The Glass Piano

I was inspired to write the following poem while Philip Glass performed an etude from The Complete Piano Etudes, performed as part of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival.  In fact, I felt an urge to start a poetry project based on my observations of art and the world outside of myself, as in ekphrasis, to aid my internal compass as I navigate through the hours of my life.  I hope these poems will resonate with you.  The Glass Piano is the first one.

The Glass Piano
by Rebecca Danos

notes in life blur
rhythms in thoughts repeat
rhythms in hours repeat
rhythms in years repeat

until an Accent
a singular note resonates
in breath — steady — regular

and melody rises above
technique — the
Theme
by which we know
the next note
to play

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I think we all need to go to Athens…or have a thirty second dance party with Galliard Syndrome

I’ve been reflecting and reading over some of my writing. It’s heavy. Sometimes it takes me days to recover after writing a chapter of a new project I’m working on. I thought my last two projects were dark. Not like this one.

Life is too short.

I sat on the bus and mentioned to my husband the other day all of my nevers. I’ll probably never read War and Peace or Les Miserables, especially in the original languages. I’ll probably never be fluent in German or French or learn Italian, Russian, or Greek. It was a little sad to think about all the things I’ll never do.

People do say, never say never.

Someone also once told me, as I wrote in a previous blog, that “Life sucks, you’re going to die, so you might as well have some fun in the meantime.”

I just wrote my cousin who is in the band Galliard Syndrome. I told him how sane and happy everyone looks in the music video of Velvet Rings. They’re skipping through Athens with an adorable beagle and drinking beer outdoors. Who can resist the Athens architecture and sapphire-enameled sky? I realize how peculiar this sentiment is. Yet look at the drama around us in the microcosm as well as the macrocosm. Maybe we just need to chillax (as my officemate at McGill would oft tell me, which is really embarrassing and telling since she was an immigrant from the Lebanese war-zone).

Yes, I realize I’m very privileged which is why I’m so at odds with my daily struggles. My husband tells me that my feelings are valid as I’ve encountered nontrivial challenges since birth. But as I wrote my cousin, in the video they really look like they’re living life, really living it. How many of us do this? How many of us just try to survive each day, even if we might be privileged and our problems less blatant?

“Life sucks, you’re going to die, so you might as well have some fun in the meantime.”

Never say never. I got out my Greek course and started to study it. I think maybe we should all go to Greece and have a καφες. Or at the very least spend an evening listening to Galliard Syndrome and have a Grey’s Anatomy thirty second dance party.

And it’s time to write that romcom novel that’s been bouncing around in my mind.

Meditations from Manitoba Opera’s Madama Butterfly

There is nothing like attending a live musical performance. You can sit at home and listen to the music over and over for years, yet do you really hear it? Last night I think I heard Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for the first time. Sitting in a theatre, your concentration is entirely on the music, on the performance, stirring and touching you, stimulating a meditation on how the performance connects to you and your life.

The story of Madama Butterfly is simple. Military officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton marries Japanese geisha Butterfly with the preconceived plan of deserting her once he tires of the marriage. And he does. He dissolves his marriage without ceremony or even her notification. He leaves Japan with her under the impression he will return. She patiently awaits his return, and, when he does three years later, it’s with a new wife in tow and the intent of removing their child to the US. Pinkerton betrays his faithful wife. The Manitoba Opera, as well as the singer David Pomeroy who portrayed Pinkerton, encouraged us to boo him after our ovation for his dramatically compelling performance.

The composer, Puccini, weaves the American national anthem into his score to accompany Pinkterton’s appearances. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the Star-Spangled Banner, though it accompanied my childhood attending (and even singing in a choir at) sports events in Philadelphia. Although my personal anthem is more aligned with Bruce Springsteen, the melody played in this context moved me. Pinkerton followed the stereotype of the American taking what he wants without regard to others. A parallel occurs in the role of the US president in the film Love Actually (played by Billy Bob Thornton) opposite the British Prime Minister played by Hugh Grant. We must strive to evade the fate of becoming this stereotype by being faithful and kind to our family and friends, upholding principles, being generous, and not stereotyping others based on their origins.

