Beautiful Music

bloom / space vol. 3: winter break by Allison Bloom

Dear friends,
This letter may be a little more scattered than I’d like. My kids are on winter break and it’s hard to write complete, never mind elegant, sentences while two little people talk to you all day long (often at the same time; often taking up, in mid-sentence, a conversation we had two days ago). We have lots of projects to work on (baking, card-making, library cataloguing and reorganization with LibraryThing, doing recycling crafts, spending time with friends and family), but still the lack of a definite routine puts everyone a bit at loose ends. When everyone is frazzled, I’m trying to remember to share a snack, some tea, and a story.
We have many favorite fairy tale books, but among those we’re reading from are theCandlewick Book of Classic Fairy Tales (which strikes a balance between leaving in some of the gory details of the original Grimm brother stories, but without making it too much for squeamish modern sensibilities), Not One Damsel in Distress is another we have been turning to for some more girl-power stories, and we also love Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, which has a similar selection of tales. For my 4-year-old, who can sometimes get impatient with the long unwinding of traditional wonder tales, we also like The Barefoot Book of Fairy Tales, which has short, snappy retellings of all the European classics. 
But besides fairy tales, we also love tales about fairies, which are a totally different thing. Our copy of If You See a Fairy Ring, a book with lovely shuttered “magic window” illustrations and classic poems about fairies, has been flipped and folded so many times, its spine is re-bound with duct tape. The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies is another favorite. We can spend hours poring over (and then imitating with watercolor or colored pencil) the botanical-magical illustrations by Cicely Mary Barker. And The Barefoot Book of Fairies is a great collection of tales and poems about fairies — not so much the Tinkerbell kind, but more the “wee folk” kind who make mischief in the hills and hearths of Celtic lands. 


I thought I would be writing to you this week all about playing our new piano. We bought one! But alas, it could not be moved. We tried three times. I said to the moving company, “It’s a huge old Kimball 1913 Upright Grand. It’s in an anthropology professor’s basement. Are you sure you can move a huge piano like that up a flight of stairs?” (Despite what it sounds like, it was a lovely piano, the best used piano I’d yet seen.) Three times I asked, and three times they assured me that they could, but… but… they couldn’t. However! I am not giving up the search for a reasonably-priced, starter piano that will hold its tuning and has decent action and tone. 
As I was anticipating the piano move, I got out all my old sheet music. I’m really looking forward to playing my old piano lesson faves: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 Op. 13 (“Pathetique,” played here by Daniel Barenboim), Satie’s Trois GymnopediesClementi’s Sonatina Op. 36 No.1. The Beethoven is a little beyond me through I struggle bravely, and the others are simple enough that I can manage them. I also just need a piano so I can get out my favorite arias to bang out and sing along: Handel’s “Ah Spietato” and “Scoglio d’immota fronte.”


I loved looking through these photographs by Eva Besnyö, and learning a little about her. Images on the internet are strange: so many fly by us every day, they are so easily accessible and expendable, they are clichéd and taken for granted. And yet: something from an image can still catch us and hold us, some layer of meaning beyond the obvious surface of what’s happening in the scene. The emotional layer beneath (or comprising) the visual layer.


In honor of last night being the Solstice, and the fact that we are now tipping toward the sun, the days getting a little bit longer, the feeling of tipping into hope: Here Comes the Sun performed by George Harrison (with spanish subtitles! learn to sing it in a new language)! I love the smile on his face as the crowd applauds in recognition of the first few bars. (My favorite Beatle. oh George.)
The danger of this newsletter is that it’s easy to go off onto immense tangents. I could tell you about listening to George Harrison’s Cloud Nine cassette on Sunday afternoon drives in the country in the back seat of my dad’s car. I just learned that Eric Clapton played on that record, which leads me to telling you how we’ve been listening to a lot of Eric Clapton and it’s really funny to hear my 4-year-old singing “Bellbottom Blues,” and that she does an impressive guitar howl. But anyway.
Have you heard that the Beatles will be coming to most streaming services on December 24?! Apple Music, Spotify, etc. Get ready to crank Helter Skelter, which you can’t do right now unless you physically own it.

As I’ve been re-arranging all the research I’ve compiled for my dissertation, I come across some gems that I might be able to use in the new version of the text. I’m trying desperately to find a way to include something about Émile Reynaud’s Pantomimes Lumineuses in my chapter on commedia dell’arte in fin de siècle France (even if it’s just relegated to a footnote). I can’t give away my argument here, but I think it’s very telling that l’éternel Pierrot, a character descended from 16th century Italian street theater, shows up in the newest, most cutting-edge technology in France right before the 20th century. 

