Monthly Archives: August 2007

The Grandest Sound Ever Heard

Okay, here is the essay I wrote in 2002 about the performance I was involved in while at UMass.   Have a nice evening.   I’ve been writing all night tonight, stuff for school.  I’d like to share some of it with you sometime soon.  Anyway, here’s the essay about the BERLIOZ REQUIEM!

Fall, 2002


 “You mean, I have three months to compose a Grand Mass for the Dead, have the parts copied and proofread, rehearse, and then perform this massive thing?  I hope there will be plenty of compensation, eh?”
 “Is fourteen thousand francs enough?”
 So began the composition of Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts, otherwise known as his Requiem Mass.  It was 1837.  The first performance would take place at the Chapel of Les Invalides in Paris, where Napoleon had been entombed, to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1830 July Revolution.  At this time, many composers were competing for commissions, so Berlioz felt honored, though pressured to pull this off.  The chapel was large, so Berlioz thought it important to consider “architectural” constructions and mass effects. 
 “Music is at once a science and a sentiment,” writes Berlioz during the construction of his Requiem.  “It must not solely satisfy the ear by correct and artistic combinations of sounds, but must also speak to the heart and the imagination.”
 Berlioz attacked the project with a fervor, sometimes writing in a self-devised music shorthand to capture all his ideas before he forgot them.  He envisioned a huge orchestra and chorus, with an extensive percussion section and four antiphonal brass choirs that would be situated in the corners of the cathedral.  The project’s scope would exceed any piece of music that had ever been written.
 In April, 1977, I was honored to perform this piece at Avery Fischer hall in New York City, along with 450 singers and 150 instruments.  I played second trumpet in “antiphonal choir number one,” off to the right of the theater as one faces the orchestra.  Efforts of five colleges were combined to produce this project, sponsored by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.  Admission tickets were fifty dollars and one hundred dollars.  It involved what Robert Sherman describes as a “mass migration” of students, mostly from the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, to New York for the one-time performance of the Requiem, “on the scale envisioned by the composer himself.”  Even the four performances of the Requiem in Paris during Berlioz’s lifetime were lesser by comparison; for instance, Berlioz was only able to recruit eight brass players for the antiphonal choirs, whereas we had fifteen.
 Berlioz writes, “I flung myself into its composition with a kind of fury…my head was ready to burst with the pressure of my seething thoughts.”  And so we tackled the Requiem, the excitement building with each rehearsal.  The antiphonal brass choirs were extracted from the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) brass choir led by Walter Chesnut.  You had to understand Professor Chesnut to realize just how vivacious we were about the assignment. Each of us practiced at least three hours a day, seven days a week, in addition to long hours of rehearsals, and, if we had the time, sessions of duets and other musical forms of goofing off.
 Among the brass at UMass, “chops,” or “embouchure”–lip positioning–was everything.  The majority of brass players were male, and they would joke about playing “mit kech,” or, “with balls.”  (The responses of the ladies varied.)  We encouraged each other to play as powerfully as possible without the loss of clear tone and sensibility of style.  We learned proper breathing to get the most power into our playing with the least amount of strain.
 All this led to a kind of “inbreeding,” or, perhaps better put, the formation of “cliques.”  We “class of ‘79” trumpeters were a tight group from freshman year on, with the exclusion of Jamie S., because he didn’t fit in; he studied with a different teacher and earned special privileges because of his extensive background as a conductor.  He was also fat (until he went on a massive diet one summer) and that led to much teasing behind his back.  I didn’t like it, nobody did, but it was there and no one had the power to stop it.  But for the most part, things were rather chummy between us all.
 The consequences must have been amusing to an outsider.  When Steve Salbu contracted pneumonia, we all stood outside his dorm room, and, making general fools of ourselves, serenaded him to the tune of “We wish you a merry Christmas.”  Gary R., a trumpeter a year ahead of us, dated Sanaye, a flutist.  Sanaye and David Ertel, who we called Ertle, were close friends, and they invented a cocktail popular in our circle: the “Sanertle Sling,” which created enough hangovers in its day to keep the entire department in bed with hot water bottles on their heads.  Sanaye went on to date a pianist; Ertle dated a French horn player before he got hooked up with another trumpeter, the French horn player then dated Gary, and Ann Marie dated Jim, who was–heavens!–from outside of the department. 
