Category Archives: music

Mamma and The Messiah: An Alzheimer’s Tale of Music Weaving the World Back Together

 

MAMMA AND ME RESIZED
“There’s one and there’s two and there’s three, and it just seems like they don’t go together.”—my mother on what it feels like to have Alzheimer’s

My mother grew up loving music in Hayes, a village of 200 in the farmed prairies of southwest Louisiana. Her grandmother, Sadie, would sing folk songs and hymns while playing her piano, guitar, or “mouth harp.” It was she who imparted the joys of music to my mother as a child. I remember Grandma Sadie telling me that when she felt a little down, she would sing a song to chase the blues away. My mother must have experienced a similar pleasure, for under Grandma Sadie’s tutelage, she began playing piano—anything she could find, from boogie-woogie to Beethoven.
As a late teen, she brushed aside her mother’s advice to become a “businesswoman” (that is, to learn the typically female skills of typing and stenography). Instead, she decided to attend college in Lafayette, Louisiana, to earn a Bachelor of Music Education degree. She went on to teach private piano lessons and chorus in Lafayette schools for the rest of her working life.
Seven years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Now 84 years old, she lives in the dementia ward of a nursing home.
Calling her from my home in Toronto for our phone chats, I’ve recently noticed a decline in her cognitive abilities after several years of relative stability. The disease is again on the rampage, and her neurons are rapidly withering away. Once linguistically talented, commanding an impressive vocabulary and gifted with an eloquent style of writing and speaking, my mother now struggles with the simple connection of one thought to another, and with the relationship between subject and verb. Such links are blurred by that terrible fog that has invaded her brain, virtually obliterating her short-term memory.
Realizing that I might have one last window of opportunity to visit her while she could still recognize me, I arranged to travel from Toronto to Lafayette. During the fifteen-hour trip, I’d hoped to do some reading and writing. But my mind was elsewhere as I wondered what to expect of her current physical and mental condition. Would talking in person be different from talking on the phone? She always recognized my voice on the phone, sometimes saying, “You always sound just like yourself!” Would she be less likely to recognize me in person?
Also, I had a certain routine during our twenty-minute chats. Because the disease—for a time, anyway—leaves older memories relatively intact, I’d often reminisce with her about her younger years. The conversation was by necessity rather one-sided. I’d punctuate my descriptions of events with questions: “Mamma, do you remember your mamma and daddy scrimping and saving during the Great Depression?” “Do you remember the little four-room schoolhouse where you went to elementary school?” If a two-sided conversation were not a realistic possibility, what else could we do to pass the hours?
Exhausted from traveling, I spent the first night with a relative. The next day I entered the nursing home and was given the combination for the door to the secure dementia ward. Although knowing that she was in a locked area was heartbreaking, I understood how important it was. Family lore told of a great-aunt with dementia who in her confusion had wandered off into the woods and, unable to be found by her worried family, died of exposure.
I spotted her sitting in a wheelchair in a lounge area, head bowed, eyes closed. I pushed back the tears and said, “Hi, Mamma, it’s Camille!” She looked up and soon her eyes lit up. Relieved that she recognized me, I helped her up and we slowly made our way to her room. Her gait is now a stiff shuffle: Alzheimer’s is destroying her motor skills and muscle tone as well as her cognitive abilities. I know that before long she’ll be confined to a wheelchair.
As we chatted, I sensed her awareness of her decline. Sometimes she’d try to describe what her confusion felt like—to know what she wants to say but to be unable to muster the words to say it. Once, attempting to express an idea, she said, “There’s one and there’s two and there’s three, and it just seems like they don’t go together.” She gestured with her hands as if trying to make the three things cohere. Although the original idea had vanished, she was able to articulate her frustration at the lack of associative threads that relate one thought to another.
The connections that our brains make, that give the world a degree of comforting coherence, are now all but lost to her. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. And this stage of the disease is especially cruel, as she knows that she doesn’t know, and she feels sad and even apologetic that she’s no longer able to hold her own in a conversation. This once fiercely independent and intelligent woman now has to cope with the knowledge of her own deterioration. I did my best to ease her mind that all that mattered was our enjoyment of our time together. However, any distress that she felt quickly faded from her memory: a mixed blessing.
I hunted for photographs that might spur some memories and found some in a drawer. We spent much of our time that first day looking at them and reminiscing about things like family vacations: “Mamma, do you remember the time you and Daddy took us hiking in the Rocky Mountains?” “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed. I described the mountains: the uphill trails, the tree-line where the tundra began, the glaciers, the panoramic views from a peak. We looked at pictures of the Rockies that I found in a magazine, giving her visual pleasure as well as reviving distant memories still protected from the ravages of the disease.
