Writings About Music

Batiked By An Apsara: Catharine Buchanan

Catharine Buchanan

After college, the same year I moved into Manhattan, my girlfriend introduced me to a close childhood friend of hers from Georgetown, Catharine Buchanan, who she knew as “Amy” before changing her name to “Catharine” after high school. By any name, Buchanan was startling beautiful, sensitive, and friendly.

The previous year, pianist Don Shirley had commented to me that people who were uncommonly attractive in a physical sense frequently faced a daedalean quandary because an unintentional and unconscious sexual allure and ocular intimidation often overshadowed that person’s inner self and merit. To my bewilderment, Shirley then included myself in this category believing that this element would distract people from who I really was, including the true value of my music. Concurrently, while working together at the Patelson Music House, Stephanie Vlahos also startled me by enthusing that I was substantially more handsome than most classical musicians. Stephanie is very beautiful herself, so she was likely feeling a commonality. Like many of us entering middle age, I suppose, I used to be better looking than now.

Back to the introduction: After dinner and drinks, including Catharine ordering champagne that I really couldn’t afford, we went back to Buchanan’s Lower East Side apartment because she was excited about showing her music studio to a composer.

To this day, when I remove the Indonesian batiked sarongs covering the equipment in my studio, the memory of Catharine explaining how she thoughtfully used the richly hued and patterned cloths to protect her instruments from dust washes over me unpredictably. Using the sarongs is an aesthetically pleasing and practically useful custom I forever learned from Buchanan that evening in New York City.

You see, together with reading about travails musicians face in Culture Counter Culture, horrific traumas from Madonna Ciccone’s past were in the news today, and the combination conjured the memory of Catharine. At the time we met, she had recently recorded an intricately riveting song with Ciccone that was produced by John "Jellybean" Benitiz titled Sidewalk Talk. Catharine is the lead vocalist, and Madonna sings accompanying vocals together with some of the lead. The song reached number one on the dance charts in 1984, and number eighteen on the pop charts in 1985. Listening to her rhythmically charged, natural sounding singing on the song, it is evident that Buchanan was on the threshold of a promising career.  

Some time after meeting her, Catharine moved to London, and we fell out of touch. When the news filtered in that Buchanan had perished following an operation in 2001, it was incomprehensibly tragic.

Today, I learned online that Catharine had become a florist at Claridge's, and I wonder what events led to her apparently leaving music because the only other recording that seems to exist is Love Is, a song she composed and recorded in 1988, released in Europe on Arista. Perhaps there are more recordings somewhere, together with other songs she composed.

After originally writing this, I found Love to Choose and Sharp Angel online, both composed and sung by Catharine, who also plays keyboards. Regretfully, these no longer seem to be available, but perhaps someone will be able to locate them. The songs were recorded in 1990, with producer Steven Sevenin, who also plays bass and keyboards. It sounded like both songs had not yet reached their final realizations, which is unfortunate because Catharine's songs and singing possess a unique and captivating beauty. Sharp Angel, quite unlike any song I've ever heard, includes string arrangements by Martin McCarrick.

Below is another YouTube video I did find devoted to Catharine.

Not knowing I would only see her that one night, I never had a chance to thank Catharine for the elegantly soothing and preservative decorative elements that enhance my studio, and I wonder how she navigated the challenging circumstances described by Don Shirley in her brief life. 

That evening in New York City, Catharine was an inspired and ambitious artist in her twenties swimming upstream against a world that tended not to take her seriously because she was not only too physically attractive in general, but also because she was an extremely attractive woman, where the discrimination Shirley believed in is much stronger than that for men. (I am speaking in general terms, and in no way implying that any of the collaborations mentioned here were anything but positive experiences for Catharine.)

I wish she was still here making music, afterwards gently draping one of her exquisite batiked sarongs over the keyboard she once excitedly showed me.

- Michael Robinson, October 2013, Los Angeles


© 2013 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and write (musicologist).