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serendip

Standing in line at the French bistro, I glance nonchalantly over the employees ringing up the register, warming up croissants, making lattes. Among them, a new face – an Asian man walks to the foreground from within the kitchen, pulls at a hot tray of freshly baked breads, winces and drops it back. Clearly he is not familiar with the minutae of the work, but he acts as if he belongs there. He is probably the owner.  Nothing is predictable anymore.

I make my way towards a corner table with my chocolate croissant, pull out Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and the latest letter from grandma Larisa, and prepare to disappear into my private literary world. A man plops at a nearby table, his back to me, setting out on the table “Moscow! All You Wanted to Know” and Gramophone, the world’s authority on classical music. Devouring my croissant and gulping down the tea, I contemplate the self-sentencing isolation in which most of us live. It is time to put an end to it, I say (to myself, in my head), stop it today. So I take a last swig of Earl Grey, stand up and come towards the man with Moscow.

“Hi. I couldn’t help notice your Moscow tour book. I’m actually from Russia – are you planning to visit soon?” The man responds politely, and a pleasant, genuine conversation begins. We talk for a while, about St.Petersburg and Russian politics, about music and the love thereof, about literature, even, at which point I mention that I should probably return to my reading. As I stand up, he’s beaming and I say, “Well, it’s been nice meeting you. I’ve actually made it a point to meet interesting-looking strangers, and you’ve been the first today. I’m so glad I came up to you…” Actually, I didn’t. But wouldn’t it have been neat if I did?

Instead, I am still sitting, finishing up my tea, when the Asian man from behind the counter walks up to Moscow man, sits down facing him, and places between them a topless container with a yellowish hazy liquid.

“Do you see them? The little guys in the corner,” Asian man points, “See all the way at the bottom? They’re not so bad now, but they grow up to be pretty ugly creatures…” Moscow man responds with statistics on their growth from the internet, Asian man mentions that you can never trust those forums anyway – people’ll say anything. They start discussing water quality, stagnant vs. flowing , necessary aeration, plants inside to provide enough CO2. “…but in any case, they’re supposed to live up to 8-10 years.” Asian man concludes.

Curiosity overcoming self-consiousness, I walk up to their table and, smiling awkwardly, say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, I just couldn’t help but overhear you talking about something alive in that container, and I’ve been trying to guess what it is….” I trail off. They look at me. I look at them. It’s a freeze-frame. I back away and decide not to try that. Instead, I bury my eyes in grandma’s letter and attempt not to miss a single word.

She writes about living alone. Flowing organically from one sentence into the next, her prose talks of walking: “…which I prefer to do usually at about 1pm, after I have had my breakfast, cleaned up and gotten ready to pick up some things for dinner.  Usually when I come out, at about the same hour every day, most of the people out around me are also retirees. We stroll leisurely down the wide boulevards, understanding that at this time, the streets are ours. But several days ago I woke up late, my entire schedule had shifted and so it was past 3pm when I went outside. Everything was different. I noticed people around that are never there at 1 – young people, business people – rushing places, determined, focused. It wasn’t our place, cozy and familiar. I finished my shopping quickly and returned home. Since then, I’ve made it a point not to go out later than usual…”

Distracted by my merciless curiosity and jarred to action by an idea, I bolt out of my chair, pick up empty plate and cup, and head towards the counter as if to drop them off. On the way back, I peer with all of the laser vision I have in me to see what is in that container!! But I see nothing, and return to the letter.

The men are talking about Confucianism now: the importance of respecting your elders, the wisdom of doing all that you can while you still can. And in marriage, you cannot always hope for that perfect match, you have to find someone who is good enough, and value that. The other man replies, “I think, if you really love someone, you have to let them live to the fullest. You have to have the strength to give them the space they need. But we have that bond in common, and that part is ours, and we share it fully, together.”

