Repertoire and Its Discontents

We've had such wide-ranging conversations here. Part of our residency has been about discovering/identifying/articulating ourselves as a duo. We started with some really big questions, including 

-what are our values?

-what are we interested in?

-what do we have to say?

I sure don't promise answers here. But welcome to the ride with us! 

Exploration of these questions often finds its natural expression in repertoire choices. Repertoire that is immediately arresting is important, but is it enough? Can it stand the months of solitary practice and intense hours of rehearsal? What about the (wonderful) repertoire that takes a while to become acquainted with, and subsequently love? 

We played an outreach concert on Wednesday night, and had some lovely questions including "I notice how wide-ranging your selections were; how do you choose your repertoire, and what do you gravitate toward?" The gentleman told us that while he typically does not like Bartok, he really enjoyed what we played. Post-performance, he mentioned that he waits until he has heard a piece six times before he makes up his mind about it. Six times! Would that I had that patience and openness to discover something through repeated listening! 

We've spent part of this residency just exploring repertoire. We've found some potentially phenomenal stuff. Or rather, we've discovered some things that we are currently super excited about...but it doesn't always quite work out that way. Yesterday morning, for example, we decided to scrap an incredibly gorgeous piece, that both of us have put quite a bit of work into. In my heart of hearts, I just didn't love it in the same way that Michi loved it. Dear reader, I feel very guilty about this. As a 'professional musician,' I feel somewhat obligated to love things that I *know* are great pieces of music, and that I have a duty to learn them *especially* if they're difficult! 

But here's the thing. Do you ever try to read all the articles in the New Yorker? ...yeah...

There's just SO much glorious music! It's tough to narrow it down...and it also can also take a while to get to know a piece well enough to love it enough really play for real, or determine it's just not for you (or, in this case, us). We get to know pieces with our brains and ears and hands, and sometimes those three things aren't always in agreement. Even with just two of us, it can sometimes be difficult to align two sets of brains/ears/hands. There are just a lot of moving parts! Larger ensembles..I can't even imagine. I'm fortunate to be in a duo with a musician that has a strong sense of aesthetic and taste, plus a warm openness to possibility.

Back to the exploration life...

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Magical places and spaces

Hi Michi!

It's funny, first of all, to be saying hi to you on this blog, because WE'RE IN THE SAME PLACE! And what a place this is!

To all our readers (hey parents!), we've been spending the past few days at what appears to be paradise. Avaloch Farm Music Institute "provides a unique opportunity for chamber music and jazz ensembles at any stage of development, to have the time and space to work intensively on repertoire, prepare for recordings, concerts or competitions, work with composers on commissions, and forge or reconnect to a group musical identity."

It feels like magic here. There are so few times in our lives where we have the time, and space, and surrounding system to immerse ourselves so fully in self-ish parts of the musical lives we've chosen. Because our collaboration is long-distance, rehearsal time already feels both precious and constrained. But then one or both of us has other rehearsals or teaching scheduled, or gets hungry (me), and our time together is set aside. This gift of uninterrupted time - we don't have to cook here, we don't have obligations beyond showing up on time for dinner - means that we can work in a consistent flow.

So, this sounds (and is!) like wild luxury. I feel...I don't know, drawn to tears or something similar. It's not that I think society doesn't like music, or think it's important to have. It's more that I'm taken aback by the incredible generosity of a place like this. I hear of my friends doing graduate degrees in science that have no student loans because their school not only pays for their work, but has the money to give stipends one could actually live on. Or computer friends that have daily catered lunches at their jobs, along with ping-pong tables to foster a sense of community and fun. This is not generally the experience of a classical musician.

I'm not bemoaning my choice of career. I am incredibly fortunate to be have been able to make this my lifestyle at all. I am motivated and fulfilled by what I do. I have creative and operational freedom. But this experience is so rare, that some amazing people said "We value music and artistry. What might musicians need to really be able to develop themselves, on their own terms? Okay...let's provide that for them, without apparent financial gain for ourselves."

I'm gushing, I know. It's just so generous! There's also a part of me that feels guilty - the same part that wonders if it's ok to spend my life as a musician, rather than a humanitarian aid/environmental volunteer. But if I'm going to buy into the idea that one's vocation is to be celebrated and developed and the world needs all sorts, then I need to believe it's ok to be here. And more importantly, work to develop this sort of generosity of spirit.

xoxo

R

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Elgar, outtakes, and floating violins

Dearest Rose!

Just a quick post, three days before our residency (!!!!)!

I was thinking about our Elgar recording the other day, during which we reinvented a few notes quite spectacularly, and we ended up finishing up the take just for the fun of it, with me doing what I imagined to be a ludicrously over-cheesed ending since I knew we wouldn’t be using the take anyway. I think I mentioned my surprise when we listened back and it turned out that it actually sounded, well, not so ludicrous (I’ll leave out our earlier crash-and-burn):

We’ve talked a bit about the idea of "authenticity" and interpretation, since the edition we’re using reflects Elgar’s early version rather than the published one (subject for a separate post!...), and it made me think about a presentation I saw at the conference I went to in Karlsruhe last month, by a brilliant composer/scholar/creative thinker named Bennett Hogg (http://www.bennetthogg.co.uk/). I have to say first of all that he is one of the most sensitive and creative thinkers I’ve met, and I’m utterly convinced by his work. With that in mind: this work involved something that, when I read the abstract, had made me cringe in horror-- in the name of musical composition and experimentation, Dr. Hogg had inserted microphones inside a violin and then dragged it through the woods on the end of a string; and then, not finding the sounds he had been looking for, transferred the whole setup to a stream, in which he floated the miked instrument in the water on its tether. I hope he forgives the violence of my initial reaction, which I attribute to my deep-seated identification of the violin with something human, a direct extension of my own experience—something so sacred and sensitive that I balked at the thought of knocking on the wood of my violin for the Crumb piece I’ve been playing with Daphne. I owe an explanation here on behalf of Dr. Hogg, which I can’t do as eloquently as he does (one of his articles on this is in Contemporary Music Review 32:2-3, 249-273 : https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07494467.2013.775811, and another, along with sound recordings, can be found at http://www.hz-journal.org/n18/hogg.html), but I’ll try briefly to sketch my impressions of what he shared:

The project began with him mulling over the connection between the violin and the source of its materials, or rather, as he puts it in his article, “the idea that violins were once trees.” Violins have evolved in tandem with specific Western performance traditions, and in the classical tradition with which you (Rose) and I (Michi) grew up with, they are typically used to project the intentions of composers and performers into a carefully sculpted environment (the concert hall), designed to shield the sound from the surrounding environment (car horns, helicopters, hail, etc.). So basically, they've been isolated from the context they came from (nature), cut off in the service of a focused artistic end. In the article I mentioned above, he gives a beautiful quote by the artist Peter Lanyon, whose work I was unfamiliar with and which I love:

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"Coast," Peter Lanyon, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lanyon-coast-t07819

The context of the quote: Bennett is discussing the idea of the violin as a sensor (in his words, “a measuring device for the seismic activity of embodied human consciousness,” p. 251 and endnote 2). His idea for dragging the violin through the woods came from a desire to shift the tables away from one-sided human control of the violin to a more complex ecology of sound: not just a human bowing the violin, but a violin amplifying its surrounding environment. This reconnects the violin with a natural ecosystem, even if it means cutting it off from a particular cultivated artistic one (the violin isn't all that playable after being dragged through the woods). At the risk of too many nested quotes, here’s what Bennett writes:

I had already conceived of dragging a violin over terrain and recording the sounds produced with microphones inside the instrument, in order to create something like a sonic trace of landscape, a measurement of slopes, materials, and speeds, when I came across the following quote by the Cornish painter Peter Lanyon. Lanyon, a gliding enthusiast, writes ‘The thermal itself is a current of hot air…It is invisible and can only be apprehended by an instrument such as a glider’ (Tate Gallery Website). Lanyon has become an important influence on my own environmentally based sound art of late, someone who, in the words of his biographer Stephens (2000), ‘rejected the hitherto paradigmatic single viewpoint in favour of a multi-directional, experiential depiction of a place’ (p. 19) (252).

