Showing posts with label imaginal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label imaginal. Show all posts

Monday, January 9, 2012

News from the Muse: The Muse of Musicology

The Muse of Musicology

My father, the musicologist Edward E. Lowinsky—a difficult and demanding character in my psyche—has been dead for over twenty-five years. Recently he made a major shift in my inner world. No longer is he a demanding and critical inner voice. Instead, he is a brilliant and tragic figure. I feel for him. How did this transformation occur? Not by dream, not by active imagination, not by the intercession of a spirit guide—none of my usual modes of imaginal work are responsible for this deep shift in feeling. It is thanks to an article by the musicologist Bonnie Gordon, recently published in the Journal of Musicology (Vol. 28, #3, Summer 2011) entitled “The Secret of the Secret Chromatic Art.”

I have always known that my father was a controversial figure in his field, a founding father of American musicology who believed that no art can be studied separately from its culture. But I have never understood his story in the larger context of his field. Gordon’s beautifully written, psychologically astute and compassionate portrait of my father helps me feel his influence in a less conflicted way.

Photo of my father by Nikki Arai

Gordon writes of my father’s first publication in America, a “strange but riveting book entitled Secret Chromatic Art in the Netherlands Motet.” It came out in 1946—just a few years after my family had emigrated from Europe, fleeing the Nazis. There is a great deal of difficult technical musicological material in Gordon’s essay, which is way over my head. But the gist of what I understand from her is that my father was convinced that there were secret expressions of protest and heresy hidden in Dutch motets of the sixteenth century. This, remember, was the beginning of the Reformation—the Protestant revolt against the hegemony of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition. On the surface, my father said, the texts and melodies followed the rules decreed by the Church. “Beneath that compliant surface” she writes of my father’s theory “lurked secret chromaticism and seditious meanings that remained hidden from the eyes and ears of the Inquisition.” She quotes my father: ”To the world at large it offers us outward form, reserving for the circle of the initiated its secret meaning.”

Gordon’s thesis is that my father “aligned Nazi Germany with the Inquisition.” She writes: “Beyond its engagement with music theory and cultural history his Secret Chromatic Art delivers a modern narrative of oppressed minorities, ‘authoritarian’ regimes, and the artistic triumph of the dispossessed.”

I know this part of my father. He loved Spirituals. We sang them as a family. The story of Black people and the story of the Jews was the same story in my childhood. As a child I learned that spirituals often hid secret meanings—communications about seditious meetings, information about finding the Underground Railroad.

I knew my father as eloquent and persuasive. I also knew him as arrogant and contentious. It was never easy to have a dialogue with him; he had to have the last word. I often heard him rant about his fellow musicologists. Gordon’s empathic essay puts this in context for me. His Secret Chromatic Art had not been well received; his theory was never accepted. I had not understood the depth of his suffering about this. Nor had I understood his influence on me. I have been obsessed with African American poetry, I have written about spirituals and their secret significations. I have been obsessed with the Inquisition, The Shoah, the Spanish Civil War, issues of tyranny and oppression. I see now how my obsessions follow from those of my father; many of my poems are expressions of his concerns. Here’s one:


I’m going to be just like you, Ma
& sing from the bottom of hell
up to the tops of high heaven
--Al Young

for Al Young

My people are the people of the pianoforte and the violin
Mozart people Bach people Hallelujah people
My people are the Requiem people Winterreise people Messiah people
who crossed the red sea Pharoah’s dogs at our heels

Your people are the drum beat people the field holler people the conjure people
Blues people Jubilee people people who talk straight to God
Your people are the Old Man River people the Drinking Gourd people
singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land

My family had a Sabbath ritual
We lit the candles sang Go Down Moses sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot
sang slave music freedom music secret signals in the night music
my father said you never know
when Pharoah will be back

I was young
I was American I thought
my people were the Beatles the Lovin’ Spoonful the Jefferson Airplane
singing Alice and her White Rabbit through all
those changes my parents did not understand

That didn’t last
That was leaving home music magic mushroom music
Puff the Dragon music floating off to Never Never land
now heard in elevators in the pyramids of finance

But Old Man River still rolls through my fields
Bessie Smith still sweetens my bowl
Ma Rainey appears in the inner sanctum
of the CG Jung Institute flaunting her deep black bottom

My father’s long gone over Jordan
and I’d hate for him to see
how right he was about Pharoah

but I want you to know Al

every Christmas
in black churches all over Chicago
the Messiah shows up
accompanied by my mother’s
Hallelujah violin

(published in New Millennium Writings)

Until I read Gordon’s essay I did not understand how profoundly my father felt like an outsider. Gordon quotes Edward Said:
Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unbearable rift forced between a human being and a native place; between the self and its true home; its essential sadness can never be surmounted.
Shortly after he arrived in America (years before the State of Israel was created) my father gave a talk in which he described the Jew as one with “no center of his own, he has no soil of his own, there was no landscape which would smile at him with the assurance ‘I am yours.’” My father had lost his native tongue, his professors at the University of Heidelberg who influenced his thinking and the academic future he had expected to find in Germany.

