November 2018

An Evening with Mackenzi Lee

This Thursday, accomplished young adult author Mackenzi Lee will be at the University of Tulsa for a reading and a conversation that is sure to engage book lovers of all ages.

Lee, a self-proclaimed “reader, writer, and perpetually-anxious badass,” will be here to discuss her exciting, boundary-breaking works of young adult fiction.

Her New York Times Bestseller The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, is regularly featured on “Epic Reads” website and Youtube channel, where she excitedly champions the best that YA has to offer, with a particular focus on LGTBQIA+ books. To watch Lee exuberantly share her infectious love of these stories is to believe in the power of YA to speak to readers’ lives in crucial and intimate ways. Some of her contributions within the last year include a two-part series of recommendations for Pride-month-reading, and a list of books to read instead of that book 17 of your relatives all sent you for Christmas.

Lee’s third novel, Bygone Badass Broads, started out as a Twitter campaign by Lee, who was frustrated by the lack of representation of women’s narratives throughout history: “It felt like if I wanted to learn about women, or about queer people, or people of color in history, I had to take an elective class that was only taught once every seven years and met in a basement room with no windows” says Lee in an interview with The Mary Sue. “Meanwhile, all the general courses I had to take as a history major were hyper-focused on men and their contributions in history.” The book is a collection of 52 different stories of women. Lee also stresses the moral complexity she wanted to highlight with her selections: “there’s a woman in the book named Ching Shih, who was a pirate lord in China” Lee explains. “In terms of sheer numbers, she’s the most successful pirate of all time. And when I put her on my list, my editor sort of balked at that. She was like, ‘Piracy’s not really a great thing. It’s not a victimless crime.’ Which is totally fair! But we talk about Blackbeard. We talk about a lot of dude pirates, and we give them that sort of swashbuckling glamour, so why can’t we also talk about lady pirates in the same way?”

Lee’s latest book deal is a project that in her words is “short irreverent historical nonfiction” much like her Bygone Badass Broads, but “this time, told by the dogs who saw it happen. THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 50 DOGS.”

Lee’s passion for diversity, inclusion, intersectionality, and reclaiming lost or marginalized narratives is a powerful and positive force for demonstrating how literature can change the world and bring us together. Don’t miss the conversation and reading at TU this Thursday!

Follow our Facebook event page here.

Follow Lee on Twitter and Instagram, and check out some video samples below!

 

Destiny Hrncir: On Memory and Grief

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Destiny Hrncir, a Tulsa native and second year English Literature MA student at the University of Tulsa. Her undergraduate program concluded with a semester spent at the University of York in England, after which she spent six months traveling in Europe. Often welcomed into the homes of strangers, she was ever struck by the persistent power of remembered grief when listening to the stories of those she met. This experience has contributed in further directing her research towards the remembrance and documentation of grief.

 

On Memory and Grief:

On a chilly November evening six years ago, I drove aimlessly through the Oklahoma countryside. A dirt road, a clear starry night, a cigar purchased with a vague idea of ceremony in my pocket: with these I intended to mourn my friend who had died suddenly exactly one year before. In the weeks leading up to this strange anniversary I still didn’t know how one ought to go about commemorating such an event, if “commemorate” is even the right word for it. That I ought to do something was, however, incontestable. And so I drove, parked alongside a deserted road, and watched the cigar smoke waft towards the star-flecked sky.]

Grief is puzzling. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has famously urged us to see it as a series of stages that we now, mistakenly, think of as a linear process. Perhaps what is most striking about Kübler-Ross’ model, though, is the determination at large to accept her “stages of grief” as a 5-point plan for how one ought to grieve. It is as if the intended structure matters only insomuch as it meets a long-existing but often unspoken demand to somehow make sense of the common experience of mourning. And yet my own autumn drive and countless other accounts of loss attest to just the opposite:  grief simply cannot be measured on a scale from “Denial” to “Acceptance.”

In exploring work on mourning I have encountered the persistent belief on the part of the bereaved that one ought to express one’s grief appropriately, whatever the standard this may be. St. Augustine, reflecting upon the death of a friend during his youth, continues to feel piercing loss even after many years: “But no, O Lord, all this is past and time has healed the wound” he declares, but then immediately entreats: “Let the ears of my heart move close to your lips, and let me listen to you, who are the Truth, so that you may tell me why tears are sweet to the sorrowful” (76). Augustine thus remembers the grief he experienced many years ago and feels ashamed of the violence of his mourning, and yet one cannot help but feel that Augustine surely grieves the loss of his friend even as he writes.

Alfred Lord Tennyson opens his own In Memoriam by asking the reader to forgive any excess of anguish expressed, hoping that God might “Forgive these wild and wandering cries, / Confusions of a wasted youth; / Forgive them where they fail in truth, / And in thy wisdom make me wise. (l. 41-44) Tennyson and Augustine both feel baffled by reason’s inability to penetrate the fundamentally irrational, emotional, and spiritual aspects of grief.

C.S. Lewis begins his own account of bereavement, A Grief Observed, in surprise at the difference between what he had previously believed of grief and his own feelings at the loss of his wife: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing” (1). Lewis had previously written stoically on The Problem of Pain, so it is fascinating to notice the ways in which his earlier beliefs and reason are subsumed under the weight of his grief. Likely this is why Lewis only published the four “MS notebooks” that comprise the chapters of A Grief Observed pseudonymously during his lifetime, agonizing within over the purpose of his writing them to begin with, and asking himself self-consciously, what his wife would “think of this terrible little notebook to which I come back and back? Are these jottings morbid? I once read the sentence ‘I lay awake all night with a toothache, thinking about toothache and about lying awake.’ That’s true to life.” (9)

In Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion highlights a common insistence upon the word “ordinary” in relating our traumatic memories: “the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy,” and particularly how those who describe the events such as those of 9/11 often begin their accounts with “It was just an ordinary beautiful September day” (4). Before a life-altering event it seems reasonable to note the commonplace—to recall the calm that prefigured the torrential storm.

It is the return to normalcy after loss, however, that chiefly concerns Vera Brittain in her memoir, Testament of Youth. The work is dedicated to the memory of several beloved young men killed during the chaos of the First World War, but in particular to her young fiancé, Roland Leighton. “Whenever I think of the weeks that followed the news of Roland’s death,” Brittain writes, “a series of pictures, disconnected but crystal clear, unroll themselves like a kaleidoscope through my mind” (239). The subsequent list is strikingly concluded by a memory in which Brittain feels her grief slip for a moment:

“It is Wednesday, and I am walking up the Brixton Road on a mild, fresh mourning of early spring. Half-consciously I am repeating a line from Rupert Brooke:

‘The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying…’

For a moment I have become conscious of the old joy in rainwashed skies and scuttling, fleecy clouds, when suddenly I remember—Roland is dead and I am not keeping faith with him; it is mean and cruel, even for a second, to feel glad to be alive.” (240-41).

Further highlighting Brittain’s desire to do justice to her state of mourning is her consistent frustration at her inability to preserve her memory of Roland. Thinking back after some twenty years, she realizes “it is years now since I have been able to recall his face, and I know that, even in dreams, I shall never hear the sound of his voice again” (187).

The workings of grief are, in many ways, fundamentally inexplicable. This does not make coming to terms with loss undesirable, but only implies that perhaps the greatest task of grief is simply to know it. In the final chapter of A Grief Observed Lewis admits his initial aim in writing was flawed: “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop.” (68-69) Grief is thus perhaps more akin to a country path than to a highway.

Two years ago I was once again overcome by the wish to kindle a flame of remembrance on a late November eve. I was studying in England at the time and had a candle close at hand, but had neglected to buy a lighter before all the nearby shops had closed for the night. I remember standing candle-in-hand and bewildered on the library veranda for some moments to consider my plight, when suddenly I noticed a man smoking a cigarette nearby. He obliged my request with a bemused smile, and as I walked back to my flat with the flame cradled carefully between my fingers I pronounced the meeting fortunate. I felt, also, a poignant mixture of persistent regret for what was lost and of quiet gratitude for what had been. Perhaps, at its heart, grief merely provides us the best avenue for recognition of this duality.

 

 

Works Cited:

Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. R.S. Pine-Coffin, trans. New York: Dorset Press, 1989.

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “In Memoriam A.H.H.” The Literature Network, 1850. http://www.online-literature.com/tennyson/718/

Newsletter Announcement: The Human Connection

 

 

It has long been a goal of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities to publish a regular newsletter. So we’re proud to announce the launch of our new monthly email newsletter: The Human Connection. Each issue will feature details about future events, links to our latest blog posts, and recommended readings that correspond to upcoming guests and events. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible to keep up with what’s happening at the Center–all in one place.

We will publish the newsletter once a month throughout the academic year, and we hope it will be a welcome addition to your inbox! The next issue will be out in early December. You can subscribe easily here.

Lost Restaurants of Tulsa

In the first in a series of blog posts about forgotten Oklahoma landmarks, Rhys Martin chats with us about his new book Lost Restaurants of Tulsa. Join us over the next several months as we explore demolished, forgotten, or abandoned sites around the state in anticipation of our May 2019 photography exhibit Forgotten Oklahoma.

 

Tell us a little bit about where the inspiration came from for Lost Restaurants of Tulsa. Why was this project important or appealing to you?

I have long been interested in various aspects of Tulsa history. After driving to Oklahoma City for the final days of the Charcoal Oven in 2016, I wanted to know more about the lost Tulsa eateries I’d heard about my whole life. It became a conduit for me to learn more about the people behind places like Bishop’s Restaurant and the Razor Clam…which is always the part I like best.

Did you learn anything surprising from your research and work on the book?

I didn’t realize how connected a lot of these places were. For example, I’d heard of Miller’s Drive-In on Admiral but I didn’t know it had previously been a Pennington’s location. The Silver Castle Lunch System diner chain, founded in Tulsa in the 1930s, was a launching pad for people like Claud Hobson and Johney Harden who both went on to start their own hamburger restaurants that are still operating today. I also learned about a few cultural touches that are lost in the digital age: did you know that kids from different high schools used to have their own honking patterns to identify themselves when cruising the Restless Ribbon of Peoria Avenue? Now you can just call or text your friends to see where they’re at.

Did you gather most of the materials and photos yourself or did you have help from the Tulsa community?

I started by researching the archives at the Central Library downtown and at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. Using that information, I started reaching out to individuals related to the owners of restaurants like the Denver Grill and Villa Venice. In some cases, the actual owners were still around to tell me their story. As I researched, I’d also scour social media for tidbits of information I could use to help fill in a few blanks.

What is it about these old and seemingly forgotten places that you think people find interesting? What is the fascination?

Well, nostalgia is quite a draw. Every generation loves to remember the “good old days” and food is a great connector. I am constantly amazed by the details that people remember from fifty or sixty years ago – and those recollections always come with a deep smile. For people like me that didn’t get to experience these institutions first-hand, it’s a way to learn about simpler time and imagine what life was like. There’s a movement right now focused on farm-to-table operations and locally-sourced food. Back in the day, that’s all there was.

Who do you think the ideal audience is for your book?

As you might imagine, talking about this project with older folks tends to come with more engagement. People are eager to share their own stories and spend a few minutes in yesteryear. I hope the book also resonates with people interested in general Tulsa history and people that want to know a little more about the restaurants they’ve heard about growing up from their parents or grandparents.

Tell us a bit about the book itself: When will it be available for purchase? Where can people buy it from (either online or locally)?

The book comes out on December 3rd and will be available from a variety of local outlets like Magic City Books, Decopolis, Ida Red, and more. It’ll also be on Amazon and on my personal website (www.cloudlesslens.com). The latter is the only place where you’ll be able to get an autographed copy outside of an event. The official launch is at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum on Saturday, December 8th at 2:00 PM. More events are being planned; you can stay up-to-date (and see photos that didn’t make it into the book) on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/LostTulsaRestaurants

 

 

Servile Oblivion

Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue, this week with a post by Jacob Howland, McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tulsa. Jacob tackles some tough questions about the value of a liberal arts education and what role the university plays in keeping classical heritage alive.

Liberal education is the individual assimilation of cultural memory: we recover the historical and metaphysical ground of our being by studying the accumulated riches of the past. This humanly essential undertaking, which every generation must begin anew, rescues hard-won truths from oblivion and makes it possible to discern meaningful signals within the general noise of time.  But in today’s universities, liberal education—and especially its core, the humanities—has been largely eclipsed by programs of study whose ostensible social utility offers more immediate and measurable rewards.

For the past two summers, New Haven’s Elm Institute has offered a student seminar entitled “What Are The Humanities For?”  The readings, most decades old, remain fresh and surprising.  James Stockdale reveals in “The World of Epictetus” that studying the Stoics at Stanford helped him to survive seven years of captivity in Hỏa Lò, the Hanoi Hilton.  Jonathan Rose’s “The Classics in the Slums” includes testimonia from early twentieth-century English colliers and laundresses “kindled to the point of explosion” by books borrowed from the libraries of the Workers’ Educational Association.  Machiavelli sheds the day’s muddy clothes at the door of his study and is “received with affection” in “the ancient courts of ancient men.”  “Across the color line,” W. E. B. Dubois summons “Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”  Organic images abound in these essays and aphorisms.  Salvador Dalí teaches the paradox that “Everything that is not tradition is plagiarism,” because only art nourished by the “blood of reality”—by the essential accumulation of richly oxygenated life that circulates in the tradition—can be truly original.  Noting that “the primary mission of a university is the transmission of a precious heritage,” Roger Shattuck’s “Nineteen Theses on Literature” compares the inherently conservative institution of education to “our gonads … the most stable and protected element in the body.”  For all of these authors, the classics pulse with spiritual potency.

How does one enter into this vital and saving heritage—or rather, how does it enter into us?  This pressing question of cultural memory is largely ignored in the contemporary university, where servile arts have crowded out the liberal ones.  The crisis of liberal education goes back at least to the nineteenth century.  “Every living thing can become healthy, strong and fruitful only within a horizon,” Nietzsche observed in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874).  But far from providing a quiet enclosure in which the young can become “finished, ripe and harmonious personalities,” the modern university offers only a “noisy pseudo-education” that paralyzes rather than quickening individual development—that in fact “sees its advantage in preventing your becoming ripe, in order to rule and exploit you unripe ones.”  Modern education produces sterile and weak personalities that have forgotten how to feel and think deeply and fruitfully—a “race of eunuchs,” in Nietzsche’s memorable phrase. 

The overvaluation of the servile arts is in fact a defining feature of modernity.  George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language” (1946) that “in our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics.”  The following year, Josef Pieper delivered two lectures, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture” and “The Philosophical Act,” in which he described “the so-called ‘political invasion’” of all spheres of human existence as a consequence of the “total claim of the world of work” in modern life.  For Pieper, the industrial model of education—the smothering of the liberal arts under the demand that teaching and learning be judged exclusively by the criterion of “social service,” or contribution to “the functional nexus of the modern body social”—is merely a special case of the totalizing impulse of the modern ideal of work, and of the radical devaluation of non-instrumental knowledge that this impulse entails.

This totalizing impulse has developed in ways Nietzsche and Pieper probably didn’t anticipate.  Universities now compete to offer curricula that are “relevant” not only to the contemporary economy, but to any number of causes under the umbrella of social justice.  This second prong of the “political invasion” has accelerated the academy’s abandonment of the tradition of humanistic education.  Many professors now regard the classics—the books that lifted Helen Keller out of isolation and ignorance, and that filled Richard Wright with “nothing less than a sense of life itself” as he labored to escape the Jim Crow South—not as a seedbed not of personal growth and cultural renewal, but of misogyny and racism.  The classics are supposed not awaken and instruct, but to demean and marginalize.  They are by no means to be lovingly implanted in young souls, but pressed through a steel mesh of criticism so as to extract object lessons in inequality and injustice.  Little wonder that enrollments have plummeted and programs are collapsing across the humanities: the professoriate has burned the crop and is busily salting the fields.

“We’ve got plenty of artificial intelligences,” the philosopher Stanley Rosen once said; “I’m looking for real ones.”  Real, creative intelligences always spring from an organic accumulation of human life—an accumulation that has for millennia been preserved, cultivated, and transmitted in the tradition of arts and letters, music and scientific exploration.  Today’s servile education produces college graduates who have lost a vital connection with the pulse and ferment of reality, and whose minds are filled with a jumble of fruitless abstractions and social constructions.  This loss impoverishes all who feel the sweet, inevitable pull of the call to become distinctively individual, flesh-and-blood human beings.  Worse, it condemns many who have never yet felt this call to “run nameless through the innumerable multitude” (in Kierkegaard’s words), living life in ignorance of their true and unrepeatable names.

The survival of the liberal arts and the humanities—of education as such—depends on the existence of teachers who treasure the precious inheritance of the past and are allowed to transmit it to their students.  This is a hard truth, for if present trends continue, such teachers will all but vanish from American colleges and universities within a generation.  Still, the humanities will not be entirely extinguished.  Quietly sustained by individual readers and writers, artists and poets, the vital tradition will shelter underground until it someday sprouts in new forms.

Channeling the Voice of God: Singing Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”

By Layne Farmen

I.

“It isn’t music for the casual listener. I think as a musician’s musician, Britten compliments serious musicians by challenging our thinking and our own boundaries… It is a deep, deep work that never lets up on the demands by everyone. It takes all of our efforts to achieve it…”

-Dr. Tim Sharp, Artistic Director of the Tulsa Oratorio

Four months after moving to Oklahoma and with no classical training to speak of, I’m going on a giant stage to perform one of the grandest and most difficult pieces of music ever composed.

A view from the stage

On November 11th The Tulsa Symphony is presenting Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem for the very first time, in honor of the World War I centennial. My wife Annelise, who possesses significant musical ability, talked me into auditioning for the chorus, and much to my surprise, I made it in. It wasn’t until the splitting migraine after the first rehearsal that I realized just how much I was in over my head.

Annelise is an accomplished music teacher, with experience in both primary and secondary education, though we had never attempted a voice lesson together. The day of the audition she helped me dig through her endless bag of music to find a piece that would fit my entirely unimpressive range. We eventually landed on “Homeward Bound,” something always good for inspiring sentimental misty eyes, when performed competently. As I sang and she salvaged I realized I hadn’t really heard my voice in years; not like this.

At the audition Annelise went first, and I snuck up with my ear to the door to listen while she knocked it out of the park: singing something impressive, and in a different language. Of course, she was a no-brainer. After I delivered my piece and presented what was certainly a more difficult decision for Dr. Tim Sharp, he told us we were in.

The imposing front cover

II.

Britten’s War Requiem is a vocally demanding choir piece and is not for the faint of heart. The combination of mathematical composing mixed with opera-like drama originally had me discouraged…but the more it comes together the more excited I am”—Asura Oulds, Bass and TU alumni

Nothing could have prepared me for the first rehearsal. The only experience I can compare it to was the first time I opened Finnegans Wake, but this time it was group confusion. Suddenly I was looking at eccentric bits of musical notation I had never seen before: double sharps? How does one get used to 7/4? And how does one comfortably sing a section where the words carry on without any sense of rhythm, to create a sort of chanting chaos?

There is a sense of community in choral music that builds a camaraderie and unity that directly finds its way into the sound of the performance: my wife has noticed this phenomena in her choirs over the years: when the students like each other, they simply sing better. But no matter how friendly, welcoming, cheery and warm the environment of the Tulsa Oratorio is, when we first looked at the text I’m not sure “strength in numbers” could apply just yet.

In one particularly difficult section, near the end of the “Libera me” I simply couldn’t bear being confused any longer. I was irritated that I wasn’t getting it, irritated that my section wasn’t getting it, and even more irritated that no one was throwing up an SOS signal of any kind. So I raised my hand and didn’t wait to get called on.

I learned later this wasn’t proper procedure: when you have a difficulty, you’re meant to speak to your section leader, who will then document the difficulty and present it to Dr. Sharp at the break, so you don’t slow the momentum of the rehearsal. Rightly so, my interjection was met with side glances from the rest of the ensemble, and at least one glare from the soprano section.

What came out was “could we hear the tenor part on square 114?” What I really was saying was “Just where in the hell ARE we?”

III.

“My personal conviction is that musical compositions are a kind of “world-making” that asks us to inhabit realities which may be different than our own…To me, War Requiem creates a musical world where hope is no longer an assurance but an uncertainty.  There are still moments of incredible beauty and positive affirmations, but they may always be unexpectedly shattered. The piece gives us a sustained opportunity to inhabit an existential struggle that many people find daily within themselves. The beauty of the work lies in its ability to lead us beyond sympathy and into empathy…I sincerely believe that War Requiem, when thoughtfully engaged, is a work of art with the capacity to reacquaint and re-sensitize us.”—Zachary Malavolti, Assistant Artistic Director of the Tulsa Oratorio.

Benjamin Britten

I used to marvel when I saw Annelise perform with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. Last winter, after an immensely successful run of Carmina Burana and just preceding performances of Verde’s Requiem, she performed Handel’s Messiah with the Florida Orchestra under the direction of Michael Francis. Her favorite section was No. 46, a somber death knell, “Since by man came death” that suddenly leaps exuberantly into joy, “by man came also the resurrection from the dead!” Finding clear meaning in classical texts can often be difficult for contemporary audiences, so far removed by history, language, and space, but the musical contrast here colors the text in completely unambiguous fashion.

Grave, piano, “For as in Adam all die.”

Forte, Allegro, “Even so in Christ shall all be made alive!”

Annelise said she felt during the first performance as if they were collectively channeling the voice of God.

Over the past few years, due in part to my training in the liberal arts and my continued spiritual journey of church-going and theological study, I’ve come to a place where radical pacifism is central to my belief system. It was central to Britten’s too. He left England to live as an exile in America in 1939, and upon returning was recognized as a conscientious objector. His words, stated before a tribunal, resonate across history: “Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy, and feel it my duty to not to help to destroy as far as I am able, human life, however strongly I may disapprove of the individual’s actions or thoughts.”

Assistant Artistic Director Zachary Malavolti has a great deal to say about how Britten’s ideological ethos comes through in both the text of the Requiem and the technical musicality. Most students of Literature have come in contact with Wilfred Owen, especially the visceral “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” the darkly ironic poem about the horrors of trench warfare in World War I. Britten combines language from the work of Wilfred Owen (himself killed in World War I when he was only 25), with traditional Latin Mass, specifically meant for the remembrance of the dead. To translate this in musical composition, Britten renders the monstrous chaos of war, and simulates the violent shaking apart of Heaven and Earth. While the chorus sings “when heaven and earth are shaken, (trans.)” says Malavolti, “the orchestra doubles in its meter while the chorus’ rhythm remains unaltered. By keeping the large pulses the same for both ensembles, the conductor is able to control two seemingly different tempos. The aural effect is that the chorus and orchestra are getting out of sync (like heaven and earth).”

Wilfred Owen

 

IV.

Art is History’s nostalgia, it prefers a thatched

roof to a concrete factory, and the huge church

above a bleached village.

Derek Walcott, from Omeros

 

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled.

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

Wilfred Owen, from “Strange Meeting”

 

Last night we had our first rehearsal with Dr. James Bagwell and a fully combined choir, more than doubling the sound we had been working with thus far. Suddenly we were rehearsing the music at tempo, meaning that musical passages that had previously merely skipped along now furiously charged ahead.  “Have no fear!” Bagwell cheered us on after we collectively missed an entrance: “You can’t have any fear!” From the first time since we started rehearsing we got through the entire Requiem, piece by piece, absolutely hammering away at every problem area, white knuckled, blasting through some of the most challenging music ever put to page. Parts of the text that sounded measured, dignified, now sounded ravenous and violent (“Confutatis”).  Near the end of the “Libera me” we were moving so quickly I couldn’t rely on my previous strategy of counting to make my entrances; I lifted my eyes off the page and sang from memory, remarkably, not missing a single note. When going over the first movement, we were instructed to sing as if we were six feet underground, “If it’s right” Bagwell noted, “people will leave wondering what happened.”

Partly because I was struggling with the material myself, I asked Malavolti what audiences should bring with them to the performance on Sunday. How can we prepare ourselves for what we’re about to hear? His first two recommendations, about noting the three distinct ensemble “voices” and listening for the juxtaposition of Wilfred Owen’s poetry with the Latin mass, were very helpful. His third recommendation was central to a culminating question: why do we grapple with texts that we can’t fully understand? “There are not always clear answers” says Malavolti. “The experience comes from wrestling…with the material Britten has provided.” Maybe concepts like “War” really can’t be understood in linear, easily digestible ways. Though we can learn about all of the major events, treaties, dates and tank models from any given textbook, I think the arts alone can bring us face to face with what war feels like, with what it really means.

If it’s right, people will leave wondering what happened

If it’s right, I think we’ll leave wondering too.

Event details can be found and tickets can be purchased HERE.

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