Tag: presence

Personal Essay: Watching, Listening, Writing – Alone And Together

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Pianist Igor Levit performs on March 16, 2020 as part of the Bayerische Staatoper’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh peals of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has  laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.

Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.

Equally as buoying have been the multiple together-yet-apart performances by numerous orchestras, including Bamberger Symphoniker’s recent presentation of a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. There are so many examples of this type of fellowship which have sprung up, and they are all worth watching. One of my personal favourites is a solo performance from violist Marco Misciagna, who is currently volunteering with the military corps of the Italian Red Cross (CRI). Misciagna performs outside the Southern Mobilization Centre, mask firmly in place, leaning into tonalities and, one can almost hear, breathing in and through his instrument’s strings. As an opinion piece in The Guardian noted, “When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus.”

Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated  in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.

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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of music by Bartók and Berio on March 12, 2020. The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until April 19th but the orchestra is offering free access to online archives at its Digital Concert Hall. Photo © Stephan Rabold

Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländer and Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individual talents and voices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal. 

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Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) –  allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed.  It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being. 

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Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity,  just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure,  and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:

All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.

What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.

Krisztina Szabó: Singing Is “A Lifelong Process”

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Photo: Bo Huang

Krisztina Szabó is a busy lady.

A recent whirlwind trip between her home city of Toronto and Berlin left the mezzo soprano jet-lagged but, one might suspect, quite happy; within the space of a few days, she’d made her German debut at the annual Musikfest with the acclaimed Mahler Chamber Orchestra, performing the work of Sir George Benjamin under his very baton. Considering the number of engagements she’s had over the last few years, it’s probably fair to say she’s used to the pace.

Since postgraduate studies at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, she’s had a busy career with incredible highlights, including working with celebrated Russian baritone with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Don Giovanni Revealed: Leporello’s Revenge, as soloist with Plural Ensemble in Madrid under the baton of composer-conductor Peter Eötvös, and having a part composed by Benjamin specifically for her voice (more on that below). She’s worked with a number of celebrated institutions including Wexford Festival Opera, the Mostly Mozart Festival, L’Opéra National du Rhin, and the Colorado Music Festival (just to name a few), as well as Canadian companies including Vancouver Opera, L’Opéra de Québec, and Calgary Opera. Her passion (and talent) for new work is clear in her bio, having worked with a number of organizations specializing in contemporary repertoire, including Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal, Soundstreams, and Tapestry Opera, and living composers including Anna Sokolovic, James Rolfe, and Aaron Gervais, as well as the aforementioned Eötvös and Benjamin.

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Phillip Addis and Krisztina Szabó in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2015 production of “Pyramus and Thisbe / Lamento d’Arianna / Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” (Photo: Michael Cooper)

In 2015, Szabó sang no less than three leading roles one show production, a triumvirate vision that combined Claudio Monteverdi’s 17th century Lamento D’Arianna and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda with Barbara Monk Feldman’s 2009 Pyramus and Thisbe, directed by Christopher Alden. In my review I referenced Szabó’s compelling stage presence, admiring her range, projection, chemistry with co-star Phillip Addis, and amazing versatility, both vocally and physically (at one point she was required to sing lying flat on the stage floor), though what has really stayed with me since has been her innate sense of theatre; the haunted look she would give Addis at points (the production was a fascinating look at the battle of the sexes), her loose physicality, the keen, cool balance of control and vulnerability, combined with a lovely mahogany-meets-cognac vocal tone, are qualities that give her a special place in the opera world.

That was reiterated in her recent performance with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, in Benjamin’s 2006 chamber opera Into the Little Hill: that same haunted look, an immense energy, a fierce vocal prowess. Szabó, who also speaks fluent Hungarian and is a member of the voice faculty at the University of Toronto, has drama running through her veins, and her work with the MCO (who matched her intensity with ferocious intelligence and quiet elegance) was a highlight of this year’s Musikfest. She has, she admits, done “a ton of Benjamin”, including performances of his celebrated 2012 opera Written on Skin (twice in concert and once in an Opera Philadelphia production), as well as his new work, Lessons in Love and Violence, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (where it made its world premiere in April) and at Netherlands Opera, where she worked alongside fellow Canadian singer  (and contemporary repertoire virtuoso) Barbara Hannigan, who has a close relationship with the work of Benjamin herself.  The same goes for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the celebrated troupe whose repertoire ranges from baroque to contemporary compositions. Founded in 1997, the orchestra premiered Written on Skin in 2012 (the composer/conductor has said he had heir specific sound in mind when he wrote it) and they’ve also toured the work internationally, in both opera and semi-staged concert versions. Into the Little Hill, though presented in concert at Musikfest, lost none of its dramatic power (the work is based on the fairytale of the pied piper), with Szabó and soprano Susanna Andersson making a fine, fierce duet onstage, their delivery crisp and careful, their characterizations gripping. 

Prior to the performance, Szabó made time to chat about Benjamin, working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and what she takes away from here whirlwind trip to Berlin. (It doesn’t include beer, I don’t think.)

What is it you find so rewarding about Benjamin’s work as an artist?

I find the colors he gets from the orchestra one of the most striking things about his scores, and you’ll find that again in Into the Little Hill — it’s just remarkable. It’s so delicate and yet it can be so full and impactful as well. It’s quite striking. This one is scored for contralto, which I am not, so for me it’s a on the low side but the low stuff is lightly scored, so it’s doable. Written on Skin has some remarkable passages — some are quite low, some are quite high; it’s a large range. It’s rhythmically really, really detailed, just like his scores. I love that kind of stuff — I love rhythmic complexity, it’s like a sudoku puzzle I have yet to figure out. That’s my anal-retentive nature coming out, maybe.

Some of his scores also feature a cimbalom.

Yes, Written On Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence both have the cimbalom. The first time I was looking up the score for Skin, I was like, “Hey! That’s the instrument of my people!”

What does that add?

It’s an exotic color, it’s that twangyness. Into the Little Hill has a banjo too, but the cimbalom has this cut-through sound; the violins, when bowed, have this lyrical sound, and plucked they have another certain sound, but the cimbalom has a certain cut to it, which gives it this exotic flavor.

Benjamin Lloyd

Photo: Matthew Lloyd

What is Benjamin like to work with?

I have worked with a lot of living composers, not at his level obviously, but working with him is a particular adventure because that man likes to rehearse! And if you look at his score it’s incredibly detailed. You have to be on your toes and be super-prepared, but he always appreciates musicianship and preparation and detail; if you give that to him, then it’s great. He’s such a sweet man, actually. But at my first rehearsal for Written on Skin, I thought, “Oh, I don’t have as much to sing” — we had a two-hour call — “we won’t use all the time up.” But I was sweating by the end; we used every bit of it and I thought, “This guy likes to rehearse!” He doesn’t smile necessarily, he’s very serious, very focused, very British. After a few rehearsals he starts to loosen up, and it’s like, “Okay, he doesn’t hate me!”

And you’ve developed something of a relationship now because you have worked together a few times and he knows how he can push you.

Yes he does, for sure. I mean, the part in Lessons in Love and Violence was composed specifically for my voice, which was kind of cool — it was written particularly to my strengths, which was fun. That’s not going to get old!

How has working on Into the Little Hill stretched you creatively?

Vocally it’s stretched me for sure! It’s scored for contralto, so I am trying to find my inner contralto. I live higher — I’m a high mezzo, I straddle soprano repertoire as well, so making friends with my middle-low register has been interesting – a little scary, but a welcome challenge. In terms of the drama, I play several characters. Both soprano and mezzo have to switch and make quick changes (between various characters) and (Benjamin) wants those changes really sharp, to make it clear for the audience.

And you’re doing this as part of your Musikfest debut…

Yes, this is a wonderful opportunity for me. I am thrilled to be here, but for me the biggest hurdle is making sure that George likes it. When you have the composer standing two feet in front of you, he’s the audience I am trying to impress the most.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Photo: © Manu Agah)

What’s it been like working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra? They have such a celebrated history with Benjamin.

The quality of the musicianship is extraordinary — Susanna Andersson (soprano) was saying during rehearsals, “They are playing things I cannot believe they are playing!’” As detailed as George is with the singers, he is super-detailed with the instrumentalists, picking them apart, so it’s very clear what they’re doing. Some parts of the score have extremely complicated passages for them to play. He’s not a showman conductor; he’s clear and detailed and precise and delicate.

That delicacy was what I found so amazing when I saw him lead the Berlin Philharmonic recently; it was so very noticeable and gave the music so much more depth and color. 

