Listeners' delight: Ten writers choose their "desert island disks".
I've been listening to Emmylou Harris for 25 years now. Her first album caught me on the highway of life just as I'd hit a slick curve of transition and reconfiguration, the realization that nearly everything about my life was about to change, and into this skid Emmylou came singing.
How would you feel if the world was falling apart all around you Pieces of the sky were falling in your neighbor's yard But not on you?
I was hooked.
The thing is, there's so much to love about Emmylou. The voice, of course-- raspy and slightly broken, always snagging on whatever burr of sorrow there might be in a song, always giving the broken heart its full due. On a road trip last year, in a perfectly jolly mood, I first heard her duet with John Pine-
When all your loves have ended, when all your friends have gone
who'll be around to love you, after your loves are gone?
Only a fool would do it
after the way you've done.
But how many fools would have you?
I know one.
-and burst into tears behind the wheel.
There are all the great songs she's sung. "Too Far Gone." "Hello Stranger." "Together Again." Her cover of Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece." Of Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell," And most improbably, her fabulous cover of Edith Piaf's "Je ne regrerte rien."
Then there's the way she looks--those slinky cowgirl boots, the (now silver) mane of hair, that skinny girl with a big guitar vulnerability. I thought she did this all on her own until I read in a recent New York Times Magazine profile that for years she has employed a "personal image stylist" named Rique (which didn't make me think less of her, only to consider that what might be missing from my life is a personal image stylist).
In addition to talent and looks and her signature embrace of a lyric, Emmylou has always been a class act. Modest and generous, she has sung with nearly everyone (the Times article says she has done 283 backup turns in her career)--her great mentor/soul mate Gram Parsons, close friends like Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. Country greats from Roy Acuff to Johnny Cash. Pop legends like Roy Orbison, Don Everly and Bonnie Raitt. Aside from her solo talent, Emmylou is arguably the greatest backup and duet singer in American music.
She has never put on the brakes and hid behind her greatest hits, or defaulted into the new blanderized Top 40 country. She hasn't done an Ab Buster infomercial or peddled her own line of fringed shirts on QVC. Rather she has moved into the forefront of. "alternative country," always experimenting, and now, with her new album Red Dirt Girl, singing her own material, but also always looking over her shoulder to a time when "country" actually was a rural music form.
If I hit any more bumps along the way, I only hope Emmylou is still hanging around the microphone to sing me through them.
Carol Anshaw, author of Aquamarine and Seven Moves, is at work on a new novel, Canasta.
Dolores Keane: Turning yearning into power
When I tackled the all-important issue of how to organize my CDs, I made the conservative decision to go alphabetical, with three exceptions--I devoted a special section to my three all-time favorite singer-musicians, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen. Now I'm adding someone else to the group: the Irish singer-musician Dolores Keane. I first came across her glorious voice on the classic album of Irish women singers,. A Woman's Heart, which also features Maura O'Connell, Mary Black, Sharon Shannon and Frances Black. (If you don't have this CD, or its follow-up A Woman's Heart 2, I urge you to get them both: you'll find a wonderful introduction to contemporary Irish women's music.) Keane has two songs on A Woman's Heart, both, gutsy, powerful and unusual love songs. "Caledonia" is a song of yearning for a lost homeland ("Let me tell you that I love you/That I think about you all the time"), while "The Island" turns yearning into power ("I want to take you ,to the island/ Trace your footsteps in the sand").
Dolores Keane's roots are in Irish traditional music: she grew up in County Galway and began recording at the age of five; she went on to become one of the founding members of De Danaan before she embarked on her solo career in the 1980s. After I became a fan I tracked down her earliest recordings, and found a treasure in Farewell to Eirinn: Music and Songs of Emigration ration from Ireland to America (1981). These are ballads that came out of the Famine and the resulting emigration, during which time Ireland lost a quarter of its population.
Unlike Frank McCourt's much-celebrated memoir Angela's Ashes, which connects emigration to America with unqualified rebirth, the songs Keane chooses--like "The Kilnamartyr Emigrant" and "Edward Conners"--make clear the trauma of loss Famine emigrants also endured: "I am a lonely exile, that left my own dear nation/ To seek a situation in the land beyond the foam/And for years I am a stranger/From my own dear Irish home." The endnotes, written by Dolores Keane and her husband John Faulkner, make it clear that her homage to the past is political and cultural as well as musical. All of my great-grandparents emigrated to American during the Famine years, and I've long suspected that such loss and trauma gets passed down over generations. None of my great-grandparents left any written records of their story, and Dolores Keane's music is helping me to understand what the silences in my own family are saying.
