At a Loss

Dear Friends,

Friday, I left Western Mass and traveled to Queens—Long Island City to spend the weekend with my friend Judy, a visual artist I met a month ago during our residency at Vermont Studio Center.beautyplus_20161113161717_fast-002

As I drove, I listened first to the memoriam held for Jan at Eastman a few days after her death in 1989 and then to her final recording made just four months earlier.

Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’ete, Five Songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn and his Five Ruckert Songs. All arranged for small chamber ensemble (comprised of Eastman faculty, students, and RPO members) by Phil West. berlioz

When I’ve listened to this record in the past, I’ve wept and turned it off. Two days ago, I played it over and over as I drove southwest toward the city, a city Jan once lived in for more than 20 years.

So many things I now understand that I could not understand when I was eighteen. Twenty-four. Thirty.

I think of hearing her sing Mahler 4 with the RPO in Eastman theater one month after I arrived in Rochester that fall of 1980, totally innocent, untried, earnest. I went backstage afterwards and she said to me, “You’ll sing this one day.”

I have not.

But I have not forgotten how to listen.

Mostly, the clear listening I bring now to her singing is no longer fettered by my young aspirations, my wide-eyed, deep need of her approval. I hear a woman at the end of her life reckoning. For so many I’ve talked to, it’s too much to witness. Cellist David Ying, who as a graduate student played on this recording, tells me he believes she was processing it all: her love of music, this music, at the end of her life. Impermanence. Music-making. And how the recording of it is a reflection of the thing, but not the thing itself. David tells his students, pay attention, really consider every phrase, everything you play; it’s important because it will never happen again.

Listen. The rhythm so precisely embodied and performed. The language so clear and crisp. Impossible without her deep intelligence and comprehension of what makes the piece what it is. Clean, fully occupied rhythmic structures, the ensemble all around her in perfect alignment, she with it, each instrument with her.  This union teaches me to hear, to hear the musical phrase in utter clean authenticity and to understand. Union. Her love. Making music.

I think of the hours I spent a year ago with pianist and chamber musician Peggy Kampmeier, once one of my closest confidantes who held me up during one of the scariest times of my young life as I learned to cope with debilitating anxiety. Peggy and I sat in her Upper West Side apartment listening together to Gil and Jan’s recording of Brahms, Peggy stopping the CD every bar or so to point out the exact musical gesture she first heard in her early twenties and which she says taught her what chamber music is.  Intelligence, beauty, making sense of a hard thing. Music. Language. Purpose, gesture, reason. Giving it to someone else.

Listen, friends, I am at a loss. I am alive and strong and centered and purposeful, cared for well and deeply by friends and family, by a husband at arm’s length. And somewhere in Michigan, Latino children cry when their schoolmates chant, Build the wall. Build the wall.

I received a message from a friend who tells me she is afraid to protest, that someone connected to her was assaulted, the man whispering in her ear, Don’t worry, honey, the President says this is alright.

I can’t make sense of this hard thing.

Of my good fortune, in the middle of this.

Did you know that Jan sat on a platform to conductor David Effron’s left within the close arc of those players? Four days in May.

Because she could not stand.











About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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2 Responses to At a Loss

  1. So beautiful. I love you Dawn! Thank you for writing this!


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