Yes, and we haven’t had a hell of a lot of rehearsal for this, but… that man has bionic ears! When someone plays a wrong note somewhere: “Was it you?” He can pick it out. I know conductors can have that ability, but to take the most delicate chord and pick out, immediately, what needs to be worked on… he’s very organized and detailed about what he wants, and how to get something.

… whether it’s the Berlin Philharmonic or the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

He said, “Oh they’re reading this for the first time” today and I went “WHAT?!” It was already at a level… it did not seem they had just cracked the score.

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Photo: Bo Huang

What kinds of things are you already taking from this experience in Berlin, especially in your role as a teacher?

I think about my students more often when I perform now. I think I take away the idea of stamina for sure. You hear students complain a lot: “I don’t have time to do that” and “I’m tired!” Well, I haven’t slept, I’m jet-lagged, I’ve worked six-hour days the last two days straight on a piece that is stretching me vocally, balance the stamina vocally while giving the composer/conductor what he wants. These are the things they have to learn. There’s vocal technique, but there’s all the other stuff, and it’s still an ongoing process. What I tell them is, learning singing is a lifelong thing, because it will change daily: how you feel, how you’ve slept, what you’ve eaten, if you’re well, if you’re unwell, if you’re upset, if you’re happy. All these things factor into how you sing on that day and it is a lifelong process of how to deal with that in any given moment. You don’t know what you’ll wake up with but you have to get the job done, and I am all about getting the job done. It’s about managing what’s important.

Christmas Love

There was once a time when Christmas was a very big deal in my life. Christmas Eve was a swirl of hot chocolate, cartoons, and peeks under the tree; the day itself was filled with a bevy of boxes, shiny ribbons, stockings filled to the brim.

My mother would always laugh and say I was the last kid to get up on Christmas morning; sleeping in felt like another gift, and I wanted to indulge. One year my mother got sick of cooking, so she took six-year-old me down to one of her favorite old hang-outs, the Royal York Hotel. Me, in a long red velvet gown, and my mother, in a fancy, flouncy dress, enjoyed several courses, as I took in the spectacle of the room, the fancily-attired waiters marching through before dinner started with a succession of Christmas delicacies carefully laid out on silver platters.  Later, she would drive through the city, and we’d look at the festive lights and decorations; I’d be asleep by the time we got home, and would be carried into the house, changed into fuzzy pajamas, and tucked into bed. Boxing Day (and many days thereafter) were filled with play.

As both my mother and I grew older, our gift exchanges became decadent, dare I say exorbitant. I still remember her, one Christmas morning about a decade ago, sitting on a cream-color sofa near the tree and looking beautiful in a red satin dress, exclaiming, not in judgment but in simple awe, “We are very extravagant!” I think something about the sheer volume shocked her, having come from such a meagre life as a youngster, when Christmas meant little more than an orange and an apple. 
Not long after this, we mutually decided to end gift exchanges; her, sensing my writing didn’t really pay that well, and being exhausted with the entire shopping/wrapping process. Also, we both acknowledged, gift-giving tended to happen throughout the year anyway — I’d go grocery shopping, to posh grocers, picking up special, lovely delicacies and cooking them up — sometimes (frequently), it was for no occasion at all, but for the simple pleasure of sharing, preparing, and enjoying them with someone I loved. It was also gratifying seeing my rapidly-shrinking mother eat. One of my most cherished memories of this year is grilling sea scallops for her; I shall always cherish that look of love and gratitude she gave me, more than once, as she carefully carved and them ravenously devoured them. That enjoyment, to me, is worth more than anything you could buy in a store.

Value comes in many forms, of course. Having dear friends coming over through the holidays this year, people close to both of mother and me, is a gift in and of itself. I thought it would be fitting (and fun) to look back at old times. Going through the many old photo albums stored in my basement has forced me to admit it something I’ve been avoiding the last month or so: the holidays hurt. I’ve been keeping myself busy with writing, baking, all manner of household thing, but the shock of my mother’s absence this year is sharp, unrelenting, brutal. Beyond going to the Royal York, and, more recently, my cooking up a beautiful Christmas dinner for us, we didn’t have many traditions. That doesn’t mean her presence in and around the house — as I baked, wrapped presents, drove her to friends’ for merry deliveries — isn’t sorely missed. She’d always laugh whenever I’d put on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

“You’re a big kid at heart!” she’d say. True, I’d admit. I have to be; I never had any of my own.

Other memories of her at this festive time of year are dim, though I have some lovely photos to remind me of the wonder of childhood; a veritable smell of gingerbread and vanilla wafts off them, dreams of sugar plums and plush red dresses and the smooth threads of a Barbie’s hair. My world was cozy, cradling, perfect. Small snippets of that feeling came through in subsequent years; though I don’t have any photos from last year’s Christmas, I distinctly remember the absolute thrill I felt at seeing her take a second helping of turkey, exclaiming, “your chestnut stuffing is sooooo good!” 

An overpowering love pervades everything; that is what I see and what I feel when I think of Christmases past. The tidal-wave-power of that love is one I’m not sure I’ll experience again; I chose not to have my own children a long time ago, and I am really not the maternal sort (something my mother also acknowledged), though I admit it’s been very joyful to see updates of others’ families on social media.  “Christmas is for kids,” my mother dryly observed over the last few years. I couldn’t agree more. So it’s nice to experience the joy of the holidays vicariously, through the many hilarious/touching/smart updates I’ve seen on my Facebook feed; those photos and updates have brought many much-needed smiles and even laughter. To those who’ve provided such therapy: thank you.  

So, as 2016 rapidly approaches, the only way to move forwards — now, at the holidays, and after them, too — is to allow the memory of my mother’s love to power me forwards, through the scary melanoma stuff, through the work stuff, through the frequently lonely days and weeks that characterize so much of my life now. It also means remembering the kid who wants to play, and making room for that in my new normal; maybe that’s the best way to honor my mother, and the best way to keep the Christmas spirit alive, year round.

Eternity’s Sunrise

(photo via)

The opportunity to sit with a piece of art, undistracted, has become a luxury, especially for those of us with stressful lives. Amidst the hospitalization of a parent, my own health woes, and a skunk-sprayed pet, having the time (mental, emotional, spiritual) and space to just sit with something artistic (and not fall asleep) has been a rare and much-longed for thing, a wish that vanishes with too much wind and implodes with too much noise. Time, place, and condition, of house, of hearth, of heart, have to be just so. It felt like a blessing to have a recent evening where all the phone calls had been made, all the dishes had been washed, and the skunk stench has dissipated enough to allow for clear thinking and open listening.

photo via

I was a huge admirer of U2’s work in the 1990s; a sense of adventure, in the sonic, lyrical, and especially visual senses, pervaded every creative choice they made at that time, and I suppose it reflected a more open and adventurous approach in my own life. I also loved the bald, raw honesty of Bono’s words, the way they swirled and stomped about with a ferocious kind of poetry, and the deep, dark places he and bandmates Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge boldly stepped into, with nary a look back. The combination of innate playfulness, balls-out experimentation, and unapologetic intelligence was intoxicating, and even now, listening to Achtung Baby or Zooropa or Pop (or even some moments on the Passengers project with Brian Eno) sends chills down my spine. It’s hard to describe the incredible nature of cultural discovery that U2 (and their inspirations) provided the soundtrack for in my younger days; I delved into the work of Genet, Duchamp, Basquiat, Antonioni, and innumerable others, with Joy Division, Patti Smith, David Bowie, and The Ramones on in the background. New worlds opened up to me — new ideas inside me were enthusiastically birthed and raised — and, at the time, it felt like so much of it had sprung from randomly seeing a guy writhing around in a pink shirt, and thinking, “hey, that’s a good song… I can dance to that…”

Alas, people change, circumstances change, the only constant thing in life is change, and so, my interest in 2000s U2 output plummeted. I can’t explain it, except to say that I didn’t feel the same kind of connection or fire-lighting inspiration. That changed, however, with the release of No Line on the Horizon; a sense of adventure was palpable in many of the songs from the 2009 album, and I loved the fact that, despite the quick hit / MP3 / downloadable / disposable nature of music in the 21st century, the work still felt like a complete thought, as an album, rather than a series of singles. There were flashes of rawness, realness, and plain old… mischief. It had stuff to dance to as well. And the cover art, by Hiroshi Sugimoto, was (is) poetic and beautiful. There was something daring about the entire venture, and it engendered a kind of new/old respect that pushed my artsy buttons.