Keane's later albums--Lion in a Cage, Solid Ground, Dolores Keane, The Best of Dolores Keane--provide a satisfying mix of traditional folk ballads and contemporary music, intertwining songs like "Aragon Mill" and "May Morning Dew" with "Heart Like a Wheel" and "Lili Marlene." It's hard to describe the depth and range of her voice, but it gives authenticity and passion to everything she sings. I've never seen her perform but I'm tracking her tour schedule on her website (www. doloreskeane.com). The web site is excellent, by the way, and will introduce you to Keane's story and music; there's a biography, a discography, links to other sites, and--best of all--two songs for listening ("Lion in a Cage" and "Galway Bay"). Right now Keane is taking a rest from the road, but the next time she comes to the States I'm going to be there. Meanwhile I'll add her newest recording, Night Owl, to. my special Dolores Keane shelf.
Sharon O'Brien is writing Beyond Silence: A Family Memoir.
Embarrassment of riches
When someone asked my sister, Carolyn, what our parents' greatest gift to us was, her on-target, nanosecond reply was... "an appreciation of music." My father owned an extraordinary collection of 78 rpm records, most of them jazz, blues, popular singers. He also had some very early 16-inch wax discs recorded by Caruso and Sigmund Romberg, and other turn-of-the-century operatic, light-operatic and classical piano pieces. Then there were several sets of records of complete Broadway shows. My favorite pastime when I was very young was to dance around the apartment to Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat major, played by Jose Iturbi. I grew older and loved to hear Sarah Vaughan and her "Tenderly" until I accidentally sat on the 78, which occasioned the first time I ever saw my father cry.
While there was no religious music at home, short of The Messiah, every Sunday there was the most glorious music from our Episcopal church, and I would not be disingenuous if I were to say that my favorite musician was a brilliant organist and wonderful woman named Gwendolyn Carter, whose weekly, passion-filled rendering of "Jesu, Joy of, Man's Desiring" tore at my sister's heart and mine and made us both Bach fanatics for life. Gutbucket blues, smoothed-out Chicago blues, big bands alone and with female and male singers, the piano men and occasional women, Gershwin, Brahms, Ellingron, Chopin, Bach, Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, Count Basie, Artur Rubenstein, Mahalia Jackson, Barbara Cook, and on and on.
Depending on the moment, the day, my pulse, colors of the sky, my dog's gait, a memory of love or of hate, the name of my favorite musician changes. It's Leonard Bernstein at the podium or the piano, or at both doing Mahler, Beethoven, Copeland, "On the Town." His conducting and piano playing in "Rhapsody in Blue" with the New York Philharmonic simply kills anybody else's because it is in turns bluesy and energetic, Jewish and African American and Anglo. Or, it is the whimsy and frenetic pace of his Overture to Candide that demands a pause, a smile and a sigh, no matter how bizarre the day.
It's Sarah Vaughan, that vocal chameleon, a jazz singer, an opera singer, a blues singer--mad, flirting, giggling, signifying--the accomplished pianist making her voice the best instrument in the band. There is some woman out there, who, in 1982, couldn't contain a deep scream after Sarah sang "Someone to Watch Over Me" with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It is a scream of surrender at the reality of Eros, of longing, of loss, of joy, of poetry and of mathematics. Listen to Nadia Sonnenberg-Salerno playing anything on the violin and the same scream will part your lips; her "Embraceable You" brings me to the brink of a faint every time I hear it. It's in the left hand of Errol Garner, making virile rhythmic symphonies of bass lines, as his right band improvises on the melody with a startling lyrical and breezy touch, his "California, Here I Come" embodying the myriad dreams of all who've gone there hoping, wanting. It's Kiri Te Kanawa singing Verdi; Edwin Hawkins' Gospel cries; Gladys Knight's legatos; Aretha Franklin's man-loving crescendos; Billy Eckstine's woman-talking tremolos; Randy Newman's brilliant satirical lyrics wrapped in delicious descending fourths; Bill Evans' chords, Thelonius Monk's chords; Marian McPartland's chords, James Taylor's chords and Ella Fitzgerald's everything.
That's today, another list waits tomorrow.
Gayle Pemberton teaches at Wesleyan University, writes essays, is a pretty good singer and a terrible guitarist.
Solace, inspiration and relief
Somewhere between Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell, I found solace, inspiration and relief from self-inflicted, self-indulgent torture. I was a troubled adolescent like any girl--well, almost any girl in junior high or high school when all that was taken to be "normal" was outside my realm, outside my reach. Joan sang against war, for peace, about a Saigon bride and the lady who came from Baltimore, and I was enamored of this woman who sang to women. As if lovers. As Joan revered Mexicans and her Mexican father, I felt linked to something bigger out there where people marched unabashed and proud, whether farm workers or queers.
I was thirteen and Vietnam was happening to the boys my sisters dated, but me, I had crushes on women with guitars, and when Linda resounded about traveling "to the beat of a different drum" and refusing the boy who wants "to love only me," I decided to dodge boys who pursued me through hallways. Although ambiguous, the lyrics helped me claim my independence as I inverted meanings and decided: why not take a leap and express desire for someone or something other than that which was expected in 1970, a year after Stonewall.
Years later, Linda sang her father's songs, and I played them for my father and my mother and they recognized their own youth through those canciones, but I'm the one who heard Linda crooning, "Mariquita, dame un beso, give me a kiss," and, titillated, I sang along with Linda to "Mariquita," demanding my kiss. I had already drunk "a case of you" with Joni, who cried out, "I knew a woman she had a mouth like yours" and I had already kissed my college English professor--her mouth unlike any mouth I'd kissed up to that moment of my short, short life. Joni followed me through college and as a postgraduate I took Hejira with me on travels through California, to Minnesota, Mexico City, Paris, Madrid, New York City and back to Mexico, back to Texas. The "refuge of the road" became my mantra.
But now, living in suburbia far from all those days of youth and tormented desires, I'm comforted by the "hissing of summer lawns" and an English professor (named Scarlett) who, like Joni's "shades of Scarlett conquering," assures me that "a woman must have everything." She soothes me at midlife as Joni reminds me yet again that "something's lost but something's gained in living every day." I don't know where Joan might be but I still put on "Diamonds and Rust" to muster memories. And Linda, well, Linda is up the road in Tucson, I think, and if I'm lucky she'll fulfill a midlife fantasy and sing "Las Mananitas" for my fiftieth birthday. That's in four years, Linda.
Emma Perez teaches history at the University of Texas at El Paso, and is the author of a novel, Gulf Dreams, and The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History.
Cesaria Evora: The barefoot diva
What could be better music for a desert island than music from all-but-desert islands? The Cabo Verde islands--windswept, eroded rocks severely short on water and natural resources flung into the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and Brazil--are the home of "the barefoot diva" Cesaria Evora, one of the great voices of our time. It is a surprising voice: very low (she would definitely sing tenor in her church choir), but with a resonant timbre that lets you know right away a woman is singing. Cesaria Evora's voice is often described as "warm" and "smoky," appropriate for the music she sings and the way she sings it.
Even though Cesaria now lives in Paris or Los Angeles, she still sings about Cabo Verde in the musical forms of the islands: morna, coladera, batuque, funan, music that merges Afro-Brazilian rhythms with the stately desperation of the fado traditions brought by the Portuguese. Great fado singers, like the incomparable Amalia Rodrigues who died just last year, celebrate the irony of the "fate" that controls our lives with an unbearable justice. Cesaria's slow, sad marnas echo this mood, as in the opening song from her 1999 album, Cafe Atlantico.
E sonho di nha esperanca
Qui ja confessa-me
Qu'ma bo amor
Era falso, o for
Is the dream of a hope
That confessed to me
That your love
Was false, o flower.
Fado and morna share a repeated vocabulary: coracao (that interior island, the heart), sodade (loneliness, solitude, nostalgia). In a song from her 1997 album Cabo Verde (thought by many to be her best collection to date), Cesaria sings:
Mar e morada de sodade
El ta separa-no pa terra longe
El ta separa-no d'nos mae, nos amigo
Sem certeza di torna encontra
The sea is the dwelling place of sodade,
It separates us from far away land
It separates us from our mother, our friend,
With no certainty we'll see them again.
It is all so familiar. Here are songs that somehow know how my heart, too, is all alone in the great sea. How does she know that about me?
I have never heard Cesaria Evora sing in person. Even so, I fantasize about how I will see her. Cesaria will be comfy onstage, barefoot, in loose skirts, pulling on her signature cigar and glass of brandy between pieces. She will sing right to me, about one thing women know:
Mae velha mostra nos
Munde e fete pa vive
Tamben ele e fete pa morre
Pa ama e sofre
The old mother shows us
The world is made for living
It's also made for dying,
For loving, and for suffering.
E. Ann Matter teaches a course at the University of Pennsylvania on music in the history of Christianity, but is also a long time aficionada of thoroughly secular music.
Fanny Mendelssohn: Gifted sister
She lives in me with a kind of austerity, a shimmering, mysterious ever-presence. I count her among those who are never far off, who exist just beyond the peripheries of first consciousness. I locate her in strands of melody, complex harmonics, emotional resonances, vibrations, charged particles in the dark--soul sorrow. Her prodigious talent, her thorough training in counterpoint, her exposure to the very best of teachers--her skills as a child overshadowing her brother. What it must have been like for her--to have had absolutely everything at her disposal... Goethe called her Felix's "equally gifted sister."
She hands me her melancholy and resilient directives. As she drifts into darkened self-doubt and back again. A talent that is not tentative but is made so by time and place and circumstance.
"Perhaps music will be Felix's profession, "wrote her father in 1820, "but for you it can and must be but an ornament..."
Nor could Felix offer his support. "From my knowledge of Fanny I should say she has neither the inclination nor the vocation for authorship. She is too much a woman for this. She manages her home and neither thinks of the public, nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her primary duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot give my approval of it."
I look out on the winter landscape, having wheeled the girl baby I find myself with now, down to the place where we listen to water and back--and she is there suddenly, in the motion of the clouds, in the birds that have failed to migrate, in the half light. In the wind I recognize a gorgeous harmonic that was hers, and I look at my daughter and I will hope that things have changed as much as we believe they have. These truncated motives--worked through as much as possible, given everything--small progress, amongst loving brothers, and so much silence. "When one never encounters either objective criticism or goodwill, one eventually loses the critical sense needed to judge one's work, while at the same time losing the wish to create it." I hear some of her Gartenlieder as we make our way home, or "Dusk Descended from Above." And "Bergeslust," composed the day before her sudden death.
Carole Maso is the author of seven books, most recently The Room Lit by Roses: a Journal of Pregnancy and Birth.
Magicians of soul
How to say, as succinctly as possible, what I need to say about the music I listen to? First, I need to listen to music almost all the time, more and more so as I grow older instead of TV, radio or news in any form. I am particularly inclined toward vocals of various kinds. Everything in the world Nina Simone has ever sung has been a long-time favorite, particularly her own "The Backlash Blues," "The King is Dead," "Ne Me Quitte Pas," "Four Women" and "Mississippi Goddamn," as well as "Pirate Jenny" from The Three Penny Opera, Randy Newman's "Baltimore." Now and then when I feel the urge to listen to something else, my first inclination is toward that other great magician of soul--Aretha Franklin.
In recent decades, I've tended toward Aretha's early jazzy years with Columbia, available in the following compilations: Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington by Aretha Franklin; Aretha Franklin, Jazz to Soul (Columbia/Legacy, 1992) and Aretha Franklin: The Early Years (Columbia, 1997). After all these years I am still mad about her great gospel collection Amazing Grace (Atlantic, 1972). Of her work in R&B my particular favorite is Aretha Live at Fillmore West (Rhino, 1971), in which she peaks with a precious duet with the great Ray Charles that came close to being suppressed.
Among other old favorite standbys are Etta James' Time After Time (Private Music, 1995), which is all enchantment, especially her "My Funny Valentine"; Dinah Washington's Blue Gardenia: Songs of Love, Sarah Vaughan, Live in Japan (Mainstream Records, 1973), in particular her "My Funny Valentine" and "Like Someone in Love."
On a slightly different note, I like Sweet Honey in the Rock's a cappella style, a relatively recent discovery for me, perhaps best represented to the newcomer by Still on the Journey, The 20th Anniversary Album. Of the younger set in this folk/rock black feminist vein, my particular favorites are Toshi Reagon's The Rejected Stone and The Righteous Ones and Me'Shell Ndegeocello's tour-deforce in the take-no-prisoners Bitter.
