This week, I had the chance to attend the Richard Ellman Lecture Series at Emory University. It is a four-part event, held biannually, that features a great literary thinker. The last presenter, Margaret Atwood, was wonderful, and I expected nothing less of this year’s speaker—Paul Simon.
He gave two lectures, had a public conversation with Billy Collins, and gave a concert to bring the event to a close. I had tickets to all parts except the concert (because they went like wildfire the morning they were released). But that didn’t matter because, during the conversation, I got to hear Billy Collins read five poems and Paul Simon sing three songs—“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Slip Slidin’ Away.”
I also briefly met both men after their time on stage was up, which was a thrill to say the least! And, despite the long, hectic day, they were wonderful and gracious and signed the stuff I stuck in front of them.
During their discussion of songwriting/poetry, they agreed that there is no moment in a piece of writing that is without consequence. As Mr. Collins said, “No line must sleep; every line must make a contribution.”
They went back and forth for the better part of an hour discussing exactly how to go about it (and how you could know you had accomplished this lofty goal.) However, the most interesting point for me was the “wildebeest note” example Mr. Simon gave.
Apparently, when he was recording “Rewrite,” a song on his 2011 album So Beautiful So What, a note at the end of a repeated phrase just sounded “wrong.” Not out of tune or a poor fit for the key, just flat out wrong. It sounded, according to him, “like a note being played on an acoustic guitar in a recording studio.”
That’s exactly what it was, but he wanted it to have an altogether different color, a distinctive depth of tone. So he said he thought on it for awhile and decided to blend that slightly pear-shaped note with a sound he had recorded on his last visit to Africa.
Yep, you guessed it….a wildebeest. There is a note in “Rewrite” that is part guitar and part wild animal, but for the life of me, I cannot hear it. Can you?
He went to amazing lengths to get a sound precisely correct. He labored over it for who knows how long until it resonated just the way he thought it should. My ears cannot suss it out, and had I not attended this lecture series, I wouldn’t even know to listen for it. But it’s there just the same.
That’s the kind of attention to detail that has to be present when we create anything, be it in the field of music, art, dance or writing. And it made me ask myself, “Am I always paying that much attention to the things I create? Have I settled for an almost-right word instead of going back to the thesaurus one more time? Have I gotten lazy with my sentence structure and gone for what’s safe instead of what’s best?”
Hearing Paul Simon tell this story made me realize that creating something from nothing is hard. I mean damned hard. But it’s also worth it. And with everything I write in the future, I’m going to ask myself if I can add a “wildebeest noise,” a certain element that makes the piece feel natural and beautiful. There will always be an element I can slyly place in my work to make it flow more organically without sounding forced. To be worth it, writing must be done to that level of painstaking detail. Always.
Can you tell me a way you’ve done it? Is there something you’ve added, some tweak you’ve made to a piece of art or a performance that made it perfect? Was it worth it even if you were the only one who knew it was there? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments. Lay it on me!
After many months, I have managed to create a poem….or something that might pass for one after several rounds of intense editing and good bit of tooth gnashing. I went to the High Museum here in Atlanta on the last day of the member preview of the new exhibit—Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis. It’s awesome to be able to enjoy the special exhibit with fewer people around. It was busy, but it wasn’t the bone-crushing crowd one usually finds there on a Saturday. I believe an individual membership is $65 or so. Totally worth it.
As always, the High has done a great job with this touring exhibit, and the big draw–Vermeer’s enigmatic masterpiece–has a room of her own. (It might not be exactly what Virginia Woolf had in mind, but I think she’d be pleased nonetheless.) Yes, an entire chamber of the special exhibit area is reserved for a painting no longer than my left arm. To me, it felt like she wasn’t so much on display as she was holding court, receiving a steady stream of visitors who wish to request an audience. The only other painting I’ve ever seen receive that kind of treatment is the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Fitting, since Vermeer’s lady has earned the nickname “The Dutch Mona Lisa” for her enigmatic gaze and mysterious backstory.