Grandma continues, “I do often wonder, waking up alone, eating along, walking alone, every day alone, whether I’ve made the right decision. It is difficult, being on your own all the time…”

Moscow man picks up, “I want to overwhelm them with my generosity…”

At this point Borges chimes in, “In my view, that notion is not particularly exciting. I cannot say the same for another idea, however: the idea that the Almightly is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a yet superior (or perhaps simply necessary, albeit equal) Someone, and so on, to the End – or better yet, the Endlessness – of Time. Or perhaps cyclically.” He, of course, is talking about the imaginary writer Mir Bahadur’ Ali’s imaginary novel, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.

I am distracted again by the mystery creatures in the container. These people will up and leave, and I will never know who was in there. A young employee comes up to the Asian man and reminds him about her paycheck. That proves my conjecture about him. Moscow man gets up, wishes his friend luck with them, and heads out. Asian man picks up the container and empty coffee cup and returns behind the counter.

Borges puts his finishing touch: “I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go out for walks on the outskirts of Nimes; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.”

I pick up the book, letters and pens, and exit stage left.

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Recently I read an enlightening article about the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, and his understanding of music performance, creation and interpretation. While I cannot recount the many lucid, insightful ideas and anecdotes described and quoted there, (for that you should read the article), one idea particularly struck me. At some point Tetzlaff was describing the way Alban Berg incorporated many nuances from his personal biography into his scores. He went on to say that “the secrets embedded in Berg’s score were not intended for the listeners in the hall. They were there for the performer, whom Berg was addressing as a confidant…Interpretation should ultimately be an act of compassion.” This concept touched me deeply, and I have been ruminating on it since.

Within the fine arts, music is unique in that its generation, performance and reception involves three parties rather than two. In painting and sculpture, there is one person who comes up with the idea and executes it (the artist), and another who receives and processes it (the audience). The same can be said of writing. But in music there are three mandatory components: the composer who generates the piece, the musician who interprets it, and the audience who perceives and digests it. In a way, the audience interprets the interpretation. If you compare music-making and painting, the role of the musician in music gets broken down into various aspects, some of which are taken on by the artist, and some – by the beholder. For example, the act of interpretation or of “understanding” the intent, which falls squarely on the shoulders of the musician, is typically given to the artist who, ideally, is able to represent through the art media his or her own intention. From this breakdown many revelatory questions follow: what is the reason for creating a piece of art? Is the musician responsible for simply transmitting that reason or intent to the audience, or can he add his own flavor to the mix? Is the audience obligated to appreciate or at least to seek out the initial idea, or is it allowed to assign its own meaning to what it perceives?

If you think about the composer-musician tandem, you begin to see how intimately dependent on each other they are. It’s as if the composer has the words, but no voice to express them with, while the musician has a voice but needs the words. The composer has profound things he wants to share, but they are so personal, so complex, that only a highly skilled and attentive musician will appreciate all of the nuances. This is why his interpretation is an act of compassion. With his performance he can express to the composer his own understanding of the messages embedded in the bars of music. He can offer empathy and give voice to what has been hidden. The audience also offers a listening ear while the performer, and through him, the composer, share deeply personal things.

Poignantly then comes the realization that compassion flows both ways. An artist, a poet, a sculptor, a novelist are able to provide organization and structure to amorphous feelings and intimations of thought, both vague and transparent notions. They validate one’s experience and reveal how vastly similar and connected we are. As a poet, how many times have I met the eye of grateful listeners who finally heard, coming out of my mouth, words they themselves felt but could not adequately express? As an appreciator of music and art, have I not been flooded by relief, overwhelmed with joy, when I heard or saw something that I also felt within? Were not the pieces of art which evoked gratitude and resonance in others created with love? With immense compassion? The circle is closed then, and the creating, performing, and appreciating of art becomes one comprehensive communal experience.

Christian Tetzlaff points to this as he describes his personal encounters with music. “..That’s what the concert situation is about for me, when I am sitting in the hall and also when I am playing myself. It’s about communication – I almost want to say “communion”. As a player, you don’t really interpret anymore. You listen, together, with the audience.”

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