 One can see that it was an environment where gossip exceeded what it should have been, and when Jamie was finally fully accepted into our little clique, I was pushed out.  By the time of the Berlioz performances–one at UMass and one at Smith College before heading to New York–I knew the others were talking behind my back; I became reclusive and spent increasing amounts of time alone.
 The night before the big performance at Avery Fischer Hall, the five sophomore trumpet players, including me and a few others, barreled into our New York hotel room and blasted our trumpets indiscriminately without regard to other hotel patrons, laughing and carrying on as if we had the whole next day to sleep it off.  Curt B, the TA who played beside me in antiphonal brass number one, was busy toking reefer and would remain stoned for the rest of the year.  But the day of the performance, the rest of us were a sober bunch, nerve-wracked about the massiveness of what was about to happen.
 The hall was huge; its size exceeded the size of cathedrals in Berlioz’s day.  Berlioz writes, “The consequence of such vastness of scale is that the listener either misses the point altogether or is overwhelmed by a tremendous emotion.”  Berlioz even left sound breaks in the Requiem music for reverberations in the Chapel of Les Invalides; these spaces were certainly needed at Avery Fischer Hall.  It is easy to see how the music represents the Last Judgment.  Still, Berlioz writes, “As for the perceptions that the writer himself owed to the hearing of music, nothing can convey their exact character to one who has never experienced them.”
 When music reaches such a grand scale, subtle errors, on stage and off, can mean disaster.  For the debut performance in 1837, the singer Duprez was chosen to perform the tenor solo in the Sanctus.  Unfortunately, he was a poor actor; he gesticulated while he sang, which was disturbing to some; he was considered an inferior musician to Adolphe Nourrit, who had been expected to be assigned the role.  The crowd went wild over Duprez, leaving Nourrit miserable.  Berlioz and an Irish friend both tried to calm Nourrit, but the poor fellow was never the same.  He killed himself by jumping out of a window at age 37.
 During this 1837 performance, the conductor put down his baton momentarily to take a pinch of snuff, as was his habit.  Unfortunately, he missed cueing in the brass, but Berlioz, alert to the potential disaster, signaled the brass himself, and the rest of the piece went well.  In our performance, conductor Bruce McInnes made an about-face during the brass fanfare sections of the piece, facing the audience and those of us in the far corners of the auditorium, which was so large that unless one was sitting in the center of the audience, there were rhythmic discrepancies due to the slow speed of sound. 
 There was no question in my mind that I would always play to the be
st of my ability; my efforts would be channeled one hundred percent toward the proper playing of my part.  What amazes me now that given my rebellious nature, I never blew a performance deliberately; that is, it never occurred to me that I could easily blast “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid” while we were supposed to be performing Haydn, or, worse, chime in with Led Zeppelin during the Requiem.  It never occurred to me to leap from the corner balcony onto the stuffy concert-goers below.  Now I realize how easy it could have been.
 My parents, aunt, and grandmother all attended the performance, and as usual, embarrassed me.  My grandmother was mostly concerned with my physical appearance, and all four of them fussed over me excessively.  At my age, nineteen, I wanted to shove my relatives out of view of my classmates, who by then were laughing at me among themselves, or so I believed.
 During my next year at UMass, I felt so discouraged by the academic and social scene in the music department that I chose to attend part-time while working at a bagel deli restaurant, and when I got fired, I left UMass and took a job in Vermont as a live-in nanny.  I had always aspirted to live in a rural area, a romantic teenage dream.  The unpaved driveway leading to the family home was a half-mile long off a winding country road.  When it rained, the cows would break out of a nearby dairy farm and graze on our lawn.  Mostly, though, I was surrounded by the overwhelming quiet of the place; the only sounds anyone heard were occasional flocks of birds and nightly crickets; there was no traffic buzz or mayhem of city life or whispering classmates.  I realized the reality of silence, that surely it was the grandest sound ever heard.



Remembering Walter Chesnut — 1936-2007

Hi everyone, I’d like to share this link with you.  Walter Chesnut was a major influence on me when I left home for college in 1975.  I was only 17 and I knew I had a lot of growing to do, but wow–little did I know just how much I had to learn!  Walter helped me through some rocky times and helped me get my chops in order; even when the other kids were poking fun at me, Walter still believed in me and stood by me.  I wrote an essay about the Berlioz Requiem, which we put on in 1977, I believe) which I’ll post here when I can find it.  But here’s the link to a memorial page, where you can find a Public Radio segment.  Do have a listen.


I’m getting back into running after all the injuries and weight gain and loss adventures.  So far, I can run .3 miles.  I am determined to run .4 miles tomorrow.  I am getting stronger each day.

Here’s something I wrote in 1999.  It’s based on Virginia Woolf’s essay, “Street Haunting.”


Suppose you decide you’d like to sweat a bit, and you don’t realize — or perhaps you do — that there will be the sweat of humanity you’ll experience in the process — the agony of kitchens that have too much burnt fat in the air, how they’re sticky and dusty and beg to be cleaned, but the strung-out young mother in this two-and-a-half room apartment in the local projects doesn’t have the energy; she can’t leave the kids alone, but alone she must leave them in order to work, how at her last apartment she couldn’t afford a tank of oil until the next welfare check came — yes, you want her sweat and the stinking sweat of her six-year-old because you truly believe that all little boys smell bad, yes, his smell too, and the drunk on the bus — horrors, such awful sweat emanating from every pore of his spent body that you couldn’t bear to inhale but had to, because you had to breathe eventually, and even breathing through your mouth you could taste the booze as one would taste mouthwash, and mouthwash makes you sneeze — you don’t know why — so you want to sweat a bit, so you call the weather to find out the temperature — what will it be today? you ask yourself, and you reply no to the shorts and yes to the size small sweat pants that you couldn’t wear when you were fifty pounds heavier, but of course you don’t want to remember you ever were that size, or half that size — or do you? you ask yourself, and you realize that it is only because you know, and you know you know, the memories are true and real and you can face who you were then, that you know where you are now and where everyone else is, so you add to the sweat pants, which fit, a T-shirt and a sweat shirt covering that, strap on your Walkman, harness your 23-pound Sheltie, who you’re going to pretend is a Doberman at this ungodly hour, and ungodly it must be, because you must go out before 4:30; the magic disappears as the rest of the world wakes up and the drunks go to bed, and you put on those running shoes you bought yesterday, to replace the ones that wore out and were wrecking your feet because of it, and these shoes feel so much like mothers to your feet, although you’re worrying that they’re not broken in — will you get blisters? you wonder, but the dog is aching to get outside and you’ve got your plastic bag, which came from Stop & Shop, for her you-know-whats, and you lock the door behind you and off you go, like a bullet, down the hall not quite tiptoeing, down the stairs keeping in mind that if you take the elevator you might get stuck in there like a bug between the windows, dying to get out the way you and your dog are dying to get out, your dog even more than you are, and you turn on Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life” which isn’t your favorite music but it has that spell on you, the spell that is spurned by heavy drum beats, cymbals, and bass guitars, that beat that keeps you ahead, maybe one step, maybe more, always going forward, like an electrical current or a telephone signal or a desperate telegraph in 1968 pleading for her son’s body, now that it has been found in the jungle where the mine had blasted his neck away, and as you listen to this music you realize that The War meant World War II, and that “War,” just “War,” meant Vietnam, plainly that, and to the young it is just a murky idea, a poppy that dies in October and is forgotten, and you begin to run, the dog following, but soon she stops to find a potty, and you wonder what she