The Whale in the Blue Washing Machine

This New York Times obituary brought back memories: John Haines, a Poet of the Wild, Dies at 86.

John Haines' homestead on the Richardson Highway

Photo taken in 2008 by Alex Ross.

In the mid-1980s, my Dad began work on setting some of the poems of John Haines. Written for my mother to sing, this became the song cycle “Alaskan Beasts” and they’re some of my Dad’s best work. (He later transposed the set for soprano Tony Arnold.)

One summer during that period, we took a drive on the Richardson highway, and paid a visit to Haines at his homestead. My memory is suspect, but I can still see it located in a small, heavily wooded valley, just off the road, and I have no idea how someone could survive a winter there. I wish I could remember more of the visit, but I was a teenager thinking teenage thoughts. I do remember my Dad being very excited to be in the place where Haines lived and wrote.

My Dad also wrote a cantata, “Homestead,” which he’s hoping to get performed again soon.

Here’s one of my favorite poems:

The Whale in the Blue Washing Machine


There are depths even in a household
where a whale can live. . . .


His warm bulk swims from room
to room, floating by on the stairway,
searching the drafts, the cold
currents of water and liberation


He comes to the surface hungry,
sniffs at the table,
and sinks, his wake rocking the chairs.


His pulsebeat sounds at night
when the washer spins and the dryer
clanks on stray buttons. . . .


Alone in the kitchen darkness,
looking through steamy windows
at the streets draining away in fog;


watching and listening
for the wail of an unchained buoy,
the steep fall of his wave.


Someone named Susan Boyle appeared with me on Oprah

I had the fantastic pleasure of playing on Oprah last week along with 14 of my violinist compadres. We were backing up Britain’s Got Talent phenom Susan Boyle in a song from her album.

Watch it right here on Oprah’s site. Just look for the shaved head, second row, in the middle.

We had a rehearsal on Tuesday the 12th, with just us and the choir. Then a short run-through with Boyle before we taped it on Wednesday the 13th. Boyle was very nice, but other than saying hello when she first arrived on stage, we didn’t have any interaction with her. Though she is really singing, the violins weren’t mic’d, so you’re actually hearing the track. That’s pretty common with this sort of thing, as it limits the possibility of mistakes. It also means they only had to tape the segment once. In a way, I’m surprised they didn’t tape it twice, just to have some coverage.

A producer warmed up the audience beforehand and gave several women the opportunity to demonstrate their singing talents. I’m a sucker for people having their dreams fulfilled, so it was great to see that the show gives its audience a little taste of that. The producer also asked the audience a lot of questions, which I imagine is a way to find people who Oprah might want to chat with during the show.

For me, though, the most amazing part of the show is also something you won’t see on the air: Oprah’s entrance. Bonkers. Not “throwing chairs, ripping off clothing, forswearing oxygen” bonkers, just pure adulation and love. Now, the studio seats maybe 150 at the most, so we’re not talking about a lot of people, but it sounds like a train passing overhead. And Oprah simply stands there, regally. After a bit, she moves through the audience shaking hands and hugging people and they’re crying and she just accepts it and laughs with them and they laugh with her. Eventually things calm down and it’s all about the show, but she really takes the time to let her audience have that moment with her. Cool.

Oprah talked to a couple audience members while Boyle came on stage and waited behind the “chiffon reveals” (what the crew called the curtains). I wondered what it was like for Boyle to hear the audience talking about how their lives had been changed by her story. And I thought back to last spring when MT made me watch The YouTube video (dammit what an amazing moment). And I thought about how a year ago, no one had heard of Susan Boyle, and now here she is on one of the most popular television shows in the world.

I’m mighty cynical about shows like American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent. For the most part, it’s pure exploitation. And to be sure, Boyle is being exploited right this very minute. But her story manages to surpass it. She forces all of us to confront our prejudice and fear, and she gives inspiration to countless dreamers.

Right. So, Oprah introduced Susan Boyle and we performed and the platform on which we sat moved up and down and there was a lot of glitter which remains stuck in my shoes. Then Oprah came up on stage and said “thanks guys” and we were gone.

