Nearly two hundred years ago, a French nobleman named Alphonse LaMartine wrote a series of deeply sentimental meditations on divinity, one of the first examples of Romantic poetry. Inspired by this collection, Franz Liszt composed a soul-searching piano cycle, also called “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses.” And now, coming full circle, I have written lyrics to the thundering opening number, “Invocation.” A bit less florid and rapturous than LaMartine’s original (and a tad more humorous, it being from me and all), my poem comes from an place of sincere terror.
At a time when the knowledgeable are seeing a dire future as our climate warms past the point of hospitability and the ignorant are blocking all attempts to do something about it, regular folks struggle with their feelings as well as their actions. Parents of this generation, who are raising children in a world entitled to its materialism, have unspoken nightmares that their wired-up grandkids may live in a world without glaciers, tigers, coral reefs, or, for that matter, food. I have been struggling for years to give voice to this alarming disconnect, but with crises like bullying or school needs looming in the foreground of my attention, it is rare that I can pull my thoughts coherently together.
Enter pianist Daniel Finnamore, who offered to play a concert at the public school to which I am currently connected, eager to show off the workings of the wonderful, restored, non-fuel-consuming piano machine that lives in the school’s lovingly renovated Auditorium (which has become quite the community events center). The concert has evolved to become a celebration of the school’s centennial year, and a thank-you to donors and volunteers who support the PTSA, Oakland Tech’s parent alliance and nonprofit partner foundation. 100 Years/88 Keys will feature music that was written by romantic and expressionist composers around the time Tech was built. The theme of the event—which will also feature thoughts on the past and future of education by school board member Jodi London and a performance by ballerina extraordinaire Deon Oddone of Nutcracker fame—is an invocation for the next 100 years.
My poem will be projected onto the stage above the piano action during the final piece in the program. I will be in the back conducting nearly a hundred slides in time with the music, in an art form I don’t know how to name. The writing process has been intense, setting impossible lyrics to this complex piece of classical music—full of questions and answers, soaring litanies and cascading anxieties—impossible since there is no space for a human voice in the tumult of sound. Instead, these lyrics must be performed in the inner voice of each viewer. In spite of the fact I tend to adore a lot of complex illustration, I use only one image in this projection. The photo of pillars in water evokes two things; first, the “Rivers and Pillars” speech I gave at the Centennial Book Launch about the rivers of souls that have passed through the majestic columns of the school since it opened its doors in 1915; and more seriously, a chilling vision of the front steps in a currently probable future in which seas have risen several meters.
Fortunately, with the help of Liszt and Finnamore, the concert will end in a moving and uplifting way, having passed through the darkness. And then we will have some birthday cake and (non-alcoholic) champagne.
Please come enjoy this very special event. Tickets are $20, and all proceeds go to support students at Tech. PTSA volunteers and donors are honored guests. Reserve a spot on EventBrite or on Facebook, so we have enough cake and “school champagne.”