The Program Notes You Won’t See at My Recital

I’d love to write program notes for people who’d love to read them. I’d love to offer a digital version you can read on your phone (I don’t care if you have your phone out at my recital). I’d love to bring in extra recycling bins for everyone to dump the physical copies that will probably go unread.

Just last week I was reminded of my least favorite question: “How do you have time to read a book?” It’s the most judgmental question you can ask a person. You’re saying, “How dare you use your time wisely when I would rather complain about how busy I am.” Everyone is busy. You make time for things you want to do. I want to read.

Because of this, instead of program notes, I would much rather have a recommended reading list to occupy you during my recital. The rules are simple: books are listed under their corresponding flute piece, with a short summary describing why it was selected. Use this summary to choose one book to bring to the performance, either from the list or let it inspire your browse through the library.

Program notes are my favorite part of a performance. I want to know the performer when I read their notes. This performance is heavily inspired by literature, which is a personal tool I cannot add to my own notes. Use this hour to open a book if it’s something you joke about never getting to do.

Partita in A minor for flute solo, BWV 1013, J. S. Bach

The Partita is four movements of dance music. The styles are traditionally refined, but Bach adds just enough scandal in the harmonies to make it interesting. For this, look for American classic literature: This Side of Paradise, the pseudo-autobiographical novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald about well-to-do young men who get away with more than they should because they are men; or Lost Lady by Willa Cather, a shorter novel about a socialite woman who gets away with nothing because she is a woman, no matter how charming and attractive.

Sonata “Undine” for flute and piano, Op. 167, Carl Reinecke

“Undine” refers to a German romantic fairytale of a water sprite who marries a knight to gain a soul. Several reiterations of this story exist (most notably “The Little Mermaid”) in other cultures, many of them with a sad ending. Reinecke was inspired by the tale, but the sonata is not strictly narrative. I turned to the four Books of Earthsea when searching for imagery. The first, A Wizard of Earthsea, is headstrong and invincible. Magic in Earthsea is held by those who know “the true names of things,” the language of the Making. The protagonist, Ged, is as reckless as the playful melody of the first movement. He isn’t faced with the truth of his power until the second movement, which is repetitive and tumultuous. It is broken by a humbling, romantic melody, and returns quietly to vivace. The final movement is represented by the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore, which was originally intended to conclude the trilogy. The romantic melody of the second movement returns, almost as an afterthought. Similarly, the final book, Tehanu, was written decades later when Le Guin, then middle aged, could tell Ged’s story in the next stage of his life. I have written above this passage a line from the third book: “I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.”

Syrinx, Claude Debussy

In Greek mythology, Syrinx was a follower of Artemis known for her chastity. She is pursued by the god Pan, and asks for help from the water spirits when he corners her and threatens her virtue. They turn her into hollow water reeds that whistle hauntingly when the god angrily breathes across them. Pan cuts them down, fashions the first set of pan pipes, and plays this melody. It is mournful, yet not overly sad; it is multi-faceted and finds new colors each way you turn it. The poetry of W. S. Merwin is similarly meditative and nostalgic. Open any page of Vixen.

An Idyll for the Misbegotten, George Crumb

Crumb chose flute and percussion as the voice of nature and quiet intensity. When I was learning this piece, Dr. Chaffee assigned Julie Otsuka’s books for the latter qualities. A Buddha in the Attic describes the lives of female Japanese immigrants in California in the years before and during WWII. The book describes actions only with simple language, never elaborating or assuming a character’s reasons. Crumb writes in the program note: “The ancient sense of brotherhood with all life-forms … has gradually and relentlessly eroded, and consequently we find ourselves monarchs of a dying world.”

The middle of the piece quotes eighth century Chinese poet Ssu-K’ung Shu: “The moon goes down. There are shivering / birds and withering grasses.” This is whispered into the flute, eerily evoking images of speech through the trees. Crumb laments the “illegitimacy” of mankind in the natural world, our invasion of a community we are killing. This is personified in Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi book, The Word for World Is Forest, where humans harvest resources from an alien planet and its humanoid inhabitants quietly retaliate.

Not a Photographer

I got a refurbished Nikon CoolPix L840 for my birthday a few years ago. It’s small and user-friendly and perfect for travel, which is really the only time I’m particularly inspired to take photos. It’s easy to go for the tourist-y photo ops when you’re an actual tourist.

In Denver, I wanted to go out and take photos every weekend, but I really only did twice. I was trying very hard to look like I lived there and wasn’t another transplant (though that’s exactly what I was) taking tourist photos with my point-and-shoot while beanie-wearing Coloradans with trendy tattoos stood next to me with their DSLRs, two different tripods, and a designer leather backpack full of lenses. I was intimidated.

I’m not a photographer. I don’t want to be. I like taking photos, but I have no real talent for it and no intention to improve.

Once the weather in Ohio became sunny and above 30 degrees, I got that old urge to pull out the camera. It’s become synonymous with the desire to hike and be outside that surfaces every spring. I put on a hat and was at the Clifton Gorge trailhead less than an hour after making this decision.

There is an interview with Bill Hayes in advance of his new book of photography How New York Breaks Your Heart that talks about his love affair with the city and the people in it. His previous book Insomniac City describes this relationship as though NYC is a living being worthy of affection. I guard this book closely for how it accurately describes my feelings of Denver, though I was there under a year and Hayes has been in New York since 2009. Some places take your heart just like people can. I don’t miss it like home, but I am homesick for both.

I’ve always liked hiking alone (I like doing most things alone, honestly), and the camera makes me slow down in different ways. I’m not just looking around me; I’m looking specifically for a good shot, and for the things I can’t catch in a photo. I can photograph the gorge next to me, but not the different sounds it makes at different points on the trail. I can zoom closely on the dead leaves still clinging to branches, but can do nothing at the exact moment the breeze catches them.

I saw several other photographers on the trail. One man stationed deep in the gorge, off the trail behind the flood warnings that urge people to not pass the trail markers. Another was walking along the trail like me, a large gear bag strapped to his back and walking sticks around his wrists. Mostly, though, it was hikers pulling out their phones at the overlooks.

When you look for the things worth photographing, they’re suddenly abundant. It’s no secret I’m struggling to love Ohio still. But as I look for more photo subjects, I see better how other peole can love it here, just like Hayes looks for the ways others love New York.

I was defensive of Fort Smith when anyone said there wasn’t anything there. I want to feel the same for Dayton.

Still no interest in being a better photographer. But I do want to love where I am better than I do.

Springtime Jam for Anyone Kinda Bitter about Spring

I don’t hate spring. I do love cold weather and I live for fall/winter fashion, but I tend to like whatever season is happening.

But it’s 70 degrees in February in Ohio and I’m conflicted.

I have no clothes for this. I am not ready to bring out spring black. I’m wearing cuffed jeans and I refuse to shave my legs.

I like whatever season is happening. I get excited about new weather once it starts, but that’s the beauty of it: new seasons start without anyone noticing the last one ended. They’re supposed to blend into each other without seams. But winter lets go slowly. There’s a very definite dying period of “winter weather” snow and sleet followed by sunshine days that leave the snow in a muddy late winter mush, much like 90’s pop stars trying hard to make a comeback after gaining 30 lbs and losing some hair. One can’t help but feel bad for winter past his prime.

Because I’m loyal to the joys of winter, I defy this period. Saturday had beautiful snow in the afternoon; I sipped coffee in fuzzy socks and made chili. Sunday I pried the windows open in lieu of turning on the AC (in February) and was forced outside to buy warm weather clothes since I own and desire so few. I came out with one black t shirt.

I moved north for winters and have gotten used to disappointment.

Today was a rare weekday that I got to sleep in, drink my coffee from home, and open the window again for my cat who is ever curious of the outside but refuses to explore it herself. I turned on KTCL 93.3 on iHeartRadio (a Denver station I still listen to regularly, where there’s a low of -1 today and I’m in a tank top) and heard the perfect springtime song for when romantic flings pollute the air for three months straight.

It’s a bop, upbeat and peppy and perfect for opening the moonroof in a Starbucks drive-thru. The lyrics are just the right amount of cynicism for my feelings this time of year: not just of love, but all the passive-aggressive thoughts we thought music left behind in 2005. It’s the formulaic pop song with two almost-witty verses and an over-repeated hook that is also the title. I’m not sure if the Jackson Pollock reference is a burn to abstract expressionism or a compliment. As a trained musician and educated writer, it should be everything I hate. This morning I turned the car radio way up and sang along with my windows down.

In the Margins of Last Week’s Program Book

Chamber Music Yellow Springs
February 11, 2018
Bennewitz Quartet
First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs
7:30 PM

The following notes were written and compressed between printed words of the program. They are ordered here (more or less) chronologically.

This is the trick to sitting through a performance: Let your mind wander.