He goes on to develop a fascinating discussion which it would be unfair of me to try to summarize, but what I want to share here is the sense I had when listening to his recorded sounds of the stream flowing under and around the body of the violin (I should add that the violins he used were not his primary instruments, but ones he had found languishing unplayed in secondhand shops, and which he felt he could perhaps give a second, if unconventional, life through his experimental recordings). He had sealed the f-holes of the instrument with tape and waded into a stream, with the violin (with mikes inside) floating at the end of its tether like a watery kite. The sound he recorded and played back for us at the conference was like an intricately woven fountain in a stone chapel, or maybe rather a resonant chamber carved inside the center of a cool brook (which, I suppose, is basically what it was). The recordings he’d shared earlier of the violin being dragged (albeit infinitesimally slowly) along a forest path had been, in his own estimation, too violent to convey what he wanted (and I had found them viscerally painful to listen to: knocks and bangs on what I couldn't help but hear as a poor innocent violin). But the recordings of the violin floating made me feel something beautiful (even though the watery process rendered the instrument equally unplayable in traditional senses). It rendered the stream audible in a way that felt very close to me (because of the profile of the violin's resonance). I felt I was hearing something distant-- the shapes of the currents and whirlpools of the stream-- through a familiar lens. It reminded me a little of Ophelia’s poetry, which implies so much through so few words (Incidentally, do you know this song cycle by Hans Abrahamsen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ed1rVvf2PFI ? based on a monodrama written by Paul Griffiths, written using only Ophelia’s words in Hamlet!!).

Anyway, the whole reason I shared that was because I would never have thought to do what Dr. Hogg did, simply because in the religion in which I formed my early worldview (i.e., Western classical music), the violin is seen and felt as a sacred and inviolable object encased in layers of tradition and used for carefully controlled rituals (performances/practicing/rehearsing). And thanks to his creativity and open-mindedness, I was given a beautiful experience I had never had before, and plenty more to think about. Will this change how I use my own violin? I certainly don’t intend to drag it through the water. But it does make me think again about our Elgar run-throughs and how much license we give ourselves in playing his music. The recording I mentioned at the beginning of this blog crashed and burned dramatically in the middle. But this destruction freed me to do something I thought was ridiculous—sacrilege, perhaps, if it weren’t such “light” music to begin with (topic again for another post!). And it turned out that, on second hearing, I found the sacrilege beautiful.

xoxox,

Michi

Pärt reflections

Dear Rose,

I just had a kind of revelation about the Pärt [Spiegel im Spiegel] and wanted to share it with you even though I’m going to see you tomorrow! I was thinking about how hard it is for me to sustain my long notes at a dynamic level that matches your resonance—if I play softly enough that I can hold the full note length, then you have to play too softly to make the resonances overlap:

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which I think is the whole beauty of the piece:

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but if I play with a full resonance for the first (shorter) notes, then I either run out of bow on the long note or sound constipated, which I don’t think is what Pärt was going for.

So I’ve been practicing with a metronome, trying to gradually slow it down below the tempo (q=80) so that when I actually play it, it will feel easy rather than strained. But I’m still not able to get the sound I want, either the quality (free, easy) or the volume (sonorous) that seems appropriate. Which I take as a prescription for more practice and trying to correct my tendencies according to a distant, maybe not quite real ideal…

But then it crossed my mind that (1) the fact that Pärt didn’t specify what dynamic the violin part should be, means potentially that (2) he also didn’t specify what dynamics, plural, the violin part could be: in other words, my default idea that the ideal sound should be of a constant loudness is an assumption that is maybe more due to unquestioned habit/Western-Art-Music dogma. (i.e., the best sound is an even, resonant, and pure sonority), rather than a thoughtful and expressive decision. It’s like saying that just because driving at a fast and even speed is the best way to get from point A to point B on a highway, it’s the best way to take a gondola through Venice.

Which leads me to two lightbulb moments: One—if the ideal sound isn’t necessarily a flat, perfectly smooth one, what if I didn’t start by trying to control my bow jitters (should have had less coffee) and natural fluctuations in sound, and instead listened to them the way I watch and love the flickerings of a candle in an open space? So that my starting point is not a suppression of my tendencies, but an attention to them, and an expansion from there?

