Sarah Slean — “Nothing But the Light”

so this is a schoolyard and no one survives
the terrible beauty of being alive
let it move you, let it come through
the stream is never-ending …

breathe … breathe …
eternity is written into time
there’s nothing but the light

Driving back home this evening I tuned into the excellent q, with Tom Power, a CBC program we get here on Vermont Public Radio, and heard an interview with Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean. I’d not come across her before. The interview was a rebroadcast, originally airing in April when her latest album, Metaphysics, had just come out.

She tells an extraordinary story in it of finding herself alone on the train home one day, and deciding to fit in a meditation session. At a certain point the door to the compartment suddenly opened, someone sat down across from her, and she immediately experienced a sense of menace, a distinct chill in the air. She opened her eyes and saw a man who, indeed, seemed hostile, even scary. In part, she thought, because she’d been doing a practice, or perhaps purely instinctively, she didn’t freeze but immediately said hello to him, rather cheerfully. He was quite taken aback at this and she sensed him trying to work her out for awhile. For a time he slouched on the seat in silence. His coat opened slightly and she saw he was carrying a gun.

Eventually they began an intermittent conversation and then … he told her his life story. It was full of pain and a sense of hopelessness — dealing drugs, unable to contact his family, not knowing how to change anything. He cried, in front of this complete stranger. When it came time to part, they hugged and exchanged numbers and email addresses, and as it turned out corresponded for two years. She said his emails were always stream of consciousness, nothing spelled right, but she understood him.

Then one day, when she was in the midst of a great deal of turmoil in her life, doubting her life as a musician which she’d been pursuing at that point for almost two decades and seriously considering giving it up, the phone buzzed. She didn’t recognize the number but picked it up, and heard this fractured voice which turned out to belong to her companion on the train. He’d been gravely ill, nearly lost his life, and had had half his larynx removed. He had phoned to tell her that while he was in the hospital a nurse had brought him books of poetry, and he discovered a love for words. Now, he realized, he had a passion himself to write. Poetry had given him a new strength.

She concludes the story in an online interview this way: ““A guy with a literally broken voice had found his voice, and was excitedly telling a singer (who was at that moment, taking it all for granted) that he wanted to write… It completely blind-sided me – the beauty and power with which the universe can speak to us.” And shortly after that she wrote the song “Every Rhythm Is the Beat,” inspired by the encounter, which appears on the new album.

After getting back home I did some listening and came across this jewel from the same album, which I’ve already listened to half a dozen times. I think it’s one of those songs which can give hope to people in a dark place. Just the way her voice shapes so purely the words “breathe … breathe …” I hope it touches ya!

 

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the 15th

I’ve been immersing myself in the Shostakovich quartets again lately. Some of the profoundest and most extraordinary music I know. I have four sets — the Borodin, Brodsky, Emerson, and Fitzwilliam — and keep meaning to write something up about their respective strengths.

Honestly, I love them all. But there are a handful which I love even a little more than the rest, and tonight it has to be the fifteenth that I cue up, written in his final year. Wendy Lesser, in her really excellent book Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, says that she has personally witnessed audiences walking out during this piece. (The first movement, roughly 12 minutes long, is meant to be played so deliberately, according to the composer himself, “that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience start leaving the hall from sheer boredom.”) !  In reality it is so sublime. My favorite recording here, of those I’ve heard, is the Fitzwilliam, but it is unavailable on YouTube, so here’s a live recording from the Emersons:

taking courage

On this inauguration eve, like so very many in this country and around the world, I am feeling an overwhelming, inarticulable sadness. Often it does feel as if we learn nothing whatsoever as a people — ever — that we have to continually reinvent the wheel.

But I am trying to remind myself tonight of what is in fact the truth: that so many, many millions know there is a vaster, more reverent and celebratory and sublime way to live, beyond the prison of tribalism and fear. We have, in fact, grown up in many respects as a people. As Mr. Charlie Chaplin reminds us:

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful.

But we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

To those who can hear me I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men which will pass, and dictators die. And the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

So a deep bow to all those who had a hand in producing the bottle of junmai daiginjo I am drinking, and a bow to Mr. Sibelius, whose 7th symphony — one of the greatest pieces of music there is or could ever be, in my view — I am listening to right now. And a reminder that the times call upon us to be the very best we can be.

 

 

“if it be your will”

And one more in honor of Leonard today:

“I don’t know which side anybody’s on anymore, and I don’t really care. There is a moment, there is a moment when we have to transcend the side we’re on and understand that we are creatures of a higher order. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wish you courage in your struggle. There is, there is on both sides of this struggle men of good will. That is important to remember. On both sides of the struggle. Some struggling for freedom, some struggling for safety. In solemn testimony of that unbroken faith which binds the generations, one to another, I sing this song: “If It Be Your Will.”

Leonard Cohen, 9/21/34 – 11/10/16

you can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
you can strike up the march
on your little broken drum
every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee
like a refugee

ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack, a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in

We lost a deep and true soul yesterday.

Baruch dayan emet
Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ
All great and vast enjoyments.

Mercy Mercy Me / What’s Going On (Usher cover)

You don’t need to believe in the efficacy of prayer to be moved by the overdub in Marvin Gaye’s original of “Mercy Mercy Me,” a love song for the Earth, wherein he repeatedly sings “have mercy Father, please have mercy…”

And “What’s Going On” (the song, and the album) remains one of the great testaments of compassion in contemporary music:

mother mother
there’s too many of you crying
brother brother brother
there’s far too many of you dying
you know we’ve got to find a way
to bring some lovin’ here today

father father
we don’t need to escalate
you see, war is not the answer
for only love can conquer hate
you know we’ve got to find a way
to bring some lovin’ here today

picket lines, and picket signs
don’t punish me with brutality
talk to me, so you can see
what’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on
yeah what’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on…

The originals could never be topped, but this acoustic version was a sweet discovery.

Songs our world desperately needs these days. Send them round —

they’re back (they’re so back…)

At the full moon, so the astrologers say, this seems to have been the day I came into this life. That means I get to send a post out to myself.

I haven’t heard it all yet (got my order for the CD in today), but there’s this…

A succession of bardos, saying goodbye over and over and over, and finally a bit of warmth at the loneliest top of the world.

To have shared a realm and an age with such pure exquisiteness…