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.