a little night music


Last night I slept on the couch downstairs because John has a bad chest cold and I a)knew he would cough for a good portion of the night and b) I don’t want to catch the cold myself. The window above me was open wide and sometime after midnight I heard the rain begin. We have a metal roof and the sound amplifies. It’s lovely to listen to. I found the rhythm very regular and I tried to think how I would write it down. There is a pergola above the section of deck the window opens to and it’s covered densely with wisteria, grape vine, and clematis. When it had rained for a time, the water began to drip down from the green vines, irregular in tempo. There’s a capiz shell windchime hanging over the table (I think of it as our summer chandelier) and it periodically shook in the light wind. After a bit of fuss when the cat came in with some small creature, wanting to be praised while the catch ran away and hid (a shrew, either Sorex vagrans or S. monticolus, whom I believe has made an escape this morning through the door we left open for it after we watched it race across the kitchen floor), who could sleep? Not me. I turned on a light and picked up the book I was reading before bedtime: Listen to This, by Alex Ross. I read this collection of writing about music some years ago, not long after it was released in 2010. This past weekend, the young violist Evan Hesketh and his wife Farrah O’Shea were staying with us during the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival and we talked about how much we enjoyed Ross’s earlier book, The Rest is Noise. I left Listen to This out so they could sample its pleasures. Before bedtime, I re-read the essay on Bob Dylan and in the night I went to my favourite essay in the book, “Song of the Earth”, a piece about visiting John Luther Adams in Alaska and talking to him about music. I love JLA’s Dark Waves and so much more of his work, including the ravishing Become Ocean, an orchestral composition that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Somehow it was exactly right to be reading about him, reading his sources for music:

When the ice breakup comes, it makes incredible sounds. It’s symphonic. There’s candle ice, which is crystals hanging down like chandeliers. They chime together in the wind. Or whirlpools open up along the shore or out in the middle of the river, and water goes swirling through them. Or sizzle ice, which makes a sound like the effervescent popping you hear when you pour water over ice cubes.

In a room with high ceilings, I was reading about ice and listening to water, the lush harmonies of leaf rustle, shell chimes, water pinging on metal, and finding its way through dense green vines.

“…we may quite literally become ocean.”


Composer John Luther Adams has intrigued me for years.  In Listen to This, my favourite music writer Alex Ross describes The Place Where You Go To Listen,  a sound and light installation created by Adams in the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska: “…a kind of infinite musical work controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The title refers to Naalagiagvik, a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of unseen birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that idea, the mechanism of The Place translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a luminous field of electronic sound.”

As I write this, I’m listening to Become Ocean, the John Luther Adams orchestral composition commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, first performed in June 2013; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. The composer noted, “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” What I’m hearing are the most ravishing harmonies, like wind, water, the swoosh of whales feeding. Dark chords ascend and everything is in them. A song of the universe in a time of crisic, it’s music for our time and I can’t help but think if enough of us listened to it, it might also serve as a call to us to fully address the huge issue of anthropogenic climate change.

Earlier this afternoon we walked over to Haskins Creek to see if the coho had entered this small swift stream from Sakinaw Lake where they’ve been waiting for some time now. And yes, there were fish undulating in the water, a dipper feeding on insects (and maybe eggs) near the creek’s mouth, and the low wintry light spangling everything dull gold. Everywhere huge trees, dense ferns, eagles on their way to feed on the spawned-out carcasses and then distribute them over the ground. The marine-originating isotope Nitrogen 15 is found in the big trees of our coastal rain forests as well as in the hair of bears, wolves, and other animals that feed upon salmon and distribute their remains on land. (I eat salmon weekly and imagine I have my own stores of marine nitrogen too!)

It’s the final movement now, the tidal crescendo of what Alex Ross suggests might “be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”, and it makes me want to weep — for the beauty of our waters, the salmon cycle, the humpback whale and her calf we saw feeding in Davis Bay earlier this year, and the falling of the sun over the western horizon I am watching from my south-western window as I listen and write. Sometimes music takes us so utterly by the heart and the soul into mystery that we are unwilling to come back to a room, a chair, a wooden desk. In contemplating this beautiful piece of music, I am entirely willing to become ocean.P1070588

The road not taken, the song not sung

Readers of my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, know that I love music, though I know almost nothing about it. I began singing lessons when I turned fifty as a way to try to find my way into the heart of song, particular songs; and I did learn a lot. I hope to resume my lessons this fall and have scores of pieces I’d like to try. I feel like such a novice but I also know that almost nothing makes me feel the way I do when I am singing and am somehow staying on pitch and understanding how a phrase can contain such potential for texture and beauty.

A few years ago I read Alex Ross’s wonderful book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. It provided such an interesting historical reading of that century by looking at its music. I reviewed it for our local monthly magazine, The Harbour Spiel, and this is what I said:

“On a recent trip to Europe, I bought a copy of Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Picador, 2007) to read on trains and in hotels. Alex Ross is the music critic for the New Yorker and I’ve enjoyed his writing over the years. His book had been on my radar for some time but finding it in a shop in Aix-en-Provence seemed serendipitous.

            Sometimes a book serves to shake up the way you see the world and for me, The Rest is Noise is one of those. Over the course of nearly 600 pages, Ross provides a coherent and vital reading of 20th century cultural and political history. Ostensibly about music – and he is such a fine and knowledgeable guide! – the book  takes the reader through a broad landscape shaped and reshaped by war and uneasy peace.

            Taking as his starting point the opening of Richard Strauss’s controversial opera Salome in the Austrian city of Graz in May, 1906, Ross looks at that moment – “an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle” – as a hinge between the 19th and 20th centuries. Present in the audience were representatives of several traditions: Johann Strauss 11’s widow represented old Vienna; Puccini was there to hear his German rival’s “terribly cacophonous thing”; and the bold younger composers – Schoenberg, Mahler, and Alban Berg — were there to witness the shock of the new. Also in the audience, possibly, was a 17 year old Adolf Hitler.

The book concludes with a look at the making of John Adams’ opera Nixon in China, both a distillation of key modernist influences as well as something completely original.

Alex Ross is brilliant at pulling together the various strands of musical tradition that formed new patterns, new sounds over the course of a century. The role that politics played in both encouraging and suppressing composers is explored in fascinating detail. His clear understanding of the technical and creative accomplishments of everyone from Stravinsky to Shostakovich to John Cage to Steve Reich makes this a wonderful book for anyone with even a passing interest in music.”

Last week I bought Ross’s latest book, Listen to This. It’s a joyous journey through music, stopping from time to time to examine, lavish praise, offer explications that are often extraordinary in their depth and originality. It is a congenial book. I love how his mind works, his listening ear (and heart), tracing the chacona through its incarnation as lament, as melancholic melody  — he pauses to consider “Flow My Tears”, one of the first songs I learned to sing (badly) – right into the realm of talking, walking blues.  His portrait of Esa-Pekka Salonen is so intimate and revelatory that I wish could go out now and watch him conduct Stravinsky.

The book makes me want to play my favourite cds again: Ian Bostridge singing Schubert’s Winterreise;  Glenn Gould’s transcendent recordings of the Goldberg Variations, both the 1955 version, impossibly deft and swift, and the more introspective 1981 recording – I can’t make up my mind which I prefer, which is perhaps the way it should be; Maria Callas singing Tosca; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing…anything on earth;  Messiaen’s heartbreaking Quartet for the End of Time which I heard in March at St. George’s Bloomsbury (designed by the enigmatic Nicholas Hawksmoor and possibly the most beautiful church I’ve ever been in) played by the young Akoka Quartet; Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (and Ross even quotes the line I often think to myself: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”); and about a hundred others.

And the book makes me wonder about roads not taken. I do know some things. Native plants, literature, how to bake pretty good sourdough bread. But what would have happened if I’d studied music as a girl, as a young woman, if I’d taken voice lessons in my teens, if I’d become a singer rather than a writer? Is this what happens as one leans more towards sixty than fifty? That the past becomes a series of lost opportunities or at least has that gloss when the sun is setting, the moon not yet risen, the music in the background so sweet that it makes you wonder why you can’t make that high C or run a bow across the strings of a violin.