I've been rounding out my listening in these gloomy days before the election with D'Angelo's Voodoo, which is best enjoyed on a headset since it is more like somebody whispering in your ear; Leontyne Price singing in Porgy and Bess, Maria Callas in Bizet's Carmen; Mitsuko Uchida playing Franz Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat, D.960, and Three Klavierstucke, D.946 (Philips, 1998); Coleman Hawkin's Jazz Masters 34 (Verve compilation, 1994), with his masterpiece "Body and Soul" leading the program; and my soul mate The Amazing Bud Powell (Blue Note compilation, 1987). I rely upon Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins and Howling Wolf quite a lot, too.
Michele Wallace, who teaches at the City College of New York, is the author of Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman.
Maybelle Carter: A richness from Poor Valley
Anyone mystified by the complexities of Southern womanhood might be enlightened by listening to Mother Maybelle Carter's contribution to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 triple album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Carter is the only lead performer on that project who is female--in fact, except for a couple of female background singers, she is the only woman period included in what some critics consider the best country music album ever recorded. Surrounded by the members of the Dirt Band, along with Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, Junior Huskey and other old-time bluegrass maestros and Grand Ole Opry musicians, the 62-year-old Carter contributed new versions of three signature songs-"Wildwood Flower," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and "Keep on the Sunny Side."
Now, there are many excellent recordings of the Carter Family with whom Maybelle sang during the 1930s and 40s, as well as recordings of her reconstituted Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters group in the 1950s and '60s. On those discs, you can probably get a better idea of her innovative guitar picking--Mother Maybelle style or the Carter scratch, it's still called--and the spine-tickling delights of her harmonizing ability. But these are musical portraits of a woman in relation to others, a woman defining herself in the circle of family, a woman still constrained by the early and middle years, enmeshed in the received scripts of daughter and mother that dominate the majority of so many women's lives. It is only on this late album--she died six years later--that you can hear the woman laid bare; the woman at the end of her life; the woman who's survived without being crushed; the woman who played that big-ass Gibson L-5 guitar with her name gaudily applied to the side; the woman who rode to her first recor ding session laid out in the back of a Model A Ford, seven months pregnant; the woman who once lived in a place called Poor Valley, Virginia.
The jagged loneliness at the center of an impoverished Southern woman's soul is what I hear in the voice of Maybelle Carter. In it, I find myself tying to overcome the poverty I was born into. And in it, I revisit my paternal grandmother, a contemporary of Maybelle, whose own hard life was nourished and refreshed by Carter's music. I hear Maybelle's still-supple gospel alto, simultaneously grave and full of promise, and I'm smack dab in the middle of all the women who preceded me, their difficult lives, their relentless poverty, and their stubborn refusal to be finished off by it all, or defined, ultimately, by what they failed to acquire. The voice of Maybelle Carter in old age gives me all that, so, of course, this album is irreplaceable for me.
It might be hard to choose one and only one book I'd carry along to a desert isle. But there's no doubt in my mind that my music would be these three cuts by Maybelle Carter. Otherwise, how would I survive?
Poet Kate Daniels grew up in Virginia and now teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Photo of Maybelle Carter courtesy of www.thecartersisters.com
Nina Simone: Forbidden whiskey
Am I only indulging my middle-aged imagination as I sit down at long last to a brand-new stereo system and push in a new compact disc, The Essential Nina Simone? Or is this memory real? Real as flesh and blood?
Nina, Nina, where you been for so long?
Thirty-five years ago you were right there in that dormitory room, seducing us, scaring the hell out of us, leaving us limp in our baby-doll pajamas and pink foam hair-rollers as we sprawled on the floor, resigned to that lily-white Methodist girls' school in Macon, Georgia, where we were expected to be ladies at all times, no liquor allowed within a fifty-mile radius of campus, and if, beyond that, we sipped champagne at a wedding or chugga-lugged Budweiser in a cheap motel in Americus, we had to wait twelve hours before returning to the fold.
You saboteur, who unlocked those iron gates and let you in? My fast friend from Atlanta, that's who, holding your record aloft in the hall like a fifth of forbidden whiskey, inviting us into her room around midnight to get drunk on your voice.
No endless hands of bridge that night, no gossip about who went how far with whomever. We turned off the lights, lit our cigarettes, switched you on, and, just like that, we were hooked. We sank into the eroticism of "Wild As the Wind," we shivered at Pirate Jenny's delicious vengefulness. We even threw ourselves into "Mississippi Goddamn," singing out each Southern state with girlish defiance. We were yours, Nina. You put a spell on us big-time!
But it didn't last. When the record was over, we walked out of that room and into our lives, Southern ladies in spire of ourselves, even though we had fought the good fight against being belles with every sneer and smoke-ring curling out of our mouths.
No, it didn't last. How could it? But here I sit, not having smoked a cigarette in years, no whiskey anywhere in the house; waiting for your voice to come back to me through the speakers, and when it does, I still go limp, letting it take me where it will in its own sweet time, swelling up and around me, no past, no future, just Nina filling up every pore and corpuscle.
Listening, I become all cellular memory now, feeling blood pound my head, breath fill my lungs. Yes, I still know these songs by heart. They surge like a groundswell of black Southern dirt in my chest, and yes, I still love to sing along with you, Nina, but now, after all these years, I want something more. I want to feel my own voice throbbing, its blood and gristle, its every grain of sand beneath my soles. I want to sing my own deep-down song back to you.
Someday, Nina, I will.
Poet Kathryn Stripling Byer is a native of Georgia who lives in Cullowhee, North Carolina.
Meredith Monk: From the archaic to the postmodern
I first heard Meredith Monk's music when my college roommate from Oberlin, Nurit Tilles, a concert pianist and composer in New York, joined Monk's ensemble fifteen years ago. Although I never got to a performance while Nurit was in the ensemble, I have never forgotten the magic of sitting in her tiny East Village apartment (most of which was taken up by her grand piano) and listening to Monk's The Book of Days for the first time. I had the powerfully ethereal response to her music that I still feel to this day. There was something about the bridging of the archaic and postmodern that I found hauntingly resonant. I felt called to something greater than my life, drawn to places other than what can be found on this planet--at least, on this plane of reality.
Hearing the eerie tones and lucid vocals of her music, I journey imaginatively, fascinated with the combinations of sounds that she brings together melodically and atonally. Sometimes I float between times and places. Sometimes, as with Do/men Music, I am pulled up short by a sudden playfulness: words will be juxtaposed, for example, with expressive but nonverbal sounds, the notes repeating. Words or a phrase will surface as part of the material that goes into the composition, part of the aural texture and layering of sounds that Monk explores. Her work is abstract without being emptied of content or emotion. I've been trying to explore this in poetry, and am inspired by the multiple fields of risky innovation I perceive in her music.
Her opera epic, Atlas, seems to be (I have never seen it performed) more narrative than most of her work. It is a scenic series, telling the story of a female explorer from girlhood to womanhood. But although based on the life of an actual explorer, the story is fantastic, more fable than biopera. The girl chooses several companions for her exploratory journeys. They meet (spirit) guides who are allies, beautiful demons who are obstacles, and are challenged by temptation and corruption in the material world. At last, they reach enlightenment and transcend their bodies (or in another reading, the journey turns out to be an allegory for the internal--the soul's journey). But whether real or symbolic, it is, strikingly, a shamanic journey as opera (and vice versa).
A couple of features in this opera leap out for a feminist audience. As the story of a journey, the plot is a version of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, except that its main character is a heroine, not a hero. As an opera, it is radically counter-traditional--specifically, there's no romantic interest for the heroine (some man who will, as often as not, kill her for love). The heroine survives to seek wisdom along with her companions. And Monk disperses the focus of interest among the explorers, rather than centering it on the heroine throughout the opera. There are no arias: the voices individuate, blend and interweave. I appreciate, too, that' the cast is, like Monk's ensemble, notably diverse.
Not understanding technically what I'm hearing, I respond associatively and appreciate Monk at an emotional level. My response translates into fragments of word-images, memories and sometimes brief, fantastic narratives of my own. I lose sense of a meaning-making order. I feel that I'm either in the distant past or equally distant future. Not here. Not me--the mundane me, that is. I am moved myself to write and to dance. Even to sing (I can't sing and yet I sing). Sacra Mystica.
Poet Cynthia Hogue has lived and taught in Iceland, Arizona, New Orleans and New York, and now teaches at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.