Until I read Gordon’s essay I did not know that among my father’s professors were Karl Jaspers and Heinrich Besseler. Jaspers was interested in mysticism, Besseler in esotericism. Gordon makes a connection between the secret oral tradition of the Kabbalists and my father’s belief in a secret musical mode of communicating forbidden ideas. So my father’s understanding of the world was influenced by German Romanticism and a fascination with Jewish and Christian mysticism; so is mine.

I did not know until I read Gordon how difficult it was for him to find a position in America. Gordon quotes a letter in which he writes of sending out eighty letters to colleges and universities before, with some help, he finally got his first teaching position at Black Mountain College. I did not know how impossible he found the burden of his teaching, providing for his family while trying to find time to pursue his scholarly work.

I did not know what the big fight with Joseph Kerman, who had been his colleague at Berkeley, was all about, though I remember hearing snatches of my father’s fury. As Gordon puts it:
The story of the secret chromatic art intersects with a larger disciplinary story of generational and ideological divides between scholars who were educated in Europe…and those younger scholars who wanted to “liberate American musicology from the stronghold of German influence in order to create a particularly American tradition.”

For Kerman, my father became the symbol of that conservative tradition. It’s the familiar story of the Prince challenging the Old King—the young buck taking on the old stag. From Gordon’s description I can see how my father’s character flaws deepened the tragedy we all have to face as we age—that we must hand over power to the younger generation. My father was not able to have a dialogue with Kerman. He fell into what my friend and colleague Sam Kimbles calls a “culture complex.” Kerman became a Nazi and a racist in my father’s eyes.

Gordon quotes my father:
Professor Kerman is playing a dangerous game with dangerous words that the older generation has heard before and fervently hoped never to hear again. Nor is Professor Kerman so young or so innocent that he can claim to be unaware of the twentieth–century use and origin of the terms ”alien” and “native” in matters of art and scholarship. One generation ago the Germans talked a lot about “alien” elements in German culture. They also did something about it.
Gordon’s empathy helps me feel for my father in this story. She writes: “The debate with Kerman…situated Lowinsky falsely, I would argue, as the enemy of progress…Lowinsky stood as a straw man.”

I did not know until I read Gordon’s essay, that when his colleague Howard Mayer Brown went to visit my father on his death bed he was still wrestling with the battle over his Secret Chromatic Art. I remember him in those last days, pale and wan in his hospital bed, in denial about his impending death. I still could not engage him in a dialogue: I couldn’t get him to talk about his life, his work, or our relationship. I did not comprehend the tragedy of his life.

Maybe he understood it better than I knew. What he did speak to me about was the opera Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, which was strange because he had never liked Tchaikovsky—claimed his music was kitsch. Now he was telling me the story of Onegin and Tatania at the ball—how radiant she was, how full of love for Onegin. But he, self absorbed, paid her no mind. My father closed his eyes and said: “Onegin has forever lost his chance to love.”

My father’s birthday is coming up, Jan. 12th. He would have been 104 this year. I just received an e-mail, from Bonnie Gordon responding to my thanks to her for opening my heart to my father with her wonderful essay. She wrote me about her presentation of her paper at the AMS (American Musicological Society)…
[It] turned into something of a love fest for your father and his ideas. Former students and indeed former enemies seemed to have come to some sort of intellectual peace with his ideas.
Happy Birthday father.

Here‘s a poem for you:

daled for dad

you never were
a regular dad never
one of the guys
playing American ball
games such a formal
European father a scholarly
Jew you studied Catholic
church music sinned
against my mother
with your students

yet the Hebrew
letter daled is a door
way it is said and daled
was given me to
day your death
day I remember the deep
blue lake how
your delight found
words you gave me that

and the secret
chromatic art
of the Renaissance a music
that wandered
out the church door
into the lyrical
meadow this

one singing
you left me

(published in Earth’s Daughters and in Adagio & Lamentation)

Note: According to the Kabbala each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has an image associated with it, and daled’s image is a door.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The House That Was My Muse

The Story Behind the Poem

A house was once my muse. How can that be? Most houses are about keeping out the rain and the noonday sun.

