The following may seem an unusual blog entry for the website of a professional singer and voice teacher, however, the more I actively perfect my sewing and quilting skills, the more I realize how many similarities there are to the two main areas of interest that give me the greatest joy in life, musical expression and working with fabric and design.
I was named for my maternal grandmother, Katherine, who was a talented quilter but sadly died in her mid-thirties. Although she died before I was born, perhaps the most significant and tactile connections I have to my grandmother Katherine are her quilts. Among her wonderfully-crafted surviving textile treasures is a “signature quilt” which features names, places and dates ranging between the years 1930-31. The handwriting of the different individuals is embroidered in the middle of the multi-colored “Dresden Plates” design. Though this particular quilt is stained and showing definite signs of wear and tear, it is of particular value to me because it contains signatures of several female relatives from my mother’s side of the family including my maternal great-grandmother, Lydia, who’s “Singer” treadle sewing machine I count as one of my most prized possessions to this day.
Katherine’s unfinished quilt blocks remained stored in my mother’s cedar chest until my mother’s death twenty years ago at which time they were passed on to me. The unique collection of 11 X 11 squares, fashioned out of muslin and hand-crafted appliqued designs, had rarely seen the light of day since the 1930s. All of the now vintage fabrics used in my grandmother’s quilt blocks remain in un-faded, pristine condition, providing a rare glimpse into the styles, hues and trends from a different time in history.
The first of Katherine’s quilts I finished was an “alphabet” quilt. It featured appliquéd letters and corresponding characters for the entire alphabet. including the “M-for Music” block, which included a cluster of eighth notes. When finishing this project, I elected to hand-quilt the layers, employing “echo” stitches around my grandmother’s design. To my surprise, this hand-quilting process yielded an unexpected and profound effect on me--a connection to my grandmother that was tangible and tactile, much more so than old photos of her ever had been. I was uncertain whether my finishing choices were what my grandmother would have ultimately chosen had she lived to finish the quilt herself, but I took inspiration from her other finished pieces in addition to researching photos of other quilts made during the 1930s. I added elements of my own personal design style and techniques into the process as well. In the end, it was satisfying to know that the quilt blocks were no longer sitting in a cedar chest in separate pieces waiting to be a complete picture. The finished quilt was now finished and ready to be enjoyed.
I began thinking how the experience I describe above relates to the process of interpreting, practicing and performing pieces of music. I wonder what Franz Süssmayr may have felt when penning an ending to the unfinished portion of Mozart’s requiem. When a string quartet ceases playing the unfinished movement of Bach’s Musical Offering, the effect is very profound, as if time stands still. Even when a composer’s composition is essentially finished, the realization of his or her vision finds its ultimate completion in the form of live music. The performer takes the composer’s blueprint, interprets it and the work is then brought to life, sometimes centuries later.
With every passing year, a performer’s interpretation of the composition is informed by new history, life experience and musical style. This being said, I believe performers must respect the performance practice from the composer’s time as well. The finished composition, while essentially complete in its conception and transcription, is in flux until it is performed and heard live, unlike a painting, sculpture, or novel, which attains their final state when the artists and authors deem them complete. Poetry, to me, falls somewhere between whereby a piece may resound nicely when never read aloud. Music, on the other hand, must be heard to come to fruition.
Similar to the feelings I described in completing my grandmother’s unfinished quilts, I've often sensed a close connection to the music of a composer that lived centuries ago. Hearing and performing music of a different period in time often triggers surprising, unexpected emotions and sometimes a sense of wonder and joy when it is heard and experienced beyond the printed page. I remember how I felt when I heard Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers for the first time-as if I was listening through a window into seventeenth century Venice where the piece was first performed. I felt transported in time, connected to the composer and the culture in which he lived. It’s an eternal and timeless feeling when the notes preserved on the page become alive in audible form.
Although I never knew my grandmother Katherine, my hands have moved in tandem with hers, teaching me about the stitching techniques and patterns of design from the time in which she lived. With the music I perform, there is a lasting, creative connection to the sounds the composer first heard in his or imagination and then later given a live voice beyond the printed page. Both of these legacies will be passed on to future generations and provide a timeless connection to the senses.