Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Paris Spy: A Light Still in the City

Maggie Hope is a special agent for World War II Britain dropped in France in Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Paris Spy. Her mission is twofold: 1) to unravel the mystery of a potentially compromised fellow agent and 2) to uncover her sister’s whereabouts and to bring her safely home. As I read the book I noted the themes of Sleeping Beauty and clocks, the pressure of time, threading throughout. Danger and threat hover ominously from even the beginning pages, leading the reader on a tense, heightened journey that the word page turner does not do full justice; it is a novel meant to be binge read.

Superficially perhaps the novel is about revealing a double agent, finding a sister, and completing a mission. The novel is really about courage. Most obviously, it’s about the strength and the lengths people will go and what they will sacrifice to fight against those who don’t value religious minorities and the mentally or physically disabled. The courage to fight against fascism and those who don’t value everyone’s right to exist and with equal rights. I championed Maggie and her friends for fighting for their principles and all of those resisting the oppressive, censoring, intolerant, horrific, and truly inhumane Nazi culture. I relished the line in which “Resistance comes in all forms,” referencing how art can be a form of resistance, even the ballet and the colours worn on the dancers’ costumes. Resistance to immoral forces can be subtle or overt, just as strength can be. Very timely motifs.

I enjoyed Maggie’s realistic use of mathematical games, such as reciting the digits of Pi or calculating the Fibonacci sequence to calm herself. Like Maggie, I find math to be comforting, a safe place to go in my mind. For me I use the game 24 to relax. 24 is where you use the four basic operations of arithmetic to form the number twenty-four from four numbers between 1 and 13 (for example, if your numbers are 3,5,7,11 you can take 7 minus 3 to get 4, then take 11 minus 5 to get 6, and then multiply 6 times 4 to get 24; it’s extremely soothing and addictive). I loved how Maggie described the meditative nature of math, how almost prayer-like it is, an experience of divine proportions. Even with math we can quiet our minds to defeat the foes who try to suppress us. In a sense, math can be a form of resistance as a way not to allow others to trample our minds and spirits.

But what I think The Paris Spy is really about is Sleeping Beauty and love. Like Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Maggie and her friends wake up to what’s really important, which is love. Again and again through the Maggie Hope series, Maggie and her friends learn the depth of a love of country, love of freedom from fascism and extreme intolerance, love of peace, and a love for the bonds that connect her coterie. It’s a coming-of-age story for Maggie where she wakes up to who she and her sister are meant to be, even if she might despise the moral dilemmas she encounters. In the book, circumstances push her and her friends to their limits which test their characters, and Maggie, in particular, wakes up to the most fundamental meaning of duty and learns where hers lies. I cannot help but be reminded of the Bhagavad Gita’s teaching us to follow our duty, what we are meant to do in our lives. Through the course of The Paris Spy, Maggie learns who are her allies, who are not, and she grows up to witness the horrors of a game which is not as black and white as chess.

There is a line in the book, “Love is what matters.” As I journey through reading the Maggie Hope books, I see that they really form an unconventional epic love story. It’s not the romances that occasionally pepper the books that form the love story, but a more encompassing love, one of true fidelity to friendship and sisterhood and one to the very purity of mathematics that governs our world. As I myself age, I realize how I wish all of life could be as simple as math. I think Maggie must agree with me.

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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.”

Notes on a WSO Concert from the Second Movement Girl

As you can imagine from the title of this blog, I just attended the WSO performance featuring Angela Hewitt playing de Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major as well as a Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, all conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch.

I wrote Maxwell’s equations on a poet’s blank paper on her wall this week and saw in them not just the equations which describe light but also the letters for the magnetic field, B, and the electric field, E. BE. In music, in a concert, in an evening at the WSO, we can simply let go of the boxes and equations we imprison ourselves in and be. And that’s exactly what happened for me tonight, especially during the second movement of the Ravel concerto where my eyes squinted from tears rather than tension. Second movements. The adagio. So perhaps I should have introduced myself to the marketing interviewer for the radio as “The Second Movement Girl” instead of by my title and name. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The concert opened with Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon. I will confess now that I didn’t read the program notes as I usually do. I wanted my impressions to be my own. Unadulterated. In this piece there were contrasts of light and dark with menacing undertones. There were moments of free song and periods where threats crept in. It was cinematic in its feel possessing all the ingredients of a good film captured in sound.

Following the Stafylakis was the de Falla. Impressionistic images painted in sound. Blurred piano tones sometimes overpowered by the orchestra. I was so fascinated in the complicated fingering, I was as intrigued by the visual performance as the aural one.

The story continued with the Ravel. Angela Hewitt’s playing was so joyful and expressive, her dancing hands so deliberate and precise, the concert felt like a lesson in technique and piano by itself. My mind would sometimes wander, lost in the world of the soundscape. Losing myself. Forgetting my name. Forgetting who I am, and what I want to be. Until the second movement.

The second movement lifted me out of the time and space of the concert hall and into the realm of the human condition. I feel like I wrote these words before. Perhaps I did. I told you, second movements kill me. The Ravel second movement expressed an exquisite melancholy. A beauty and sadness all mixed up. In it was the heartbeat of tenderness and a distillation that there is meaning in suffering. Yes, there was meaning in it. Intention. A deliberate message perhaps that we can understand something in this mess and confusion that is the world. That is ourselves.

Finally, Stravinsky’s Firebird. In a word, triumphant. A thrilling conclusion to the story woven by music. Music that expressed the world in a symphony of ideas and clashing passions. Maybe my interpretation is all wrong. Maybe the story I heard is different from the one you hear in the music. My thoughts blur together in a pointillist staccato impression that in this turmoil that is the world, that is ourselves, there is a solution. There is a solution in music. In art.

Afterwards my star-struck self was thrilled by a signed CD by the very gracious Angela Hewitt. I did notice in her pre-concert talk (during which I was mostly too excited by anticipation to pay attention) that she mentioned a four-year project. I often don’t make plans, or if I do, I change them. I usually try to exist in the present moment yet am so inspired by the thought of a project. In the frenetic frenzy to do everything immediately, lest the moment pass, it’s difficult to make plans past today. In the precarious world we’ve always lived in, always a threat looming, what a beautiful notion to make plans. Calculations without desperation. Space for projects. For music.

Yes, I am inspired. When I first saw Angela Hewitt’s DVD on piano playing, Bach Performance on the Piano, I thought I would need to travel to Montreal to hear her in person. And yet today I felt humbled to be in her presence.  In Winnipeg. A concert takes you on a journey. Through different musical eras and different emotional states. I didn’t know the geography of where I would travel tonight as I was unfamiliar with these pieces. As I said in the interview, if you attend a concert (or a ballet or opera or play), you might be surprised into falling in love. And you might be inspired. And grow. And learn what is important. And maybe it will be the map that will help you hear your own heartbeat. To find yourself.

Brava to all involved tonight!

Review and Scientific Discussion of Theatre by the River’s Production of Nick Payne’s Constellations

Do you engage with him in banter or do you discuss the weather? Do you talk or do you listen? Do you invite him to stay the night or ask him to leave? Do you take care of her or betray her? Do you ask her to spend the rest of her life with you or not? Do you take that last chance to connect or do you let him go? Do you brave an illness or do you choose death?

And is there another you in another universe of the multiverse landscape confronted with the same questions but making different choices? Are there an infinite number of universes containing an infinite number of copies of you living out different variations of your life? This is the premise of Nick Payne’s stimulating play, Constellations, performing this week at the Asper Centre for Theatre and Film by Theatre by the River featuring Mel Marginet and Derek Leenhouts. Together with Vesna Milosevic-Zdjelar and Andrew Frey, I have the great honor to participate in the Talk Back sessions after two of the performances to share my thoughts about the play’s scientific content.

The play consists of a series of scenes each of which represents a different interaction of the protagonists, Marianne and Roland, in various contrasting scenarios that could be playing out in different universes of the multiverse. The notion of a multiverse is based on a theory that there is a landscape which contains an infinite number of universes. The scenes alternate between witty and poignant, frivolous and weighted. Both the scientific allusions as well as the ethical decisions the characters encounter are relevant and provocative. The actors, Mel Marginet and Derek Leenhouts, authentically vary their portrayals to accommodate the ever shifting ambiance from scene to scene, from lighthearted to grave, from awkward to intimate, from warm to aloof, from casual to intense. Although the play follows only two individuals through the possible situations they could share, the pair draws you into their stories which we can relate to with the different relationships in our lives and the different roles we play with the people who populate our life. Using a clever device of parallel universes, the play paints a mosaic of nuanced experiences we all share on our own life adventures.

What is the scientific idea behind the multiverse, and could we ever experimentally detect it? A popular theory within the framework of string theory (the mathematically self-consistent theory that unifies all four forces by postulating the most elementary constituents are one-dimensional strings, as opposed to point particles) is the landscape. The landscape gives a physical framework in which the anthropic principle could be valid. This provides a possible solution for why there is a small non-vanishing cosmological constant (the parameter in the universe responsible for the universe’s observed accelerated expansion, a sort of negative pressure). The anthropic principle considers why the state of the universe is such that life can exist. The landscape argument suggests that there is a landscape of universes within a multiverse, and since we observe life in our universe, we happen to occupy one of the domains which supports life. However, there could be other universes with different flavors of string theory (with different degrees of symmetries) and hence physical laws which don’t support life. You can imagine these universes as expanding bubbles within the multiverse.

Is there a way we could detect whether we live in a multiverse? Stephen Feeney, Matt Johnson, Daniel Mortlock, and Hiranya Peiris asked just that in 2010 (see their initial papers on the arXiv, arXiv:1012.1995 and their longer paper, arXiv:1012.3667). The cosmic microwave background (CMB) (in one scene this is the subject that the character Marianne studies) is the relic radiation from the Big Bang. At the origin of the universe, space was small and radiation was very hot. As space expands, the Big Bang’s relic photons’ wavelengths stretch out, decreasing their energy. Today the CMB has stretched to millimeter wavelength and a temperature of 2.73 above absolute zero. The universe is bathed in this radiation; it is everywhere and can even interfere as noise to electronic signals (remember the static on old TVs? Some of that was due to the CMB). Feeney et al postulated that when the bubbles containing eternally inflating universes collide, they will produce edges or discontinuities in the temperature maps of the CMB. At the Perimeter Institute, I was talking to Matt Johnson and mentioned I had used the Canny algorithm as an edge detection algorithm for my research with identifying cosmic string signals in the CMB. My application of the Canny algorithm was simpler, since I could assume a flat two-dimensional sky, and his team adapted a more sophisticated Canny algorithm for their models as part of their search for the edges produced by colliding universe bubbles in the CMB. Although they have not detected evidence of bubble collisions yet, their approach could provide a promising means of searching for evidence of the multiverse in CMB data.

Another scientific concept in the play is that of the many worlds interpretation in quantum mechanics. This can be illustrated by the Schroedinger cat thought experiment. Traditionally, we think of the wavefunction (the function which describes the state) of the cat as being a superposition of the two states, alive and dead, at the same time. If you peek in the box, the act of observing the cat collapses the wavefunction to a single state, that of the cat either being alive or dead. In the many worlds interpretation, after you observe the cat, there is part of your wavefunction where you observe the cat to be alive and part of your wavefunction where you see her to be dead. So in the many worlds version, the observer’s wavefunction splits as well and becomes entangled with the cat’s. Marianne deftly integrates these quantum ideas into her dialogue, relating her experience through the lens of physics which shapes her thoughts.

The character of Marianne in Constellations is a young engaging woman, who happens to be a theoretical cosmologist. She deconstructs the stereotype of scientists being either older men or dowdy women. We need more fictional portrayals of hip women in STEM to provide role models! Women like Marianne who are young, brilliant, and sophisticated, much like the real-life London-based cosmologist, Hiranya Peiris. Cosmology is sexy, and it’s refreshing to see a fictional woman physicist who not only advances science but also defies the preconceived notions society has defined for women in science. Women in science can have lives outside their work and can be intriguing and vivacious.

The idea of the multiverse builds the structure for the play, Constellations, but its underpinnings are grounded in philosophy and are far from alienating. Instead of feeling removed from these characters and their journey, we are left feeling connected to them and their stories while recognizing the common elements that weave through our own narratives. In a sense, the play provides a microcosm through which we can examine our own encounters with other people and our own evolving selves. As Roland states in the play, honey bees enjoy a fleeting existence. And during their ephemeral lives, they live with intention and purpose, either to mate with the queen bee or to work. Compared to the time scale of the universe, our lives are on the scale of nanoseconds. But we are here. And we do have the purpose to explore. The universe. Art. Philosophy. Ourselves and our connections with others. And love.

Review of Susan Elia MacNeal’s forthcoming The Queen’s Accomplice

London is in a blackout, which means the Blackout Beast comes out to play, or rather to kill, in Susan Elia MacNeal’s sixth novel in the Maggie Hope mystery series, The Queen’s Accomplice. If Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, the fifth novel in the series, is infectious, then The Queen’s Accomplice is addictive.

As in the prior books, the aptly described environment and characters shape a multidimensional World War II stage, this time in London. The realistic details and apropos literary, art, mythological, dance, and musical references contour the setting. The allusions befit the educated clan that populates the Maggie Hope novels. The well-researched world that MacNeal paints with words is believable, even to the hand a wedding ring would occupy depending on the European country in question. As with the others in the series, The Queen’s Accomplice is a quick, compelling read with MacNeal’s dashing style and story-telling prowess at its apex. The novel successfully weaves and balances a pace of intertwining subplots while advancing the central plot leading you seamlessly, as a partner at a dance party, to the threshold of the upcoming seventh novel.

The theme of friendship threads The Queen’s Accomplice as it did in the previous novels. And Maggie’s friends who accompany her in her adventures are the kinds of people you’d like to have as your friends. Except for the ones who want her dead, of course. Her friends demonstrate the kind of unconditional ties and love everyone craves, especially, in her case, when biological family might be the enemy. They find her when she’s lost, rebuild and renovate her home, and shelter her when she needs safety. We can only hope we all would be so fortunate to forge such steadfast relationships, many of which are the paradigm of platonic love and family in the truest sense of the word. The Queen’s Accomplice showcases and develops the strengths and personalities of Maggie’s friends, drawing you into her circle and allowing you to appreciate the good that might balance out the evil that dominates the World War II era.

The Queen’s Accomplice highlights a number of issues relevant to our contemporary world under the broad category of “good versus evil.” The most obvious of these is the one of gender inequality, especially regarding unequal pay and misogyny. MacNeal illustrates gender discrimination by characters’ derogatory and judgmental opinions of women’s ideas, characters, and personalities. In the book, MacNeal features the lose-lose situation women often find themselves in where the same strength that would be valued in a man might undermine a woman’s reputation. Additionally, women’s appearances are overvalued, whether the woman be attractive or not, whereas a man’s appearance is generally considered irrelevant and diminished in importance compared to his abilities or, perhaps, even just his gender. Another presented idea is the danger of first impressions based on someone’s appearance, which is good for all of us to keep in mind.

In The Queen’s Accomplice, MacNeal explores many evils, one of which is the ingrained misogyny that leads certain people to wage wars against women, against working women specifically in the novel. One critique might be that the men in The Queen’s Accomplice might be too black and white, obviously discriminating, and prevalent, possibly painting too many men simplistically as being villains. However, the lack of subtlety and sexist ubiquitousness does lead the reader astray in trying to identify the Blackout Beast, keeping the reader guessing. Additionally, the degree of gender discrimination that faces Maggie Hope might very well be more accurate than we’d like to admit in her line of work or during that era at large. However, despite the war of the genders that Maggie encounters, she never concedes but recognizes steadfastly, as others in the book say, that “women are our secret weapon” in the greater war facing Britain and the world.

The book focuses on good versus evil, also highlighting the good in people like Maggie Hope and some of her compatriots. Her courage as a secret agent will inspire you to be your bravest self. The choices that the characters must make will precipitate you to question if you would suffer and perish for your ideals, should you be in the same position as they are. When the time comes, will you sacrifice yourself for others? Although we might feel safe from war, as MacNeal writes, the “war never, ever begins or ends.” The war didn’t begin with the Nazis, though they presented a patent evil, nor has it died with their demise.

Maggie Hope is fearless and brilliant yet humble, courageous yet human. In the case of capturing the Blackout Beast, her need for mathematical precision might have slowed her down, since her calculations were redundant compared to circumstantial evidence, and her need for certainty and proofs might well have been to her detriment, rather than a strength. Yet she stayed in character, and her logical brain and resistance against seismic emotions are what ultimately keeps her alive in each book, even when things get a little psychedelic.

“It isn’t fair,” some of the characters shout from the book, each with a different agenda and perspective. No, life isn’t fair. But with Maggie Hope as your friend, life is a little more enjoyable.  And exciting.

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.