Too often I find myself just trying to get through another day while searching for the elusive purpose and meaning to this existence I share with others on earth. Often I get cranky, I’ll admit, as I saw on a recent blog post I made, since I work and have worked very hard in my life without any or much compensation. Maybe this is in part how I conform to the stereotype of the culture I was born to. I do feel immensely grateful for everything I have, and I mean everything, including being able to walk and to type right now and for any moment not in some kind of severe discomfort. But perhaps there is still a selfishness to my attitude. Even in just wanting to feel satisfied there is meaning to existence. Because, as I learned from the Gita, it’s not about what we want to do with our life. It’s about pursuing our duty. And not enjoying the fruits of our labour. There is honour in serving our duty. I admit I don’t entirely know the full breadth and depth of my duty, but I have a sense of it. And in serving our duty we have honour.

Madama Butterfly, sung by Hiromi Omura, was a woman of honour. Omura portrayed Butterfly with grace, honesty, authenticity, and honour. Her aria, Un bel di vedremo, was powerful. I saw in Omura’s Butterfly more puissance and strength than fragility, yet it suited the character’s sense of honour. I briefly discussed the opera with a Japanese woman this morning who, like me, also enjoyed Manitoba Opera’s production, this her inaugural experience as a member of an opera audience. I can only hope that in my novels where I portray characters of backgrounds different from my own, with the intent of honouring these cultures I so admire, my readers will respond positively to my treatment, like this woman did to the Manitoba Opera’s portrayal of her culture. I struggle greatly with concerns of accidental cultural appropriation, as opposed to cultural appreciation, so I do my homework, consult with others, and ask their permission. Yet do I succeed in my goal?

With every breath we might aim to follow our duty and to live a life of authenticity and honour. To give to others rather than to follow the stereotype of greed that might plague us from our origins. I remember a piano teacher telling me that music is about giving. Every time we sit at the piano to practice we must give to the music and to the piano, even if no one is listening. I’m learning that music is part of my duty, even if others are more talented than I am or more skilled. Because through the practice of music we develop both as practitioners, as audience members, and as people. It’s the local Winnipeg arts organizations like the Manitoba Opera that give so much to us; they give us high calibre music, an experience, a spectacle even, and a moment of reflection about our place in our communities and the world.

 

 

WSO Concert: Transformative. Enlightening. Redemptive. Awakening

Last night I attended the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra concert featuring pianist Natasha Paremski, soprano Nathalie Paulin, and conductor Daniel Raiskin.

The concert opened with Nimrod by Edward Elgar in memory of a symphony violist who had passed away.  A yellow rose was placed on the chair where she would have played, and the piece was meant to express with music what words cannot, as she would have desired.  The tribute and moment of silence moved me to tears, as did the music, ethereal and somber, sensitive and sweet.  The violist’s symphonic family expressed their love for her through music and silence, through a rose.

Beethoven’s Overture for The Creatures of Prometheus followed in the program.  The string instruments hummed, reminiscent to me of insect wings.  This piece, new to me, was lively and invigorating.  Despite a comprehensive collection of CD’s at home, I am always delighted by the WSO program which introduces work unknown to me.

Natasha Paremski played the piano in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor next.  The opening bars transported the audience in time to another era.  The orchestra and Paremski conjured Romanticism and Chopin, as the music rang through the auditorium.  Paremski’s performance leaves me at a loss for words, the experience indescribable; Chopin lived through Paremski’s conjuring of his music, his presence palpable.  It captivated.  It enchanted.  It enthralled.  Paremski channelled the very essence of Chopin in a transformative way.

The final piece was Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 Op 36, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” featuring soprano Nathalie Paulin.  The inspiration for the symphony was Gorecki’s experience of witnessing the horrors of Auschwitz at the end of World War II.  The music captured the horrors of the unthinkable as well as the fragile hope and beauty which might be humanity’s only redemption.  Conductor Daniel Raiskin delivered a pre-concert discussion before the symphony.  He conveyed Gorecki’s belief in spiritual beginnings and the human innocence at birth before corruption. Raiskin urged the audience to use the piece as a means of self-reflection and meditation.  He discussed the present situation where people don’t know where to go and keep running and Dostoevsky’s quote about how “beauty will save the world.”  The music was relevant both for the world stage and its players as well as for the individual, for the macrocosm as well as the microcosm.  I think as individuals we are often running as well.  Running away from the inevitable pain of being human and not knowing where to find solace.

Perhaps the answer is in the spirituality and beauty of music, a language more universal and more comprehensible than the feeble words we use to try to capture an emotion.  The night was unexpected.  It transported us not to the moon or to Mars, but to our own spiritual beginnings.  It awakened in us a hope that we, too, might be able to find the music to comfort our wounds, enlighten us, and fill us with the spirituality and meaning without which we might be empty.

Thank you to the WSO and all the performers.

Canada Day 2017: Happy 150th

As a Canadian, I have a number of rights and responsibilities which I could rattle off to you if you wanted. One of them is to work to the best of my ability and to take care of my family as best as I can. My plans for today were to honour these responsibilities by doing work on revising my book and relaxing with a movie and maybe some games with Andrew, my family. But this morning I awoke with more energy (or extra coffee) and decided to clean as well, which feels important in taking care of my family. I seem to do a lot of thinking while I clean.

It was a conscious decision to concentrate more on my career, writing novels, than writing without compensation. Too often in my life I’ve been solicited to do research work or other work without monetary compensation. Would we expect the same of others whose work we consume? So why am I writing this? Writing is isolating, and I find it rewarding to write blogs for feedback and for the feeling that I’m making a contribution, no matter how small it might be. Maybe I promote a novel I love or a musical performance that has transformed me. One of my responsibilities as a Canadian is to volunteer. I think of my pro bono writing as a way of contributing to my country and the arts organizations that I find so critical in a world that can seem bankrupt of valuing beauty, poetry, creativity, and art. How much value do we place on art? Is something’s value only commensurate with how profitable it is? Of course not. Society seems to place importance on financially lucrative pursuits, but there are so many significant entities that come unattached to price tags. Like the invitation my friend extended to coffee when I told him I’ve been down. Or a free concert I recently saw featuring the sensitive soprano, Lara Ciekiewicz, and incomparable pianist and maestro, Alexander Mickelthwate. Value is inherent in art that moves us, the music that sustains us, and the books which teach us about other cultures, experiences, and relationships.

I went to Paris in May for a change of scene and to give myself a fresh start and rebirth myself from the stagnant quagmire in which I was mired. It worked for a little after my return, but on occasion I reverted to old ways and old thoughts, old patterns. This process of becoming and growing seems to occur in fits and starts, plateaus, and ascents. An occasional descent. And it’s not without its surprises. It’s a process, continuous like the electromagnetic spectrum, rather than discrete as in something quantized.

I am gradually changing. Emerging from my cocoon and truly understanding who I am and how I wish to contribute not just to Canada but to my family, friends, and beyond. I take each day one day at a time and squeeze in my novel writing or writing research, physics, and music whenever I can, letting it buoy my mood by being immersed in endeavours I find valuable. Everything we do which raises us from the quicksand we can so often revert saves our lives. Writing does this for me and also the feeling as though my writing resonates with others. This doesn’t mean I don’t have an ambivalent relationship with exposing my vulnerabilities and innards through sharing my writing, but somehow I’ve been training myself to do so and feel gratified when I can connect to my audience, that it touches people.

While cleaning, I meditated on how I don’t have a schedule any more. This is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. I try instead to just do whatever I can each day to feel like I’m making my contribution to my work and my family and my family which is Canada. To do the best I can. I don’t take a single day for granted nor a single moment with my loved ones. I’m discovering new friends who reach out to me and offer their friendship which I return with love. I’m discovering there are pockets I haven’t explored yet and still more lessons to learn. This is another reason why I write, to learn from my characters. They all have something to teach me. My aunt always says everything is a learning experience, and it is.

Today is a historic day. I will finish my cleaning quickly and then celebrate at the zoo and a concert a friend invited me to. I’ll watch a movie and work on my novel.

My gift to you is these words. Don’t take a single moment or your loved ones for granted. Find honour in your rights and responsibilities and work every day to do your best to fill your life with meaning and joy and following your principles. Live a life and value the music and poetry that surround you. And when your mind is shrouded by darkness, hold on to the thoughts, memories, people, places, and experiences that can get you through until a beam of light can shine through. Life is short. And perhaps meaningless. So distill meaning from the little things. Even if it’s just improving your immediate surroundings.

Happy Canada Day!

Addendum: My celebration of Canada Day was even more memorable than I had anticipated.  Instead of going to the zoo, my friends and I stayed after the concert among the politicians gathered for the occasion.  First we proudly sang O Canada as a united group gathered outside all in red and white to be followed by the inspiring words of her Honour the Honourable Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon.  She urged us all to use our voices, a major theme in my fiction.  If memory serves correct, the Honourable Premier Brian Pallister welcomed the diversity which makes Canada Canada.  But what resonated the most was His Worship Mayor Brian Bowman’s call to action for all of us to think of three things we can do to contribute to our country this year.  What are you going to do to add to Canada’s story?