However, there are thirty-five other paintings to enjoy–everything from landscapes to portraits and tronies. I took my time perusing them, wanting to savor the quiet time in the museum and to examine each painting myself before listening to the audio clips on the virtual tour. I found myself looping back around to examine several paintings, none more so than the two works by Pieter Claesz, both Memento Mori pieces. I was particularly fascinated by the accuracy of the items in Vanitas (see below). I kept staring at the overturned glass thinking, “How in the heck do you paint GLASS? How do you use pigments to create something transparent?” Stunning stuff.
Eventually, I made my way around the corner and saw Vermeer’s only work in the collection, and it was positioned for full dramatic effect. Before it, viewers are educated in the art of Dutch portrait painting and the use of a Camera Obscura, and both Vermeer and his subject have brief bios posted for all to read.
But it all leads to the final room–a muted green sanctuary that houses just one painting. I must have spent twenty minutes examining it, and when my back and feet reminded me it was time to sit down, I plunked down happily on a padded bench at the back of the room. It was then that I noticed the lone guard. There were four or five more positioned throughout the exhibit, but he was the only one near the Vermeer painting. And I found myself fascinated by him. I wondered, “What’s it like to be the guard tasked with keeping a masterwork safe and unmolested by the world? He’s someone no one notices because they’re too busy looking at the thing he’s protecting.”
Well, that musing led to the poem I mentioned several paragraphs prior. Again, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve penned verse, so don’t expect too much. There’s still a lot of rust to shake off, but it felt good to be using that part of my brain again.
WordPress isn’t the best place to post poetry, so I’ve found that screen shots work. If this is hard to read, click on it. You should get a slightly larger version to peruse. Let me know your thoughts. And if you’ve already seen the exhibit, tell me what you thought!
Ooooh, a challenge this week to be sure! The Broke & the Bookish has tasked bloggers to select a top ten list in any genre we choose. Anything from biographies to graphic novels is fair game. Basically any list is fair game so long as the ten works are in the same sphere.
I thought about romances, swashbucklers, books made into films, fantasy, and any and every other kind of list out there, but all of them led me to the same twenty or so books. Naturally, I couldn’t turn in pablum for this week’s list, so I thought I’d try something different. Ladies and gents, I give you my top ten list for this week…
The Top Ten Books Featuring an Animal
Watchers by Dean Koontz—You have to love a book featuring a Golden Retriever that can talk and is being followed by an evil genetically enhanced monster who seeks to destroy him! I bet I’ve read this book five times in my life, and it still makes me giggle in places. Many of the dog’s lines are classics, and our family passes them around like candy corn at Halloween.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka—“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.” One of the best opening lines in fiction. He has a family who treats him like garbage, and when they’re asked to care for him the way he had for them, they show that they are the true low-life vermin. Such a heartbreaking piece…
Animal Farm by George Orwell—The first time I read this, I nearly lost my mind when Boxer died in the harness for a dream that was never intended for reality. Part political commentary, part Juvenalian satire—Orwell’s brilliant use of anthropomorphism is still unparalleled by any other work of fiction. It takes a harsh look at fascism in a way that makes it immediately accessible to younger readers.
Watership Down by Richard Adams—I’ll have to admit that I’ve never read this one in its entirety. However, I have taught snippets of it in creative writing classes and AP Literature test prep courses. It is quite literally on EVERY “animal book” list out there, confirming what I already know. I’ll likely be diving into this one before the month is out. (Hey! This will help me meet my “three classics quote” for the year!!!) The Lion, the Witch, and Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis—I cannot tell you how many times I got in trouble for reading books from this series underneath my desk when I should have been learning unessential stuff. You know…like math and geography. I hold Lewis responsible for my inability to complete algebraic equations or to find Ghana on a map. However, I can tell you anything you want to know about fauns, satyrs, centaurs, and any and all talking “normal” critters.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes—I actually read this one for the first time a few years ago before I taught it to middle schoolers. It’s a sad work to be sure, but man can it generate a great discussion about genetic manipulation, the right to life, individually, being made the way God intended, and other important topics. The students who read it with me were deeply emotionally impacted by this work; it made them more kind to others and more cognizant of how they treated people.
