My friend Martha remarked, on FB, that she was always impressed that when I drew my desk, it was neat. The thing is, I usually draw objects that I've put on the dining room table, not my desk, so it looks all nicely arranged. My actual desk looks like this today, and, typically, bears the evidence of many scattered projects in various states of completion: fleece from the quilt project; drawings and the lino block for a new relief print; calligraphy and drawing and painting tools; notes on a new photobook I'm designing, along with a sketch and some fountain pen tryouts; a can of fixative, Sumi ink and white gouche and a little bottle of drawing gum used as a resist in watercolor painting; a Square credit card reader for Phoenicia; my breakfast of Scottish oatmeal and coffee...and of course the computer.
About four months ago I made a decision to try to work at least half the day standing up. So there's a resolution made early that's already worked out pretty well. I think I work considerably more than half the time here at the tall adjustable drawing table I've had for thirty years, standing on an anti-fatigue mat. My blood sugar readings have been a little bit on the high-normal side for the past few years, and I'm hoping that less sitting, plus extra exercise and careful (non-holiday!) eating will keep that potential problem in check. It's hard to get enough exercise in a climate like this in the winter if you don't go to a gym, and it's also hard not to eat and drink too much in a deliciously food-centric city like Montreal. So, for the past three weeks, I've been walk/jogging/stair-climbing through the long hallways and basement of this big old industrial building three times a week, as well as my usual routine of stretches and calisthenics. I've only lost two of the six pounds I'd like to lose, but I feel better, except for the inevitable muscle aches and pains... What an annoyance it is to get older and have to think about this stuff! But we have to! I'm certainly grateful for the good health I've had most of my life, and want to do whatever I can to keep it, knowing we don't have control over a lot of what happens.
I always resolve not to make a list of resolutions, but do point myself in general directions like this, and the New Year represents is always a good time to take stock. A couple of blog-related tasks come to mind: to do a better back-up of Cassandra, and to improve my photo-management system, either cleaning up the mess of Picasa folders I've got now, or switching to a professional program. I'm really happy about the artwork progress in 2015, and want to continue that: drawing more people and animals, continuing to fill sketchbooks, as well as doing some larger easel paintings again. Reading is a given, and so is music, but it would be nice to touch the piano keys a little more often.
Still, all of these ideas merely skirt around the central questions of life and happiness: how to live with eyes and heart open within a world that is so tormented without getting depressed; how to get older gracefully and vibrantly; how to cultivate gratitude every day; how to be a kinder, gentler, ever-more-generous person while also taking care of one's own spirit and need for solitude, creativity, renewal; how to juggle our priorities and time and the needs of others clsoe to us; how to grow in love and awareness of the connectedness of everything. I don't think we can possibly make progress in these aspects of life without thinking about them and having a practice of reflection, anymore than we can keep our bodies in any sort of shape without conscious effort. Happiness is, I think, quite a relative thing, and not even a particularly useful term. I can't be "happy" when other people are suffering, but I'm also keenly aware of how beautiful life is, even when lived within significant limitations. What kind of person do I want to be when and if I reach 75, or 85, or even 90? What kind of person do I want to be if and when I have to deal with great grief, or the personal challenge of chronic or terminal illness? What makes someone the sort of person others want to be around, and what isolates others?
I don't have all the answers; I never will, but I know that a great deal of my emotional equilibrium depends on them. Isn't this why we read, and why we do creative work, and spiritual reflection, and why we enter into relationships, and why we get outside and look at nature and feel the wonder of our bodies moving and functioning in such intricate ways? Isn't every day, then, a new beginning, and a chance to find meaning in the apparent clutter of our complicated lives?
From what I've gathered from talking to non-choir-singers, there's quite a lot of curiosity about what goes on with us behind the scenes. This Christmas, I took my camera along on two occasions and snapped some candid shots to show you a little of what it looks like. I wish I could share the "sounds like" too, but I'm afraid I can't! It was a beautiful musical Christmas, though, and from the looks on strangers' faces, I think some of the peace and mystery and joy that Christmas, at its best, is supposed to represent did come across through our music.
Here we are in the choir room in the cathedral undercroft, before the Lesson & Carols service on the afternoon of December 21st, the 4th Sunday in Advent. The undercroft basically reminds me of a grade school, except that it's completely underground: all the walls are painted in those lovely institutional colors, and the lighting is fluorescent. We spend a lot of time in this room, though, so I have a certain affection for it. There are risers on one long side, and filing cabinets and tables overflowing with sheet music. On another wall is a set of built-in cubbies, one slot assigned to each of the singers, where we keep our folders and current music. Each singer is assigned a number - I'm #35, for instance - and as Patrick Wedd, our director, decides on the repertoire, we'll find our copy of each particular piece in our cubby when we show up for Thursday rehearsals. The service bulletins, descant sheets, psalms for the day, and so forth, are laid out on the table you see in this picture, for us to pick up before the rehearsal before each service. On Sundays, we rehearse in regular clothes, and then put on our cassocks and surplices right before the service.
A rare sneak peek into the women's locker room! We've each got a locker where our gowns are stored and where we can keep personal items. Usually this room is very crowded as we all hurriedly get dressed. How much we wear under our gowns depends on how cold or hot the church is -- the gowns are pretty hot, especially these long surplices, new last Easter, that feel like you're wearing an entire bedsheet -- but they look really good.
Here's Michel, having a quick snack, making sure he doesn't spill anything on his surplice to incur the wrath of Mary, our wardrobe mistress! The choir has eight paid professional singers, who lead each section (Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto 1, etc). We do a lot of double-choir repertoire, and a lot of music that calls for five or six parts - divided soprano and tenor, for instance. Michel is the Bass 2 pro.
This is my friend Carole, our Soprano 1 soloist, with Phil, who is the Tenor 1 pro. They're both fantastic singers, and good friends with each other. When you sing together for a long time, especially in a group like this, you do form close relationships with people, and value them a lot. Of course the pros also see each other in other groups -- the Montreal Symphony chorus, Opera de Montreal, Les Violons du Roy, etc. When I joined, I thought there would be more of a separation between the pros and the unpaid singers, but it isn't the case: we're all friends, we're all in it together, and after you've sung with the group for a while and are seen to be doing your best, you are accepted as part of the team. At the same time, people come and go. Some of the young professionals are with us only for a year or two, before leaving for a solo career, to study in Europe, to find work in other cities. (Nearly all professional singers also have other jobs or freelance employment, whether that's teaching or translating or whatever.) We always have some university students who sing with us or who serve as organ scholars or assistants. We watch them grow into adults and much more mature musicians, and then they leave to pursue their careers: it's a special process that I feel privileged to be part of.
Here we are at the back of the cathedral just before 10:00 am, getting ready for the processional. (The main door, through which the congregation enters, is just to the right of the "Exit" sign here.) When the organ prelude starts, we all settle down and get into position; usually we sing an introit first in a semi-circular formation at the back, and then, singing the first hymn, we process in pairs up the center aisle behind the crucifer to our seats in the chancel; the clergy follow the choir. We're carrying our music folders, hymnal, and often a bell; if we've managed to think ahead, we've left our water bottles near our seats after the rehearsal.
If we're going to be singing accompanied music from the organ loft, the pairs split at the head of the pews and come back down the side aisles and then climb up the spiral staircases at the back into the loft (you can see one of those stairs in the center of this photo.) It's a little hard to sing when you reach the top - you need a few moments to catch your breath -- and often we sporanos have a descant to sing on the last verse of the hymn. And then there's only a short prayer between the hymn and the Gloria of the mass. It's a heads-up sort of job, which is part of what I like: I've always liked doing things that require full concentration and keep me fully in the moment.
In the loft, there are no seats, just a couple of chairs or stools for our older members or people who've got a bad back or knee that week. When we're at full numbers, we cram into the two sides like sardines, with the organ console in the middle, and sit on the floor during the readings. The sound is good from the loft but it's hard for the two sides to hear each other; we have to follow the conductor carefully. For Christmas, we had a big choir with several visitors - between 25 and 30 people. During the regular season, the full choir is between 20-25 singers, and for our half-choir Sundays (two per month) there are four professionals and half of the unpaid singers, which can be as few as 12 people in all - at those times, we fit easily on one side of the organ loft.
Here's Patrick, our music director and organist; he's looking out toward the nave of the church. Seated at the console is the assistant organist, Adrian, and Alex, our organ scholar, is standing. You can see a small video monitor near Adrian's head; that shows the altar and helps the organist know when to begin or end. The organists do a good deal of improvising to "stretch" hymns or to provide music during transition points in the service; most of this is done extemporaneously, often as a variation on one of the hymn tunes, and it's one of the most remarkably skilled aspects of high-level organ playing. I love having a ringside seat to watch and listen to the organists doing their work and assisting each other in the dance of pulling stops and turning pages.
Finally, here's the view from the loft, with the cathedral bedecked for Christmas Eve. On the far left center, below the white arrow, you can see a boom with microphones -- that's how the sound is transmitted to radio for the Sunday afternoon Evensong broadcasts. There's another set of microphones in front, hanging from the arch above the altar, because more often than not we are singing a capella music from the chancel instead.
