Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Singing Bruckner in Austria

This post is long overdue, but not being able to type things myself is bound to cause delays!  Nevertheless, here is another post from our choral trip to Europe; I wouldn't be a very good Canadienne errante without including these reflections!


Sun. May 27, 2012 

Today, we had a tour of the Monastery of St. Florian, just outside Linz, in preparation for the concert we would sing there shortly afterwards. This is where composer Anton Bruckner studied to become a choir boy, as well as learned to play the organ. Later, he returned to St. Florian to teach and play the organ. He was in awe of the organ and it later came to be named after him.

Ceiling of St. Florian and Bruckner's organ at the back - intimidating place to sing!

York University Chamber Choir outside St. Florian

Part of the library in the monastery.  Incredible, no?

When he died, he was entombed in the crypt, directly underneath his organ, as per his request. We were taken down tosee his tomb. As if this weren’t eerie enough, the wall behind his tomb is full of nearly 6000 neatly stacked human skulls and bones, from a very old Christian (I believe circa 300 A.D.) graveyard that was long forgotten about until the bones were found.

I tried not to look at the skulls, but I was drawn to a moment of silence as I stood in front of Bruckner’s final resting place, beneath his beloved organ. We were to sing his very own compositions shortly, just above him, and it affected me deeply – I realized I had a few tears rolling down my face, even though I didn’t feel them fall.

Here's the tomb of the very composer who's songs you're about to perform in the very place he lived and worked.  You'll be singing to his beloved organ, right above him.  So he'll be able to hear you.  And here's several thousand human bones and skulls to look at as well.  Now that you're all properly overwhelmed, go sing beautifully without shaking or losing focus at all!
What were the tears for, exactly? It doesn’t need to be analyzed too much, but part of what I was feeling was just complete... awe and humility. I felt so tiny, so insignificant – how could I be in this place, in Austria, about to sing the music of this great man – in the very place it was born, the very place it was written? Surely I was not worthy of such an experience – but then, what is worthiness? Either none of us are or we all are – and somewhere in between these two is the only way we can do anything with authenticity.

Actually singing in the priory, facing his organ, was another experience all together. I think we were all terrified; at least, I was. There were some exquisite moments, especially when we would have to wait for the resonance of our voices to slowly fade out before continuing. I felt Bruckner’s spirit float up a little during those moments. I don’t think we managed to fully rouse him, however – we were not focused enough.

Singing is extraordinarily difficult; at least, the kind of singing that moves people; changes them. We have yet a lot to learn; a lot to reach inside of ourselves for.

York University Chamber Choir singing in St. Florian's Monastery

(We had an even more profound experience at the Linz Cathedral the next day.  One of our Bruckner pieces, Locus Iste, was composed for that very place.  Even though we were on a guided tour of the place, we quickly gathered and spontaneously performed it – how could we not?  As I was quoted saying here, I felt almost as if I were singing along with every voice that had ever sung that piece in that place.)

YUCC singing Locus Iste in Linz Cathedral. Listen especially for the lovely echo at 2:12

After the concert, our bus took us into the heart of Linz and we dispersed for dinner. I made a beeline for the river, despite my hunger: you can’t drop me into a place with a new river and not expect me to immediately go and say hello! I then wandered down the riverbank, as far away from the noisy music and tourist things of the city square as I could before I finally gained the courage to enter a small restaurant with a patio, and ask if they spoke English. They did only a little, so we made ourselves understood via a German-English-Spanish medley, which worked quite well.

When in a foreign country, apparently my fall-back technique for finding a suitable place to eat is to look for restaurants with pictures of fish on them.

As I ate my dinner, I noticed a small bird with a red breast flying into a small hole in a tree growing on the patio, carrying things in its beak. (I dubbed it a “European miniature robin.”) Sure enough, when I got up and looked in the hole, it was full of baby birds! I asked my server to write down its name for me: Rotkehlchen. And guess what? It is indeed a European robin!

After my lovely dinner with the “rotkehlchens,” I went and sat by the river, wrote, and skipped stones as the sun went down. A wonderful day in Linz.

View of Linz

Danube river at night

Stones from the Danube

Me by the Danube

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lessons from the Sea

Barnegat Light, New Jersey, 2006
It was my father who taught me to not be afraid of the sea.  As a child, on vacations to Portugal, he would take me into the wild waters of Nazaré.  I don't remember how old I was, but I have vivid memories of feeling tiny and frail as I held onto a rope that attached somewhere far into the ocean.  I think perhaps I was 6.  The waves would come, tall, taller than me sometimes, and his message was always the same - hold on tight, don't be afraid.

I remember the rough feel of that rope against my tiny hands.  I remember the determination (not fear) with which I held on as the waves came towards me.  Sometimes, they knocked me off my feet, and I would tumble under the waves, swallow salt water, feel myself as a small creature of tangled limbs and wonder where the sea would take me.  But I was never afraid.

He also taught me the fine art of riding a wave - how to spot a good one, and how to time your jump just right.  Sometimes, when we were out there, the tide would start to move to high tide, and the sea would tug on us more and more, pulling us in towards higher and higher waves.

I think a person's first instinct is to run from such waves, and from that deep pulling over which you have absolutely no control.  Don't run! my father taught me from the beginning.  If you run, they will just come and get you, knock you over, you'll get lost in them.  You have to swim towards them.

This seemed counter intuitive at the time - why would I swim towards a big giant wave that was already pulling me too far from shore and above to crash over my head and take me with it?

As unnerving as it was, he was right.  If you swim towards a wave just right, you will rise up gently with the swell and then suddenly find yourself behind it, away from danger.  Behind the place where the waves break there is a calmer place.  You can swim as far away from shore as you dare.  (I often did this as a teenager, while my poor hydrophobic mother stood on shore trying to keep track of my bobbing head in the distance.)

The ocean is one of my single favourite things in the universe.  All year round, when I am not near it, I feel something quietly tugging at some deep part of my soul, as if the tide is trying to pull me back, even from such a great distance away.

Even when I am near the ocean, I am not content unless I am in it.  Only then does that subtle tugging stop; only then can I breathe deeply and relax, longing quenched.

When I am in the ocean, it is a very private experience.  It is almost meditative, in that I have to focus so intently and completely on the tidal rhythms, to the exclusion of all other thoughts.  Perhaps others do not take the ocean s seriously as I do, but I know no other way.  It is a complete submission for me.  We all have a need to devote ourselves to something, I think.  Whether it be religion, political ideals, music-making, dance, the list goes on... there seems to be something about human nature that needs to submit, to completely let go of our own will and let a "higher power" other than ourselves take over.

I find it a deeply freeing experience; to let myself be pulled, be drawn in; to give up any notion of where I'd like to be or what I'd like to do; to go towards what I'm afraid of and let the waves decided where I end up...

There is no explaining this feeling; no way to communicate it to someone who doesn't already know it.

I had more thoughts, but the sound of the surf has erased them...

Avalon, New Jersey, 2011

Avalon, New Jersey, 2011

Nazaré, Portugal, 2010