Cujo by Stephen King—I’ll be the first to say that Stephen King’s epic works (The Stand, Cell, The Dark Tower), the ones that are vast in scope are my favorite. However, they are not the most terrifying of his works. The small scale horror pieces, usually the ones that could plausibly take place, are the most unnerving. I’m thinking works like this one (normally gentle giant dog turned hound of hell), Misery (crazed fan controls you in total isolation), and The Shining (father hits rock bottom with alcohol in a nearly abandoned hotel) are truly gut wrenching.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot—There’s something so appealing about this little tome. Perhaps it’s because most of Eliot’s work is heavy and ponderous, caught up in the darker half of humanity, but the rhyming whimsy of this piece always makes me smile. It was Eliot who told us, “The naming of cats is a difficult matter, / it isn’t just one of your holiday games; / You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter / when I tell you a cat must have three different names.”
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell—Every girl, for some inexplicable reason, goes through a horse phase. For some, the period only lasts a few months while others try to learn how to draw them as well as ride them as well as collect Breyer figures. (Guess which category I fell into?) This one was unlike all other horse books at the time because the pony in question gets to tell you about how it feels–how nice a nosebag of oats is and how hard life in front of a cart really is. For some reason, I adored this book as a little girl, but I doubt I’d feel the same about it as a grumpy thirty-something. 🙂
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams—Who says inanimate animals can’t qualify a book for this list? The fragile crystal collection is poor Laura’s only source of friendship and understanding. Like her favorite unicorn, she doesn’t quite fit with the rest. The symbolism of this play makes it like that little shelf of knick knacks–perfectly balanced, breathtaking, and multifaceted.
I’ve had a poem brewing in my head for some time about the concept of “dying daily” and what it means to empty one’s self of…well…self in order to be a truly useful vessel for Christ while I’m in the world. The reason it’s a struggle for so many Christians is because it’s just darned hard to give up what you believe to be vital, your identity and sense of individuality, especially when the world touts its importance above everything else. However, we are in it as believers, not of it, and more is expected from us.
This is the result of my musings, and there will likely be other drafts to follow. I would truly appreciate any feedback or comments you would like to provide!
Please click on the image below for a full-screen version of the poem, which I have tentatively titled “Self-Actualization.”
My husband and I, because of our shared love of music, decided to splurge this year and purchase a package of six concert tickets from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra so we could enjoy some of our favorite pieces and perhaps discover a few new ones. Our first concert was a perfect starter as it featured selections from The Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven’s immortal Symphony No. 9. As a trombone player who relishes powerful melodic lines and bass parts that are heavier than potato and knockwurst suppers, Wayne naturally adores Wagner (and Mahler…and pretty much anyone else who is of Germanic descent and writes music featuring brass instruments). As a French horn player, I can enjoy chamber music as easily as opera, and I am often treated to a stunning performance by someone on my instrument at every performance I attend. However, I must say that I prefer the powerful and dramatic works of the romantic composers, and I especially love the ninth for its history and the political turmoil that played into its creation. (Check out this book I read if you’d like to learn more about it yourself!) We began the afternoon with a lovely supper at Cafe Intermezzo that involved a huge slice of peanut butter chocolate cake and espresso and ended with sweet harmony. It was a true delight!
