Tag Archives: music

Her Beautiful Shape

Not long ago, I was at the beach, balanced on a perch of rocks and seaweed.  It was just at that compassionate part of the morning when the marine layer decides to relax its grip on the coast and recede back to its home in the salty sky.

I was watching the surfers who were facing the horizon, waiting for wind and energy to knit together and blanket the water with a line of rideable waves.  I was watching the birds that had come to visit me:  to keep me company – for it was a dreary, long watch – to congratulate me on my patience or to investigate the rocks and pools for a late breakfast.  An egret standing in the blue shadows practically disappeared against its marine background.  It stood like an aquatic ghost, evaporating into the pellucid air and water whenever it stood still.


A group of turnstones ran chattering and scattering with each incoming wave – perhaps discussing the wisdom of choosing the beach as a hunting ground.  Seagulls, their wings a mass of bone and muscle fine-tuned to navigate the air, sacrificed their nobility once they became earthbound.

Some yards away, a wedding party had assembled on the field of shells and rocks.  They were too far away for me to discern bride and groom; the group  was only a gathering of varied textures, heights and depths.  But one thing became clear – a crystal thread spinning through the air, trembling as the muscular breezes flexed and turned.  It was a woman’s voice.  She was singing; the sound creating a beautiful, invisible shape.

But as the lady – the source – was invisible to me, it seemed as if her music could be emerging from anywhere; a living thing that had decided to come out of hiding.  It seemed to have risen out of the ocean, echoing from the entrances of iridescent grottos and the mouths of sirens wreathed about submerged temples.  It traveled across the sky, riding on the backs of birds, tumbling off their shoulders to glisten in the foam before evaporating in the salt and the breath of fishes.

The experience was ethereal – not of this world.  Yet it was earthly, too:  mingling with air, water, animals, the rocky expanse of the shoreline.  It enveloped all senses, this music that was complete, yet unknown.  And I was able to feel it melt into my skin and sparkle in my hair, before it finally disappeared altogether.

beautiful sea1



My Lady Carey

The 16th century was full of music, a packet of jewels that sparkled with a metallic radiance, their facets an alchemy of wonder and spliced colors.  Galliards, pavans, madrigals, motets, rondeaus, bergerettes…ethereal rhythms that decorated the foggy skin of history.

The exotic, feminine names say it all.  But there is one that stands outside this musical fairy ring:  dompe…a dour word, it means lament, or dirge.  It possibly comes from the French “tombeau” (lament), or the German “dumpf” (dull or dazed).  But ultimately its source is a mystery:  an etymological curiosity.  

Most of these laments have been forgotten.  But there is one, written in the mid 1520’s, famous enough to be included in the echelon of the very best of Renaissance minstrelsy.  It is called ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’.  Its tune is golden and complex – its threads twisting like the helix of a DNA.   Moving with Byzantine grace, it is a filigree that curls through the air.

So – what was Lady Carey’s lament?  In the shadows of the court, amidst perfume and dogs, pearls and plague…why did she grieve? She was bold, pretty and shallow.  She was given to pursuing pleasure using her dark eyes and charming stupidity as her weapons.  Her name was Mary.  And she collected kings.

In 1514, at the age of 15, she arrived at the French court as maid of honor to Mary Tudor – the future, and very unwilling, bride of King Louis XII (Louis was nearly four times her age; he died three months after their wedding).  Even though the Queen Dowager left for England shortly thereafter, Mary stayed in Paris and before 1519 became the mistress of Louis’ son, King Francis I.  Her voluptuous reputation was already established; Francis himself referred to her as an ‘English Mare’ and ‘infamous above all’.

My Lady

In 1519 she returned to England, as maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon.  In 1520 she married Sir William Carey – handsome, athletic, a distinguished art collector. 


On that happy day they were proud to receive a special guest:  King Henry VIII.  In a year it was only she who was receiving King Henry – ever a victim to the type of girl who would flirt even on her own wedding day.

Their affair lasted five years, a hidden event full of whispered logistics and secret arrangements.  The two children born to her might have been her husband’s, they might have been future princes.  By 1526 she had lost the king’s affections to a darker, sharper girl:  her sister, Anne Boleyn.  Mary’s lazy charms had only created a man yearning for a quick wit.

And in 1526 an anonymous, sympathetic composer wrote ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’.  In her sloe-eyed, languid way, Mary accepted the intricate tune – so unsuited to the subject – as she took affection, gifts, her ill fame:  unthinking and willingly.

In 1527 she  became  sister to a Queen.  In 1528 she was a widow – ignored and in debt.

Mary married again in 1534 – to a soldier, William Stafford.  Anne was furious that her sister had chosen to marry without her permission, and beneath her station.  Her place on the throne was a shaky one, and she could not afford to be related to a commoner.  In two years Anne would be dead.

Disowned by her family, Mary’s financial situation became so desperate that she resorted to begging the King’s adviser, Thomas Cromwell, to speak to Henry and Anne on her behalf.  What she told him could have been set to her own lament:  “I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom.  And I believe verily…he would not forsake me to be a king.”

False Daphne

I have a favorite radio station.  It's not local.  It comes from quite a distance, over many miles and many years.  It's called 'Ancient FM' – All Ancient, All The Time.  I'm listening to it now, to something sad and dour, with a vielle maybe, a pipe, a solitary drum – slow and Byzantine; impossibly lovely.

The playlist doesn't go beyond the late 17th century:  the songs are in Italian, French, Spanish, German.  Originally played by minstrels traveling over border and bower, or by professional musicians of the glittering and stinking courts, they tell stories of war, romance, betrayal, loss.


I know no language other than the one I'm using now – so when I hear a song from England, I listen with special care.  But unused to the intonations and rhythms of 500 years ago, I only catch an occasional word or phrase:  woe, summer, silk dress, she stands, spinet, good companye.

Once I caught a very telling phrase:  "false Daphne".  I don't recall any other words, but I can guess at the story.  I know Daphne, namesake of she who fled from Apollo.  I know her delights, her youthful shamelessness.  I know that she was a rude sprite – an urchin dressed in velvet and slashed sleeves; the tips of her prancing shoes just visible beneath her brocades and skirts.

The song seemed to date from the early 16th century – so Daphne, or the memory that inspired her creator, was fair and foolish amongst the many pretty ones that were bold in the court of Henry VIII.  Daphne was not a child beaten into a pastel modesty.  Instead she was bright and wild, wise beyond her inexperience, with a charm that would drive an admirer to such distraction that he would write a song of torment for her.

I was reminded of this song, as I thought about Daphne and her cruelty:

"And I were a maiden
As any one is
For all the gold in England
I would not do amiss

And I were a wanton wench
Of twelve years of age
These courtiers with their amours
They kindled my courage

And when I was come to
The age of fifteen year
In all this land, neither free nor bond
Methought I had no peer"
– Anonymous, 1510

Flirts were younger then.  Trailing their adolescence behind them like a tantalizing ribbon, they wound a complicated dance amongst the hungry gallants, quickly past their outstretched hands.  They stayed only briefly – until the smiles hardened, and the eyes became serious.

Daphne would marry:  against her will; she did not retire happily – but matrimony could very well have saved her.  She would hide her hair under her cap, put away her pins, keep her dangerous eyes lowered.  But she would think of the handful of years when she was peerless; when she had the cleverness to be false, and therefore safe.

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Heard And Seen

The phrase, 'classical music' is a foolish one.  It expresses nothing; its generality and vagueness insults centuries of effort.  Yet, what else does one say?  I use it myself when I ask permission to play a 'classical music' station.  Because to many people it is nothing but passionless symmetry, soft equations twisted into endless diagrams.  They hear it only. 

But there is much to see, too.  These dances, arias, sonatas, symphonies, quartets and counterpoints were not made to be pushed through wires and speakers like reluctant passengers on a bus.  They were performed in front of an audience:  fleshed out by the human element.

In one century a Te Deum is chanted inside a powerful, muscular cathedral.  The singers' hair shirts make them hate their bodies, and their long woolen sleeves scrape against each other.  Yet they sing to thank God for their agonies.

In another century, dancers face each other, tracing filigrees of steps on a stone floor.  Only their palms touched, like birds meeting in the sky.  Pipes and tabor, krumhorn and viol sounded solemn and exotic - entwined contrasts.  Their dour celebration echoed through dark halls lit by torches held by bronze gargoyles, their sneering faces an architecture of disrespect.

Many years later in a room where powder, perfume and sweat rose in a palpable cloud, people sat on chairs as delicate as meringes.  An audience posed in brocades that swam like silver rivers, and in silks touched with the languid colors of the aristocracy.

Around the shapes and scents, the polished thread of a sonata curled and teased.  In the back of the room, a young man idly toyed with the velvet choker of the lady seated beside him.  While in the front of the room, a 10-year old boy took his bows.

Another century passes.  And in another room a young woman stands, wearing a gown that fits like a satin cuirass, a violin nestled under her chin.  Her audience is restless.  Women gossip behind fans decorated with scenes that are as idyllic as they are erotic:  a fitting ornament to their dark eyes.  People crowd a stairway that curves like the body of a seashell.  The men that sit closer watch her, speculating on her talents, until she started to play, and the heavy sweetness of Mendelssohn silenced them.

Decades later, in Paris, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) premiered, staged by The Ballets Russes.  Nijinsky's departure from grace, Stravinsky's orchestral violence shocked the rich and complacent audience.  The rhythms, as deep as blood, stripped and pagan, were met with catcalls and whistles.  There were shouts and fistfights, a maelstrom of misunderstanding.  Nijinsky stood on a chair above the fumes shouting counts to the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra.

These visions of a composition's birth, of its many incarnations, of the roots draining into the flower, give music its long, heady life.  And it is human emotion – subtle, ferocious – which give it nourishment, allowing the notes on paper to bloom: to be seen and heard.

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The Hit Parade

That coy minx, emily sears, has tagged me. I now walk through the city with a dart in my shoulder, the tranquilizer calming me and encouraging me to:

1. Share a list of songs that defined you during at least eight significant years of your life beginning in early childhood.

2. There could be more than one song for each year, if you like, and and they should be songs that were released or popular in that year (but if there was one important to you that year which was released earlier, that is acceptable).

3. Please tag your post 'playgroup' and then tag four other people to do the same. 


1.  When I was in junior high school, I was very busy.  Busy creating the Aubrey that types this very post.  All that I am was either polished, researched or dreamed about during those years.  Those were also the years when I seemed to be incurably sad.  And I considered music to be the pool to reflect my thoughts.

Paul Simon, "American Tune".  This is a political song.  But in 1975 all I heard were these words,

"Many's the time I've been mistaken,
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I'm alright, I'm alright
I'm just weary to my bones…"

And they meant all the world to someone who was badly in need of comfort.

2/3.  Then there were the years in the mid-1980's when I was a romantic, waiting patiently to be disappointed.  I wanted to hear the same yearning, and to hear the beat of someone else's broken heart:

The Smiths, "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side"
The Smiths, "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out"

4/5.  But during those same years, I also harbored a wish for unabashed joy – untouched by cynicism or irony.  And I wanted it beat over my head by a tirade of guitars.

Big Country, "Fields of Fire"

"The shining eye will never cry
The beating heart will never die
The house on fire holds no shame
I will be coming home again"

Big Country, "In A Big Country"

"I never took the smile away from anybody's face
And that's a desparate way to look
For someone who is still a child" 

I remember playing my Big Country records at full blast – at 11, actually – with my ears smeared across the speakers, my heart and emotions racing.

6.  I was a college graduate when I first heard this (released in 1978).  I was a secretary in a collections agency.  I was not happy with my job, or with other people.  I expressed myself clumsily and oddly.  But I had the wit to lose myself in a song that I then didn't completely understand.  It was like taking a walk in the darkness, enjoying the directions that just exceeded my grasp.

The Only Ones, "Another Girl, Another Planet"

7.  In the late 1970's, I also carefully stepped into the lava pool that was punk rock.  There was a lot of muck to step over, before discovering a passion so virulent that it could lift you off the ground.

The Clash, "Tommy Gun"

8.  This is the one.

1965.  A madness of words, somehow linking together to convey a message.  I bless the chemical, the intelligence, the truths, the lies that whispered the lyrics to this song in his ear.  Dylan in the mid 1960's was unexplainable, undecipherable; he was as exotic and unreachable as a unicorn.

Bob Dylan, "Like A Rolling Stone"

I invite everyone to take part in this little musical exercise.  During the course of this composition I did more thinking and remembering than I thought myself capable of.

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Blossoms of Birds

I was walking back to work, from the bank – congratulating myself that my purse hadn't been stolen (I held on to it, white-knuckled, all the way back).

At one point I passed a type of box hedge, dull and olive – its flat, sheared top just reaching to my shoulders.  In its interior there was a lot of activity:  I saw the leaves vibrate; I heard delicate rustles as the tiny inhabitants jumped from branch to branch.  There were groups of twitterings rising to the surface and breaking free, the notes taking their place in the sky as if it was an endless, blue lyric sheet.

I really didn't understand anything that was being said, but surely the discussion was an excitable one.

Suddenly, pop!

From the top of the hedge there sprouted a flower.  It had wings.  It grew with quick, nervous movements.  It had a beak which had once freed it of its childhood home, when its petals were still curled and weak.  Its roots were not visible, twisted tightly around one of the branches which formed the dark labyrinth within.

Then:  Pop!  Pop!  Pop!  Pop!  Four more appeared – an entire featheration of flowers.  They spun on their stationary stalks with sharp, little turns:  like the tiny ballerina dancing inside of a music box.

This garden, alive, breathing, driven by rapid flickering hearts, was growing only a foot or two away from me.  But not a single blossom took its floating flight.  They were in constant rotation:  maybe they were looking for the sun, and were having trouble finding its warm reassurance on such a cluttered, dirty afternoon.

I walked away smiling.  If I had dared to pick them, what a charming bouquet they would have made.

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