Sometimes Alzheimer’s patients confabulate—they pretend to remember something in order to mask the disease. But when my mother claimed to remember an event or person, I believed her. After all, if she didn’t remember something, she didn’t hesitate to tell me so. When she did remember, sometimes she’d say, pleasantly surprised, “I haven’t thought about that in a long time!” or “I would never have thought of that if you hadn’t brought it up!”
The second night, I was restless, unable to sleep. I sat, paced, made herbal tea, and wept. My mother was effectively dying. And in its later stages, Alzheimer’s is a living death. The body still functions well enough to stay alive, but the lights of personhood are extinguished. I had known for a long time that this would be the case, but now her decline seemed precipitous, and I felt a heavy sadness seeing her in this diminished state. I rummaged around the bathroom and found some Sudafed tablets to clear my sinuses and hoped that they’d also knock me out so I could sleep.
The next day, with the blessing of the nursing home, I decided to move in with my mother. I could sleep on the sofa in her room, and $6 a day would buy me lunch and dinner in the patient’s cafeteria. I was determined to spend as much time with her as possible and felt hopeful that somehow we’d find a way to enjoy our stay together.
A turning point in the visit occurred when I found a cd player in a dresser drawer. Over the years, I’d given her cds of her favourite music—mostly Baroque and Classical—and these I located on a shelf. I made a selection that I thought she’d enjoy.
First I played Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, a concerto for violin and viola, which I knew had a sweet and gentle sound. Her eyes closed as she swayed back and forth in her rocking chair. In the middle of the concerto, unsure whether she was really enjoying the music, I asked her if I should turn it off. As eyes opened and her brows furrowed, she said, “Oh, no!” and then her eyes slowly closed again. I knew she was completely engrossed.
I was discovering that classical music, a bond that we had always shared, could once more bring us together in blissful silence. She knew that I was present, but no words were needed.
Next I suggested playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a set of preludes and fugues for keyboard. She responded, “Don’t you mean “Well-Tempered Clavichord?” I was surprised that she remembered that alternative title. When the first prelude began, suddenly an invisible keyboard seemed to materialize before her. Her fingers fluttered along it as if she were performing the piece. When it ended, she looked at me and said, “I haven’t done that in a long time!”
I was especially happy to find the cd of Handel’s Messiah that I’d sent her. I knew that in college, she’d sung alto in a chorus that performed Handel’s masterwork celebrating the birth of Christ. I also remembered that during my childhood, every year before Christmas she’d retrieve her yellowing musical score, lower the needle onto her LP record, and sing her alto part to the jubilant waves of choral praise.
So one day while she was resting in bed, I asked her if she’d like to hear a cd of The Messiah. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh, yes!” As I prepared to play the cd, I started singing a few words in a particularly joyful moment in the piece: “And His name shall be called Wonderful! Counsellor!” She immediately joined in and sang the melody to the end of the phrase. It was a startling moment—not only did she recognize the title, but she was also able to remember a melody from it! When I played the cd, she closed her eyes with a peaceful glow on her face. Her toes betrayed her immersion in the music, wiggling to the rhythm in a way that showed me that she remembered the music intimately: left toes wiggling for the chorus and right toes for the solos.
She enjoyed music at bedtime, too. I found Mozart’s Flute Quartets, which have a gentle, soothing effect. Every night when I turned off the lights, I’d play the Flute Quartets, and we’d fall asleep listening to them.
During our visit, we spent many hours silently and blissfully listening to Bach, Mozart, Scarlatti, Handel, and Beethoven. It was an entirely different experience than trying to converse. When we chatted, I could sometimes sense her frustration when she’d begin a sentence only to halt and give up with a sigh of resignation: mid-sentence, she’d already forgotten what she was going to say. But there was never frustration with the music. It rolled through her being unhindered by the mists that now cloud her attempts to make sense of what has so drastically transformed her old age.
I wondered why that was so. Music is a kind of language, with its own syntax and vocabulary—melodies, harmonies, rhythms, dynamics, and so forth. As I observed her listening, eyes closed and toes tapping, I wondered whether the part of her brain that processes music had remained relatively unscathed by the scorched-earth path of her disease. Perhaps listening to music allows her to experience a degree of continuity through the syntax of music. She never interrupted the flow to ask, “What are we doing now?” or “What are we listening to?”—whereas in conversation she’d sometimes pause and ask who I was and where we were (and why). Thanks to music, she enjoys the connective threads weaving together time. Her life once again has continuity.
I know that as her once-considerable language talents decline and her motor skills and bodily functions deteriorate, the language of music will continue to communicate with her. She may be a shadow of her former self, but for the time being, music has the power to sweep away the mist and give her a feeling of joy in being alive and connected to the world.


