The Soundtracks of Our Lives

On Facebook there’s a meme going around of people posting a list of the albums that inspired or defined their teenage identities. One thing all the lists I’ve seen so far have in common is that they’re all pop music of one kind or another. I wonder if that’s because it’s a genuine rarity for a teenager to listen to classical music, or jazz, or folk, or opera — or because popular music is in some sense more personal, or speaks more immediately to mood and time and place.

My own teenage listening was a pretty odd mixture. I probably listen to more pop music now than I did in high school. I was an opera lover from a young age, and the music I heard at home was most often classical or folk: my parents deny ever being hippies, but their record collection certainly bore signs of their having lived in Berkeley for much of the 60s, with lots of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, & Mary. During my high school years, most of my family was quite involved in international folk dancing. My father and I, more specifically, were involved with a group called the “Philhellenic Dancers”: we met weekly to learn and practice dances from all regions of Greece, and a subset of the group, including the two of us, gave performances in restaurants and at festivals, including a few times at Greek Day. (As almost none of us were actually Greek, I have thought a lot about this group in light of current debates about cultural appropriate. But that would be — maybe will be — a separate post some day.) flute logo

In Grade 11, I started working part-time at The Magic Flute, a classical record store that for many years was a Vancouver institution: this was a job that both reflected and supported my orientation towards classical music. My first gig there was doing inventory, for which I was paid in store credit. The fruits of that labor are now boxed up in my parents’ basement. With vinyl making a comeback, maybe I should finally get the boxes shipped out here for sorting. (I can’t find any photos of the store online, but I did find this clip of its graphic logo, which was on all our shopping bags and on the cover of the mail-order catalog that I assembled and edited for many years.)

Acentral_parkll of these activities and interests infused my listening life. I didn’t have any sense of disdain for whatever the top 100 might be; I just didn’t pay that music much attention. I knew and liked some older stuff: when Simon & Garfunkel did their reunion tour in 1983, for instance, I lined up overnight with a friend to get floor tickets, and enjoyed their B.C. Place concert from our spot maybe 3 yards back from the stage. I got to be good friends with Veda Hille (now an original and successful musician in her own right) and she introduced me to the Beatles (imagine needing an introduction to the Beatles in the mid-80s, but I did), and then when we were co-editors of our high school year book, we listened to a lot of David Bowie while developing photos in the darkroom. Other people’s influence brought in other music: my boyfriend was a Eurythmics fan, for instance (I died my hair purple to go with him to their concert — though since my hair is naturally quite dark, the result was more like a purple aura than a bold statement). It was Vancouver in the 80s, so perhaps Bryan Adams fandom was inevitable, and when Born in the USA came out, my best friend and I put it on our Sony Walkmen and listened to it over and over. (That friend liked to get out and have some fun, so she is also the reason I saw Michael Jackson live when the Victory Tour came to Vancouver.)

Bryan at New Kent HotelBut there really isn’t a list of 10 albums that for me made up a distinct soundtrack of those years, at least not one that really speaks to who I was. Instead, there are particular songs or albums that now have astonishing power to summon up different periods of my life. It’s remarkable how music can do that, isn’t it? A song comes on and suddenly there you are immersed in a whole set of feelings, as if you are being dunked into a vat of memory. These are often not songs that are personal favorites – what matters is that for some reason they became part of a moment in time for me. I was in the grocery store yesterday, for example, and Billy Joel’s “I’m Moving Out” came over their annoyingly loud sound system — and I was instantly back in the New Kent Hotel in London, where my sister and I stayed at both ends of our 6-month tour of Europe in 1986. (I just looked it up, and what do you know: it’s still there.) It was really a kind of hostel, with a lot of long-term guests, many of them Australians on work visas, and the ones we roomed with played Billy Joel a lot. In the photo you can see the Bryan Adams poster my best friend gave me to take along, to remind me of my roots (I guess). I took photos of it on display in a lot of different hostels! The song brought it all back to me, perhaps because I don’t think I have ever played it myself in any other context: I remember all the excitement and anxiety of being on that big adventure.

surfacingSarah McLachlans’s “Building a Mystery” is another really evocative song for me. It’s on her album Surfacing, which came out the year Owen was born. I was up a lot at night nursing, and I used to play it softly as I rocked with him. It was a hot summer, and I was equal parts miserably exhausted and desperately in love with this new little person. If I hear songs from that album without warning — especially “I Love You” or “Angel” — I am liable to get teary, though I’m not sure why these memories are quite so poignant. Maybe it’s the sense of distance, the realization of just how much has changed, and how inexorably time keeps moving forward. Then there’s Enya’s “Caribbean Blue,” which my husband and I danced to at our wedding rehearsal dinner in 1992: an unlikely choice, perhaps, but it is a waltz and it had become one of “our” songs. One of our first joint activities (cliché alert!) during our daringly brief courtship was taking ballroom dance classes together, so we actually did a pretty good job of our dance, if I may say so myself! Of course I can’t hear that song now without remembering what a happy weekend that was, as our friends and family gathered around us to wish us well. We walked down the ‘aisle’ (we were married in a restaurant, so it was pretty informal — the plan had been to use their waterfront garden, but it rained) to one of Dvorak’s string serenades: this, along with my turquoise silk dress, helped make the ceremony itself seem less clichéd!

Joan-Sutherland-005Although I listen to music almost all the time now, there’s little that has the same emotional power over me: I have to go deeper into my past to get the same effect. I wonder if it’s just that the more immediate events and their associations haven’t yet distilled into part of my history. There is certainly some music that is fundamental to my life — that I have loved for so long, that has given me so much pleasure, that when I hear it it restores me to myself. At the top of that list would be Joan Sutherland’s 1962 recording of La Traviata: my parents gave me the highlights LP as a birthday gift in 1972 and I cherished it even before I had the honor of getting Sutherland’s autograph on the cover years later. (Richard Bonynge’s autograph is on the back: I still feel a bit embarrassed about how indifferent I was to his offer to sign it too, but I was 9 and Sutherland was my idol.) No piano music has ever displaced Chopin’s in my heart since I first tried to learn some of his easier waltzes as a student: practicing the A-major Polonaise in the little room I signed out in the music building helped me sustain myself emotionally during my terrible first year of graduate school at Cornell. And speaking of graduate school, The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” promptly delivers me back to my friend Bernie’s green pick-up truck and all the times we drove in it across the Catskills to my sister’s house in Mamaroneck…

I think my problem with the “10 albums” meme is not that there is no soundtrack to my teenage years but that my teenage years were just a few in a much longer musical history, an idiosyncratic collage of constant listening. What about you: are there songs or albums that invariably recall either high school or some other memorable moments in your life?

Dame Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)


Dame Joan Sutherland has died at her home in Switzerland. I wrote a little about my love affair with her voice here. For me, as for many, hers was the voice. What a legacy of beauty and joy she has left us. Here she is, from the treasure trove of material you can find on YouTube, singing ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ from Lucia di Lammermoor, recorded live at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1959–the beginning. Updated: the Covent Garden video is gone from YouTube, so here’s another splendid rendition:

Saturday Afternoon at the Opera

Joan-Sutherland-005I’ve been an opera lover at least since I was five years old, when I received this LP of highlights from the Sutherland-Bergonzi La Traviata as a birthday present. Of course, I must have been primed for this gift by hearing opera around the house: both of my parents are also opera lovers, and my father in particular cherished the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts. One of my first school writing projects was a guide to Lucia di Lammermoor (below); see my pithy summary of Act III? 🙂

A major life highlight was going backstage at the Vancouver Opera to meet La Stupenda in person–hence the personalized autograph on the record cover, which is one of the items I would probably take risks for in the event of a fire. I was nine at the time and so overwhelmed by the event that I completely blew off Richard Bonynge, who very courteously hailed me as we progressed down the corridor and offered his autograph as well. “OK, if you want,” was my careless reply–but I suppose he was accustomed to being Mr. Joan Sutherland by then. (Clearly recognizing his place in my pantheon, he signed the back of the record.)LuciaActIII

Predictably, as a teenager I did rebel for a while, not so much against opera, as against other people’s interest in it: I remember sulking about the need to tip-toe around on Saturday afternoons and being obstreperous about being put in charge of recording the occasional broadcast when my parents had to be out. But I (we!) got through that phase, and then I started working part-time at a classical music store, where my operatic know-how was actually an asset (mandatory brush-with-celebrity anecdote: when Goldie Hawn came in the shop–she and Mel Gibson were in town filming Bird on a Wire–I helped her pick out the Bjoerling-de los Angeles La Boheme when she said she was looking for something gorgeous). Initially I was ‘hired’ to do inventory for specific record labels, for which I was ‘paid’ in store credits. My parents are currently storing the archive of LP box sets I accumulated before I was promoted to minimum wage and starting saving money instead.

When, as a university student, I moved into my own apartment, one thing that came with me was the Saturday afternoon ritual. I still have, as a matter of fact, a stash of cassette tapes of broadcasts from that period, including a superb Rigoletto with June Anderson as Gilda. But I reached the pinnacle of my opera-loving career when, as a graduate student at Cornell, I had season tickets to the Met, for the Saturday afternoon performances, no less. I was able to do this because my sister was living in Mamaroneck (you NY types will know just where that is on the Northern Line), so I could take the long bus trip across the Catskills (coming from BC, I didn’t recognize them as mountains the first time) and stay with her for the weekend. I’m not sure there’s a better feeling than coming out of Grand Central Station knowing that you have all morning to roam the city and all afternoon to spend at Lincoln Center–even if it was about $10 to get a coffee at intermission.

Now I live in a city without a full-scale opera company, though our music department puts on some small-scale productions, and now we too are the beneficiaries of the brilliant live broadcasts from the Met. I haven’t been to one here yet, though: apparently the demand is so strong you have to show up at least a couple of hours in advance, and Saturdays are typically busy enough for working parents. Having children of my own, in fact, has changed my understanding of what those broadcasts must have meant to my parents: like reading, listening (at least in any serious way) becomes a rare thing when your children are small. That said, our children too are growing up with opera. We used to soothe–or at least distract–our son after baths (which for some reason he found very traumatic as an infant) by getting out my beloved books of opera songs for voice and piano and going through our favorites as loudly as we could, and my daughter has already sat by and comforted me as I sob my way through the Zeffirelli film of La Traviata. Sometimes it’s best, though, when everyone else is out and I can revert to my childish self. Today, as the spring sunshine streamed in the windows, I took The Art of the Prima Donna from the cabinet and spent my own Saturday afternoon happily at the opera.

I know operatic voices are profoundly personal and not everyone loves Sutherland’s rich tone or joyous facility. They are wrong of course, but that’s OK: some of my best friends (my grandmother, even) have been Callas fans. But to my ear, nurtured on her voice from childhood, there’s just nobody else, at least for certain repertoire. (For Puccini, I’m a Price fan, except when I’m a Caballe fan.) Also, I’m not altogether satisfied with this choice of clip, which doesn’t altogether convey the magic. Still, from me to you, through the magic of YouTube, enjoy.

This Week Instead of Radio 2

I promise: I won’t keep obsessing on the evisceration of good programming on CBC Radio 2.* It’s just that I’m still in the “anger” stage of the grieving process for an old friend. Still, as I remarked recently, there is a plus side, which is returning to my stash of old opera tapes. This morning in my car I was blasting a recording of Joan Sutherland, Alfredo Kraus, and James Morris in Lucia live at the Met in 1982. Here’s the Sextet from that production, courtesy of YouTube (a bit scratchy, but you get the idea). Sure, Sutherland (at 56) is past her prime here (next week, maybe I’ll get out my ‘bootleg’ tapes of her 1959 Covent Garden performance), but she still handles the trills and ornaments better than pretty much anybody else, and she knocks the big high notes right out of the House. Plus the excitement of performances like this comes in part from the tremendous appreciation expressed by the audience: I think I enjoy the applause almost as much as the singing (sadly, the YouTuber cuts it off). I have been listening to Lucia for many years and know almost all the words, including to the Mad Scene, and another fun feature of listening to it in my car is singing along in the security that nobody can actually hear me–my childhood dreams of being an opera singer came to less than nothing, but I can croak “Il fantasma, il fantasma” with the best of them.

*It’s not that I like only classical music and opera. My own playlists include plenty of jazz, rock, pop, Broadway, folk, and ‘world,’ especially Greek and Balkan music. But I can get other kinds of music anywhere else on the radio (and often more listenable stuff than what I’m catching when I flip past CBC these days), and I don’t mash them all up into one jarringly unpredictable playlist.

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

Bel Canto is a beautiful, poignant, and fragile novel about the beauty, poignancy, and fragility of art and love. The simplicity of its narrative suits the underlying simplicity of its ideas: that music can transcend differences, for instance, or that art and love and beauty matter and should be nourished and shared.

In the early parts of the novel, these insights, which sound hackneyed stated so baldly, nonetheless come upon the characters as surprises borne in upon them by the extremity of their circumstances. Even Mr. Hosokawa, whose love of opera brings soprano Roxanne Coss to the party aborted so dramatically when the guests are taken hostage, has a complex life to which music can be only an accessory, an indulgence that makes a gift of a few days home with food poisoning: “He remembered this time as happily as any vacation because he played Handel’s Alcina continually, even while he slept.” The party itself is a business occasion: Mr. Hosokawa is “the founder and chairman of Nansei, the largest electronics corporation in Japan,” and “the host country” hopes he can be seduced into investing, perhaps even building a factory. Only Mr. Hosokawa is there only to hear Roxanne Coss sing–and as it turns out, only he is there for the right reason, the only reason that matters. And yet, her singing propels the other guests beyond business to love:

They were so taken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?

Some of them had loved her for years. They had every recording she had ever made. They kept a notebook and wrote down every place they had seen her, listing the music, the names of the cast, the conductor. There were others there that night who had not heard her name, who would have said, if asked, that they would much rather pass three hours in a dentist’s chair. These were the ones who wept openly now, the ones who had been so mistaken.

In retrospect, we realize that this transformation captures the essence of the novel. But because this moment of intense aesthetic and erotic passion coincides with the moment the terrorists cut the lights, it initially seems associated with weakness or vulnerability, especially as the guests continue applauding. This impression builds as the guests in their party finery are surrounded by gun-toting guerillas who first take rough command of the house and then order their hostages to lie down; the guests are relieved, “like small dogs trying to avoid a fight.” Easy oppositions lurk, ready to cheapen the novel’s effects: music, refinement, civilization, under siege by bullets, brutality, savagery.

But (and what do we expect, in a novel called Bel Canto?) the music connects, rather than divides, guests from intruders. Quickly we learn, for example, that the uneducated terrorists (“No one having explained opera, or what it was to sing other than the singing that was done in a careless way . . . No one having explained anything”) have been emotionally overwhelmed (or is it undermined?) by listening to Roxanne Coss from their hiding places in the air-conditioning vents:

When a girl in their village had a pretty voice, one of the old women would say she had swallowed a bird, and this was what they tried to say to themselves as they looked at the pile of hairpins resting on the pistachio chiffon of her gown: she has swallowed a bird. But they knew it wasn’t true. In all their ignorance, in all their unworldliness, they knew there had never been such a bird.

And so it begins: an impossible, unrealistic, dream-like sequence in which, bit by bit, the underlying humanity of each character surfaces. The stale-mate of the hostage-taking, which maroons many men, one woman, and two girls of wildly different nationalities, backgrounds, and characters in a bizarre suspension from ordinary life, gradually liberates them to seek new loves, mostly of music, but also of each other; it’s a brave (but, we always understand, endangered) new world in which the worst come to lack conviction and the best discover their passionate intensity.

The sad but fundamental implausibility of all this requires that we suspend not only our disbelief but, to some extent, our critical faculties, liberating ourselves, you might say, to test and extend the limits of our own artistic sensibilities, to consider seriously, for instance, that song might, in its own way, be wielded as a weapon against petty tyranny:

In retrospect, it was a risky thing to do, both from the perspective of General Alfredo [a leader of the terrorists], who might have seen it as an act of insurrection, and from the care of the instrument of the voice itself. She had not sung in two weeks, nor did she go through a single scale to warm up. Roxanne Coss . . . stood in the middle of the vast living room and began to sing “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. . . . All of the love and longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear . . . .

Roxanne took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. “Tell him,” she said to Gen, “that’s it. Either he gives me that box right now or you will not hear another note out of me or that piano for the duration of this failed social experiment.”

How can it work? What can such a threat possibly mean to a man such as General Alfredo? Even he does not know, for the music has “confused him to the point of senselessness.” The stupidity of opposing art with violence incapacitates the Generals, as General Benjamin points out when they consider how to reassert complete control:

“If we put a gun to her head she would sing all day.”

“Try it first with a bird,” General Benjamin said gently to Alfredo. “Like our soprano, they have no capacity to understand authority. The bird doesn’t know enough to be afraid and the person holding the gun will only end up looking like a lunatic.”

However artificial the forms of art may seem (and surely opera is among the most contrived), over and over here the association is with nature, with transparency, with revelation. One of the loveliest epiphanic moments, less melodramatic than Roxanne’s confrontation with Alfredo, is Kato’s ascension from “a vice president at Nansei,” a man known “for being very good with numbers,” to pianist and accompanist. Kato’s playing of Chopin brings the young fighter Carmen to a new life; another terrorist, Cesar, is inspired and finds his own voice. Love and beauty are contagious in this novel. We are all either musicians or music-lovers, Patchett seems to be saying: isn’t that enough to allow us to live together?

Even within the novel, though, the answer has to be that it is not enough, and the certainty of tragedy on an operatic scale haunts the novel from the beginning. This is one cause of what I referred to as the novel’s fragility: it imagines impossibilities, dreams and hopes drawn from yearnings its readers may well recognize from their own encounters with art, especially with music, but its characters recognize, as do we, that theirs is not the real world. We are reminded of this by the recurrent visits of the Red Cross negotiator, Messner, painfully aware that the military is literally undermining the paradisaical garden in which hostages and terrorists play soccer. He knows, and they know, and we know, that they can’t in fact live there forever, despite Carmen’s prayer that “God would look on them and see the beauty of their existence and leave them alone.”

On the novel’s own terms, this kind of fragility adds to the beauty and poignancy of the situation: like fine lace or delicate filigree, the loves that form inspire a protective tenderness, a desire to save them from tearing or breaking. I think there is a further kind of fragility to Bel Canto as well, though, that is potentially more problematic because it arises from the novel’s deliberate distancing from history and politics. Take the refusal to place the novel in any particular time or place. As I noted, it’s always just “the host country”; the terrorists’ grievances and demands are boilerplate, even stereotyped; the government is an implacable yet vague force against them. This separation from real-world politics is necessary to preserve the fable-like sensibility of the novel, yet it undermines its credibility and perhaps even its own arguments: the solution the novel implicitly proposes is, after all, to real-world problems, isn’t it? But to imagine a way out of them, it has to leave them altogether behind, or reduce the conflict to the simplistic oppositions between beauty and power, art and guns, that seemed to have been avoided earlier: the only difference at the end is that by and large the terrorists too have been converted, seduced away from politics by love and opera. The novel also skips over any possible association of music in general and opera in particular with history or politics. Verdi, for instance, to whom Mr. Hosokawa is so loyal (Rigoletto is his first opera, and he “never forgot the importance of Verdi in his life”) was a hero of Italian nationalism; crowds at his funeral procession sang the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco. Opera may once have been a popular form, but today too it is inseparably associated (however justly or unjustly) with cultural and economic elites of just the kind attending the party at the Vice Presidential mansion. Do these considerations matter to the affective or aesthetic aspects of opera? I’m not sure, but there’s something a bit naive and wishful about ignoring them completely in a novel that pits opera against so many of the brutalities and vulgarities of modern life. This naivete is echoed in the extra materials at the end of my edition, which include a piece by Patchett called “How to Fall in Love with Opera”:

The fact is we need opera. We especially need it now. It is an enormous, passionate, melodramatic affair that puts the little business of our lives into perspective. . . . Opera, more than any other art form [really? even novels?] has the sheer muscle and magnitude to pull us into another world, and while that world may be as fraught with heartache as our own, it is infinitely more gorgeous.

As a life-long opera lover* who loves to bliss out to the Sutherland-Horne recording of “Mira, O Norma,” of course I agree. But I recognize that my bliss is based on escape, and while it may be escape into something transcendent and “gorgeous,” I’m not comfortable using it to measure the rest of my life.

And, speaking of being a life-long opera lover, I thought Bel Canto betrayed some signs of its author having (as she admits) come to opera relatively late. For one thing, Roxanne Coss’s repertoire is entirely predictable, from “O Mio Babbino Caro” to the “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka. I suppose familiar tracks were meant as a way to make the novel’s emphasis on opera (to some, as initially to Patchett, an esoteric expertise) user-friendly. Still, the risk is that the transcendent aesthetic moments in the novel approach cliche to the knowledgeable reader. (My own operatic taste is quite mainstream, but even I might have sought out arias with more thematic resonance–facing Alfredo with “Vissi d’arte” instead, for example, an area which does come up later on but more incidentally). Patchett points to Renee Fleming as one of her favourite singers (“I came to believe that Renee Fleming was the living embodiment of art”), a feeling I certainly second, but like Mr. Hosokawa, she shows little historical reach in her other recommendations, and even Fleming, whose voice is certainly beautiful, is no better to my ear, and maybe not as breathtaking, as early recordings of Leontyne Price or Montserrat Caballe. But here, of course, I’m heading well away from the novel (and into the dangerous waters of opera fandom, where everyone notoriously steers by their own stars).

The final weakness I felt in the novel was its epilogue. Patchett should have had the courage of her operatic predecessors and ended with her catastrophe, which I found painful, shocking, and inevitable. Tragic operas don’t rescue you from the emotional impact of their conclusions. Alfredo does not find consolation in Flora’s arms for the loss of Violetta; Rodolfo has no second chance at love after Mimi’s death; nobody responds to Pinkerton’s anguished cries of “Butterfly!” as he rushes upon her corpse; Amneris does not force open the tomb and give Radames a second chance he wouldn’t want anyway. Operatic love is total; there are no compromises. Perhaps Patchett could not accommodate this aspect of opera into her utopian vision, but the result of the epilogue for me was not the sustenance of hope but the bathos of anti-climax.

That said, I carried Bel Canto around for several days after I finished it. I wanted to read parts of it again and again; I needed to think about it; and I was sorry it ended, sorry its dream was over.

*Life-long, you ask? Not really an exaggeration: I still cherish an LP of highlights from La Traviata I got for my 5th birthday and had signed by La Stupenda herself in 1976 (I was 9).