Category Archives: My Writing

No, one can’t go back

Ten years ago today, I published the first entry of a new blog.

I named the blog Song of the Lark, after Willa Cather’s 1915 novel about a Midwestern girl who, as she grows into adulthood and her artistry, gains and loses much.

That first entry served as a thesis statement for every bloggy thing to come. It focused primarily on my inability to decide whether I should be a writer or musician or historian or an improbable combination of all three. I was 21, and these kinds of questions held a panicked urgency. I remember feeling as if an arbitrary hourglass I couldn’t see was running out of sand.

The next ten years were unimaginable in every way. I embraced everything I loved, on the blog and off. Dreams I didn’t even know I had came true. (And to be fair, some of the biggest nightmares did, too.)

I haven’t written here since the summer of 2019. Which…isn’t surprising. I’ve just had nothing to say, or else I’ve never felt that I was the best person to say it. For a while, I chalked the silence up to personal busyness. Then I was horrified anew at the constant devolution of social media and everything connected to it. Then the pandemic struck, and like the rest of you, I watched the field that I thought would always be my ballast sink beneath waves, unceremoniously. That was when I really felt the silence, and the sheer size of the ocean.

I knew everyone else was in their own lifeboat, some leakier than others, watching the wreck at the same time I was. Even so, I didn’t really want to reach out. It hurt to see others hurt. I think I thought the least painful way out would be rowing to shore by myself, and trying to forget that the sinking had even happened. I rowed a long way. I’m good at lying to myself.

I filled up the silence with other sounds. Did other things. Became another person, or at least a variation on an original theme. Made other friends. Fell in love in a new way. Wrestled with realizations. Wrote more than I’ve ever written on the blog. This time, it was all fiction.

I didn’t thrive, by any means, but I survived. Surviving in these times is not nothing. However, the faster the needle mark on my upper arm fades, the more intensely I’m panicking to find a purpose. When you step out of the darkness into the light, what exactly will you be looking for?

Because the brutal truth is: in this year of crisis, I didn’t need music in the way I always assumed I would. What I needed was the love it made me feel, the spirit of connection, the camaraderie of it. And there’s such a lot of love in the world, and there are so many ways to find it.

The forced break, and everything that happened during it, has also opened my eyes to how much in this field is so deeply, fundamentally broken. I need to think long and hard about where I want to invest my self. I need to think about where I’ll be useful, and where I’ll be happy. Ideally, somewhere I’ll be both.

(This doesn’t mean I’ve fallen out of love with music. I haven’t. And it wouldn’t be fair to make any sweeping generalizations about my future when I haven’t been to a concert in two years. I just… When it comes to understanding what drives me to get out of bed in the morning, I don’t want to impose any false horizons.)

Now that I think about it, it feels – again – like an hourglass I can’t see is running out of sand. The further away I get from her, the more I relate to that 21-year-old from 2011, slowly understanding that what she should feel and what she is actually is feeling might be two paths splitting apart.

I wish I could go back and tell her the hourglass never existed.

And I wish I could know it still doesn’t.

Long story short, I’m not sure what’s next. I’m closing my eyes tight, trying not to be afraid of what I might see once I open them. Then, eventually, I suppose I will embrace what I love, whether that be something in music, fiction, non-fiction, history, politics, activism, the woods, who knows. Doing what I loved worked out nicely for me this last decade, truly. Most people live a lifetime without seeing the adventures I saw in my twenties alone, nearly all of which I wrote about here, and I’ll always be grateful I was so lucky. Starting this blog not only made my life livable; it probably saved it. It was the single most consequential decision, and the single best decision, I’ve ever made. And that wasn’t because of the art. It was because people are good.

So maybe everything will work out over the next ten years, too. I’d like to think so. I’ll try to keep coming back more regularly to share if it does. In the meantime, I spend too much time on Twitter, so if you really want intermittent updates, you can catch me there.

In that first entry ten years ago I quoted Lady Leonora Speyer, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and concert violinist, who in 1919 said in an interview, “The bird, the wind, the sea, the heart of man, all sing: the musician writes down the melody, the poet the words; the song is God’s. If you have a message and can give it, and can reach another soul with your singing, then all is indeed right with the world.” Especially emerging from this pandemic, when so little seems certain, when there’s just an exhausted desperation to cling to anything that even sounds like wisdom, I hope she’s still right. I think she is.

“The past closes up behind one, somehow,” Cather mused in The Song of the Lark. “One would rather have a new kind of misery. The old kind seems like death or unconsciousness. You can’t force your life back into that mould again.” Then, decisively: “No, one can’t go back.”

*

Even after my blog updating petered out, whenever I’ve been able to, I’ve been working on a very big project. I’ve been too quiet about it and too coy, and I shouldn’t have been, and I apologize for that.

It’s a profile of composer Louise Bertin, whose relatively obscure story is worthy not just of a blog entry, but an entire HBO miniseries. It spans two generations of political upheaval, media dynasties, wealth, poverty, Romanticism, revolution, disability, Paris, Victor Hugo, Hector Berlioz… Her story is a key to so many other kinds of stories. My attempt to do her life justice has resulted in an obsession with late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century France, which is a time and place that I hadn’t been that interested in before, and consequently, the background reading necessary to understand has taken a long time, just because I just have so much to learn and synthesize. But I promise that the entry has been percolating, and I have dozens and dozens of pages of retyped color-coded notes, and pounds and pounds of (expensive) books. It will not be a short entry. To tell the story I want to tell, I’ll probably need the word-count of a novella. We’ll see. In any case, expect that…sometime in the next decade. I hope so sincerely that you’ll find it worth the wait.

Comments are off because I have a backlog of them to answer and I’m not up to adding to the pile. Take care of yourselves, friends.

Leave a comment

Filed under My Writing, Personal stuff

The Classical Canon and Russian Roulette

Nowadays classical music lovers are grappling with questions of sexism, racism, classism, privilege, accessibility, diversity, canon, and the like.

So I think we can all agree that the best way forward is to emphasize the music of celebrated dead white men.

wait what gif.gif

Or so went the New York Times‘s recent train of thought, as they’ve just published Anthony Tommasini’s essay “The Case for Greatness in Classical Music.”

Tommasini (and by extension the Times) articulate perspectives on the classical music canon that I find thought-provoking, troubling, and ultimately detrimental to the art.

So I invite you to pour out your beverage of choice and follow along as I (try to) verbalize why.

*

Continue reading

9 Comments

Filed under My Writing, Uncategorized

Frances Boardman: Music Critic, Lecturer, Promoter

Nowadays in America, if you are a professional classical music critic who is also a woman, your name is probably Anne Midgette. Despite the important work done by women like Midgette, Claudia Cassidy, Nora Douglas Holt, Olga Samaroff, and others, classical music criticism in this country has traditionally been dominated by the voices of men.

St. Paul journalist Frances Corning Boardman was one of the exceptions. She stumbled into criticism – indeed, journalism itself – by accident, and relatively late in her life. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been any kind of systematic assessment of her thirty years’ worth of contributions to the St. Paul Dispatch, much less a full biography. But the relatively little we do know about her paints a striking portrait.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under My Writing, Women In Music

Mary Cardwell Dawson: Singer, Activist, Impresario

In the 1920s, a young opera singer by the name of Mary Cardwell came face-to-face with a hard truth: the color of her skin would dictate the outcome of her career.

A National Negro Opera Company souvenir brochure from 1957 describes her realization:

During intermission, she often went back stage to really observe for herself, hoping eventually to find one of her people there. Actually, she was only to be discouraged, disappointed and finally made to wonder why the omission of her people… She thus began to wonder why even she had chosen this field for her life’s work. She found the same type of exclusion existing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which she often attended on Fridays, as well as operas in other cities from coast to coast. Everywhere, and in every respect, she found complete discrimination or exclusion. This weighed heavily upon that young student of the Conservatory. (link)

Racism has cost classical music countless stars. Many great musicians left the field altogether, and for good reason. But Mary Cardwell Dawson chose another path. She attempted to remake the art from the inside.

*

Mary Cardwell was the second of six children born to a farming family in Madison, North Carolina. Sources differ as to exactly when; some say 1894, while others indicate 1896. Around 1900, her father J.A. and her uncle moved to Pittsburgh to work at a brickyard in Homestead. In 1901, after the brothers had finally saved enough money, they sent for the rest of their family. In Mary’s new neighborhood, recently relocated African-Americans lived next door to white European immigrants. Growing up in such a place had a profound effect on her worldview.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under My Writing, Women In Music

#MNOrchTour: Thoughts From Over Reykjavik

8/18

As I type, we’re between times and days. It’s three-thirty in the morning in Reykjavik and ten-thirty at night in Minneapolis. The in-flight entertainment system reports that the temperature outside is seventy below, and we’re creeping toward the Labrador Sea. I just finished watching an arty Icelandic movie about two estranged brothers who both raise sheep. Scabies hits the farms in the valley and complications ensue. The brothers eventually decide to reconcile and work together to save their breeding stock. The film ends with their flock escaping in a blizzard, and the brothers clinging to each other naked in an ice cave that one of them dug while seeking protection from the wind. I’m beginning to get a sense of the pathos that awaits us in Scandinavia. For the flight from Reykjavik to Helsinki, I’m planning on lighter entertainment fare. (Namely, Fargo.) (“Prowler needs a jump!”)

Continue reading

3 Comments

Filed under My Writing

Announcing A Partnership With Interlude!

I’m busy packing for Carnegie today (PACKING FOR CARNEGIE, GUYS) (PACKING. FOR. CARNEGIE.). But amidst the madness of spare socks and dress-wrapping, I’m excited to announce that I’m writing for classical music website Interlude HK!

I’ll be writing essays, 500 to 600 words or thereabouts, on topics having to do with classical music. If you have any favorite stories you’d like to see covered, let me know!

My first Interlude essay is called “Music by a Medium: The Story of Rosemary Brown.” It’s about a woman composer, yes, but with a twist: Rosemary Brown believed she was channeling the music of the dead.

Interlude2

I will link to new entries on SOTL’s Facebook and Twitter pages as they’re published. For those who only check the blog, I’ll try to remember to post an entry at the end of each month containing links to my Interlude essays.

Be sure to explore the Interlude archives! There are lots of great stories there about the personal lives of great composers and musicians. Also, former Minnesota Orchestra cellist Janet Horvath is a long-time contributor, and she has written some great essays about behind-the-scenes life at Minnesota. Here’s her contributor page.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to vacuum the cat hair off my suitcase…

8 Comments

Filed under My Writing

2015 Roundup

Well, that was a year.

That existed.

That is now over.

Thank f*ck.

tumblr_mnj888jab71s6z99jo1_500

Do I get a prize for surviving??

I don’t have much time to write – I’m entertaining today, and I’m going to the Minnesota Orchestra New Year’s show tonight – but I had a few tidbits I wanted to share before the celebration starts.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under My Writing

2015 Advent Calendar

Welcome to the 2015 Song of the Lark Advent calendar! Every day until Christmas Eve, a new entry will go live at www.sotladventcalendar.tumblr.com. Each includes a 2015 blog memory, as well as a piece of holiday music. (You can also go back in time and read blog highlights and hear musical selections from previous years’ calendars. Navigate through the archives by using the arrows on the left side of the calendar.)

This season’s calendar was therapeutic to assemble… The illness and death of my mother made 2015 the worst year of my life, by far. (2015, may the door hit your ass on the way out. Hard.) I apologize again for not writing more the last few months. But my mind has been cloudy.

IMG_0012

The other day I read through a big chunk of the SOTL archives. Some pieces I still like; some are more meh; but I was proud to see that I’ve never insulted a topic by not caring about it. Better days are coming, both in my personal life and on the blog. I think my capacity for caring is slowly returning, and I’m cautiously optimistic about the new life that awaits in 2016.

Which is fitting, I guess. After all, the idea of Advent is about looking inward, taking stock, and preparing for the arrival of new life: a New Year, and a new start.

Cheers. *raises champagne glass*

If holiday music is your thing, I hope you check out the link above every day. I’ll put up another post around New Year’s in case you want to browse the whole thing at once. And please feel free to share the names of your favorite winter / holiday pieces in the comment section! 2016 will be here before we know it, and after four years of calendars (can you believe it??), I’m reaching the outer edges of my winter-related repertoire, haha.

Happy holidays, merry Christmas, and/or a blessed New Year’s to you and yours! Thank you for giving me the greatest gift of all…your readership. It sounds hokey, but I mean it with every inch of my heart.

With deep appreciation, Emily

Leave a comment

Filed under My Writing

Happy Thanksgiving, Y’all!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, Y’ALL. Is there a better tune to celebrate with than Turkey in the Straw? I THINK NOT.

Sorry that things have been so quiet this month… But I’ve got a couple of great entries in the hopper, as well as some cool big bloggy news I’ll be announcing…soon; I’m just taking my time with those things because I want them to be super awesome, and also I’m slow. There should also be a (FOURTH!) (FOURTH) (BEHOLD THE RELENTLESS PASSAGE OF TIME) online SOTL Advent calendar that goes live on December 1st (if I get my act together) (I’ll get my act together) (I think) (lol).

In the meantime, enjoy giving thanks for all the blessings in your life. My blessings include a supportive community of readers and the greatest music in the world. And I can’t ask for much more than that. Thanks, all! Have a marvelous holiday season full of everything you love best, and keep in touch!!

~Emily

402px-1_Wild_Turkey

A public domain turkey image I just found on Wikipedia

5 Comments

Filed under My Writing

IV. Eaux Claires Festival: Starlight

Eaux Claires, Saturday, after sunset. The ticket stand was close to abandoned; the workers were joking around as I paid cash for a second ticket. The murmur of the crowd echoed in the valley. Walking down into the field, parts of the path were so dark I couldn’t see my hands.

“Here?” I asked my friend. Close enough to see, far enough away to watch.

“Sure.”

She took off her sweater and spread it across the grass. People around us sat, then stood, then sat again. Some were laughing. A few were smoking. The heat had finally broken. Muggy, expectant starlight now.

The crowd shrieked itself into ecstasy as a figure took the stage. It was festival narrator and beautifully talented local author Michael Perry, lit up from behind like a rock star. “Good to see you here. Everybody’s gathered round for…” and his voice sharpened: “vespers.”

Perry offered a brief meditation on the nature of neighbors, of the valley, of music. “And so here we are, cradled by a river in a sanctuary of sound, craving consecration, exultation, on bended knee, seeking benediction.” About halfway through, electronic noises began spattering away behind his baseball cap. New Bon Iver backup singers The Staves listened, their arms around each other. Everything felt tuned to a higher pitch. In more ways than one, the stage was set.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under My Writing