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June 28, 2019

Stacy Horn's Playlist for Her Book "Damnation Island"

Damnation Island

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Stacy Horn's Damnation Island is a poignant and thoroughly researched history of New York City's Roosevelt Island.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"In her fine new book . . . Stacy Horn lucidly, and not without indignation, documents the island’s bleak history, detailing the political and moral failures that sustained this hell, failures still evident today in the prison at Rikers Island."

In her own words, here is Stacy Horn's Book Notes music playlist for her book Damnation Island:

The story I tell in Damnation Island is not a happy one. In the 19th century, New York City warehoused the poor, sick, mad and criminal on an island in the East River, where they starved, abused, and sometimes killed them. We don’t have to look back to the 19th century to see how horribly we treat each other, of course. Look where we are right now, for the love of god. People are truly terrible sometimes, and that’s not something you can unknow once you know it. I don’t want to feel bad all the time though, and I’m no good at pretending things aren’t as awful as they are.

Luckily there is a form of music which meets precisely this need: requiems. Facing terrible things and offering consolation by making something beautiful from them is their job. “Music idealizes emotions negative and positive alike,” Robert Jourdain writes in his book, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy. And, “by imparting pleasure even to negative emotions, music serves to justify sufferings large and small, assuring us that it has not all been for nothing.”

I’ve been singing in a choir for my entire adult life, and I’ve become intimately familiar with requiems. I am not religious and I don’t believe in God, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of taking solace from them.

A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms

I’ve sung the Brahm’s Requiem many times now. I sang it in 2000 when my cat died. Then my mother died. Then another cat. Then came 9/11. I sang it after the last man to break my heart left me. Every time I sing this requiem it feels like the end of the world, and it never fails to lead me out of the abyss.

The Brahms Requiem was a very new kind of requiem when it was written in the 1860s. Although George Bernard Shaw once described it as something that “could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker,” Brahms introduced one crucial innovation: unlike most requiems, which were written to honor and commemorate the departed, his was written for the living. “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted,” it begins.

In all my scores I write asterisks in the places that give me a moment of joy, those passages that make me think, if only for the length of those measures, ‘okay, maybe everything is going to be alright.’ My Brahms Requiem score is plastered with asterisks.

Requiem K. 626, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

This is probably the one requiem that people unfamiliar with requiems have heard. If you saw the movie Amadeus you know that Mozart died while writing it, (the movie is not entirely historically accurate however, Salieri was Mozart’s friend).

My favorite piece in the Mozart Requiem is No. 5, Confutatis. My choir doesn’t sing in sections, with the sopranos grouped together, the altos grouped together, and so on. We sing with all the parts mixed up. When we sing the Mozart Requiem I make sure I’m surrounded by tenors and basses. There’s almost an erotic thrill when I’m in the middle of men singing “Confutatis maledictis, Flammis acribus addictiss” (which translates to nothing good, searing flames are involved). It’s so ferocious and dramatic. Be still my heart.

Messa Da Requiem by Giuseppi Verdi

You can’t talk about requiems and drama without talking about Verdi’s Requiem. I implore you to go to YouTune and watch Herbert von Karajan conducting it. The man goes nuts. He’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch.

One of my favorite parts is the final section of the most dramatic piece, the Dies Irae, or Day of Wrath. The section begins with the sopranos and the altos, and Verdi gives us one word of direction: dolcissimo. Such a musical, evocative word. Dol-CHEE-simo. Verdi wants us to sing with as much sweetness and tenderness as we can muster. Nothing less than eternity is at stake. The women are pleading with god for mercy and forgiveness on judgment day. (Shudder.) It is the epitome of imparting pleasure to something that is not, technically, good news.

If I were to plead for forgiveness for the sins committed on Blackwell’s Island, I would call attention to courageous individuals like reporter Nellie Bly, who exposed horrific mistreatment in the Lunatic Asylum. Or missionary Reverend William Glenney French, who, at the risk of losing his job and ability to care for his own family, testified bluntly and candidly at a senate investigation into abuses on the island.

Requiem, Opus 48 by Gabriel Faure

The only time choir rehearsal was ever cancelled in my experience was on 9/11, which fell on a Tuesday that year, the day of our weekly rehearsals. Later, we sang the Faure Requiem two times and then went back to work on whatever we were going to perform that season. Faure’s Requiem is the gentlest of requiems and that was probably all we could bear at the time. Et lux perpetua. (Eternal light, but the Latin is prettier.) If you’re ever in so much pain you can’t bear drama, and you just need peace, I recommend the Faure.

Requiem Op. 9 by Maurice Durufle

Not my favorite requiem. What can I say, they can’t all be my favorite, I’m sorry Durufle fans. Like the Faure, this is a gentler requiem, and I love it for that. My asterisks appear in the Agnus Dei section.

The last pieces on my playlist are not requiems, but are honorable mentions for other compositions about death. Turns out if you sing in a choir you sing about death. A lot.

Toward the Unknown Region by Ralph Vaughan Williams

The text for Toward the Unknown Region is from “Darest Thou Now, O Soul,” a Walt Whitman poem about a man preparing for death. This piece is, from beginning to end, exquisitely beautiful. Even though in the bottom of my heart I think there is nothing! nothing! nothing! after death, by the time we get to the very last chords I’ve been sucked in. In spite of a lifetime of disbelief, for a few moments I let go and allow myself to hope that what I always thought would be the worst moment in my life could go another way.

The Last Invocation by Randall Thompson

“We do not doubt,” a 1977 Grace Church newsletter read, “that there are needs which run deeper than words, deeper even than thought, and that some of them may be reached by the power of music.” Music steeped in sorrow can sometimes be the very thing to help get past seemingly unbearable grief.

The text for The Last Invocation is also from a Walt Whitman poem. In it, Whitman hopes for a peaceful passing: “Let me be wafted. Let me glide noiselessly forth ...” Yeah. I wish. But it works in life. You can float away from something terrible. Eventually. With help. Whether it’s the loss of someone you love, living in troubled times, or writing about vulnerable people dying due to cruel mistreatment and lack of care on Blackwell's Island, Thompson’s luminous and radiant music can tenderly guide you to a place where everything bad is bearable, and everything good feels possible.

Dona Nobis Pacem, the Reconciliation and Dirge for Two Veterans pieces, by Ralph Vaughan Willams

More Vaughan Williams and more Whitman. Vaughan Williams does justice to Whitman’s lines, “That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soiled world ...” Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, expressed with melodies of such aching poignancy and stirring beauty.

Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11, by Gabriel Faure

I sang this for the first time at the funeral for one of the members of my choir. It’s chosen a lot for funerals, and if you listen to it you can hear why. It embodies just what it is we cherish when we feel love. I think it might be one of the most moving pieces I have ever sung.

Life is hard, music is comforting. In these days when it feels like Martin Luther King’s arc of moral justice has started to bend ever so slowly back, music can both ease the pain and heighten joy. That we have something that can accomplish such a miraculous feat is reason enough to hold on, and hope that we will one day turn back towards truth and righteousness.

Stacy Horn and Damnation Island links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review

Curbed profile of the author
Salon interview with the author
WNYC interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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