smells; was the dog who peed there before you running loose, and did he get hit by a red Jeep Cherokee, and did his owner than stuff his dead dog’s body into the trash along with last night’s delivered steak tip dinner Styrofoam containers? or maybe it was pizza, you think to yourself; you’ve got to leave this guy some leeway, surely, as you jog past a candy-wrapper on the street, which maybe, just maybe, is some lady’s power bar who decided she needed the energy to walk from her house to her car, to go buy some Diet Coke — three cases of it — or maybe Caffeine Free Diet Coke, because she’s health conscious and just read in a magazine that one of the keys to being happy is to do in moderation, although she’s never heard the term skeptic used for its original purpose, and you remember the time this lady who smelled like smoke and had makeup smeared on her face like a warrior tell the cashier, “I only want that ‘diet’ soda; I picked up the regular Sprite by accident — I don’t want it; I’m on a diet!” and you suppressed a giggle because surely this woman, if she drinks all that soda, will burp a great deal the morning after, like a hangover — and how you rode your bike home that day laden with groceries and toilet paper and toothpaste, which you sorely needed because surely, you should be brushing your teeth more, so you won’t offend anyone on the subway or — horrors! — someone in class right after you drank that cup of coffee, or perhaps decaf if you were hyper, at 6:30am before your 8am class, your breath would smell of coffee, second-hand coffee, which is sour compared to first-hand coffee steam or the smell of a freshly opened vacuum-packed bag of Starbucks Gold Coast Blend, which you ground for yourself this morning and brewed to the consistency of maple syrup and spent 45 minutes drinking, which is why you scrub your teeth before you go out jogging, so you can breathe mint and fluoride and some other unknown chemicals only her dentist knows for sure, and as you’re jogging on the sidewalk, because this part of Warren Street has a well-paved smooth sidewalk complete with ramps going into the street, you pass the house where a real Doberman lives, where they keep the poor old boy chained to the side door on perhaps ten feet of chain, then when he barks at passersby, which, of course, anyone would do if they were tied like that, the owners yank him in and yell at him and act disgusted for something that wasn’t his fault, and you wonder if they ever walk him — surely, you’ve never seen any Doberman walking on your street, and how you’re tempted, and you’re sure others are tempted, to phone the ASPCA to rescue the poor old boy, but like everyone else you’re afraid to get involved, and the house passes by you, or perhaps you pass by this house, and you hear no barking, so you’re relieved because the Doberman has been spared another beating, and you pass by the school where young folks in cars are parked in the back tasting the sweetness of kisses and maybe more behind steamy windshields; perhaps they are too busy to see you running past with the poky little dog, then you reach the Waltham line, and in the first house, or perhaps the second, a light turns on, then turns off, and you wonder about the seventeen-year-old inside who has gotten herself laid for the first time, how the boy she hardly knew, who had that short-man complex already, who had a nervous laugh, a greasy pimply face, who was a nerd, who shifted from one side to the other as he stood, telling some bad joke that he and he only finds funny, this seventeen-year-old doesn’t find him the least bit attractive; in fact, she’s repulsed by him, and repulsed even more now that he has his thing in her and is rocking, or rather, doing blows to her, again and again, and he’s saying ooh and ahh and baby that’s right and she wonders if she should be making noises too, because her friends had told her that this was the appropriate response, but then as she lays there she leaves her body and stands in the corner of the room, watching the two of them, and he’s sweating and is gross to the touch, and the only sweat she feels is that which has dripped off of him; in fact, she’s quite bored, and he comes up with the line, “Baby, I love you,” and she doesn’t know what to say, she wishes he didn’t love her, but she’s heard what she’s supposed to say, she’s heard it in the movies, so she replies, “I love you, too,” and hates the lie and the filth, and suddenly he spasms and is spent, saying oh, oh, baby, and s
he wonders what it would be like to have the name, “Baby,” and she knows she will be repulsed if anyone, anytime, ever calls her that again, and he gets off of her and she turns away and gets out of bed, and looks at him all shriveled up like a newborn and waits until he sleeps, which he will do in an instant, and she takes a long, warm shower, washing off the filth of what he called love, and sleep on the couch, and you know tomorrow she’ll weep like a mother who’s lost her child, and the next week he’ll send her roses, and she’ll retch at the smell of them and wash them down the garbage disposal, but for now the lights are off in that house, and it passes by, or you pass by it, and grieve for the young girl and her dignity, and you feel the pain in your gut for any girl who’s 17, or 16, or 20, who hasn’t yet felt the knife of rape and prostitution sear through her, and a loss so great that her beauty will never be the same, and you don’t have to put her out of your mind, you know her, and embrace her, for she is in the sweat that is you, as the Walkman, which has Auto-Reverse, flips the tape and you hear the other side of dear Steve Winwood with the beat, and round the corner pretending that you’re in Copley Square and the crowds are cheering, and you feel the muscles in your legs; they are hard and taught, like the hide that’s stretched across a drum, one of many drums, as your dog stops to take a poop, which fortunately is right under a street lamp so you can see it and pick it up, and you wonder how you got to this corner so quickly — was it the new shoes? you wonder, and you are reminded of how folks always say, “That camera takes good pictures,” which is about the stupidest thing you can say; after all, it’s the person who takes the pictures who deserves the credit, but no, no, never admit that your friend is talented, lest you get jealous, and jealousy is a sin, of course, coveting thy neighbor’s wife, one might say, but really, the backbone of all this religious dogma is decency; surely we don’t need the ten commandments if we were only to make the rule, “Be polite,” because if we are grateful when one does something for us, and share our goods, and give the bad waitress a bigger tip than the regular ones get, then we are doing our job and can be right and would never consider killing another person, simply because it’s not polite to do so, and you’re thinking this as you pump one foot in front of the other and thankfully the dog isn’t lagging too much, as you round another corner at the condo complex where some emaciated 30-year-old is shooting heroin, waiting for the next welfare check, and you think about your muscles some more, and how lucky you are, as a dark-colored car whizzes by and the dog tries to chase it, and you quietly tell her to be polite, realizing she will never grow up and will never sin, and you think about growing up and remember how some of the young school kids said they grew up fast because their parents got divorced, and you want to laugh and cry with them, because they are part of you, whether you approve of their idleness or not, and you realize that if you’d been asked the same question, you’d have said you had been a late-bloomer, that you didn’t grow up until you turned 40, and even now, you’re afraid you’ll suffer through yet another lesson like a monster would move through lace curtains and feel the pain of the fragile cloth upon its skin, which is your skin, which is sweating, as you breathe evenly but not coordinated with your steps, which you’re not noticing anymore, and you start to wonder what’s best: runner’s high, writer’s high, intellectual high, or the simple joy of looking out a window at a woman jogging with her dog at 4:30am in October, and wonder: could that be you? and if it is, you know it is, but you’re watching yourself occasionally because you are that person in the window, too, and as you throw your dog’s poops into the dumpster, you hope that you don’t have to pick them up and throw them again if you miss, but you don’t, so you turn into the side door of your building, and here comes what you set out to find in the first place: a little sweat, and you know you must feel this sweat from all angles, smell and taste it as one would taste a wintergreen leaf, and capture that feeling — if you can — in words, so that it becomes more than fleeting, and can never be washed off.

A new hairdo — Then and now

That was then!  This is now:

Have a nice day!

A response to Lauren Slater’s memoir “Lying”

a response to Lauren Slater’s memoir, Lying
rough draft
I used to wear contact lenses, and even now, I dream about them at night.  They appear in the corners of rooms, in the backs of drawers, in socks, in toilet bowls, always in abundance, and they are always larger than my eyes.  Or should I say they are larger than my “I,” because they represent a lie: “No, I don’t wear glasses; I’m not one of them; I don’t have this appendage on my head that makes me look like I’ve got windows strapped to my face–no, not me!”  My “eye,” or rather, “I,” saw clearly, I had the true view, the popular view.  I was not ill.  Delusion, after all, is belief in an unpopular idea, and I was made popular now that I had contact lenses.  I was a geek no more.

However, everyone sees the world through lenses.  If one doesn’t wear glasses or contact lenses, there is the lens in one’s eye that one looks through.  We see the world through the camera lens, on TV and computer screen; as they say, one shouldn’t look for too long or too close or one may wither and go blind.

A writing teacher told me that fiction is a lie and an exaggeration.  Memoir is a big lie and exaggeration, the biggest of all, for “I” is taller than “you” or “she” or “them.”  There is no such thing as “creative nonfiction” or even “nonfiction” without lies because of the lenses we see through.

Hypergraphia is a symptom of writing ability.  Writing is a way of deciphering what we see, and rehearsing our lives.  The Bible is a work of creative nonfiction.  Someone needed to decipher what he or she saw, and needed to rehearse his or her life.  We read the book.  Religion is belief in something that cannot be scientifically proven to exist.

Delusion is belief in an unpopular idea.  Some say people with mental illnesses are simply looking through the wrong lens.  They argue, “Who is to say which is the correct lens?  Perhaps the world is topsy-turvy!”

My answer is this: Everyone looks through a lens or lenses.  A person with a mental illness wears an ill-fitting lens, a lens that hurts.  Perhaps the lens was scratched early on by poor handling.  The lens curvature or size could be wrong, or the lens could have dust or dirt particles on it.  A person with a mental illness may have a scratch on the cornea, on the “I,” that only time and patience will heal; for others, a lens correction is necessary.  Mental illness isn’t an alternative.  There may be more than one way to see things, but if the lens hurts, I want my money back.


Yes, I was up all night.  I’m trying to prepare for the Grand Dog Sweater Fashion Show I’m going to put on for you guys on video, when I finally get my computer’s act together.  Nearly crashed it trying to get the right software to create the kind of file necessary for the video, but a quick “Disk Cleanup” saved the machine, sometime this morning.

Crunch crunch crunch….

A Poem for Joe

I know it’s late.  I’ve been spending money all day, and tonight it seems to be coming to a head.  Like I bought two pairs of headphones today.  I kid you not.

I feel intensely lonely today.

Here’s a poem I wrote for Joe in 2002.  I would have given it to him, but he never read anything I wrote for him.  He’d just glance at it, set it aside, and say, “I’ll read it later, after the game,” whether there was a game on or not.

smokin' joe

(Originally, there was a sound file here, that was lost in transfer.)

Here’s the print version:
For Joe

On the sidewalk, a teen whittles
an oak branch, perfectly crafted.
Looking at each other, we laugh:

How on earth did we get here?
It’s always the same spine,
the same sad whisper.
Our cheeks crease unnoticed,
our hair, our rumps follow….

The boy’s jackknife flashes;
he mounts, rides off, waving.
Earth abandons her poles;
time, that trickster, disguised as delicacy,
draws us as close as two muscles
intertwined in the same perfect limb–
an item saved, a given.

Let us pick life off the bones,
meat falling into our laps.
We are still hungry.
We lick our fingers like children;
(blood, sweat, urine,
a forgotten dose….)
the inner skull unfolds,
a flood of innumerable pages.

Our oneness always new, embryonic–
no need to plagiarize–
moving together like tectonic plates,
we hug the earth, each other–the rest is redundant–
we have dreamed of this, all our lives.

Writer’s Block

You hear writers talking about it from time to time, and I don’t know why it’s plaguing me now.  Perhaps I’m trying to write the wrong writing at the wrong time.  Perhaps I’m trying to wrong the right wronging at some other time.  Or simply lost my keyboard.

I’ve decided to do a complete rewrite of my QB chapter.  I’m starting it at a point a few weeks after his death, on Thanksgiving.  I’m remembering some stuff I learned in a workshop when I was at school (when I went to Port Townsend) that a story should start at the last possible moment.

Then perhaps a story about madness should begin at the point at which a person is about to go mad.

For the first time.

Firsts and lasts are interesting.  Middles less so.

Here’s what I wrote:

[Sorry, sound file has been lost in transfer]

Good morning to everyone

I’ve received all kinds of complaints about the new format!  Many apologies to those of you who are having trouble.  If you view my blog entries via e-mail, try clicking on “Go to today’s blog entry,” which can be found in the sidebar on the right part of the screen.  This will take you to the web, where you can view my blog in your web browser.  That should clear thngs up.

Here is a photo to cheer you up.

4x6 Pz window #1

Cute, ain’t she?  Have a nice day.

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