My grandmom Victoria (Tomaro) Stracquadanio, born in Boiano, Italy, immigrant to Bound Brook, New Jersey, subsequently married John of Modica, Sicily. At the age of 21, I visited both towns.
She, widowed, is suffering, at 99-years old, from vascular dementia at a nursing home near my mom’s home. My grandmom is now under the protocols of palliative care. I was told by a good friend, Deborah Burnham, that dementia can leave the part of the brain that responds to music unscathed. So I visit my grandmom in room 117 and blast her beloved Mario Lanza (Alfredo Cocozza Lanza) singing “Ave Maria” from the film The Great Caruso (Dir. Richard Thorpe, 1951) as loud as possible (heavy door mostly closed, but I like the idea of the song in tendrils down the fluorescent halls).
Other times I play songs from the batch of music recorded in regions, Campobasso, Molise, Abruzzo, in the vicinity of her hometown of Boiano, Italy, by the Smithsonian’s early and mid 20th century’s ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax. She can only somewhat hear through her left ear, against which I use her pillow to keep my phone’s speaker tightly wedged. I think her favorite song to hear is Mario Lanza’s “Ave Maria” from The Great Caruso.
Unlike the highly produced songs of Lanza, some of the songs Lomax preserved were collected in crowded Italian homes and informally performed with varying degrees of participation from the crowd. Lomax recorded in the vicinity of Boiano during the very years after my grandmom had been born and was growing up there. After a journey to Rome, she boarded the ship REX at age 14, with her brother and mother, monolingual, seasick, en route to the U.S. She was not to return to her hometown for at least three decades. Her brother, Dominic, during WWII, returned by sky to bomb areas near his hometown, then after the war hitched rides to visit.
In room 117, after my grandmom listened to this music Lomax had recorded, music that she had not heard perhaps once in 84 years, she looked me in the eye and said: “Thank you.” This was after a day of bouts of frightening confusions, sleeping, and spiral mutterings to herself in the rubble of Italian and English, as she bunched the cloths she could get her hands on together in folds – her adult diaper, the afghan she made, the white sheets. She said she said she remembered these songs. She said she remembered singing them, being in a room full of song. Such clarity of recollection and coherent speech was like a sudden clear rush of water from a pump. Boiano was a mountain town full of springs, cascading waters.
I’m not sure if you know about Alan Lomax, Italian folk music, or these recordings, but I thought I’d collect some info and videos and assemble them on this page, to keep them in one place.
Songs of Abruzzo -Collected by Alan Lomax
“Alan Lomax in Italy: a letter to Goffredo Plastino” by Stephen Winick, 5.21.20
Songs of Abruzzo -Collected by Alan Lomax Playlist of 12 Songs as linked to on YouTube above are also available to stream on Spotify.
“Been All Around This World is a podcast exploring the breadth and depth of folklorist Alan Lomax’s seven decades of field recordings. From the earliest trips he made through the American South with his father, John A. Lomax, beginning in 1933, to his last documentary work in the early 1990s, the program will present seminal artists and performances alongside obscure, unidentified, and previously unheard singers and players, from around America and the world, drawn from the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.” It is produced and hosted by Nathan Salsburg, curator of the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity, the non-profit research center and advocacy organization that Lomax founded in 1983.”
Some regional Tarantellas:
One of our contemporaries singing “O campagnola bella” – Abruzzo folk song 9.9.2013
Like I said above, Alan Lomax was not only a recorder of folk music, but a consultant on what music would be sent on the Golden Records of the Voyager missions to be sent out into space.
from The Farthest Voyager in Space, PBS, 2017:
“In 1977, just before the Voyager mission launched, a committee led by astronomer Carl Sagan was working to create the Golden Record, a 12-inch gold plated copper disk engrooved with 115 images, sounds from nature, greetings in 55 different languages, a map showing our location in the universe, and a 90-minute selection of music that was intended to convey the diversity of Earth’s cultures. Sagan et al relied on a small group of consultants to help identify potential selections. One of these consultants was ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, a natural fit for the project. At that time, he had spent decades working to understand, promote, and distribute the world’s folk music. For Lomax, recording ethnic music to share with the world was a lifelong passion.”
Contents of the Voyager Golden Record
Voyager Golden Record (LISTEN IN FULL)
(click this link, then at the site, on the record player image’s circle to begin the record)
What Is on Voyager’s Golden Record? From a whale song to a kiss, the time capsule sent into space in 1977 had some interesting contents By Megan Gambino Smithsonian Magazine, 4.22.12
from the above: “The Golden Record consists of 115 analog-encoded photographs, greetings in 55 languages, a 12-minute montage of sounds on Earth and 90 minutes of music. As producer of the record, Ferris was involved in each of its sections in some way. But his largest role was in selecting the musical tracks . . . Ann Druyan had the idea to record a person’s brain waves, so that should extraterrestrials millions of years into the future have the technology, they could decode the individual’s thoughts. She was the guinea pig. In an hour-long session hooked to an EEG at New York University Medical Center, Druyan meditated on a series of prepared thoughts. In Murmurs of Earth, she admits that ‘a couple of irrepressible facts of my own life’ slipped in. She and Carl Sagan had gotten engaged just days before, so a love story may very well be documented in her neurological signs. Compressed into a minute-long segment, the brain waves sound, writes Druyan, like a ‘string of exploding firecrackers.'”
All of this will pull together — or push away from each other — in the end. The part of the brain that processes music isn’t affected by dementia.
The Power of Music in Dementia
Patients With Dementia Benefit from Playlist for George Life
Music and Dementia: An Overview. Music appears to be a unique and powerful stimulus for reaffirming personal identity and social connectedness in individuals with dementia by Ronald Devere, MD
from the above — “What does the literature say about the value of music in people with dementia and other categories of cognitive impairment? Let’s first look at individuals with predominantly moderate to severe memory impairment. In his famous book Musicology, published in 2007, the late Oliver Sacks discussed a few patients with severe memory impairment only. In particular, he discussed the English musician Clive Wearing, who developed Herpes Encephalitis in his 40s. It predominantly damaged his medial temporal lobes responsible for normal memory function. His memory span was less than 15 seconds. He could not preserve new memories and had loss of almost his entire past. His wife Deborah stated that it was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment. “He always feels he just emerged from unconsciousness and arising from the dead,” she said.
“Dr. Sacks interviewed Clive in his home and noted some Bach music sitting on top of the piano and asked him to play it. Clive said he had never played it or seen it before. He then started playing “Prelude 9 in E major” and remembered playing it before. His memory for that particular piece only occurred while he played it. With this music, he was able to improvise, joke, and play with any piece of music. His general knowledge or semantic memory was greatly affected along with his episodic and day-to-day memories. Clive was safe enough in his home but would get immediately lost if he went out alone. His musical powers, however, were totally intact. He was able to automatically read music, sing the notes, play the keyboard, and sing with his wife and create his own world. Clive did not lose any skills he acquired in the past before his encephalitis and he was able to learn new skills with training and practice, even if he would retain no memory for the practice sessions. Without any intact explicit memory, Clive could not remember from day to day which piece he chose to work on previously, or that he ever worked on it before. Without close direction from someone else, he was incapable of undertaking the process of learning any new piece irrespective of his considerable technical skills. Twenty years after his encephalitis, Clive had dropped out of space and time, but when seen at the keyboard alone or with his wife, he was himself again and wholly alive. His life revolved around filling the present—the now—and that only occurred when he was totally immersed in his music.
“Interestingly, the response to music is preserved even when the dementia is advanced, such as when patients have impairment of executive function (judgment, planning, reasoning, and insight), speech, and language.”