And Two—if I don’t have to stay at a single dynamic level, what if I just fill the shorter notes with the resonance and freedom that I want to, and then begin the extra-long notes at that dynamic level and let the sound release and decay? The style, after all, is tintinnabuli—imitating the sound of a bell, its resonance and overtones. What kind of bell (except for an alarm clock) keeps a constant volume throughout? Although that’s maybe overstepping—the violin is, after all, a sustained counterpart to the piano’s releases. But you don’t actually need much input of information to convey a sustained sound—once the note is sounding, all you need is to not cut it off—maybe, actually, all you need is to listen.

Not that this should mean that there’s nothing I should strive for and practice—just that it begins from a place of nonjudgmental attention and grows from there, rather than starting from a feeling of constraint and padding or planing away in imitation of an external ideal. Which all sounds overly Zen, given how I have never in my life been able to meditate without tailspinning into distracted and judgmental thoughts. (Like that one.)

Anyway, it feels amazing practicing this way, but of course the test will be playing it with you—which I can’t wait to do!

xoxox,

M

on the Persistence of Hearing

Dear Rose,

I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions you raised in your Kreider post, and I’m so tempted to jump in and start the long project toward building answers, to let that become the focal point of a colossal project of words, or worse, to construct a flashy and logically dense argument about time that attempts to seal the matter off, or at least brackets it for the time being. But I think what I want to do, as much as it pains the musicologist in me, is leave the questions open, and dive into some of the music we’re working on together. Not because I think the questions aren’t important, or that the gaps they suggest (how do we experience and shape time/memory as musicians? how do we reconcile our love of both new and older music with our responsibilities to composers and listeners? . . .) should be ignored, but because I think the process of rehearsing and making music together has the ability to turn these gaps into openings— opportunities to expand.

So—I just got back from practicing the first of the Szymanowski Mythes (La Fontaine d’Arethuse), and I was thinking about how your two experiences of the same recording of Liszt’s Ballade No. 2, heard years apart, were so different. La Fontaine d’Arethuse gives us a condensed version of this re-hearing experience, a chance to hear the same thing in an altered context. You begin with shimmering ripples in the piano, over which I play this:

 

 

From this place of ethereal calm, the movement develops into roiling agitation. At its breaking point (the fermata in m. 73, if I counted right), slowly, interrupted by my glassy ponticello trills in m. 77, the rippling figuration of the piano returns, at first at a lower level than before (echoing my trills), and then returning to its original level in time to re-introduce that opening violin melody in m. 97.

From what I can tell, your part from mm. 97-112 could have been copied and pasted directly from mm. 9-24. But the melody I play is altered, plunged down below the surface of your rippling figuration, and subtly bent in m. 105-107:

 

 

How does this, and the experience of the agitation before it, change how we hear the ending, what this familiar music means to us? It reminds me of Arethusa in the myth —at the beginning, ethereal and pure (a word that feels tainted now by moral judgement), and then re-emerging from subterranean depths following the agitation of her ordeal, the same but not the same. How do we interpret this story (and all its cultural freight) in our context, and turn that into music that is both true to us and to the composer? Another way of asking that question might be—if we think of this as being a song of Arethusa, is she the one singing it, or is someone else? Is it about her experience, or her appearance (beauty, purity, etc.)? What am I trying to convey in my sound? Of course it’s never so simple. But these are just a few of the questions that I've been turning over in my practice sessions, and I can't wait to re-open them in rehearsal with you this summer!

xoxoxo,

M

Persistence of Hearing

Hi Michi!

I recently read an article by a writer I adore, Tim Kreider, whose books "We Learn Nothing" and "I Wrote This Book Because I Love You" are among my favorites. In this article, entitled "Persistence of Vision", he finds a school picture from his childhood, and is startled to essentially see two things at once; the kids as he sees them now as an adult, and the kids as he saw them then as peers. 

I find this sort of thing to be true with music, both as a listener and a player, especially for old warhorses/chestnuts/who-needs-another-recording-of-a-Chopin-ballade sorts of pieces. With music I'm hearing, or playing, it can disconcerting to resolve how I remember something going with how it actually is going in the current iteration. 

A number of years ago, I fell in love with a recording of Liszt's Ballade No. 2, and decided to learn it. I worked on it for a year or so, playing it for concerts and auditions. I always imagined I could do it better (shocker, eh), but felt some real moments of  playing what I meant to play (i.e., playing how I heard it in my head) at various performances. Years later, I listened to the same recording that had motivated the whole thing. I shan't name the performer, but it was a Very Respected Recording Artist (now deceased). Michi, I was taken aback. The tone (even allowing for an older recording) seemed unsuitable, pacing (notoriously difficult in this piece) felt incomprehensible..where was my beloved inspiration? Maybe this is part of what Kreider says of an old friend; it's impossible to view them objectively. We have too many memories when we live with a piece for months or years to see the piece as anything but something we are in relationship with, something we converse with as collaborators. In this way, my living and interacting with the ballade on an intimate level gave me such a different perspective of who/what this piece was in my world, and how I believed it was 'supposed to go'. 

Kreider discusses - among other things - the idea that memory creates reality, in the same way that persistence of vision allows film (i.e., moving pictures) to be perceived as continuous. Countless memories of 'now' pile up to form an experience of a person (or thing). 

So. All the 'nows' build my sense of who/what a piece is. And all the listeners' 'nows' form their own experience. But unlike a picture which can be seen all in one look, or a book we can read at our own pace, or any other number of things, the music has to be experienced along a time-continuum in order to be experienced at all. We give shape to this experience, because we are in control of the time. We are taught, as performers, to listen on several planes simultaneously. We need to listen to what just happened, so what we do is a continuation of the narrative. We need to listen to what we are doing currently, so we are playing with accuracy and sensitivity. And we need to listen to what will happen, so we are preparing for how to get there. In other words, we need to listen along the continuum of time. But if we believe in Barbour's theory of time  (as referenced in Kreider's article), there is not such thing as time. Do we believe in time, at least as musicians? Maybe that's part of the magic of music - that we create an immediate medium of getting from one now to another.

Here are some parts of my puzzle. How do we play pieces already settled into the canon and consciousness and make sense of multiple layers of memory, from both ourselves and our potential audiences? And when we play something entirely new, we're essentially introducing it as what people might then experience as Kreider's 'dictionary illustration [...] (Fig. 1: CHERYL)'. That's a real responsibility. 

All of which to say...repertoire, and presentation of that repertoire, feels incredibly important these days (probably all days?). If we want to Say Something with our music, maybe we can find a way of focusing on this memory-experience?

xoxo

Pouring

Some emails from last week

APRIL 10, 2018  from MICHIKO THEURER:

Rose, so nice to talk today!! I just had an idea about our mythologies concert idea. We've been talking about having a series of videos between pieces that provided a sort of cushion for experiencing the music (like a threshold into/out of an installation), and I had sort of been thinking that the videos might be a series of retellings of a simple scene. What if our video interludes were a series clips of pouring liquid from one container to another, in different settings/contexts? It could be very abstract or very specific, depending on what we want to suggest. I think I've mentioned how I love the expressiveness of different bowls/vessels: how the shape of a bowl is so perfectly expressive of its function, as something that's both open to what's outside it (which is why it's useful, because you can put things in it and take them out again) and also partially enclosed (which is also why it's useful, since it hold things). And there are so many variations on how to be defined but open-- did I mention the exhibit in Germany that I went to ages ago where there were all these different bowls from different cultures and times lined up, with no explanation, just the different forms becoming expressive because of their proximity to other shapes...? 

Anyway, this idea of myths/retellings and pouring water between containers could easily become cliché if we think of it as if the water is a soul that is inhabiting different bodies, because I don't think we want to suggest some immutable essence that runs through different stories. But there's something similar about sound resonating in solid spaces, and bringing them to life, the way that water allows us to see the character of a vessel...