I couldn’t snag photos of the taping since our phones/cameras were confiscated when we entered the building. But I did manage to take a few grainy shots during rehearsal the day before.

My thanks to Arnie Roth and everyone at AWR Music for the gig!


Using the Force

A lovely Spring day. The Chicago Sinfonietta‘s annual gala benefit. Raising much-needed not-for-profit funds. And to help? None other than James Earl Jones. The voice that gave size and soul to that most feared of film villains. He’s also helped out CNN, Verizon, and SBC. But that’s not why I’m in the picture…

James Earl Jones and me

James Earl Jones and me

As Operations Manager for the orchestra, I handle a fair number of technical issues. This time, I’m responsible for attaching a lavaliere microphone to the lapel of Mr. Jones’ jacket. (I also took care of a few other things, but this was the most interesting. By far.) And so, I’ll set the scene:

The lobby of the Hilton Chicago’s International Ballroom. The silent auction has ended, and a few patrons are jealously guarding their winnings (a football signed by a former Chicago Bear, a painting by a vaguely famous local artist, trips for two to a vacation home in Michigan, etc.). Through the doors, seated at 43 large round tables, are approximately 430 dinner guests enjoying the rest of their salmon and listening to a mini-concert of the Sinfonietta. Paul Freeman conducting.

The Maestro ends a Brahms Hungarian Dance with characteristic flair. Time for him to receive the Founder’s Award. Because he founded the orchestra. He’ll soon unwrap a small, wooden case containing a hand-carved baton, picked out by the office staff.

James Earl Jones appears on the escalator. Escorted by his lovely assistant Fionna Feehan (smart, redhead, studious glasses, Irish descent, sharp smile, beautiful) and our General Manager Tom De Walle.

I reach into a pocket of my tux and pull out a small microphone with a clip, its cord gently coiled around a small radio transmitter. I flip a switch on the transmitter. A faint click, followed by a more reverberant ‘boom’ can be heard over the sound system. To those in the ballroom, listening to Maestro Freeman accept his award (is he telling that joke again?), this ‘boom’ probably sounds quite innocent.

To me, it is dangerous. This thing is hot.

I quickly flip the switch again. Quiet. Good. I glance up to the booth, but can’t see Jim, the engineer. I would love to tell him to cut this audio channel. My gaze drops.

“Oh, hello Fionna… Mr. Jones… how are you this evening? I have your mic…”

A polite response. A handshake. He is extremely gracious and kind.

“I’ll just clip it on your lapel here…” I’m so cool.

“Wherever you need it is fine.” Wow, that voice is a little overwhelming. Not loud. In fact, surprisingly soft… in an all-encompassing-velvet-luxury-motor-vehicle sort of way.

“I should warn you that this mic is hot. So, uh, sir, please be, uh, quiet, until I talk to the, uh, guy in the booth.” I’m so not cool.

An understanding nod. A true professional.

I flip the switch back on—faint click… reverberant boom—and slip the transmitter into an inside pocket. “Nice vest.”

Nice vest?! This idiotic comment is repeating itself in my head as I walk toward the phone. The special phone. The phone in the wall behind a metal panel that Jim showed me earlier in the day. “You can use this to call me up in the booth; just pick it up and it automatically rings up there.” Got it.

The next few seconds are a bit hazy. Did Maestro just sneeze?

I remember that Mr. Jones had mentioned something that afternoon about having a slight cold. Nothing to worry about. I didn’t. He didn’t. Fionna didn’t.

It was more of a cough, really. A cough-to-avoid-completely-sneezing-while-covering-one’s-face-with-a-handkerchief sort of cough.

And amplified over the hotel’s sound system? A very loud, reverberant cough. Muffled only by a handkerchief that arrived too late.

I freeze about two feet from the special phone which might as well be on the other side of the hotel at this moment. I spin around. Mr. Jones looks up, surprise in his eyes (was that me?). Then a smile. And a slightly apologetic shrug.

I am not about to have my windpipe crushed from across the room. For this I am grateful.