After a dinner of Jambalaya and Shrimp Etouffee at Front Page News, we headed to the Woodruff Arts Center for our second concert, which featured Nyx, a new composition by Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Le Poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstacy, Symphony No. 4) by Alexander Scriabin. Both pieces are, as one would expect, marvelous. However, the reason I chose this particular concert was the third selection for the evening—The Bells by Sergei Rachmaninov. I have always wanted to learn more about him as a composer, and I thought it was a bonus for a word nerd like myself to be introduced to him via a piece that came about because of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe of the same name. Having taught it before, I knew all about Poe’s use of onomatopoeia and other poetic devices to create the sounds of different types of bells and explore their symbolic meanings. It’s a poem that almost begs to be sung from the page, and I was excited to see how it would sound in the hands of a master like Rachmaninov.
Like the poem, the choral symphony, is composed of four parts, each of which feature the sound of a distinct type of bell–silver sleigh bells, golden wedding bells, loud alarm bells, and mournful iron bells. Notice they move from light and jovial to dark and morose, a true chronicle of the cradle to the grave. While Poe’s poem is the inspiration of this piece and though some of the same concepts are presented in it, the words in the libretto are wholly the composer’s. (If you would like to listen to each movement while reading the remainder of the blog, please feel free! I have also included the English translation of the words for you to explore.)
Movement I—Allegro non ma troppo (The Silver Sleigh Bells)
This movement opens with a jaunty, crisp feel full of bells and other percussion, flute trills, and muted trumpet. (It honestly sounded like the inside of a snow globe might when you shake it.) The horns and other brass round out the introduction and then give way to the tenor soloist who enters faintly, his voice growing in volume, to tell us “The sleighs rush along in a line.” And then, oh mercy, an absolute brick wall of sound erupts when the entire choir joins him to tell the story of the silver sleigh bells! The chord they form is massive, rich as chocolate ganache, and I swear it blew my hair back even all the way in the balcony where are seats were. The movement then alternates between the gossamer opening to the more mellow section in which the soloist sings of the delight that follows in death when the “days of delusion” are over and we travel into the bliss of oblivion. Finally, he ends on a climactic note of triumph.
In the concluding bars, the orchestra gives the audience a taste of the sweet tranquility of that place by using long, fluid lines in the string section and light touches of flute and oboe to accent it like the delightful twinkling of the stars. The entire piece ends with a sort of rocking movement that’s hard to describe, but it gently lulled me back down from the peak, almost as if someone was rocking me to sleep. Filled with gorgeous similes, clever onomatopoetic words like “twinkling” and “flickering,” repetition, and personification, this movement is, at the risk of sounding cliche, magical.
Movement II—Lento (The Mellow Wedding Bells)
I love pieces of music that feature the viola, the most maligned of all stringed instruments. This one opens with them and eventually gives way to muted trumpets, cello, and then the string section as a whole recapturing the rocking feeling that the first movement ended with. It’s strangely mellow and pensive for a piece about a wedding, but I actually found it more moving because of this. After all, a wedding is not just a ceremony; it is the physical union of two people who are joined together in flesh and heart. It is a spiritual commitment as well as a physical one that we are never meant to break until death, so why not speak of it in terms of eternity? The words tell of the moon and “fairytale delights” the couple will soon enjoy as well as the “serenity of sweet dreams” they’ll share in the “harmony” of marriage. The soprano soloist in this is a perfect choice; her voice soars over the choir in an attempt to capture the thoughts of a bride who is listening to those bells waiting for her groom to arrive. In short, this movement captures the feeling of rapture that comes with true and all-encompassing love.
Movement III—Presto (The Loud Alarum Bells)
Movement three is the only one that doesn’t feature a solo—not that it needs one! If it is possible to capture cacophony in music, to replicate the feeling of chaos in sound, this is it. The piece opens much like movement one with flittering brass and strings, but the French horn enters with beautiful bell tones that the trumpets soon echo, and it builds from there. The alarm bells desperately warn people about the approaching fire that they cannot stop. Rachmaninov describes them in such human terms that he actually invokes the pathetic fallacy—they groan, beg for help, weep for mercy, and feel grief. Likewise, the fire expresses its desire to climb to the very reaches of the sky before it is extinguished. I love the placement of this movement after the sweet movement that symbolizes youth and the golden movement of marriage. After all, when does tragedy often strike? When we are least expecting it. It honestly made me think of Job 5:6-7, which reads:
For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, for man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward.
