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Listening to the Music in My Backyard: Thoughts While Sequestered at Home

April 23, 2020 - Durham, NC:


Coping with crisisThe event began in March, as we humans were strongly suggested to stay at home. And while local concerts had been cancelled or postponed, and our favorite restaurants were shuttered (but you can order on-line and pick up from many), music is widely available through our modern technology. Meanwhile, springtime concerts in my backyard provide comfort and inspiration for a daily playlist.

On one particular day, I listened to the trills and vibrato of avian soloists: call-and-response and disorderly counterpoint. While my mind searched for order, memory called forth a string of music I know and love: Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 ("Pastorale"), and Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending," for example. Associating these with happy memories, they are like comfort food. Furthermore, the 3 B's (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) would bring me hours of pleasure.

But strong emotions called out for something else. To stay with my agitation and feelings of uncertainty, I turned to the twentieth century composer Stravinsky and his Rite of Spring. This monumental work is like an explosion of sound. The pulsating rhythm and accents lifted me from my seat. And the kinetic sensations woke me up like a strong cup of coffee. Still, Stravinsky is relatively mainstream, so I searched for something a bit more off the beaten track.

The maverick John Cage (1912-92) was a prolific composer of music, poetry, essays, and visual art. One of his early successful experiments is "Bacchanale" (1938), a composition written for a dance by Syvilla Fort. An ingenious solution to the problem of a small space, Cage's prepared piano simulates the percussion required for the score. I like Stephen Drury's performance on the recording In a Landscape (BMG Classics, 1994). You can also find a recording on YouTube.

Back to the birds. Eighth Blackbird is a highly acclaimed contemporary ensemble specializing in performing works by composers of our time. Thirteen Ways (2002, Cedille Records CDR 90000 067) is their debut commercial recording. But look at their website for a complete list of their recordings. And when the quarantine is eventually lifted, plan to attend a concert to hear them live.

For more joy, I listened to Esa-Pekka Salonen's (1958) Cello Concerto (2019, Sony Classical 19075928482). Performed by the LA Philharmonic and Yo-Yo Ma, it is glorious, energetic and, of course, a splendid recording.

At last, I was ready for something meditative. Morton Feldman's (1926-87) work came to mind. The slow moving, arrhythmic sound world he created is best heard lying on the floor, especially if I (or you) want something to facilitate escape. But I wrapped up the day with Meredith Monk's Impermanence (2008, ECM New Series 2026). Inspired by the Buddhist principle "nothing is permanent," Monk penned a set of short acoustic pieces for human voices and instruments. I love the contrasting textures of the percussion, lyrical wind passages, and stunning vocal parts. This CD makes me feel present and relaxed. I return to it again and again.

The stillness of night, beautiful music and the slowness of pace brought me solace. I had made it through another day. I am grateful for extraordinary works of art, the marvelous composers who create them, and the performers who bring them to life. Savor some during these quiet stay-at-home times.