I didn’t see the mammoth 360 tour, however; it was out of reach financially, and I just didn’t have the back strength to stand for any length of time. Something in me snorts at the possibility of having any kind of profound creative experience in the super-corporatized tour world of the 21st century as well (this could be cynical old age creeping in), but one moment (glimpsed via YouTube) that did impress was when you couldn’t see the band at all, during the performance of “Zooropa.” Done behind a huge metal sheath with the glorious sound blasting out, it was as it the band were begging its worshipful audience, “Please, forget the screens, forget the effects; just use your own imaginations, pretend you don’t know us, and just listen.” Absence created presence. It was, for me, truly a profound statement, one made all the more powerful for being made in such an immense space by an immensely influential group, and it’s one that still resonates.

That dance, between absence and presence, powers Songs of Innocence, released last year. I put off listening to it because I wanted the space, the time, the energy to simply be with it, uninterrupted. Just sitting and spending time with an album is, ridiculously, a kind of a luxury now, so great are the demands on our attention. But, turning off social media, TV, radio, and phone, and simply letting the music wash over me, the way I did in the 80s and 90s when I’d get a new album, felt like the most cleansing kind of ritual. Amidst the tidal wave of frustrations, setbacks, and challenges of late, it was the right time to step into the world the album offered, eyes, hands, and heart wide open.

Its title, referencing the work of William Blake, is a bit misleading; this is a very adult album that looks back to find strength and wisdom in the wide-eyed, pillow-lipped, deep-breath state of youth, and uses that energy to find meaning in the present. Many of the songs have a certain wistful quality lyrically, while there are also some searingly honest moments that feel confessional through not only words but sound; “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” defies its peaceful title by having a creepy, Throbbing-Gristle-esque electro undertow that provides just the right note of discomforting menace that paints a nightmare portrait of abuse, while “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” has a pulsating pseudo-dance beat that fits its anti-hero ethos and nicely salutes the sounds on Sandinista by The Clash, a fitting tribute to its Joe Strummer dedication. There’s also the continuance of charming geography here. In the 1980s, there was “Red Hill Mining Town” and “Heartland”; in the ’90s, “Zoo Station”, “Miss Sarajevo”, and “Miami”; in the 2000s, “New York”, “City of Blinding Lights”, and “Fez/Being Born.” Now there’s “California (There Is No End To Love)” and “Cedarwood Road.” It’s interesting to consider the contrasts between the latter two, one so rooted in the present, the other so firmly ensconced in the past; this push-pull of contrasts gives the album much of its power, with love and aggression, loss and abundance, acceptance and anger, and of course, presence and absence, providing a kind of dialectic undertow that reveals and conceals at once in a maddening, if eminently listenable dance of modernity.

Right in line with this dance are the album’s words. Bono has always had a special knack of making the epic, intimate, and of making the personal, universal in his lyrics. Here he’s co-credited with The Edge in lyrics writing duties, but one can still discern the heart, the art, and the electric shock of a life lived so full so as to be bursting with profane (and profound) contradictions. I felt a special, and deeply personal twinge in hearing his plaintive tenor deliver the line, “I’ve got your life inside of me” in “Iris (Hold Me Close)”, a song about his too-soon-departed mother. It’s one thing to hear a favorite artist belt out something personal; it’s quite another to hear them shout out the pain you happen to have felt over the course of a week filled with hospital visits, phone calls, and meetings. The absence of a mother figure, while always powering work creatively, holds a special sheen here, because it’s that absence that works as a kind of guiding presence that allows forward momentum along creative avenues — ones fraught with dangers, darkness, and dreariness, true enough, but also filled with “cherry blossoms,” with seashores, with light. Those things can’t exist without the other. Innocence can’t exist without experience, and vice-versa. Inspiration can’t exist without ennui. Absence can’t exist without presence.

And so, this is an album about balance, regeneration, and contemplation, and one that, perhaps, couldn’t have been enjoyed and experienced at a better moment, amidst the phone calls, the hospital visits, the surgeries, the skunk smell, and the dirty dishes. Am I a fan? No, I’ve never, ever felt comfortable in that camp. Am I grateful? Yes. Thank you for putting that in my iTunes, U2. My world’s a little richer,  and a little brighter. Innocence is both more wide-eyed and astute, and experience has never tasted more bitter or sweet, at once. Contradiction truly is balance, and that’s probably how it should be. Now I’m ready to dance.

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