OK, at this point I feel I need to come clean a little bit and admit I have hobbies. I feel guilty taking time away from bookbinding which for so long has been the primary occupier of my mind and heart. But sometimes I find it’s healthy to get out of the studio, step away from the bone folder… One of the side pursuits I enjoy is singing. For the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of the good people of the Cornelius Cardew Choir, and sing with them in rehearsal and performance. Cornelius Cardew was an eccentric English composer of abstract music in the utopian vein. Readers of my blog may already know I enjoy and take inspiration from abstract, or sometimes called new, avant garde, noise, what-have-you, music… As you can tell, I don’t get too involved with labels, but ever since I was a teenager and discovered the radio program New Sounds, I have loved it. So as soon as I moved out to the bay area and discovered the Cardew Choir, I started attending rehearsals. The signature event of our group is the performance every year at the Garden of Memory. The Garden of Memory is an extraordinary musical event held in a columbarium every year on the summer solstice. Yes, that’s right, a music event in a building erected to store urns containing ashes of the deceased. Oakland has an unusual columbarium designed and built almost a century ago by a famous lady architect, and that’s where we perform in the event called Garden of Memory.
It’s an extraordinary setting for an extraordinary piece: the choir invites participation from the audience, and due to the nature of the larger event in which we play a small part, audience members sift through the crowd and come and go as they like. The piece we perform was created by Pauline Oliveros and is called the Heart Chant. The general instructions for the piece are as follows: Rub your hands together to warm them. Place your right hand over your heart. Place your left hand on the back of the person to your left (thus a circle is created). Sing and hold a single tone for a full length of breath (though without strain). That’s pretty much it. The pitch we as choir members choose is often based on a practice our confounder calls “pitch shopping”: listening to the pitches of the rest of the group, and choosing one that is comfortable for your range (though you can initiate a new one if you feel it’s necessary). The performance can continue as long as the performers desire it; we generally perform from about 5:30-9:30 pm (phasing individual singers in and out to take breaks). Last year, the performance continued longer, since there were so many joining in; we even had to create a second circle to accomodate all who wanted to participate! As the performance continues, it evolves based on who is present at which time, and what tones they (we) are singing. We pick up on each others’ pitches and perpetuate them, provided they are within a comfortable range. As each note lasts the length of one breath, you need to choose something you can live with for that long. It is surprisingly harmonious. We all hear, or hear about, those singers who are always off pitch in a group, right? Well, this event/piece never ceases to amaze me in how closely people listen to each other, and how wonderful it always sounds.
There are so many great things about this piece, and practicing it at least once a year as I do, I learn something new every time. It is a powerful experience to practice listening to others in this era when most people seem to be wearing headphones alla time. In all vocal work, it is necessary to listen, since your voice is not like a piano where you press a key and the same note comes out every time. It requires a lot of focus and concentration, because you must listen and sing at the same time.
Bookbinding requires being a good listener
Thinking about this process, it struck me how similar it is to conservation, teaching, and bookbinding in general. In conservation, listening to the object is the first step in treating it. You must take pre-treatment photos that tell you the item’s history and what its weaknesses and strengths are. You inspect it further, and write about how you see it, and what your plans are for fixing the problems as you see them. As you treat the item, you are continually ‘listening’ to it: the thickness of the paper, the depth of the tear, the qualities of the original sewing, the nature of the boards and covering materials. What will hold and what won’t? You need to pay close attention to the item in front of you in order to achieve a harmonious result. Extending the metaphor, your work must also match the pitch of the item’s.
I find this metaphor to work in teaching as well. It’s important to meet each student where they are, so to speak. The results of being able to do this, when possible, are really satisfying. I’m so happy when my students find bookbinding to be something they can use and incorporate into their lives in meaningful ways.
Soon I will be leaving the bay area briefly to teach some conservation workshops in the San Diego area. It’s exciting, but there are always some unknowns involved in teaching far away. I’m excited to have this experience in deep listening to guide me through!
Some of my recent work
I recently repaired a first edition of Twelve Years a Slave. While the repair of this book probably merits its own blog post, I will just briefly include a couple photos here. It was very important to save every tiny piece of the original cloth spine, which was quite a challenge.
More about my workshops in San Diego
More about Cornelius Cardew’s graphical scores
More about Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening