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It dawned on me the other day that the piano pieces I play now, I actually learned in 5th and 6th grade. Twenty three years ago I deciphered the notes, rhythms, intonation, but the process of inbuing the composition with content has been ongoing. Some of the works, like Tchaikovsky’s “October,” are still alluring and mysterious, but already, somewhat familiar on a personal level. Having this sense of mutual understanding today between me and the composer, I cannot help but look back on the twelve-year-old self, and, by extension, on my twelve-year-old daughter, and wonder what content I could have possibly filled the music with then.

The first chords of October ring ponderously, dripping foggy precipitation from smoldering autumn leaves. This was my filling, I recall – the melodiously dying, decaying foliage that lives in my marrow and under arm pits, as a child of St.Petersburg. A scuttling squirrel, a chance boletus. Sweet sadness, the end of the line, a natural terminus that comes before the big sleep. Yes, there are some questions posed by the melody lines, some answers, even, but as a child, you don’t know what you don’t know. Even – you don’t suspect that you don’t know it.

I do wonder now how children are able to play adult music with feeling. As my daughter chomps down indelicately on familiar motifs, I wail in exasperation, “For the love of all that’s holy, you’re not chopping down trees here! You are telling the story of love and loss and trouble and deep gratitude and mirth. Can’t you at least imitate emotion?!”   But she cannot help that she is asked to tell another’s story; she has no experience of her own to draw on. And what the child prodigies can do is feasible only because…well…they’re prodigies. Their capacity and ability must extend to an emotional intelligence far ahead of their years. Or perhaps, it is not even the feelings that they grasp through a powerful empathetic organ, but their ability to access a deeper truth to which truly fine art speaks. They tap into it, and are able to share it with others almost without understanding it themselves.

As I drift through another harmonic idea in the second movement, it tickles me to think of Tchaikovsky as a man in early middle age. Far removed in history and geography, we are still quite close epistemologically. We know the same stuff. We know. And we question. It is not a time of ecstatic exploration of one’s early 20’s, nor of resigned contemplation of the aging 60’s. It is somewhere in the middle – involved and thoughtful, comfortable with questions, thankful for a few solid facts. The conversation we can now have through Pyotr Ilych’s music is more intimate and concrete.

And so we converse. He has laid out the format of our discourse, but I provide the emphases, the exclamations, the shades of meaning; the questions. How lovely that this piece has traveled with me, lived in me, for over two decades. How much more connected to it do I feel now, at 35. A stray thought and a quick search leads me to the dates that confirm it: Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, and was commissioned to write the series of The Seasons (including October) in 1875. He was 35.


This year for the holidays we’re learning a 10-composition-long cantata in our church choir. One of the composition is a medley of Christmas favorites, including the Silent Night. Except in this version, the composers introduced several brilliant and sublime harmonies, which make the Night not quite so peaceful and pastel-colored. The sheep are not perfectly round, the minor, somewhat unresolved chords and counter-melodies seem to be asking more than stating.  The top line of the melody is the same, and the congregation, as they begin to sign along with the choir, won’t know to expect the lyrical hues and the questioning. We, the altos and the male voices will create that vibrancy and depth.

When we first read through the score, half-way through I couldn’t sing any longer, it touched me so. It seemed a more accurate rendition of the mood of so long ago: will this infant, so frail, so vulnerable, really save mankind? Will we be rescued from all of the evils that dwell within us by this little child? Now, hidden in the cocoon of intimacy with his mother, will he one day be called Emmanuel? The overtones make me see him through Mary’s eyes: the endless love of a parent, the awe and the timidity at the miracle of witnessing a new life, of witnessing the birth of the Savior.

Grisha comes up and I try to explain the ingenuity of the composers, to transmit even a bit of why this rendition of Silent Night sends me shivering and unable to hold a steady B. I mention that they are playing with everyone’s expectations, they’re innovators, I try to describe the majors and minors, and he nods – of course he knows all about them. Enthralled in the ancient mystery, I feel a thousand light years away from him. He is an atheist, I am a Christian. How can I possibly send my little beam of feeling across that vast expanse?

Wanting to hold on to the eternal, I aim for the door to the room where I can listen to the recording of the composition. This is a rare moment when I want to feel close to Him rather than him. But, there is a pile of dishes and, succumbing to the inevitable, I stop short and we tackle Sisyphus’ mount together. As I soap up and he brings the remnants from the table, Gri picks up, “You know, there’s an entire school of thought in the Philosophy of Music about major and minor tonalities and about how they’re supposed to make you feel. It turns out, it is not a gut feeling you have from birth – you are trained into reacting to certain sounds a certain way…” Yeah, our reaction to it is imprinted on our collective, western consciousness, I respond. He goes on: “And once you’ve identified that certain way that you’re “supposed” to react, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and starts to play with that expectation. And then someone bends the rules further, and still further, until finally you’ve so completely neglected the way things ought, that you’re in a universe of your own. You get someone like Berg…”

Somewhat disgruntled, still, by being stuck washing the dishes while the Divine calls, I retort that I don’t see how this is a unique thought. What other option is there? That’s how all the arts evolve: you get a status quo, then there’s a renegade, then the nouveau is slowly accepted and then it becomes the new traditional. It’s a matter of exploration, Grisha suggests. Innovators in music explore alternative ways that emotions can be superimposed on sounds. Feeling like I am about to sink into the logic the way the spoons and forks are sinking into the pot of watered-down ex-macaroni and cheese, I remain silent. He senses that I am not into a philosophical discussion. I explain, that I, for one, am having trouble fathoming how talks of the philosophy of music can be superimposed onto myself, standing there up to the elbow in cold orange gloop.

He sighs. Well, that is a fair question. Thinking a little, he adds, “But that’s the big question of life, isn’t it: We’re up to our elbows in shit, and we have to rise above it, still have to think about the Beautiful and the Sublime. We have to learn be greater than our circumstances…In a way, that’s what life is all about…”

Save for the clink-clink of the forks and spoons, the evening is quiet. We ruminate on things unsaid. Outside it is night. I am silent, he hums a familiar, Christmas favorite.

The first time we went there the air conditioning in our car didn’t work, and the driver’s window was broken. It wouldn’t hold in place, and so we had it propped shut with a piece of a wooden railroad which fit perfectly into the seam between the glass and the door-frame. But every now and then, at a speed of roughly 68 mph, the glass would start to sneakily slide down into the door and the trick was to catch it in time, before it slipped fully into oblivion. I didn’t have a GPS that first time either, so I had to make do with quickly scribbled directions on a shred of paper. It was already dark when we took off, just me and my two children, heading into the great unknown which is the Texan rural landscape.

It was okay on the highways, but eventually the wide thoroughfare was whittled down to a narrow, two-way road winding through the dark forest which extended in all directions. The kids had fallen asleep and as I drove, I lectured myself silently on my irresponsible adventure-seeking ways. The window slowly slumped into the door without my noticing it, the moist, hot October air filled the car with cicada cries and fermenting foliage smells, and at the speed of 68 miles per hour I’d peak now and then at the torn sheet, trying to decipher what Park Road I was to take next. Ten, twenty minutes passed, the darkness continued. At this rate, I thought, I can easily miss my turn and not even know it. And if I turn around and go back looking for it, I won’t know whether I’ve missed it for sure or whether I just didn’t drive far enough. And I have no reception on my phone and even if I did and I called someone they’d ask me where I was and then yell at me for being so and so…And so, I just drove on, hoping I hadn’t missed my turn yet.

Miraculously, I didn’t, and we got there. “There” being the Alabama-Couchatta Tribal lands where the Russian KSP South bards camp-out was taking place that weekend. I almost teared up in relief as I pulled up at the entrance to get my map and entry passes. A dark-haired, shaggy-bearded soulful looking middle-aged man came up and in the typical ennui-fatigued way mused in Russian, “How many?”

“Three.” I replied. He looked at the empty passenger seat and raised an eyebrow. “Me and my two kids, they’re sleep in the back..” I explained.

“What grounp are you with?”

“We’re just by ourselves…”

“Who are you staying with?” he repeated.

“Nobody – I thought maybe you could just stick us somewhere…” His ever-widening eyes were incredulous.

“How are you gonna put up your tent?” He blurted, sort of amazed and sort of pitying me.

“I can put up a tent. It’s not hard. My daughter will help…”

“These women. They don’t freeze in the cold, and they don’t burn in the fire…” He chanted in singsong a bit of a poem. When I stared at him blankly he broke into a smile, handed me the map, passes and campsite number, and added, “You need to read more Nikrasov, lady. He’s a classic…”
I grinned back and, with a “Working on it…” pulled off towards camp.

*                          *                         *                         *

Yesterday we returned from our fifth KSP South camp-out. Heading out, the car was in better shape and I had a GPS, but I hardly needed it anymore. The main players were the same: Mama, daughter and son. The latter two fell promptly asleep in the car, I drove peacefully through the impenetrable forest, and once on location, Vierra and I painlessly set up camp. I have set up the tent so many times in the dark now that I joke that if there was light, I wouldn’t know what to do with it…But with a full day at work/school, plus packing, soccer practice, and a two hour drive, there was no way we could have gotten there before nightfall.

In Russia there is a long tradition of singing songs accompanied by guitars while sitting around campfires in the wilderness. The melodies are typically not complex, but the lyrics are true poetry reflecting the lives and experiences of people of a certain generation. People of this generation (folks in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s now) love and play these songs. The tradition has been preserved, and people today, immigrants from Russia living in the States, continue writing and playing. These people are called “bards”. The places where they meet to share, sing around campfires and perform their latest work are called camp-outs, such as the KSP South one we went on last weekend. (KSP is the name of the bards organization, while “South” refers to its chapter in the South of the country.)