The contrast between the previous movement, which is actually rather intimate in nature, and the communal experience of chaos in this piece is striking. You feel as if you, too, are part of the scene–that your life, your home, and your very way of life are being threatened.
The ending measures are the most amazing of the entire portion. The chorus sings about waves of sound, the bells ringing and telling of the misfortune that is coming for them all. The waves are a fantastic choice symbolically speaking. After all, misfortune and good fortune do come in waves; they are both part of the natural ebb and flow of life. Also, the tide is a powerful force, one that cannot be controlled or contained. It is a fitting ending for a piece such as this.
Movement IV—Lento lugubre (The Mournful Iron Bells)
Oh, movement four! Be still my heart! I listened to this one with my hand wrapped around Wayne’s arm because I found it so moving. This is the funeral portion full of iron bells that tell of the death of one in the community. It opens with an oboe solo atop a palate of languid strings. (On a side note, I adore the oboe because, like the cello, it’s such an expressive, sensual instrument. It’s a perfect choice for this section.) The gentle sway of this piece when the bass soloist enters is reminiscent of a funeral march, a gentle walking on weary feet. It felt as if you were standing by watching the procession but are carried away with it, as if compelled to see where it ends—the grave.
Take a moment and re-read the most stunning lines of text in the entire piece:
In the belfry’s rusty cells, for the righteous and the unrighteous, it menacingly repeats a single thing: that there will be a stone on your heart, that your eyes will close in sleep.
I actually gasped when I read that section and heard it sung. The “stone” is speaks of is, of course, the tombstone, the one laid atop the grave. However, the image when paired with the booming voice of the soloist made it feel utterly ponderous. I could actually feel the weight of it pressing on my chest, as if I was experiencing a sort of death by proxy through the music.
It is Death personified ringing the mournful bell, swinging wildly and rejoicing over another brought into his grip. Those who hear run “from their pastimes” and weep knowing that such a bell will invariably ring for them in the fullness of time. However, Rachmaninov does not leave the entire piece with a negative mood because “at length” the bells proclaim “the peace of the grave.” The closing measures build into a peaceful postlude in the strings, harp, and clarinet and end on a glorious major chord that fades out into silence. (By the way, when you hear this live, there are moments where the orchestra and choir cut off, leaving the tones to fade and blend into the silence, and those moments are surreal. There is sound remaining though no one is producing it. Go hear it for yourself!)
Through this symphony, the listener can experience a wide range of emotions from rapt wonder and joy to panic and, eventually, peace. Rachmaninov masterfully leads listeners through them movement by movement, allowing them to experience something akin to the catharsis the ancient Greek dramatists sought. It combines the thoughts of Poe and one of his most musical poems with the methods of expression available to a musician, and becomes a sublime coalescence of sound.
I just received word that one of my poems, “Redemption,” will be included in the anthology titled Not Only The Dark, slated to be published at the end of this year. The anthology is themed on the idea of survival–what it takes, what it costs, and what it’s worth. Should be an interesting read! I can’t believe a little piece I wrote about my dad redeeming glass soda bottles to buy me a coat made it in! Who says real life doesn’t make for a compelling read?
The flyer here is for the release party in the UK in December, which I cannot afford to attend due to the fact I am a poor, working stiff. (And a grateful one, I might add!) However, if you’re interested in the anthology, you can use the contact information to order a copy of it for yourself. I believe it is a fairly reasonable £10 plus shipping.
The anthology has been sponsored by WorldAid, and all proceeds will benefit Shelterbox. Both foundations are non-profit and are devoted to aiding those who are struggling around the world. Check out the links here to see what they’re all about!