Sunday, September 9, 2012

Funerals, Weddings, and the American Griot

I looked at the pixilated photo in front of me, adorned with the deceased’s name, birth and death dates, in a dated Lucida-sans typeface. Resting underneath the funeral program was the illegally photocopied music I was to sing for the bereaved: “Morning has Broken” (traditional hymn, immortalized by Cat Stevens, through which the entire Anglophone world can probably trace its musical ancestry); “Here, There, and Everywhere” (Lennon-McCartney); “Here I am, Lord” (modern traditional hymn, composed 1981 by Dan Schutte); and the postlude music, a Frank Sinatra medley, played on the pipe organ with flute improvisation. Down near the pulpit sat my guitar and the (also illegally) printed guitar tabs for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (Rodgers and Hammerstein), which I was to perform mid-service, self-accompanied. As I walked through the service in my mind, the flutist next to me fluttered out Robert Schumann’s “Traumerei”, and soon after that, a few arias and dances by the likes of Bizet, Gluck, and Faure. Quickly, it occurred to me that this funeral was the familiar musical mindf*ck.
How many services – funerals, weddings, holidays, and regular Sundays – had I attended in my life, where this was the case? I thought about the granola-encrusted, gay-pride marching Episcopal church I grew up attending near Seattle; our music director was a Jewish woman who wore a yarmulke, and her assistant was a transgendered, rock-and-roll singer-songwriter. There were gospel tunes, original music, old English Renaissance music, American fiddle tunes, and, whenever I came to town, the occasional Handel aria or Granados art song. Once, even, our priest – Cambridge educated and fresh off the boat from England – broke into a song from Jesus Christ Superstar while breaking the bread during an Easter service. I thought about my cousins’ weddings in Montana, where professional musicians and money to pay them are both scarce; all were a homey mix of folk tunes, classical bits played by my brother and I (the little cousins from the big city), and old hymns that had resounded through American chapels for the 350 years that my family has been on this continent. These events all began in the chapel, then moved to someone’s ranch out on the Montana countryside, where radios, cassettes, hand claps and whatever else we could muster mixed with the sound of the wind and the braying of the horses. One thing was sure about this eclecticism: it was a profoundly personal, deeply intimate musical collage of our collective experience as an American family.
As the flute aired out and the minister began to speak, I peered over the ledge separating me from the pews, trying to catch a brief glimpse of the bereaved. I was surprised to feel a sense of familiarity with this waspy clan; all lily-white and blond, sporting pearls, talking of their now deceased grandmother’s yacht and private New England beach. Observing their colossal wedding rocks, I realized it was probably not an issue for them to write the scrappy singer a $150 check for an hour of work. Yet here we all were, in a wooden church built in 1681, celebrating 90 years of their loved one’s life, which they had made clear was simply impossible without Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Bizet.
Then I understood the sense of familiarity. Despite the gap in cultural and economic background, parallel generations of our family resonated through a parallel musical narrative. This grandmother wore pearls, rode yachts and drank Martinis; my grandmother cleans wild game, climbs mountains and drinks whisky, but they both answer passionately to Frank Sinatra. And when the time comes for my beloved grandmother’s funeral, it won’t sound particularly different. This American liturgical experience is an odd, but incredibly transparent, portal into our most intimate American musical mindset – we are invited into tunes they loved as children, as students, as young adults, and as elders. A hodgepodged, epic journey.
So, the future of classical music, as seen through the liturgy: am I saying that Bizet will no longer thrive flawlessly in Carnegie but rather sight-read in the chapel, with some fumbles, next to Sinatra? Perhaps, but that is another discussion. The importance of my realization yesterday was that I, as trained classical musician, make a living this way. We can scrap continuously for gigs at posh concert halls, for steady positions at the declining and unappreciated symphony, but nowhere will our services be appreciated and needed as much as in the American church or temple.  There is no other venue where we are paid with honest tears and genuine gratitude. And the more humanly and passionately we can sing a Beatles song after a technically superb Mozart oratorio aria, the more we are worth monetarily, and perhaps culturally. The modern conservatory – and even the modern concert hall – must absolutely embrace this notion, educating its pupils in the ways of jazz, blues, pop, and folk history and performance practice. The days of Verdi exclusively bringing home the bacon are long gone – and, to be honest, I don’t think they ever existed in America. If we can offer Sinatra or McCartney music with the same control and expertise that we offer Beethoven, the life of the modern “classical” musician will be forever more fulfilling.
Recalling my mother’s funeral several years ago, which was an unexpected and tragic affair, the necessity of the trained musician rings close to home. In a grief-fogged memory, I am sitting on my living room couch, friends and family all around, and our priest looks warmly at me after the mention of music at the service. “I expect you do not want to sing, Kaley,” she says, with a palpable warmth and understanding. I quickly nod that no, I do not.
She smiles and turns to the others in the room, readying herself for a healing message: “In times like these, we realize the importance and necessity of the available trained musician in our society. Musicians with lifetimes of experience, and educations that teach them to play passionately, truthfully, with the utmost control. When mourning a loved one, we cannot ask ourselves to display this control; this is where our trained musicians are our greatest healers.”
We nod, and I feel a special gratitude towards her comment. She then asks me, in my “trained” opinion, what music should be played? I answer as daughter: “ ‘Morning Has Broken’; perhaps a Beatles song; and Pie Jesu from the Faure Requiem.” My brother nods, and suggests his dear friend, a professional violinist – who was still grieving his own father – play any pieces of his choosing as prelude and postlude. The resulting service was one that resembled the aforementioned model – the musical hodgepodge, the narrative of the American life. The music was spectacular; healing, emotive, yet skillful and controlled. This is what we need in times of grief, and even in joy; and, from my experience on the other side of the choir loft, we musicians desperately need this as well. We are trusted deeply by these congregations, and we must deeply value this trust. We are the American griot.
So there I sat in front of the mourning, strumming my acoustic, wondering whether I should sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in the traditional classical style, or as I felt it – a little belt here and there, a scoop in places, a little bluesy improvisation if it seemed right. I caught a smile from the reverend and a warm glance from the deceased’s daughter. And then I realized, if I took my proper breaths and played with a steady hand, it didn’t really matter. 

No comments: