“. . . decay is the green life of change. . .”

nasatv2When I was working on my M.A. in music composition at California State College at Los Angeles—now University—in the early 70s—for most of that time I was working the graveyard (sic) shift at Los Angeles County Hospital as a technician in the blood gas laboratory (and trying to stay sober enough in the evenings to get to work at midnight), I became obsessed with the notion that I would not live beyond age 27. That would have been 1972.

I’ve obviously made it 41 years longer than that.

I like to watch the NASA channel. It has a more-or-less non-stop program called “Education Hour.” You can see the astronauts on the International Space Station puttering around doing experiments. I never know quite what’s going on (and I’m not sure if it’s live or old video). But that doesn’t matter. I like the fact that someone somewhere, without fanfare  or sufficient introduction is trying to teach me about the experiments being done in space.  I like it that the channel and the experiments are as mysterious as space exploration.

Sometime between 1987 and 1994 while I was teaching music at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, I became aware that the composer Gardner Read lived in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a stone’s throw from my condo in Salem, MA. I remember none of the particulars about how we became acquainted. However, I soon played an organ recital at my church in Salem including three or four of his settings of Southern hymn tunes. He and I had lunch together several times, and he came to my performance of his work. He was pleased at least by the recognition if not by my performance, and we kept in touch until I moved to Dallas.

I first learned of Gardner Read the way most wanna-be composers did/ do—through his magisterial book, Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice, which was (is) required as a resource for all composition students. The revised edition was published in 1972, the projected year of my death, but in fact, the year I wrote my Concerto for Organ and Orchestra as my M.A. thesis. When I look at it now, I wonder who on earth did all of that. It has never been performed, and I doubt that it could be or that anyone would want to listen if it were.

When I failed to die in 1972, I set about finding and studying poetry about death. I have dribs and drabs of notes here and there about that stuff, photoreadand much has ended up stored on my computer (I’ve never lost my interest in that kind of writing). Of course, as my Shakespeare professor in college said, quoting God-knows-who, all literature “is about either kissing or killing,” so I never want for poetry about my immanent death—or is it yours?

I recently came across one of my favorite such poems, “All nature has a feeling,” by John Clare (1793 – 1864).

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

My fascination with the NASA channel (or is it my need for a sleeping potion?) is pretty much summed up in “All nature has a feeling.” I think about it a great deal of the time. Is it true there’s “nothing mortal in” nature? Does that mean I’m not mortal? (yes, it’s all about me).

When I think about the current state of my existence, I sense that my mind is still very much alive. My body seems to be catching up with the abuse I’ve given it over the years. I don’t think I have much control over that. But I do have some control over my mind. Decay is the green life of change.

Now we come to my usual leap over a giant logical chasm.

An experiment in aging

An experiment in aging

Gardner Read and NASA. I’m trying an experiment. At one point in my life I found the easiest way to learn a new piece of organ music was to memorize the melody (or some part) in my mind before I ever played it.

Now I’m conducting an experiment. Can I still do that? Is decay the green life of change or simply decay?

My first attempt is with a short piece Gardner Read gave me twenty-five years ago that I’ve never played.  I’m also working on a piece of Gerhard Krapf’s in my mind. Stay tuned.

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