Yesterday, I accompanied Steve Gunderson (composer, arranger, and actor extraordinaire) on a visit to Dinah Lenney (formidable actress, singer, writer) to see if she could/would sing a song from The Artificial Woman at an upcoming Red Hen Press event at the end of this month, in Los Angeles.

I’ve been collaborating with Steve on this musical play since January. The project has taken over my life. Become my life. I don’t want to do or think about much of anything else. This is a bit of a problem, but it’s the problem I want to have: the curse/blessing of being a writer or artist, or scientist or nurse, anybody consumed by working on what they love, so that even when they’re not consciously engaged with working on their problem or project, it’s always thrumming just underneath their thoughts. My tiny home office, always a chaos, is now more packed and stacked, with books on our topic, notes from meetings with Steve (and Javier Velasco), drafts of scenes and songs, research scribblings, photos of our historical protagonists, plays and musicals I’m reading in attempts at self-education, etc. Musical theatre is a new medium for me, challenging, thrilling, deeply obsessing. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I’m learning a ton, and feel possessed, full of speedy eagerness, (mixed with the requisite trepidation any writing project that’s fired my imagination seems to require.)

Steve had never met Dinah. In an unusual piece of luck, for a couple of decades I’ve had the delight of living across the street from Dinah. I’ve taught writing with her, been edited by her, done readings with her, watched her son and daughter grow up, read her books, seen her play Lady Macbeth, Queen Gertrude, and a nurse informing various doctors: “You’re wanted in surgery!” on the TV show ER, etc. So it was my pleasure to be present at the first meeting of these two gifted friends, hoping we might get to work together a little. Or, to be more precise, I was hoping to stand back, disappear into the wallpaper and witness this composer and singer join forces to bring a song from this show-in-the-making to a poetry audience on August 23rd, at a beautiful venue called The Annenberg Beach House, on the lip of the Pacific Ocean.

Since Red Hen Press was kind enough to invite me to do a 15 minute slot in a poetry reading on a bill with poets Nicelle Davis, Jane Hilberry and Jessy Randall, Steve and I decided to try to use that quarter of an hour to present limited bits from our show in progress. Red Hen was supportive. Now we just needed to see if Dinah could fit the prep into her schedule, if Steve thought her voice would work for the song, if they liked the idea of working together.

Upon arrival at Dinah’s, the three of us descended her steep, red spiral staircase to small room taken up almost entirely by a piano. Steve set up his computer atop the baby grand, and they spoke about what key would be most comfortable for Dinah to sing in. They laughed about the obsolete, pre-computer methods for producing scores that they’d dealt with earlier in their careers, in which composers used to “do the score on rice paper with special ink.” “Can you even buy those old rice paper scores on ebay now? Dinah asked. “How religious do you want me to be about the rhythm?” she wanted to know, a few minutes later. Much chat and picking out melody lines on the piano re: places in the phrasing where it would be best for Dinah to take a breath. At one point Steve suggested, “Have a big, big breath before that section, really tank up.” Of course there’s much talk about “the breath” in poetry, whether it corresponds to the unit of the line, etc. Somehow, this mutual deciding about where the singer could breathe seemed intimate, and at the same time, utterly practical, mathematical/strategic. Perhaps I’m thinking this too because the summer Olympics are on TV now, and when do I get to breathe? seemed akin to a concern of an Olympic swimmer rocketing through her lane in the pool. Ultimately, the decision about what key Dinah would sing in seemed to hinge not so much on her range, as I would have thought, but rather on what kind of sound was wanted. She said, “the song sounds a little opera-y in the higher key with my voice, which I don’t think you want, and more jazzy in the lower key.” Steve agreed. Dinah talked about “really getting my teeth into the words once I have it memorized.”

My fingers are crossed. I think Steve and Dinah liked the idea of working together, of trying to do this song for the Red Hen reading. We’ll see. There are challenges (the funny little speaker we will have to use to hook to Steve’s computer to provide the accompaniment may not work, or may not be loud enough, or may buzz suddenly like a plague of infuriated bees. Plus, both Steve and Dinah are fearfully busy, and this small enterprise necessarily involves a little rehearsal, etc.) It may all fall apart at the last minute, but that’s show biz, I guess, even a dinky 15 minutes of it. Steve and I have a backup plan to read a scene and some speeches from the project if the song doesn’t work, or even if it does, to fill out the 15 minutes. I am lighting candles that Dinah will be able to sing and the speaker will behave and that an audience will for the first time hear a song from this show, which may generate interest, and/or feedback.

This project is vital to me. Some of the ways in which this is so, I can articulate, and some go so deep I can’t put words to them yet. More on that anon, if you can stand it, dear reader. But now I want to revisit a topic from last blog post: how obsessed I get with certain people’s singing voices. I call it having voice crushes. This doesn’t involve any personal feelings about the singer, just their disembodied voice. I DON’T crave to meet or know them at all, if they’re strangers. Actually, I’d usually rather not. Although I might seem like a blabbermouth in this blog context, I’m shy, and especially of meeting art heroes. But I do need to hear particular voices singing, on demand. The voices I love are among the most potent drugs available to me, in other words, ESSENTIAL. Of course this is not a unique feeling, it’s part of the immense and primal power of music and the human voice, blah blah blah, as previously mentioned in last blog post, linked for me to the heady sound/meaning one-two punch of words, and/or music and words fused.

This week I was thinking about a couple of friends who have been dead a long time now. I was musing about how what it seemed that I wanted almost most of all at certain moments, in some kind of crazy, unanswered and rather pathetic attempt to bargain with the universe, was to hear those dead friends’ voices again…not recorded, not via reading their handwriting, but live, even if I couldn’t see them at all. Something about hearing their individual, recognizable, unique voices, I felt, would be so invaluable, so restorative, so consoling. Just a sentence from each, I pleaded with the silent cosmos. Give me that, right in my ear, so I could take it in fully and clearly, and savor it for the coming decades I hopefully have left to be alive. Needless to say, the universe did not respond with so much as a burp. But enough of my habitual morbidity! Back to singing:

What are your own voice crushes, dear reader, either recent or longstanding,? Whose singing voice dissolves you to a puddle? I really want to know, selfishly, perhaps, as it might lead to new discoveries, new voices I can’t do without, that provide infusions of life force. I do love Dinah’s voice, am always trying to tempt or trick her to sing, even if only a phrase. And the late Amy Winehouse’s voice, all caramelly and feline, prickles my spine. Rachel Price, lead singer for a band called Lake Street Dive, has a voice is so rich and bold it melts me, rearranges my brain. (Shout out to the terrific poet Gregory Pardlo, who brought Rachel Price into my hearing range via a facebook post.) To use that old cliché usually applied to Sarah Bernhart, hearing Rachel Price sing the damn phone book could make me weep. Hearing Stephanie Mills singing Be a Lion from The Wiz puts me into a state in which I need to be reminded when and how to breathe. In the original production of The Gospel at Colonus, a ravishing piece of musical theatre, a woman whose name I have seen spelled as Javetta Steele and also as Jevetta Steele sings “How Shall I See You Through My Tears” so gorgeously that I wish to listen nonstop. But I won’t keep effusing blogwise nonstop, dear reader, in deference to you. More soon.