redux: “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Yesterday John finished reading the mss. of a novella I recently completed. He had many helpful things to say and was generous beyond words. I knew that some of the things he didn’t say had to do with punctuation — I’d told him I wanted him to concentrate on what worked and what didn’t but not to mention the word “comma”. This morning, thinking about meaning and punctuation, I remembered this post from a few years ago and how I mused that the fermata, a symbol of musical notation indicating a hold or pause, could work in literary notation too…

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Last night, as  part of a two-day birthday treat, we went to the Blackbird Theatre Company’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Rivals, a comedy of manners in five acts, first performed in London in 1775. It was wildly funny. Mrs Malaprop made us laugh every time she opened her mouth. I hoped I wouldn’t forget any of her best lines — she describes her young niece’s suitor as “the very pineapple of politeness,” and later, realizing she (and others) have been duped, she takes the high road, saying,”We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future”. I think my favourite malapropism was “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Apart from the humour of that line, do you think there is such a thing as “female punctuation”? I am married to a poet who taught college English for more than 30 years. He has very strong opinions about the use of commas. “When in doubt, leave it out,” he always says. Or “less is more.” Recently he copyedited a manuscript for me and he lamented my over-use of commas. I can defend each and every one of them and I don’t believe I use them incorrectly but I’ve begun to try to come up with reasons for the way I use them. They’re not there simply to separate clauses or items in a list but also for timing. And is it really acceptable to use a comma for timing?

An online site, Oxford Dictionaries, suggests not. Here’s what the site has to say about the comma:

A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.

While I’ve been sitting here thinking about this, I’ve also been listening to my favourite singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing a duet from Handel’s opera, Guilio Cesare, with another ravishing singer, the countertenor, Drew Minter. The duet is “Son nata a lagrimar” and it’s one of the last pieces I tried to learn when I took voice lessons. Handel is a singer’s dream composer. He showcases the voice, giving it a place to shine — without the pyrotechnics of, say, Mozart. Pyrotechnics are all very well for those who have quick-silver agility: a coloratura like Cecilia Bartoli, for example. But Handel’s settings are burnished, like fine gold, with a warm patina. Anyway, as I listen to this and remember how I began to understand the use of the fermata when trying to sing Handel, I think, Oh, now there’s something that ought to find its way from musical notation to the literary text. The fermata, says my Shorter Oxford Dictionary (the one in two volumes, with tiny tiny type), is “A sign indicating an unspecified prolongation of a note or rest.” If you look at these bars of that duet, you can see it right at the end of that last bar, over “piu”.

fermataHow long does one hold that? It’s a matter of discretion — the singer’s as well as the conductor’s. The note is coloured by so many things and this particular duet is heart-rendingly sad. “I was born to weep”, sings Cornelia, as she contemplates what will happen to her stepson Sesto after she refuses to marry a general who is responsible for the death of her husband Pompey. So lingering on that “piu” (it means “more”) wrings every last bit of sorrow out of it.

Learning to sing taught me something about how words sound in the head as well as the mouth, in the heart as well as the throat. I’m thinking that it might be time to introduce the fermata into textual punctuation. Imagine it. A note from writer to reader — read this aloud, linger over the line, draw out this word, this phrase, allow yourself to take it into your heart, longer than a comma, a semi-colon. Take your time. Breath a little. Forget the grammars and the stylesheets. Mrs. Malaprop, impatient with her niece Lydia Languish, says of her, “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” I can imagine a fermata over the “allegory”, a very feminine form of punctuation whose time has perhaps come.

“Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Last night, as  part of a two-day birthday treat, we went to the Blackbird Theatre Company’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Rivals, a comedy of manners in five acts, first performed in London in 1775. It was wildly funny. Mrs Malaprop made us laugh every time she opened her mouth. I hoped I wouldn’t forget any of her best lines — she describes her young niece’s suitor as “the very pineapple of politeness,” and later, realizing she (and others) have been duped, she takes the high road, saying,”We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future”. I think my favourite malapropism was “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Apart from the humour of that line, do you think there is such a thing as “female punctuation”? I am married to a poet who taught college English for more than 30 years. He has very strong opinions about the use of commas. “When in doubt, leave it out,” he always says. Or “less is more.” Recently he copyedited a manuscript for me and he lamented my over-use of commas. I can defend each and every one of them and I don’t believe I use them incorrectly but I’ve begun to try to come up with reasons for the way I use them. They’re not there simply to separate clauses or items in a list but also for timing. And is it really acceptable to use a comma for timing?

An online site, Oxford Dictionaries, suggests not. Here’s what the site has to say about the comma:

A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.

While I’ve been sitting here thinking about this, I’ve also been listening to my favourite singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing a duet from Handel’s opera, Guilio Cesare, with another ravishing singer, the countertenor, Drew Minter. The duet is “Son nata a lagrimar” and it’s one of the last pieces I tried to learn when I took voice lessons. Handel is a singer’s dream composer. He showcases the voice, giving it a place to shine — without the pyrotechnics of, say, Mozart. Pyrotechnics are all very well for those who have quick-silver agility: a coloratura like Cecilia Bartoli, for example. But Handel’s settings are burnished, like fine gold, with a warm patina. Anyway, as I listen to this and remember how I began to understand the use of the fermata when trying to sing Handel, I think, Oh, now there’s something that ought to find its way from musical notation to the literary text. The fermata, says my Shorter Oxford Dictionary (the one in two volumes, with tiny tiny type), is “A sign indicating an unspecified prolongation of a note or rest.” If you look at these bars of that duet, you can see it right at the end of that last bar, over “piu”.

fermataHow long does one hold that? It’s a matter of discretion — the singer’s as well as the conductor’s. The note is coloured by so many things and this particular duet is heart-rendingly sad. “I was born to weep”, sings Cornelia, as she contemplates what will happen to her stepson Sesto after she refuses to marry a general who is responsible for the death of her husband Pompey. So lingering on that “piu” (it means “more”) wrings every last bit of sorrow out of it.

Learning to sing taught me something about how words sound in the head as well as the mouth, in the heart as well as the throat. I’m thinking that it might be time to introduce the fermata into textual punctuation. Imagine it. A note from writer to reader — read this aloud, linger over the line, draw out this word, this phrase, allow yourself to take it into your heart, longer than a comma, a semi-colon. Take your time. Breath a little. Forget the grammars and the stylesheets. Mrs. Malaprop, impatient with her niece Lydia Languish, says of her, “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” I can imagine a fermata over the “allegory”, a very feminine form of punctuation whose time has perhaps come.

the moon in its last quarter

I woke about half an hour and watched the moon from my bed. It’s growing smaller, the last quarter, and for the last fifteen minutes it’s been hanging in a tall fir to the south of my house. It’s bright. And it’s my son Brendan’s birthday. 31 years ago this morning, right about now, I insisted we go down to St. Mary’s Hospital in Sechelt because I wasn’t going to wait any longer. I wasn’t actually in labour but Brendan was almost two weeks overdue and I needed for us to get on with life. No more sitting huge and helpless by the fire with an almost-two-year old (Forrest) racing around, out of reach, and people calling daily to ask if there was a baby yet. It felt like there would never be a baby if I didn’t insist.

So I did. And the doctor who was filling in for our family doctor broke my water at around 10:00 that morning and Brendan was born just in time for lunch. His. Mine. And we did get on with life. We’d recently moved into the house we were still in the middle of building, though we had a roof, a bathroom, and the windows were in, walls finished. No kitchen cupboards or tiles on the floor or even interior doors. But that all happened gradually and the baby thrived (he’s a mathematician now) and Angelica joined us two and a half years later. Birthdays remind me of the passing of time as surely as the moon does.

Yesterday I had a singing lesson, my first in more than 2 years. Somehow I gave up singing and I’ve missed it. Last Sunday we were listening to  a CBC feature on Tom Schilling, a Hamilton singing teacher. Tom was inspiring. John turned to me, said, “You should sing again. It made you so happy.” It did.  And I think it did more than induce happiness (as if that wasn’t enough): research tells us that it strengthens the lymphatic system, which in turn strengthens the immune system, and the controlled breathing is better for you than yoga. People with dementia (not me, not yet) have access to memories and joy when they sing that might not otherwise be available to them.

I loved being in S’s pretty studio again. I thought we’d really just do scales and arpeggios and work on breathing and yes, we did those things. But when I mentioned a duet I’d been listening to (kind of obsessively, actually), “Son nata a lagrimar”, from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, S pulled the music from her file and we tried it. I mangled it — I was singing the low line, Cornelia’s part, and it was the first time I’d seen the music. But how wonderful it felt to feel my voice inhabit, even badly, even briefly, those beautiful notes. And to enter, for a little while, the drama between Cornelia and her son Sesto. (“Condemned to grieve” — that’s a loose translation, I guess. )

And how wonderful it felt to drive home along the quiet highway, in sunlight, with my favourite singer, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, singing the duet with Drew Minter, listening to their voices entwine and echo, and to hear the little embellishments that experienced singers can add to a score, and to be able to hum along.

220px-Giulio_Cesare_opera

Once in a blue moon

Once in a blue moon (last night’s) you hear a piece of music that stops you completely in your tracks — in this case, preparing some food for a dinner party this evening — and you stand, helpless, listening to something so beautiful and somehow life-enhancing that you can only keep pressing  Repeat (until your husband sighs loudly). Yesterday I received a package of cds in the mail, several discs I knew but didn’t have in my own collection. One of them is Kathleen Ferrier singing the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53. I’ve heard several recordings of this over the years — Janet Baker’s, which is gorgeous; and I’m almost certain I’ve heard Anne Sophie von Otter’s version too, also heart-stoppingly lovely. And Christa Ludwig.  But Ferrier’s, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Male Choir, conducted by Clemens Krauss, in December 1947, is music I could hear daily and never tire of.  The tonal quality and warmth of her voice anticipate Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, I think. Which makes me wonder if LHL ever sang the Alto Rhapsody?

The English translation of the first verse, from the German of Goethe,  is this:

But who is that apart?
His path disappears in the bushes;
behind him the branches spring together;
the grass stands up again;
the wasteland engulfs him.

One in a blue moon, but the sensation will last forever.

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.

Playlist for summer

After weeks of rain, a time when the province’s rivers flooded, when cherry growers mourned the condition of this year’s crop, when the berry growers in the Fraser Valley prayed for sun, when the roses lost their petals in sodden clumps, when driving home in darkness meant being alert for frogs on the highway, when the slugs (I swear) grew to the size of mice, well, yesterday afternoon the sun came out. And we are promised weeks of it. The UV index this morning is 7. Or maybe 8.

So it’s time to bring out the summer music. I confess I’m not really sure what a playlist is. I don’t have any of the latest technology, I still play cds and have only once or twice downloaded a song. What I’ve always loved about vinyl records and then cassette tapes and compact discs is the sense of narrative in the playing of them. You start at the beginning and you listen to the whole thing (mostly). You realize that the musician had a particular kind of listening in mind as he or she decided on the sequence of pieces. There’s a trajectory and the listener is part of that.

Last night friends came for dinner and we listened to a collection of Romska balada, a cycle of Roma songs that are individually beautiful but form an extraordinary extended expression of longing, sorrow, prayer, and joy. Somehow this was perfect music for sitting under grape leaves while the sapsuckers flew from tree to tree and we talked of absent children, gardens, and waited for the lamb to finish grilling.

So what would my summer playlist sound like? Some Dylan, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”, played by the marvellous Hilary Hahn, Steve Earle singing “Jerusalem” (and not Blake’s Jerusalem, though maybe I’d want that too), two “Four Strong Winds” – Ian Tyson and Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris singing “Boulder to Birmingham”, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Drew Minter  singing “Son nata a lagrimar” from Giulio Cesare, a duet that gives me goose bumps just typing the title, Dire Straits (“Wild West End”), Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in its entirety, and then maybe Jean Redpath singing the songs of Robbie Burns. I’m sure I’ve left out key elements but it looks like I’ll have the whole summer to perfect my list.

music in the morning

Yesterday I put on a cd while I was doing some work at my desk. It was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Recital at Ravinia, music I haven’t heard from some time as the cd was tucked under several others in a pile I haven’t looked at in ages. I do listen to Lorraine, several times a week, her extraordinary voice filling my house and my heart as I cook, fold laundry, or simply sit by the fire with coffee or wine.

These pieces were recorded in 2004, two years before LHL died; her voice was never better. And Peter Serkin is the perfect accompanist. In the recitative, O Numi eterni! O Stelle, stelle!, she takes us to the heart of Lucrezia’s terrible torment, and she does it with such emotional clarity. I listened from my study and then went to the other room to hear every note. I haven’t been singing this year. There were too many events and distractions and I knew I’d never have time to practise, let alone make my regular lesson. But I miss it, and perhaps never more than when I hear Lorraine sing Handel.