This is more a meditation on the power of music in general and how a small-town girl perceives her place within the arts, rather than an entry about classical music, violins, or violinists specifically. For that reason I hesitated a bit before posting here. But finally I said, what the heck. And to be fair, the band I'm writing about makes good use of its violinists. That can't be said for a lot of other outrageously popular contemporary music groups.
Imagine. You’re an ambitious kid from a small town. This small town’s most famous export is the inventor of fraud-proof ballot paper. The arts scene is pathetic compared to the ones in Minneapolis, Chicago, or New York. Every artist you admire – every artist you love and respect and desperately want to emulate – is from a big city, went to school in a big city, found themselves in a big city. Nobody comes here because they want to. Nobody stays here and is successful. As long as I’m here, you think to yourself, I will have no chance of making what I want to have happen, happen.
Why, then, is it so difficult to say good-bye?
As you grow older, never making the break, never quite finding the courage or the cash to move away, you struggle to choose between forging a career in the arts and embracing the family and the small-town culture that raised you. You try your best to come to terms with things, and to not be ungrateful. Because there are worse places to be.
Then, suddenly, a neighbor becomes an international superstar. He’s an alumnus of the high school your mom went to. You hear breathless rumors in the press that he shops at your grocery store. Your youth symphony rehearsals were held on the same university campus he attended. The superstar’s drummer used to play at a restaurant two blocks from your house. Thirty years ago your grandparents almost bought a house on the corner of Third and Lake…an unassuming intersection that the superstar makes famous in a Grammy-nominated song. You hear these things, and you’re heartened.
Slowly but surely, you start experimenting with shedding the insecurity. You start trusting yourself a little bit more. You think, well, if he can make it…why can’t I? You feel a tentative pride. I’m from western Wisconsin, and I’m not ashamed of it. Which isn’t to say you won’t ever leave your small town…you know you will; you know you have to, someday. But you see now, with clarity, what should have been obvious all along: your provincial background shouldn’t keep you from dreaming anything. There’s a chance that you might live happily – or at least, contentedly – ever after.
This isn’t some weird fairy tale. Bizarre as it seems, it’s a true story, and it’s mine.
The superstar in question is Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver, the genre-busting nine-member group that has fused virtuosic musicianship with elements of rock, folk, jazz, and even contemporary classical to create their own unique, wildly popular indie-rock sound. Vernon is from my hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, population 65,000, but he hasn’t given a hometown show since 2008. It turns out that earning multiple Grammy nominations, collaborating with celebrities, and embarking on sold-out international tours tend to take up a person’s time.
But this fall, Bon Iver announced they were coming home. Two hometown shows, December 12 and 13 at Zorn Arena at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. $15 for gallery seats.
“You have got to be kidding me,” I said to my laptop when I read the news. “You are kidding me.”
Nothing went the way it was supposed to in 2011, for better and for worse. Three of my family’s four cats died. I met some outrageously talented people whose kindnesses moved me to tears. I participated in some disillusioning family feuds. I went to several world-class concerts. I tentatively started coming out of the closet as an asexual (a process much more difficult – and much more liberating – than it sounds). I had the chance to take a violin lesson, my first in five years. I played a couple of solos with string orchestra. I spent a day in Minneapolis admiring the cultural diversity and then came back to Eau Claire and found out that someone I’ve known my whole life takes a perverse pleasure in employing unspeakable racial slurs. Back and forth – forth and back – lows and highs – highs and lows. The combination of the dreadful and the divine was disorienting.
In short, everything got turned upside-down. So maybe in a weird way it was fitting that I, the self-avowed classical freak, found myself closing out the year by waiting in line for an hour in the Wisconsin winter to get good seats for an indie rock group.
I went to the show with the two people I love best in the world. (…If I admitted that one of them was my mom, would I lose some cool points? … I would? Okay.) We got a bit chilly and loopy in line, and so we started a drinking game, substituting hugs for alcohol. Hug whenever you see beards, flannel, plaid, blaze orange, or a Recall Walker petition. This was a Bon Iver concert held in Wisconsin directly after deer hunting season, so as you can imagine, we spent more time embracing than not. Our game was interrupted when the line began moving forward, and moving forward very quickly. I’m used to the leisurely pace of ticket collection at classical concerts, where elderly volunteers slowly rip off stubs and then hand you programs. Nothing like that here. People were jogging along the corridors to secure the best seats. We spun up the concrete stairs and into the gallery, and got front row bleacher seats overlooking the stage.
By nine o’ clock, after the opening act (the lovely Lianne La Havas) wrapped up, the anticipation had reached a fever pitch. The electricity was just burning through the arena; it was all I could do to keep from shrieking myself hoarse with excitement…and the band hadn’t even taken the stage yet. I briefly entertained the idea of what it would be like if orchestral audiences behaved this way – screaming, stamping, hollering F*** YEAH, MAHLER!!! WOOOO! before the conductor ascends the podium. (Sacrilegious as it sounds, I now kinda want to experience this, for, as the cool kids say on Tumblr, reasons.)