Cathedral choral music comes to many people's minds at Christmas, and appropriately enough, the December issue of BBC Music Magazine had a feature about British cathedral choirs, their future, and the traditional of liturgical music they represent. Although we're in Canada, we and the choirs of large Episcopal cathedrals in the U.S. are part of this same tradition, and subject to the same financial pressures. However, recent statistics in Britain have shown that despite shrinking attendance at parish churches, cathedral attendance has actually grown over the past decade, and that the quality of music presented there is a major reason.
Matthew Owens, organist and music director at Wells Cathedral, could have been speaking for us as well in that article when he said:
It's true that people come into our cathedrals because they're beautiful buildings. But they are often seeking so much more than an architectural thrill. If we happen to catch them for evensong, those unfamiliar with the daily liturgical round are often transformed by the experience, even if they are not religious by habit or affiliation... We're all privileged custodians of this tradition. With that comes the responsibility of handing it on in a better state than we found it.
And one of the adult singers, tenor Ian MacLeod-Jones, expressed my own feelings when asked what singing in the Wells choir meant to him:
It means being part of an extraordinary choral tradition at Wells that stretches back more than 1,100 years. It means performing the sung daily worship to the best of our abilities, working closely as a team, always striving for excellence, it means being at the forefront of new music for the church, which [due to commissions] means we have the privilege of premiering additions to the living sacred choral repertoire; it means enriching others, whether regular congregation members or tourists from around the world who may have stumbled into evensong quite by accident, through the power of the universal language of music. And it means doing something that I love every day, and all, I hope for a greater good.
I hope you've enjoyed this little look behind the scenes; for us, Christmastide isn't yet over: we still have special music to sing next Sunday, January 6th, and the following week, on the 11th, when the season draws to a close with a service of readings and music for Epiphany. Happy Christmas and Happy New Year to all!
Well, we're almost at the end of 2014, so in keeping with tradition, here's my book list for this past year. I didn't read as many titles as in some years, but there are a couple of real tomes in there too. I've been enjoying a new way of reading: borrowing e-books and audiobooks for free via OverDrive, through the Bibliotheque Nationale. You do it all via your own computer, and can download books to read there or on your tablet or phone. The selection increases all the time, and books can be borrowed for period of 21 days and renewed after that.
I greatly enjoyed the big new biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and subsequently re-read some of his works. Other particular highlights of the year were Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; my friend Tom Montag's poetry collection In This Place; Interior Circuit by Francisco Goldman and City of Palaces by Michael Nava - both books about Mexico City; and the wonderful Out of Arizona by frequent Cassandra Pages commenter Roderick Robinson.
For Christmas I was completely surprised and delighted to receive a special gift from J.: a signed copy of Seamus Heaney's North. I'm slowly reading through that now.
(The full list, back to 2002, is here.)
Please post your own lists or highlights of 2014 in the comments!
Book List 2014
North, Seamus Heaney
Dark Voyage, Alan Furst*
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene (re-read)
The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (re-read)
All Hallow's Eve, Charles Williams
Ways of Seeing, John Berger**
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez** (re-read)
The View From Lazy Point, Carl Safina
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life, Gerard Martin*
The Lost Painting, Jonathan Harr**
The Upstairs Wife: an Intimate View of Pakistan, Rafia Zakaria*
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie*
Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle, Francisco Goldman*
In This Place, Tom Montag
Rise the Euphrates, Carol Edgarian*
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou*
Town and Country, Alice and Martin Provensen
Mexican Muralists, Rochfort,Desmond
The Swerve, Stephen Greenblat
Strange Pilgrims, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (re-read)
Montreal Stories, Mavis Gallant
Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation, Richard Rohr*
Mexico and modern printmaking : a revolution in the graphic arts, 1920 to 1950
The Art of Mesoamerica: from Olmec to Aztec, Mary Ellen Miller
Baltics, Tomas Transtromer
Out of Arizona, Roderick Robinson*
City of Palaces, Michael Nava
The Deleted World, Tomas Transtromer
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse*
The System, Claudia Serea
* indicates books read as e-books, ** were audiobooks
Drawing and painting a bit, on these slower days of Christmas week. The holly and yew branches I brought back from central New York are still looking bright and cheerful.
This "Turkey Red" tablecloth is an heirloom of sorts and always comes out at Christmas. My grandmother had a collection of these and I always loved them. They are reversible; the other side is simply the opposite, with the lighter parts of the pattern appearing as dark red and the background lighter pink. The other day I got into drawing these patterns; it's interesting to me how a proliferation of patterns flattens the picture plane. Matisse and Gauguin both used that effect in their paintings.
Still life with smoked salmon and dill on a Chinese plate. Fountain pen on paper, 9" x 6".
Maybe this profusion of pattern says something about how I'm feeling after the holidays, too...
