all—even us language lovers.)

There’s just one problem with that claim.

Dictionaries craft definitions by capturing a language as it is being used, out in the wild. They do not hold any scruples about someone using ain’t. (Look it up now—it’s definitely in there!) And yes, an entry exists of “impact” as a noun. (Le gasp!)

This is not because lexicographers know nothing of proper grammar or parts of speech. Far from it: they had to sit down and decipher impact was being used as a noun in the first place—and decide if it was common enough to merit an entry.

Dictionaries aren’t holding a ruler over your head, beating you on the shoulders for forgetting the proper possessive for “it”. They are taking snapshots. Snapshots of everything you say. That we say. That our language says. Measuring its tiny tectonic shifts, from one generation to the next. Our language has been centuries in the making.

And our dictionary friends are keeping its photo albums.

~~~

(Seriously. Go out and buy it/lend it/read it today. Word by Word by Kory Stamper. You can check out her blog as well—my fellow word nerds won’t regret it!)

Beneath the Pond

Everything was gray.
 
A pallid sky, heavy with clouds, mirrored the snowy landscape. A single tree broke the scene, its leafless arms bending over a lifeless pond.
 
Stepping closer, there appeared two — no, three — more figures beneath the tree. One paced worriedly on its thick-soled boots, etching tight circles in the fresh snow. The other knelt a few paces away, stooping down to a small, prone bundle at the base of the tree.
 
Heaving sobs emanated from the mother as she paced, choking out directions to a distant ambulance over her cell. The husband, his brow knit with worry, knelt down again to the wet bundle. A path glistened from the pair to a gash in the pond’s surface.
 
A pale child’s face, no more than seven, appeared as the father’s trembling hands compressed her chest. He drew his mouth to hers again, forcing steaming air into her still lungs.
 
The mother kept crying, the father kept pressing, the child kept silent.
 
It wasn’t that she stopped breathing.
 
She had forgotten how.
***
 
An eternal thirty minutes before, the girl was walking towards the tree. “Towards” is a bit of a stretch here, as she meandered in every direction — visiting a mountainous snowdrift here, bidding a sparkling, snowy bush a good day there — paying homage to every landmark now transformed with shining ice and snow.
 
She giggled as she ran along, stuffing her pockets full of marvelous treasures: frozen juniper berries, the odd pinecone, and dozens of ice-crusted leaves and needles deemed too lovely to leave behind. The air stung her cheeks as she ran about the biggest place in the whole wide world: the sprawling fields and hills surrounding her grandparent’s countryside home.
 
Following a narrow pathway in the snow, she came upon the tall tree by the pond. The somber scene detracted little from her excitement — she sprinted along the shore as she eagerly sought precious, smooth stones. The wind whistled in the tree’s branches, stiffly clattering over her hurried footsteps.
 
Gathering up her newfound treasures (her pockets were frozen stiff), she turned to go back — hesitating by the edge of icy pond. Fear flitted across her face. She was a whole seven years old now, and didn’t quite believe her father’s stories of monsters under the water’s surface. She didn’t quite not believe him, either. Gathering herself, she clenched her fists and held her breath, inching towards the water’s edge and daring to peek into its solid depths.
 
She stared wide-eyed. Her heart pounded in her chest as time slowed to a crawl. After a moment of utter stillness, she burst with relief, absolutely certain nothing below was looking back. Growing bolder, she edged out onto the ice. Her arms tingled while butterflies fluttered in her stomach, floating above the darkness.
 
Moments stretched into minutes, and she waited. For something. Anything. The butterflies slowly subsided, her fingers and legs now numb and tired with cold. She turned to make her way back home. But wait — a flash! Twisting back, she hurriedly fell down to the ice, straining to catch the movement again. 
 
Staring intently, she suddenly realized the pond was not frozen at all. Underneath her mittened hands, there were plants, and fish, and creatures of all kinds — and they were all moving!
 
And with that, the ice cracked.
 
***
The world had gone silent. She fell deeper and deeper into the pond, the pale surface disappearing as she sank. She waved her arms furiously and kicked, flailing against the water as it pulled her under. Her chest burned, a pounding rising in her ears. Grabbing her throat, she gasped wildly for air.
 
Only she did not drown. Shock turned to relief, her heartbeat slowing, her breath easing — but she wasn’t really breathing, you really can’t underwater — and looked about this strange new world.
 
Am I a fish? she wondered. She looked at her hands and wriggled her fingers — her mittens had floated away. No, I am definitely still a girl. She lifted her gaze, marveling at the thin streams of sunlight as they penetrated the deep, dark blue of the pond around her. Only calling it a pond would be like calling the Seven Seas a puddle. She was floating in the largest expanse she had ever seen. The depths stretched endlessly around her.
 
And yet she was not afraid. I am welcome here
 
With a kick, she darted away into the expanse. The pond teemed with life — forests of kelp swayed lazily as she swam by, revealing timid schools of fish and docile, mammoth-like squids. Forests of sea anemones and magnificent coral reefs begged to be explored — and explore them she did! Juniper berries and polished stones were forgotten as she discovered whales, starfish, and sea horses. 
 
