[Mike Heffley and Franya Berkman were partners in the victimless crime of writing serious books (The Music of Anthony Braxton; Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe’s Reinvention of Jazz; Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane) about music they knew no words could ever do justice. Profits from sale of this CD will fund the work of the Atma Vidya Ashram (www.atma-vidya.org)--a charitable organization Franya and husband Kris got involved with through their yoga teacher and friend, its manager Swamini Lalitanand--to support destitute children and women in India.]
My 15-year friendship with Franya Berkman stands as one of my life’s most significant relationships. It started as an easy mutual attraction between kindred spirits around common tastes and interests, similar family histories, and pleasure in picking each other’s brains and “comparing notes” about anything and everything. What made it great beyond the expectations of even that rich beginning was how it held up, deepened and evolved through the changes and challenges life brought to our lives over those years.
We were fellow PhD candidates-cum-postgraduates in Ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University from the mid ‘90s to 2004. As it happened, she landed her first academic position in Portland, Oregon, where I came from and returned to after 12 years at school and work on the East Coast. She married her husband Kris Wallsmith, bringing their three children into the world with him while starting her career at Lewis & Clark College. We were thus able to continue and build on our by-then strong connection as friends and neighbors.
We shared a love of jazz as both scholars and working musicians. We first met as fellow students in vibraphonist Jay Hoggard’s Jazz Ensemble, which led naturally to our first talks about the music. Though she was close to my daughter’s age, her familiarity with the American Songbook and jazz “fake book” material I’d been on intimate terms with longer than she’d been alive seemed on a par with my own; ditto music theory and jazz practice, and the literature about and history of the music.
My vision for this CD came in a rush one day just two weeks after her also-sudden and cruelly swift decline and death, but it came like a quick birth after a long gestation. Franya had put in my care a nice KORG electronic keyboard years before, on which I’d been cultivating a style and body of work as a solo pianist, both covering jazz standards and composing my own new music.
While our musical tastes overlapped, they did so like a Venn diagram, with our larger disparate areas off into world music and pop (her) and experimental/improvised (me). Still, even those were also provinces we both considered parts of our shared terrain of knowledge and affinity, if not immediate engagement. They weren’t differences that eclipsed the larger fact of each of us understanding and respecting what the other was about, musically.
By the time I started my journey on her keyboard, her influence on me was already such that I constantly found myself tweaking my music according to what I imagined her response to it might be: “Too many notes, too intense...distill it, be gentler. There, that’s better.” (The same basic critique and influence had its way with my work as a writer, by the way.) When her real words countered my imagined ones, with some genuine praise (which I could always trust not to be feigned), I felt I had pulled off something worthwhile. (Anthony Braxton, my longtime academic mentor and greatest musical model, is the only other person in my life who exerted that kind of unforced influence on my creative process and aesthetic. Their CVs are disparate, but their acumen about things musical and human, and my rapport with and respect for both, were not.)
Since embarking on that project with Franya’s keyboard, I’ve recorded 170 tracks similar to those presented here; 105 of those were done after her diagnosis a year or so ago, and 5 of those since her passing. A pedantic recitation, perhaps, but one with a Rain Man-like poetry to my mind: my output upped, and she was more on my mind, but optimistically so, countering cancer’s threat with more lust for life, living and acting with renewed purpose, like she was and wanted people around her to be doing.
Most of those 105 tracks, apart from that general infusion of hope’s vitality, were not Franya-specific--just me carrying on with my musical agenda, like the rest of my life, in light of the ominous news. Some, however (also like the rest of my life), were seized beyond my intent or control by that news, to express this or that aspect of it, as music will do. Franyaphilia was like that: an improvised meditation that more or less played its way out of me in an hour at the keyboard to give voice to the inner energy cloud formed of the kind of hope and prayer people draw on to try and reverse and remit cancer’s onslaught by sheer spiritual will. It was my way of maintaining that attitude for as long as it made sense; once Franya passed, it remained standing as a celebration of her life and spirit.
The experience of playing Angel Eyes a week or so after her death was what brought the CD to its life and identity. The torch song about lost love turned into a dirge of rage and grief over Franya’s lost life; I share three different versions of it here to convey its irresistible possession of me for a few obsessive days, as my overarching theme of “angelizing”: the opposite of “demonizing,” and a new spin on “analyzing,” a golden thing that remains after the heats of hell have smelted it out from what they destroy. In my mind, three takes of the same one tidal track make for a three-dimensional musical event and object.
Autumn Leaves and Beautiful Love were the other tracks done after she left...also chosen deliberately for something they spoke: my gorgeous Indian summer with friend Franya did just leave...and the love was beautiful (those are also two we played and sang a bit together for fun). I can see her bemused face at how “too many notes” have not only proliferated beyond her most avantgardish nightmares, but also how her “gentler” “distilled essence” have found a queenly throne above them all.
The other tracks are those few from the 170, some before and some after the diagnosis, that begged inclusion here as I scanned them all; their titles and/or lyrics all fit with that more-than-a-love-or-family-affair friendship we forged for ourselves alone without hurting anyone else or each other: They (read: death) Can’t Take That Away From Me, Body and Soul, Falling Grace...those who have ears to hear what I’m talking about here will hear it in those songs too. Anagrammarian is my own more whimsical creation of the sort I think would actually appeal to her ear too, as did similar fare from my fountain now and then.
Our Day Will Come features an appearance by her firstborn Sadie, age 7. She walked in on me while I was recording it, silently to her, through headphones. I was almost finished, and signaled for her to wait a moment. Instead, she came up while Garage Band was still recording and tacked onto the end her rendition of Heart and Soul, which her mom had recently taught her, without hearing it as she played. Right in the pocket of the CD’s concept...
Dear Lord, the only non-“sheets-of-sound” track in the bunch, evokes for me our shared love of both John and Alice Coltrane, especially their spirituality, and all the hours we’d spent listening to, reading, and writing about them and kindred artists together in our early years together working on our different books and papers. Hearing this track now calls up my memory of Franya lying in state, in beauty and peace like some Indian holy woman, with flowers all around her placed by loved ones, and Alice’s music in a soft, endless loop.
The details and story of what cemented our bond and enshrined us into Family for Life are too many and personal for this forum, but they weathered the usual tempests and carnage of painful breakups with lovers, American struggles to skirt American poverties and degradations, legal and health crises and deaths of other family members, the ups and downs of both couplings and singlehood. Our collegial-cum-simpatico duo began, grew, and ended as the time-tested-and-besting Rock on both the sunny and those stormy seas around it.
By the time she was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer there was no question that that Rock would be there for whatever ground and purchase thereon it could provide.
Without saying it directly in so many words, Franya’s gift to me was to convey something like this: “I see in you someone I can trust with my best, bravest, truest and most vulnerable self; I open myself to the same from you; I can make you want and be able to be your best self, and will trust you to help me be mine, in a way that is unique to us. I pledge this; you can take it to the bank and the grave, it won’t change in me if it doesn’t in you.”
She proved consistent and true to those unspoken words. Those 15 years were way too few, yet also an unfailing plenitude of eternal life and love like I’d never seen or expected to.
Mike Heffley, March 1, 2013