The Pittsburgh Symphony

Last Friday night, under the threat of snow and ice, D.J. and I drove Downtown to attend the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra perform Stravinsky’s The Firebird, along with a flute concerto by Jacques Ibert.

I don’t know music. I know the names of instruments (most of them, most of the time), and I can recognize the names of the most famous classical composers. I could once read the notes floating across rows of parallel straight lines, interpret them in my own crude, slow way. I appreciate how music sounds, and I know when something displeases my ears. But I can’t listen to Mozart and Bach and tell you which is which. It’s been years (decades, really) since I’ve held an instrument, years since I attempted to make sense of those black dots with little flags.

So when we go to the Symphony, I find other ways of understanding.

First, there is the richness of Heinz hall, the crystal light scones sparkling with light. Then the sea of black-clad bodies on the stage warming up with their instruments, their notes discordant and scattered. When the lights dim and the conductor takes the stage, the chaos settles into harmony. The musicians sit, and the uniform blackness of their formal wear resolves into textures and shapes: a violinist in a crushed velvet skirt, another in a long dress with flowing sheer sleeves. Some dresses are a deeper black than others, some hang heavy on the wearer, some light and airy. Even the men’s tuxedos are different cuts and styles, some more traditional, some sharply modern.

The conductor, Juanjo Mena, holds up his baton, and everyone in the hall takes a breath, waiting. The music begins, and suddenly dozens of bodies move together. It’s easy to forget how physical music is when you only listen to recordings. The musicians lean in to their violins and clarinets and trombones, using their breath and their arms and their cores to coax that exact sound, at that exact pitch and tone, from their instruments. Together they weave a dream out of sound, something completely intangible but still distinctly felt in my body.

When flute soloist Lorna McGhee enters the stage, she creates sounds with the flute I did not know were possible. She takes the music high, low, soft, softer still, then rushing and tumbling. Her breath is audible, a powerful inhalation transformed into music that races around the hall, as if the notes are chasing each other. We aren’t close to the stage, but even from a distance I can see the muscles in her arms contract as she moves her fingers up and down the flute. Her body sways, setting her purple grown rippling. It is clear she feels the music deep in her soul, and although I don’t have a language to describe what I hear, she makes me feel it, too.

This is what flying must feel like to birds.

At the end of the concert, when the ordinary shuffle of shoes on carpet overtakes the last lingering musical vibrations, we rise from our seats, renewed. The world is ugly, yes, but it is also beautiful and surprising. I don’t know music, but I know art, and art exists beyond language. That, at least, I understand.

 

Punk Rock Gardner

Johnny Jump Ups

Johnny Jump Ups remind me of gardening with my mother as a kid.

Working in the garden is meditative. There’s the endless pulling of weeds, checking vegetables and flowers for signs of insect infestation or fungal infection, repairing damage done by small animals or the weather, pulling more weeds.

I like the physicality of these tasks: the strain in my back and shoulders, the flexing of muscles, the slight soreness the next day when I try to do too much in one go. I would be happy to do this work in silence, with only the local birds as accompaniment, but this is often not possible.

Shelling peas

Shelling peas climbing a trellis.

My neighbor likes to blast country music from the backyard of his boarded-up house (why he decided to board up the windows I can only imagine). It’s not that I hate country music–indeed, I grew up listening to it–but it feels like the wrong sort of background for what I’m doing.

So I listen to punk rock, lots of Bad Religion, some obscure Japanese stuff, The Interrupters, Flogging Molly, multiple girl bands with “Betty” in the name. This too may seem incongruous, but growing my own food sometimes feels like an act of rebellion against agribusiness and companies like Monsanto who’d rather I spend my garden money on pesticides and grass fertilizers. Punk is nothing if not one long, loud, scream of rebellion.

A white peony.

The first peony of the spring. They smell wonderful.

Bad Religion has one song in particular that I listen to over and over again. “Kyoto Now,” off their album The Process of Belief, pleads with the listener to stop denying climate change and environmental destruction and take action now to save this ball of earth and water and gas that we call home.

I didn’t start off with the intention of listening to only punk while I garden, but that’s the music I find myself turning to more and more these days, and now it’s become A Thing–even when my neighbor isn’t blasting country music, I still put in my earbuds and crank the volume just high enough that I can lose myself in the noise and the work.

This act of listening to punk while I garden is my meditation on cultivation, destruction, and the intersection of the two. It is my meditation on the mundane and why the mundane is magical and worth saving. It is my meditation on power and abuse and resistance. It is my meditation on how to save the world, one tomato at a time.

Jazz! Poetry! Jazz Poetry 2015!

Instead of my normal #FridayReads post, I thought I’d do a run-down of one of my favorite annual Pittsburgh events: City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Jazz Poetry Concert.

This is a concert that gathers some of the top jazz musicians and top poets and writers from around the world and brings them together for a unique collaboration.

I always, always, always come away from this event with a new favorite band or musician and writers that I can no longer live without.

The Vijay Iyer Trio played this year, and let me tell you, I am smitten. Head over heels falling in love.

Here’s why:

I know, right?

And then we had the poetry. This year COA went above and beyond and combined not only music and words, but graphics and sign language as well. Amanda Fadigan performed a Heather McHugh poem in ASL, and it was beautiful.

Like this:

For the first time, I believe, the event featured a graphic novelist. Seeing the actual panels of the graphic novel while the author read in her native language and someone else read the translation was a multi-layered experience. I’d love to watch that reading again so I can parse more meaning from it.

That’s another thing about Jazz Poetry. You get to hear literature in many languages (and this year, see one in sign language!). Hearing the original, what it sounds like, is a different kind of music, and one I enjoy greatly.

And then, of course, there’s the finale: