The Life of a Gnat

“Christy’s Song” from THE MOST ENGAGED GIRL,
music by Alan Hovhaness, book and lyrics by Andrew Glaze.
© 1969 music,  © 2015 lyrics in Overheard in a Drugstore by Andrew Glaze

The life of a gnat is so simple and straight
as she crawls in the palm of your hand.
She’s born in the dawn, at the heart of the dew
and she dries out her wings in the sun.
Then she flies with her love,
tiny, tiny love
with her love, only hers,
tiny love but true.

The moon rolls around through the sky in the night
all alone in the wind and the dark.
She knows where she goes she has only got one
and revolves in the light of her love.
Once a year in his arms
reeling round the sky
with her love, only hers
clasped in the arms of her sun.

The life of a girl is nothing like that,
though I wish and I dream that it were.
I look for the one that will set me afire
or dance me all day in the wind.
I would swim through the sky
if I thought he were there,
I would fly through the air
to capture my lonely desire.

You can listen to the audio of the song using the link below, made in 2014 with the help of Ned, a friend and Music History student at the University of Pennsylvania.  I offer my sincere apologies for the non-professional vocal portion.

In the mid-60’s, my father once confided a pet peeve of his, “I can’t stand it when people refer to John Lennon or Bob Dylan as POETS! No, they aren’t! They write songs and lyrics, dammit”.  He then explained that poetry is a form of writing that follows very specific rules and format protocols, even if it doesn’t rhyme.  

So I chuckled years later, when I opened the initial manuscript for his 2015 poetry book Overheard In a Drugstore, and realized it included his lyrics for “The Life Of A Gnat”. It was his subtle way of fighting back.  The song is from a 1969 project he’d worked on with composer Alan Hovhaness that never went into final production.

It all started with an invitation…

Alan’s wife at that time was from Birmingham, and she brought him into our lives. Elizabeth Whittington Hovhaness was an accomplished pianist and the daughter of Dorsey Whittington, the conductor of the Birmingham Civic Orchestra.  Her mother Frances and sister Barbara were also musicians. Both parents were college music teachers in Birmingham, and family home life included two grand pianos in the living room.  My father knew her as “Betty”, and Alan called her “Naru” a Japanese name that means “become”. Married in 1959, she was 19 years younger than Alan, his fifth out of an eventual six wives, and a champion of his work as a composer.

So when Betty unexpectedly phoned our home one day to say they’d recently moved to Manhattan, my father immediately asked them over for dinner.  When they arrived, both were tall and slender. Betty had dark hair she pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck and a vaguely Japanese style of dress-robe. It was an interesting evening. We talked about music, ballet, theater and my father’s first poetry book— which was still relatively new.  Soon after, my father became a serious fan of Alan’s music.

Apparently it was a case of mutual respect at first meeting, and the visit triggered something in Alan’s thought process as well. A few weeks later he suddenly called my father with a question. “Do you think it’s possible to write lyrics and a plot for music that already exists?” My father replied, “Sure”. A few days later Alan brought him an already completed score for a small scale musical/light operetta that he and another student had written in college. Alan still liked his own end of it, but said he’d never been satisfied with the plot and libretto. 

Intrigued, my father got to work and came up with a turn of the century small scale musical comedy about boat racing in the mid-West titled, “The Most Engaged Girl”.  Since my father was highly musical, but not a musician, Alan made a reel to reel piano recording of the full score for him to refer to. Initially used to help him memorize the musical score, it later became the background accompaniment to his song lyrics. At one point, in need of an unpretentious female soprano, he asked me to sing “The Life of a Gnat” into a cassette tape recorder, with Alan’s piano recording playing in the background. I was all of 18 and did my best.  At the time I had no clue why, but I now realize this must have been how my father presented his efforts to Alan.

In any case, Alan loved it and they got to work. Meant for a small cast on a small stage, they brought the finished work to Joseph Papp, the highly successful producer and director of The New York Public Theater. Papp was the brilliant visionary who guided the musicals “HAIR” and “A Chorus Line” into production and world success. He immediately agreed to take it on, began working on script edits, and proclaimed he’d produce it at The Cubiculo (an off-Broadway theater at 51st street and 9th Avenue, until 1990).  Then negotiations on details began. Unfortunately they quickly ground to a halt at that point over how the music would be presented. Papp insisted that a very small orchestra would be necessary, and Alan insisted that the production be accompanied by two pianos.  Neither of them would budge on that point, and the whole thing fell apart. My father was hugely disappointed, but remained nonjudgmental. For my part, knowing that in 1980 Papp went on to produce a very entertaining version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance”, with minimal orchestra, which ended up moving to Broadway, I think Alan made an enormous mistake.

Meanwhile, back on the poetry side of things:
In 1969, Betty’s father passed away and she used her inheritance to enhance a record company, titled Poseidon Society, that she and Alan originally founded in 1963. Apparently she was quite gifted at the recording process and had a great ear for it.  I am guessing this helped the two of them introduce Alan’s work to classical music radio stations in the USA, as well as potential orchestras that might be interested.  However, Betty did do at least one side project. In the early ‘70’s, she used the company to create a record of my father and Galway Kinnell reading their poems.  She titled it, “Poets reading their Poems”. It is numbered Poseidon Society 1003. I remember my father saying that she’d asked him about poets for the other side of the album, and he’d replied, “I like Galway Kinnell’s poetry”.  In the last year of his life he mentioned in passing that Betty considered it a “secret project”.  I have no idea why. There weren’t many copies, but they still turn up here and there.

After a while, Betty and Alan moved from New York to Seattle, possibly because Alan was obsessed with all things Japanese and it was easier to commute from Seattle. It was an enthusiasm that Betty enjoyed and shared with him. Alan also enjoyed the mountains around Seattle, and regularly spent time in Lucerne, Switzerland, because he found the landscape highly inspiring. In 1977, I happened to visit Richard Wagner’s former home “Tribschen” just outside of Lucerne.  Converted into a museum devoted to Wagner, a fair portion of the museums musical instrument collection was donated by Alan.

Sadly, Alan’s obsession with Japan eventually led him to divorce Betty. According to my father, Alan’s request for a divorce involved him telling Betty, “I don’t love you any longer. I don’t think I could truly love anything that wasn’t Japanese”. Betty was crushed and heartbroken. She retained the rights to the record company after the divorce and later sold them. In 1977, Alan married his sixth wife, a Japanese soprano who remained with him until he died in 2000.  

Alan still continued to contact my father off and on whenever he visited New York City.  There was a general sense that Alan still felt guilty over the collapse of negotiations with Papp.  At some point before 1988, Alan contacted my father to say he was coming to Manhattan, and wanted to meet with him. When he arrived he brought the score for “The Most Engaged Girl”, saying that he wanted my father to have it in his charge. I believe that was the last time my father saw Alan in person, although I spoke with Alan myself briefly in 1990.  At the time I was on the board of a chamber music trio that was searching for music suited to piano, French horn, and viola (a surprisingly beautiful combination). My father had Alan’s contact information and so I wrote and asked if he’d be interested. Lo and behold, my phone rang one day and it was Alan. We spoke, he asked how my father was,  and said he would definitely be interested and that I should have the trio call him. They did and Alan said they’d need to talk with his wife about commission, as she was his business manager. Unfortunately when it got down to money they couldn’t afford his fee, so that was the end of it.

My father’s music career didn’t end with “The Most Engaged Girl”.  He went on to compose both the music and the lyrics for his 1974 play “Kleinhoff Demonstrates Tonight”, a play that Joseph Papp produced at the Cricket Theater in Minneapolis. It has had various readings and productions since then.  In 2013, by looking at the internet, I discovered that the singer known as “Meatloaf” played the lead role in a reading of the play in Manhattan, and a theater group in Denver, Colorado performed the play in 1988.  My father had no inkling of either of those events.  Apparently, like prodigal children, when you send creative works out into the world, they can end up in surprising places.

But that’s another story.

—–E Glaze

Poseidon Society front

Poseidon Society back

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