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The Piper

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The Piper

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THE PIPER

Piping down the valleys wild,

  Piping songs of pleasant glee,

On a cloud I saw a child,

  And he laughing said to me:

 

"Pipe a song about a lamb."

  So I piped with merry cheer.

"Piper, pipe that song again."

  So I piped: he wept to hear.

 

"Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;

  Sing thy songs of happy cheer."

So I sang the same again,

  While he wept with joy to hear.

 

"Piper, sit thee down and write

  In a book, that all may read."

So he vanished from my sight;

  And I pluck'd a hollow reed.

 

And I made a rural pen,

  And I stain'd the water clear,

And I wrote my happy songs

  Every child may joy to hear.

- William Blake

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: The Piper from Ten Blake Songs | Nicholas Phan, tenor | James Austin Smith, oboe

I’m performing Vaughan Williams’ Ten Blake Songs with Bay Chamber Concerts this week in Maine, and it’s a wonderful reminder to get back to this long-neglected blogging project about these songs. 

Blake’s poem, The Piper, is about inspiration and where it comes from. Singing it here this week in Maine has had me thinking about creative inspiration in my own life, which is something I (like any artist) have grappled with over the years. While I have heavily relied on the tools of Julia Cameron’s Artist Way books over the years when it comes to my creative survival, my mind keeps coming back to a very specific instance of inspiration each time I revisit The Piper this week.

A little over 10 years ago, I was in NYC on some off-time in between opera engagements, and I made plans to meet up with an acquaintance for drinks at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, ironically named Therapy, of all things. I had met Philip after a performance of Monterverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the LA Opera, and we had stayed in loose contact over the years since. After a few casual “let’s meet up for drinks sometime” exchanges that never came to fruition, we finally were following through. At the time, Philip was working in classical music public relations, a field I knew little about. I wasn’t really sure what would happen at drinks – I mostly went with the intention of making a new friend in NYC, and thought it would be a quick drink before heading back to the Upper West Side to make myself some dinner at home. Drinks turned out to be much more – it inadvertently became our first date. We quickly fell in love with each other and began what would be a roughly 8 year relationship. At one point, a stranger at the table next to us grabbed my hand in the middle of our conversation and purported to read my palm. He said that we had 15 good years together – a psychic estimate that turned out to be off by about 7 years. But more than all of that, the conversation I had with Philip that night at Therapy would change the course of my artistic life, radically expanding my musical sphere and honing my creative vision.

The pivotal point for me in that conversation over drinks was during a moment when were discussing my work and the music world, in general. He asked me something that on the surface seemed like a natural question: “So, where do you want to go with all of this? What are your goals? What do you want?”. I was stymied, because I realized that it was not a question I had asked myself in a very, very long time. I had non-specific answers that were a natural production of my general ambition, but I was shocked to discover that aside from being very practical goals that were in line with all the ‘shoulds’ I had learned from my time in operatic young artist programs, they really had little to do with what I actually wanted. I was even more dismayed to realize that when I thought about what I really did want, I couldn’t come up with the answers, because I was afraid to say them out loud.

Later that night, when I finally got home, the first thing I did was pull out a piece of paper and try to answer that question for myself: What did I really want? Knowing that no one would ever see this piece of paper aside from myself, I finally found the courage to center into my heart, reconnect with the teenager who fell in love with music, and begin to dream big. The answers I found there and wrote down onto that piece of paper were revelatory – I began to realize that I wanted a different musical life than I had. One in which I wasn’t just largely running from opera house to opera house, hoping to keep being cast in their productions, but one in which I was driving my own musical bus on a long journey that was filled with not just opera, but also orchestral concerts, song recitals, and (most importantly) making my own recordings. 

When I think back on that list of answers I made after those drinks a little over ten years ago, it seemed like an insurmountable mountain at the time. Yet, even though a few of those dreams have yet to be realized, I find myself driving that musical bus largely on the path that I hoped for that night. Not only was Philip a creative angel by asking me that question at Therapy, but he also played a pivotal role in helping me realize more than a few of those dreams during the course of our relationship, endlessly encouraging me to keep walking the path my heart wanted to tread every time I hesitated to take the next step. Philip, like Blake’s child in The Piper, appeared to me out of nowhere and sparked the creative fires of inspiration, helping me find the courage to make the music I really wanted to make. While our relationship has evolved into something else now, and we both find ourselves in separate next chapters of our individual lives, I’m forever grateful for the tremendous and miraculous impact he has had on my life, which is filled with so many realized dreams.

I perform Vaughan Williams’ Ten Blake Songs with oboist James Austin Smith at Union Hall in Rockport, Maine on Friday evening, July 26, 2019.

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A Poison Tree

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A Poison Tree

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A POISON TREE

I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my Foe;

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

 

And I watered it in fears,

Night and morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles, 

And with soft, deceitful wiles.

 

And it grew both day and night,

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.

 

And into my garden stole,

When the night had veil’d the pole:

In the morning glad I see

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: A Poison Tree from Ten Blake Songs | Nicholas Phan, tenor | James Austin Smith, oboe

In the wake of these past few weeks’ Brett Kavanaugh shenanigans, and as we draw nearer and nearer to the upcoming midterm elections, many people are reflecting upon the incredibly divided state of our nation in these times. With senators vowing to campaign against each other, both sides decrying the behavior of their colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and vote after vote going basically along party lines, the Senate has been a striking representation of the cultural and political binary in which we Americans find ourselves right now.

Perhaps this is because I have been watching and reading a lot about the recent Russian interference in our elections, but William Blake’s poem ‘A Poison Tree’ seems eerily like Vladimir Putin’s playbook as of late.  Fed by his resentment and grief over the fall of the USSR and a desire for vengeance upon Hillary Clinton, the Russians have watered us with fears and sunned us with deceitful wiles (fake news), causing us to do possible irreparable harm to ourselves, as well as to the rest of the world. 

Something that concerns me more, though, is that this also strikes me as disturbingly similar to the Republican playbook, as well. Republicans and our president have risen to power by employing and bank-rolling firms like Cambridge Analytica to manipulate the electorate by stoking fears and spreading disinformation. All the while, they continue sun their base with smiles and more deceitful wiles: they promise to take care of the plight of these primarily white, blue-collar workers, yet all the while they pursue economic agendas that will only hurt the lower and middle-classes, all the while cutting taxes for the richest of the rich (which it seems will only result in doubling the national deficit) and doing their best to eradicate the social services that provide affordable care to these very people for whom they are promising to advocate.

The Republican obsession with poisoning the well of facts and reality seems to know no bounds. It even extends to the subject of climate change: our world’s leading scientists in the field have been admonishing us for decades about the dangers posed to humanity (and all life on earth) by human-made climate change. Yet even in the wake of this past week’s terrifying warnings of impending disaster, politicians still seek to sow seeds of doubt and disinformation, despite the fact that the fate of humanity and the world as we know it seem to hang in the balance. Not even the news of our own impending apocalypse can bring people together.

On the Democratic side of things, there is a disturbing sense of the moral high ground, as well. I have conversation after conversation with liberally-minded, progressive Democrat friends, who are equally angry. Their disdain of Trump voters and the level of their anger disturbs me. Rather than try and find some common ground and figure out a way to empathize with the 46.1% of America who voted for Trump, many look down on these fellow Americans as evil, hate-filled, stupid deplorables, all the while preaching tolerance and hash-tagging righteous causes at the drop of a hat. 

This binary trend of two sides shouting at each other and an increasingly divided United States is something that has been steadily developing steadily since the 2008 election, and it is understandable that there is a lot of anger amongst us. The world has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, at a bewildering pace. And for a variety of reasons, we are facing a cultural and political reckoning of decades upon decades of a gross imbalance of power right now – between the genders, between races, between the rich and the poor, between the straight and LGBTQ communities…the list of downtrodden minorities goes on. It’s also understandable that we feel fear right now: our democratic norms are turned upside-down on their head, and many recently hard-won rights that are vital to the success of our experiment in democracy seem to be legitimately endangered. 

In ‘A Poison Tree’, Blake makes one key distinction that I find so relevant to our times right now: when one is angry with one’s friend, one expresses that feeling so that it can be let go. When anger is stifled and used to stoke fears, it becomes a poison to be used to vanquish an enemy. Underneath all the mess of things about which to be concerned every time a news alert goes off on my phone these days, the thing that bothers me most deeply about the current state of affairs in our divided United States is that we seem to be very confused about who are our foes and who are our friends. Rather than trying to have a conversation about healing this ever-widening rift, we seem to be more concerned about one side vanquishing the other. 

At the end of the day, Democrat or Republican, aren’t we all Americans?  Whether we live in China, Russia, the United Kingdom, South Africa or Brasil, aren’t we all human citizens of the planet Earth? Why is it that we are so eager to consume the poison that the Russians are feeding us? Not only that, why are we poisoning ourselves? We actually now are keenly aware that they are doing this. So why is it that we continue to sip at this poisoned cup?

This Vaughan Williams project is part of a larger recording project that is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas and was made possible in part by a generous grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music / Intermusic SF.

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Infant Joy

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Infant Joy

NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts about Vaughan Williams' Ten Blake Songs for tenor and oboe that I will be writing over the coming weeks.

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INFANT JOY

I have no name

I am but two days old.— 

What shall I call thee? 

I happy am

Joy is my name,— 

Sweet joy befall thee! 

 

Pretty joy! 

Sweet joy but two days old, 

Sweet joy I call thee; 

Thou dost smile. 

I sing the while

Sweet joy befall thee.

     - William Blake 

Since my first encounters with Britten's Winter Words, I have been inundated with British composers' and poets' fascination with youth and innocence, and the imminent and inevitable threat that life inherently poses to both. Innocence versus experience - it's a dichotomy that humankind has wrestled with for eons. It's one of the predominant themes in Britten's work (not just in his Winter Words, but countless other works, as well), and I have been drawn to ruminating on it in depth for much of my professional life over the past decade or so. As a result of this fascination with the subject, I've been wanting to explore Vaughan Williams' Ten Blake Songs for tenor and oboe recently. Almost all of the songs in Vaughan Williams' piece are settings of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and I can think of no other piece of literature which engages with the subject more directly.

On the one hand, the concept of naïveté's preciousness is a challenging one for me. Growing up as the child of scientists, there was nothing worse in my family than not knowing. Combined with the earnest (and ironically slightly naïve) ethos of tthe internet age (let us make all knowledge and experience accessible to all), which has led to everyone suddenly becoming an expert on everything, this feeling that I need to know all the things or to have experienced everything has only been reinforced. 

On the other hand, as an artist, there is nothing worse than knowing. The greatest artists I know and have the privilege of working with are the ones who never lose their sense of wonder at the world. It's almost as if they are in a perpetual state of discovery of the beauty and awesomeness that surrounds them. Without this sense of wonder, we lose the ability to create our art, and to draw our audience's attention to these beautiful things that can be so easy to take for granted. It is through this lens that I have mostly related to this idea, although there have been other moments of understanding along the way.

Watching Hannah Gadsby's Nanette recently added a whole new layer of understanding as to why this theme has been such a magnetic one for me. If you haven't seen it yet, you should frankly stop reading this blog post right now and set aside 75 minutes for yourself and watch it. It's incredibly moving.  But the reason I mention it now is a specific moment towards the tail end of her show, in which she talks about shame and self-hatred and how we learn that as children: 

"...By the time I identified as being gay, it was too late. I was already homophobic, and you do not get to just flick a switch on that. No, what you do is you internalize that homophobia and you learn to hate yourself. Hate yourself to the core. I sat soaking in shame… in the closet, for ten years. Because the closet can only stop you from being seen. It is not shame-proof. When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thought… you know, carry thoughts of self-worth. They can’t do that. Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in. But when you do that to a child, it becomes a weed so thick, and it grows so fast, the child doesn’t know any different. It becomes… as natural as gravity."

I first encountered Blake's poem, Infant Joy, over a decade ago when I read Vaughan Williams' songs for the first time with a colleague at the Marlboro Music Fesitval, and to be honest, at that first reading the beauty of it was lost on me. I merely took it quite literally and assumed it a simple depiction of a newborn infant. After recently reconsidering it in the context of Hannah Gadsby's speech above, the preciousness of this literary image was suddenly heartbreakingly apparent to me. 

Much like Hannah Gadsby describes, internalized homophobia is something I have had to grapple with my entire life. Even despite having been out for nearly the last quarter century, since I was a teenager. I believe it is something that all of us in the LGBT community wrestle with in one way or another our entire lives. From day one, we realize that we are not normal. And we internalize the world's negativity and, in so many cases, outright hostility towards people like us. It's something that affects our ability to sustain healthy long-term relationships and to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We carry the burden of this shame in one way or another our entire lives, because on some level, we are taught that we aren't worthy of being happy, we are not worthy of pleasure - because we are sinful abominations that should be turned into pillars of salt. Regardless of how successful we are at overcoming that shame - through coming out of the closet, through pride, etc. - some version of it is always there, lurking somewhere deep beneath the surface.

Hearing Hannah Gadsby's words for the first time, I felt like she was speaking my truth. Her words also helped me understand just how precious and valuable the joy of infancy that Blake describes in his poem is. It is the most free and precious time of life, because one only knows joy and wonder. Those seeds of shame haven't been planted yet. Now, listening to Vaughan Williams' setting of this poem, the joyfully arching lines of the oboe and voice that intertwine with each other sound even happier and more glorious. I understand in a new way why they feel so weightless as they soar. This is the time when we are most connected with the Divine, most connected with Love, because we are not weighed down by the shackles of our shame and self-hatred.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Infant Joy from Ten Blake Songs | Nicholas Phan, tenor | James Austin Smith, oboe

This Vaughan Williams project is part of a larger recording project that is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas and was made possible in part by a generous grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music / Intermusic SF.

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