Geography of Mind: Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks

By Daniel Garrett

Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider, Winter Morning Walks
Executive Producer Little Johnny Koerber; ArtistShare, 2013

Viv Corringham, Walking
Innova Records/American Composers Forum, 2013

A quiet, tender description of nature, of quiet growth, is found in “Perfectly, Still This Solstice Morning,” one of the poems by Ted Kooser that has been set to music by Maria Schneider and sung by Dawn Upshaw on Winter Morning Walks: the collection of songs is the kind of music that can easily become a part of one’s life, for both its sound and its thoughts, as it captures existence, movement in nature and world, illness, and recovery. Dawn Upshaw performs the musical interpretation of the Ted Kooser poetry with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. “When I Switched on a Light” is dramatic, fast; a remembrance of an encounter with nature—in the form of four flickers (woodpeckers)—that caused a tumult in a born. Dawn Upshaw’s tone is beautiful and serene in “Walking By Flashlight,” about an early morning walk in which nature (coyote, raccoon, field mouse, and sparrow) watches people; and the music is delicate, sparkling, lacking complication.

Winter Morning Walks is a recognized achievement for Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider. Dawn Upshaw, a singer of classical music whose sound is noted for its approachable beauty, whether performing in opera or in concert, has long been celebrated. Her repertoire includes Mozart and Stravinsky and new works such as John Harbison’s Great Gatsby and Osvaldo Golijov’s chamber opera Ainadamar. A performer, teacher, and promoter of new music, Upshaw has worked with musicians in both the classical and jazz music worlds, as has Maria Schneider. Winter Morning Walks won three of the music industry’s 2014 Grammy awards, for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, Best Classical Vocal Performance, and Best Engineered Recording/Classical.  Following those wins, the composer and conductor of Winter Morning Walks, Maria Schneider, the native Minnesotan Schneider, told Jay Gabler of the classical division of Minnesota Public Radio, “I think kind of like in jazz, now, classical is just so broad and it can be so many things from highly experimental to something much more—I don’t know to describe these things—materials that we are more prepared to understand” (February 7, 2014).

On Winter Morning Walks, in “I Saw a Dust Devil This Morning,” Upshaw’s distinctively clear diction drives an observation both familiar and vivid. Her ringing voice and the words do most of the work in “My Wife and I walk the Cold Road,” an articulation of intimacy, simple but dramatic. In “All Night, in Gusty Winds,” the repetition of words (“the house” and “together”) emphasize the closeness of marriage. Yet, there is a very different kind of musicality in “Our Finch Feeder,” in which angular, sharp, intense music gives a convulsive rhythm to poetic imagery: thistle seed “black as ammunition” and live finches “like little commandos.”

Slow and quiet is “Spring, the Sky Rippled with Geese.” And, “How Important It Must Be” is an affirmation of life and poetry (it is only imagination and personal feeling that makes the affirmation persuasive).

“Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902 to 1987) was one of Brazil’s greatest poets. His writing was most often rooted in the everyday, often featuring contrasts between moods of darkness and light. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra features a broader palette of colors, with the strings joined by woodwinds and brass embracing the vocals,” observed Dan McClenaghan of All About Jazz (April 16, 2013). The section of songs on the album Winter Morning Walks inspired by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, performed with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, begins with Dawn Upshaw’s wordless singing, high and bright, accompanied by music, the kind of beginning that can be easily seductive for its natural mystique. “The Dead in Frock Coats” seems to be about lasting sorrow amid the decay of souvenirs; and “Souvenir of the Ancient World,” featuring piano and voice, is delicate but soulful, whereas “Don’t Kill Yourself” has very dramatic theatricality. In “Quadrille,” a story song with dire destinies, a woman becomes an old maid, and a man commits suicide.

Winter Morning Walks by Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider, like Walking, the 2013 recording of conversations had during an exploration of diverse paths, by the artist, singer, and traveler Viv Corringham, reminds me that while putting one foot in front of the other through distance I can contemplate existence, past, present, and future, and what has gone well, and what has gone wrong: ambitions, disappointments, desires, fears, kindnesses, cruelties, disciplines, indulgences. I have always loved walking: it allows me to think, to see, to remember. I have walked in city and country out of pleasure and out of necessity: meditative and refreshing, walking facilitates some light sweet dreaming and some hard thinking. I thought about William James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” from his Writings 1878-1899 (Library of America, 1992), while on a six mile walk from country to town. It was something I had read to make certain issues more clear to my own mind. It is easy to think that one knows what is right when one is young—or that one does not have to be concerned with what’s right, things being what they are in the world, a world of conflict and poverty and war; but as one gets older and older, and genuine rather than willed ambiguities grow, one likes more ethical certainty. I know there are newer works on morality—among them, David Bromwich’s Moral Imagination and Mark Johnson’s Morality for Humans—but I wanted to read an established American master, someone who is a deep part of the culture. In William James’s essay, James discusses ethical philosophy as individual, communal, and subject to change, as a realm of thought with several dimensions, the psychological, metaphysical and casustic, with the casustic being that connecting actions and conscience, and challenged by impartial tests (pages 595 and 596). James speculates that the nobler things appeal to us more—look better, tastes better—but that consciousness is what makes morality possible, creating value, but he suggests that there is no moral obligation in solitude (page 600). (Of course, reading that, I thought: sometimes nobility does not appeal: it can seem too austere, too difficult.) William James refers to various standards of what is good, such as intuition, joy, self-improvement, lack of damage to others, logic, spirituality, and the preservation of human life; and yet he finds limitations in those standards, noting that the best course is sometimes cruel (607). (Yes, the best course can be cruel; and sometimes hard to accomplish, or boring, or expensive.) There can be—and usually is—a conflict between the actual and the ideal (608); and we ourselves are partisans, held within “that howling mob of desires” (609). (I tend to prefer the artistic and the intellectual; and know many others who prefer the ideological or religious or the bluntly punishing. Yet I have self-centered needs too.) William James comes to the conclusion that the goal, the moral goal, is the satisfaction of the most demands of a community, the best whole, at the least cost; and that struggle, from generation to generation, is one definition of history (610). Our choices reveal our character, our morality (617). What happens when the only choice we seem able to make is solitary? No moral obligation in solitude.

Viv Corringham’s Walking is an exploration and documentation of place, movement, perspective, and sound, with visits to Portugal, Hong Kong, London, and a couple of American cities: the artist Viv Corringham asks people she meets in different locales to walk with her to a place that is special to them, and the foot travel is recorded, edited, and interspersed with music. In “Maresia,” in Porto in Portugal, not far from the sea, a man, noting the shore birds and the smell of the sea, says “You can almost do your walk with your eyes shut.” A woman talks about preferring a garden and trees to life by the sea. She talks about living in her home in a particular neighborhood, of being able to put her past in a particular place behind her. A young man mentions that this, the place he shows Corringham—high, sad and sweet—could be the scene of the movie, a place he wanted to show a lover but they were not getting along well.

In “Skywalks” in Minneapolis, there are heard footsteps, and a sound that rises, akin to a plane taking off, and bells, and whispers. In “Island Lines” in Hong Kong, there is chanting, then the overlapping conversational voices of walkers (with a visit to a market, harbor, and a library); and there are trilling sounds, human and bird. Someone remembers coming to a market to drink fresh, cold bottled milk with her mother. Another person remarks that new languages open doors to different cultures; and says he likes people. One woman, a university teacher, talks about being a second-hand dealer of books on the street, but loses the chance for a stall when another vendor takes the stall owner out for tea. It is amusing—a fragile moment.

A male artist-teacher speaks of the demands of gardening and a changing London neighborhood in “Disegno,” a neighborhood once bohemian becoming gentrified. “Someone can destroy a garden in a day,” he says, making the effort pointless. There is what sounds like Native American keening at the beginning of “Slack Tide,” set in London, with talk of the River Thames. A woman recalls a ship inspired by ducks and swans; and the listener hears chanting, heavy breathing, birds, and talking.

In Portugal, in “Town with Sea,” dishes seemed to be moved. A man summarizes the conversation of others as only complaints about romance, though there are civil and political problems worthy of discussion. He talks about liking to travel, and planning a trip to Ecuador. Footsteps. A woman says that it is easy to live in Porto, as everything is nearby; although she thought of moving to Lisbon in the past. Someone else talks about the weather and changing seasons; and of how nice it can be to hear the train pass at night. He says he likes the proximity of the city to the sea, the closeness, the normality. In the last piece on Viv Corringham’s Walking, “Broken Land” set in Brooklyn, there is a walk Corringham takes with a Dutch poet who comments on the polluted Gowanus Canal, saying that is is as beautiful in photographs as the stench is ugly. There is mournful singing, full of dips. The poet mentions Native Americans and the nearby streets. “Broken land, I honor you,” the poet says.

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.