Category Archives: Broad Street Review

The Oak Tree and the Bird

First published in Broad Street Review 1 Oct 2017 as Following a road to “home.”

Illustration for Broad Street Review by Hannah Kaplan

In the few days and in the half-dozen times we had traveled the road from Hartenstein to Zwickau, he only now mentioned it.

“I have always admired that single-standing tree,” he said as he looked out the window.

It is an elegant road, leaning into its curves, bracing its villages, skirting pastures. Many roads here are purposely lined with trees but on this stretch there are no trees. Here there is only this tree, standing by itself in a large, worked field, 50 yards from the road.

“It is almost perfect. Like a ball.”

He is 85 and comes back to this corner of Saxony every year. It is part of the old East Germany, tucked between Thuringia and the Czech border. With his wife now three years gone he travels by himself or asks others to come with him. He visits family here, cousins close and far removed and a brother.

He grew up two miles from this spot. When he was seven, war started. When he was 12, the Allied planes would fly over his family’s farm. He saw two soldiers dead in a car in the village from the strafing. After the war, the soldiers kept coming, East Germans, Russians, sullen and hungry.

In 1953 he boarded a train to Berlin for a job. The Russians drove tanks into Berlin three weeks after he arrived. He bought a round-trip subway ticket. You could not buy one-way tickets to West Berlin after the war, even before the wall, and there were guards and wire barriers, but the U-Bahn under the entire city still operated. After the tanks came he decided it was time. He walked to the subway, carrying a suitcase filled only with dirty laundry in case he was stopped. He could say he was taking laundry home. He stepped out in West Berlin. No one checked his ticket and he kept walking.

He wrote to an aunt in America and declared himself to the American embassy. They put him on another train, to a West German detention camp. A farmer picked the strong 21-year-old out of a line, and for the next few months he worked with fruit trees near Heidelberg. Then the aunt arranged his immigration, and he came to Philadelphia. When he tells his story, other Germans nod. They know these stories.

I asked him if the tree was here when he was growing up. He laughed quickly. “Oh, no, it is only 40 years old. Maybe. But every year it gets bigger, I see it every year,” he said. “It is an oak.” Yes, it looks like an oak at a glance as I drive. “You can tell by the trunk. If nothing happens around it, it will live another 200 years, more.”

This tree says home to him. It speaks to me, now, in the same way. Music speaks like this. Schubert gives us a home in “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.” The beginning and the ending are the same music, so at the end we recognize the road.

Sometimes, though, as at the incomparable end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we have traveled far and the road is different. But if the music is good, we will have come home, the home we didn’t know was already ours.

This foreign thing that is home, I experienced on this trip, a day after the tree. I was standing on the steps of a restaurant when it happened.

I was looking at people eating at tables on the wide porch of a large stone inn surrounded by forest. The day’s grayish sky had just begun to clear as the sun set. This far north, even in August the daylight would soon disappear, so the newly bright clouds were beginning to soften into a darkening slate-blue sky. The tablecloths were white. People were smiling and talking softly under iron and glass wall sconces and lamps suspended from the ceiling and lifting forks and holding glasses in mid-air while they talked as people in restaurants will smile and talk. Then from not too far into the forest a bird called. It was a call I had never heard. My head swerved up and to the right, toward the trees, toward the sound. It was a liquid, intense, remote sound. It sounded like a whistle or a child far away.

That’s when I knew I was in a foreign land. For three days it wasn’t the language or the road signs that did it but it was this. I had never heard this. But I have heard whistles and children and I have seen tablecloths and lamps and darkening skies. So, this, too, could be home. The strangeness somehow made it feel like home.

Music ought to take you to a foreign place and then bring you home. But, like some dreams, you already know the foreign place and the home is new. The end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony does this. The spinning wheel, even, does this. The end is the same as the beginning, but after Gretchen’s despair from love forever lost, the new shocks itself back into the old, changes the old. Home is an oak tree you have never seen in a place you escaped long ago, and a new bird call is something you have always known.

Music is both foreign and home. You may have escaped it, like a war, or you may not recognize it at first. But you will know that strange feeling of home, that dream of remembrance, when a bird calls to you like a child, or a road takes you by a field with a single-standing tree, almost perfect, like a ball.

Hitting a Brick Wall

[First published in Broad Street Review, 1 Aug 2017]

Bricks.jpg

This is the part they don’t tell you when they’re telling you about composing. This is the part where every start to your piece is wrong, every note is wrong, every page you’re disbelievingly staring at is false and mocking and hateful and you don’t know how to fix it. Two weeks and 26 pages go by—and all you need are three pages, maybe, because all you need is one minute, max—and not any of it is good. They came to you because it’s the big Reformation anniversary, and they wanted a fanfare to A Mighty Fortress, and you’re a Lutheran and you’ve done this Lutheran stuff before and oh, You’re perfect for this, they said, This’ll be great, they said, and you said, It’ll be great. A minute of music, and you are further away than when you started, further away because you have nothing, and now everyone will realize, finally, that you’re not a composer at all and you never were.

No, they never tell you this part about composing.

Sick of it, you slink out of your composing room and into the yard. Maybe you’ll move some bricks, there are always bricks to move. You made a patio out of old bricks once, you know bricks well. Hitting together, they make a clock sound, deeper than click. And always a double-hit. A flam, drummers call it. They sound higher when someone else is moving them and you’re farther away—they almost ping—but when you’re right on top of them, it’s clock.

From the front and side porches you’d removed all the bricks that held up the half-length wood columns when years ago you had full columns installed like what the porch originally had. All those bricks you carried to the backyard, stacking them into a low wall to hide the compost pile, then moving and re-stacking them later when you expanded to two piles. You bordered garden beds with them, and moved them again when you rejiggered the beds. You made brick holding areas for loose stone. You stacked extras next to the tottering old shed and when you tore that down stacked them behind the new shed. You know the sound.

Chunks of cement sound lower than bricks. You broke up a sidewalk once and tossed the chunks onto a pile: thud for the first chunk, then tuckle for all the others as they hit each other.

Oh stop it, you’re wasting time. You should be composing. But… you’ve always loved the personality of sounds. Maybe loved is too strong. You’ve always noted it. The hard susurration of an extension ladder, somehow cold and warm at the same time, like swimming in a lake. The finch’s peep and the cardinal’s liquid pip and the difference between the adult sparrow’s cheep and the young, fuzzy, fledgling sparrow’s chreef-chreef-chreef.

George Crumb once told you at a formal dinner about how when he was a boy growing up in West Virginia he would hear a dog bark at night, way down and across the hollow. There’s nothing in the world like that sound, he said, and you looked into his smiling eyes and in an instant you understood the music of George Crumb.

When you were a boy you remember saying the Lord’s Prayer in church but you were embarrassed because you loved—yes, loved is the right word—the s sounds. You waited for the s’s in the Lord’s Prayer in your church, a new one, built after you were born, one of those churches built in the ’60s, concrete and glass and acute and new, cold and bright and metal and modern because nobody wanted in the 1960s to be old. Those s’s rang with white and sharp echoes. They hit your face like a message, like a dive into water.

The s’s take a long time to show up in the Lord’s Prayer. It isn’t until “as it is in heaven” that you get one. But then they pelt, more and faster—give us this day, forgive us our trespasses—trespasses, a triple, what a delicious word to say out loud, and even then, even as a boy, you caught the curve of enjoying that word while praying it out of you. Each s caromed off concrete angles and bounced off glass and sizzled in your ears, as everyone prayed and you prayed, saying each s a little louder than the word around it.

As… we forgive those… who tres… pass… against… us…, each s springboarding, vaulting into the air. You could not write a prayer better than this, you’d think, ashamed at arrogating that place to yourself. The s’s slapped your face and you felt the tres… pass… against… us…: Sometimes you felt those trespasses more than your own, yes, yes, you did.

And then it came. Lead us not into—here came the only sh in the whole prayer; all this time you waited for the sh; and here it came—temptation, the sh, the shun, from you and from everyone, exploding into the walls.

A forgive us is left and a thine is is left, and that is it.

You carry that with you still. The s’s are unexpected signals, barks across the hollow for you, barlines in the music of the Lord’s Prayer. The irregularity as much as the sound is what you loved. It was like chant to you—you fell in love with chant in the same way, music in unlikely two-beat chunks and three-beat chunks tuckling over each other. Like chant and like, yes, those chorales from the Reformation, those original, word-driven, non-smoothed-out versions of chorales like… oh, wait, yes…

A Mighty Fortress.

Ein feste Burg. Da-dahhhdahhhdahhh. Yes—one-Two three Four five Six sev’n, one-Two three Four five Six sev’n. That could work. That could be a fanfare.

A day later, three pages and one minute later, you have it. This is the part they don’t tell you. You were so worried about composing and all you had to do was listen.

How Do You Compose?

[First published in the Broad Street Review 8 May 2017 as How to Write a Theme Song]

Illustration for Broad Street Review by Hannah Kaplan

By throwing everything out, that’s how. Anyway, that’s the answer I don’t give when I’m asked how I compose. Though it’s true, it sounds facetious, so here’s a recent example, if only to defend myself against the charge of flippancy.

First attempt

I’d never written a theme song, but was kicking around an idea for a new top-of-the-hour 30-second station I.D. at WRTI, the radio station where I work. It had previously been the spoken text alone, the wonderful voice of Dave Conant. We were thinking of bringing in different voices—women’s, other men’s, non-prime-time announcers—and rotating them with the existing one.

When we started Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection (scroll to movement 3 at the link) 15 years ago, I took music from my one symphony and made it the theme. Nine years ago, I did the same with a four-guitar piece when Now Is the Time hit the air. But I’d never composed a theme song from scratch.

Since we’re a dual-format station of classical music and jazz, I thought I’d meld the two into one theme. A piano would serve both, as it’s natural in both. But something else made me choose piano as the foundation for this. I couldn’t ask the station to pay for my experiment by hiring an orchestra, so I’d generate all the music from my computer. The sounds are pretty good, sampled from live instruments, but not as good as the real thing. And of all the samples, the piano, to my ears, sounds more natural than most.

So, I could have a pianistic flourish, peppy to get your attention, but not jarring. Over jazz chords I’d bring in a saxophone—no, a clarinet, also at home in both worlds—for a languorous denouement. A soft background string orchestra would be the combining agent. A little offbeat, with plucked strings for rhythmic punch, a little sweet, and in 30 seconds wrapped up. Here’s what it sounds like.

Second attempt

Not bad, I thought, but after a day or two I hated it. It sounded like a ’70s sitcom, one where the kids fight over who threw the football into the tree, and the car blows a tire on the way to the campground, but everything ends up just fine. It was cute and nothing more. I got to the point where nothing I tried worked. I never got to any interesting chords, the punctuating piano was jarring, and the clarinet never did do anything. It was a boring mess.

So, I threw everything out. Taking out the garbage is one of composing’s most important tactics, although it never feels like a tactic when you’re doing it. It feels awful. Much of the time, awful is what writing music feels like.

Our production manager, a radio guy from way back, got me on track. I played it for him, he listened, and shook his head. “Don’t do a theme. Do a signature.”

“Like N–B–C?” I sang it.

“Yep. A theme gets in the way. We have to play it 24 times a day, remember.”

He was right. I went back and the only thing I kept was the key of D. I made a halo of strings: a D-major chord. My first thought for this signature was to spell out the chord from top to bottom: A-F#-D, but I figured the triad was merely a placeholder. I had that high string halo and the piano picking out the chord. As soon as that ended I landed on a G-major chord, that old standby, the subdominant of D. Now I had drama. I intensified it by keeping the strings resolutely on D major and repeating the signature triad.

From there, I just nudged the bass line along. Following my ear, I moved the G to B. Each bass move was preceded by a ta-dum (I added a soft bass drum and plucked double bass notes). B went to C#, grinding low against the D major, every bass move coupled with corresponding notes thrown into the halo.

The tension increased. The bass C# hopped over the D to E, then hopped again up to G, an octave above where it started. I didn’t think about chords, let alone jazz chords, at all. I just increased the pressure. After 21 seconds, it was time to resolve, so the bass finally settled from G to D, under a slow repeat of the signature.

Funny thing is, I never did change the triad, never made it “more interesting.” I ended with a soft bloom of brass: three trombones and a tuba. The piano rolled out a final D major, and I snuck a lone B into the violins. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s an add-6 chord.

Third time’s the charm

There was one more addition, which you may have heard. When I overlaid it with the voice, I felt it needed more sparkle, so I picked out details with a harp. I also had it click the beat softly throughout, and had the piano hit the offbeat kicks a little harder. I adjusted volumes for inner voices. The final, with Dave’s fantastic voice, sounds like this.

It’s mixed differently for airtime and for different voices, and we deleted the “also available in HD,” which is old news. It was a fairly ridiculous idea to meld (whatever that means) classical (whatever that means) and jazz (ditto). Get people’s attention, don’t annoy them, work the music, don’t get in the way of the voice, create tension and release, and work, work, work the music. That’s how I compose.

And when I don’t, every once in a while, I throw everything out.

Three Things I Learned from Handel’s Messiah

[First published in the Broad Street Review 20 Dec 2016 and reprinted by permission.]

grandcanyonA professional musician, years in the business, told me a couple weeks ago that she had the strangest experience. She played a Messiah concert and loved it.

You need to understand the working musician’s mindset. The longer a professional plays, the more Messiahs will be tucked under the belt, until one has seen and heard everything.

Good and bad performances; good and bad players, singers, conductors; this version and that; slow and fast tempos; all the repeats or some; dotted or double-dotted eighth notes; cadence with the singer or after; Christmas portion or Easter portion or complete or really, really complete. After a while, nothing is new under the sun. It’s easy to auto-cruise or burn out.

And it’s easy for any of us, at this time of year, to dismiss Handel’s great oratorio. We have been there, we have done that, and we have taken it for granted. But there are three things it taught me.

Part the First: It is bigger than you

John Cage said about Messiah that he liked to be moved but didn’t like to be pushed. Like any John Cage quote, it is a little bit wise and a little bit funny, but Cage felt that way about all music. Traffic on the street outside a concert hall was as valid a musical experience to him as what was being played in the hall.

A created thing, like music, engenders every experience that randomness, like traffic, can. And it gives you something more. A created thing, say, a purposeful composition, lets you meet a composer. That meeting forces you outside of yourself, to something else you must acknowledge. In the case of Handel’s Messiah, it is not only something else, but also something greater.

Oh, yes—you know it’s bigger than you; it’s bigger than anything you could have come up with on your own. Meeting Handel’s Messiah is like walking up to the Grand Canyon. You may wish right then for a smaller thing, like a water fountain, or a flatter thing, like a field, or a bigger thing, like an ocean. You may wish for something that isn’t in your way. But one thing’s for sure.

You do not get to have an opinion about the Grand Canyon.

Part the Second: It is drama and beauty

Drama and beauty are not two things, but one. We will not follow a drama unless it has attraction, that is, unless we find it beautiful. But a thing of beauty does not attract us without a drama, unless it tells us a story we want to hear. Beauty without drama is cold, drama without beauty is noise. The best art has two things: A “come hither” and a “go thou and do likewise.”

Messiah, from start to finish, is a beautifully unfolding drama. Every bit of it, from the Overture and “Comfort ye my people” all the way through “Worthy is the Lamb,” is by itself a moment of exquisite beauty. Yet every moment drives the story further.

I won’t kid you, the complete Messiah is long, and my attention has lapsed. I always blame myself, though. If my mind wanders, it’s sometime during Part the Second. But in a few moments comes the chorus of choruses. Sniff, if you like, at the “Hallelujah!” chorus, but it is perfectly wrought. Your hearing it over and over doesn’t change that. It is all beauty and drama, and if you feel yourself jaded, just pretend you’re a park ranger working at the Grand Canyon.

Part the Third: It is odd

After impoverishing himself from years of writing opera (the thing he most wanted to write, but which England didn’t want to hear right then), he invented a new form, the English oratorio. It’s a sacred piece for a secular audience. It was meant for the concert hall, not, like a cantata, for the church. Judas Maccabeus and other Handel oratorios are on sacred subjects but have dramatized stories with invented filler. Messiah is different. Its “libretto” is nothing but Bible verses. A lot of Bible verses.

He wrote Messiah (in 24 days) for a charity concert, to raise money for a Dublin debtors’ prison. They raised enough to release 142 men. Then he brought it to London, but people saw the title, Messiah, and saw that it was the Christian history of salvation from the Old and New Testaments. Then they saw that he wanted it performed not in a church but in a theater, and they almost pulled the plug on it. Inappropriate, some called it; Satanic, even.

Dublin had raved, but in London, the first performances didn’t go over so well. This story without characters, this operatic non-opera, this Messiah puzzled them.

A few years later he was almost bankrupt again, but a successful Judas Maccabeus rejuvenated his career. He ended up conducting Messiah more than 30 times.

When I asked the professional musician why she loved playing this particular performance of Messiah, she said that the conductor and the players were treating it as something new. They were playing the piece as if it mattered.

That’s what I learned. Handel’s Messiah teaches me that every piece I write should matter. Odd music that frees people from prison is not a bad thing.

Beethoven for Breakfast in Phoenix

[Edited version first published in the Broad Street Review 29 Nov 2016 and reprinted by permission.]

I had just about given up on corned beef hash, and if that doesn’t alarm you, you should know that I rarely give up on anything. I believe that the car in front of me will return to the right lane where it belongs. I also believe that someday a political post on Facebook will reveal something that had, never, ever occurred to me. That’s what I’m talking about: I’m an optimist.

When I was in Phoenix recently for a radio conference, I wanted to escape the hotel for breakfast. I walked across the street to a rough-hewn restaurant where corned beef hash was on the menu. And so, I set my chin and nodded the chin-set nod of the optimist. At first, I thought, No, hash is either too dry or too greasy, edible only by way of poached egg, or ketchup, or by washing it down with coffee.

But, the adventurous southwest stoking my optimism, I ordered the hash. While waiting for its arrival, I looked blankly through the menu at everything I could have ordered. Pancake stacks, slices of French toast, and heaps of huevos rancheros mocked me.

Then I looked up.

An offering

The kitchen door opened and the waitress, backlit by fluorescence and haloed by steam, walked toward me carrying a plate. The glow from the kitchen suffused the room and lingered. The faces of other hotel escapees slowly turned as they followed the plate. A couple reached across their breakfasts and lightly clasped hands. Boz Scaggs, singing “Look What You’ve Done to Me” over the sound system, dropped to a whisper. The waitress approached, stopped, lowered the dish, and placed it silently in front of me, as an offering.

You think I am exaggerating, but I am telling you, I noticed all this and noticed that I was noticing this. I mouthed, “Thank you,” but I do not know if the words came out. I beheld my breakfast. I glanced up just to catch her smiling as she turned.

The onions in a medium chop were on the cusp of translucence, shining with the bright dreams of youth. The potatoes were what potatoes always might be, but rarely are. Not dry, not oily, not hard, not mushy, they were fully and softly potatoes, luscious.

And then, the meat. We take for granted that corned beef hash is made from corned beef, but the Ding an sich is lost, always lost. This, however, this corned beef, was sliced into strips, and gently laid to one side. Bite-sized, they were fried, their edges crisp, their demeanor Buddha-like, their immanence ever present.

I stared at the plate, and, giving thanks with eyes open, bemusedly reached for my fork. I gently pierced one strip of the meat, put it into my mouth, and an entire life of breakfasts swooped me through years and decades and fixed me into that moment. Joy made room for discernment as I tried to enunciate why this was better than any hash I had ever eaten.

The heavens are telling

Again, you will think I am overselling, but I thought of Beethoven and his “Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur.” We know it in English often as “The Heavens Are Telling.” Not to be confused with Haydn’s “The Heavens are Telling” from The Creation. Here is Beethoven’s:

I am serious. Beethoven came to my mind.

Beethoven gets to essentials quicker than any other composer. This is his greatness, and this is our problem. Beethoven is essential, but he is not pretty. He doesn’t entice us with the voluptuousness of Tchaikovsky, the wit of Mozart, the gravity of Bach, the warmth of Brahms — other composers we probably loved before Beethoven. No, he sticks his big saucer of a face into our business. His wild mane of hair pushed straight back looks as if he just forced his way, grunting, through a wind tunnel. We always hear that Beethoven is great, and we always say, “Yes, of course,” but our heart isn’t in it, not at first.

The opening of his Fifth Symphony we admire more than love. How clever he is to make all that music from those four silly notes, yes, yes. “Joyful, joyful” from the Ninth Symphony is exciting, but afterward the whole thing sounds, well, a bit brusque. “The heavens are telling” — not harmonized, mind you, and in the choral arrangement just octaves for everybody — is nothing but a C major triad, for crying out loud, followed by a big leap that looks like he just ran out of room.

Getting Beethoven

But at some point we succumb. Voluptuousness, wit, gravity, warmth, and everything else walk into the room. At 40, I finally got Beethoven. At 40, we realize that what we are is what we are going to be. For some, it’s a crisis; for me, it was liberation. I’m not unique in that. It happened to Brahms, and at that age: that fist-shaking opening to his First Symphony is not him screaming that he could never follow Beethoven; it is Brahms roaring: I am not you! I think Beethoven smiled right then.

At 40, hearing Beethoven on the radio yet another time (it was his Second Symphony, of all things), I got him, and I got that I could be me. I couldn’t be Bach, or Mozart, or Brahms, and (I whispered only to myself), they couldn’t be me.

Then I knew in the glowing restaurant why this was the best hash I had ever eaten.

The potatoes were not meretriciously tantalizing and then cold-hearted inside, but were simply and fully potatoes to the end. The onions were nothing more nor less than onions, but if you’ve ever worked them, you know that onions, like the universe, are onion all the way down.

The corned beef hash, you have guessed by now, tasted like what it never tastes like. It tasted like corned beef. Perhaps I forgot to tell you, but I love corned beef. And that opened up to me endless glory.

Standing for the national anthem

[First published 24 October 2016 in the Broad Street Review. Edited and reprinted here by permission.]

philliesstadiumThere’s controversy around the national anthem, but all I’m thinking about is my low E-flat. Our ad hoc men’s choir is about to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the Phillies. There aren’t that many of us second basses, so that E-flat, the lowest note in the arrangement, is foremost on my mind as I stand in the chute leading onto the field.

Finding the right note

I’ve had that E-flat and lower, sort of, since high school, but the older I get, the more solid those notes are, especially in the morning. That’s in my favor.

But this is early afternoon. It’s outside and a little cold; my low notes evaporate if I’ve been talking a lot. And (I should’ve mentioned this first), since I’m not a trained singer, I have little technique. To keep warm, I have a heavy white undershirt under my heaviest white dress shirt (with black pants and shoes, our uniform), and I haven’t talked much all day.

It’s October first, the last Saturday of the regular season, Phillies vs. the Mets, and it’s German-American Day at the stadium. We cobbled the choir together from the German men’s and the ecumenical choirs I sing with, plus more guys who wanted in. We’re led by my wife Jackie; she’s also the director of both choirs.

Inside baseball

Nearby, Temple is playing football, and the Police and Fire Department Thrill Show is raising college tuition for children of parents killed in the line of duty. We plan plenty of time to get to the stadium, and arrive two hours early. Congregating near the right-field gate, we see lots of Mets fans enter. The Mets were fighting for a playoff spot; the Phils were never in the race. Ryan Howard, the slugging first baseman well past his most-feared hitting days, is playing his last weekend as a Phillie.

A guard leads us down the entrance ramp. Below the stadium we walk, past forklifts, water and electrical conduits, locker rooms, and skids of grass seed. Staff members glance at us. The Phanatic sashays up to us, rubs a bald guy’s head, gives us two thumbs up.

In a large, carpeted locker room where we can keep our things, Jackie reminds us of the two places we are not to breathe: After “what so proudly we hailed,” and after “bombs bursting in air.” We run the music a few times, softly.

We head to the staging area at field level, and hear the crowd and the echoing stadium announcements. Through the chute we see players warming up on the field. “This is where the Mets will celebrate, today or tomorrow” our guard says confidently. “Gonna be champagne all over, we cover everything in plastic.”

Onto the field

We get into singing formation. I’m in the second of two rows, on the end, so it turns out I will lead us in. We line up in the chute. I quietly test my E-flat, seeing how it feels. Then I tell myself to knock it off.

We wait. The Phillies honor four or five different groups. Somebody hands somebody else a large posterboard check. A little kid is dressed as the Phanatic. A tech guy sets up our microphones. The Phanatic goofs around. Somebody throws a ceremonial first pitch. In front of me another tech guy, talking on his headset, looks over to me and says, “Okay, now.”

I walk up a few steps and onto the field. We’re on the third-base line, next to the Mets dugout. The dirt crunches under my black dress shoes. The grass, as beautiful up close as it is from the stands, is a lively green and feels strong. Taking my place, I look at my black shoes against the green grass. I look at the guys and I look at Jackie. I look into the stands in front of me and see nothing but blue shirts. They’re all Mets fans.

They’re standing and they’re silent and they’re looking at us.

Jackie sings our first three notes, and we launch into it at a good clip, in unison, “Oh, say, can you see….” We were warned about the echoes. They are loud and will throw you off. Following the conductor is always recommended; here, it is essential.

Can you see?

This is the only national anthem that’s a question. Will the flag still be there? That’s it. That flag we saw yesterday, before the night and the bombs fell, in this land of the free and the brave, is it still there?

We break into four parts at “proudly we hailed,” and it is an exciting moment but I do not breathe. We carry over into “at the twilight’s last gleaming.”

Do we see the flag?: That’s the anthem and that’s the controversy. Maybe some see only the American flag and not American imperfections, and maybe some see only the imperfections and not the flag. But don’t most of us realize that it’s both? Hasn’t it always been both? Haven’t we always imperfectly lived out the idea of America? Isn’t America, above all, an idea? Haven’t we always been a question, just like our anthem?

So I sing, and so I stand. Knowing the imperfections, I stand for the idea. With my imperfect voice I stand for all who made the idea possible, and for all who still make it possible, for Jackie, for my family, for the Thrill Show and their families, for the guys I’m singing with, for the kid in the Phanatic costume, for the Phillies, for the Mets fans, for everyone standing, for protestors taking a knee, for all. I stand and sing for America.

We finish big and the crowd roars. Mets fans in front of us pump fists into the air. As we file out, high-fiving them on the way into the chute, some lean over the railing and say, “Thank you.”

Ryan Howard hits a home run later, but the Mets win, 5–3. I have no idea how my E-flat went. It comes near the end, on the word “free.”

Three More Things I Learn from Bach

Bach480[First published 27 September 2016 in the Broad Street Review. Edited and reprinted here by permission.]

A while back I considered three things I learned from Bach. I’ve wanted to add to them ever since, partly because there are more, and partly because I just saw a Brandenburg concerto concert—five of the six were performed—and it felt good to hear the best music in the world again.

Yes, I’m calling Bach the best in the world, and if you don’t agree, well, you could do worse. What about Beethoven, you ask? Or Mozart or Monteverdi or Machaut? Or how dare I lift up classical Western tonality when there’s Tibetan throat singing or West African griot chanting or Japanese gagaku or Bulgarian women’s choirs or Kind of Blue?, and I get it, I really do, but still I will point to Bach, the sum of everything before him and the fulcrum of everything after.

Out of all of Bach I’ll point to those six Brandenburgs, and of them, to the fifth, to its first movement, and two-thirds of the way through, to the harpsichord solo. It lasts three minutes, and it’s the best music in the world. What I learn—what I would like to learn—are three things.

1. Compose something that isn’t there

It’s called a triple concerto, meaning there’s an orchestra with three soloists: flute, violin, harpsichord. Which sounds unexceptional, until you learn that nobody had ever thought of making the harpsichord a soloist before, not like this. Before Bach there were no keyboard concertos. He invented them. He wrote concertos for single and multiple harpsichords later, and other composers went on to do the same for piano, but Brandenburg No. 5 is the very first piece of its kind in the world.

2. Compose as if the audience isn’t there

Can you imagine what the audience in Bach’s time thought when they heard this? Well, probably nobody did. We know Bach gave these six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, and that’s about all we know. He probably wrote them a few years earlier, but no one knows for sure if he ever played them. The Margrave probably never heard them. The clean, unmarked manuscripts were discovered in a pile of music 99 years after Bach died.

Remember that Bach wasn’t in some garret, whining that he didn’t have an audience because he was a misunderstood genius. He was successful; he cared about listeners; he wanted to lift them up. He just, it seems, didn’t need them. He wrote these astounding pieces, gave them away, and went on from there.

3. There is no there, there

We’ve seen that it’s a triple concerto; it’s also a concerto grosso, meaning it pits a smaller group (the soloists) against a larger group (the orchestra). Brandenburg Five is both of these. It is also none of these.

Yes, the flute, violin, and harpsichord have solos throughout, and they act as a group throughout, but in this first movement it’s often hard to figure out where one group ends and the other one begins. For one thing, the violinist often plays with the “orchestra,” here, a string orchestra. Even more baffling, the strings have only one violin part instead of the usual two, so, many times we’re not sure if the soloist is a soloist or is in the first violin section. And since the orchestra in the original score has only four string parts, it simply looks and sounds like the entire group on stage is one orchestra.

And then there’s that harpsichord. It not only solos but plays along with the string orchestra most of the time just like any Baroque continuo player. It’s soloist and accompanist. If you’re confused, don’t worry, so are the scholars.

But when the harpsichord starts its real solo, after a number of teasing flourishes, the confusion multiplies. Bach chucks proportion out the window. (Here is an older performance with modern and multiple instruments, but Karl Richter’s harpsichord playing is relentless and almost brutishly powerful.)

The solo begins as noodling as the other instruments just kind of give up. It continues as it had been, as if it doesn’t realize it’s the only thing playing. Then, little by little, it stretches out. From parlor-room propriety it wriggles into the hardest harpsichord music written up to that time.

You’re already feeling unsettled, when out of the wings darts a dervishing torrent of notes in a wild leap. Now you’re feeling something you’ve never felt in a concert before, a little scared. Then you know why: Thrusting around a bend, the music runs off the road. Notes, which in polite Baroque company should be kept at far ends of the room, slam together in giddying, frightening abandon. Harmonies careen and envelop and explode in a rolling boil. You are locked in a slow-motion car wreck but instead of tightening your neck and pushing back you’re leaning forward, and instead of screeching brakes you hear the gas pedal floored and as you leave the road and vault the embankment and crash through the fence, you’re in a dream, a dream of a fall off a cliff, your arms wide, and you are flying, or the world is flying away, and you are in no exact place, there is no there, here there is just here, everything is here, and you spin in a space with your eyes opened wide, and the tears welling up come from depths that are filled with a wonder and an awe and a joy you never knew were there, like a kiss, like a sudden and unexpected kiss, and now no longer scared you cannot believe anything could be this beautiful, this wildly, embracingly, shudderingly beautiful, but you do believe it, now, because now you know, now you are hearing what the best is.

And then the orchestra enters, you had forgotten about the orchestra. And then it is over.

Maybe something else is the best, but I’ll tell you, you could do worse.