15th Street Quaker Meeting House, NYC
It’s Ed’s birthday today. Happy Birthday, Love. And as is tradition now in our relationship, I will gift Ed another viola/piano duet I compose for the occasion, each one called “Evocation”. This year my husband will receive Evocation XXIV.
I haven’t been doing much composing lately. Unless one counts the operas I get schoolchildren from Kindergarten to fourth grade to create – and I don’t count that as me composing – my last composition was last year’s Evocation, for Ed’s previous birthday, part of my ever expanding non-musical theater sideline of chamber music.
It has been a year of grieving. My father’s death last spring was followed a half year later by a series of deaths of close relatives and friends. In the course of four weeks alone Ed and I attended three memorial services. Including the one that, strangely, gave rise to Evocation XXIV.
Ernie and Vince Buscemi, center, surrounded by more lovely Quakers, 2004
Vince Buscemi was a Quaker in Ed’s meeting. He and his wife Ernie were part of Ed and my Clearness Committee, a group that is formed to meet with a couple that requests their marriage be taken under the care of a Quaker meeting. Vince was very excited about the prospect of Ed and me marrying. Morningside Meeting was the first Quaker meeting in New York City, let alone religious congregation of any kind, to welcome same-sex marriages. They married their first male/male couple back in 1980. And yet in 1998 Ed and I would be only the second. It’s a small congregation.
15th Street Meeting House interior
Vince was our greatest champion, and openly hoped I would become a full fledged Quaker like Ed (but I have been content to keep my spiritually unaffiliated status as a “Friend of Friend”, as spouses are designated in Quaker nomenclature). This happy, lovely, sweetest of men died in his early 90s, his final years marked by Alzheimers; a history which painfully mirrored the recent passing of my 94 year old cousin Monroe, for whose care I had been primarily responsible the previous seven years.
Vince, Monroe, the cascade of recent deaths close to me, all were not far from thought as Ed and I found our seats in the pews of 15th Meeting House where Vince’s memorial service took place. Quaker memorial services are structured like Quaker meetings for worship. There is no minister conducting a service, there is only the full congregation, seated in silence. If anyone feels moved to speak, they rise, and give a short message. Which is followed by an appropriate amount of silence while the congregation absorbs the message; then another congregant may feel moved to rise and speak. Or silence prevails. A regular Quaker service for worship may have few messages, even be 60 minutes of complete silence, depending on how the Spirit moves the assembled. Quaker memorial services, like Quaker weddings, however, tend to encourage a lot of messages.
I don’t often attend Quaker meetings for worship. And when I do, I don’t rise to give a message. I stay silent. And in that silence, what comes to my mind is usually music. Not words, or dreams, or memories. It is music that fills my mind in the silence of a Quaker meeting. Which is why I believe, if pressed for an answer on denominational affiliation, I would say my religion is Music.
Panorama view of 15th Street interior
That day, during Vince’s Quaker memorial service, a rather odd musical idea popped into my head. Not music I knew, which I would have expected, but a melodic line, by a string instrument. A willfully odd melody. Not even sure if it could be called a melody. Maybe more a motif. Which would leap up over one octave and jump back down multiple octaves. Which makes it the kind of motif one can not easily hum to oneself. It just felt weird and awkward trying to silently hear it inside my head. Not something for the human voice. But it made sense for the viola.