Sunday, April 29, 2018

Approaching the "Distant Light"

So already, every once in a while I encounter a work of art that instantly becomes a compelling irritant, a beloved and beckoning itch I can't scratch, something I see out of the corner of my eye that keeps distracting me with sincere but indecipherable promises.

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.
The speaker in "The Strand Settings" speaks as someone with much adult experience; that the world is much with him/her is especially evident in the third song/poem, which begins with the line "The sickness of angels is nothing new" ("Dark Harbor XXXV,"** p. 355).*** Much of what transpires in the first, second, and fourth poem-songs happens between the speaker and his/her beloved, between whom there's so much intimacy and so much distance. This tension is being negotiated against a vast backdrop that sometimes holds and cradles, other times muddles and mystifies,  and sometimes does both simultaneously. The orchestration emphasizes the context in which the poems' human actors--or is the speaker sometimes conversing with God, who seems both present and doubted?--are operating. The last of the four songs, which I'll write more about later in this post, ends with a not fully understood dissipation of sorrow--relief that's welcome, genuine, and baffling. 

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
     drew the
     shadow of
     the clouds
Around us
     so that we
     could feel 
     the force
Of our free-
     dom while 
     still the
     of dark.
And later 
     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)***
It 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.

Still, liberation is always a process, a letting go of old ways, and as such it requires adjustment. That's why the speaker and his companion--I believe the two of them have weathered this sorrow together, loving each other--"feel the force/ Of our freedom while still captives of the dark."

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. 

The texture changes, becomes more unsettled as recollection continues in the third and fourth stanzas: woodwind and other instruments--Bruce Hodges identifies them as "wind chimes and four wine glasses (a glass harmonica)"*****--add points of color, spattering percussively; the voice soars highest on the word "freedom." 

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." 

No, it's not the plentiful darkness that requires our human endurance that's the irritant; it's the distant light that I want to trust and don't quite. When I'm talking to other people about it--I personally interpret this distant light as God--I can say and believe, "The Distant Light shines for us, especially when we reach toward it." What I can't do with any conviction is personalize this and say, "The Distant Light shines for me, especially when I reach toward it." Instead, I stand with Strand's speaker in the poem "Black Sea" on a night-time rooftop where he "gazed at the sea," . . . "waiting for something, a sign, the approach/ of a distant light," and then wonders at the end of waiting: "Why did I believe you would come out of nowhere? Why with all/ that the world offers would you come only because I was here? (437).***

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 [Actual link:]
** You can read this whole poem in a comment about the photo on this link:
*** 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