The Pantomimes Lumineuses was part of the inventor Reynaud’s proto-cinematic show in 1892, using his device the Théatre Optique. It’s significant that the three brief animations he presented were called “pantomimes,” because this title connected them to the live-action pantomimes that had been popular on Paris’s Boulevard du Temple since the early 1800s. Thanks to the astounding magic of youtube, you can view the animated Pauvre Pierrot — a classic commedia love triangle between Pierrot, Colombine, and Arlequin, set in an enclosed garden; and we can hear an adapted version of the music composed for the short film by Gaston Paulin. Accompaniment for pantomime in live theater and later in early cinema was frequently ephemeral, semi-improvised from a stock of “comic tunes” that the pianist put together on the fly to emphasize the physical action on the stage/screen. Paulin’s score used similar techniques, using emphatic, rhythmic music to accompany Arlequin’s antics. (You may also be aware of the Pantomimes Lumineuses from the famous poster by Jules Chéret, below)

I couldn’t decide between these two songs — recorded on my iPhone while doing laundry as usual — so I included them both. I’m interested in seeing what I can do with my singing, not so much in trying to sound professional or smooth. My university vocal training was very rigid, in a way, very proscriptive about the kinds of sounds I could make with my voice. But voices are so much more than properly-placed, legato, vibrato-rich operatic sounds, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out as I sing to myself. What can my voice do? I’ve been thinking — theoretically, properly, studiously — about theoretical questions about the voice and vocality for a long time, but by singing (to myself, to you, as a silly fun thing that is also a discipline), I’m able to get into these questions from the inside. Physically embody the questions and give them voice. 
First song: “Elastic Heart” by Sia. Vocally demanding, wide range, forceful and emotional. I can’t match her vocal power and style but I love the way this song feels to sing.
Second song: “The Moon is Made of Gold,” written by Rickie Lee Jones’s father, Richard Loris Jones, and recorded on her amazing album Balm in Gilead. More melodically challenging (and a challenge to stay in tune a cappella), a beloved song that is becoming more and more a part of me the more I sing it. 

The tarot card I drew this week is the Princess of Wands. She is a torrent of passion, energy struggling to break free of stagnant patterns, she is the facing / releasing / becoming one with fears, dissolving old bonds. Tarot cards, for me, sometimes act as a lens: when I look at my life through the symbols of this card, what do I see?

Shedding the old year and moving ahead into more passion and energy.


I got partway through making a Christmas playlist on Spotify to share with you, and midway through it I got sick of listening to Christmas music. But I believe in revisiting the classics when appropriate, so if you have any cookie-decorating or tree-trimming yet to do, you might want to throw on this playlist
If you’re in the Christmas spirit, you might want to check out this list of the 25 best Christmas albums. Or take an hour to watch the best TV Christmas special of all time, Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas. It features performances by Grace Jones, KD Lang, Charro, the Del Rubio triplets, Dinah Shore, and basically every other damn kitschy performer you can think of.The whole thing is on youtube!
I also made a winter hibernation spirit playlist, because that’s really what I feel more like listening to. You can grab that on Spotify here (it includes some of the music I talked about in previous tinyletters). 

Finally, I have three questions for you as I work on the next issue of this bloom / space letter:
  1. what are your preferred music discovery routes / paths / channels these days? There are so many options – the days of trusting your friends’ (actual physical cassette) mixtapes and that little indie record store downtown to deliver great new music are long over. What do you use? Have you tried the Spotify Discover Weekly Service? What do you think? Other favorite ways to discover great new sounds in the vast ocean in which we float? (This is a question I often ask college students on their first-day-of-class index cards.)
  2. what are your favorite cover songs? what are covers that have made you understand the song itself — its words, its meaning, its feeling, its atmosphere — better or in a new way? I have my favorites but I want to know yours.
  3. is there anything you’d like me to add to the tinyletter? Topics to cover, ideas to consider, favorite musicians or artists to include? I can’t promise I will do what you want (cuz I’m a free bitch, baby), but I’d love to hear your ideas.
You can reply to this email and let me know your answers to the above questions, or anything else you want. 
With all my sparkliest holiday wishes,
Allison Bloom / @mrsdarkly 

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