These are all half-formed thoughts/ideas-- I'll think more, but let me know if they spark any ideas for you! Thinking about arranging repertoire for this, it would be nice to have something that involved retelling in a literal musical sense, like what we talked about with the transcription/rewriting pieces. I'm not sure if/how Turina fits in this picture...?

M

 

APRIL 11, 2018 from ROSE LACHMAN:

Woah. I think there are definitely ways to work with this. Bowls/vessels could pour water. Or sand. Or air. Same bowls pouring different things, or different bowls pouring same things, or same bowls pouring same things in different contexts (as you said). 

I love that bit about water filling the shape of a vessel, in the way that sound fills the shape of a space. It's curious though - our name is open space. But it's actually really difficult to play music in a literal 'open space'. With nothing to resonate, there's so much space and so little sound. It's kind of too bad the piano isn't portable. I could envision something like playing in an enclosed space, and then walking out into an open space while playing, and then back into an enclosed space --- something about discovering the actual way our sound fills the vessel of the performance space. Ah well. 

I'm thinking a bit about the Pärt too - 'mirror in the mirror'. This seems related, seeing things the same but different, reflection, mirrors open up spaces (ask any realtor :P )

Nathan does a lot of work with site-specific composition. He did one recently called Elevator Music, that took place in an old grain silo (I think? It was back east somewhere, I believe). OK, just looked it up - here's the link. At any rate, I wonder if what you're thinking is site-specific, or just specific to the fact that we will be in sites in general - you know what I mean?

Yeah, I'm not sure the Turina fits into this specific idea. If you like it, I think we'll find some spaces for it though - paired with the Poulenc would be real lovely. And, if one of our 'concert blocks' is a more traditional concert, which may not have a theme more specific than 'we like this music', the Turina works well for that. But. I want to make sure you like it. I think it would feature your sound super well :)

xoxo

R

 

APRIL 11, 2018 from MICHIKO THEURER:

Rose!! You're so right about the open space/resonance thing. It's a gorgeous idea, and the thing about being around all these tech geniuses at Stanford is that it puts ideas in your head, like "maybe I could have a concert where the piano is magically transported to a different space in the middle of a piece." Let me bracket that for a second and get back to you. But this program idea is sounding more and more like an exploration of who we want to be as a duo, which is awesome.  Also, Nathan's Elevator Music looks so cool!!

Why don't we build two programs? I listened to the Turina again, and I think you're totally right that it'd be great for us. 

Also, I just got back from a long practice session after a full (and rewarding) day of musicology-related stuff, and oh my goodness it's amazing to make sound. It's like swimming. I think I have some passages/phrasing ideas to share about the first movement of the Szymanowski, but I'll hold off on that until I get some sleep. Looking forward to talking soon!

xoxo, M

 

Fountains

Hi Rose! I've been thinking a lot about water lately (I dunked myself in the fountain in front of the Stanford library for an Intermedia video project a couple weeks ago, and regretted it being February), and it struck me that water has a lot to do with our Szymanowski Myths project. The first of the three Myths, "The Fountain of Arethusa," is based on a myth about a nymph who becomes a fountain—as Ovid tells it, one summer day Arethusa (thinking she’s alone) steps into a river to cool her sweaty self and then becomes aware of the presence of the river god Alpheus. She leaps out of the water and Alpheus calls after her:

"What are you rushing for, Arethusa?” Alpheus called from the waves. “Why are you rushing?” He called again to me, in a strident voice. Just as I was, I fled, without my clothes (I had left my clothes on the other bank): so much the more fiercely he pursued and burned, and being naked, I seemed readier for him. So I ran, and so he wildly followed, as doves fly from a hawk on flickering wings, as a hawk is used to chasing frightened doves. Even beyond Orchemenus, I still ran, by Psophis, and Cyllene, and the ridges of Maenalus, by chill Erymanthus, Elis, he no quicker than I. But I could not stay the course, being unequal in strength: he was fitted for unremitting effort. Still, across the plains, over tree-covered mountains, through rocks and crags, and where there was no path, I ran. The sun was at my back. I saw a long shadow stretching out before my feet, unless it was my fear that saw it, but certainly I feared the sound of feet, and the deep breaths from his mouth stirred the ribbons in my hair. Weary with the effort to escape him, I cried out “Help me: I will be taken. Diana, help the one who bore your weapons for you, whom you often gave your bow to carry, and your quiver with all its arrows!” The goddess was moved, and raising an impenetrable cloud, threw it over me.

