Dreams of Pneuma by Nicholas Windsor Howard

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 7 min.

In 2014, my multi-talented friend Nicholas Windsor Howard invited me to perform on an album he was working on. Released the following year, Dreams of Pneuma is an oneiric labyrinth of words and sounds into whose bounty of surprises I’m honored to have pitched a few ornaments.

I encourage you to lose yourself in its exploration. Here are three points of entrance, the first two of which contain my contributions to the project.

“In the Middle Time”

I play a guitar solo—or an ensemble of guitar solos—on this one (you can’t miss it, it’ll jump out at you). It was a blast to create and play, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have done some fulfilling music (of which I’m still proud) at an otherwise music-less time in my life. I’m also grateful for the slightly shy-making spotlight Nicholas throws onto my parts (the guitars really do jump out; I wish I’d had it within my means to give him a better recording to work with!).


“Magic Hands”

I sing on this one. I’m more confident guitar-in-arms than song-in-throat, but I did my best to give myself up to the spirit of the song (while assuming that if Nicholas wishes me to sing, I should sing).


“The Bell Knolls”

I don’t appear on this one but am just as excited for you to hear it.

First, I’ll excerpt, with Nicholas’s permission, an email I sent him on July 9, 2019 at 1:20am—slightly cleaned up and enhanced, not writing-wise or to avoid embarrassment, but instead with respect to citations and the historical record and for the limited patience and curiosity of readers who are or aren’t Nicholas (the latter being he on whom I aim to aim the spotlight here, though Shostakovich might be referenced one or twelve times); many (but not all) edits are in brackets:

Email begins:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:

There’s a nearly 3-hour-long opera—Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk Districtby Shostakovich (premiered 1934; banned by Stalin [see this 1936 Pravda editorial take-down, “Chaos Instead of Music,” rumored to have been written by Stalin]; called ‘pornophony’ by Prokofiev*; semi-revived in Russia 1962 [or 1963?], revised and retitled Katerina Ismailova; fully revived, unrevised with reinstated original title, by Rostropovich outside of Russia sometime after 1979; described in this 2004 Guardian article as having been planned by 26-year-old Shostakovich “as the first part of a trilogy depicting the oppression and liberation of women before, during and after the Revolution”) that has a few moments I love, and one section of music that lasts maybe 20 or 30 seconds that I absolutely cherish.

[*EDIT: I swear that when I was clinically obsessed with Shostakovich some 25 years ago, I encountered the ‘pornophony’ quip as coming from Prokofiev. It turns out it must originate with a 1935 New York Sun review, which I haven’t read, so I don’t know if ‘pornophony’ was meant harshly, though it’s appropriate (Act 1/Scene 3, like a hammer, comes unambiguously to mind). That said, I can’t be inventing the Prokofiev attribution. A Google search reveals that it shows up, formulated just as I remember it, in Slavoj Žižek & Madlen Dolar’s 2002 book Opera’s Second Death: “Prokofiev himself ironically designated Shostakovich’s Macbeth in the next step of the progress from monophony to polyphony to—’pornophony'” (page 212). Presumably, Prokofiev’s clever expression sticks to the memory better than does merely citing an article that, as far as I can tell, has been read by hardly anyone citing it. Maybe Prokofiev read it and that’s where he got the idea.]

Such moments are so rare. They’re nearly impossible to create, but sometimes they happen and sometimes someone notices. Shostakovich must have noticed the specialness of those few moments in that opera, because he included a statement of it at the end of his 8th string quartet many years later (as well as at the end of a piano reduction of an aria from the opera… that aria being one of the other parts of the opera worth homing in on… I have that piano/vocal sheet music, carried it around for years now**).

[**OOPS: On rereading, it occurs to me that it is not included in the piano reduction. Rather, I have for 20+ years held onto, through purges and moves and life mini-crises, photocopied (from the Chicago library, I believe) piano sheet music for Act 1/Scene 3, known as “Katerina Ismailova’s Aria,” to which I’d stapled at the end, from a different piano score, the music for the moment in question, which itself occurs, by the way, near the end of the opera, in Act 4 (the final act), in what I believe would be called Scene 2, titled “Stepánïc! Propustí Menyá.” I won’t further distract by linking that first-act aria here, but will say that for me the definitive rendition, with which I fell in love at age 20 during a vital period in my creative life, is sung by Galina Vishnevskaya with piano accompaniment (she’s also on record with orchestral accompaniment; I much prefer the intimacy of the former).]

Here’s the moment in question; it runs from 22:30 to 22:57:

The statement from 22:47 through 22:52 is the moment’s essence, but the setup and release that frame it are required for full impact, and to serve as a bridge into and out of the moment in a given context.

Here it is in another context, his 8th string quartet (written in 1960), fourth (and final) movement:

I heard that recording [by Kronos Quartet, Black Angels (1990)] when I was in my late teens. It changed my approach to music, changed my world view.

Here’s a better articulated [more cantabile, forceful, intense: more (yes, I’ll say it) Russian] version, by the Borodin Quartet [from this box set (2003 remaster)]:

[I love and need both renditions. I love how the wispily delicate Kronos version dares you to not notice the moment, thus emphasizing its moment-ness, while the Borodin version draws out the stand-alone, (yes again) Russian defiance-in-the-hopelessly-destructive-face-of-chaos power of the moment. While the Kronos seems to be truer to the usual sung interpretation (and, arguably, to the score, where the cello, which carries the melody, is marked dolce), the Borodin seems to speak for Katerina in a wordless format—and it doesn’t hurt that the Borodin players knew Shostakovich personally. (Resisting here the temptation to rhapsodize about what I find great about Russian string players, especially cellists.) Of course, the last thing Kronos would or should do, or that anyone would want them to do, is copy the Borodin interpretation. I love and need both.]

Shostakovich! Jump thru the window!
NYC 3/25/1949

I’d like to make a song of that melody [or, rather, to wire or thread or intercalate it into a context of my own design without insulting its moment-ness]. A collaboration with a man who didn’t “jump thru the window” (a reference to the oppression of the communist state in which he and his family [and his friends] and his music, which is full of [cryptic?] jokes against the government etc., lived [read about some of that in this 2012 Music & Politics article: “Shostakovich and the Peace Conference” by Terry Klefstad—a rabbit hole to many other books, articles, artifacts, and general discussions about the ideological oppression and manipulation of artists’ voices spun as a public good [the worst for me, aside maybe from literal physical harm done, are the sad and fearful {though a few describe these in some cases as politically cunning} public apologies by reprimanded artists promising to ‘do better’ while simultaneously praising the intellectual freedom afforded them by their censors; in Klefstad’s article, you’ll see that Shostakovich faced harsher reprimands than those suffered due to Lady MacBeth]).

I think your special moment (so far, that I’ve noticed… and noticed… and noticed) is in “The Bell Knolls.” Such a great moment.

:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:=:email ends, and: exhale.

Nicholas knows the moment I’m referring to. See if you recognize it:

Hover over this footnote to reveal: 1 .


I’m grateful to have performed on Nicholas’s album, but am most of all grateful the whole exquisite and ingenious thing exists. Continue the exploration: pour yourself into the album’s full experience by purchasing Dreams of Pneuma, which comes in an attractive CD case (lyrics and artwork), and keep an eye out for Nicholas’s other forms of storytelling (or whatever he’d call it), some of which happens to instantiate itself as fantastically (in at least two of that word’s meanings) rendered stop-motion animation: NicholasWindsorHoward.com.

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Further Reading


  1. It’s the brilliant melody carried by these haunting and existentially thought-provoking words: I can’t bear / The dead weight / I’ll make it out to be / A product of my mind / A monster of / My own design.

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