It's been dark, windy, and rainy in Montreal this week, though not terribly cold. The snow is almost all gone, but we wake in darkness and the sun is going down again around 3:30 or 4. A Christmas present to myself was a lightweight v-neck cashmere sweater, on mail-order sale, in a beautiful bright pink, and I've been wearing it almost every day to cheer myself up. Nevertheless, I feel perpetually sleepy in this kind of weather -- and probably need to catch up on some sleep as well.
And how are you all doing?
Still life with donkey, copper vase, and Christmas greens. Pen on paper, 9" x 6".
It's a moment, in a particular season, a particular life. My father-in-law's terracotta donkey from Damascus; an Egyptian copper tray and vase that was a gift from my sister-in-law; greens and holly brought from my mother's garden in central New York, where my own family has lived for two centuries.
Our marriage brought together two cultures. When my parents-in-law were young people in the Middle East, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all lived together in the ancient cities -- Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem, and so many others -- in relative harmony. They came here after World War II because they could see what was starting to happen. Over the time of our own marriage, we've seen the last bits of that harmony disintegrate. Yes, there are individuals and organizations that are still trying, and some places that are less war-torn than others, but as I drew this picture last night I felt the sadness of that little mute donkey, worn smooth by the touch of hands, as well as gratitude that in my own life I've been able to experience some of the richness that intercultural living imparts -- a richness that I think is meant to be our cherished heritage as human beings on a shared planet.
May it be so, someday, not too far away.
Along with several other writers, my friend Teju Cole was asked by Aperture, "What kind of pressure does photography place on the written word today?" His answer addresses, in part, my own question: what is the point of trying to make beautiful images -- images which reference the past in their reliance on paper, ink, old techniques, and use as their subject everyday objects -- in a world so torn by violence and the pressure of the exterior on our interior lives?
If my work and my life were completely consumed with that interiority, or with the preservation of some sort of peace and the continuation of comfort, that would be problematic for me. But it's precisely in everyday objects and scenes that I find echoes of the political, and I am trying to find ways to explore that without co-opting the grimness or violence or fear of the exterior world. To me, making dark and violent art is too obvious an answer, and often veers off into the cynical. During this past year, I've been feeling my way toward other ways of expressing this predicament in which I find myself.
Family Coffeepot and Fossil: Thinking of Gaza. Acrylic on paper, 2014.
Most of us, in this hemisphere anyway, live our lives in relative comfort but in an atmosphere of anxiety and awareness - though that is a relative term - of the tenuousness of life, freedom, and peace for a great majority of others. More and more of us are aware of the ways in which our lifestyles impact the lives of that majority, and how we are complicit. By the same token, our participation in these systems of suffering and oppression is not, for the most part, chosen: we and our tax dollars are being used by the systems of power, and our governments are involved in actions we would never willingly condone.
How does art intersect with that reality, and that knowledge? How do we, as artists and writers, move forward with integrity, with hope, but also acknowledging and honoring the long tail of the past in which the search for beauty and meaning has been vital to human life and culture?
Teju writes (he's talking about photography, but we can say the same for the other arts:)
I want images that address the predicaments of the present moment, in a political sense, but that also allow for poetry and lyricism. In any case, those things may not be necessarily divorced from each other: paper has to come from somewhere; the equipment used to make a camera is made from materials that are traded on the world market, including materials that come from conflict zones. Machines have lyricism (once we learn to see it) and poetry comes at a cost (if we are willing to admit it). The connection this has to my writing? I try to apply those same goals (of politics and poetry) to the written word, too. So, we may be awash in images and words these days, but poetry still matters. It is still as elusive as it ever was, and, just as ever, it is still worth chasing down.
During our recent trip to central New York to celebrate my dad's 90th birthday -- which was quite a celebration! -- we picked up a couple of packages, one of which was a new extra-fine nib for my Lamy fountain pen. When we got back I changed the nib and did two drawings of the same subject, just from slightly different angles, with my favorite fountain pen (top) and with the Lamy (bottom). While I still prefer the flexibility of the Sheaffer nib, I'm quite happy with the Lamy now.
Then I added some watercolor; the fountain pen ink (Skrip cartridge) isn't permanent so you get blurry lines, while the lines drawn with the Lamy and Noodler's Lexington Gray ink retain their crispness. I don't think it's a case of either/or - they're both nice, just different -- do you have a preference?
On another artist's website I read that you can mix inks in an empty fountain pen cartridge to get the color you want -- a great idea that had certainly never occured to me. I'm not going to be putting permanent inks in the valuable pen, though.
Spaking of permanent inks: this bottle of Yasutomo sumi ink, in its characteristic "jade green" container, is one I've had for ages. The most meta thing to do would have been to draw another sketch using a dip pen and the sumi ink...but that's a bit too obsessive, even for me!