Listen Up: Hannah Marcus

This “Listen Up” piece, the fourth in the series, is long overdue; I dedicate it to the wonderful Hannah Marcus, who has released album after album over the years, in a changing style of her own, and who collaborates with many musicians across genres. Many people love Hannah’s songs not only for their dark tones and themes, not only for their musical imagination, but also for their humor, curiosity, and generosity, which I hope to touch upon today. This is a short piece, partly because not all of her songs are available online. But I hope it’ll introduce her music to a few people.

I first met her music in a curious way. A friend and bandmate of mine, no longer alive, pulled Hannah’s song “Demerol” out of his closet one evening. “This song is you,” he said, and put it on. It was a stunning song and equation; afterwards I tried to remember the songwriter’s name—which was fitting, because the song begins, “What is your name? Tell me, child of grace, what is your name? What a thing for an R.N. to say, what is your name? Here’s some Demerol to ease the pain, can you tell me what occurred today?….” She starts out slowly, gently, in alto notes, then soars up with “today” into the celestial part of the song.

A few years later, another friend asked me, out of the blue, “Have you heard Hannah Marcus’s music?” She told me where to find some of the albums, and I was off to the record store. It turned out that Hannah was living in San Francisco now (where I was too), so I attended a couple of her shows, and we started to become acquainted. Over time, a friendship formed, which continues to this day.

Another favorite early-ish song, from her 1997 Faith Burns album, is “Face in the Moon.” Like “Demerol,” it rises slowly. A friend told me he got all choked up over the word “joy” (when it first comes up, on a high note). So do I, returning to the song now. It is a song to ride along with, to sink into, to rise up through. The song spills longing like moonlight, and then a joy takes over. “If there is such a thing as joy in this life, let it rise, illuminated, into life.”

The songs have complex qualities and moods; there’s a subtle chuckle even in the saddest of them. One of my favorites on her Black Hole Heaven album is “Los Alamos,” which describes personal abandonment in an eerily changing world, a world marked by fires, genetic experimentation, and mythology. The wry lyrics are punctuated with samples of Richard Burton’s Hamlet (“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of innnnfinite space, were it not that I had bad dreams”). The phrases “innnfinite space” and “bad dreams” recur throughout the song.

Another long-time favorite, which I brought up in my “Song Series” piece on American epic sadness, is “Hairdresser in Taos,” from her Desert Farmers album. Like “Los Alamos,” it moves from personal crisis or loss into a view of something vaster, in this case a confusion and lostness going far beyond the self, into a cry that becomes hymnal, “Lord if only I could find a road, I’d take it.” The song is sadly comic too, especially the part about the hairdresser in Taos who “stuck my head in the sink and put red dye all over my hair…” and then “I ran out of the house with the red dye still on, I even left him my only copy of Blonde on Blonde…:” with the piano mounting and dancing.

After Desert Farmers, Hannah Marcus’s music took all sorts of directions. The Wingfield Community Singers was (and I hope still is) a happy convergence of gifts: the composer David Grubbs, the writer Rick Moody, Hannah Marcus, and other members along the way. I loved the concerts and treasure the songs. Listening to this band is like having your random impulses and thoughts poured into graceful sculpture (that then begins to dance around the room). On the solemn side, one of my favorites is “Night, Sleep, Death, and the Stars,” whose lyrics combine two Walt Whitman poems. Another favorite is “Blue Daisy.”

During this time, Hannah was also learning fiddle, specifically bluegrass, and attending bluegrass festivals and conferences. (I went with her once to a bluegrass conference in the Catskills; it was quite an experience.) She has now plays fiddle/violin (as well as her other instruments) on numerous projects, in a range of genres. On Matana Roberts’s 2019 album Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis, she plays electric guitar, nylon string guitar, fiddle, and accordion, and sings backing vocals. This is another side of her musicianship: her support of other musicians, her admiration of their talent, her love of playing with others and continuing to learn new things: new instruments, new styles, new ways of thinking about music, new things about people.

In some ways, music can only come out of an individual, in private and in quiet. That’s why there are solo musicians, or leaders of bands and ensembles: the individual has something so powerful and different to bring. Music would not exist if it had to be entirely communal. But the wisest musicians recognize that it doesn’t begin or end with them, that music stretches far beyond them, and all they can do is play within that expanse. And that’s the joy of it: when it’s not about you, but about the music itself, wherever you find yourself in it. I admire Hannah for finding it in so many places and for playing on and on.

I made a few small changes to this piece after posting it. For other pieces in the “Listen Up” series, go here.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

  • Recent Posts

  • ARCHIVES

  • Categories