From the outside the house was a shoe box—upended—with plain redwood siding. But from inside the house was all eyes: eyes on the western hills where the fog flowed in, eyes on the inner valley where blazes of trees announced the changing seasons, eyes on the long view out to a distant reservoir, eyes on the setting sun as it swung along the hills— north to summer, then west and south to winter. It was a poetry house, a muse house.

Most poetic of all was my poetry porch—a small glassed in deck off our bedroom—and the house gave me new eyes, or rather, it gave me back the eyes I had as a girl. Birds flew below us. Hawks were at eye level, making slow circles until their eyes caught motion and they dived. Once, I saw a golden eagle perched on the nearby power pole—watching me watching him. The poet I’d been as a child in the mountains of Vermont, in the ivy woods of Princeton, returned to me in that house. She had room to play in a structure that cultivated the contemplative, the imaginal, the wild.

Sometimes, at night, we’d wake to the uncanny “hoo hoo” of an owl, perched on a corner of roof, staring at us. Often, after work, Dan and I would stand on the living room deck, pour drops of red wine on the distant earth, say “Pacha Mama”—thanks to our mother—the earth.

Our houses shape us—they orient our senses, teach us what matters, give us our outlook on life. Before the muse house Dan and I lived in a strong warm maternal house in the city, with dark wood interiors. In those days we paid scant attention to what was happening outside. It was a house that sturdily embraced our complicated family: Dan’s three kids, my three kids, a dog, a cat, the custody dance of every other weekend vs. Dad’s week, Mom’s week. How many for dinner? When the kids grew up, we wanted a house just for us two.

The muse house on the ridge was a blessing of light, a lesson in the circles of life. It sang to me in the hot tub. It whispered fragments of poetry. I wrote and I wrote.

The house was also a headache, a money suck, a catastrophe waiting to happen. It leaked in the rain. We replaced the roof. It still leaked. We replaced the windows. It still leaked. The drip drip drip woke us in the night. It was water torture.

It needed to be painted frequently, for it stood three stories tall on that ridge and was beaten by weather. It cost a small fortune to paint because it required scaffolding. The house, Dan said, would keep him from ever retiring. It was making him crazy. Slowly, sadly I came around to Dan’s reality. We needed to sell the house. That was when I heard the lament of the house:

Lament of the House

How can you tear me apart, empty me out?
Haven’t I stroked you with fingers of light?
Haven’t I gentled your eyes? Filled you to brimming over
with the green world? How it goes
golden and brown? How it loses

its leaves and goes bare? Haven’t I given you
joy— shown you the setting sun
with streaks of purple and orange,
with white fog like sea foam
flowing over the western hills?

Haven’t you stood on my deck, you and Dan
poured red wine unto the earth
said praises, said blessings?
Haven’t I held your clay goddesses, your dancing
Ganesha, your gathering of Zuni frogs?
How can you tear me apart, empty me out,
get me staged to be god knows whose
fantasy house on a ridge? I who’ve been source
of your source, sanctuary, sacred seat
from which you’ve seen clouds form, hawks dive…

Haven’t you sat in me—on that old yellow chair—and been visited
by poetry? Haven’t you stood in me—naked,
moonstruck— in the gaze of the great horned one?
Will you send your gods into exile in cardboard boxes?
Will the soles of your feet forever be gone from my spiral stairs?

Where will your wild enthusiasms go, your wrestling
angels, your love cries? “Nasty,” you called me
when I thrust that long redwood splinter under your nail.
How else can I say it? You and I are inside one another.
How can you tear me apart, empty me out?
(This poem was first published in Poppyseed Kolache #2, Summer 2010)

Some time ago we learned that the young couple to whom we sold the house had to walk away from it. They were under water. The Great Recession had devoured their livelihood, their equity. And my magical house, my poetry porch, my glorious views hung desolate, abandoned, on the ridge— a foreclosure notice flapping on its front door, under the bare, late fall, wisteria which—I can see it in my mind’s eye—will make fervent purple blooms overarch the entrance, come summer.

The other morning Dan looked up from his newspaper. “It’s been sold” he said. “What has?” “Our old house.”

And indeed, we drove by to see trucks and cars parked in front of the house on the ridge, and work being done.

Thank you, whoever you are, who bought that magical house. Please take good care of it. May it bless your lives as it did ours.