Monday, November 21, 2016

Back to the Church of Bartok

Bartok Harmony, Opaque watercolor and Cray-pas, 8 x 10"

Growing up, my family belonged to the Unitarian-Universalist Church. At some point, after I had started playing the viola, a small instrumental (mostly/entirely strings?) ensemble was formed. It was called Bartok's in honor of the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945). The thinking at that time (the mid to late '60s) was that Bartok was under-appreciated. Our leader was Dr. Wagner, a chemistry professor at the University of Kentucky. He had high hopes for our little band. I remember him becoming very angry with his son, Russell, our cellist, who went on to become a luthier in the Chicago area. I had only 2-3  years of experience on the viola under my belt and the music of Bartok (which naturally, was featured) was way beyond my skill-set. My older brother, also a violist, was part of the ensemble. He was more adept. We carried on, no doubt propelled by Jenny Wagner, who went on to be the Assistant Concertmaster for the Chicago Symphony. Meanwhile, I muddled through and had great anticipation for what would follow the Friday practice session--our weekly spaghetti supper!

     So imagine my excitement when I learned that our local chamber music society would be sponsoring a concert by the Daedalus String Quartet including Bartok's String Quartet No. 3. And, since they are trying out new venues this year, it would be at the U-U Church. I would be able to actually hear Bartok's music in my old haunt. It would be my chance to hear the argument for Bartok within the decagonal confines of my youth. 
      We arrived on a cold, but sunny afternoon. When the the church was built, it was way out in the country. Now, you have to watch carefully for the turn. It comes up quickly after the houses end in a concentrated suburbia. The church provides a welcome green space in the midst of development. The trees and arbors have been growing for decades and are taking on an ancient quality. The sanctuary space remains decagonal, but where we had sort of a theater-in-the-round quality to the worship space, there is now a modest rise in the altar area. This was the "stage". The musicians walked up from the lobby area in the back to take the stage. 

     The concert began with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, No. 1. Now, I have actually worked on this quartet with the Fauve Five, but that is another story. Before playing Bartok's String Quartet No. 3, the cellist, Thomas Kraines* gave us a little back story. He explained that Bartok's first three quartets are considered "difficult." The harmonies were different for their time and perhaps, still so.  But, the listener can always hear the folk melodies, on which the composition is structured, by listening to the first violin. I kept that in mind as the four beautiful musicians began. I was listening for what had prompted Dr. Wagner to hold Bartok in such high regard. The music is highly textured. There are bits of folklife emerging, but also a surround of dissonance, almost. Ah, there it is. Bartok is the composer for the church of my youth. The Unitarians (as I thought of us) wanted to hang their faith on an easy yoke of tradition and ritual (folk tunes) and all around would be individual voices, which are uniquely harmonious in their sense of freedom. This reminds me of a quip I used to make about the U-U church: most people believe that their faith is the only true one, Unitarians believe that they alone, as individuals,  are correct. I learned something important at this concert. It is not the individual, it is a community of individuals, happy to be together in this warm, but slightly wild world, feeling free, but so contentedly tethered to the common melody. 

The view outside of the decagonal
      Thank you to the Daedalus Quartet for such a satisfying concert. Every member was excellent in their performance and uniquely beautiful (like Unitarians!) What a warm presence on a cold afternoon. Loveliness abounded both inside and out. The setting and the music were perfect!

* David "googled" Thomas Kraines and learned that both his parents are mathematicians. His father is an Algebraic Topologist (Emeritus) as is David.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Generous Patriotism

Mary Alice Klingensmith--a hopeful young citizen

This past Halloween we were blessed with an abundance of Trick-or-Treaters. Within thirty minutes, we knew we would have to increase provisions, so I made a run to the closest Kroger. This was on foot because the roads were clogged with happy young people and their families. Walking back, I passed through a narrow parking lot by apartments and I heard musical spoken language. This gave me a little thrill. How much my everyday world has changed! I can walk to the local store, walk in my neighborhood and hear languages from all over the world.
     When I got back home, I spelled David at the Treat-giving post. I was struck by the whole-ness and wholesomeness of the scene. There were girls with long thick braids and and girls with narrow braids. There were enthusiastic boys in all kinds of costumes. Interestingly, there were a lot of girls dressed as fairies. Most of the children were accompanied by what seemed to be the whole family. Happiness, politeness and a generous spirit filled the evening air. It was wonderful.
     When I was a Trick-or-Treater, it was a pretty different scene. We went out with friends for hours on end covering acres and acres of neighborhood. There was a lot of diversity in the costuming (as we were just as likely to have made our costumes ourselves) and not so much in the inhabitants of those costumes or the houses we visited. Our schools were pretty similar, mostly white, mostly middle-class (though class distinctions weren't all that obvious--so I'm guessing.)
      This homogenous quality did not have nearly the impact that Mrs. Preston's elementary school music  class had on me. We sang "Give me your tired, your poor" and "No man is an island" along with "Beyond the blue horizon." If I have been indoctrinated, it is here. I guess music has that effect on me. I was perfectly happy reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as well, but the idealism of a generous patriotism espoused by those songs is embedded in me.
     An incident that is ricocheting across the internet right now makes me think about my mother (whose birthday is today). My mother grew up in small-town West Virginia. It is true that is was a small college town (now University!).  My grandfather was principal of the high school, too. Perhaps it is obvious that education was important in the family. My mother studied very hard and received full scholarship to Radcliffe College from Pepsi Cola.  Studying anthropology was extremely eye-opening to MA. In her small hometown, she had faithfully (and with conviction) attended the Methodist church. Opening up to the world of faith and different cultures was an awesome experience for her. My father was similarly "opened-up" and my parents joined the Unitarian-Universalist church. I am certain that this experience allowed, and allows me to be less fearful of  the"other" and change, as the U-U church, along with a growing University of Kentucky attracted folks from around the world and of different faiths and cultures.
      I do not believe that everyone must hold my kind of patriotism.  I do believe that I come by my patriotism honestly and I remain enthusiastic about what my country means to me. I am grateful for this gift of generous patriotism.

Friday, November 11, 2016


Maybe not YES! but yes...
Of course, I was hoping for a "YES!" result from the presidential election. A hopeful day morphed into a state of stunned disbelief. But some remarkable and surprising outcomes have taken place. These actually started before election day. Five days prior to that day, our Clinton/Kaine sign was stolen from our yard. We were preparing to head out of town to attend David's college reunion. It was also David's birthday and he was heading up the stewardship committee at church--the dinner was that evening. In other words, there wasn't much time.
the original sketch
    A first move was to post on Facebook (naturally) to announce the theft and threaten to re-engage my old fashion illustration skills to make a pantsuit sign. Before I could be egged on by anyone, I had whipped up a quick sketch and posted it with my sign theft posting.
     A few days before, my neighbor Hilary included me in the Pantsuit Nation group. I thought that maybe I should post the sketch there, too. What happened was pretty amazing. Right before me eyes I could see a response. "Likes" were coming fast and furious. I'm sure this is my one little brush with popularity. What I liked even more than this exciting experience was that people were taking the image and adding their own twists and combining it with campaign imagery. My graphic design skills are not that great. (I work with pastels and mixed media. I have a messy aesthetic!) Very fortuitously, a young graphic designer with all the requisite tech skills came along and created a very affirmative image.

Luke Francis's graphic design using the YES! sketch

     So all this was exciting in a head-rushy kind of way. Then the election happened and it became apparent that t-shirts, mugs and pins were not in the cards. However, within 12 hours of Trump winning via the Electoral College numbers, a very interesting thing started happening.  My niece-in-law, a university chaplain, posted the following:
     "If you are a minority and you feel scared, please know we stand by you and will continue to do so, no matter what comes."
Facebook began filling with outlets for people to focus on serving and helping others. A friend invited me to join a Facebook page "100 Acts Against Hate" where people are encouraged to share how they are working to heal and alleviate suffering in our country. This was happening by mid-day on November 9th! What a contrast to Mitch McConnell's response to President Obama's election: that he would work to make our President a one-term president.  McConnell set the unproductive tone for 8 years. What a squandering of potential! But, I am here to say "yes" not "no"...
     It turns out that the pantsuit is a potent symbol for a hibernating population. The secret Facebook page is developing in a grassroots fashion. This gives me the hope to say "yes..." to a long haul effort to make our communities work for all people and for the whole world. Even if we had received the desired "YES!" we would still have to bring along the "yes..." response. Perhaps now it is easier to do that.