The Landlord's Black-Eyed Daughter
255 · 16 December 99
Loreena McKennitt: Live in Paris and Toronto
For my Thanksgiving trip to my parents' house I packed a few clothes, thirty CDs, a portable CD player, four books and a bookmark. I drove down on Thursday morning, took off my shoes in the mud room on the way in, and did not put them on again until time to go on Sunday. For three days I didn't leave the house, didn't turn on a television, didn't send any email, didn't buy anything, didn't run log analyses on my web site, didn't think about work. I checked my email twice, and called my answering machine once, but for three days I took as much of a vacation from the routine of my life as I ever do. For once, I slept enough. I carved our small Thanksgiving turkey (my sister, who has not quite extricated herself from the seasonal schedule demands of a career in retail yet, couldn't come this year, so it was only the three of us). I refreshed my parents' memory of the rules of Hearts just cursorily enough to massacre them at it. I attended to the seasoning of a Mexican casserole intended for a Saturday lunch with my aunt, my cousin, my cousin's husband and their two daughters, except they ended up coming in the afternoon. Lunch was replaced by Trivial Pursuit, the two girls and I on a team, and we did respectably, despite my momentary delusion that the capital of Colombia was Medellín, my avuncular willingness to be outvoted on "Earthball" (a sport the girls believed I was making up), the fact that the original edition of Trivial Pursuit was published before either of them were born, and the pedantic truth that I am their first cousin, once removed, not their uncle. I listened to many of the CDs I brought with me. I finished two of the books, and made it through more than half of the third. I showed my mother how to download and play the MP3s of my songs. I went through the six-month backlog of New York Times clippings my mother had accumulated for me, including, to my surprise, a nice feature about East River Pipe, and another home-studio piece that mentioned Orange Cake Mix. Just before leaving, on Sunday, I ate a large portion of the unnecessary, but adroitly-seasoned, casserole. It was a serene and lovely three days, my own private version of Bill Richardson's Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast, a birthday present from my parents in 1997, which thus reached the top of my reading pile only a few weeks ago. Except with more bed, and less breakfast.
The first of the three books I read, appropriately to this brief withdrawal, was Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, about the intellectual lessons we should recall from the Enlightenment, if we are to make anything but a horrific mess of the century upcoming. The second one, irrelevantly but entertainingly, was the acerbic What's a Girl Gotta Do?, Sparkle Hayter's first Robin Hudson mystery. The third, and the one that accounted for the most time spent nestled amidst the cushions on one of my parents' hulking couches, was Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, the latest assignment in my slow, self-administered remedial course on Large Books Written Before I Existed. For those of you whose course hasn't reached that particular point (and why not follow along? next up, some time in the summer, is Anna Karenina), The Glass Bead Game is sort of an imaginary intellectual history, by way of a fictional biography, of a far-future monastic order devoted to an abstract thought experiment that was once a game played with glass beads, but is now a collaborative synthesis of philosophy, math, musicology and whatever other academic disciplines are handy (like Earthball, come to think of it, but with ideas instead of a ball, and with less mud, and without self-righteous and facile orations on the tensile strength of hemp afterwards). One of the order's strange dilemmas is that they rely, on one hand, on centuries of human creativity, particularly in classical music (Hesse wrote the book in 1943, so the omission of synth-pop from his intellectual canon must be excused), but neither the game nor the order produce new art, new primary texts. Hesse's Castalia is a dead-end culture, founded on the assertion (modulo the extremely rare admission of new elements into the game's expressive grammar) that all useful postulates have been postulated, and all that's left to us is to amuse ourselves by exploring the relationships between the ideas they imply. Although it is not competitive, per se, the Glass Bead Game is a sport, in the sense that it is cyclical and not productive. It does evolve, slowly, but as in soccer, and as not in art or science, the content of one game is not expected to change the nature of the next game.