 

Leos Janacek, String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”

Feeding oneself one nut, one fruit, one leaf
as monkeys feed ended with control of fire.
We became
communal,
Became communities of who does what —
Who scoops honey from hives
Who cuts tongue from antelope
Who scrapes corn from husk

We became
arranged
Into cooks and hunters,
Husbands and wives,
Into worlds of many small fires and many small roofs.
Fathers and daughters, lovers and ex-es,
connected
by a desire to forget our histories.

(From Many Small Fires by Charlotte Pence)

Bedrich Smetana, String Quartet No. 1, E minor, “From My Life”

Beginning of III. Largo sostenuto: In the audience: Many heads bowed — sleep or prayer?

I imagine someone had these same thoughts in this same place this morning during service.

 

Intermission

If I look up, it’s easy to pretend I’m in a church in the Ozarks. Even in winter the celestial windows would be open; a bat could fly in any moment, trapped above us. I was homesick before I left.

Reading: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. A basket of cough drops is passed around me. I thought it was an offering plate.

 

Antonin Dvorak, String Quartet in G major, op. 106

I retract my string quartet envy. You can love things differently from a distance. More purely, somehow.

I Talked to a Stranger / Orchestra Season Announcement Season

I probably shouldn’t have yelled at the guy who gave me a free orchestra ticket.

It wasn’t aggressively. I was at my current favorite coffee shop (still trying to replace my favorite in Denver that replaced my favorite in Fort Smith) doing homework, the Monteverdi score I was annotating covering more than my share of the communal table, when a stranger leaned over and asked, “Do you like violin?”

What a vague question. I barely looked up to say, “I guess I don’t hate it.” He slid over a ticket for a concert two hours from then in Springfield, half an hour drive from that spot. I stared at it long enough for him to awkwardly explain what it’s for, and I interrupted to ask if he was just giving this to me. He said yes. I practically screamed but why?

In my memory, people ceased conversation, the coffee house playlist stopped, and everyone turned to look at the slightly deranged woman with Saturday Afternoon Homework Hair scream at a stranger. But he didn’t take the ticket back so I went to Springfield. (After posting a Snapchat video explaining where I was going and where to look if I go missing, just in case.)

Springfield itself doesn’t have much to report. Downtown was quaint in passing, but even the best cities look dreary in this muddy snow that will never melt, despite it being 50 degrees outside. It was a 5 pm concert, so I felt confident showing up in a dirty Subaru and jeans and just enough makeup to not look quarantined.

I found the guy I yelled at two hours before, and he directed me to our seats (I had wondered if he would be there or if he also gave away the other ticket in some odd ticketing roulette). We had four minutes left of small talk and I reveled in the beauty of local orchestras: I wasn’t a sore thumb in my painfully casual attire; ushers and box office workers and coat room attendants are all volunteers, and know many of the patrons personally and probably too well for people who only speak at concerts; there’s no awkward wait in the women’s restroom line when everyone chats about how lovely the orchestra sounds and how lucky they are to have this in their hometown. I think every audience member I was within earshot of knew a musician on stage — was their neighbor or went to church with them when they were kids. This orchestra is a fixture of their community.

It was in this bathroom line I was told the guest artists that night, the Shimasaki sisters, were Springfield natives. Only as a hometown affair could a small orchestra get not one but two talented musicians with impressive bios, and only at their own local concert hall could two sisters in their twenties play Bach’s double violin concerto in matching dresses (which was adorable).

When I was offered the ticket, I was in the middle of a two day-long text conversation about representation in orchestras (specifically, programming habits of both local and national organizations to only play music by dead white men, including the latest season announcement in my own back yard). As this ticket was handed to me, I was sent this photo:

Basically, we’re running out of excuses to play the same pieces on loop for centuries.

Because of this conversation, I was extremely aware of the audience demographics of the Springfield Symphony (which unfortunately reflects the demographics of most American concert-goers) and assumed the program in my lap would disappoint me. My ticket provider, oblivious to my snobbery, asked if I’d heard any of the composers before. I sighed and opened the program.

Of course Bach, preceded by Telemann. The conductor came on stage and made a joke about the government shutdown that day (another thing that can only be done in local orchestras). I looked ahead at the program, pleasantly surprised to see Piazzola’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. My ticket stranger loves tango, and said that’s what brought him to this concert.

“Especially the Golijov,” he said.

“The who?”

He looked at me blankly and pointed to the program in my hand.

Osvoldo Golijov, a living composer, who wrote Last Rounds for strings the year of Piazzola’s death. I wasn’t familiar. It was played standing, with the violins and violas intermingling in two columns to either side of the stage, the cellos and basses in rows in the back. The conductor said things like “sexy” and “lusty” and the audience chuckled.

