Jan DeGaetani: 4 Days in May

Back in November, during my third visit to the beautiful home she once shared with Phil West on the Hudson, Carole Cowan and I found more treasure in the attic.  After all these years, I’d hoped there was more to see up there,and I was right.

Carole and I made our way through boxes of music, personal papers, LP’s–we found a huge box of Phil’s own records, jazz, classical, new music, and several boxes of Jan’s recordings, unopened, each record still in plastic. Truth be told, there were only a few suspect boxes left. I moved to the back right corner of the attic to where several sat, some open, items piled to the very top. I went through it all and found photographs of Phil, Jan, both in early life, in their teens, and into their 20’s. I found Jan’s high school yearbooks, the ones I’d first seen on the shelves of her hometown library in Massillon, Ohio. I found a baby album Jan put together for her daughter Francesca.

Jan DeGaetani

I think this is a high school senior photograph.

 Another scrapbook her mother had put together for her, I’m assuming, at the time of her first marriage to Tom DeGaetani. Pictures of Jan at 1, 2, 3–of her standing in her wedding dress. I’d hoped for more windows into Jan’s young life, and there it was, all this time, in the corner of the attic.


Jan and Francesca approx. 1962

Carole and I found scads of cassette tapes. Again, of performances I’d dreamed of hearing: her Mahler 4 with RPO in the fall of 1980 when I was a first-year student of hers. I sat in the balcony of the Eastman Theater with Patti Monson, spoke with Jan backstage afterwards.

Her Aspen performance of The Medium with Karen Holvik. Her Ravel Scherezade in 1972. And these: 8 cassettes of the recording sessions she did in May 1989, just months before her death, of Berlioz and Mahler songs, all set for small ensemble by Phil West. [ I can’t help but feel luck and grace for these discoveries, including a full photo shoot of these sessions in the Eastman archives, because I’d wanted to see into this experience so badly and never assumed I could.]

I’ve been listening to these sessions held over four days in May, 1989. the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 21st, and they are teaching me.

Last week was strange, after a very productive previous week. I came to my desk daily prepared to work, but felt like I was hovering over the opportunity, never fully grounded in purpose and intent, sensation. [writing for me always offers multiple sensations which often tell me I’m getting it right.] I never really landed [took flight] until Saturday (maybe) as I began to listen to these recording sessions. I wrote about my fog in my journal: What would Jan do? and realized, I had not asked this question in a really really long time. What would Jan do? Because she’s here, now. The suggestion, the option, at the top of my consciousness.

The Juilliard School of Music

This appears to be the Juilliard School on Claremont Avenue behind Jan and her friend. I think the woman next to her could be Clare Kagel, another singer and fast friend to Jan during their years there and into their adult lives.

And I kept listening. There are the “rehearsal” takes, the interrupted takes, conductor David Effron’s suggestions, questions, frustrations. There is a beautiful ongoing back-and-forth between Jan and Tom Paul, in the booth and advising on language, diction. There is producer David Starobin instructing based on what is needed. And there’s Jan in every color, the singing, yes, but speaking, too: asking, suggesting, telling, cracking jokes, revealing [to this listener] again and again how her process of knowing how to do it is never ending, that the work to know never ends, all in her beautiful generosity, kindness, respect [for herself, the music, her colleagues] and joy, a smile in every single utterance she makes.

I listened for 4 hours and have heard the equivalent of one 90-minute tape.

I’m writing in hand what she says, what I hear, questions, all over the big pages of a blank art book I found in my mother’s things back in my dad’s cabin in January. I am thinking about how I recently questioned myself, Do I have a clear vision now for the style and voice of this book? Thinking, my intention recently has been wrapped up in identifying the purpose and theme, but do I really have my own vision for the structure and style, voice?

I wonder about accidents. Do I arrive accidentally? That is,  my way to first drafts is to write hard and fast and to get it down now  without a lot of thought and consideration. Is it enough to allow these initial [albeit raw, authentic, I believe] attempts often to become the thing itself? I’m not talking about eschewing revision. I revise over a long period of time. It takes me a long time to see again; no. I’m talking about new–initial–generative daily writing: can it also come from  a place other than total fast, unplanned, [unconscious?] practice? I’m talking about intention even in the creation of something new.

It must have been Jan when I wrote this next line in my journal: What kind of thinking is required to arrive at a beautiful, effective prose style and structure? [Can’t you hear her?]

I know freewriting can yield because of  what is in part learned and practiced, but from where else do we find the words? Imagination. There she is again. Use the mind. The brain. The ear.

I ask myself, how to approach the making of this text in the way she’d approach a score? What would she have me look at? Rhythm. Pitch. Text, that is, the meaning. Text, that is, the diction. I am writing myself into discovering how to do it. Not how to write this book, how to begin the process of discovery, the looking for the how.

A final thought in my journal this morning: Just because I get it down on the page doesn’t mean I have it, that it’s the thing itself. Yet. When do I know that I’ve done it. Got it?

In one little exchange, Jan is excited to go another take. She’s singing Berlioz. There have been many takes. David Starobin asks for another. David Effron says, Oh, come on, under his breath. And Jan says, evident joy in that smile-voice, That will give me a crack at everything I didn’t do.

Jan DeGaetani

Jan, age 13, Massillon, Ohio.



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.
This entry was posted in Dawn's Journey, Fun Research Tidbit, Quotes, Reflecting on Jan, Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Jan DeGaetani: 4 Days in May

  1. bridgerec says:

    Thank you for all you are doing, Dawn. Jan would have felt so honored. The photos are wonderful. Warmest wishes, David Starobin


    • dhaines54 says:

      Thank you so much, David! Your voice is in my ears! From those recordin sessions. Absolutely stunning to hear those days and the event. Your written support here means so much. Thank you.


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