The camp-out takes place in a pine forest by a lovely lake about 100 miles north of Houston. Everyone camps, speakers and recorded music is forbidden (only live music, please), and children under 16 come free. A small stage is improvised among the conifers, and right at 6pm (usually more like 6:20) the singing begins. The magic happens then.

What draws me to these events is the singing – the bare, naked honest performance. Just a voice, a guitar, a melody, a poem. When professional performers sing on stage, you inevitably feel isolated from them. They have the stage presence, the back-up vocals; they are putting on a show. They are the star, and you are a fan, a face in a crowd of thousands of faces. Their personality, their being can hide behind so much up there on stage, and though you may be entertained, thrilled or even enchanted, there is no closeness, no interconnection. Here, the person on stage is the one whose kid you just helped climb off a tree. The woman singing next lent you her toothpaste this morning in the bathroom. With their unpolished, natural sound, you can trace out the inspiration, the idea, the creativity, the personality. You can tell that these people, with their voice pouring over the imperfect sound system and their weathered fingers strumming familiar chords, got up to tell you something; they want to share something with you. Mostly, they want to share themselves.

In our lives today it is so easy to hide behind our avatars and facebook updates. We can spend many days and weeks not telling anyone anything important about ourselves, about themselves. The easier it becomes not connecting with others, the more challenging the process of reaching out. And so, given a chance, would I come and see folks opening up? Sharing, giving, for free, of the things that are most important to them? The things that are really essential to us all? (Life, joy, struggle, despair, humor.) Heck yes. And that’s why I go. That’s why we come. That’s why you’ll probably catch me half a year from now, speeding at roughly 68 miles per hour down a dark, forested road towards the next KSP South camp-out.

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.”

After a long hiatus, Vierra and I hit up the climbing gym last Friday. And again, as many times before, I marveled at the fluidity and apparent ease with which experienced climbers glide across the facades of various inclinations framing the gym. Although I am not an experienced climber, I know enough to appreciate the tremendous discipline which goes into creating a continuous, smooth motion up and across the walls. Climbing, in a way, is like playing Bach: you make the difficult look effortless, the challenging feel natural. But most importantly, you express your expertise through self-control.

Once, a long time ago, my piano teacher taught me something pivotal about playing Bach (I was working on one of his many Inventions at the time). She told me not to vary the speed at which I play. No modulations. No tense slowing-downs before a resolved chord, no cathartic acceleration as the melody leads you ahead and you’ve finally muddled your way through a complicated bit and are ready to play the easier portions. From her simple, insightful advice I have come to believe that artificially varying the tempo which is supposed to be steady in a piece, is cheating.

Yes, it may generate the appropriate emotional response from your audience. But unless you’re following strict orders from The Man himself (ie. the composer), you’re copping out and betraying your own musical immaturity. You think that what is written on the page (the melody, the tempo, the harmony, the dynamics), what the composer intended and clearly showed, will not be enough. Let me clarify that I am not promoting a mechanical, robotic interpretation of a composition. Small musical nuances should and will appear in any quality reading of a musical piece. And of course a waltz by Chopin allows for much more self-expression and emotionality than the said Invention. But I am saying that as a musician grows more mature, he or she becomes more adroit at seeing the entire piece of music, of understanding the whole, complex thought and intent, and of relying more on tone, timbre, pitch and dynamics than on blatant tempo alteration to express that musical thought.

And this is exactly what happens in climbing.

An inexperienced climber does not glide. He hangs, jerks, lunges, pulls, wavers, slips, grabs, hangs, and jerks upward again. This climber is not seeing anything beyond the next handhold or foothold. Their only priority is to grab that great, big ring-shaped hold and rest there. They feel that they’re big and powerful because they can push up so high, reach the top, and do it quickly. But there is no beauty to their climb. It is a stutter, not a dance.

A seasoned climber is enthralling to behold. Their motions are rhythmic and controlled, they are always looking out and planning the next pas. The goal of the climb ceases to be the top, and becomes more a jubilant celebration of the perfect synthesis between intellect and agility. When you reach this level of climbing, you feel whole in a way that you may never have experienced before. You no longer rely on brute strength, but on thoughtful planning, foresight, balance, rhythm, and intelligence.

For instance, beginners tend to wear out their hands quickly because in places where they should be using their leg muscles to push up, they’re using their arms (and fingers, and forearms, and shoulders, and oh – the agony!) to pull up. You know that you’re moving towards intermediate when at the end of a climbing session your legs ache and your upper body is still mostly functional. Or: think about your center of gravity. While it is tempting to stick your rear way out when you’re holding on for dear life, knowledgeable climbers always keep close to the wall – this puts their center of gravity over their legs instead of straining their already agonizing hands, and provides more mobility because now you’re gripping with the side of your foot, and not your tippy-toes.

More thoughts on music here and here.

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