Quartet

Just home from seeing the delightful little piece of fluff Quartet. I always get excited when I see that a movie is based on a play because it generally means there will be lots of dialogue and character development, and very few explosions. This certainly met those expectations, and while it didn’t rise to high drama or comedy, it was a touching and sweet homage to great artists.

Since the film is all about retired classical musicians living in a nursing home, I kept getting these glimpses of terror of what will happen to me when I can no longer sing. As it is, I’ve lost an octave of my range since my twenties and I wasn’t good enough to get into the Bloomington Chamber Singers.

Which is a puzzlement and which takes me off-topic for a moment but really, not good enough for the Chamber Singers? I’ve heard them in a variety of contexts and I am better than some sopranos, worse than some. I’m not worse than all. I still have shreds of the old voice left. It was such a blow when I got the rejection. And completely puzzling. I kept replaying the audition in my mind. I sang Sebben Crudele. We were in the UU church, my favorite place to sing. As I sang the beautiful notes, the space warmed them up and gave them back to me. I actually got distracted at one point, marveling at the sound.

Imagine my surprise when Gerry Sousa said I was an alto. An alto? My lowest note is an E! My passaggio is B-flat. I top out around a high D but have higher notes when I’m in good voice. This is a textbook soprano voice. For the sight-singing exercise, he had me sing the alto line of some hymn. I couldn’t even hear it—I’ve been a soprano my whole life, I’ve always sung the top line, how in the hell am I supposed to hear the sandwiched part? He came up and sang it with me and I kept up but I couldn’t hit the lowest notes, which were Bs, I believe. I don’t know what the point of that was.

In the rejection note (a standard rejection note), he invited me to audition again, saying some people audition three or four times before getting in. Really? What makes them so much better the fourth time? I seriously want to know. I asked for feedback on my audition because I am honestly interested in understanding how my voice is heard and what I can improve on, but he didn’t reply to my email.

Everyone I talked to about it was incensed on my behalf, which was very kind. And they tried to console me with the fact that I don’t want to be singing dead white men’s music about Jesus, which is mostly true. I was really just looking for additional performance outlets and a more varied musical experience. And I’d like to improve my musicianship, which would certainly happen in that group.

The only thing I can think of is that people singing non-classical music often aren’t considered “real” singers by those in the classical world. When the audition form asked if I sang in any other languages, I put down yes—28 languages. That was a tip-off that I’m not doing the classical canon. And the geniuses of the Czech Republic and Georgia and Ireland and South Africa and Polynesia and the American South don’t count. I see this attitude on ChoralNet sometimes and it drives me nuts.

Anyway! I didn’t set out to bewail my fate at the hands of the Chamber Singers. I wrote because I glimpsed a future where I simply won’t have the chops anymore to do even the quiet folk singing of my Appalachian lullabies. What in the world will I do then??? What a desiccated existence.

When I listen to music, my whole body gets involved. It was happening at Akhnaten last night. Throughout the first act I kept moving my head and upper body in response to the music. I was probably driving the people behind me nuts. When I saw Lucia di Lammermoor at the MAC years ago, I remember walking out absolutely exhausted from breathing along with the lead. I am not a spectator to music. I am inside music. And even after an experience like Quartet, which is not high drama, I want to come home and play all my classical CDs and sing along and dance around the house. I want to feel it throbbing through me, riding the wave of my voice in a sacred pulse that is rooted deep in Gaia herself. And someday that will be gone.

On the drive home I was thinking, “At least I’ll still have history.” My love of history will continue to enthrall and inspire me as long as my brain holds out. But it’s not the same as music. I have looked deep inside my self to try to find the place where music started and as far down as I go, it’s always there. It is entwined in a double-helix with my spirit. When one dies, the other will go, too. Perhaps I should wish to die before I lose what’s left of my gift. I can’t imagine living without it. Life would never be as good. I can’t imagine wanting to retire from music, retire from performing. I understand that classical professionals have to due to lack of roles and the demands of touring and the physical inability to keep up with the material, but hey, look at the Rolling Stones. They’ll still be going strong at eighty.

When will I get tired of singing my Janis Joplin-inspired version of Summertime? Did Ella Fitzgerald sing A Tisket a Tasket her entire life just because it was a hit? Or Judy sing Over the Rainbow because people would throw things if she didn’t? I think they sang it because it was a part of them and they were always finding pleasure in discovering new aspects to it.

Music is constantly unfolding. And just when you think you’ve heard it every way possible, some artist comes along and finds a whole new facet. And that leads you to your own exploration and discoveries. It’s life, it’s the life force itself, pulsing and beaming and glimmering and unfolding into the infinite. And I am hungry for it. I never get enough of it. And it breaks my heart that there are some aspects that are beyond me now. I used to sing this heart-breaking rendition of Care Selve that was this Fred Astaire dancing love affair with the melody line and I can’t do it anymore. The tonal quality is gone and I can barely hit the highest notes. The thing I hold most dear, as precious to me as my own soul, is slipping from my fingers, growing dimmer as time goes by.

All right, I can’t bear to think about this anymore.

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