The idea of a musical analog to this book, given its concept, is a bit self-contradictory, but as I was reading it in my parents' living room, I was playing some of the records I'd brought with me that I thought they might like, and just as I reached an early section devoted to the cosmology of the game (Hesse never explains the mechanics of its play in any detail, other than to hint that it's largely conducted in writing, but he goes into considerable detail on the kinds of analyses the game can represent, and on the mindsets that gameplay rewards and engenders), the changer clicked over to Live in Paris and Toronto, Loreena McKennitt's double concert album, and in the ascetic reverie of the moment it occurred to me that she is, or at least I experience her as, the closest thing popular music has to a Glass Bead Game player. She is a scholar, not an auteur; she composes, but I no more think of her as a songwriter than I think of a paleontologist, carving the missing vertebrae for an extrapolated Parasaur skeleton, as a sculptor; she exhumes and animates centuries of musical tradition, but I never sense (although this may well be my doing, not hers) that thinks of herself as participating in that tradition. As with the transcripts in the Glass Bead Game Archive, her songs are meant to explicate a legacy, be admired for their insight, be referred to by other scholars, and perhaps be expanded upon by later work, but not, like Bleach or Little Earthquakes or the Shaggs, be alternately buried and dug up by restless kids either looking for raw material with which to construct something nobody has ever quite heard before or, irrespectively, hoping to hide the evidence of something they stole. This is not rock and roll.
But we run the risk, when we try to imagine a place for The Glass Bead Game in what we now think of as our future, of wildly underestimating its emotional content. We fixate on the Castalians' materially austere and celibate lifestyles, anathema to modern consumer culture. We've been taught that joy comes from over-sweetened cola and having casual sex with cartoons, and so the Glass Bead Game players' lives must be joyless, and so must be their game. We've reordered the definitions of "game" so that when we say the word without context, we assume it means a solitary, repetitive-stress-inducing struggle against whatever the controller is wired to, and the Castalian version, which relies more on meditation than mania (I've just had a great idea for a video game that you do play by meditating, but they need to come up with a cheap EKG add-on for Dreamcast before it'll be viable), and has no winners and no enemies and no high scores, doesn't sound particularly thrilling. Our games have replaced expression with immersion, and so, to a discouraging extent, has our music. By this reckoning, Loreena McKennitt's meticulous catalogs of Celtic heritage, Tennyson and Shakespeare, her nine-piece band and her ethereal detachment should all be profoundly alienating. She is the consummate anti-pop-star, fiercely private with an almost completely non-sexual public presence; her music should creak and rasp like Miss Havisham humming the Wedding March through decade-tangled hair. A live album of this music ought to be an oxymoronic spectacle, little different in nature from Monty Python's breathlessly sportscasted Novel Writing.
And so, when this album turns out to be anything but lifeless, turns out, for me, to be a small revelation, and easily Loreena's most invigorating work, I take it as a triumph of composure, as a grand embodiment of the catharsis of understanding. The retention of the term "play", for the conduct of the Glass Bead Game, was deliberate. Cultural and intellectual synthesis isn't a mechanical exercise, it's an awe-filled celebration of the relatedness of all things. Video-game buzz is, like masturbation, a clever but meaningless prank played on the nervous system. The Castalian monastic severity is not a retreat from joy, it is an attempt to purify the cause-and-effect relationship between truth and happiness, so that a life can be filled with ecstasy, yet derive all bliss from genuinely significant insight. These recordings resonate, to me, with exactly that ebullient clarity.
The first disc is a performance, in toto and in order, of The Book of Secrets, Loreena's 1997 studio album. "Prologue" is sober and reflective, a wordless and unhurried delineation of the rules of play, but "The Mummers' Dance" immediately banishes any idea that the evening might be an illustrated lecture. Much of Loreena's current popularity can reasonably be attributed to the single remix of "The Mummers' Dance", and this live version acknowledges its energy, but it resists the obvious temptation to play the tune as a rock song, retaining the album version's delicate percussion and reliance on the keening acoustic instruments for the song's propulsive rhythm, Loreena's voice soaring implacably above the reeling folk-dance the way a practiced rider floats above the back of the hurtling horse. "Skellig", unlike Clannad's proto-Titanic-soundtrack song of the same name, is hushed and haunting, mostly harp and violin, the quiet poetic autobiography of a twice-exiled monk, evicted once from the company of ordinary men and then again from his country entirely. The applause at the end jars me; what part of Loreena's sympathetic pilgrimage, tracing the monk's route from an Irish island outpost to an Italian mountain retreat, have they really walked as she sings? Her game, like Hesse's, expects an unusual degree of preparation and involvement from its audience, and to a casual observer devolves into the flash of the shifting geometry of tokens all too easily. The sinuous solo in the instrumental "Marco Polo", for example, is a Sufi melody, not a Celtic one, derived from Loreena's path (tracing the Celts from Ireland to Venice) intersecting Marco Polo's (from Italy to China) and her sensing a kindred nomadic spirit -- and this in a medium whose idea of history is more often on the order of "It's sorta like a ska-metal 'Wonderwall'".
One of Loreena's greatest gifts, in my opinion, is an unrivalled facility for turning long poems into mesmerizing story-songs. The one on The Book of Secrets was Alfred Noyes' doomed-lovers gothic "The Highwayman", and although she races through it in a full minute less, in concert, than on the album, it's still more than nine minutes long, and she's singing nearly the entire time (compare this to Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", legendarily endless, which has more instrumental breaks and still barely passes six minutes). Setting these tales to music is an ancient mnemonic device, and I cherish the anachronistic grace of hearing a story told this way, its patterns and rhythms literally instantiated in music. Another instrumental follows, the sensuous "La Serenissima", a well-timed break for Loreena's voice, and it hits me that the album was sequenced with this complete performance in mind, that the studio album was a plan for a Game, and this live album is the Game itself, being played properly. "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" reintroduces the Eastern thread, echoing The Mask and Mirror's "Marrakesh Night Market", but when the set concludes, it is with no melting-pot fanfare, but the quiet piano-ballad "Dante's Prayer". Celine Dion could have won a Grammy with this, could have sold enough records to sink an ocean liner, could have replaced the single mournful violin with a battalion of Valkyrie strings, and turned it from Dante's small, personal prayer to the lovelorn wails of the tormented throngs begging for his hand as he passed them on the catwalk through Hell. But that isn't scholarship, and the Game isn't that visceral. And so Loreena sings it with an intimate, measured flutter, breathing life into history not by dashing waves of infantry against the enemy's walls, but by stepping into the conflicted soul of a single person, and looking out of his eyes, to see how they colored his view, and thus begin to understand how our eyes, too, tint what we think we see.
Most people would have made the second disc a retrospective, spanning Loreena's five other albums and one EP, for maximum promotional value, but she opts for musical coherency over exposure, and sticks to songs from the two previous albums, 1994's The Mask and Mirror and 1992's The Visit. In fact, except for the displacement of "She Moved Through the Fair" by "Bonny Portmore" (perhaps in deference to Sinéad O'Connor having covered the former on her 1997 EP Gospel Oak), the first six tracks of the second disc duplicate the running order of the 1995 mail-order EP Live in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts, which suggests that this suite, too, has been in preparation for some time. These earlier songs are more straightforwardly Celtic, for the most part, with the clattering rumba "Santiago" perhaps the only notable digression. "Bonny Portmore" is timeless, the instrumental "Between the Shadows" dense and elegant. Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" is the definitive Loreena McKennitt song, to me, nine minutes in which I could swear I wouldn't care if she was reading the Milwaukee Sewer Administration's Year 2000 Compliance Statement, but then I find that I've followed the narrative despite myself, have empathized with the Lady's strange observer's existence, weaving the flickering shapes in her mirror into the weft of her journal, and I am with her when a face finally draws her outside into the history she'd tried to just watch, with her as she lays down in her boat, knowing this attempt to participate will be in vain, with her as she drifts past Camelot, an ivory sacrifice to the suicidal human refusal to accept what we can't touch, and with her still as Lancelot, her radiant conviction reaching him despite her frozen form, surrenders the brief smile without which the story wouldn't be a tenth as tragic. "The Bonny Swans" is a brief glimpse into the mainstream course Loreena might have charted, decisive piano and tentative guitar-solo squall; "The Old Ways" is reassurance that she never would have taken it, another fledgling power-ballad she refuses to exaggerate. "All Souls Night", the first half of the encore, is a primordial "Mummers' Dance", awaiting the dervish impulse; "Cymbeline", the second, is just Loreena and her harp, as reverent and solemn as Tori and her piano are defiant and convulsive.
And then the album ends with a short, mysterious synthesizer instrumental, Loreena's voice just barely audible in the far distance, as if this fragment was recorded by accident, and is included as an obscure bit of personal logic she has no intention of explaining. The studious cultural anthropology of her liner notes aside, actually, Loreena almost never explains the personal logic behind these journeys and reconstructions. It's easy to imagine that there isn't one, that she's exactly the scholar she seems, pure the way the Glass Bead Game players strove to be. Nowhere in the notes to this album, nor on Quinlan Road's web site, is the critical personal story about this album told. Only the last page of the booklet, down at the bottom, alludes to it, dedicating the album to the memory of Ronald Douglas Rees, and stating that the profits from it will go to The Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety. It doesn't take much intuition to guess that Ron Rees drowned, along with somebody named Cook, thus the Fund in their names, but you have to do a little research to discover why Loreena cares enough to sponsor it. Ron Rees was her fiancé. He drowned in an inexplicable boating accident on a calm evening, while Loreena was in England mixing this album. From there, the personal details cascade: Rees' name is nowhere to be found in the admittedly terse thank-yous on The Book of Secrets, nor anything before that; news reports put Rees' age at twenty-eight, about fourteen years McKennitt's junior, and say that he and his brother owned a company that installed traffic signals; the Fund's first expenditures amounted to $160,000 (Canadian?) for two devices intended solely for locating and recovering objects from deep water, not accident prevention or rescue; Loreena finished the post-production of this album at an enormous personal cost, and has taken an indefinite leave from music in its wake. Once you know these things, it's hard to hear this collection of songs, sung before Rees' death but released after it, and not imagine connections. What was written on Ron Rees' life-jacket (his body was found on the surface; the underwater search gear was for the other two, whose bodies presumably sank), like the Lady of Shalott's name across the side of the boat in which she was found drifting? Does the keyboard postscript have something to do with him? Which of these songs tell Loreena stories about their time together? Which songs did she leave out, because they told too much? None of these facts or rumors or questions are sinister or embarrassing, or even germane, they're merely personal. They disrupt the music's academic demeanor. Hesse's players would have disregarded them, and bristled if forced to confront them. The Glass Bead Game does not admit personality. "Scholarship", as Billy Bragg said, "Is the enemy of romance". And this, to me, is the essential flaw of Castalia, and the central pitfall of scholarship, and in large part why Joseph Knecht abandons the order in the end. Scholarship seeks to eliminate the scholar, to separate facts from their authors, to insist that facts don't have authors, that the person who writes them down is only transmitting a truth that exists independent of the coincidence of human awareness. But without people for light to bathe, who cares how fast it travels? Reducing a Bach fugue to algebra is clever, but perverse; the genius of Bach's music is exactly the things about it that a mathematical model doesn't capture. However earnestly Loreena maintains that these songs are prefigured by the faint trails of migrations, they are also redolent of her, infused with reluctant grace, transfixed by her retreat. The timbre of a human voice can never be entirely disentangled from the words it says, nor should we want it to be. These songs, no matter how quiet, aren't poems of idle curiosity and remote respect, they are a seeker's furious repertoire of desperate laments; and the album is a tribute, composed in sorrow, to a happier self, a former self oblivious to the impermanence of joy. How did Loreena and Ron meet? What did they think their life together would be like? I don't think she's going to tell us, and she would probably be offended that I wonder. But I care even more about that story than I do about the ordeals of any monks, past or future. Art and scholarship and romance, done properly, are not enemies, they are complementary manifestations of the same vital discontent. They inform each other; they require each other. Scholarship without art and romance is how textbooks turn into ballast; romance without art or scholarship is why marriages don't last; art without scholarship or romance is transient and disposable. Scholarship and art without romance is soulless proficiency without the wisdom needed to apply it; scholarship and romance without art is passionate despotism; art and romance without scholarship is ornamental sentimentality. Our books of secrets, Loreena McKennitt's and yours and mine, are lined with the stories of our attempts, some products of our dedicated labor, some of arbitrary catastrophe finding us in its path, to reconcile these three forces. Nothing we hide helps us; the only way to survive pain is to stop defending yourself against it, stop allowing it to define you. Sing a song, right now, to whatever, even for just a moment, you love. Be sincere, informed and irresistible. Maybe the song will wrap around it, and bind it to you. And maybe it won't. Songs can't always stare down death. But they can transcend it. The song of our love will outlive us both. All we can ever do is sing it, and then try to follow.