Today’s three pieces come from an album I bought in 1976 on the Arion label, which has since gone out of business. The album was entitled, “Antique Provencal Instruments-Trouvers and Troubadors,” and it contained about 20 or so short pieces played on period instruments. These had wonderful names like crumhorn, psaltery, rackett, sackbutt, syrinx, hurdy-gurdy and flageolet. Some of the pieces on this album were sweet, some melancholy, others quite rousing. And some were just plain old tender and cute.
The last three pieces on this album, the Three Noels of Notre Dame des Doms of Avignon are among my favorites. I have always liked bells, and that is why the first of these three, “Nostro Damo aquesto niue” appeals to me so much. (The album is out of print but I was able to trace “Nosto Damo” to an album that’s on Amazon Italia and if you click on this image below you can hear an excerpt of this song. Click on the arrow to the left of “Riproduci tutti gli estratti.”)
It starts out with a simple melody played a hand-struck carillon. For me at least, bells really seem to have a mysterious, almost ethereal quality that cause an almost religious kind of resonance that I feel in my bones. This piece is therefore particularly affecting. After the bells, a solo panpipe (or syrinx) picks up the melody and repeats it. Alone, it has a haunting, bird-like quality to it, like the sad coo of a mourning dove. On the third pass, a second panpipe joins in and the two pipes play the melody one last time in unison.
The second noel, entitled, “Quand il bergié” is a bright little dance. Flutes, hurdy-gurdy, and chamaleau–a primitive clarinet with a raspy sound-play a bright melody that would set any foot-mediaeval or modern-tapping.
But it is the last noel, which really touches my heart. A little piccolo plays a twittery opening. When it stops, we hear in the background an instrument called the “rossingnol of Aubagne,” which is an earthenware water bird whistle that mimics the song of the nightingale. These two instruments play back and forth for a while, before a chorus of flutes joins in accompanied by a martial rhythm played on hand-held drums. The flutes play the original melody while the bird whistle twitters away like mad in accompaniment. These pieces were written in the 16th century and the avian tone makes me think back to an incident with a pigeon on my first trip to Paris, and my own, flighty nature.
After moving into Shakespeare and Company in March of 1977, I felt myself start to blossom. How could I not? I was young; I lived in a bookstore in Paris, across the street from Notre Dame cathedral; I was meeting stimulating people from every corner of the Earth. I had reached wannabee writer nirvana. Having come to the city of Lights as my literary forebears Hemingway, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, it wouldn’t be too long, I reckoned, before I started churning out great work of fiction. Just act like a bohemian, and the inspiration would come, and I’d start to channel my Nobel Prize-winning works.
In hindsight, I wish I had listened carefully to something that the owner of Shakespeare and Company, George Whitman, once told me. One day we were arranging a shelf of books, and I came across a box full of The Paris Review. When I asked George about it, he told me the review was founded by George Plimpton and others. It always featured interviews with living authors. I think I asked whether they had interviewed Jean-Paul Sartre and what he had said.
“They always ask the same question: ‘How do you write?’”
“Huh?” I said.
“Yes,” George said. “They always ask when the author writes, how much each day, and where. And you know what they always say? They all just write a certain amount every day. Day in and day out.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“You become a writer by writing.”
But as I said, back then I thought you became a writer by living a bohemian existence. And there was no better place to do that than Shakespeare and Company. The other day, I mentioned meeting a Canadian painter about my age named David Maes. He and I became close friends rather quickly after we met. For a while, we sort of competed against one another for the affections of a German girl named Ingeborg, who was living at Shakespeare and Company. Ingeborg had a face like Ingrid Bergman, and like me was trying to turn herself into a writer. She was terribly depressive–I think she once showed me how she had burned her arms with cigarettes to punish herself. She made it plain on many occasions, after I had brought it up of course, that she was not interested in a sexual relationship with me. She was more interested in a friendship kind of like a brother and sister, which we could have been, what with our blonde hair and blue eyes.
I knew exactly what David saw in her. He had been living such a hermit-like existence, hole up in his room on the Ile de la Cite, painting all day long. Of course, Ingeborg wasn’t just anyone. She was a thoughtful, deep student of literature and philosophy. She spoke fluent English with a delightful lisp and she loved art and music as much as David and I. We often went to cafés and sat for hours, nursing a café-au-lait in the mornings or a white wine and Kir in the afternoons and sat writing in our journals or watching the crowds go by. Once she took me to the Café Sélect, which is where she told me, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir used to hang out. As a challenge to me, to see how truthful I was and whether I was capable of being intimate and trusting with her, she asked me if she could read my journal. That made my heart jump a bit, because most of the time I just wheedled and whined in my journal. But I took a deep breath and showed it to her and fidgeted a bit while she read. And when she was through and handed it back to me, there was a look in her eye, which seemed to say “God, what a disappointingly shallow person.” On another occasion, she suggested we draw each other’s portrait in our journal. That also made me cringe, because, after being a wannabe writer at that time in my life, the second thing I desperately wanted to be was an artist. But I was convinced I didn’t have the talent whereas in truth I didn’t have the training. And as with anyone who’s asked to do something on command, my nerves went to hell and I produced a pathetic sketch of Ingeborg. Again, I felt I had failed some test in her eyes.
Still, we continued to spend a good deal of time together–exploring the city, museums, and the grand monuments of Paris. I believe she was studying French somewhere in the city, and one day she returned from class all in a blue funk. On her way home, she had seen a dead pigeon lying in the middle of the street. It had been run over by about 20 cars. Seeing the free spirit of the bird splattered all over the road like that had sent her into a downward spiral. She went on about it for hours. To me her emotions seemed way out of proportion and misplaced. How could she care so much for a dead bird, and devote so much psychic and emotional energy to its death, when she could not show me even a sliver of warmth and caring? What was worse was that I tended to regard pigeons as a kind of avian vermin. They congregated in huge numbers in every public park and on every monument in Paris and shat everywhere. So Ingeborg’s emotion seemed particularly misplaced.
Reflecting now back on my motivations for hanging around Ingeborg, I am somewhat embarrassed. Of course, I was drawn to her for her intellect. She had read Sartre and Beauvoir as I had, and loved art and literature. Coming from land-locked, provincial Indiana (which, back in the 1930s, almost elected a governor who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan), I was desperately in search of a soul mate and Ingeborg fit the bill. For some reason, however, I couldn’t leave it at that. I wanted an intellectual and physical union. Unfortunately, being young and stupid, my physical desires got in the way of what I now understand as true compassion. What if I had recognized the clinical depression in her? Could I have done anything for her? I cringe now thinking of what might have happened to her. Yet, I didn’t even recognize the growing depression inside of me that overtook me 17 years later. How could I have recognized it in someone else?
We continued our dance for some weeks until one day a young man named Chris Carlsson showed up at Shakespeare and Company who completely captivated us. An American from somewhere outside Philadelphia, he’d just arrived from Denmark where he had spent a time with a friend of his parents, who had emigrated to the States from there. Chris was a sweet-natured, cute, tall, strawberry-blonde free spirit who was on his junior year abroad after going to school somewhere in California. His goal was to have as intense a time in Europe as he could with as many partners as he could. And the women fell for him. He told us how he had had an affair with the wife of his parents’ friend in Copenhagen, but the husband had so liked Chris that he had accepted it! The wife had even made him the thick, wool hooded windbreaker that he wore.
He and Ingeborg became fast friends and even I was taken with his charming manner. I seem to remember he and Ingeborg emerging one morning from the bunk bed, which was hidden from view behind a thick red velvet curtain over the stairwell and above the children’s book section at the back of the store. If I was angry, I don’t remember being so. Perhaps I had given up trying to become Ingeborg’s lover. Though at the time it did miff me a bit that she had been smitten by him, who seemed so much less serious than me. Of course, in hindsight, that is probably why she did so—I was a lugubrious twit back then-and nothing that I did would have lead her to conclude that I was anything but a bird brain.