New York, New York, 1987

Jan DeGaetani stood erect, calm, at the microphone intently studying the score she held chest height in both hands. This up-to-the-moment study a routine, her eyes skipping the staffs, searching the markings—tempo, dynamics, accents as she considered again what she’d come to understand the young composer Aaron Jay Kernis wanted. Her choices in delivering Stein X Seven: No. 6, one of seven songs for solo voice and piano he composed from the works of Gertrude Stein.

Her eyes swept the hand-rendered pages as she read Stein’s words in one breath.

Did he hear it when it was as said

And did he sing it when he sang a song

And did he like it when it was not said

And did he make it when he went along

There is little doubt without which meant

That he did go that he went that he was not sent…

She was remembering, thinking through what she’d decided, beginning to end. How it starts, soft, the piano’s rhythmic refrain, (the little song’s spine), the only development, the text, a growing dynamic, her intent.

It had taken months to study, consider, and choose the 28 songs to be recorded in this collection of American songs. Had she chosen well? Already, she was mentally comprising a list for the next collection, feeling better about the songs she’d had to omit, her only recompense that there would be a second record. She and Teresa Sterne were already working on it.

The room was quiet; all waited at attention. She counted in her mind, heard the opening chords, identified her first pitch, could see it, not a note on the page, but its three-dimensional shape, where it hovered on the staff [of her life], her range of choices, all she knew up to now, this musical moment, its girth, its breadth, where it must sit on her tongue, the back of her teeth for the attack. She saw it all in one quiet flash. You must hear the pitch exactly before you begin, she’d instructed time and time again. Her young, eager students. You must hear what’s happening in the silence, the space between each pitch. It was in this seeming white space where she loved to live, to imagine, to make. She allowed the imagined sound and rhythm and pitch and word and feeling of it all to teach her, to inform her, to tell her what to do. It was her life in those spaces. Strung together one pitch to the next.

She understood this song.

One of Songs of America: On home, love, nature, death. She flashed on home, the many homes and ocean walks with Phil near her beloved Shelter Island cottage. The whisper of what she now knew was coming, the final note.

But not yet. Never one to linger in her feelings, her reactions, naturally unburdened by self-defeating analysis and introspection, the idea of death, perhaps another curiosity.

She turned her gaze from the pages. She smiled at Gil, his hands on the keys, as if to say, I know. She breathed, filled her lungs, felt her diaphragm respond, heard the pitch in her mind, let the opening chords take her, opened her mouth to its necessary form, and filled the space with sound.


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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