    ‘‘The river-god circled the concealing fog, and in ignorance searched about the hollow mist. Twice, without understanding, he rounded the place, where the goddess had concealed me, and twice called out “Arethusa, O Arethusa!” What wretched feelings were mine, then? Perhaps those the lamb has when it hears the wolves, howling round the high fold, or the hare, that, hidden in the briars, sees the dogs hostile muzzles, and does not dare to make a movement of its body? He did not go far: he could see no signs of my tracks further on: he observed the cloud and the place. Cold sweat poured down my imprisoned limbs, and dark drops trickled from my whole body. Wherever I moved my foot, a pool gathered, and moisture dripped from my hair, and faster than I can now tell the tale I turned to liquid. And indeed the river-god saw his love in the water, and putting off the shape of a man he had assumed, he changed back to his own watery form, and mingled with mine. The Delian goddess [Diana] split the earth, and plunging down into secret caverns, I was brought here to Ortygia, dear to me, because it has the same name as my goddess, the ancient name, for Delos, where she was born, and this was the first place to receive me, into the clear air.’” (trans. A.S. Kline)

It feels like a shimmering cloth woven out of the logic of a nightmare. And the end to me feels like an awakening from a nightmare, the sweat and memory of it absolutely real, but nothing left to touch of the fabric of the story itself—Diana, Alpheus, all infinitely distant, beyond reach or justice.

I read an essay by Anne Carson about Greek attitudes about women, in which she talks about how in the culture of ancient Greece, women are thought of as “wet”—unbounded, fluid, changeable, and without form. In contrast, men are thought of as “dry”—makers of boundaries, of rational thought, of form, and therefore also of all that is good: she quotes Heraklitos as saying “A dry soul is wisest and best” and Aristophanes speaking “of a man’s need to ‘dry his mind’ if he wants to ‘say anything smart’” (155). She gives numerous examples from mythology of shape-shifting, transgressive, and/or watery women (of which Arethusa seems a particularly beautiful example). And she traces this idea of women as fluid/mobile to the social reality of marriage customs, in which men stayed in a fixed location (their home, and their social milieu) while women moved (into her husband’s house, social orbit, etc.). She doesn’t mention here what’s probably the obvious second reason why people might think of women as wet, though I’m sure she does somewhere.

So, Arethusa, and Szymanowski. I’ve been trying to figure out your part, which is hard for me because (a) you have so many notes, and (b) my piano playing skills have only gotten worse since that time over winter break when you helped me sight-read a line of quarter notes. Basically, what seems so hard about looking at the score is that the notation is incredibly dense and precise, and the effect is fluid and constantly shifting (I think you can hear that really well in Krystian Zimerman's playing in this recording). So what I want to do, what Szymanowski seems to ask for, is to map out the currents that are below all this dry and precise flotsam, that carry the debris of note-heads and tuplets and meter changes on their backs and make them into a shape. You know this already, I’m just writing it out as my own flotsam on my stream of consciousness—apologies. But it feels like this is leading somewhere important, to something in the music that is very specific to this movement, this Mythe. I think maybe it’s that it’s not just a muddle, it’s not just wetness that Szymanowski writes: he doesn’t just give us a long wavy line and say “fill in the notes, please.” He gives us the edges—so many edges, shards and shards of edges—, and asks for the curve. When he wants me to glissando, to slide smoothly down from one point to another, he writes a precise, chromatic ladder of trills, and then blurs this precision with the parenthetical note “glissando” above it. It’s a very slow process of immersion, building my conception of the music’s wetness out of these dry and precise edges, but maybe that’s the beauty of it. It’s kind of nice to take a magnifying glass to a myth, and find that it’s made up of countless droplets of its logical opposite, dry and clear.

I’m thinking of how falling water slowed down looks like static snow: