Renée Fleming's 2017 album Distant Light has been just such a tempting, genuine, mesmerizing torment. I've struggled to speak to myself about the music and poetry joined here, let alone to blog about it.
It's an album about love--human love and God's love, too, I think--and sorrow, and its architecture is part of its power. It begins with Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915, op. 24," which I first heard years ago--and loved immediately because of its enigmatic woodwindy beginning that's answered almost immediately by the calm, lyrical authority of the strings. Until I read the CD/album notes, I hadn't known that Barber composed it while both his father and his aunt were ill and nearing death. James Agee's text, which Barber sets, is almost pure, blissful recollection of childhood: it includes a prayer that asks God to "remember [my people] . . . in their hour of taking away."* Sorrow and death will come, but hopefully gently; the intimation of it is not enough to banish sweet memory or the love of life and all its uplifting and transient moments.
Next comes Anders Hillborg's "The Strand Settings," song settings of three sections of Mark Strand's Dark Harbor and one other poem, and then a set of Björk Guðmundsdóttir songs arranged by Hans Ek. It's these two song cycles that have left me wordless, captivated, and, frankly, envious of the bold voices and confident uncertainties of all the artist-seekers involved.
Hillsborg's settings lead us to Ek's, and we're happily arrested by Björk's electrifying creativity, which challenges our assumptions of what's positive and what's negative in order to get us to see what we need and already have. Her songs deserve an entire blog post of their own, but the last of them, less feverish than the other two, surrounds us in rounds of sound so we can know and feel the love that is everywhere around us. Architecturally speaking, by the end of Distant Light, we're back to where we began, surrounded by love. Again the orchestration shimmers. The more I listen to the CD, I more I wonder how much of the music is coming from the compositions and the performance and how much from inside of me, inside of any of us.
At some point, I've been practically obsessed by each one of the album's "new songs." But "Dark Harbor XI," the fourth of "The Strand Settings," was the first to captivate me fully. It's about liberation from sadness (and therefore suffering), time, persistent mystery, and human relationship--I should probably call it love--that makes endurance tolerable. It's terrifically tender and strangely definitive.
Here it is, in its entirety:
A long time has passed and yet it seems
Like yesterday, in the midmost moment of summer,
When we felt the disappearance of sorrow.
And saw beyond the rough stone walls
The flesh of clouds, heavy with the scent
Of the southern desert, rise in a prodigal
Overflowing of mildness. It seems like yesterday
When we stood by the iron gate in the center
Of town while the pollen-filled breath
Of the wind
so that we
Of our free-
And laterIt was "a prodigal/ Overflowing of mildness" that spoke to the core of me. An extravagance of mildness--such a juxtaposition! An overflowing of something that's more apt to slip in through an open window or slide across a threshold than to cascade and proclaim. And the position of the adjective "prodigal" at the end of not only a line but a stanza, creating a momentary hiccup--as if the poet might be struggling to describe the sudden--is it sudden?--experience of sorrow's absence after his having become reconciled to its constant presence. He's freed without fanfare and announcement--but with bounty.
when the rain fell and flooded the streets
And we heard the dripping on the porch and the wind
Rustling the leaves like paper, how to explain
Our happiness then, the particular way our voices
Erased all signs of the sorrow that had been,
Its violence, its terrible omens of the end? (330)***
Finally, he recollects their joy, probably expressed with quiet rather than raucous exuberance, that banished their thoughts of the deep sadness they'd long borne, and of the thoughts of mortality woven through it. Maybe sorrow's departure and the temporary hiatus from acknowledging mortality contributed equally to their experience of true happiness.
Beneath the Strand's expression of motion and emotion happening in shadows past and present is Hillsborg's music. The strings build beneath the first two stanzas, mounting and amounting, ascending and unfolding with the voice to a higher ground, and then retreating some, as liberation is contextualized with reference to memory.
Beneath a further recollection in the fifth and sixth stanzas, the strings again are steady, accommodating, and reassuring. A kind of vibrant but controlled ringing very close to the end of the piece reminds us that the couple's carefree distance from thoughts of mortality is but a temporary reprieve. And finally, a peaceful resolution, perhaps because our mortality is a familiar truth we're practiced at living with. As Hodges describes it, “Dark Harbor XI,” [is] . . . buoyed by the ensemble’s sweeping texture, slowly turning and sparkling as if in twilight."*****
There was a time when I felt "a prodigal/Overflowing of mildness." I will never forget the simultaneous lightness and gravity of that moment. Was it winter, or was it just my personal winter that was over? I can't recall. Conscious that my emotional landscape had shifted, but also not quite sure I should trust the shift, I had no impulse to sing from the rooftops; instead, I just walked around my neighborhood, feeling I was finally actually seeing it again, now that the veil that had interposed itself between me and life had lifted.
You might think that the itch and the corner-of-my-eye distraction that I mentioned at the beginning of this post was a deep-seated desire not to have to revisit the deep sadness that preceded my liberation. But that's not so: every day the news reminds me of dignified human endurance--of pain, of loss, of hardship, of injustice--of sorrows more terrible, traumatic, and unrelenting than the relatively short-lived personal sorrow I endured. People endure, hoping or simply refusing to embrace their suffering as meaningless and/or permanent. As the poet Richard Blanco put it recently when he was talking about Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" on NPR, "We find a way to go on . . . to make meaning out of life still, to get up in the morning."
It makes me uncomfortable to admit this. But given that so many people reach toward the light through prayers that others have written and in the company of fellow congregants saying those same prayers, I have to assume that I am not alone. A beloved minister friend of mine who died many years ago used to say, "There is no faith without doubt." If he was right, then I exemplify his statement. The desire for faith isn't faith, but it's probably a necessary ingredient.
It's National Poetry Month--only one day left now--and I've been reading a lot of poetry. At the same time, I've been reading Abigail Pogrebin's My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew and therefore thinking a lot about the relationship between belief in God and religious traditions that direct us to contemplate death, remember sorrow, recognize fragility and impermanence, and celebrate. The combination of poetry and spiritual memoir is a good one for me. Still no answers, but some meaningful agitation and consolation, courtesy of others' wisdom and perspectives, including those of Renée Fleming and Anders Hillborg who teamed up to select several highly evocative Mark Strand poems to set for voice and orchestra.
It occurs to me that nowhere in the post have I mentioned the gorgeous--knowing, humble, confident, artful, bravely expressive--singing of Renée Fleming. I took it for granted that she would fuse all of the album's artistic, imaginative elements, and transport me into a place of meaning, beauty, and hope--and she did! Distant Light reminds me that great art and artists have the power to convey our most fundamental yet complex human experiences, and that beauty inspires us to endure.
* Agee, J. (n.d.). Samuel Barber: Knoxville summer of 1915. Retrieved April 22, 2018, from https://genius.com/ [Actual link: https://genius.com/Samuel-barber-knoxville-summer-of-1915-lyrics]
** You can read this whole poem in a comment about the photo on this link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eyeconpix/357121856/in/photostream/
*** Strand, M. (2016). Collected poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
**** Hodges, B. (2013). Renee Fleming meets Anders Hillborg [Review of concert The Strand Settings]. Seen and Heard International.
***** Partial screen shot of https://goo.gl/images/uXNeC1