Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

So, What Is Leonore Overture?

So, What Is Leonore Overture?

In addition to the journalism archived here, Leonore Overture is also a collection of essays. Or will be. I’ve decided to start with a single essay, My Father’s Axe, and add from there.

These essays are meant for family and friends, and well intentioned strangers. 

We’ll start slowly, adding an essay or so as time allows. Leonore Overture is my companion for the future. Ambitiously, I had several dozen essays at some point of conclusion when I decided to launch this site. Just as I was doing so though, I decided most of them were insufficient. I’ll leave My Fathers Axe here as a start, and add more as I see fit.

Treat this like a wood pile, still seasoning. When it’s ready to burn, there might be a moment of enjoyment. Until then, it’s all green, and mostly unusable.

Its true audience, my granddaughter Eleanor Powers Jones, is lovingly alluded to in the title. Similar to a much earlier work, the poems Songs for a Daughter, these thoughts are some attempt at reaching across generations.

The essays describe a circle that passes through several points, including Eleanor, splitting wood, music and performance, recovery from alcoholism, friendship.

If there is a model for the type, it would be Albert Camus’ two short collections, Noces and L’Eté, somewhat based on his Algerian experiences. Camus’ collections have been my steady companions for decades. His essays serve as touchstones in the way they move facilely from the immediate—a café, some passersby, the remembrance of a book, la plage—to the profound. 

I have no inclination to make this a grand collection, or to see it completed. I follow Borges’ modest dictum when it comes to this project: “I write for my friends, and to pass the time.”

The essays sometimes take their departure from other works of literature: the initial example, My Father’s Axe, does just that, sharing ideas with Gary Snyder’s poem “Axe Handles.”

The circle of interests that drives Leonore Overture—splitting wood, music and performance, Eleanor, recovery from alcoholism, friendship—is of course personal. I am a music critic. I am an alcoholic, in recovery. I do split wood, avidly. My granddaughter Eleanor has certainly changed me. As have my friends.

All of these things are relevant, but in the truest sense, they are points of departure. Not inspiration. I did not “use” splitting wood, or music, or my friends and family, to try to get sober. My sobriety is important to me personally, but documenting, in these essays, any of the stages of alcoholism, or my journey toward sobriety—that does not interest me. 

I find sobriety a multifaceted situation, and think of it in the way that Keats described Negative Capability. Or rather, I understand there is no accumulation. Although it has been years since I had a drink, I know my sobriety has lasted one day. Today. Same for tomorrow. One and one and one, and so forth, adding up to zero.

Eleanor (Leonore here) similarly, serves more as an abstract notion in these essays. The audience, if you like. About the time her mother Emily was born I wrote a book of poems, Songs for A Daughter, with Emily as the audience. I think of this the same way. These essays are not about Eleanor, nor do they describe her own life, except where the anecdotes further the ideas. But in writing them I understand something new about us.

I am a classical music critic by profession, but these essays will serve in no way as musicological discussions. Repeated concert-going, and the language and physical experience of live performance, hold a greater relevance to these essays than scholarly explorations of the movement order in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, for example.

Music may serve, in these essays, a similar function for me as mythology does for Camus in L’Eté. Prométhée aux Enfers has little to do with Prometheus, or with hell, but their presence observes carefully over the author’s shoulders.

If any of the five points of departure for these essays bears a greater weight, it would be splitting wood. I am no expert in trees, in wood-burning stoves, or in tools. But an avid participant in the experience. During the course of writing some early essays, I shared some thoughts with a pianist friend. He said, “Splitting wood brings people together.” That sums up many things about Leonore Overture. 

I have split wood over the course of many years in many different circumstances: to heat a drafty shack of a house; out in the New Hampshire woods on my friend Alan’s property, to enjoy the outdoors and add to his woodpile; in my own back yard, harvesting from a small patch of Cape Ann woodlands. Right now I sit on a bench, near my own wood pile, trying to figure out these words, but also trying to figure out which oaks and maples to harvest and split for next winter.

These five points of departure do describe a circle, but if these essays are successful, they are not about any of these things. They describe a circle; sometimes I stand in it, sometimes outside it. I’m striving not to make these essays personal, but expansive. That’s the beauty I find in Camus’ essays. I have no interest in memoir, and doubt anyone else would either.

My Father’s Axe

My Father’s Axe