24 April 2009


Pre-concert warmups, the prova de so--"sound test." A chaotic scene, violinists dashing in at the last minute, choir members trying to squeeze onto the risers. We flubbed the run-through of our opening piece. But that was the least of my worries. After coughing all day, I had been nervous about how my voice would hold up. At the moment, it was doing all right, especially in the higher registers. With judicious dosing of cough syrup and lozenges and water, I thought I could do it, I could sing this concert.

They pinned sweet red roses on all the sopranos and altos--this was the day of Sant Jordi, after all. People rushed about applying makeup and ordering their scores. We scrambled to line up in our positions, and then we were marching out, folders clutched in the hand facing the audience.

We nailed the first piece, the Monteverdi we had flubbed before. Our director smiled as the final syllable of the Amen hung in the air and prismed in a million directions through the church archways. I smiled, too, because I felt good. My voice was holding up, feeling limber.

We performed the Bruckner "Libera Me" with feeling and movement, and I almost forgot about my precarious voice. The Schumann, the Duruflé...they all sailed. A quick swig of water and a discreet cough at each applause, and I was doing fine.

But then, near the beginning of a cheerful Murcian ballad, that tickle in my throat. More than tickle. I had to cough, but it would have meant a doubled-over bout of hacking, which really wasn't an option, given my position at the top of the risers, highly visible and without an escape. Also, it wouldn't have made a very pleasant accompaniment to this acapella piece. So I held it in, my whole body tight with the effort to swallow a wrenching cough. Sweat trickled down my back, I became slightly faint. My throat was closed, so singing was not an option. I just stood there and turned pages, fighting away waves of whatever it is that makes one need to cough, telling myself to breathe.

At the end of the piece, I quickly bent down and gasped, nearly choking, swigging water and trying to calm my constricting throat. I made it through the last two songs of the first half, but barely, singing only at half-throttle and with a wretchedly strained, whispery sound. As we exited the hall, I knew I would have to sit out the second half, and the thought nearly made me cry--I had been so looking forward to it.

I felt sorry for myself only until the orchestra's first downbeat. Then I realized that I would be able to hear the choir perform the great Bach Magnificat as I had never heard it. Our familiar voices, our familiar sound, but smoothed round by distance and acoustics, so that my experience was not overlaid by the tenor and the ever-so-slightly sharp alto next to me. Instead, a wholeness. With fresh ears I absorbed it all, both from within and without, hearing the details of well-rehearsed counterpoint and the grand geometric heartbeat that Bach achieves so well. I sang without my voice, I sang immersed in the music, like the slender hand of a geiger counter swinging wildly off the chart.

23 April 2009

Deeper than all roses

Today is the day of Sant Jordi, a day of books and flowers and romance. You can read about the history of the day in last year's post, in which I express my wish to be in Barcelona for the festivities. Wish granted!

It's a perfect, warm, day, and I am looking forward to perusing some bookstalls in the gothic quarter, although if the rumors I hear are accurate, leisurely perusal is pretty difficult in the midst of masses of frenzied book-buying crowds (bookstores do close to ten percent of yearly sales on this one day alone). Plus, my cold/cough thing has returned with a vengeance, and I can barely breathe without hacking and gasping. Which does not bode well for singing tonight in our Sant Jordi concert. Boo.

I had the occasion this week to hear Chenjerai Hove speak on the power and fragility of the word, and Derek Walcott, one of my poetry heroes, speak on the "spectre of empire," although mostly he didn't talk about that at all. What he did talk about was contradicting oneself, and the idea of home, and Obama (he read two occasional poems on the elections), and Pasternak. Disjointedly interesting, but especially enjoyable during this week of celebrating literature, language and the book.

A poem is in order. On this springy day, I thought of e.e. cummings, the consummate poet of spring, and one of his rose poems, "somewhere i have never travelled."

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

[photo credit: flickr user Píxel]

15 April 2009


The Mister's grandmother turns ninety-four years old today. This boggles my mind. First, because of the sheer length of that time, nearly a century, enough to have lived through wars and dictatorships and so much of this world's crazy history. Enough to remember this neighborhood when it was a town outside of Barcelona, to remember how she could see clear from the balcony of their apartment (the one the Mister and I live in today) across the farmers' fields and to the skyline of the city.

Second, because if you look at her, you would never guess that she has lived for ninety-four years. Yes, there are a few lines, but don't let her twinkly wrinkled face fool you. She has more energy and a busier social calendar than me. Seriously. I often call to find her out with one of her girlfriends, either shopping or attending mass or bringing them an example of the delicate lacework that she makes by hand. She is a whirlwind of activity, making meals for others even when she isn't expecting company, just in case someone stops by. We can't get her to stay seated at the table. She has a greener than green thumb; her balcony is full of beautiful plants and bursting with color year round.

Her memory is also better than mine; she has a clear mental map of just about every establishment in this neighborhood and can perfectly recall what each shop used to be, the owners' names and those of their children. She remembers events from the lives of her friends, long-gone family, and neighbors in detail, and often recounts their stories to me. She tells me of her childhood working as a maid in a convent in exchange for her board and schooling, of her young adulthood as a seamstress in the factory a few meters from where she now lives, of her marriage and the many trips she took with the Mister's grandfather. Once in a while, she tells me stories of her experiences during the Civil War, of what she saw and the fear she endured.

When I spend time with her, as I did today, bringing her flowers in the morning and stopping by for lunch at her house (faves a la catalana again, yum!) , I wonder what she was like when she was younger, and conversely, I wonder what I will be like as an old woman.

This kind of speculation is a favorite pastime of mine. On the street I pass so many versions of what an elderly person looks like, women twenty years her junior with curved backs and canes, or women like her who still move with a spring in their step, straight thin ladies and round pillowy ladies, some with silver hair and some with thinning hair and some with brown. I envision myself as an old woman, and it's like trying to imagine a me who is not me, a body that is mine but not mine, a wrinklier and creakier shadow of myself superimposed over this thirty-year-old frame. This is similar to trying to imagine myself pregnant, an altered, twilight zone version of myself, submitted to the vagaries of nature and the inherent weirdness of a whole person growing inside another person. A healthy dose of pure curiosity makes me wonder: will I that pregnant girl, or that one? Will I be that old lady, or that one?

In any case, watching the Mister's grandmother turn ninety-four with energy, sparkle, and grace definitely gives me something to aspire to. Happy birthday, iaia!

12 April 2009


Today, after the dark mourning of the crucifixion, is the bright morning of the resurrection. I think trumpets are called for, and flowers.

George Herbert agrees. This Easter poem (actually, just the first half of the poem; the second half is quite different metrically and in subject matter) weaves a beautiful metaphor of the cross as a musical instrument of praise. The third stanza compares the trinity of tuneful lute, joyful heart, and holy spirit to a three-noted musical chord, made harmonious only by the addition of that third element.

The poem almost demands a musical setting. If you can find it, listen to Ralph Vaughn Williams' version. The first line alone, with the soloist's declamation of "Rise heart; thy Lord is risen," echoed by the choir, is Easter in a nutshell.

Happy Easter, everyone!

by George Herbert

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
And multiplied,
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

08 April 2009

A change in plans

Last weekend the Mister found out that he will be without work come July. This was half-expected, given that his job relies on the election cycle, but all recent indications had been that he would continue his work in Brussels for another term. That is, until Friday, when--in a turn of events that I can't detail but that involves nasty political last-minute behind-the-scenes machinations--he was told that he was out.

We barely had time to digest this news when he had to board his plane for the fifteen-hour flight to Tokyo, so we're still in the midst of processing. For now, it all pretty much boils down to two things:

1. No work in an economic downturn. The next few months will be spent job-hunting. For both of us, perhaps. (I even had an interview of sorts yesterday!)

2. No more commuting between two cities, no more maintaining apartments in two cities. I'll have the Mister here seven nights a week. This makes the idea of growing our family suddenly seem much more feasible.

I'm thinking point number two greatly outweighs point number one.


Palm Sunday here in Catalonia is known as diumenge de rams, or "branches Sunday," which is funny considering that there actually are palms, in abundance, in this Mediterranean locale. Unlike, say, Vermont, where our palm branches must be imported from who knows where.

In fact, as I learned last weekend, Palm Sunday is actually more Eastery than Easter Sunday, in the sense that even if you never go to church during the rest of the year, Palm Sunday is the day you dress up your kids in patent leather shoes and pastel outfits, and take them to mass. According to the Mister's grandmother, everyone is supposed to wear something brand new for the first time. She debuted a lovely blue coat.

Another important ritual is the buying and waving of the palmons or palmes, the former being tall straight palm fronds gathered into a bundle and traditionally carried by little boys, the latter being palm fronds woven into miraculously intricate confections and carried by the girls.

These are sold the Saturday prior to Palm Sunday on the Rambla Catalunya, and since Saturday was a beautiful day, I took a bike ride down to see all of the handiwork. Each booth is laden with palms of all shapes and sizes, from delicate floral fingerlings like the one my mother-in-law gave me to elaborate works of art several meters high. In addition, they sell the candy rosaries, ribbons and tiny toys that are used to decorate the palms, as well as large bunches of laurel and thyme, which are also carried to mass on Sunday morning. (I would have taken pictures, but the Mister has the camera in Japan, with instructions to take pictures of the cherry trees. The photograph above comes from another blog, in Catalan, about the holiday.)

On Sunday I met the Mister's grandmother, mother, and our little niece in the plaza in front of the church, along with a huge crowd of other families. When the priest came out and read the Biblical passage describing the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, at every "alleluia," the palms and branches were lifted high into the air and shaken, and the straight bundles of palms carried by the boys were tamped into the ground. (From what I understand, they compete to see who can end up with the greatest length of frayed "broom.")

After Easter, many families hang the palms on their balconies, where they spend the year until the next Ash Wednesday, when they are burned to make the ash. If you're ever in Spain, if you look up from time to time, you'll notice the drying palmes strung across balconies' metal fretwork.

03 April 2009

Drip, drip, drop...

...little April showers... That song from Bambi has always stuck with me, and I tend to sing it whenever the rain comes down. The other rainy day lyric that always comes to my head is "It looks like rain, now won't that just be jolly? It looks like rain, I must go and get my brolly" (sung with the best-worst British accent I can muster). I always thought that this came from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but a little pause to consider the logic and some internet sleuthing seems to indicate that it's from Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo. Boy, it's not easy to keep all those Old Testament musicals straight.

The reason these little jingles come to mind is that we have had quite a rainy beginning to April here in BCN. Today the sun is showing its face again, but we had a solid week of chilly, gray, and wet.

We spent last weekend visiting the Priorat, a beautiful wine-producing region south of Barcelona, with the intention of enjoying its terraced hills and tiny towns, wineries and winding roads, but after a couple of miserably cold stops in deserted villages, we went straight to the cavernous farmhouse (one of the B&B places known as a casa rural), with its fireplaces and space heaters, where we feasted well and spent the night.

Anyway, that's about the extent of the excitement around here. I'm just getting over my lingering cold/cough thing, the Mister is off to Japan, and my Easter week promises to be quiet and (hopefully) productive.