It’s easy to know your audience when your audience is your hometown. The program survey insert seemed redundant.

They knew their audience and still made half a contemporary program: one composer was not white, and the other was not dead. What a far cry from the large orchestras with copy-and-paste masterworks concerts who claim Mozart and Beethoven are all their audience wants.

It’s not a cure to misrepresentation in classical music, but I left the concert hall feeling thankful and a little less cynical, opening the Snapchat replies to my potential call for help.

Don’t worry guys, I’m ok.

The American Dream Is My Backup Plan

I’d be reading so many books if I wasn’t so insistent on a music career.

As a consequence of reading I’d probably be writing more, and not for a class. I don’t know what I’d be writing for.

If I’m writing more I’d be around other writers and creatives who want to grow a community. What a change from peers who secretly look at you as job competition.

This (and Chance The Rapper’s take on the gospel) is what I thought about on my 12 hour drive home this week.


There is a theory (pretty sure I read this in a John Green novel) that every decision you make creates a parallel universe — the one that follows the decision you made, another that forks at the one decided against. The more choices you make, the more the path branches, creating an infinite number of possibilities for what your life and the lives of others could be.

Sometimes, I like to check in on the other Lakens, see how they’re doing, wonder if I’d like being them better than being me. My favorite one happened when I decided to move to Ohio after coming home from Denver.

I have no doubts that where I am is the right choice. Sometimes, though, when that gets overwhelming, I remember the options I imagined for myself last summer, when I had just barely any time to back out. They centered around being near my family and friends, and seeking out career satisfaction above education level. I wouldn’t be afraid to take a job outside of my field if it makes me happy. I would live in a small apartment with large windows for my indoor garden. I might even know my neighbors by name.


The equally best and worst part about small town life is the curse of your name. Everyone knows it and everything good or bad that goes along with it. I sat in a coffee shop with a college friend yesterday while we simultaneously talked about our own lives and those of whichever person just walked in, moving back and forth from both topics with little effort. This is her least favorite part about Fort Smith, Arkansas. We know everybody, which is great, but they also know us.

When I was a freshman and sophomore, anyone I met in town over a certain age recognized my last name and asked who my father was. Usually this was forced and awkward, because I was 19 and didn’t know these people. But sometimes it worked out well, like when I found out the college advisor who had to sign off on my graduation was an old family friend; other times I found out my older sister got in a fist fight with my new optometrist a decade or more ago, but no one tells me until the appointment is done and I go home.


There are probably three to five parallel universe Lakens that stayed in Fort Smith. I’m sure some of them live at home still, and at least one is married or divorced with children by now. I don’t check on them.

I have this secret dream to build a home out of storage containers. I have a Pinterest board dedicated to these plans, and when I pin enough hair styles and crochet patterns I eventually follow through, so I don’t see how this is different. I’ve always been bitter about the condition of Fort Smith bookstores (BAM is fine if you want large publishing house sellers, and Snoopers Barn is fun if you are curious about how many used romantic novels can actually fit in one store) and I’m certain this alternate Laken is on her way to owning an indie bookstore with a cafe and small event space, with a boutique reading list and a dog that comes to work with her every day. She has ambitious yet totally realistic hopes of being a homeowner/small business owner in rural-adjacent Arkansas.

Yeah, there’s still time in my life for this to happen, but I’m taking no steps towards it now. I only feel this wistful when I’m on the road home, or sitting at my mother’s dining room table with morning coffee, or seeing what my friends are doing here for this community while also planning to get away one day. I don’t feel like I got away, I’m just prolonging coming back.

I love the path I’m on now. I love academia and performing and taking classes that challenge me intellectually. None of this I want to change. But I’m home now, and it’s harder to want that from here.

I “Passed through a Membrane” and Found Hypermasculinity: A Book Review

Here is an excerpt from Steven Pressfield’s book Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work printed on the back cover:

The passage from ameteur to professional is often achieved via an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.

These were the first words I read when I was given this book as an assignment over the weekend. I have never read Pressfield’s work, which includes novels and other nonfiction, but I did see King Kong Lives and it still is one of my favorite terrible movies (Pressfield does regard this screenplay as a failure, which is fair). Given the limited examples I know, I think it’s alright to admit I judged this book by its cover and wasn’t disappointed in my conclusion.

I couldn’t read this book in public because of the faces of disgust I made. Not only at the above quote, which is an absurd metaphor that turns birth into a battle scene, but probably on average once per three pages (the book totals 132). I put sticky notes in the margins to find the worst ones later, and I ran out of sticky notes. I started tearing the squares in halves to increase mileage, then thirds, and I ran out of sticky notes. Steven Pressfield forced me into OfficeMax during finals week.


This is a self-help book trying to disguise itself as nonfiction. Every online bookseller markets it as an educational tool to aspiring writers and entrepreneurs, and I stopped looking at blogs and reviews of teachers who actually used it in their classroom. I think it goes for nonfiction because, like the worst self-help books, it tells the reader all about her personal flaws (whether or not she knew them or even agreed) but gives no practical steps to remedy. If I took it seriously, it would undoubtedly drive me to drink.

According to Pressfield, what is wrong with myself and everyone else is we are “amateurs” in everything we do. Early in the book are “Three Models of Self-Transformation” that say we can either punish ourselves and atone for our sins of personal inadequacy, view ourselves as “ill” and “flawed” and in need of “treatment,” or we can read this book.

I’m disappointed in my choice of action.


The greatest parts of this book are the personal anecdotes — the parts that actually make it nonfiction. Pressfield has lived a varied life, and if he were to write a memoir I would really really think about buying it from the bargain bin. But the three examples of his own life in the whole 132 pages don’t give me much desire to seek it out.

This book is written from the perspective of a bitter Baby Boomer who thinks the root of societal problems are born and bred on the internet. He romanticizes addiction as a side effect (and perhaps requirement) of the artist, and gives the example that alcoholism is a replacement for unsatiated addiction to success. Obviously, he adores the most misogynistic American authors — the very ones that make me, a woman, extremely ashamed to be heterosexual — with no regard to the consequences of their idealized lifestyle: To Pressfield, Jack Kerouac was the leader of a generation and On the Road was inspiration for his vagabond dreams, but he conveniently omitted Kerouac’s regrets for that life years later in Big Sur; he channeled Ernest Hemingway in his search for a tough and manly “shadow career,” and his short, choppy sentences void of prose (see Ursula K Le Guin’s wonderful response to this trend); and he defended Henry Miller’s alcoholism (and, by extension, the other two authors’ as well) and glorified life.

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And, in true masculine fashion, he uses the grotesque and the controversial as ethos, because if it sparks emotional response, it must be just what you need to hear (a tactic used by preachers much of my life, and led to my 19-year-old break from religion). Everything about “turning pro” can be inappropriately equated to sex and war.

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? You’ll remember where you are when you turn pro.

I bet he also “rejects PC culture.”


“Turning pro” requires self-examination, to break from the tribe (that Pressfield claims doesn’t exist and is wholly unnecessary; turns out I don’t need friends after all) and accept yourself as “different” to become better. It’s a modern take on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, though it’s never referenced, where the poet urges Kappus to spend time alone, to fully know the self to become the artist. This is noble advice.

But the artist has to reenter society eventually. It is selfish to believe a person can be disconnected from life as it is, that what we create and consume isn’t a part of our collective culture. It is completely wrong to think any one of us are exempt, yet that’s the trendiest belief of white men who don’t see the privilege of choosing to remove themselves from this narrative. Yes, I did learn this from Twitter.

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Despite my glaring opposition to much of this book, there are still points of light in its pages. Late in the book, Pressfield recounts the moment he realized he began to “turn pro.” It was completely mundane, the simple decision to clean dishes that had been piling up, and he catches himself whistling. More accurately, he probably saw himself emerge from depression and turned a corner to change his life. It would be years before he wrote anything worthwhile, but that didn’t matter. “What counted was that I had, after years of running from it, actually sat down and done my work.”

The hit of this was completely unexpected. I wasn’t ready to find any part of this book that was actually for me. But this felt like a description of my own life. I am the master procrastinator, and I dread starting any project; if I’m not immediately excited for it I may never begin. I lack that discipline. I know fully once I make that first step, the rest comes easily and I remember how much I love this work. I become addicted to the work itself, to paraphrase Pressfield. But that first step is a bitch.

We may bring intention and intensity to our practice (in fact we must), but not ego. Dedication, even ferocity, yes. But never arrogance.

The space of the practice is sacred. It belongs to the goddess [Muse]. We take our shoes off before we enter. We press our palms together and we bow.

Do you understand how the mystery can be approached via order?


As I mentioned before, Pressfield’s own stories are enlightening and relatable (even, in an odd way, when he introduces an orange tom cat as his first hero), and if this was an entire book of his life it would be more useful. Instead, it is over 100 pages of preaching without any bible to back it up, only his own lowercase word, whether that’s from his god or muse or whatever addiction and idol worship he wants to romanticize next.