Lake Michigan sprawled to the right, the beautiful, sober Chicago skyline to the left. The 10 October 2007 air was chilly and clean. Happy, I left the Hilton early for a run, stopped and stood, panting, by the Belvedere Fountain, and remembered the night in 1977 when I sat, overcome, having just heard the Chicago Symphony perform Mahler live in Symphony Hall for the first time. I remembered the night in August 1997, when Brow was being revived at the Blackstone Theater a few blocks away: that night I looked out over this spot to Lake Michigan from the Cliff Dwellers Club's terrace and wept with relief that the previous decade of my life—especially the brutally destructive marriage that was the centerpiece of it—was finally over.
After freshening up at the hotel, I walked to the great Adler and Sullivan designed Auditorium Building. Completed in 1889, since 1947 it has been the home of Roosevelt University where, for the semester, I was serving as the Chicago College of the Performing Arts' Composer-in-residence.
I reached the teaching studio I had been assigned and took a seat at the Steinway that filled half of it. Outside the window and only a few dozen feet below, the El rattled northwards in a smooth curve. I sat down to practice. As a form of meditation, I was playing extremely slowly through Bach's f# minor Prelude. My mind alternated between the music, my pregnant wife in New York, and my Father as a young man walking these streets. Sullivan had opened offices on the sixteenth and seventeenth floors of the Auditorium tower. I was teaching only a floor below where Sullivan had mentored a young apprentice named Frank Lloyd Wright.
Some students arrived to perform Dear Youth for me. The talented young woman sang The Picture Graved in My Heart and then burst into tears. "That line kills me," she said. "Which one?" I asked gently. "Oh, the wondrous manly beauty," she said. "I have a brother in the army. I can't stop thinking about him when I sing that line." The pianist and the flute player looked away. "Let's talk about the technique of creating the moment as a singer," I said. "Perhaps that will give you a place to go to keep something of yourself in the moment."
She nodded and I plunged in. "The line should start low and soft as you sing the word 'oh' in a normal voice," I began. "You shouldn't try to project the low C#—it's a pillow-talk intimacy. You should only add volume as your voice moves into your chest while sliding upwards through the minor ninth in a moaning portamento to the fermata-lengthened D."
She sang the line and smiled. "Okay, now what?" she asked.
"A full-voiced throb should enter your voice then, when you can feel the diaphragm beginning to tug because your air is running out. You should feel risk there: the audience intuits that you are running out of air as you shift into your head with the last of your breath; your body and the audience's bodies share not just the reflexive response to the human moan, but the terror of running out of air."
She sang the line a few times. I leapt up and cried, "Yes, yes, yes, can you feel that?" I pressed my hand on her abdomen. "You were scared, weren't you? You were scared you were going to run out of breath. It made me apprehensive, too. That's a good thing." She looked doubtful. "But my teacher tells me that the most important thing is to always sound good," she said, doubtfully. "I know," I agreed. "And that's the rub. Only you can decide what 'good' is. Does Tom Waits' voice sound good to you?" She was silent. "I love Tom Waits' voice," I said. "I love the authenticity of his voice. The challenge is to sound good and to be true to yourself so that you remain authentic. Let's move on."
"The flute should enter just at that moment, matching the timbre of your voice," I counseled. "The wail should pass without fuss, normal voice and diction taking over as a breath is taken and the words 'the wondrous manly' are clearly enunciated ('wondrous' is a word that speaks for itself; it doesn't need any help from the composer or the singer); there you should make a slight stress, a little vibrato on the word 'beauty,' like the woody, thick vibrato you get high on the violin's G string, even a sob, before the last of your air is gone and the line ends, not tapered off, but snuffed out."
The trio performed the song a couple of times, thanked me, and left. A moment later, the singer returned. "Thank you, Mr. Hagen," she said, with a moving urgency. "I love the songs so much."
I sat alone, far from home, and felt emptied. I was too sane to feel as though we were all anything but slightly mad to have gone through the soul-searching of the past two hours. So much energy expended by everyone on a humble little song cycle. The El rattled by. I heard a few bars of Der Winterreise drift up from a practice room one floor below. I needed to walk.
I called my wife, who was looking for a new apartment for us back in New York; we discussed her day as I walked down Michigan Avenue towards the Art Museum. The sun slipped into Lake Michigan. I pulled my blazer closed and hunched my shoulders against the wind. "These were the streets he walked," I thought of Father. Looking up, I realized, "It's the same sky."
I had been commuting to Chicago to make money just as Father had forty years earlier. Since I had never seen the place he worked all week long as our family grew further and further away from him, I decided to walk the same route that he (he too preferred the Hilton) used to. I reached the intersection of Michigan and Wacker Drive and turned left, followed the Riverwalk to Clark Street, turned right and crossed over the Clark Street Bridge. On my right, the tall glass and steel building that once housed the American Bar Association thrust up into the sky like a knife.
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