Camille Martin

 

“Poetry, Art, Music—and the Gift of Synesthesia” (an image essay in Talking Writing)

A couple of years ago, Talking Writing published some poems of mine from Looms, a manuscript that has recently been published by Shearsman Books.

Martha Nichols, one of the editors, recently approached me about writing an illustrated essay about what it’s like to work in three disciplines: poetry, collage, and music.

I invite you to have a look at the resulting featured spread in Talking Writing and to explore the rest of the issue, which will be added to during the next few weeks.

Click the image below to view my collages and essay:


Camille Martin

Om Kalsoum: A rare live recording of the Nightingale of Egypt


          Years ago a friend slipped me a cassette of a young Om Kalsoum recorded live in what sounds like a cafe full of spontaneously appreciative audience members.
          I’ve never heard Kalsoum sound so secular and sexy. The sound quality of the recording isn’t that great, but who cares? Her voice is youthful, sultry and exquisite.
          I made a cd of the cassette (about 38 minutes long) and managed to create a .wav file—it’s pretty large, but available for the downloading here:

http://www.freefilehosting.net/omkhalsoum_1

          It grows in intensity, so it pays to listen to it to the end.

 


 

Camille Martin

Poetic Polyphony in Scott Thurston’s Internal Rhyme

Shearsman Books, 2010


          In a previous post on musicality in poetry, I discussed the translation of simultaneity in music into a comparable literary expression. By simultaneity in music I mean polyphony, the vertical dimension of notes on the staff: the notes in a chord sound simultaneously as do the voices in a fugue. In literature, polyphony can be suggested by the simultaneity of thoughts, dialogue, or action by characters, as in the eight voices of the fugue in Joyce’s Ulysses.
          Scott Thurston’s Internal Rhyme beautifully translates the melodic and harmonic dimensions of music into poetry. The spatial division of each poem into quadrants allows both a horizontal (melodic) and a vertical (harmonic) reading of the lines. The vertical resonates with the horizontal, and the dialogue between melody and harmony opens up the semantic field. To use another musical analogy, what emerges from this dialogue is harmonic overtones, the acoustic phenomenon that enriches the experience of music.
          Because the most startling aspect of this collection is its formal innovation, I’d like to focus on possible strategies for the reader. Here’s an example from Internal Rhyme:

                    what I give myself to            haunted by surface
                    a polished shine                    or cloudy patina
                    it takes art to maintain         a perpetual crisis
                    taking everything                  you have

                    I want to give                        my heart out
                    to your ideal world                in its tension
                    I have to wait                        for the memory
                    for the poem                          to make it right

          At first blush, the possibilities presented by the quadrants seemed to me a kind of combinatorics, a conceptual experiment that reminded me a little of Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, a series of ten sonnets whose interchangeable lines offer to the reader an almost inexhaustible series of permutations—to be mathematically precise, one hundred trillion sonnets can be generated from the conceptual machine of the ten original sonnets. Queneau’s Oulipian experiment stretches the limits of the readability of the set of ten sonnets in all of their permutations—an impossibly large number sonnets for the mortal reader to consume.
          In the case of Thurston’s quadrants, three obvious possibilities occurred to me: line-by-line (horizontally), left column-right column (vertically), and four vertical columns (left, right, left, right). But there was something disasatisfying about treating each of these readings equally, so I needed to find a more natural way to integrate the horizontal with the vertical. It occurred to me that treating the page as a musical score gave me a more rewarding entry into the intricacies suggested by the quadrants. In other words, I read the poem as horizontal (melodic) lines and allow my peripheral vision, so to speak, to note vertical (harmonic) configurations of three or four lines that enrich the reading, perhaps turning the poem on itself or opening up other semantic possibilities.
          First, my conscious mind gravitates toward a traditional line-by-line reading—partly from habit and partly because the syntactical flow of the poems in Internal Rhyme is most apparent that way. For example, in the above poem, although there’s no punctuation, my mind readily creates syntactical clusters and sentences from a horizontal reading.
          Note also the division into two equal parts that such a reading suggests: “what I give myself to” opens the first stanza, and “I want to give” opens the second. Metapoetically, the poem juxtaposes the poet’s experience and perception (what he gives himself to) with his translation of that experience into poetry (his desire to give himself over to the tension in the ideal world of the poem: the “perpetual crisis” that poetry sustains). The last two lines constitute the poem’s volta, in this case the condition upon which that translation into poetry is contingent: waiting for his memory of tension within his own experience.
          But the spatial division of the poem into quadrants compels me to notice the vertical possibilities as well. In the above poem, for example, a horizontal reading yields

              I have to wait / for the memory / for the poem / to make it right

whereas a vertical reading might yield

              I have to wait / for the poem / for the memory / to make it right

          Thus waiting for the memory of tension (in the previous reading) is aligned with waiting for the poem to emerge for the memory to “make it right.” The boundaries between experience, memory and poetic creation are thus nicely blurred into a riddle: is it unresolved memory that drives the poem into creation, or the poem’s creation that illuminates cognitive mysteries?
          Such an overlay of readings expands the poem exponentially as the mind picks up, consciously or subconsciously, variations in the configurations of lines. Reading the poems in this way allows me to blend the melodic and the harmonic dimensions to create a kind of polyphonic experience. To return to a musical analogy, the intricate texture of this overlay is like the harmonic overtones that enrich the experience of music.
          The analogies between music and poetry are ancient, and the innovative musicality of Internal Rhyme offers a richly legible and resonant kind of poetic polyphony.

* * *

From the Shearsman Books website:
Scott Thurston lectures at the University of Salford where he runs a Masters in Innovative and Experimental Creative Writing. He co-runs The Other Room reading series in Manchester, edits The Radiator, a little magazine of poetics, and co-edits The Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry with Robert Sheppard. He has published three collections with Shearsman.



Camille Martin

Songs from Sonnets (glitch fixed)

I’ve been composing song settings for some of the poems in Sonnets and wanted to share some of the results here. Below are the audiofiles with scores that I uploaded to YouTube.

The program that I used for the score and audio is MuseScore. The sound quality isn’t terribly subtle, but it gives a general idea. The songs are scored for soprano with piano accompaniment.

Have a listen!

“KATRINA, TUNDRA”


“SNOW”


“TWIGS”


“SO MANY MELODIES”



“WHAT AM I”



Camille Martin
Sonnets (Shearsman Books, 2010)

Musicality in Poetry


The continuation of this essay is the next post, “Barbara Guest’s Musicalities.”


1. “Tin” or “to die for”?

        It’s easy to say that some poetry is musical, and when we come across such poetry, we may quietly nod inside as though its musicality were a self-evident characteristic that need be acknowledged only on a barely conscious level. We say that a particular poet has a tin ear, whereas another has an ear to die for. We know when poetry sounds clunky and we know when we feel we’re hearing a string quartet in words. What gives poetry (or any other text, for that matter) the quality of musicality?
        I suspect that what people mean most often is musicality on the close-range level of the poem: the timbre and rhythm. Timbre in music refers to the configuration of sound waves and overtone series that produces the difference between, say, a clarinet and a violin. One way to think of that trait in terms of poetry is on the microcosmic level of the phoneme: the particular combination of consonant and vowel sounds that create a range of sounds from the colourful to the monochromatic, or to stick with the musical model, from the richness of sounds in a Stravinsky orchestra to the relative sameness of, say, Philip Glass’s compositions for saxophone quartet. Alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, whether obvious or subtle, can add richness to the sound and layers to the meaning of poetry. Kenneth Burke’s “On Musicality in Verse” offers a detailed analysis of this microcosmic manifestation of musicality in poetry.
        I think of metre or rhythm as occurring in the foreground of composition, like timbre and melody. It’s not only ritualistic or condensed poetic language that exhibits musical rhythm; ordinary conversation can be extraordinarily musical. For example, Frank O’Hara gives us the rhythm of drama, tempestuous or quiet, in his rants and chats.
        We also call some poetry “musical” in the sense of “painterly”—words used as colours and texture painted onto a canvas, arranged in such a way to give aesthetic or intellectual pleasure. Narrative, descriptive and representational coherence take a backseat to the play of forms: juxtapositions, repeated motifs, and layers of signification whose meaning derives from the relatively abstract play of images and sounds.
        Yet another sense of musicality is the one that we mean when we speak of James Joyce’s famous fugue in prose in the Sirens chapter of Ulysses. The voices of the fugue are translated into voices of characters, and the repetition of fugal melodies are represented by subject matter or rhetorical mode (description, for example). Similarly, once could make a case for the abrupt changes in perspective and style in Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting corresponding with the abrupt rondo-like changes in some compositions by Janacek, who was the teacher of Kundera’s musicologist father. Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style might be considered as a theme and variations.
        Correspondences between the arts, of course, are not precise but suggestive. Polyphony, for example, can be suggested by the simultaneity of thoughts, dialogue, or action by the characters, as in the eight voices of the fugue in Ulysses (Zimmerman 108-13).

2. Pater’s condition of (instrumental) music

        With all of these manifestations of musicality in poetry comes an emphasis on the material and materiality of language—its sounds, its formal play, and its patchwork play of motifs and connotations. This emphasis brings to mind Walter Pater’s statement almost fifty years earlier than the writing of Ulysses: “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Despite the absolutism of such a sweeping statement in its assertion of the aesthetic primacy of music and musicality as the ideal toward which all art aspires, it does suggest some possibilities for correspondences between music and literature in a way that moves away from mimetic concerns toward an appreciation for formal play. Patricia Herzog speculates that the ideal state of music that Pater champions as the Parnassus of the arts is not vocal music or a gesamtkunstwerk such as opera but rather instrumental or chamber music:

               Absolute music would be ideally suited to exemplify
               Pater’s thesis since it contains nothing extraneous to
               the medium of music itself, a medium consisting
               solely of tonally moving forms arranged melodically,
               harmonically and rhythmically. The form and the
               content of absolute music would thus appear to be
               identical. (Herzog 125)

        Herzog states that Pater’s musical ideas consisted of “”the obliteration of the distinction between matter and form” and the embracing of “imaginative reason” over the “senses and the intellect operat[ing] in isolation” (126). In other words, art’s goal is “pure perception,” and to achieve that ideal state, it must abdicate “its responsibilities to its subject or material” (127). For Pater, matter and form should be “so welded together” that the intellect is not the only faculty stimulated by the content, and the senses not the only faculties stimulated by the form. Instead, the blending of form and matter should “present one single effect to the ‘imaginative reason,’ that complex faculty for which every thought and feeling is twin-born with its sensible analogue or symbol.”
        Herzog stresses that the experience of such musicality in art is more aesthetic than logical, since “music’s ideal content is perceived entirely and only through its own, tonally moving forms.” Whereas the literary and visual arts (of Pater’s time) are dependent upon mimetic representation, music’s meaning is revealed through “aesthetic self-sufficiency” (130).
        The distinction that Herzog makes between the aesthetic and the logical in musical content isn’t clear, since music’s “tonally moving forms” can possess their own kind of logical interplay. However, what I find most interesting about Herzog’s fleshing out of Pater’s aphoristic championing of music is the movement, in the concern with musicality in poetry, away from mimetic concerns to language’s drawing attention to itself as a medium: words as musical motifs or brushstrokes. The musical analogy, to my mind, offers more complex possibilities than painting (but this could be simply because music was my first discipline): just as a motif can be varied (inverted, embellished, rhythmically augmented, and so forth), so can a word be varied by context, connotations, and so forth.
        And one of the poets who, it seems to me, best exemplifies this kind of musicality is Barbara Guest. If I can get my act together to continue this thread, I’d like to take a close look at one of Guest’s poems as if it were a musical composition (despite the limitations inherent in that kind of analogy).

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. “On Musicality in Verse.” Poetry 57 (1940): 31-40.

Herzog, Patricia. “The Condition to Which All Art Aspires: Reflections on Pater on Music.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 36.2 (1996): 122-134.

Zimmerman, Nadya. “Musical Form as Narrator: The Fugue of the Sirens in James Joyce’s Ulysses.” Journal of Modern Literature 26.1 (2002): 108-118.

Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca

Majlis Multidisciplinary Arts: “Figure of Speech” concert photos

Here are some photos of our multidisciplinary concert
on Saturday, August 29. The performers, in order of
appearance in the photos:

 

Hallie Fishel-Verrette
John Edwards

Camille Martin
Gauri Vanarase

 

For my musings on the collaborative experience, please see
yesterday’s post.

 

Hallie and John performing their setting of “this is the tune
that paper sang” (one of my “nursery rhyme” sonnets, based on
“This is the house that Jack built”):

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

<font face="Times New Roman" size="+.5" color="#302226">Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie</font>

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

 

My solo reading:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

 

Hallie and I performing a “shadowing” setting of
“if you are somewhere.” I read and Hallie “shadowed”
me by singing the same words:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

 

Gauri performing “Folia d’Italiana,” accompanied by
Hallie and John on guitars:

Photo: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

 

Hallie, John, and I performing “Does It Take” (Gauri also
performed in this piece). Hallie hummed and John played
guitar while I read, and Hallie sang the last part of the poem;
Gauri performed a haunting interpretation of the poem:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

 

Gauri performing “Folia d’españa”:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

 

Curtain call with Gauri’s red ribbon and heart balloon:

Photos by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photos by: Cameron Ogilvie

 

Mingmar, multidisciplinary muse:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

 


 

Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca