Walls are encircling the land

30 03 2010

Oh, heaven: Terence McKnight on WQXR is broadcasting Dawn Upshaw singing Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre.

This is not background music. This is not background anything.

The following videos were apparently shot in Frenchtown, New Jersey. Didn’t really watch them—the music is all.

This music is all.

Tancas serradas a muru


Wa Habibi


Anything you can do, I can do better

12 09 2009

Who would you like to see together?

Don’t be perverted—not like that! No, more along the lines of Here are two people who I’d love to see do whatever it is they do, together.

I was watching  clip of k.d. lang singing a Leonard Cohen song, and thought, Man, I wonder what she’d sound like with Cassandra Wilson?

Two amazing vocalists and interpreters, together.

So, my first duet: k.d. lang and Cassandra Wilson

Then again, I’d long thought that it would be great to listen in as Hannah Arendt and Edward Said argued.

Thus, the first duel (albeit a friendly one): Arendt and Said.

Who else?

  • Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg
  • Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X
  • Arendt and Malcolm X
  • Malcolm X and Bernard Lazare
  • Janis Joplin and Cass Elliot
  • PJ Harvey and Patti Smith (definitely a duel)
  • Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Dawn Upshaw (Really. Have you heard her on Golijov’s Ayre? The woman can sing anything.)
  • Eddie Cochran and The Clash
  • Brett Favre (back in the day. . .) and Randy Moss
  • Martina Navratilova (back in the day. . .) and Serena Williams
  • k.d. lang and Lizz Wright
  • Kate Bush and Leonard Cohen (just for the hell of it)
  • Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell (hot and cool, together)

Who else?

I can’t be the only one who wastes her time thinking about this kind of thing. . . .

Sing! Sing! Sing!

11 01 2009

I got sucked  into the speakers yesterday.

I don’t remember the song (something about heartbreak) and was surprised when Jonathan Schwartz credited Betty Buckley as the singer (it didn’t sound like her). But I was caught by all that she gave to the song—that’s what caught me. Yes, she has a lovely voice, but it was the. . . I don’t know, that sense that she scraped away herself and in so doing scraped away the skin of that sad and pretty melody to lay bare nerve and bone.

How could she do that? Where does that come from? When I was (way) younger I wanted nothing more than to sing, to be a singer. That didn’t happen. I have a competent voice—a ‘chorus’ voice—but my lack comes less from technical faults than the inability to inhabit the song with my voice. Oh, I might feel moved, but that feeling doesn’t come through. It’s posing.

Was Buckley posing? I’ll never know, but man, it doesn’t sound like it. Does Patti Smith sound like she’s posing? I remember when I first listened, really listened to Patti Smith—it wasn’t until grad school. Where the fuck was she when I was in high school?! Of course, I had Janis Joplin back then, but Janis was already dead, and Patti was, is, blazingly alive.

Neither Janis nor Patti has classically trained ‘great’ voices, but man, can they sing! Dive into that song and pull off all their clothes and dare us to dive in with them. This is it, they’re telling us. this is all a song can be. Can you follow? Are you brave enough to care?

In my responses to Ainadamar I noted my marvel at Dawn Upshaw and Kelley O’Connor’s passion. Did I mention it was almost as hard to witness as it was wondrous? I was embarrassed, fearful for them. Oh no, I thought, what are you doing? You’re so naked on that stage; you’ll be caught out, alone and exposed!

What could compel them to take such risks?

Perhaps it is because I ask such questions that I get in my own way. Do they see what they do as risky? Perhaps the danger is in not singing, in not throwing oneself into the music; perhaps it is only the embrace of the music which carries them. Perhaps the question is How could they not?

I don’t have it in me—the singing, I mean. Perhaps had I had the Voice (be it Joplin’s or Upshaw’s), I would have lain all other concerns aside to tend to that gift.

Or not. What do I do now with my modest talents? Tend to them, fitfully. Take them seriously, kind of; treat them warily. I protect them. I do not risk them. I do not risk              anything.


8 12 2008

The musicians were tuning their instruments as we entered the auditorium. Some of them sauntered in, a violin or french horn in hand, others stood, and others sat and concentrated on the score in front of them.

It was my first performance at Carnegie Hall, and I leaned forward from my second tier seat to take in the sight. The space itself is relatively spare, for acoustical reasons, I’d guess, but it felt luxurious to be seated in a box with five other people. I’d brought Ricola to stem any inconvenient cough (tho’ later spied the overflowing bins of Ricola near the tops of stairs), and dug out my kleenex. I was prepared.


The concert performance, after all, of Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, about the death of Frederico Garcia Lorca (sung by Kelley O’Connor), about his life, and the life and sorrows of his friend and would-be protector Margarita Xirgu (Dawn Upshaw), would almost certainly make me cry. I hate to cry, and I cry every time I listen to the cd, but I can’t not listen to such beauty. And I did cry—when Margarita fails to convince Lorca to flee to Havana with her, when the Falangist Ruiz Alonso (Jesus Montoya) calls for the head (Ay! Entregeuenio, ay Dios mio, al cabezon!) of Lorca, and started crying when the guard (Kyle Ferrill) sings to Lorca to confess and didn’t stop until after the volley of gunshots ended. Oh, and (I thought I cried only three times), as Margarita sings out her death.

I came to Dawn Upshaw the way many of us non-opera (or new-to-opera) do, via Gorecki’s Symphony no. 3, ‘Sorrowful Songs’. I heard it in the movie Fearless, and paid close attention to the closing credits for the song. I was am (still) only very slowly making my way into opera, but I was caught by this music. Now, whether that was due to Gorecki or Upshaw, I don’t know, although I have pursued both the composer and the soprano.

The draw of this program was not only Upshaw, however, but also Golijov. I first read about his St Mark’s Passion many years ago (still haven’t heard it), and his name stayed with me. A few years ago I heard an interview with him, and the interview featured extensive excerpts from Ayre and Ainadamar. Oh! I think it was a dual interview, with both Golijov and Upshaw. Rekindle interest in Upshaw. Rekindle interest in Golijov. Buy the cds.

So I thought I knew what I was getting into today. (I brought kleenex, fer cryin’ out loud!) But I was tossed back in my seat by the power of the live performance itself. To sit in an auditorium with a few hundred other people and watch and listen to these men and women give themselves wholly over to the music, to us—oh, I had forgotten what it was to witness such fearlessness, to be enveloped by such naked sound.

There was no irony, no detachment in this performance. Yes, there is the physical distance between the stage and the seating, but Upshaw and O’Connor and Montoya (and Emily Albrink, as Nuria, Margarita’s student) did not stand back from their characters or this music. Conductor Robert Spano swivelled his hips along the sinuous line of Golijov’s music, which seemed distracting at first, but I came to see less as indulgence than his entire body responding to the opera. And at the end! I’d forgotten the great and furious charge of the orchestra at the end, and watched as the double-bassists bent over their instruments, following the movement down and across the strings.

So much more to say. The tenderness between Margarita and Nuria, as first Margarita leads her student, then the student holds up the teacher. The sexiness of ‘A la Habana’ as Margarita and Lorca imagine ‘alegria, coral y tambor, ay!’ And, noticing, as Margarita sings ‘Adios’, Lorca and Nuria, sitting off to the side, holding hands.

And the long silence at the end, as we all waited, waited, waited, before the clapping began.

To give oneself wholly over to the moment—that is a gift worthy of ovation.