Sunday, March 14, 2010

Low fidelity

It was in a church, in the 1970s, perhaps it was upstate, let's say in Ithaca, New York, home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, and it was bloody winter. Piles of snow on Albany Street, cars sliding down into town from campus, the sound of chains grinding into wet pavement. I forget which church it was. It wasn't St. John's Episcopal, that's where we sang every Sunday, where George played the organ and where we read John Gardner together. On Moral Fiction. But it was close by. Amateurs performing Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, the third version, the one with a baritone, winds and brass. A warhorse for good reason -- inspired, accessible, lovely. If performed simply, ethereal. I remember the church was hot and humid and, of course, we were all overdressed. The orchestra and chorus were comprised mainly of students. I was nearing the end of a profound infatuation with one of them that had grown serious, then sere. Glorious, the music that had bound us together, and ever so transient. I can't believe the things we sang to each other back then. Youth.

The musicians and singers were a motley crew. Everyone had been asked to dress in a white shirt or blouse with black pants or skirt. But these were students, and this was the seventies -- so there were all sorts of variations on the basic theme, wrinkly and pressed, frilly and plain, short and long. Same with the hair-dos. We liked our hair wild back then. But the soprano who would sing
Pie Jesu was a thin young woman with her shining dark hair severely parted and pulled back into a bun. Her thick eyebrows, perched above deep-set mahogany eyes, were as striking as those of Frida Kahlo. She was often seen on the hill above Ithaca -- a solemn girl who could only express herself through her extraordinary singing. There was whispering that Elena -- for that was her name -- was living with a prominent local family who had rescued her from an abusive father. She'd grown up on a failing farm, and had been routinely beaten after the mother walked out. At the time she was barely a teenager, yet the father had taken her as a substitute wife. Authorities were notified, but nothing could be proved, especially since Elena herself would not say anything against him. No one knew the whole story, or even whether any part of it was true, and so rumors ran wild. Anyone could see that her face wore a look of infinite suffering and resignation. That's what we said.

She sang like an angel. Elena the angel, who would someday go to Julliard and sing for the world, her bell-like soprano perfect for pre-Romantic liturgical music. Only if she could afford it. There was always the shadowy figure of the terrible father lurking in the background. She would disappear for days at a time and nobody knew where she'd gone to. Was she still attached to him? Then the family who sponsored her were said to have suffered a reversal in fortune and thus could only afford to support her for a little while longer. Again, nobody knew what was true and what was embellishment. Elena said nothing. She rode the bus to campus and sang soprano. Those were the only two things people knew for sure.

At that period in my life, I was drawn to the Requiem Mass and would listen obsessively to the same settings over and over again. The Berlioz with its heart-stopping tenor solo in the Sanctus. The Mozart with its uncanny backstory and -- like the Fauré -- written in D minor, the key in which I spent endless hours noodling on the piano. The Verdi and the Brahms with their unbearable weight. The meditative Duruflé based on Gregorian chant. I would lie on the couch with the stereo playing. The days when you had to get up and turn the record over to hear a whole piece. I smoked cigarette after cigarette and listened avidly, lying there in my dirty clothes and dirty hair. I had no peace in me. Oddly, it was the Requiem text, with its wrath, its plea for forgiveness, its call for mercy and eternal rest, its celebration of the souls of the faithful departed, that gave me a measure of rest as I wandered in and out of my post-adolescent funk. J. looked at me and said, "Why are you so old already? You've got your whole life ahead of you."

The Fauré overmastered the assembled amateurs that night, in that crowded church, especially the strings who kept going sourly out of tune. Even Elena was slightly off. Perhaps she'd had a cold. Even so, I sat in the hard pew and wept.
Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem. Dona eis requiem sempiternam. What a beautiful word -- sempiternam. Everlasting. I don't know what I'm doing thinking about these things again, except to acknowledge that I was that person once. I was there and wept.

Now, of course, I've got an iPhone and listen to music indiscriminately. After some thirty odd years of work, I've got enough money to waste on tunes. Rolf Harris singing "Tie Me Kangaroo Down." Joe Cocker covering "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window." Silver Apples. Wendy Carlos. Novelties. Harmless shite to take one's mind off the godawful commute, the banality of the news, the effin proximity of boredom. To tell you the truth I'm sick of compressed music, this tinny stuff in my ear at the end of its little white wire. Screw psycho-acoustics. Screw MIDI. I want to go back to church. I want to bang on the keys until my effin fingers are crippled. I want Marshall towers lining the Carnegie Hall stage. I want to sit in the front row somewhere and crane my effin neck so I can hear the musicians breathe. I want to hear the rubbing of the rosin on the bow. The spittle in the mouthpiece. The mad pianist humming along with his arpeggios. It was glorious, the music that bound us together. Please help me find it again.

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