Friday, April 29, 2011

Great Expectations. Or Should We Say the British “Dallas”?

Quite the day on the world stage. And as we know:

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances”

And that’s an important part of today: the tradition and culture of Great Britain. A people whose culture has informed the English-speaking world for centuries.

Sarah Lyall
in the NYTimes may have best summed up today’s significance with this thought about the international focus of the event: “It was like a party scene in “Dallas,” only with Prince Philip instead of J. R. Ewing.”

Of course she used a reference to an American TV nighttime soap phenomenon of the 1980s, since we have been the largest exporter of (pop) culture for the last 30 years, just as GB was at one time. Evidence of the decline of Western civilization?

I don’t think so.

Just a consciousness that following someone’s narrative outside of your own is a human need, and that it doesn’t matter if that narrative is fact or fiction. To me, they are equally “other”: the fiction of Dallas or the fact of the monarchy are equal as stories to my individual life. Meaning only gets attached to a narrative if it has power over my life. In this case, neither Dallas nor the monarchy does.

We seek the stories of others to compare and contrast our own, and to give our own context. And we use “artful” stories-—like Dallas and the Royal Wedding—-to locate our own fantasies of power, love, fame, family, etc.

Today was a celebration of pageantry, history, and family. The footman and the 1902 State Landau (a variation of the barouche-landau that is close to the heart of all Jane Austen Emma fans) was the most jarringly anachronistic for me. Everything else felt comfortable in the 21st century. But then I’m a fan of organ music, and the British choral tradition. I have sung the Parry anthem “I Was Glad”; it’s a thrilling piece to sing.

The Missing Guest

The day was imbued with a sad poignancy about the mother of the two modern princes, not there to see her oldest get married because of a media feeding frenzy. As a story it’s pure Greek tragedy. William got married in the same church as his mother’s funeral. The overhead shots of his procession down the aisle with Catherine mirrored the ones of Diana’s coffin 30 years ago. It’s a heavy burden to carry down that beautiful red carpet.

My own story has an echo of this sadness. When I was 23 I walked down the aisle of my church behind my father’s coffin. I had always dreamed of walking down that aisle on his arm, not behind his body. It’s an image that has haunted me.

Long Live the Queen. But the Monarchy?
Of course this occasion has brought up all the questions about the continuation of the monarchy. Everyone loves Queen Elizabeth II, the real deal. Charles will become King upon her death.

People keep floating the idea if she can skip over Charles and “give” the throne to William. The short answer is no. Succession has very clear rules. And if she abdicates, she abdicates her entire direct bloodline, if this fascinating information is correct:

“Abdication of any Monarch is effective for them and their descendants - this is stated rather explicitly in the Abdication Act 1936 which authorized King Edward VIII's abdication.

Any abdication would skip Charles, William, Harry and Andrew without requiring their consent or Instruments of abdication as they are direct descendants of the Queen.

Viscount Linley would inherit the Throne if the Queen abdicates as he is the first male-line descendant not related to Queen Elizabeth II by birth. He is the son of Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon - the Queen's sister. If Princess Margaret were still alive she would become Queen by an Instrument of Abdication.”

It’s not a democracy. Polls may suggestion that the people “want” William to be King in place of Charles, but that’s not how this story goes. And that brings us back to Dallas. J.R didn’t listen to popular opinion either.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

“Shadow was not superstitious”: How I auditioned for American Gods Audiobook, back in the day

"Shadow was not superstitious." Try saying that several times in a row. It’s not an easy phrase, and it falls tonally flat easily.

It’s the opening line of the Audition Paragraph for a chance to read a part of the upcoming Audiobook for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And I have auditioned!

I’m late to the party, since the voting ends next Monday, 5/2, and I can’t possibly catch up. But if you’re interested you can listen to my 58-second audition on iTunes.

The Audition Backstory
I don’t know Neil Gaiman’s work, not yet. I know about the excitement in the Doctor Who community that he was writing an upcoming episode. I started following him on Twitter because his wife Amanda Palmer was touring in Australia when I was there in January and there was so much buzz about her I started following her, and then him.

Then a few weeks ago Gaiman was tweeting a good deal an old friend of his who was in a hospice in the final stages of cancer. His emotion for this friend-—whom he did not name until after she died--came across in his 140 characters, and maybe that’s why I clicked the link in one of the tweets. It went to the wiki page for the English writer Diana Wynne Jones. Her name sounded familiar. Then I realized that I studied with her sister, the literary critic Isobel Armstrong, at Southampton University, England, when I was there as a senior in college.

Wow. I have not thought about Prof. Armstrong for many years. She was flamboyant, exotic. She invited the five of us Rutgers exchange students to her office for sherry, and she floated in amidst the flourish of a pashmina. She was the embodiment of the British prof for me. She helped me with my senior thesis on Hemingway, with many protestations that she was not an American lit expert. A.S.Byatt dedicated her great novel Possession to Isobel, a fact that was very important to me at another time in my life. So I have several small emotional connections to my old English English prof.

I was touched by this unexpected memory. I was saddened to know that she had just lost her sister. And in the amazing place that is the Twitterverse, here was a stranger with whom I could share this, very specifically, not in generalities. And so I replied to Gaiman's tweet—to share my connection to Isobel and thoughts on her loss.

And he replied back, and shared some of his experience with Isobel. It was a nanomoment of sincere connection between strangers.

Back to American Gods
Then later still I saw his tweet about this audition process and decided to participate, to join this community. I’ve never recorded my voice before, I hate even setting my outgoing voicemail message. But I found this kind of recording interesting to do. So many choices of how to read the phrases! And since I’m not adept at file editing, it had to be in one take. I was happy that the passage wasn't longer. It has some tricky parts to it, a great choice as a test. Gaiman is only listening to the 20 that get the most community votes. So mine is just part of the ocean of 1,200+ participants.

Next up, reading American Gods, to see what this Shadow guy is really up to.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Empty Tomb

Dum transisset Sabbatum, Maria Magdalena et Maria Jacobi et Salome emerunt aromata : ut venientes ungerent Jesum. Alleluia.

Et valde mane una sabbatorum veniunt ad monumentum : orto iam sole.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome: From the agony at the foot of the cross to being the first to see the risen Christ, because they went to the tomb for the ritual of anointing the dead, “Aromata, Aromata!”

The Vigil reading was from Mark: 16. It's John who writes that they thought He was the gardener. I love that. Women are so practical.

Happy Easter to those who partake. Everyone can enjoy the Tallis Scholars version of Taverner's Dum Transisset. While director Peter Phillips himself sees it all as the Christian fairy tale, he has dedicated his life to bringing the most sacred music of the most sacred texts to earthly perfection. God does work in mysterious ways.

"When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought aromatic spices so that they might go and anoint him. 16:2 And very early on the first day of the week, at sunrise, they went to the tomb. 16:3 They had been asking each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 16:4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled back. 16:5 Then as they went into the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 16:6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has been raised! He is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him. 16:7 But go, tell his disciples, even Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” 16:8 Then they went out and ran from the tomb, for terror and bewilderment had seized them. And they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Attendite! "Pay Attention"

"O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte:

Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus."

"O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see:

If there be any sorrow like my sorrow."

The great cry of hurt written by the prophet Jeremiah mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples, traditionally recited on Tisha B’Av, was co-opted by the first-rate Catholic composers of the 16th as motets for the Tenebrae Service of Good Friday or Holy Saturday, turning the POV to Mary and those at the foot of the cross.

You know what they say, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Pain for a devastating loss is the same, no matter who you are. The composers may have lifted the text, but they did make it completely their own with the most sublime composing saved for this holy day.

I am singing the setting by Gesualdo today. He was a prince of Venosa known for murdering his wife, her lover, possibly his son and father-in-law. He also wrote in a chromatic musical language 300 years before its time, it wouldn’t be heard again until the late 19th century. Completely astounding. Two telling comments from YouTube: “insanely stunning music by a stunningly insane man” and “really disturbing... that's Gesualdo. Perfection itself.”

Then there’s Bach. The composer who owns Good Friday by writing the St. Matthew Passion, which filtered down into the hymn O Sacred Head So Wounded, sung by all of Christendom for centuries. He also wrote Jesu Meine Freude, a 10-part funeral motet written in Leipzig between 1723 and 1727. I’m singing this today with the talented musicians at Immanuel Lutheran Church under the direction of the superlative Gwen Toth, along with her early music group ARTEK.

Here's a wonderful verse snippet from the motet:

"Though you rage, O World, and jump about,
I stand calmly here and sing
in fully secure peace.
God's power keep watch over me
so both earth and abyss must keep silent,
however they may murmur."

Wow. That really sums it up.

And there is no hymn more spine tingling than “Were You There,” the great spiritual from the POV of the Roman centurion who won the cloak of Christ at the crucifixion. Legend says he wandered in madness, asking all “were you there, when they nailed him to the tree?” (a version of the legend is in the 1953 movie The Robe).

Here is the great Paul Robeson bringing the fullness of that incredible bass voice to the haunting tune. I look forward to singing it with my colleagues at Ascension Roman Catholic Church.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Ghosts of the Blue and the Gray

I am drawn to the elegiac. There are moments in world history that can only be honored by our focus on the actions and lives of those who came before us. Sometimes, it’s all that‘s in our power to do.

That’s how I feel about this 150 anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, and the four blood-soaked years that followed to rebirth a nation.

150 years ago is feeling very recent. The history of our country is so comparably young in general, and its biggest crisis-—states that left the United States of America for whichever reason you subscribe to---came only 100 years after its founding.

This anniversary of ours has great resonance and relevance at this time of enormous global shifting. I don’t know that anyone really learns from history, but what this country went through should at least help us have compassion for what many are suffering now.

LibyaInMe Libya In Me by acarvin
#itssadwhen you're lifelong neighbour is the one killing you & depriving you of your freedom. Shame shame #Algeria. #libya #feb17
(thanks to @acarvin)

North Is North, and South Is South (with respects to Kipling)

Being a Northerner means I have a particular perspective about 19th century American history in my DNA. Edward Rothstein writes about this in an excellent article about visiting Civil War Museums in the South and the North.

“As seen from a perch up North, the war's purpose is morally and politically clear. Slavery's abolition, like Lincoln's powerful redefinition of the nation's principles, set the United States on a path toward equality that it might have never found through antebellum thickets. The Civil War created contemporary America.

“But spend some time in Southern museums, and it becomes clear that what seems evident up North is here clouded and contested. And if, in the North, the war seems part of a continuum of history, here it remains a cataclysm. The war was not a continuation of Southern history; it was a break in it. And that is still, for the South, the problem.

“Nearly every war site and exhibition I have seen in the South wrestles with double perspectives and conflicting sentiments alien to the North.”

“Alien to the North.” Well said, and part of what continues to pull at the country.

Still, whatever divides us, the North and the South can share a moment today to respect the 625,000 Americans who died in four years as this nation continued its own unfolding.

I don’t remember studying the Civil War—-a.k.a. the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression--much in school; there were no battles in the state of New York. Of course there were many regiments from NY, and much recruitment, as you see in this poster for Manhattan Rifles (from this excellent website all about New York State and the Civil War.)

I would have said that there is not much evidence of the Civil War in Manhattan, but that's not true. There are some memories of the war, and one is so ingrained in the psyche of a native New Yorker so as not to be noticed!

Tecumseh in New York

William Tecumseh Sherman retired to New York in 1886, and died on Valentine’s Day, 1891. For the South he is the most reviled man of the war. He employed the concept of total war---destroying everything that could support an army in any way--to his Siege of Atlanta, March to the Sea, then push through the Carolinas. From a course on "A Southern View of History: The War for Southern Independence: "In Part 13 we will briefly examine a few of the atrocities and war crimes that General Sherman committed against the people of Georgia."

The destruction was a strategy that both he and US Grant shared. They believed the only way to bring the war to an end was to make it so horrible beyond the imagination for the South that the people would have to stop fighting.

I walk by Tecumseh Playground on 77 and Amsterdam every Saturday. All that young life enjoying the swings and ladders of a park contrasts deeply with the destruction wrought by its namesake. I didn’t’ realize that there is a school around the corner, PS 87, named for him. Seems a very odd attribution for a New York City school. How do these things get decided? Sherman himself lived on Broadway and 70th street, called Sherman Square at that intersection.

Both my parents are from Brooklyn, so my entire life I’ve heard Grand Army Plaza sprinkled into conversations. I never thought, “What’s the Grand Army?” and yet now I know. The Plaza was constructed by Olmstead and Vaux in 1867, and originally called Prospect Plaza, at the entrance to Prospect Park. Various elements were added over time, including the Arch with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument by John H. Duncan, which has a relief of Lincoln and Lee.

It was renamed Grand Army Plaza in 1926. Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal organization of Union Army veterans, started in 1866, disbanded in 1956 when its last member died. In 1926 they were honoring the 60th anniversary of the war by renaming the plaza for the Union veterans. So that little bit of Civil War history under my nose my entire life.

And here’s another. I never knew that the plaza outside of, well, The Plaza (hotel)on 5th Avenue and 59th Street is also called Grand Army Plaza, for the same reason as in Brooklyn (completed in 1916). The honking statue of a man on horseback in the plaza, somewhat recently re-gilded, is none other than William T. Sherman. I have walked, driven, jogged by that statue a thousand times in my life, and never looked at who was on the horse or why. It was sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and unveiled in 1903.

Here is the description of the statue from a Central Park website:

Dynamic in all its glory, no one can miss the magnificent elevated gilded bronze statue of William Tecumseh Sherman in the northern half of Central Park's Grand Army Plaza.

The larger-than-life statue of Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman, a great American military hero of the American Civil War, dramatically appears on his regal horse whose right rear hoof crushes a Georgia pine branch.

Accompanied by Nike, the Goddess of Victory, Sherman is courageously led into the battle of 1864 in which the Confederacy was successfully split in two effectively ending the Civil War.

History is indeed written by the victors, especially on their own turf.

The arguments about the “actual” whys about the Civil War continue heatedly. Again I recommend the Disunion series in the NY Times, for the vibrancy of the conversation there:

Ed, New York:

To Athur UWS NYC: "the North brought the war to Southern homes and to Southern hearths."

Nice try, but the first shots were fired by the South trying to steal federal property.

Yup. This war simply defies complete consensus. It’s American to the core.