I’m sitting in my petite maison in Tours, France (next to a stack of beginning French language books), reflecting on what an incredible experience we had at Avaloch Farm Music Institute. I feel like the space we were given there—the freedom to try things without fear of failure, to explore who we are as a duo and as friends, and to make music together in a situation that seemed designed as if to eliminate the friction of everything except the friction that makes sound resonate and gives ideas shape—I feel like we’ve been given something of that space to bring back with us, something that we can articulate and share with others. What a gift. The things we talked about there feel so right for us: creating a music-sharing space (the word concert feels formal…) that invites immersive and engaged listening; sharing our kinesthetic experience (what it feels like to play together, the language of gestures not as system but as expressive motion); and the repertoire and potential commissions/collaborations that we discussed (I’ve been texting you love notes about Lili Boulanger, but since I haven’t mentioned her on the blog yet, I feel the need to once more say I’M COMPLETELY HEAD OVER HEELS IN LOVE with her music—see below).
So. Lili Boulanger, whose Nocturne you found and we played at Avaloch: the historical context I’ve gotten is limited by my current inability to get the Stanford VPN thing working, so I promise I’ll be a better musicologist soon [Edit, August 6: I managed to connect yesterday and am now bubbling over with even more ideas—expect more Lili B soon, and maybe something about Paul Klee and Paul Valéry?], but from the little I’ve gathered (Wikipedia and an article by Annegret Fauser in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association Vol. 122, No. 1 (1997), pp. 68-108) she was an unbelievable person. At the age of 19 (NINETEEN!), she was the first woman to win the Rome Prize (THE ROME PRIZE!). She was deeply affected by the violence of WWI and led efforts with her better-known (and much longer-lived) sister Nadia to support French musicians in the war. She had been diagnosed with intestinal tuberculosis (which would now be diagnosed as Crohn’s disease) at the age of three, and was seriously ill throughout her life. In her early twenties, she was at work on an opera on Maeterlinck’s play “La Princesse Maleine.” The publisher Tito Ricordi, who worked with her on adapting the libretto, wrote to Maeterlinck in a moment of “good news” that “she works with great enthusiasm on this piece, in which she will put all her soul and all her artist’s heart“ (Fauser 78, via JSTOR). She died in March of 1918, at the age of 24. The opera was unfinished, and three or more sketchbooks have been lost, according to Fauser's article (70).
I won’t go over my dissertation hopes here, but we talked earlier about transcribing/ translating some of her songs for a combination of violin/piano and painting (the painting being a way to carry the specificity of word-images into a wordless instrumental medium). I wanted to share a song she wrote called “Elle est gravement gaie” (She is solemnly gay), which was published in 1906 and which was on the iTunes album I downloaded and listened to on the flight from Avaloch to France. The poem is by Francis Jammes:
Elle est gravement gaie. Par moments son regard
se levait comme pour surprendre ma pensée.
Elle était douce alors comme quand il est tard
le velours jaune et bleu d'une allée de pensées.
Faith J. Cormier as represented on Lieder.net translates this as
She is solemnly gay. Sometimes she looked up
as if to see what I was thinking.
She was as soft as the yellow and blue velvet
of a lane of pansies late at night.
I had to look this up, but Google confirmed that “pensée” can mean both thought (as it’s translated in the end of the second line) and pansies (as Cormier translates the last word of the poem). I’m just breathtaken by Boulanger’s setting of that moment: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TseNCOAeIQ#t=1m10s)
—the whole world of the piano shifts underneath the singer’s last word, “pensées”— not just its harmonies but its time. The rhythm gets caught in this eddy of a moment, the alley of thought. And in this opening of time, the thoughts (pensées) bloom into pansies (pensées). It’s a wordplay that’s not just literal but visceral, a moment that made me catch my breath before I even knew what it meant.
I’ve been working on a painting based on this idea that I think I’ll leave as it is, perhaps unfinished—I’ve spent some time tight-rope-walking along the edge of too vague and too clear, and I’d rather leave it before I squeeze all the vagueness out of it:
I’ve been thinking so much about the intersection between thinking and feeling-- the depths of experience that you share with me through your musicianship and the way you talk about motion in our rehearsals and when you talk about what it was like to be a world-champion acrobat (which only happens when I embarrass you by bringing it up in company because I still can’t believe I didn’t know that about you until more than a year into our collaboration). There’s something so important about what we learn from doing and moving and feeling and listening, and I think it’s a vital part of Lili Boulanger’s music—I think it’s what we both responded to when we were listening and then reading together.
Anyway, I was thinking of all that partly because of what we did at Avaloch with the interactive Pärt—I think that’s a separate post, because it’s past my bedtime and I need to study some French before tomorrow— but I just wanted to say that I’m so looking forward to exploring these worlds of kinesthetic motion and musical immersion with you! Thanks for being such a wonderful chamber partner and friend, and I’ll write more soon!