The Story behind the Music

The Blakemore Trio

Nashville’s own mini-Snowmageddon found me at the Blair School of Music, interviewing a daring young composer, Blair dean Mark Wait, and the Blakemore Trio – a trinity of musicians and Blair professors.

(You can hear the WPLN feature here.)

I know approximately nothing about “classical music,” so little, in fact, that I am not sure whether the astonishing sounds I heard that day could properly be classified as such.

Although I’m occasionally transported by music I love, I can’t say honestly that music is “my thing.” Books and food, Ultimate frisbee and outdoorsmanship, languages and aviation – these are worlds I know well, worlds in which I feel at home and possess some degree of expertise.

And so it is that when I take on a story about accomplished musicians, composers, songwriters, or the music biz itself, I find myself a bit ill at ease. Fortunately, I am not embarrassed to ask for help from my very knowledgeable colleagues, like the amazing Craig Havighurst, a Nashville music journalist and author who often writes for NPR and national print publications and maintains a truly excellent music blog.

That’s what’s wonderful about journalism: while it’s great to have a regular beat, and to become an expert on a subject by covering it for years or decades, you don’t necessarily have to be an expert to write knowledgeably about a subject. You just have to be willing to ask questions, to learn, and to admit when you don’t know something.

My general approach to music stories is to ask the subjects I interview to explain things to me as if I were in the fifth grade. When you consider that much of the audience I’m writing for knows about as much as I do about the topic, asking for simple language and a beginner’s overview of a thing actually works pretty darn well. Because the minute an expert starts talking in the jargon of his or her subject (i.e. “arpeggiated,” “virtuosic,” etc.), I get a little bit lost, and I’ll bet the average listener does, too.

For me, the ultimate challenge is to find a way to become fascinated with something that I wouldn’t ordinarily find interesting: in this case, a chamber ensemble premiering a new work for piano, violin, and cello – classical instruments, to be sure, but a piece of music that, to my inexperienced ear, sounds anything but “classical.” I don’t even know what to call music like this. And without the words for it, it’s quite a challenge to tell a simple story of this music to people who, like me, don’t know what a piano trio even is.

Engagement is the key. By the time I’ve chatted for an hour or so with the folks involved, then spent hours studying the subject and (in this case) listening to the music, I usually 1. have come to like the people and 2. have come to like the music. Engagement breeds familiarity breeds enjoyment, I’ve found.

For me, a devoted word person and lover of narrative, I’ve discovered that the best way to get engaged in a piece of music is to learn everything I can about the story of it. That can mean getting to know the writer or artist and finding out what she was thinking when she created it. It can also mean delving into the ideas behind the music, in this case, an excursion into the classics – Virgil’s “The Aeneid.” (More on this in a moment.)

Susan Botti

That Saturday, I immediately took a liking to composer Susan Botti, less because of her searing intellect and talent than because of her genuine enthusiasm and her easy manner. There was no artifice, none of that arch affectation that, unfortunately, some of us rednecks might (unfairly, perhaps) expect to see in an accomplished classical composer. She was a sheer delight, and her excitement about the act of creation bubbled out of her so naturally that it utterly disarmed me. What makes her so interesting is that she’s interested – she loves history and literature and all sorts of music, from jazz to gospel to cabaret. And she even paid for grad school by singing a famous Kodak jingle in 1988. That’s just cool

Listen: [audio]

Interviewing her felt very much like sitting at the bar with a new friend. She told me the story of “Gates of Silence,” the piece she spent three years creating for The Blakemore Trio.

To begin, she got together with poet Linda Gregerson and trolled for ideas. The two seized on the character of Dido, from “The Aeneid.” A queen of Carthage, the strong-willed Dido falls in love with Aeneas (who has escaped from the besieged Troy), and is ultimately abandoned by him when the gods send him to Rome to fulfill his destiny – founding a new civilization. In anguish, she immolates herself on a pyre as Aeneas sails away.

“She’s watching him take the ships after she’s opened up her kingdom,” says Botti. “herself, everything, she’s ready to give him the world, and he leaves and betrays her. And so she makes this decision to kill herself. What is she thinking at that moment?”

That’s the question Gregerson sought to answer as she wrote the long-form poem that served as the lyrics to Botti’s third movement in “Gates of Silence.” Here’s my favorite section, in which Gregerson imagines a scene where Aeneas’s young son so charms Dido that he’s as much a lure to her as the hero himself.

The child.

I might

except for the child have been


But he in all his careless beauty –

cheekbone still untrammeled and the tidemark

of hair at his nape – he sat

beside me where we ate,

he laughed, his every un-

selfconscious bit of lassitude or

fervor was

a manifest that pled the father’s case…

Ahhhh, that masterful use of language! The sheer, chilling pleasure of Gregerson’s verse, matched with the Trio’s haunting strings and chaotic piano chords and arpeggios, and Botti’s sirenlike soprano, completely tranfixed me at last night’s premiere. I was hoping, but not expecting to be transfixed; and I have to admit, I’ve never before felt so transported by chambery/classical-ish/whatever-you-call-it string-and-piano music as I was last night.

I’ve found that a curious mind is a great gift. To be fascinated by the world, to love stories and people and ideas, and to meet them with sincere openness (and only as little cynicism as is absolutely necessary for survival) makes life an infinite, colorful adventure.

Occasionally, I even get paid a little something along the way. Icing.

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