Friday, April 29, 2005

last week of classes

The past week has been exhausting, but productive and successful.

Thursday (a week ago) I sang in performance class, which is the weekly recital for all the voice majors. Non-majors rarely sing, but my voice teacher encouraged me to do it for the experience. I sang Bereite dich, Zion from Bach's Christmas Oratorio, and it went very well. Didn't hurt that I had a kick-ass accompanist - one of the graduate accompanying majors agreed to accompany me. I totally owe her sushi. (Incidentally, she is perhaps the only other person on campus who doesn't own a cell phone.)

That Bach is a piece that sits very well in my voice, and is a lot of fun to sing. And I'm glad to have done it, and proved myself.

Friday evening was the first Kantorei concert, at Rider University, and Saturday evening was the same concert on the Westminster campus. We sang some Couperin, and Tallis' Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the Gesualdo Tenebrae Responsoris (the third set.) It went spectacularly well, and I was extremely happy to have my father, uncle, uncle's friend, and cousin in the audience. That may have been the best and hardest concert I've ever performed, and I was really proud of it, so it was good to have family there to share it! Saturday especially rocked - and right in the middle of the seventh response, the one with the most war-like text, "The kings of the earth shall rise up, and the princes take council together against the Lord and against his annoited" there was a bright lightning flash and a HUGE crash of thunder. It was so very extremely cool.

Saturday afternoon, between the two Kantorei concerts, was the performance of my women's choir (which now has a name! Roseae Feminae, in an oblique Latin reference to Rizzo's gang from Grease). We performed 3 works by 2 composers on campus, all of which went quite well. At the end of the concert, the head of the department came up and asked if we would perform one of the pieces, the one by the graduating senior, at Convocation (which was today.) We were somewhat caught off guard by this, but of course said yes.

Sunday morning my dad and I attended the Unitarian Church in Princeton, because we had been notified the day before that a fabulous women's chorus, Olympia's Daughters, would be leading the service. They were just as great as we had heard, and afterwards they kind of sort of invited me to join their group, which is based in New Jersey. I'm not convinced that with performances practically every weekend at Westminster I could make it work...but it would be a fabulous musical opportunity, so I'm going to keep thinking about it. I think they have what I was trying to find when I joined the Jubilee Singers last semester - a sort of direct, folk/spiritual-based, fun-loving communication-centered music...and they're also all UU's, so it would be a safe place to explore my spirituality.

Oh, and I liked the UU church, too. I think AN and I are going back this Sunday to dance around the maypole.

Sunday afternoon part of the Symphonic Choir sang the second suite of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. They're a great orchestra - I noticed the outstanding brass particularly - but seeing as we hardly sing at all in that suite, and there was much standing around while the conductor rehearsed the instruments and not us, this rather qualified as a chore. Also, anything is a let-down after singing it with Lorin Maazel. I got home from that and just collapsed.

However, there was really no time to recover - Monday I was back into a frantic cycle of rehearsals, preparing for classes, and generally trying to get everything set up for today, which was extremely stressful. First of all there was Convocation, where Roseae Feminae performed beautifully. I really do get extremely fond of choirs that I conduct on a regular basis. They are all such great and fun people in addition to being an excellent and intelligent combination of musicians. Then there was my ear-training final, which was stressful, but fine. Then there was my 45-minute presentation in my Rachmaninoff Choral Works presentation, which was also very stressful, and required a fair bit of preparation, but also went fine. Now that those three things are over, hopefully I can relax and not have bad dreams from stress and not wake up with the jitters before the alarm goes off.

After Saturday, when I have a masterclass with Dr. Flummerfelt and a recital to sing in, I really ought to be home free - a final or two, several concerts, but also hopefully some spare time. Real life requires my attention. I really need to get my bike out of the basement and give it a good cleaning, for one thing!

I ought to finish my composition assignment for my lesson tomorrow, but I'm afraid that after the intensity of today I'm incapable of focus. I'll just have to get up early tomorrow and finish it then.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Bush's thoughts on atheists

Is anyone shocked?

"No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." - George H. W. Bush (father of the current monarch)

From this website, courtesy of my brother.

Good thing I'm just trying to change my graduation program next year, and not get elected.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Jacob wrestled the angel

It has taken me days to write this entry. Bear with me.

Symphonic Choir has begun rehearsals for graduation. Naturally, being a choir college, we all sing a great deal in the graduation ceremony, and the entire school is required to be there and sing together. The music for graduation was introduced on Monday. It is all Christian. We are not singing one secular piece. The graduates are singing a secular piece by one of the composition majors, and that's it. And the texts are not as inclusive as many Christian hymns are. Here is a sampling:

"Rejoice, ye pure in heart! Rejoice, give thanks and sing! Your glorious banner wave on high, the cross of Christ your King."

"March we forth in the strength of God with the banner of Christ unfurl'd; That the light of the glorious gospel of truth may shine throughout the world; Fight we the fight with sorrow and sin to set their captives free; That the earth may be fill'd with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea."

"Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee."

"Take my will, and make it Thine: it shall be no longer mine...Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee."

"O, Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end."

Participating in a secular ceremony at a secular school and knowing that everyone was being obliged to sing these texts would cause me problems regardless of my religion. But being someone who is not Christian, this is personally very disturbing as well.

To date, I have been forced to be flexible in my approach to sacred texts, since so much of the music I work with is sacred. I have no problem singing sacred music in concert and honestly and fervently delivering what the composer has created. I love performing the Gesualdo Tenebrae Responsoris for Holy Saturday that Kantorei is working on. Bach and Beethoven present no problems. Nor do current works - everything my chorus sang at the fundraiser last weekend was sacred, and one was a piece by our resident composer. I have no problem singing great, emotional music, nor do I have a problem helping other people to worship. If my music-making helps someone to feel a spiritual connection to God or anything else, then I am happy about that.

But I do have a problem being forced to worship myself. I do have a problem with singing sacred music in a context where it is assumed that I share the beliefs stated in the texts. And I definitely have a problem singing the above words in a context that is supposed to be by definition inclusive, celebratory, personal for the community participating, and secular. This is graduation, after all, not a service.

Another aspect is that if I respect other people's beliefs, and I respect their statement of those beliefs, then I am being disrespectful if I say those beliefs myself while not believing them. And it seems odd to me that people who do hold those beliefs should not feel the same.

Incidentally, this experience has forced me to realize that I really am UU. I have for the past several years described myself as a "lapsed UU", tongue somewhat in cheek. But it was not until the graduation music forced the issue that I realized the UU principles are not just something I agree with, they are my core beliefs. There is nothing that I believe more strongly than that every person should be free to search for what is true and right in life. And so I cannot sing "March we forth in the strength of God with the banner of Christ unfurl'd; That the light of the glorious gospel of truth may shine throughout the world" when I believe that I have no more claim to know what the truth is than any other thoughtful, spiritual person. After all, those are quite insulting words to sing to a fairly diverse community.

The main problem, however, is that I can't keep from breaking down in rehearsal. Being forced to sing about carrying the banner of Christ into battle is just too deeply insulting and hurtful to me, and although all of the reasons above are true, I can't quite effectively communicate the root of my hurt. I almost cried on Wednesday, and I really, really almost cried last Friday - I couldn't read all of the music sometimes because it became blurry. So, I decided steps had to be taken. I knew I wasn't alone in my feelings - AN shared them, which helped. And so I had a meeting with DM Friday afternoon, in which I laid out my problems with the texts, and ended up breaking down in his office. He told me that my feelings were shared by other students, and if I didn't want to be in the choir for those reasons, then I would be excused. He also said that I could determine the extent of my involvement with the ceremony. He let me explain as much as I needed to, and listened very hard, despite the fact that I think he could read my mind on the subject the moment I entered the conversation. I often feel that way in talking to him - conversation can spark along the wires at an incredible rate because he always immediately groks what I am trying to say. Not just understands, groks. In the same way that I always sing better in the presence of my voice teacher (whose initials are also DM - that'll get confusing!) I always think better and communicate faster in the presence of DM. Signs of good teachers, I suppose. Perhaps someday people will think more clearly in my presence.

Come to think of it, DM often says, when teaching conducting, that the best way to make something happen beautifully is just to listen for it. Perhaps the same works for conversation - if you just listen to someone hard, it will come out more truly.

I decided this weekend that I shall go and sit in the audience. I will sing along with the Lutkin "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," because I have sung it before, and I can sing it to the graduates in good faith. But I will not sing the others, and perhaps graduation will manage to be a positive experience yet, rather than the miserable experience I know I would have singing in the choir.

Now, that's not all, of course. The above music was chosen by a student committee. You can bet money that I will be on that student committee next year (see? I am a UU) and will insure that this sort of discrimination doesn't occur again. (For the record, I was informed that the committee decided to choose this music because it has traditionally been sung at graduation, and they decided to try to make other parts of the ceremony more inclusive to other religions. I'm afraid having the local imam make the opening prayer doesn't quite make the ceremony more relevant for me.) My friend AN, however, was unwilling to let the issue rest until next year. She formed a petition, and I helped her collect signatures, requesting that secular music be required to be a part of the graduation ceremony. She meets with the Dean tomorrow. Hopefully she will help initiate a permanent policy. We shall see. The bulk of my contribution will be research done over the summer for works for organ and chorus (or brass and chorus) that are appropriate for graduation. Part of the problem is surely that the student committee didn't feel they had many options - I suspect they may have only looked at past Westminster graduation ceremonies for their ideas.

This issue has consumed me for the past week. I have entered into a great many discussions with people, which is the best outcome of this whole event. One particularly interesting conversation happend today with a rather naive South Korean who said, "Oh, I just assumed that all Americans were Christian, even if they didn't all go to church." (Being deeply Christian herself, she seemed quite sad to find out she was wrong.)

So, obviously, this whole tempest has been of some value, if I'm able to get people who make wide-ranging assumptions to reconsider their preconceptions. Also, I tend not to broadcast my atheism, because I worry that it will either make my Christian friends feel attacked, or else sad. I sometimes feel that just saying the phrase "I'm an atheist," no matter how politely, is perceived as a slap in the face. But if there are people at my school who think that all Americans are Christians, perhaps I've been too circumspect.

There is one final slant to this whole business that is personally important, even if it's not crucial to the plotline. On Friday, after my emotional meeting with DM, I had conducting class. We're working on Bach's St. John Passion - we all have different bits of it that we're working on. So on Friday, several people got up to conduct their chorales. The chorales in this work are rather heart-breaking. The whole work is, really, but the chorales are simple, and nuanced, and direct, and express the emotions of the congregation watching the story unfold. In the middle of class, in the middle of one of the chorales, I started crying - I couldn't help it. It was definitely related to the events earlier in the day, but I still can't articulate to myself exactly how. It was something to do with so recently having broken down, and feeling so had something to do with being confronted with music that was deeply, personally had something to do with being allowed to approach the music and not having it thrust upon had something to do with, after becoming so angry and frustrated with the indirect effects that Christianity was having upon my life, being presented with something very near its essence.

When DM was describing to us in conducting class the way in which Bach sets text in the St. John Passion, he pointed out to us that evil or negative characters or ideas are presented very chromatically, and good or holy characters or ideas are presented very tonally. He said that this reflects Bach's idea of tension or unrest being a negative state, and resolution, calmness, and repose being positive states. I suddenly thought of how this is true of so much art. Most plays, for example, set up a problem that must be solved, or a tense or unbalanced state that must come to equilibrium. And although I understand the reasons for equating tension with bad and resolution with good, I think the opposite may be true of my relationship to religion in general, and Christianity in particular. I can't decide to ignore it - without Christianity, Western art music would be so vastly different that it defies imagination. I will be interacting with this religion in an intimate way for the rest of my life. But if I ever come to a resolution with it, that will mean that I have given up engaging with important and crucial ideas. I think where my musical interpretation is concerned and where my humanity is concerned, mental resolution will only mean mental stagnation. I cannot finally make up my mind about a topic as broad and deep as this, because my philosophy can never be complete. My state of grace will be unrest.

Monday, April 18, 2005

editor's corrections

I quoted a passage in an earlier blog entry that I attributed to Nelson Mandela. However, apparently that was incorrect, and it is actually by Marianne Williamson, according to Wikipedia. Apparently it is so often misattributed to Mandela that Mandela's organization, the African National Congress, has publicly stated that it is in fact a Williamson quote.

For those interested, here is the quote again - it is one of my favorites:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

And they're heading into the final stretch!

Brief news flash from the front:

Today was long, and ended with an enjoyable, productive, but intense and exhausting Kantorei rehearsal. However, the Gesualdo is going to be awesome. April 22 and 23, for anyone in the area!

Yesterday SJ and I went to the gym again. I'm really glad we're doing that. It's amazing how much exercise does for my sanity. Perhaps I didn't notice it before because I biked everywhere.

Saturday my women's chorus (which still doesn't have a name) performed in a fund-raiser at the church of one of the members. We sang a Hildegard antiphon, a piece by our resident composer AD, a song written by one of the members of the congregation, and a hymn arrangement by Holst. It went very well! I now have to decide whether or not to put on a final concert this year, or to let the composers' concert in 2 weeks be our last hurrah. I think I'll try to schedule a final concert, but it'll be awfully hard to find time. I should, though - they deserve to show off, b/c they're fabulous. This is the second group I've founded, and the second one I've become hugely fond of. I hope the trend continues.

I have huge amounts of work to do, and my brain is fried. I'm going to try the "do work in the morning before class" tactic - it rarely works, because I just hit snooze, but I think I have to give it a shot.

P.S. Who is 3M-on 8 Wheels? I'm just a wee green blogger as of yet - I assume that if you're commenting, I must know you!

Friday, April 08, 2005

Unitarian Jihad

I found this here. It tremendously delighted me, and I thought I would pass on the revolutionary principles. Sincerely, Sister Machine Gun of Diversity.

Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States. We are Unitarian Jihad. There is only God, unless there is more than one God. The vote of our God subcommittee is 10-8 in favor of one God, with two abstentions. Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation noted the possibility of there being no God at all, and his objection was noted with love by the secretary.

Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States! Too long has your attention been waylaid by the bright baubles of extremist thought. Too long have fundamentalist yahoos of all religions (except Buddhism -- 14-5 vote, no abstentions, fundamentalism subcommittee) made your head hurt. Too long have you been buffeted by angry people who think that God talks to them. You have a right to your moderation! You have the power to be calm! We will use the IED of truth to explode the SUV of dogmatic expression!

People of the United States, why is everyone yelling at you??? Whatever happened to ... you know, everything? Why is the news dominated by nutballs saying that the Ten Commandments have to be tattooed inside the eyelids of every American, or that Allah has told them to kill Americans in order to rid the world of Satan, or that Yahweh has instructed them to go live wherever they feel like, or that Shiva thinks bombing mosques is a great idea? Sister Immaculate Dagger of Peace notes for the record that we mean no disrespect to Jews, Muslims, Christians or Hindus. Referred back to the committee of the whole for further discussion.

We are Unitarian Jihad. We are everywhere. We have not been born again, nor have we sworn a blood oath. We do not think that God cares what we read, what we eat or whom we sleep with. Brother Neutron Bomb of Serenity notes for the record that he does not have a moral code but is nevertheless a good person, and Unexalted Leader Garrote of Forgiveness stipulates that Brother Neutron Bomb of Serenity is a good person, and this is to be reflected in the minutes.
Beware! Unless you people shut up and begin acting like grown-ups with brains enough to understand the difference between political belief and personal faith, the Unitarian Jihad will begin a series of terrorist-like actions. We will take over television studios, kidnap so-called commentators and broadcast calm, well-reasoned discussions of the issues of the day. We will not try for "balance" by hiring fruitcakes; we will try for balance by hiring non-ideologues who have carefully thought through the issues.

We are Unitarian Jihad. We will appear in public places and require people to shake hands with each other. (Sister Hand Grenade of Love suggested that we institute a terror regime of mandatory hugging, but her motion was not formally introduced because of lack of a quorum.) We will require all lobbyists, spokesmen and campaign managers to dress like trout in public. Televangelists will be forced to take jobs as Xerox repair specialists. Demagogues of all stripes will be required to read Proust out loud in prisons.

We are Unitarian Jihad, and our motto is: "Sincerity is not enough." We have heard from enough sincere people to last a lifetime already. Just because you believe it's true doesn't make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn't mean you are not doing harm. Get a dog, or comfort someone in a nursing home, or just feed the birds in the park. Play basketball. Lighten up. The world is not out to get you, except in the sense that the world is out to get everyone.

Brother Gatling Gun of Patience notes that he's pretty sure the world is out to get him because everyone laughs when he says he is a Unitarian. There were murmurs of assent around the room, and someone suggested that we buy some Congress members and really stick it to the Baptists. But this was deemed against Revolutionary Principles, and Brother Gatling Gun of Patience was remanded to the Sunday Flowers and Banners committee.

People of the United States! We are Unitarian Jihad! We can strike without warning. Pockets of reasonableness and harmony will appear as if from nowhere! Nice people will run the government again! There will be coffee and cookies in the Gandhi Room after the revolution.
Startling new underground group spreads lack of panic! Citizens declare themselves "relatively unafraid" of threats of undeclared rationality. People can still go to France, terrorist leader says.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Berlioz and brothers

It's been a busy few days!

It was ensemble week at Westminster this week, b/c of our performance of the Berlioz Damnation of Faust. (We got a glowing review in the New York Times! If you need to log in to read it, use the username "letmeinpiggy" and the password "chinnychin".) Charles Dutoit was conducting, and the soloists were Sir Willard White (a truly fabulous Mephistopheles), Paul Groves (a glorious Faust) and Susanne Mentzer (an admirable Marguerite.) The two male soloists were so absorbing that I didn't pay as much attention to the conductor during non-choral bits as much as in previous performances with the Philharmonic, but I quite like Dutoit on the podium. Unfortunately, I am able to say much less about him in rehearsal, since between his soft voice and strong French accent, I was hardly able to understand a word he said. However, he is certainly detailed and involved - he did not let communication problems prevent him from getting what he wanted during rehearsal, even if it took a few tries.

This was a much less involved experience for me - I attended only two of the choral rehearsals this semester, only half the orchestral rehearsals, and I'll miss the last performance due to a dress rehearsal for the division of Symphonic that I actually belong to. But I did learn a good deal about my learning process - namely, that I don't learn French as quickly as I thought, and that I need to start studying musical scores more in advance! I did my best to contribute with energy, expression, and an eye to accurate tempo rather than sparkling diction. It's also a fabulously fun piece to participate in, so I'm immensely glad that I was allowed to join up at the last minute!

The other exciting thing this week was a visit from my brother and his girlfriend.

They arrived on Wednesday night. I was worried about finding things to keep them interested, but I ended up just cooking dinner for them and we chatted until quite late, while listening to my splendid birthday mix. Thursday I sent them into the city via train to pick up Berlioz tickets and have dinner, and then we all rode home together after the performance on the shrieking, hyper-active Westminster bus. I am happy to report they appeared to suffer minimal trauma. Friday we met up after my rehearsal in the morning, and I took them to the best sushi place in town (absolutely huge pieces of sushi), then to the gourmet ice cream shop, then to Micawber Books (where we managed to while away about 2 hours) and then to the Princeton Record Exchange. At all of these places, of course, I ended up making the most purchases. But really, who can complain about 11 CDs for under $30? And these are good CDs, too! Or at least interesting - for $2, I can afford to pick up something completely unfamiliar. I acquired the following. Skip the below if you don't care to hear me rattle on about newly acquired recordings.

Classic Wynton (Marsalis plays some classical trumpet chestnuts)
Tan Dun: Out of Peking Opera, Etc. (I know his name, but not his music. This CD includes a piece called Orchestral Theatre II: Re for divided orchestra, bass voice, and audience with two conductors - that's why I picked it up, I was so curious)
Robert Shaw conducts Hallelujah and other great Sacred Choruses (can't say no to $2 Shaw!)
Panufnik's Westminster Mass (never heard of her, trying it out)
Of Eternal Light (music by various people - Meredith Monk, Robert Moran, Messiaen - inspired by chant)
Patterson: Mass of the Sea (again, never heard of him, trying it out)
New World Jazz, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (this includes Rhapsody in Blue by Gerschwin, La Creation du Monde by Milhaud, Ragtime by Hindemith - it looks like a good CD)
Thomas Ades, "Life Story" (again, not familiar, but DM highly regards his work)
Robert DeCormier conducts the New York Choral Society (this is all new music, and I'm not familiar with the group, so it will be educational on two fronts)
Lilith Fair, Vol. 2 (with Sinead O'Connor and Angelique Kidjo AND Queen Latifah, how can you possibly go wrong?)
Lena Horne (a 2 CD set!)

And today I cooked pancakes for my brother and his girlfriend (remember them? last paragraph? before we got side-tracked?) and we went our separate ways.

It was really, really excellent having them both here. Relaxing and enjoyable, and having time to hang out with my brother and just chat is a rare pleasure. I also had the pleasure of introducing them to Iron Chef. (Mom, it's a very excellent TV show on the Food channel. Competitive cooking, samurai style.)

I have one more day before the last month-long sprint to the finish of the semester. Wish me luck. Donations of highly caffeinated tea will be graciously accepted.