In 1984 I had been in sober recovery for a couple of years; I was doing well in college, and enjoying working in my garden. I lived in a lovely two-story red-shingled Craftsman house in Sebastopol, California. Two palm trees graced the front yard; a barn owl lived in one of them. I often found regurgitated rodent skeletons on the lawn under its perch. Two large picture windows flanked the southeast corner of the living room, bathing my baby grand piano in filtered light. When I practiced Chopin’s Military Polonaise I could hear a bird outside trilling the first three notes of the polonaise, our own duet.
Early in the first week of April I’d gone to the OB-GYN for a routine exam, an annual Pap smear. As usual, at the end of the appointment the nurse said, “If you don’t hear from us by next week know that no news is good news.” (The doctor I now see always reports all test results, positive or negative.) I returned home on Friday evening to an ominous message on my answering machine: “The doctor wants to speak to you about your Pap smear results.” I spent a long weekend half convinced that I had six months to live, which I believe is the standard life expectancy to give oneself when having an overly-dramatic reaction. My self-prognosis led me to a thorough review of my life. I concluded I was generally pleased with how things had turned out. But one thought came in a strong way: I wanted to write an opera. This was news to me – I’d written songs for guitar and flute when I was a teenager, but hadn’t written any music since. And I’d never been a fan of opera, apart from “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” by Giancarlo Menotti, which, compared to most operas, is mercifully short and to the point. I was generally of the opinion that most operas contained a few islands of great tunes stranded between vast oceans of long-winded, boring music performed by singers who sounded as if their shoes were laced too tight. So I was surprised when the voice which I recognized as my inner guide suggested that I write an opera.
On Monday when I finally spoke with the doctor it turned out I only had a few abnormal cells that needed to be rechecked in six months. But by that time I knew I wanted to write an opera. I wasn’t sure how to accomplish my new goal, so I contacted Will Johnson, a composer on the faculty at Sonoma State, where I was studying. Could he recommend a book about writing opera? He scratched his head (literally). He couldn’t think of such a book (this was before the advent of the “Idiot’s Guide” series), but he recommended I enroll in a class being offered jointly by the Music and Theater Arts departments, a production of “Twelfth Night“ with incidental music written by music students.
I enrolled in the class and was assigned to write a couple of songs. What a thrill I felt the first time I heard the soprano sing my Malvolio song! The music I had written was haunting and evocative; it expressively portrayed and even enhanced the character’s mood and the scene. Besides feeling pleased with the effectiveness of my work, I felt a connection to a place of profound okay-ness deep inside of me, accompanied by a great high. I was hooked.
After that I wrote a choral piece, some instrumental music, and tried my hand at writing pop songs with sequenced synthesizer tracks. But, even though my main instrument was piano, I didn’t write any solo piano music. I felt intimidated by the grandeur of the masterpieces by Chopin and Beethoven and Debussy I had studied and performed. I thought it would be presumptuous of me to even attempt writing for the piano.
And then my dog, Shana, died. She was a Coonhound I’d inherited from a drinking relationship that went bad. I really lucked out on that one. Coonhounds are an All-American breed of dog. They are extremely loyal and clever, and engender devotion in their human companions – just ask anyone who has their pup buried at the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard in Alabama. Good old Shana stuck with me through good times and bad. By the end of her life, she was crippled with arthritis, blind, and deaf, but when I put my hand to her nose so she could catch my scent, she wagged her tail. The day after Shana died, I experienced an image of her romping like a youngster in what appeared to be Dog Heaven, chasing butterflies in a sunlit meadow. This scene was accompanied in my head by a piano melody. I sat down at the piano to transcribe the melody – I thought I would write perhaps one page of music to help process my grief; I ended up writing a three movement piano sonata. The piece is called “Shana’s Song.” The movements are “Meadow,” “Mountain,” and “Out,” after a poem by Nathaniel Burt.
Let’s go play in the sun, you and I
hand in hand on the beaches.
At night, over our whispers, hear the sea.
Let’s look into the light, smiling, squinting our eyes.
And you can shake out your hair,
O, into the salt and gleaming wind.
And we shall not go back, not look inside,
close up the starless closet, throw the key.
Let’s drop all thoughts, all deaths, all duties.
Let’s, clean as a shell, like the wind blown free,
be tossed spendthrift, become pure and bare,
Become so shining that we cease to be.
Because of the very personal nature of my feelings about Shana, I could only write her elegy on the instrument most intimate to me, the piano. In the way of dogs, she taught me about unconditional love when she was alive, and in her death she helped open my heart to my own piano music.
About the author
Kate Moody is a recording artist and blogger. Check out her website at www.katemusic.com.