Manitoba Opera’s Werther

A friend who had also lost people in his life to suicide once told me, even one death to suicide is one too many. If one is too much, by now the number of people I’ve seen touched by suicide in one way or another is much too much. You might think spending a night at an opera where an amorous young man takes his life would romanticize suicide, yet it did not. The Manitoba Opera treated suicide as a tragedy with compassion and sensitivity and as a very real problem in our society, using art as a form of awareness. Bob MacLaren alluded to this in his inspired pre-show chat, when he expressed his empathy for Charlotte’s grief, the object of Werther’s love and the reason for his torment. Perhaps it transcends words, but, as Werther lies dying, absorbing the words he had for years longed to hear, his death and the wound it opens in the family who had loved him does not seem romantic but instead filled with ironic tragedy. He had been a man with a future, with talent and prospects. A man who had in prior years been filled with joy and optimism. Who can forget John Tessier as Werther and his mellifluous opening aria where he fills the concert hall with the reflective light of new beginnings and hopeful joy in the first act? And yes, the Manitoba Opera sensitively addressed the issue of mental illness, more so than I’ve seen at other events to promote suicide awareness, definitely without romanticizing it as is often done in popular culture. The opera also collaborated with the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba and provided the orange and yellow ribbons of suicide awareness for all to wear.

Werther is based on the Goethe German novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther). It is sung in French written by the librettists Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann and composed by Jules Massenet. And beyond the door of the set are what look like the prairie grasses of Manitoba I love so much. German, French, and Manitoba all represented in union to present universal themes.

Looming in the opera’s ambiance is the idea of home. There is Werther who comes to a new home, Tessier equally believable as a young optimist and as an obsessive depressive. Then there is Albert, sung in a rich, clear voice by Keith Phares, who comes and goes from home for periods at a time. The family of sisters, Charlotte, the older sister, sung by Lauren Segal, and Sophie, the younger, sung by Lara Secord-Haid, and their siblings remain at home throughout the opera. Secord-Haid is convincing as a light-hearted young sister with a sweet and innocent voice to match her character. Lauren Segal’s voice is equally sonorous and powerful at the lower and upper registers, and she was also very well suited to the role, not sacrificing the music for drama or the drama for music but sustaining both throughout the opera. As the acts progress, the balance between the singers and the orchestra synchronize into a seamless partnership.

The opera addresses many provocative themes and dichotomies, playing with the idea of light and dark (such as the colour of Werther’s suit versus Albert’s suit in the first act), joy and sorrow (the angelic voices of the children singing Christmas songs and languishing suffering, death, and the ghost of the dead mother and her dying wish for Charlotte to wed Albert never forgotten), duty and passionate abandon, hope and despair (the mood in the first act versus the last act), life and death, young and old. The opera begins with the death of Charlotte and Sophie’s mother and ends with Werther’s death. And as Bob MacLaren pointed out in the pre-show chat, it also begins and ends with the children singing and spiritual symbolism.  As Bob noted, the last word, sung by Werther, is the word, blessed. The music alternates between joyful and brooding, and, if I’m not mistaken, even the language changes, as in the earlier acts Charlotte and Werther address each other in the formal French, vous, and later fall into the language of intimate friends, tu.

Werther addresses other themes such as forgiveness, duty, and innocence. There is a point when Werther and Charlotte (I believe) sing about forgetting everything that has passed. Can you imagine if you could forget the past? Our memories both define us yet also confine us to our own narrative, and the line in the libretto has an almost renewing effect. I was also inspired by Charlotte’s declaration of fearlessness at the end. I’m probably misunderstanding her message, but I wonder about the quality our lives would obtain if we would all approach life and death with fearlessness and honesty. Also in the opera is a discussion of shame, and an obsessiveness that transforms Werther into, as in the words of the opera, a madman.

Werther is a poet in the opera, as opposed to a painter as in the Goethe novel, and the power, pleasure, and despair books and words produce abound in the opera. There is the romantic novel passed around in the beginning. Werther scribbles down notes when inspiration touches him. He and Charlotte reminisce over an Ossian poem he had been translating. A giant bookcase adorns Charlotte and Albert’s house. Werther sends Charlotte letters in his absence over which she languishes. The choice of an overarching theme of the hero as a poet is compatible with the visceral and romantic language of the libretto and music. The opera is extremely engaging and fast-paced, economical like a poem without any extraneous moments.

As is sung in the opera, life is fleeting. Each moment is a fertile opportunity to make some poetry in life, or as in the case of an evening at the opera, to savour the experience of a poetic musical experience, appealing to both the mind and the heart.

And to quote my husband, if you feel like Werther, there are resources available to get help.  As Larry Desrochers introduced the opera, “There’s always hope; you’re not alone.”

Lost and Found…in Canada

I have been increasingly finding myself out of place recently, unable to locate a sense of belonging, connectedness, and even a tangible grasp of home. As I luxuriate in the elegantly crafted stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and read Susanna Kaysen’s inviting Cambridge, I experience a nostalgic attachment toward New England where I passed through some formative years. Memories of spinach and cheese pastries and coffees at Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square revive a longing across the separation in years, no less palpable than from an estranged loved one.

After a recent email newsletter from UCLA featuring iconic landmarks preserved in films, my heart skipped a beat for those years spent climbing toward Kerckhoff to drink a coffee and eating vegetarian San Francisco burgers (the kind with mushrooms and soy sauce) in Ackerman Union or studying in Northern Lights.

Then of course my mind never drifts far from McGill’s physics department’s workshops where I’d meet new and old friends in a stimulating research environment. I also remember fondly eating nachos in the graduate house’s pub, Thomson House. My sense of place in Montreal was definitive where I passed between the McGill Ghetto and the Rutherford building and the Schulich School of Music for my music lessons. And yet, people say you are always an outsider to Montreal if you are not born there. I experienced this first hand on a trip to Paris where I felt more at home surrounded by the Parisian French language I had learned as a teenager than by the dialect spoken in Montreal.

And now I live in Winnipeg. There isn’t a large influx of people outside of Winnipeg into this city, it seems, and people don’t often migrate away. And so in many ways I feel myself still to be an outsider. Some of my friends have had social groups since high school and nearby family members, whereas I have none except my husband and cat. I no longer feel as though I belong to a certain community of people with whom I interact frequently, as you would if you worked at a company or institution of sorts. And so I grope for my place here, feeling a bit dislocated. In all other chapters of my life, I’ve bonded with a clear identity as a physics student or post-doc or instructor at a specific institution. Now I free fall, struggling to build a routine into the immense scattered hours of the day and striving to legitimize myself (to myself) perhaps in my new profession as a writer (which I can hardly utter without feeling as though I’m an impostor).

There are many ways to form attachments to people and places. Early in my life I wrote an essay after my first trip to Canada where I professed an eternal loyalty to this country and found in it a place of home, rebirth, and freedom, especially from fear, and I experienced a measure of safety I had never experienced in the US. The multicultural Canadians embraced me, and these friendly people seemed special. My essay from the early nineties serves as one of my first love letters to Canada.

As a child, I spent hours upon hours watching and rewatching Kevin Sullivan’s beloved adaptation of Anne of Green Gables and even wrote letters to an imaginary Anne. During a break today, it occurred to me to crack open the DVD of Anne of Avonlea. With the beginning strains of music evoking an expansive landscape and Anne’s devotion to writing, I grew to realize that home is not located in a coffee shop or in the facade of a familiar building or in a group of people sharing lunch, but in our ethos and values, in the languages we speak, in the memories we carry with us of people and places. Home does not lie in a single institution or a job title but in a broader identity including our dreams and aspirations, the music we listen to and make, our actions, the stories we write, our passing connections to other people and places, and the brief footprints we leave.

I pass through many cities and through many people’s lives as a wanderer and a nomad. I don’t know if I’ll ever really feel at home in Winnipeg. I’ve lived here longer than any other city since I was seventeen, and yet I still feel the pangs of an outsider. Yet with the enormous welcoming embrace I felt from Canada and Canadians and my early attachment to the country’s values, culture, and even cultural institutions, including icon Glenn Gould, whose recordings I’ve owned all my life, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, I see that Canada has served as a compass to me to locate a sense of my dreams, my home, and my core since childhood.

Is a sense of home and to a greater extent, identity, elusive for those whose lives have been peripatetic? Perhaps. The people and places that populate our lives might change as through a revolving door. But even we can find a compass to locate and ground us as a starting point in discovering where we belong and who we are. And for me my sense of home and identity starts with Canada, including the history, values, heritage, land, people, and cultural institutions of this country. My home and native land, as is expressed in the lyrics of O Canada.