Hearing and music in dementia by Julene K Johnson, and Maggie L Chow. 3.28.16
from the above—-“Both music and speech are complex acoustic signals that rely on a number of brain and cognitive processes to create the sensation of hearing. The frequency of complaints about hearing difficulties differs by the type and stage of the neurodegenerative disease. Persons with neurodegenerative diseases, however, rarely present with significant deficits in the processing of music, compared with persons who have auditory agnosia or amusia, an acquired impairment in the ability to process music. In contrast, there are numerous anecdotal reports suggesting that the appreciation (and perception) of music often remains preserved in persons with AD and possibly other neurodegenerative diseases.”
Why does the brain hold onto this ability after so much else is long lost to the mind?
Why sing a song?
In time my grandmom’s memories, so reluctantly relinquished, will no longer exist, and so also my own memories will at some point no longer continue; they will cease to be. The charged material paths that memories recall describing an ongoing “me” will become dissipated energies unrecognizably sunk back into the earth, part of the potential energy in the soil and nutrients that made them at least possible. If no further songs of self can live their notes on this planet, herself, myself, we will be located only in a past where once I knew by memory about the existence of rockets and Saturn’s rings. When such a condition has already arrived, there shall be no “I” and its assertion of a self’s duration. Except for perhaps some lingering words, maybe these. But evanescent is the sum of memories that are a map to what seems a self. No matter. No time.
Yet in the now I remember that Lomax made musical selections to record to send into space — can this record, the two Voyager Records specifically, one on Voyager 1, one on Voyager 2, be accurately called a set of memories? The Voyager records exist beyond us, headed more slowly than light to light-years of distance from their launch. the absence of Mario Lanza will not stop them. The engraved traces will still be metal on the loose, flung in deep space, memories-in-waiting, perhaps, if copper can be said to wait. There are traces of voices still active in my memory if no longer in my grandmother’s memory, far from Italy and New Jersey. The gold records and the flesh’s forgetting race further away, but are always just where they are, were, in the unplottable vacuum, notes shot into the pitch-black alien silence of the abyss. The Voyager Records will endure atomically, whether or not they will sing anew in collaborative song the unknown.
Material traces, cuts into copper. Memories the transitive dance of patterns formed due to the distant signalings between synapses. Neurons do not touch, there must be a gap between them, for the biochemical signaling from one to another to occur. Neurons are nothing like a continuous wire string. They must be more like an ever-open population that may allow for possible dynamic shifts in the ongoing conversations on a party line. Untangled, they are not themselves for themselves but there to be open to connection and transmission. They are no more than vehicles for chemical potentials to cross the gaps they hold open between them. The distances between neurons are opportunities for thought itself, for the embedding of paths of memory.
The pulse of the heart allows the brain to summon the heart to beat. This is the recursive nature of the music that opens improvisations of song, the roomful of what has not yet happened, voices charting tones of tuned and the voices that may be induced to insert their notes and variable sounds of common difference.
Somewhere in this wood-fired room of chairs seating independent singers who can recall the tune and the audience members who might join in the call and response, is the self-contained, self- evident and unafraid. It is the sense of self that weavings of memory provide. A lingering memory of such a self that the dementia patient has both retains and can’t form.
At the center of the mind is the crucial core of absence or void that makes the mind a mind. If the mind was solid through, there would be no room for the ongoingness of its transformation as the neuronal flows incorporate new observations, experiences, thoughts, the aggregation of ever-transforming continuous selfhood.
In dementia, the loss of immediate continuity of the memory of both past and the just-past previous moment leaves the mind in a state of constant confusion. The lost child’s terror lies in the lack of continued recognition from without that confirms they are whom they think themselves to be — for they have not built up enough foundation of memory to feel sure of themselves, to feel sure, unrecognized, of their own continuity that will not vanish.
All I can do to love is send a flung note rung across the gap between us and within that is the recognition of your possible response. Not only to lend one’s voice to the recurrence of the never-identical performance of a folksong, but such is also a way of loving. Love is the gift of the loss of one’s voice in a chant that may or may not strike an unanticipated chord. A song is a container of serious play and bodily being; a song is a love within the silence that marks the song’s end, that remembers in its absence that it happened, to love that love may be forgotten is the center of the song.
I try to bring my grandmom a song in Italian and I hold her human hand. I think the music, the songs of Lomax and Lanza provide a sanctuary of sequence that lessens the disorientation she fells, both not remembering things day to day, moment to moment, but missing the memories which provided a bounded form of who may be whom and what might be going on from moment to moment — there is a crisis of self-continuity and also a lingering sense of relation to others than may elicit feelings towards others but not recognition. The music’s coherence is external but seems to soothe the brain grasping for understanding and for the fulfillment of obligations unknown yet unmet. I think she loves Mario Lanza just a bit more than Lomax’s clattering songs of her childhood, as Lanza’s fluidity elicits comments about the beauty of the music and “I love you.”
In the setting of the stars, we love the night.
In the lack of sleep that is the song.
For lack of love, we cannot risk the loss of self in sleep, where we can then find ourselves in love with the love of the song of the night, and there and then we learn the song of stars, the dong of forgetting the lines and light, there’s the lullaby in which we learn to vanish in the love of sleep.
Also, after listening to the Lanza last time I showed her a video I made of us a few years ago making linguine. She said she remembered doing so — but I’m not sure whether memory matters now — But she seemed to enjoy it. I hope you will too.
Making Pasta 12.11.08 with Jason Zuzga and Victoria Stracquadanio.
I’ve begun to look forward to the Mario Lanza song evenings the most.
Mario Lanza. “Nessun Dorma”
‘Nessun Dorma’ Song Lyrics: The Translation of Calaf’s Aria from Puccini’s ‘Turandoby Aaron Green 8.8.18
“At the beginning of the opera, which is set in Peking, China, Calaf, an unknown prince, falls in love at first sight with the beautiful but haughty Princess Turandot. According to royal edict, however, any suitor who wishes to marry her must correctly answer three riddles. Those who fail are killed. Despite protests from his father and his servant, Calaf accepts the challenge and is determined to marry Turandot.
“Much to the delight of the princess’s father, as well as the entire kingdom, Calaf answers all three riddles correctly. But Turandot refuses to marry this stranger. She doesn’t even know his name. The prince then makes a deal with her: If she can figure out his name before dawn, he will gladly die. If she cannot, they will marry. Turandot agrees and the countdown begins.
“Late that night, the princess declares that no one will sleep until she learns the name of her suitor. In fact, she cries out that everyone in the kingdom will be killed if no one steps forward to reveal Calaf’s identity. Meanwhile, Calaf confidently sings “Nessun Dorma”—”Nobody shall sleep.”
Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!
Tu pure, o, Principessa,
nella tua fredda stanza,
guardi le stelle
che tremano d’amore
e di speranza.
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me,
il nome mio nessun saprà!
No, no, sulla tua bocca lo dirò
quando la luce splenderà!
Ed il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio
che ti fa mia!
(Il nome suo nessun saprà!…
e noi dovrem, ahime, morir!)
Dilegua, o notte!
Nobody shall sleep!…
Nobody shall sleep!
Even you, oh Princess,
in your cold room,
watch the stars,
that tremble with love and with hope.
But my secret is hidden within me,
my name no one shall know…
On your mouth, I will tell it when the light shines.
And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine!…
(No one will know his name and we must, alas, die.)
Vanish, o night!
Set, stars! Set, stars!
At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!
Lamento funebre, Registrazione di Alan Lomax, 1954
Listen to this quite joyous “funeral lament!”
Il nome suo nessun saprà!
e noi dovrem, ahime, morir!
Dilegua, o notte!
To win the night, the night might turn away from itself and face in stillness the victory of dawn’s release, the end of a night of gathered songs.
Name gone, and we, alas, must die. Memories alas dispersing in waves, attenuated final sounds through air, your time on earth cast to endless waves of light that seen to disappear in the blue liquid of the dawn’s win, its roar of the sun’s proximity.
Yet the sun, from the vantage point of the Voyager, is granted permission to become at last a mere star. It departs into the uncertainties of night, the dark enfolding itself in the minuscule gold brain’s disk, the last wooden chair creaking back from the fire shall here be the final note, the fire’s final exhalation, the forgotten wish as a girl unfurls not into the sleep’s gentle suspension but that wish forgotten flung violently across all time, a gold spindle with a billion kites taking the string within all the matter busy with forgetting itself in the chasms of light-years between galaxies, forgetting what forgetting is, forgettings in the strings that the most theoretical physics suggests vibrating in how many dimensions, eight?
Twelve? Such strings up to their bound tricks across the dimensions, such strings precursor to matter, strings forgetting their own stitch, impossibilities so outlandish, so nebulous, so ridiculous as impossible as love is freely given, mind to mind, mind to rock, a bag of snack to a cat. Through entering into love’s raucous song may we join the forgotten so that what may yet be can coalesce in communities where the future finds itself become a copper place, a song that shall never play but simply be there that it may, so that we may know it shall outlast our memory of its trajectory.
Love’s pulse of the song sings high and gruff, and in the tether of two tenors, let there be a burning free of memory into a state of love. The suspension within the notes held not remembered, not forgotten, simply underway, beautiful because we know they must end. In them the mutually unconditional love, pure joy in being. Take the atmosphere’s gravitational huddle, that is love unconditional, the air expecting nothing in return. For love is not made of memory, just as the song is not made of one mind or a single vibration of exhaled air. The strings that compose particles infinitesimal, inconceivable, that make protons seem the size of a universe, or at least the size of an ocean liner to a girl who has never seen one before that, nor the sea.
The strings or one string dimensionally doubled may for an immeasurable instant, no longer than life, join in kitten tussle force with one another, wide awake siblings in bed with a piglet, the complex mutual vibration reinforcing the forming of an unprecedented chord, an aurora across the heavens beyond observation. Forget, within whichever dimensions you may hear this said, that I am telling you that such a quivering at such scale and capable of unknown magnitudes is as unimaginable as any human life. Which means nothing. Because no human life can be a thing of isolation; to be such would be inhuman, as Lomax observed; the folk song is not a display of virtuosi but an affirmation of community. No aria exists in a vacuum.
Love, not life, is the miracle of the many notes in the opera of the double vocal cords, the many hands, and crew, Love is the empty space between selves forgetting themselves in the mutual support and conversation allowed by the distance between them, aurora civitas. In the phone call to check in on an elderly relation, in complimenting the beauty of the dog walker rather than the dog. In between us these electromagnetic fields of possible greeting. Let us not forget the mothers, those of this earth’s peculiar society in which this is written the possible greeting space, the room for another, is opened by the released embrace of the many mothers who allow their children a gradual separation, not into singularity but a possible plurality.
The nursing home module becomes a room in the village house of heavy wooden beams and dogs and fire, the village house becomes unconditional love that holds the self together for a moment before everything and nothing is sewn together, the labor over, the song begins to fill the necessary void at the heart of every life, the eye of the needle, the unknown that makes love possible, the death that makes life the complex mutual vibration reinforcing the forming of an unprecedented chord, an aurora across the heavens beyond observation.
I’ll see you after the sun expands, forgets the earth, where there will be no years. But where I’ll know that for no reason I was loved, or is it that I loved, or is it that, separate, we were attuned and tuned, we struck a chord, we were each other’s sureness of the song. Entirely forgotten, it shall still be so.
Voyager, you have brought me into being through the open silence of your song.
You have made a room for me of songs in which any self is welcome. If the welcome is forgotten, it is already remembered. If any self is forgotten, I will remember.
All of this will be forgotten.
The ghosts and the gypsies remain.