One of the most beautiful moments in this year’s Christmas Revels is a song to the moon, “The Traveller’s Prayer.” It’s by John Renbourn, an English songwriter who died last March at the age of 70.
The moon is a wonder. It travels around us slowly, making one circuit a month, turning at the same time, so the same side always faces our way. Here in the city, I can comfortably ignore it most of the time, and I usually do.
But this fall, as the days were getting shorter, I happened to spot it one evening as I was walking home. “Praise to the Moon, bright queen of the skies,” I heard, in my head. I sang as I walked, watching it rise over the trees of my neighborhood. For that moment, this song I was learning reminded me to look up, admire that cool, reflected light, and think of people through the ages who have watched that same moon on its travels around the earth.
The English robin and the North American robin share a name, but ours is a large, sturdy bird, while the British one is a sweet, fat little bird with a little less red and a pretty dab of gray. In The Secret Garden, the bird that shows Mary Lennox the way into the garden is a robin, and I have always wanted one as a friend myself.
The last time I was in Britain, I saw robins often, perched on a fencepost or singing from the top of a bush. I almost always caught myself singing the song “Ah Robin,” which we sang in the 2007 Christmas Revels. I suspect this song is about a man named Robert, not a bird, but it came to mind anyway.
Swallows streaked by at fence-level, wings swept back like tiny fighter jets. “Bring back the roses to the dells/The swallow from her distant clime/The honeybee from drowsy cells,” I sang to myself.
The ecosystem I know best is that of the Washington area; I know what our swallows and robins are like. But a lot of the songs we sing in Revels were originally about spring and landscapes that have been farmed intensively for centuries, in a country on the other side of the sea. For the first time, I was seeing all of these birds in the ecological context where the songs were born, where my distant British ancestors might have seen them.
By the way: England’s blackbird is a thrush, a different family from our creaking New World blackbirds. They sing from the bushes, too, and can only bring to mind one song.
Photo: By David Croad (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I walked along the edge of a cliff. To my right, a hundred-foot drop to the waters of the English Channel. A strong wind blew off the water and over the cliff. To my left were spring-green fields. High above the waves of grain hung a skylark, twittering relentlessly.
On the ground, a skylark isn’t a very memorable bird. It’s brown, with a little crest of feathers on top of its head. A skylark in the sky, though, is quite impressive. It flaps madly, a fluttering speck against the cloudy white sky. As they hover and swoop, they emit a constant stream of notes. The song goes on and on and on.
The skylark made me think of a lyric from a song we often sing in the May Revels: “Up flies the kite; down falls the lark-o.” It’s part of the Padstow May Song, a tradition from the village of Padstow, 70 miles due west of the cliff where I heard the larks.
One of my walking companions was another Reveler, Liza Lester, and together we started the song: “Unite and unite, now let us unite, for summer is a-coming today!” Arms outstretched, we sang through the verses as well as we could remember them, dancing along the grassy clifftop path.
As we continued our walk toward Sidmouth, we passed from one skylark’s flapping-ground to the next, on and on above the cliffs. They sang and sang and sang.
Now isn’t the season for skylarks, though; it’s the season for staying inside and thinking about walks and birds, and looking forward to the dawning of the new year.
In one of Washington Revels’ most-performed songs, “Country Life,” we sing: “I like to rise when the sun she rises, early in the morning/I like to hear them small birds singing, merrily upon their laylums.” A laylum is probably a bit of fallow land—it doesn’t matter; it’s a place where birds sing. Cheerful and bright, the song continues through the agricultural year. “In spring we sow, at the harvest mow; and that is how the seasons ‘round they go.”
Much of what we do at Washington Revels is rooted in the seasons. Spring is the star of our May Revels. During the hot days of summer, we march and sing in local parades. In our after-school workshops, children explore how people down the ages have interpreted the seasons in music, dance and drama.
In the Christmas Revels, we celebrate the time beyond the harvest, the darkest time of the year. Winter is a simple fact of our planet. Earth spins at an angle, its axis tilted at 23.4 degrees. When the top of the planet points toward the sun, the northern hemisphere basks in its warmth. But when our end of the planet points out into the universe, we shiver and draw close together. “They lighted candles in the winter trees/They hung their homes with evergreen,” Susan Cooper wrote in her poem “The Shortest Day,” recited near the end of every Christmas Revels performance. Each December we gather at Lisner Auditorium, “singing, dancing, to drive the dark away.”
Usually, in the Christmas Revels, we visit one or more specific cultures and eras, exploring how people in different places and times have celebrated the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Nature is present primarily as a backdrop to rural life. This year, nature comes to the forefront, as we explore our relationship with the natural world. The time period is less defined than usual, over a thousand years ago, in the Middle Ages. Back then, it was hard to escape our planet’s physics. When the world was cold and dark, we were cold and dark. Nearly everyone had to think about plants and pests, and whether the chickens would stop laying or the river would flood.
Today, some of us are still closely tied to the physical world. There’s a farmer in our chorus, for example. But many of us might think we can wall ourselves off from nature. Convenience stores will sell us eggs at any hour of the day or night. We have concrete, insulation, and elevators.
We are still part of this planet, though. Life feels different when the sun sets so early. Our city can shut down for days if the wrong set of air masses happens to collide over us. As we come together this weekend—whether on one of Washington’s oddly warm December days or whether the snow has begun—let’s sing together of peace and warmth, and look forward to when the sun comes back, the forsythia bloom, and the cherry trees let their clouds of petals fly.
A version of this essay appears in this year’s Christmas Revels program. Photo: Helen Fields, thinking of spring
“We have traveled many miles, over hedges and stiles.”
That’s a line from “Please to See the King,” a song in this year’s Christmas Revels.
I’ve been singing in the Christmas Revels chorus since 2004. Being involved with Revels has changed a lot about my world. It has brought me beloved friends, fulfilling performances, and connection with strangers, in the Christmas Revels and other events through the year.
It has also made me think more about my relationship with nature. Living in the city, like I do, it’s easy to ignore the natural world. But almost everything we do in Revels relates to the seasons. As the days get shorter and winter approaches, I treasure the weekly opportunity to sing and dance with my village, the Christmas Revels chorus. Then, in summer, I get to sing about the joys of the growing season, instead of cursing the humidity.
“Please to See the King” is one of many songs that make me think of the British countryside. In this case, it’s quite a direct connection: the landscape of much of Britain is crisscrossed with hedges. They’re practical, living fences. If properly maintained, they’re dense enough to keep livestock in the correct pasture. Gates and stiles are built into gaps in the hedges so people and dogs can pass through.
In July 2013, my friend Kate and I spent a week walking through the Cotswolds, a lovely patch of England that is particularly pastoral. We walked along a lot of hedges and climbed over a lot of stiles. This was the first one.
Revels is so woven into my mind that when I cross a stile in a hedge, I think, “hey! that’s a hedge and a stile!” and the familiar song starts, then continues on. “In search of our King, unto you we bring. Old Christmas is past….”
Attending The Christmas Revels each year with my family was probably my very favorite tradition. I remember vividly riding from our home in McLean, over Key Bridge, past the sparkling December lights of M Street, and stepping into the warm glow of Lisner Auditorium. Attending the Revels was more a part of our holiday ritual than anything else, and the final notes of the Sussex Mummers Carol would reverberate within me for the rest of the season. The rest of the year, even.
In 2013, I lost both my parents, my father in April and my mother in August. I was not a child when this happened, and I cannot overstate the empathy I feel for those who lose their parents as children or teenagers. But, I can say that even as a grown man with a wife and child of my own, the sense of loss I felt was immense. I struggled. The hardest part of that first year was the waves of grief that would roll over me during the happiest moments – my son’s first words and steps, Thanksgiving, the news my second son was on the way – because my parents were not there to share it. I withdrew. I missed Revels that year. It was, simply, too much.
The following spring, I received a note from Susan Lewis encouraging me to audition for that year’s Christmas Revels. “Just wanted you to see the theme of this year’s December production: Irish!!” she wrote, knowing the proper way to sell an idea to someone named Patrick Morland Malone. I had toyed with the idea of auditioning before, but had always found a reason not to. But here, I decided, I would take my first step toward reclaiming the joy in my life. I auditioned. I got in. I smiled
Over the next months of rehearsal, I was embraced, often literally, by the members of a group that I had only known from the outside, but which now held me close as one of their own. I found myself staggered by the talent, compassion, empathy and, above all, sense of community present in every single Reveler I met. Those who have sung in groups know that it is a powerful experience, allowing you to be both an individual and part of something greater than yourself at the same time. I have never had that feeling more than in the rehearsals for, and on the stage of, the Christmas Revels.
My wife told me, only a few weeks ago, that from the time of my parents’ deaths until the time I joined The Christmas Revels, I had seemed a shadow of myself, quieter, sadder, and that it was only when I threw myself into the rehearsals and performance that I became my old self again. That’s hard to hear, but absolutely true. All along, the right answer was never to withdraw from joy, but to fully hold it in my heart.
I learned that I am a Reveler. I was always a Reveler. And I will always be a Reveler. I emerged from my shortest day as promise wakened, caroled, feasted, gave thanks, and dearly loved my friends. I am immensely, and will remain eternally, grateful for the opportunity.
Patrick Malone was a member of the Adult Chorus in the 2014 Irish Christmas Revels. We eagerly await his return to the show when his littlest is out of diapers!
Twice over the last week the performance space at Washington Revels was filled with dance and exciting music. Friday night, the music was Greek; last night, it was music from Bulgaria.
The salon concerts are a chance for tradition-bearers in this year’s Christmas Revels to share a bit more of their music than they’ll get to play on our stage in December.
Last night, Tzvety Weiner, who has been valiantly teaching us Bulgarian songs all fall, joined her husband Bryndyn Weiner and her parents, Tanya Dosseva and Lyuben Dossev, to perform several songs (in this configuration, they are “Dossevi”).
Tzvety gives off an aura of good humor, and now that I have seen her mother, I can report that it’s inherited. Seeing the two of them singing together was a delight. After one particularly silly song–you didn’t have to understand Bulgarian to know that this song was funny–Tzvety announced that we’d witnessed a real accomplishment: the two of them getting through it without cracking up. Lyuben Dossev is a celebrated player of the kaval, a wooden shepherd’s flute, and this was the first time he and Tzvety had performed together–a real treat for us.
After a reception, the second half of the evening was about dancing. The band Lyuti Chushki, which includes Tzvety, played boisterous Bulgarian tunes while concert-goers joined hands and danced. Numbers varied a lot–on simpler dances, dozens of people were up and moving through the steps with varying levels of competence; in one dance, about half a dozen more experienced dancers sprang around the room.
Last Friday, Spyros Koliavasilis and the Karpouzi Trio (Spyros with Len Newman and Margaret Loomis) gave a wonderful concert of Greek music, highlighting traditions from Asia Minor (most notably on the oud and kemane) as well as music from the Greek islands. Spyros plays and teaches 19 instruments and specializes in the authentic practice of traditional music spanning all of Greece.
We heard music played in many different modes. Much of the music was “microtonal”–music that contains intervals smaller than the conventional contemporary Western semitone (our 12-tone equal temperament). It was truly amazing! Margaret plays the santouri, a giant Greek dulcimer with a delightful sound, and her hammers were flying as she played this fascinating music. Len plays the laouto, a Greek version of the lute; that name comes from the Arabic word oud, meaning “wood.” The sound box of the Greek laouto is unusually large and creates a very resonant sound.
We’re all looking forward to hearing much more from these groups over the coming weeks.
In December, I’ll be standing on stage singing songs in Greek, Turkish, and Bulgarian like I’ve known them all my life.
Today, November 14, I’m staring down a really large pile of words in languages I don’t speak.
My memorization system has many parts. Some shorter pieces just stick in my head. But for most songs, it takes more work.
First: index cards. I write out the words, then carry the card around so I can study–and sing from it in rehearsal.
I think the card works mostly because the act of writing forces me to to pay attention. It wasn’t until I wrote out the Greek Christmas carol Saranda Meres this morning that I realized the second and third line are the same in most of the verses we’re singing. I’d sung it dozens of times without noticing.
Yeah, my observational skills are amazing.
Another part of the system is vivid mental images. This works better with songs in English; I got a couple of confusing lines of Carol of the Bells into my head by imagining them as little stories that were happening on stoops like the one in Sesame Street.
For lyrics in a foreign language, I try to think of words in English that the words sound like, then string them into some kind of story. In my head, one of the particularly difficult songs in the 2011 Christmas Revels was about projectile vomiting in the desert.
I recommend Moonwalking With Einstein, a fun book on memorization. It gave me good ideas for memorizing and confirmed what I’d noticed: it’s easier to remember things that you wouldn’t talk about in polite company.
The good news is, once the lyrics get into my head, I usually don’t have to go back to the mnemonics. The songs settle in. By singing them over and over, in rehearsal and with the recordings, they really do start to feel like they’re mine. And I can even smile and dance while singing them. (Usually.)
Last week Assen Assenov, a leader in the Washington-area Bulgarian community, and his wife Simona Assenova stopped by rehearsal for the Christmas Revels.
First they taught our Wednesday Night Work Party volunteers how to make a survachka, a stick that Bulgarian children use to bless their elders on New Year’s Day. (And by “bless” I mean “tap.” Or “beat.”)
Children make their own sticks, and each has its own unique flair. So did the sticks the volunteers were putting together last week.
After the rehearsal, Assen told the chorus about the tradition of the survachka, and Simona demonstrated the blessing, tapping him on the shoulder with her decorated stick.
He also shared this lovely thought:
“Thank you for taking my culture and spreading it to more people. If you could spread my culture to just one more person, you would be my hero. I love my culture, but I also love learning about other cultures, too; that’s what makes us richer.”
Overheard in rehearsal: “Eleven-sixteen? Whaaaat?”
One of the challenges for this year’s Christmas Revels chorus is singing in unusual time signatures.
If you don’t know what a time signature is, let me take a moment to enlighten. A piece of music written in the standard way has a couple of pieces of information at the top left. One looks like a fraction, with a number on top and a number on the bottom. The number on the top tells you how many beats there are in a measure. (A measure is sort of the basic unit of a piece of music—each one starts with a strong beat, normally. That’s one measure in the example above.) The number on the bottom tells you how long a beat is. So music in 7/8 has seven beats to the measure. Music in 11/16 has 11 beats to the measure.
Almost everything I’ve ever sung was written with two or four beats to the measure.
Until now. The people of Thrace use a ton of different time signatures. In the first three weeks of rehearsal, we’ve already worked on several songs with seven beats to the measure, one with five beats, and one that alternates between eight and eleven. We’ve danced to at least seven and nine beats, and maybe some other time signatures that I’ve forgotten about.
When working on this music, it’s pointless trying to count to five or seven in your head. Instead, the counts are grouped into beats of different lengths. A seven is actually sung as an uneven three: ONE two THREE four FIVE six seven becomes short short long, short short long. A five is called the limping rhythm: ONE two THREE four five becomes short long, short long, short long, like someone limping down the street.
The only way I can get the time right is to get the swing of the music into my head. In rehearsal, Tzvety Weiner, our fearless leader of Bulgarian music, keeps us in line with her laser-precision clapping. Most of the chorus is so used to singing with beats of even lengths that it’s easy to nudge the music that way, even we don’t mean to. At home, I’ve been wearing out the “Christmas 2013” playlist in my iTunes, listening to the new beats over and over.
When I’m in the weeds with 5/8, trying to keep that second beat on time, singing in a new time signature can be frustrating. But one of the great privileges of being in the Christmas Revels chorus is having a window into the music and dance of other cultures. In 2005 we sang the music of Scandinavia and I got my first introduction to the uneven beat and unfamiliar drone of Norwegian fiddle music; the dances that go with that music turned into a years-long interest for me. It’s daunting to think that I need to get 11/16 into my bones by our opening show on December 7, but it’s thrilling, too.