Editor’s Note: Cars. Trains. Festivals. Music. Noise. Sound. The concept of the city is inherently aural. Cities are always thought of in opposition to quiet, to stillness. However, representing cities as noisy is not without its problems; in fact, one thing we have tried to do here at Sounding Out! is question what ideas of quiet and noise carry with them. They are social constructions, like race and gender. We cannot talk about urban sounds in a vacuum.
Cities are an essential part of the scholarly work I do; cities are also an intrinsic part of who I am. So when I started thinking about what I wanted February Forum #3 to be about, I felt it was time to edit a series on city sounds. This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. Regular writer Regina Bradley will discuss the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet, respectively), guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe will take readers on a soundwalk of the Smithfield Horse Fair in Dublin, and CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal. The forum will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?
I’ll be kicking things off in the forum with a critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Take your headphones off and listen up because you might miss your train…—Liana M. Silva-Ford, Managing Editor
Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun starts with the Younger family waking up and getting ready for work. Ruth Younger wakes her son, Travis Younger, to get ready for school. Her husband, Walter Lee Younger, is as reluctant to get up as his son does. After a brief tense exchange with his wife, Walter Lee turns to the paper:
WALTER (…vaguely reads the front page) Set off another bomb yesterday.
RUTH (Maximum indifference) Did they? (Hansberry 26)
With those two lines, seemingly thrown in amid a marital spat, Hansberry evokes the last line of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem”: the aural image, in italics, Or does it explode? Inserting this poem as an epilogue, together with these lines in Act I, Scene 1, foreshadow the race riots of the 50s and 60s. However, these lines could easily fall out of earshot of the audience, or get swallowed up in the tension between Ruth and Walter Lee. In fact, the power of Hansberry’s play lies not just in her focus on the complexities of African Americans’ lives in then-contemporary Chicago, but that much of the action happens off stage, outside of the apartment. The audience must pay close attention to actually hear the story of urban racial violence. Sonic cues become an alternative to talking directly about the racialization of space.
Broadway audiences will soon get the chance to relive those opening lines when A Raisin in the Sun comes back to theaters later this year, starring Denzel Washington and Diahann Caroll. Contemporary audiences will encounter the Younger family’s struggles in the Southside of Chicago. In the play, Lena (Mama) Younger receives a life insurance check after the death of her husband, which lays bare the aspirations and desires of the characters: Lena wants a new home for the family, Beneatha wants to become a doctor, and Walter Lee wants to open up a business. Lena decides to use the money for a down payment of a home in a working-class neighborhood called Clybourne Park. (This neighborhood later inspired the 2010 Bruce Norris play Clybourne Park.) The only problem is that the neighborhood houses only whites. However, Broadway (and Hollywood for that matter) frequently stages revivals; why is A Raisin in the Sun still relevant?
Robert Nemiroff, in the Introduction to the 1994 Vintage Books edition of the play, recognizes that part of the allure of Raisin is that race relations are just as strained as they were in the mid-twentieth century. However, according to Nemiroff the play also holds sway because it holds a mirror up to very human emotions that go beyond race (13-14). James Baldwin, on the other hand, believes its staying power lies in how it showcased the raw fear African Americans felt (and still feel) in a racist society. He mentions in his Introduction to Hansberry’s autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black titled “Sweet Lorraine“,
In Raisin, black people recognized that house and all the people in it—the mother, the son, the daughter, and the daughter-in-law, and supplied the play with an interpretative element which could not be present in the minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but by their knowledge of the streets. (xii)
Baldwin values the context that African American theatergoers brought to the play. For them, the play would already have a soundtrack of terror to go along with it, a soundtrack that African Americans knew by heart. White audiences, on the other hand, would not; they more than likely had to rely on what was on stage. Instead of staging the racial violence on Chicago’s streets, Hansberry renders audible the contours of racialized urban spaces through the people who become the focus of that violence.
Hansberry’s play was inspired by her family’s own situation in moving to Woodlawn in Chicago, which was for the most part white and middle class until the 1950s when racially restrictive zoning ordinances were struck done. In this neighborhood they faced violence and anger from their white neighbors, and were ultimately mandated to vacate the area. Carl Hansberry, father of the playwright, would take this case to the Supreme Court, which later overruled the injunction. George Lipsitz discusses the sociohistorical context surrounding A Raisin in the Sun in his book How Racism Takes Place (2011). He focuses on racialized spaces, and Chicago in Hansberry’s play is a prime example of that. Lipsitz points out, “[m]ore than any other single work of expressive culture, it called (and still calls) public attention to the indignities and oppressions of racialized space in the United States at mid-century” (Loc. 2747). For Lipsitz, A Raisin in the Sun didn’t just represent how race operated in urban spaces but took a stand against it. He states, “Hansberry’s play staged a symbolic rebuke of the white spatial imaginary” (Loc. 2883). In my reading of the textual references to talking, coupled with Hansberry’s choice to stage the play inside the apartment at all times, they call audiences to not just look but listen to how spatialized racism affected African Americans.
It is important to point out the sounds that theater-going audiences in the 1950s, many white and middle/upper-class, would not have heard in the play. A Raisin in the Sun evokes bombings (as seen in the quotation that started this piece), protests, and racial slurs. Although these sounds would be evocative and almost expected in a play about race and urban space in the 1950s, Hansberry stays away from those sounds. The only sounds Hansberry inserts in the stage directions are the sounds of music, children playing on the street, doorbells, and an alarm. In fact, the alarm clock opens the screenplay: “An alarm clock sounds from within the bedroom at right, and presently RUTH enters from that room and closes the door behind her” (24). The presence of alarms, in addition to the ring of the doorbell, is indicative of the busy city life: apartment buildings need bells to announce the arrival of someone downstairs, and alarms coax workers to get up. However, they are the only sonic indicators that Hansberry points out in her play. These sounds makes the apartment seem common, homely; they do not give way to what is happening in Southside Chicago—or in the United States, for that matter—at the moment.
The indications of the urban violence and racism outside of the Younger’s apartment door are in the interactions between the characters. However, it is not just in the events they describe but also in their speech. In that sense, when Hansberry inserts rhetorical cues such as “talking” and “listening,” they do not just refer to plot lines but also as a call for audience members to listen to what is being said (and what is not being said) in the play. For example, Hansberry introduces the three main characters in terms of their diction, their voices. Although this is to be expected in a playwright’s directions to the director, it is also an indication of the importance of speech in this play. Hansberry describes Walter Lee as “inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits–and always in his voice there is a quality of indictment.” Walter constantly vocalizes frustrations about being a black man in America—particularly his frustrations that his family second-guesses his aspirations. His voice carries the stern accusation against racism, but he seems unsure.
Beneatha and Lena also seem wary in their tone. When Hansberry describes Beneatha, she mentions
her speech is a mixture of many things; it is different from the rest of the family’s insofar as education has permeated her sense of English—and perhaps the Midwest rather than the South has finally—at last—won out in her inflection; but not altogether, because over all of it is a soft slurring and transformed use of vowels which is the decided influence of the Southside. (35)
Beneatha’s voice shows a confluence of speech patterns, but also a struggle. The description brings to mind respectability politics, which judge others based on their appearance or their speech patterns. When it comes to Lena, Hansberry describes her as such: “Her speech, on the other hand, is as careless as her carriage is precise—she is inclined to slur everything—but her voice is perhaps not so much quiet as simply soft.” (39). As with Beneatha, Mama’s voice signals a tension: carelessness versus precision. Her softness makes way for the hard truth often in the play. The tension in their voices point to the stress of experiencing racialized urban space. Walter Lee’s experience of racialized space comes from the point of view of a chauffeur for a white businessman, Lena experiences it as a Southern migrant (also, someone who fled the racial violence of the South only to find it again in the North), and Beneatha sees it in her interactions with black men: George Hutchinson, the upper class African American and Joseph Asagai, the international student from Nigeria.
The characters also reference talking in their dialogue. There always seems to be someone who does not want to listen or who feels they are not being heard. For example, when Walter Lee asks Lena about the insurance check that’s supposed to arrive, Lena chastises him: “Now don’t you start, child. It’s too early in the morning to be talking about money. It ain’t Christian” (Hansberry 41). Mama prevents Walter Lee from starting another conversation about his business ideas. In another scene, Walter Lee is annoyed that Ruth dislikes his late-night chat sessions with his buddies in their living room: “the things I want to talk about with my friends just couldn’t be important in your mind, could they?” (27). Later in the play, after Lena finds out Ruth put a down payment for an abortion, she tells Walter, “Son—I think you ought to talk to your wife…” to which he responds, “I can talk to her later.” I read these thwarted efforts to speak and be heard, as vocal metaphors for how African Americans were being ostracized and ghettoized in cities, especially when I consider that the play is set in Chicago.
However, the most pressing example of how talking is representative of racial relations in urban spaces is the visit of Karl Lindner, the representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Although violence had become an unsanctioned form of policing African Americans in urban space, in the play Hansberry opts instead to represent that violence through the presence—and the voice—of Karl Lindner. Initially, Lindner has the attention of Ruth and Walter Younger, and they listen to him talk about the virtues of Clybourne Parks’ neighbors. He gains their sympathy by invoking their sense of equality: “we don’t try hard enough in this world to understand the other fellow’s problem” (117). However, Lindner soon reveals his intentions: he comes bearing an offer to buy the house back from the Youngers to keep them from moving to the neighborhood. The Youngers show shock, to which Lindner replies, “I hope you’ll hear me all the way through” (118). His request is the request of the privileged though, and tries to make it seem like the Youngers are being unreasonable. In Lindner the audience hears the threat of white supremacy.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry focuses on rendering the city audible through the characters. Listening brings a deeper engagement with what is happening in the lives of the characters. Talking marks the bodies of the characters as sites of struggle, as microcosms for what is happening in Chicago in the 1950s—and what would happen later, as Lipsitz discusses in his book. In depictions of the city as noisy, it is often forgotten that part of that noise comes from human bodies, from people. Hansberry breaks through that noise by toning down the hum of the city on stage and focusing on making her audience listen to people. Perhaps a revival of A Raisin in the Sun can make a different generation of Americans tune in to how urban space continues to be racialized today.
Featured image: “VCRasin__DSC7414_Panorama” by Flickr user kabelphoto, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
“Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil”-Leonardo Cardoso
Editor’s Note: This is Liana, Managing Editor for Sounding Out!, introducing you to this special fall installment of our series “Tune Into the Past,” penned by our very own Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman. We at SO! have been waiting for months for Jennifer to share with us a brand-spanking new blog post! She’s back in action this month with a post that asks readers to listen to the cultural landscape that foregrounded Norman Corwin’s success as a radio writer and producer, inspired by her research on her book manuscript on the sonic color-line. In particular, Jennifer addresses the notion of colorblindness and its very real repercussions on radio artists and producers of color in the 1940s. Want to catch up on our series on Norman Corwin? Check out this summer’s posts by radio scholars Neil Verma, Shawn VanCour, and Alex Russo. If you’re all caught up, open your ears and your eyes then (to paraphrase Kurt Cobain). —LMS
Almost every day, I hear someone on the radio hailing America as the home of democracy. Yet almost every network is guilty of discrimination against the Negro performer. There are a few isolated cases of Negroes in broadcasting, but the lily-white policy is seldom violated.—Lena Horne, Chicago Defender 1940
The fine pieces in the “Tune in to the Past” series have thoughtfully considered the audible legacies of Norman Corwin: the “kaleidosonic” aesthetics that Neil Verma called the “Corwinesque,” the virtually seamless melding of artistic and commercial concerns that Shawn VanCour analyzed, and the echoes of Corwin remixed into WNYC’s Radiolab that Alexander Russo amplified. But the research I performed for my book manuscript, The Sonic Color-line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening, about the fraught relationship between race and 1940s radio, left me pondering the gaps and silences of Corwin’s soundscape. Radio’s “Golden Age” was also its most racially segregated: was the philosophy of “colorblindness” that Norman Corwin publicly espoused key to keeping it that way?
It’s not my goal to undermine Corwin’s work, but rather to enhance our understanding of it by embedding his broadcasts in the wider political, historical and sonic fields in which he was enmeshed. Just as Corwin’s sounded legacy left long-lasting traces in our media, so too have the silences and omissions fostered by the media executives, casting directors, union bosses, radio critics, and sonic auteurs of the “Golden Age.” If Corwin’s work is difficult to access save for far-flung archives and spotty collector’s catalogues, the exclusions of African-American producers, performers, and listeners are even harder to hear, in part because of his very insistence that radio’s microphones were colorblind. As the epigraph from Lena Horne testifies, the discourse of democracy is not mutually exclusive with segregation. In what follows, I discuss the intensely segregated history of the “Golden Age of Radio,” arguing that one of Corwin’s most far-reaching legacies may not have been set in motion by his virtuostic broadcasting, but rather by the World War II-era liberalism that shaped it.
The apex of Corwin’s radio career coincided with a profound shift in America’s dominant racial formation, the beginnings of “colorblindness.” By colorblindness, I mean the belief that if individuals and institutions ignored skin color as a signifier and eliminating race as an official category of identity—particularly within governmental institutions—it would cease to matter in American life and all groups would have equitable access to the privileges, opportunities, and freedoms afforded by citizenship. The shift toward colorblindness—what Michele Hilmes calls America’s “wartime racial realignment” in Radio Voices—was predicated on creating a sense of unity that would inspire men across the color-line to sign up to fight what was dubbed a war to end racism and fascism, even as it raged on in their segregated hometowns. The Pittsburgh Courier’s Double V Campaign—Victory against fascism abroad and Victory against racism at home—addressed these ironies. Barbara Dianne Savage’s Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race details the suppression of many black newspapers on military bases due to the Double V Campaign, as well as the pressure it put on government radio programs to address race. However, she notes:
if black people had been forced to rely on radio as their primary means of communication about the failings of the federal government, they would have been on an impossible mission, since they were admitted to radio only as entertainers or as briefly invited guests expected to be on their best behavior (94).
Despite high-profile protests in the black press, mainstream broadcasters constructed radio as an unmediated purveyor of equality and truth with increasing frequency during World War II—its “lofty aerials, symbols of freedom” according to New York Times radio critic Orrin Dunlap. In the case of Norman Corwin, he wrote a symptomatic (and nervy) editorial for Negro Digest in 1945 that depicted U.S. radio as a direct material and technological representation of colorblindness itself.
In “A Microphone. . . is. . . Color Blind”–what revealing ellipses!–Corwin assures black readers that “my feeling about Negroes in radio is that they belong as surely as the microphone.” This strange opening gambit compares black participation in radio to the mute technological presence of the microphone that, while absolutely central to broadcasting, is an object with no inherent agency. Unlike the proprietary, agenda-setting presence of whites in radio, a microphone amplifies the voices of others, while speaking not a word of its own. From his privileged vantage point, Corwin doesn’t quite realize how colorblindness enables him to use black people as tools.
And, while Corwin’s title insists on the microphone’s colorblindness, his article suggests otherwise. Much of his description of what America is missing without black people’s radio presence has to do with aural racial difference: “I have found the same thing that makes Negroes supremely great artists in song makes them great in speech. The color and warmth conveyed in the performance of a Negro artist is directly communicable by air. The microphone is a faithful reporter and says exactly what it hears.” In addition to perpetuating the old stereotype of black people as natural performers, Corwin’s realist depiction of the microphone as a “faithful reporter” that “says exactly what it hears” covers up exactly how much black voices were sculpted for white consumption during this period in radio; as actor Johnny Lee (“Algonquin C. Calhoun” on Amos ‘n’ Andy) told UCLA graduate student researcher Estelle Edmerson in 1954: “I had to learn how to talk as white people believed Negroes talked. Most of the directors take it for granted that if you’re a Negro actor, you’ll do the part of a Negro automatically.”
Whereas radio listeners were able to hear a wide range of white voices in a spectrum of roles—major and minor, comedic, dramatic, musical, informational—the sound and the content of black speech was circumscribed by the sonic color-line that marked it as “automatic,” essential, comedic, and potentially dangerous. Corwin’s use of the word “communicable” rather than “communicated,” for example, is a revealing flourish giving black sound a tinge of contagion and infectiousness. While ostensibly celebrating black voices, this passage simultaneously assures white listeners that they will still be able to unequivocally identify the race of any speaker over the “colorblind” airwaves and that this experience will be a pleasurable one for them. While the microphone may be color blind, it clearly is not color deaf.
That Corwin assumes a white audience becomes more obvious with his assertion a few lines later that “I have found too few Negroes who have taken an interest in radio. I suspect it’s because they don’t know about it.” This statement is fairly incredible, considering that the Research Company of America published a study in the radio industry magazine Sponsor that placed African American radio ownership at 87%, just shy of the national figure of 90% (October 1949, 25). Sponsor dubbed black audiences “The Forgotten 15,000,000.”
In addition to being inaccurate, Corwin’s suggestion that African Americans had limited knowledge of radio performs one of the signature moves of colorblindness; it makes institutional barriers to access—lack of training, networks, and mentorship, as well as straight up discriminatory hiring practices—invisible by asserting that black people only need to work harder to succeed in the American media industry. Under colorblindness, the failure to achieve success equitable to white citizens falls squarely on the shoulders of those oppressed. It also willfully mutes the protest of many black actors—such as Butterfly McQueen—who refused to participate in the segregated industry and the agency of all the black listeners who turned the dial on shows distasteful to them, allowing the fantasy of a unified (white) America to remain a powerful referent.
By and large, Corwin’s article paints colorblindness as already achieved. In his estimation, it is up to black people themselves to take advantages of the opportunities he suggests already await them via the colorblind microphone: “My attitude is not unique among radio directors—at least not in the main centers of radio[. . . ],“Corwin insists, “there is less prejudice in this field than in any other. It exists unfortunately, but you can get a hearing.” For someone whose bread and butter was rhetorical flourish, Corwin’s use of passive sentence construction to discuss racial prejudice is significant—he naturalizes it as something that merely “exists,” tooling along without any specific historical agent performing the discriminatory and oppressive actions. Such omission lets the white gatekeepers of the 1940s radio industry off the hook for both the institutional and individual forms of discrimination that kept the industry largely, as Lena Horne phrased it, “lily-white.”
Radio’s profound whiteness was aural as well as visual. In Corwin’s colorblind America, a radio “hearing” comes at a heavy price for African Americans. Without commenting on educational segregation, Corwin proclaimed: “Negro schools should have in their curriculum courses in public speaking, radio, theater. There is no reason why there should not be Negro announcers. It is important to study diction so that distinction in speech cannot be noted.” While Corwin begins “A Microphone. . . is. . .Color blind” by arguing that black voices should continue to retain the racial markings that are legible (and pleasurable) to white listeners, he then suggests they must also simultaneously sound enough like the white voices surrounding them in order to be heard and accepted as fellow American citizens. Radio didn’t just passively reflect the sounds of American citizenship during this period–it actively constructed them on a foundation of exclusion and silencing.
There remains, then, a profound disconnect between the full exercise of American citizenship, the idealized discourse of colorblind equality forwarded by government officials, media critics, and prominent broadcasters exemplified here by Corwin, and the actual representation of African Americans as radio producers, performers, and listeners during and after this period. At the same time as state-sponsored colorblind ideology rose to prominence during the war years, the U.S.’s airwaves became almost exclusively white. There were no black writers regularly employed by any national radio station during the 1940s and there was not a single black member of the Los Angeles Writer’s Guild. While black authors Langston Hughes and Carlton Moss wrote occasional scripts on one-shot contracts, they were about topics deemed of black interest by the networks. Black radio critic Joe Bostic—who would later become one of the nation’s first black radio sportscasters—described the limited openings for black radio performers:
publication last week of the most authoritative and comprehensive of the radio polls showed not a single Negro entertainer placing in the first ten of any branch of radio entertainment. Such a compilation outlines, in bold relief the disturbing fact that the Negro, long a leader in every phase of entertainment, is being excluded in this newest and most lucrative branch (People’s Voice, 1942).
Regular on-site broadcasts from nightspots that featured black performers all but vanished after 1940, meaning that the vast majority of black musical performances broadcast over the American radio networks were conditioned and mediated by white announcers and sponsors as well as the sounds of white-oriented programming that introduced and followed them.
To be clear, I don’t blame Corwin individually for the ideology of colorblindness and the world it has wrought, but I do think it is important to consider his role as a cultural producer in the “Golden Age” of segregated radio, and as a power broker who helped shape the media landscape with which we now contend. While we commemorate his labors as a sonic artist with high journalistic standards who undoubtedly worked to “glorify the ‘common man,'” we also have to consider the institutionalized privilege that enabled him to claim this role as his own, as well as the many people silenced by him doing so, inadvertently or not. Tuning in to the past demands a vigilant ear attentive to the profound silences of exclusion: the traces of words muted, mangled, disciplined and unsaid, as well as the subterranean reverberations ghosting the triumphant tones of the “Golden Age,” a shadow broadcast, on the lower frequencies, of all the sounds that might have been.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor for Sounding Out! She is also Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University and a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012).
J. Stoever-Ackerman’s recent exploration of the complicated relationship between classical music and social class in America raised some provocative questions for me personally. I am a professional classical musician with a doctorate in voice, as well as the daughter of two working-class white ethnics who became professional intellectuals. My family’s origins, curiously perhaps by today’s standards, did not place classical music out of reach on the far side of the class barrier: my father played in the legendary Hempstead High School Orchestra on Long Island, while my mother, a single teen mom, took herself to the Philharmonic for a Christmas gift every year while she worked in a factory and attended college at night (this was, however, before music instruction was gutted from the public school curriculum in the 1970s and 1980s). As a result, classical music was a very present part of my early life, and, without overstating things too much, I can realistically say that it has helped to form me as a person, and has provided me not only with bread for my body but also, and more importantly, with breath for my soul. I feel like the study and practice of classical music gave me not only my career, but even my life. Coming from this position, then, Stoever-Ackerman’s slighty gulity bemusement at her pleasure in the orchestral concert she attended, and her assertion that “where listening is concerned, resistance and subjection can never be easily separated,” sat uneasily with me.
Stoever-Ackerman’s objections to longhair music are based not only upon class affinity, but also, perhaps unconsciously, in her standpoint as a twenty-first-century American intellectual. As UCLA musicologist Richard Taruskin has noted, it has been au courant since the 1960s for intellectuals to eschew classical music in favor of the various genres of what he calls “commercial music:”
and they often seem oblivious to the very existence of other genres. Of no other art medium is this true. Intellectuals in America distinguish between commercial and “literary” fiction, between commercial and “fine” art, between mass-market and “art” cinema. But the distinction in music is no longer drawn, except by professionals. Nowadays most educated persons maintain a lifelong fealty to the popular groups they embraced as adolescents, and generation gaps between parents and children now manifest themselves musically in contests between rock styles.
If, as has already been discussed extensively at this site, pop and its various genres make up the (only?) legitimate musical repertoires of the American working classes–both white and of color–I believe it’s time for a word from the trenches of musical praxis: this is not necessarily so, nor should it be.
While earning my doctorate at the City University of New York, I taught for two years as a graduate assistant and for another two as an adjunct at two of CUNY’s senior, i.e. four-year, colleges. In the heart of an urban metropolis, I taught studio and class voice, that is to say both individual lessons and singing classes en masse. My students, with very few exceptions, were from the outer-borough working classes, traveling long distances on public transportation to attend college while working and in some cases parenting, and they represented a variety of races and ethnicities, with whites solidly in the minority. Most of my private-lesson students were older than I was, returning students who had been sidetracked by life and various dead-end jobs from finishing their bachelor’s degrees at a more usual age. Since I am a classical singer, I taught everyone the same thing: classical singing. My voice students studied classical musical practice and classical music repertoire not only because I believe that healthy classical technique is the basis of good vocal technique across genres — that is, if you can sing well in the classical style, you can sing anything well — but also because I know, in the depths of my being, that the experience of making classical music is healing and transformative for the person who undertakes it, an experience that should be denied to or refused by no one. In this sense, classical music praxis was, in my studio, a tool for self-transformation, self-empowerment, and self-expression that ignored distinctions of class and race. This might suggest that classical music is in fact a subversive practice for the working classes and people of color, and perhaps it is, though I see it more as a human right.
In teaching these diverse classes, I tried very hard to discern what sort of a person each of my students was, and to choose the right repertoire for each based not only on vocal characteristics but also on everything the student presented to me: his or her ethos, if you will. The truth is that I loved and respected my students, and I felt a heavy responsibility for making their experience as fledgling classical musicians one that would enrich their lives. They were, as I mentioned, from wildly divergent backgrounds. One was the daughter of a famous Puerto Rican bandleader who had discouraged her from a career in music, her true love; she made a living selling gloves and hats from a table outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One was a Haitian Seventh-Day Adventist, a highly intelligent, spinsterish woman who spoke German as well as French, and whose singing revealed hints of a magnificent natural instrument — if only she had been physically and psychically free to the point that she could have accessed it. Another was T., a shy, socially-awkward man in early middle age who worked as a paralegal, and who confided after three lessons that he was a recovering alcoholic. Many of my students, I perceived, were profoundly wounded and heartbroken people. Though occasionally they spoke of their traumas and difficulties, words were not really necessary; the dynamic of the private voice lesson is so transparently revealing, and the rough areas in the voice provide such an accurate mirror of the catches in the soul, that I didn’t need to look hard to grasp their woundedness, if not always the nature of their wounds. This is why, as every classical singer and voice teacher know, tears are a commonplace in the voice studio. And this is why it is so essential that a voice teacher be compassionate. The voice — that intangible, ethereal instrument played by the passage of air over two threads of gristle in the throat — can be not only a diagnostic gauge of the inner singer, but also, ideally, a means of healing for both the singer and her audience.
T. surprised me in our first lesson by bringing in a song he was working on on his own. Occasionally students did this, the song generally being from the Broadway repertoire. T.’s choice, however, was Robert Schumann’s “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden.” This piece is number 5 of the Op. 24 Liederkreis, a song cycle based on poems from the Buch der Lieder of Heinrich Heine, the greatest poet of German Romanticism (and also a notable Jewish convert to Christianity, who famously declared on his deathbed in Paris: “I know that God will forgive me my sins: c’est son métier“). This was an ambitious choice. I usually started my students on one or more of the shopworn Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. But T.’s German was excellent, and he even directed me in how he wanted me to accompany him in the piano part; he had rather well-formed ideas and opinions about how the piece should sound, one of the hallmarks of a true musician.
“Schöne Wiege” starts off as a gently-rocking lullaby-like song (what we in the biz call a “strophic berceuse”), then turns quickly into a rhapsodic, though brief, through-composed quasi-operatic number (a “scena”), with the off-kilter rhythmic phrases and the melodic angularity typical of Schumann. Its subject, and the subject of the song cycle in which it is the pivot, is that great theme of German Romanticism: unhappy love that forces the wounded lover on a journey which, in some treatments, ends in death or madness. My translation follows:
Beautiful cradle of all my sorrows, beautiful tomb of my repose,
Beautiful city, we must part: “Farewell,” I call to you.
Farewell, you holy threshhold where my beloved wanders;
Farewell, sacred spot where I first saw her.
And had I never seen you, beautiful queen of my heart,
The wretchedness I now endure would never have befallen me.
I did not wish to touch your heart; I did not seek your love —
I wished only to live a quiet life near the place where your breath flutters.
But you yourself drive me from here; your mouth speaks bitter words.
Madness takes hold of my mind, and my heart is sick and sore.
And I drag my weary, weakened limbs away, leaning on my wanderer’s staff,
Until the time I might lay by tired head in some cool, far-off grave.
I was astonished by T.’s innate feeling for this difficult piece, and we quickly came to the point where I felt like I was serving him badly by accompanying him on the piano myself. I hired a student accompanist, an excellent pianist from Sweden, to come to our lessons, paying her out of pocket. Once out from behind the piano, I could work with T. more intensely on his breath and his phrasing. This ushered in one of the most thrilling times I’ve ever had as a teacher. Working on “Schöne Wiege” in the studio with T. and the accompanist, I felt as if we were riding a cresting wave together as three musicians. T. achieved moments in which there was a synergy between his vocal line and the equally important piano part, and when not only the melody and the meaning of the text, but even the sounds of the words themselves created multiple layers of meaning in his performance. Especially stunning was the way that he was able to sing each repetition of “Lebewohl!” (farewell!) differently, drawing one out with rubato, clipping another. I would leave these lessons feeling elated, as if I had finally found what I was meant to do with my life.
T. wanted to audition for the B.M. degree at CUNY, a more prestigious program than the B.A. he was pursuing, so we started working on an audition program. I gave him an Italian piece, a piece by French late-Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré, the aching tenor showpiece “Lonely House” from Kurt Weill’s 1947 American opera Street Scene (often performed by university music departments because of its plethora of ensemble roles), for which Langston Hughes wrote the libretto:
And, finally, “Der Lindenbaum,” the best-known piece from Franz Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise. “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree) also treats the theme of being made to leave home forever, driven on by the unforgettable pain of love gone wrong, and it has become a kind of folk-song in the German-speaking lands:
In one stanza of “Der Lindenbaum,” the narrator describes how, in the course of his journey, the cold wind has blown his hat away, and yet he does not stop. T. mentioned something that I hadn’t considered: that in Europe in the 1820s, a man outdoors without his hat would have been committing an unthinkable social transgression; the fact that the narrator doesn’t turn back for his hat, T. suggested, showed the desperation of his plight, and was a clear foreshadowing of the madness into which he almost willfully descends at the end of the song cycle. I realized that T. was the kind of student I had dreamed of teaching, one who gave serious thought to the meaning of the text and the music, and to the reasons composers might have had for writing as they did.
When the time for T.’s audition came around in the spring, he clutched. I had instructed him to start the audition–at which I was not allowed to be present–with one of his best pieces, the Weill or the Schubert, but he second-guessed the audition committee and decided that they would probably want to hear the Italian piece first. A mistake. He wasn’t admitted, and the following year switched his major from voice to music composition.
Near the end of the school year, I organized a recital for my students. T. was to sing “Lonely House” and “Lindenbaum.” He rushed in just as the recital was starting with an etiolated, sickly-looking man whom I realized was his boyfriend in tow. He told me at the intermission that he almost hadn’t come. His beloved cat was near death, and he was beside himself. He got through his pieces, though he didn’t shine.
This made me think about all the dreadful times in my life when I had kept on singing. There was simply nothing else to do; many times singing had seemed the only thing left to me. In our next lesson, one of our last, I mentioned obliquely some of these occasions in my own life, which included abortion and divorce. An artist, I explained, has to be cool-headed even in the face of great personal suffering. C’est son métier. It’s her job to sublimate her suffering into a balm that might touch those who hear her, and give them the healing that she seeks for herself. Arising out of our nonetheless-shared western cultural heritage, classical music is a gift to us twenty-first century Americans across race and class, and, in some small way, those who practice it can use this gift — the gift of beauty — to transform our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others.
I never saw T. again after that, except once by chance, as I was heading to a pub in Midtown to meet my boyfriend. He still had a CD I lent him, the wonderful Tryout, which features recordings of Kurt Weill singing and playing his own songs in rehearsal for the Broadway shows he wrote.
For a final treat, here’s an excerpt from that CD, Kurt Weill singing a snatch of his famous song “Speak Low” from the 1947 musical “One Touch of Venus,” for which American poet Ogden Nash wrote the lyrics. In Weill’s performance, the great tradition of the German art song — the tradition of “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden” and “Der Lindenbaum” — meets the race-and-class-fraught American popular music scene; the song became a beloved standard, and was sung by the great jazz triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, among others. Here, Weill’s fragile-sounding vocal delivery and heavy German accent embody the world-weary European composer (Weill was a refugee) delivering himself into the capable and vital hands of a musical culture built by immigrants and former slaves.