On Florence Foster Jenkins, Our Voices, Others’ Voices, and Mirrors

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? What do others see? This is at the crux of the new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, which led to the following speculations. When I look in the mirror, I see some wrinkles here, some pockets of fat there, an ill-sculpted wordy poem, some characters in my newest novel that I find increasingly compelling and whom I love, and someone who struggles so hard to live a worthy life.

This weekend the plan was to write on my second novel and engage in practicing more music. I am happy to convey that my second novel is progressing and that I have also been more committed to my vocal and piano practice, though still not as much as is necessary for adequate progress. Writing this, I reflect on how far I’ve come compared to when I was struggling to practice at all (some sort of a mental block that I hear is not uncommon; as an aside, if you struggle to practice too, what helps me overcome this hurdle is not to plan on lengthy practice sessions but aim for twenty minutes here and there). I awoke this morning in need of inspiration, so I ventured to see the new Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant movie, Florence Foster Jenkins. The movie is billed to be about the worst opera singer in the world, which is how the critics might have judged her, but there is a hidden depth that emerges throughout the poignant story which inspires and delights.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy socialite from whom the hardships and bullies of life have not ground out the spirit or self-belief. I wonder if bullies are kinder to the wealthy, and of course she could never have realized her dream toward the film’s finale had she not been exceedingly rich and privileged. Yet, she had been willing to forgo her wealth for pursuit of her musical passions, which is testament to her true character, and was very generous as a patron to music and supported musical ventures and even her own accompanist. She is portrayed as a complex character in the film, both powerful and strong-willed, yet fragile and in need of protection. And she did not live a charmed life free from suffering of various kinds or compromise, even in her closest relationships. Yes, she might be perceived as egotistical, but I see her instead as a dreamer, as someone who lived life to the fullest that she could, as someone who found meaning in life through pure fun and an appreciation of music.

It is true her self-image was a distorted illusion. Though I found her vocal instrument, her voice, to possess strong qualities, because of her difficulty in tuning, consistency, phrasing, and modulation, the effect was extremely comedic to hear. I also know, from personal experience from myself and listening to others in recitals, how difficult it is to sound tolerable while singing, especially in the early stages of training or if you have not found a teacher who connects with you and understands you and your instrument. I truly could empathize with her, though in some of my early recitals as a vocal student, I was all too conscious of my vocal blunders and difficulties and felt my “music” a dishonor to Mozart and the very art. I remember staring into the audience and seeing the blank expressions on everyone’s faces, feeling horrified and very out of character during the aria. Of course, the anxiety I felt about performing and singing, and even singing in my apartment where I might be overheard, which I rarely did, contributed to the tension that dominated my performances as my hands and face made rhythmic involuntary movements throughout the pieces. It is interesting that my perception of the performances are far worse than when I see their recording on DVD, though I can also discern improvement over the years. In part, my lack of belief in myself contributes substantially to my vocal difficulties, whereas in the film, Jenkins was deluded about her abilities, fed by the praise her husband bought for her. It is true, she had the fortune of being able to purchase her dreams and the misfortune of buying others’ deceitful praise that instilled her with false belief in her abilities. Had her circle of companions been truthful and truly supportive, could she perhaps have worked toward correcting her vocal problems? Truth and honesty form the basis of any relationship, an extremely valuable commodity, and in the film’s portrayal of her life, Jenkins’s life was rife with false praise and false belief, which I think did her a great disservice. She gave everything of herself to others, her passion and her wealth, and they took advantage of her generosity by deluding her. Or was it their way of giving back, to make her feel good, to fulfill her dreams? The film is complex. I know for myself I value truth and integrity above feeling good, and I believe with the truth can lead us on paths that will ultimately lead us to positive experiences anyway.

Death loomed constantly over her life, yet she did not let it deter her ambition. She lived a life of courage. Love. Friendship. Dreams. Loyalty. She aged gracefully. And shouldn’t we all have a little fun before we perish? She also worked hard, practicing daily with her coach and pianist. Isn’t this too, something we should value? I believe the movie portrayed Florence Foster Jenkins as one possessing a great talent, a great talent for life. And I found it an inspiration not to give up and to work hard for my dreams and to achieve a little fun as well, as she did. And though I value loyalty in my relationships, I hope to nurture the type of loyalty that elicits the truth about myself from those close to me, instead of deception. It is only with the truth that we can push ourselves to conquer our challenges, be aware of our deficiencies, and work to become someone we can accept and maybe even learn to like or love and to be our best versions of ourselves. So we can be the best to our loved ones and to our chosen paths.

Wealth is not as valuable as society deems it, leading to people failing us in important ways. This is one lesson from the film. Another is that the voices inside our heads might not echo our voice as perceived by others. We might not be the best judges of ourselves, our opinions forged on complex histories and messages from our childhoods. I think it’s important to seek those trusted, yet loyal, friends and mentors who will help us see our truths and to look inside and try to discover the truths about ourselves as well. It is important to cultivate a talent for life, a generosity for others, and perhaps some measured generosity for our own foibles and faults, and to cultivate our dreams and to work toward them. Indeed, the film, Florence Foster Jenkins, served as an inspiration for reflections.

Review of Galliard Syndrome’s Velvet Rings: A Musical Expression of Carpe Diem

To appear soon on Wellesley Underground.

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Image of Galliard Syndrome provided with permission by Christos Ntanos

Music. It’s more universal than cultural ties or genetic bonds, though my introduction to Galliard Syndrome arose from both. A few years ago my cousin, a now newly minted PhD engineer from Athens, Christos Ntanos, introduced me to Galliard Syndrome’s “Velvet Rings” video. Michael Andritsopoulos, who was an original member of the band on guitar, composed the score and wrote the lyrics for the video produced under The Leaders Records label. Current members of Galliard Syndrome include vocalist Dimitris Barbas, Ilias Mitatos, on guitar, Christos Ntanos, on keyboards and production, Serafeim Georgousopoulos, on bass guitar, and Michalis Galanis, on drums.

The opening bars of “Velvet Rings” transport you from the cement-walled office you might be occupying to a sunlit morning in an Athens park with the distinctly Greek sounds emanating from a single guitar. The buoyant chorus, the feel-good vibes, the patent joy in the upbeat sound will have you instantly hooked. The whimsical video features the romps of an initially untethered dog who, with a woman companion later, leads us from morning to night as the companion disseminates fliers for the band. We also follow the band from relaxing and grounded on verdant grass to a rooftop at sunset which later evolves into night. This diurnal, unending cycle seems to be the basis of the song about the indefinitely persisting velvet rings. In the video we encounter the development of life in a individual day, a musical version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, from a young couple admiring an ultrasound of a fetus to an elderly woman reflecting on photographs from her youth. The life cycle repeats itself, as in the lyrics of the song, which parallels the infinite evolution of the universe as well. The idea of infinity is indicated by the band’s logo, a Mobius strip fashioned into an infinity symbol. The song elucidates that this is the rationale, presumably for everything. It’s true; if right now you are buried beneath the psychic burdens of life or perhaps the existential meaningless of it all, watch the “Velvet Rings” video. You will unleash your joy, recall your youth, and recognize the importance of relishing the present, a moment you share with the band and audience on a rooftop in Greece. Galliard Syndrome’s Velvet Rings is a musical and visual expression of carpe diem.

Naturally when I heard of Galliard Syndrome’s 2015 Velvet Rings album release by The Leaders Records, I was eager to discover more novel sounds from the band. Velvet Rings contains much of the same feel-good, joyous tones, though with an eclectic potpourri from other musical traditions and philosophies creating a dynamic, fresh collection of distinct songs, an antidote to the stale overly electronic sounds that dominate the radio waves. The album is a musical journey from a peaceful Celtic mood conjured in “Celtic Forest,” produced by virtual symphonic instruments, to a heavier metallic frustrated rage expressed in both the lyrics and music of “Pissing against the wind” and “Your Love is a Game.” “S.M.S.” (“Save My Soul”) elicits a combination of lyrical, symphonic sounds as well as more electronic ones in a collaborative project with the Youth Choir of Lycee Leonin with lyrics based on the students’ fears and dreams. As the song progresses, the choir of teenagers accompanies the band’s vocalist, Barbas. The dichotomy of the chorus and Barbas creates a beauty in its balance and reinforces the band’s theme of unifying generations.

The album’s song “Ode to Beer” is also a mixed lyrical and slightly electronic-sounding song that might be a substitute (or a co-conspirator) to its suggestion (to consume alcohol) for coping with a soul-robbing experience. Although at times it seems beyond the vocalist’s range, this doesn’t detract much from the song’s expression of a drunken despair. “Under One Sky” is a song sung twice, once in Greek with a Greek folk feel and once in English with the band’s more signature sound. I prefer the English version as it is more compatible with the vocal range of Barbas. Although I am ignorant of the Greek folk song’s translation, the English version’s advice not to surrender parallels vibes, both in lyrics and music, of some of the band’s other songs.

The album also features a number of songs in Greek most of which possess similar addictive choruses and lively melodies that characterize Galliard Syndrome’s English language songs. Some of the songs are inspired more by folk roots, others more by rock ones. Though I can’t translate the lyrics, retaining the Greek language for some of the pieces captures a diverse and ethnic authenticity that enables you to take part of a cultural experience, to travel via music to Greece.

In “Galliard” we hear a lyrical, bittersweet song accompanied by the sounds of ocean about meeting again in some possible future. It leaves you with thoughts of parting and impermanence, in contrast to the perpetuity of “Velvet Rings.” Incorporating water as an instrument lends a sense of life’s journey to the piece.

In “Everlasting Feast,” Galliard Syndrome returns to a carpe diem theme of “Velvet Rings” with a slightly less folk and more electronic feel. The lyrics capture the same impression of savoring the beauty, dreams, and lights in life, the stars in the night sky as opposed to the black-hole oblivion to which humanity seems to be careening (if you’re too cognizant of the media). In the song, which constructs a space-music ambiance that could easily be at home in a planetarium, the uplifting lyrics are synchronous with an equally positive musical accompaniment. “Everlasting Feast” is, indeed, a musical fountain of youth that can rejuvenate even one afflicted with a psychological arthritis and induce her to get up and dance.

In short, Galliard’s album Velvet Rings, features diverse musical sounds and ideas and lyrics, often converging within a single song. The overall caliber of all of the songs achieves a level almost unmatched by a single rock album, which usually contains songs of mixed quality. Although some of the songs will provide you with misery-loves-company community for those days you feel the dreary bruises that befall us all, overall, the album leaves you in an optimistic state of mind seeking to fill your day with pleasure and the pursuit of your dreams.

Do you need to refresh your brain? Are you stagnating in a less than optimal place, either physically, emotionally, or elsewhere in your life? Do you need to escape the dregs of your existence, even just for a few moments? Then I prescribe viewing Galliard Syndrome’s “Velvet Rings” video or listening to their album for a jaunt in Greek-rock sounds and images. Music. Inspiration. In Galliard Syndrome’s Velvet Rings you will find a combination of both providing therapy for the soul.

Bravo.