The waters went on forever, yet she was not afraid. She was one with this vastness, and it was one with her. Everything that was, that is, that ever would be was in these shadowy depths with her. The universe filled her young mind. 
 
And then it happened. A shot of ice stabbed into her heart. Her chest tightened again, the ringing in her ears beginning their crescendo. The icy grip extended to her shoulders as she flailed, the deep, icy blue disappearing below her as she rose faster and faster towards the surface.
 
Suddenly she saw the gray sky again, the sunlight dimmed with low-hanging clouds. She felt the solid ground beneath her as she watched her mother, sobbing and endlessly pacing, while her father rhythmically pushed against her ribcage.
 
She stared silently into the gray sky. She wasn’t breathing. She had forgotten how.
 
***
Spring had come to the fields. Long tufts of grass waved ceaselessly while large clouds sailed overhead, dotting the landscape with shadow and light.
 
She walked the same path as she had, six years ago. The dirt path was overgrown now, requiring some care to find one’s way. The tree loomed in the distance — it was as tall and spindly as ever, now graced with fitful sprigs of green, tossed about by the constant wind.
 
Her sandals crunched on the pebbly shore. Her long, auburn curls whipped about as her eyes  reconstructed the play. My mother paced there, she thought. My father knelt there… and there I was.
 
It was a graveyard without a marker. Her parents parted ways that day. Her grandparents had since passed, the house behind her boarded up and sold as she stood here, taking in the scene one last time.
 
Slowly she walked towards the shoreline, the light playing on its rippled surface. She still didn’t believe her father’s stories. They were hers now.
 
Holding her breath, she edged into the pond. The chilly depths sent prickles across her skin, making her shiver in the hot noonday sun. She edged further, arms lifted, waiting to enter the depths. A large inhale, and she plunged beneath the surface.
 
The water rushed in her ears as she dove in. Her chest began to burn as the water pushed her up towards the surface, keeping her from diving deeper. She struggled against it, clumsily swimming against its pull. Chest tightening, she finally opened her eyes. Her heart sank at what she saw: dusty motes hung in the water, obscuring the sun’s journey to the rocky pond floor. No plants, no creatures were to be seen. 
 
She shot up towards the surface, breaking into the sunlight and gasping for air. The water continued to hoist her up as she made her way to the shore, coughing and gasping on all fours. Sitting back on her heels, she looked back at the scene under the tree. There her father, there her mother, and there she…
 
She reached into her pocket, gingerly pulling out a small starfish. Your fingers were clutching it pretty tightly, her father’s voice echoed. It’s a starfish. Where did you get that?
 
Her shoulders shook gently as she tried to hold it in. Big girls don’t cry. Big girls shouldn’t cry. Big girls…
 
She covered her face with her hands, her body racked with sobs. She cried for her father. She cried for her mother. She cried for her grandmother and grandfather.
 
But most of all, she cried for the world beneath the pond.

The Song Within Me

clarinet

I have a music problem.

You see, I have studied music for quite a long time. I’ve spent more time in music lessons than with my own mother. My music stand knows me better than my boyfriend. And a single sliver of wood from my clarinet likely carries enough of my genetic material to create my own clone.

But for all of that, I have never created my own music.

Now, that isn’t such a surprising thing. In a post-Mendelssohn society, with its primary focus on music reproduction rather than production, it should not come as a shock that a large number of musicians are not composers. Technique reigns supreme. Dissertations and theses on improvisational techniques, proper embouchure, acceptable phrasing, and valid musical interpretation abounds. Music accepted into the lexicon places its composer before all: all must bow before his wishes (whatever they were to begin with).

To get ahead musically, you must do so in the proper way. You must sound just so. You must play just so. You must perform just so. Everything is predetermined, nothing left to chance. (By the way, could you make that Ab a shade less staccatissimo? And you’re also way, way sharp. Is your reed too hard/soft/new/old/chipped/dry/wet?)

I love music. Anyone who knows me knows how often I break out into song. Every moment is another sound. A simple word or cadence spins off into symphonies.

And yet I have never created music. Somewhere along the way, I felt I wasn’t good enough. Not good enough to write. Not good enough to create. Not good enough to even have my own interpretation.

The anxiety is overwhelming. I hold my clarinet in my hands, and the storm begins: Am I holding it right? How is my embouchure? That was a lousy breath. Oh, what a cruddy sound. So flat. Ugh. I didn’t even articulate properly. How am I going to play anything? Oh, just flubbed that arpeggio. Told ya. Can’t do it. Nope.

More often than not, the paralysis begins before I even hold the horn. I won’t be able to do this. Not today. Not ever.

How can anyone create within such suffocation?

ukulele

It’s true: it’s impossible to play a sad song on a ukulele. That, and pineapples.

The other day, I took in my hand likely the simplest (and understated) instrument on the market: the ukulele. Yes, start making fun of me now. I still can’t play much more than a handful of chords. And anything more complicated than that? Out of the question!

… but strangely enough, the music has started coming. Unfamiliar frets underneath my hands, I feverishly try to pen out chords and melodies. There is no fear. There is no apprehension. There is nothing but curiosity. What once was barred, is now free. I can write. I can sing. I can create.

I am free.