Category Archives: Music

All men shall be sailors…

Sailing and freedom

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

“All men shall be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them…” — Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

I’ve been listening to a lot of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen lately. I’m not alone in this; he’s experiencing an (in my mind deserved) groundswell of popularity in the 14 months since he died.

His themes are universal and serious: the inevitability of loss, imperfectability of human nature, the ephemeral transcendence of love.

His fundamental stance is religious, but while it’s rooted in his native Jewish tradition (he remained devout all his life), it draws from a broad set of perspectives, with a pragmatic bent. He once told the New Yorker:  “Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works.”

He wasn’t joking. Over the years, he studied Scientology, became an ordained Buddhist monk, and studied at an Indian ashram—along with pursuing various intoxicants (from acid to alcohol) and ascetic practices (particularly fasting). His goal was less the abstract pursuit of enlightenment than to ameliorate the bouts of depression that struck him throughout much of his life.

Sylvie Simmons wrote a wonderful biography of Cohen in 2012, “I’m Your Man,” One of the interesting paradoxes of Cohen’s life is that although he was deeply embedded in the contemporary cultural matrix  to a degree that’s almost Zelig-like, his essential formality was fundamentally out of step with the “anything goes” ethos of the times.

The Jewish magazine Forward has an insightful obituary that highlights this: “The “absence of the casual” may well be one of the singular characteristics setting Cohen’s work apart from his so-called contemporaries,” writes Seth Rogovoy.

And it paid off in the long run—Cohen is one of the rare artists who pursued his craft with intensity and diligence all his life, and  peaked as a performer in his 70s.

In a surprising twist that serves as a hopeful beacon to us late bloomers, after his business manager embezzled his money and left him broke early in the 2000s, he decided to go on tour to support his ex-wife and children. Although he had previously hated performing, he put together a stellar backup band and collaborated with them to develop innovative arrangements of his work.

The result was almost a decade of some of the best live performances in popular music history (you can find many of them in YouTube). Cohen not only accomplished his goal of earning back a fortune, he left a shining legacy that touches millions.

That “absence of the casual” is perhaps the most appropriate response to the inevitable tragedies of life, which may be one of the reasons Cohen’s work is experiencing a renaissance.

The lines above (“until the sea shall free them”) particularly resonated with me because the sea has always been associated in my mind with freedom. Towards the end of his life, my father (who was a naval officer)  turned to me and said, “The open ocean is closer than they led us to believe.”

He was referring, of course, to his imminent death, but what struck me was that he associated it with the open ocean—and freedom.

 

 

All Roads Lead Home

Wooden house in North Carolina

By Johna Till Johnson

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong…
—John Denver

It was almost as if my apps were in collusion to bring me home.

It started when I turned on the Pandora station in the car last spring.

The trip ahead was long: 1200 miles, from New York to Florida, where I hoped to pick up my boat and spend a few days camping and paddling. Music would keep me from getting bored.

The Pandora algorithm isn’t complex—in fact, I could probably write the code myself. The app starts by playing the music you’ve asked for (a particular artist or genre). Then for maybe 10% of the songs, it gradually inserts other artists that are “sort of like” the artist you selected. As you indicate your likes and dislikes of the material by clicking the thumbs up/thumbs down button, it adjusts the selection it plays.

So after a while, the station reflects your favorites.

I’d expected that.

What I hadn’t expected was the way the algorithm had mixed favorites from all different times of my life, creating a kaleidoscope of memories as I drove.

While the endless gray-and-green strips of landscape unfurled outside the car, references and long-forgotten images flashed through my brain.

There was the song I played repeatedly when I went out running on the hot autumn nights in Texas when my father lay dying.

Then there was the song I associated with falling in love with Vlad. And the song that comforted me in the shattered weeks after his death.

But there were songs from earlier times, as well.

Songs from the time, years past, that I played on the car radio during my late-night and early-morning commute between New York and Connecticut to my job as a hotshot technology executive at an engineering company…

Songs from my arrival in New York, years earlier, with ripped jeans and a meager budget, in the time when I still skateboarded in Union Square, and a female skateboarder was still a novelty: “Look! It’s a chick skater!” someone yelled once…

And songs from the years before that, in Florida. As the wife of a young professor, a freelance writer, and a new homeowner, I lived out a kind of delayed adolescence, hanging out with a group of bright underachieving perennial undergraduates at punk clubs and science fiction conventions…

There were the songs I listened to at those clubs, and also the songs I played on my headphones in those years as I ran, lithe and tan, near my house on the trail through the green-and-grey Florida woods (since paved over for a shopping mall).

And farther back still, during my college and graduate school years, the songs I listened to on an aging boom box, songs that were simultaneously upbeat and cynical, or preternaturally moody and depressed.

Yes, I was prepared for the mix of favorites—but I wasn’t quite prepared for the memories they’d summon.

And it wasn’t just Pandora. Google Maps appeared to be in on the plot, because for some reason, it  ingeniously routed me past nearly every place I’d ever lived in the continental US.

Yes, it helps that many of the places I’d lived were along the I-95 corridor.  But Google went out of its way to take me right by former homes.  Instead of zooming down the relatively straight line between Baltimore (where I’d lived for my college years) and Richmond, for instance, it took me on the spur towards Annapolis, where I’d lived between the years of eight and 11.

And then past the suburban Maryland enclave, where a few years later, I’d spent time as a surly, sullen adolescent. (Apparently my parents didn’t understand me. What a surprise! )

There was also the Virginia suburb where I lived as a very young child, and the exit where my then-husband and I had lived for one of the summers he worked at NASA.

Over the hours, I realized again and again how many places I called “home”.

It got to be almost a joke: I’d get out of the car somewhere—say the rest stop just outside Baltimore where I’d stopped on trips to, from, and past that city—breathe deeply, and say out loud: “I’m home!”

And I really meant it. I was home. These were all the places I’d lived, to which my memories were attached.

Those of us—like me and like Vlad—who have lived in many places don’t have the same experience of those who have grown up in a single place, imbued and invested with all our emotions and memories.

Yes, Vlad spoke of his home in Prague—which I visited (sadly, solo) the year before his death.

But he’d left there at the age of ten, and between then and when I’d met him in New York, “home” for him had been Libya, Iraq, Scotland, London, Heidelberg, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

Just as for me there had been California, South Carolina, Hawaii, Virginia, Maryland, Rochester, New Jersey, Florida, and New York City—not to mention Norway and Italy.

I can close my eyes and summon all the “homes” where I’ve lived: The garden in Naples. The terrace in Rome. The dark trees by the house in Oslo. The majestic four-story white house on the grounds of the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

And on this trip, it seemed like the Universe was working to visit almost all of them, through memory and proximity.

The place I was traveling to—St Petersburg, Florida—was also home. Although I’ve never lived there, one of my boats now does. And it had served as the center of my kayaking existence outside New York for nearly a decade.

It was there that, much to my surprise, I managed to pass the challenging British Canoe Union (BCU) test to become a three-star paddler, as part of the Sweetwater Kayak symposium.

And it was there that served as the launch point for the Everglades Challenge Vlad and I completed in 2014, and for which we conducted multiple “shakedown” (practice) trips. Not by pure coincidence, it was also there that my company had elected to hold its annual conference for the past several years.
So when I arrived at long last at Fort De Soto campground, I stepped out of the car, took a deep breath and said (once again): “Ahh. I’m home!”

And then I had to smile at the number of times I’d said that on this trip.

Immortal Beauty

By Johna Till Johnson

Maria Radner

Maria Radner, 1981-Eternity

Among the victims of Germanwings Flight 9525 was Maria Radner, a German opera singer. She was a 33-year old contralto who specialized in Wagner.  I hadn’t heard of her before—no surprise since I’m new to opera, and have yet to warm to Wagner’s music.

But a commentator on one of the news stories posted the video below. Maria Radner sings “Urlicht” (“Primeval Light”) from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection Symphony.

It’s just under five minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite so lovely. Looking into her serene blue-gray eyes and insouciant half smile, and listening to that soaring voice, all I can think of is that although a deranged man was able to take away her life, the beauty she brought into this world is immortal.

The lyrics translate as follows:

I am from God and want to return to God!
The loving God will give me a little of the light,
will illuminate me into the eternal blessed life!

She got that wish.

I only wish that it hadn’t happened quite so soon.

Weekly Photo Challenge: KISS

By Johna Till Johnson

471627_10150716407605951_747648912_oThis week’s Photo Challenge is Kiss.

What with Couples, and Love, and Valentine’s Day, we’ve had entirely too much romantic stuff lately. So, for something completely different—

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A few months back, a friend and client invited me to a corporate event.

Not your typical corporate event: It was a “Battle of the Bands”, in which employee-musicians competed in front of a crowd of  hundreds of other employees and business partners.

Knowing my friend is a huge fan of the rock group KISS, I volunteered to come dressed in full KISS attire.

Okay, actually I didn’t volunteer. My business partner volunteered me, as in, “I’m sure Johna would love to dress up!”

Hmm… I’d love to, but… As the president and CEO of an up-and-coming technology research firm, did I really want to show up in front of clients and other professionals dressed like a rock star? Isn’t there something about, you know, having an image to uphold?

Upon further consideration, it took me about a nanosecond to agree with the idea. (After all, if I were diehard about maintaining a professional image, I wouldn’t be sporting a Billy Idol ‘do.)

Much longer, though, were the preparations.

First: Which member should I emulate? I was only dimly aware of the individual band members. My friend the KISS connoisseur advised that although Gene Simmons is better known, Ace Frehley’ Paul Stanley’s makeup is easier to do. (Note: As alert readers have noted, it was actually Paul Stanley’s makeup we emulated. I was confused by listening to “New York Groove” while writing this….)

Paul it was!

Then there were the logistics. Prior to the Battle of the Bands, there was an actual formal(ish) event during which we technology folks were to get briefed on the company’s products and services. The CEO would be attending. Did I want to show up at this event in KISS makeup?

In the end, I decided against that plan of action. Instead, after the event, my friend and I swiftly changed into KISS gear and did our makeup, rocking out to the sound of  “New York Groove”.

The results? I think we were a rocking pair of Pauls! And my friend accessorized with a blow-up guitar…

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By sheer coincidence, some time before Vlad had taken a photo of a Gene Simmons lookalike at the Hallowe’en festivities on the Upper East Side.  He didn’t recognize the costume, though: I had to provide some additional context.

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After all, by then I was an expert in KISS!

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Great minds think alike!: To Mother Earth, with Love

Performing for a Cast of Thousands

By Johna Till Johnson

I’ve got great genes. No, make that fantastic genes.

Multiple grandparents and their siblings have lived well into their 90s (and a few into their 100s). And they continued having interesting adventures throughout their lives.

True to that tradition, my (then) 83-year-old mother, Mary Louise Till, and I went on a trip to the Arctic last summer. Thanks to good timing and the skill of our ship’s captain, we were able to crunch through the Arctic ice to north of 86 degrees latitude. (No, I’m not exaggerating—we were roughly 500 miles from the North Pole. And yes, I really will write up this adventure!)

More recently, my mother had an adventure closer to home: Performing  this past Monday for approximately 10,000 people in Corpus Christi, Texas, for the Diocese Centennial Mass.

Here’s a short news video about the performance—it’s pretty exciting! (There’s about 5 seconds of advertising preceding it.)

My mother is a second alto in the Corpus Christi Cathedral  Choir, a surprisingly excellent adult choir directed by Lee Gwozdz, Corpus Christi Cathedral’s world-class choir director. (It’s a musical family: Lee’s brother, Eugene Gwozdz, has directed  the musical “Annie” on Broadway and appears currently on Broadway as musical director/accompanist for “At This Performance”.)

Here’s an earlier video of the choir performing. My mother appears in the upper right at 0:29, wearing glasses and bobbing her head enthusiastically. You can see her through 0:50.

The Diocese Centennial Mass was a celebration of Corpus Christi’s 100th year as a Catholic Diocese. Held in the Corpus Christi Cathedral, the mass featured 40 bishops,  3 archbishops, 300 priests, and a keynote by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.  (My mother says Cardinal Dolan’s speech was rather pedestrian. Compared to the musical accompaniment, I’m sure it was!)

Not too many of us ever perform for a cast of thousands—much less in our 80s.  Congratulations, mums!