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In honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day, this is the first in a series of four stories about the four generations of women in my family. 

Mosaic

The old mosaic factory is located at 2A, 3rd Lane, Vassilievsky Island in St.Petersburg, Russia. It is a formidable, mustard-colored structure which, even in its run-down and decrepit state, is still imposing. In its heyday, it generated enough glass to line the entire St.Isaac Cathedral, and later provided the mosaic to decorate several key metro stations in St.Petersburg. As it stands now, the graffitied walls facing inside the Academichesky Garden harken to better days, in the early 20th century, when the factory was at its peak operation.

Twenty five years ago, already languishing from disuse, the factory observed with bemusement the children playing in the sand box nearby, and watched as two little girls would pick their way through the piles of sand and debris that now occupied its back yard, in search of shiny, sleek pieces of colorful glass. Those girls, Liza and I, walked in the garden with our mama, and relished the chance to poke around behind the factory. The excitement of that pursuit is as pungent within me now as fresh paint on a bench or a railing. Within the dusty, trodden earth and grit, we would rummage with our sticks or fingers, pricking them sometimes on that distinguishable, rough edge where bit of stone met bit of glass; colored pieces of it – striped, aquamarine blue, cosmic black, even lipstick red or lava orange.

The mosaic left-overs were the treasure of all treasures, the highlight of our day. Yes, there was the thrill of the hunt, but more than that was the thrill of possibility. Locked inside those little squares were ornate sand castles, flying carpets for miniature plastic toys, bargaining chips to obtain other desirables from the obstinate sister, and pretties to add to our own mosaic collection (all secure in our coat pocket).

Looking back, the mosaic factory on 3rd Lane planted a seed in Liza: a fascination with colored glass which blossomed, decades later, into a near-obsession with stained glass windows. Liza learned to make them, treat them, design and mold them. In a way, they molded her too.

One day, after doing our rounds over the familiar mounds, mama and Liza and I headed towards the other end of the garden, flanked by a building belonging to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. There was an outside stairwell heading down into the basement, and above it a low, slanted sheet-metal roof that, when climbed, provided access to the high windows of the first floor. Naturally, I clambered up on that roof and peeked inside. Inside, expanding below the ground level and up into the high, vaulted ceilings was a sculpting studio.

Transfixed by the majesty of large-scale wooden carcasses, drying clay torsos and busts on pedestals, I squished my nose against the glass and stared. Shortly I caught the eye of a young sculptor massaging a great hulk of sculpting potential. He smiled and waved at me. Timidly, I waved back. He winked and beckoned me to come visit. I turned to mama and told her that there’s a man inside who’s inviting us to go in. Since she couldn’t even see into the studio, she was curious to know what was in there, so, with two girls in tow, she walked around the back of the building and we showed ourselves in.

The sculptor had black, thick curly hair and muscular hands that he wiped on his apron before introducing himself. We were all wide eyes and eager ears, and he was a gracious host who told the three of us about what they do there, and how sculpting works. For larger pieces you first have to make a skeleton that you will then stick the clay on. For smaller pieces, you can mount them on a heavy board and shape them with your fingers, but sometimes you have to carve out the interior, if it’s a head, for example, because then the firing will be quicker and smoother. If you’re working with a harder medium like bronze, you have to create a mold first. To do this you make the object out of wax, then encase it in clay which should harden, then you melt the wax out of the clay and pour in the bronze, and finally, once the bronze cools off, you break the mold and you have the finished piece. This he told us, and much more in the half an hour or so that we spent, mesmerized, in the studio.

Eventually it was time to go, and we promised to come back and visit him, though we never did. Shortly after, we moved to a different part of town, and then to America, and I have not often visited that alleyway of my memory. But I do think of it now, and realize that the mosaic factory and the unexpected, chance encounter with the sculptor planted in me the relentless drive to look for the sacred among the profane. And over the years, that search has always yielded results; the profane has been  generous with me.

 

There is this book. It’s called Hearing and Writing Music: Professional Training for Today’s Musician (2nd Edition). Anastacia, if you’re reading this, I highly recommend. This opens entirely new dimensions, and so unassumingly. I got stuck on one of the first sections, dedicated to Resonance, and can’t seem to move forward. I just want to stay there, in Resonance, for ever.

Ron Gorow, the author of the book, writes this, “Every human recognizes the harmony that is a product of natural resonance. The human body responds sympathetically, so we actually feel music physically as well as emotionally. This simple fact, this gift of nature, provides pleasure when listening to music.”

Each instrument matches the sound vibrations of the tones produced, thereby enhancing and enriching the auditory experience. The way I understand it, the human body, as a receptor of sound, or a producer of it, vibrates as well. When we perceive sound vibrations, our body physically vibrates, “responding sympathetically”, and we experience a real, physical pleasure as the music literally moves through us.

I would venture to say that perfect resonance is achieved when a human voice sings with other voices, when the bodies vibrate at the same rate.

Gorow goes on to say, “Anyone who has played in an orchestra or sung in a choir has experienced the thrilling sensation of resonance. It is not only auditory; it is felt through the entire body…” As someone who’s been fortunate to have done both, I can attest to that claim. There’s nothing more powerful than blasting on your violin Mendelssohn’s Elijah, or bellowing out Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Your feel it in your gut. Your hands begin to shake. You sort of want to cry.

Still, if there is one musical dream I hold fast to, it is to be able to sing in a choir Rachmaninoff’s Vespers.

When those voices sound sublime and surreal out of the mire of mundane tedium, you are lifted up and your breath is cut short. You feel as if something divine is moving through you, in you, as you sing along, resonating with the unseen voices surrounding you. It is both physical and metaphysical, tangible and spiritual. It is pure good. It is joy. And I am, at these moments, overwhelmed with gratitude to God who has given us “this gift of nature”; voices with which to resonate with Him . He has given us ways in which we can experience Him even if we do not believe in him.

There is other music and art that create for me a spiritual experience: select compositions by the Russian reggae band, 5’nizza, the Christian death metal band Believer, Ella Fitzgerald, especially in combination with Louie Armstrong, and Pieter Bruegel’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap. What is the common denominator? Couldn’t tell you. I see courageous creativity, honesty, pure talent, pure heart, and something of the eternal, respectively. Of course, this is subjective. But then again, worship always is.

This will make more sense if you first read part one of my music discourse, along with this article on David Cope’s software creation, Emily Howell.

So the natural yang to the yin I proposed in the previous post is that there must be something special to the creative process. Some spark, something magical. If you imagine that the creative process is simply a mechanical detection and rearrangement of patterns, then it ceases to be exactly that – creative. We do want to believe that the creative process incorporates feeling and an attempt to describe the deepest human emotions and observations…in other words, the creative process of necessity must have that human element. Or so the argument goes.

I don’t know that I am convinced either way, but there is certainly something to be said for inspiration. I feel like I must have written about inspiration before, as it means a significant deal to me personally, but I cannot find anything specific about it except my hinting at it in this post.

Anya’s Modest Theory of Inspiration: When creating a work of art, the artist must have something that he/she wants to express. This is the message. There also must be honesty. Great art must be honest – a work that others can see/hear/experience and resonate with, because it expresses feelings and ideas that are universal. If I experience an emotion, and express it honestly through a poem, others will feel resonance and release of their emotion being expressed through my words. Because ultimately, we are all the same. This is where inspiration comes in. The appearance of a message that you desperately want to share, bonded with the near-miraculous ability to share that message in a way that touches others; this is inspiration.

Without inspiration you don’t have a truthful or meaningful piece of art. Even in pop music, you have those one-hit wonders. I would argue that this was the moment when the artist had something to say, and they sang their heart out. And the world loved them. But then, well, they were invited to continue writing, saying things, singing them, when actually, they had nothing else to say. So quickly they slipped back into oblivion.

I love the word “inspiration”. It is so revelatory. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one of the archaic definitions of “inspire” is “to infuse (as life) by breathing”. Another definition is simply “inhale”.

When God, the Creator (with a capital C), created Adam, whether literally or metaphorically, He made him from dust, from the particles of the Earth, and then He infused life into him, by breathing . God inspired Adam. Literally!!! And to me, this is the perfect representation of what the creative process really is. You take something from dust, in other words, raw materials, patterns, the underpinnings of what makes art art, and you breathe life into that matter. You are first inspired by God, and then you take that inspiration and breathe it into your work. Then your work is True. Then it says something important. And only then does it leave a lasting impression on the world.

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