Finally the band came onstage. Justin Vernon was there, and I was there, and my mom and my best friend were there, and 3497 other people were there, and we were all there, and were all there together, and in some inexplicably moving way, the fact was sacred. It felt a bit like we were at an indie rock revival: we had a wild hipster crowd of laypeople, eight virtuosic back-up apostles, and Justin Vernon as our bearded, angelic-voiced preacher. As soon as the band launched into Perth, the crowd went berserk. Right away I was so overcome by the percussion, brass, and audience thumping my sternum that I started grinning uncontrollably and tearing up like a crazy person. What a relief to be in a venue where I could react to good music however I like and not be afraid of showing it, instead of tightening up and holding it all in, as I’m forced to do during particularly thrilling bits of Shostakovich or Sibelius.
After Perth and Minnesota, WI came the gentle guitar in the entrance to Holocene. I completely and immediately lost it. This was a song that I’ve inadvertently tied up to the memory of one of my cats. She was the closest thing I’ll have to a child for a very long time – maybe ever – and her sudden death in May was the most devastating thing I’ve ever endured. Late this summer there came an afternoon when I realized, suddenly, that it was time to fold up the blanket she slept on. To steel myself, I turned on Holocene, and I did it.
And just like that, the lyrics burned into the memory, and the memory of the loss itself -
At once I knew I was not magnificent / High above the highway aisle / Jagged vacance thick with ice / And I could see for miles miles miles.
I cried that afternoon, but less than I thought I would. Less than I would have if I hadn’t had the companionship of the song and the lyrics and the voice. Of music.
I set the folded blanket down and looked out the open window. The breeze picked up. I looked beyond the trees and far away into the empty blue sky. Somehow I’d survived the loss. I might have cracked open, but, miraculously, I hadn’t broken.
“And I could see for miles miles miles,” I sang to myself – sang to the sky – and five months later, to Bon Iver.
One of the many life lessons I’ve learned this year is that genre doesn’t matter. If music is engaging, and if it touches you, it doesn’t matter what form it comes in – whether that be an hour-long violin concerto or an indie rock song with gorgeously impenetrable lyrics. And if Bon Iver is anything, especially live, it’s engaging. From the pulsating lights, to the astonishingly virtuosic bass saxophone solos, to Vernon’s oddly endearing bobbing onstage as he plays guitar…it’s all engaging, all of it.
Eventually Vernon paused for a moment to catch his breath and talk to us. I won’t use quotations since I can’t remember word-for-word what he said, but I do remember the gist of his impromptu remarks, and I always will.
Since his commercial success, he said, things have been strange. Everywhere he goes, everyone tells him how special he is. “Well, I already knew that,” he said. “My parents taught me that!” The crowd giggled. And that’s, he said, the reason he knows it’s important to stay connected with one’s geographically isolated small-town roots – to keep a sense of perspective, to remember not to rely on what “important” “big-name” people say. “Even though we do like to complain about all the sh*t that goes on in this town…” (Audience applause.) Being from a small town reminds you that we are, in fact, all small and – in the long run, no matter how successful we are – insignificant. “We’re small,” he said, “we’re small,” and he shrugged.
The last number of the night was The Wolves (Act I and II). The second portion of the song – the second act – is a line that drips again and again with desolation: “What might have been lost – what might have been lost – what might have been lost…” It’s a tradition at Bon Iver shows for the audience to sing along with the band, beginning very quietly, then getting louder and louder and louder, culminating at the end with a primordial, gut-choking, venue-wide shriek. Vernon was about to describe the tradition to us, but then suddenly he stopped short and stepped back from the mike and said, “You all know what to do.”
Yeah. We did.
The band began the song, Vernon’s voice sailing and straining and aching through the room through the first act. Then came the quiet, agonizingly insistent refrain. Sitting up high in the gallery, those five short words meant more to me than they ever had before, and probably ever will again.
What might have been lost…
The deaths of my cats – my sweet darlings – my kids…
What might have been lost…
The resulting vulnerability that cracked me open in ways I was never, ever expecting…
What might have been lost…
Having to let go of relationships that have become untenable, for heartbreakingly stupid reasons I’ll never really understand.
What might have been lost…
People I love, people I trust, telling me that I really shouldn’t do what I want – that what I want is too much to expect, too much to
hope for. That I should sit down, shut up, stay in town, settle for the status quo, and stop rocking the boat…
What might have been lost…
New faces, kind faces, dear faces, telling me the exact opposite…
What might have been lost…
Having to choose between the two paths…
What might have been lost…
The relief and agony of knowing the latter path is the inevitable one; that even more difficult good-byes lay ahead…
What might have been lost…
My own paralyzing insecurity…which maybe, in the final analysis, is the only thing holding me back.
Don’t bother me…!
Eventually I couldn’t hear my thoughts anymore. My voice became the crowd’s, and the crowd’s became mine. At the end we let out a crazy long communal cry, together.
I broke down, gutted out.
There was no encore after that. How could there be? The band took their bows. Vernon looked up at the gallery where I was sitting and waved. He couldn’t see me, but I waved back wildly with gratitude, tears staining my face.
After the show I emerged from the buzz of Zorn Arena out into the dark December night. I walked over the university footbridge to get back to the car. I glanced over the railing at the blurry lights of the city wavering in the river. I’ve lived in Eau Claire my whole life, but from this new vantage point I couldn’t recognize any of the landmarks. All I could see was their abstract, impressionistic beauty, smeared across the night, floating away in the water.
(Here's an edited version of an entry that I originally published on my professional blog.)
I’m always a sucker for a good end-of-year review. What went right, what went wrong. The highlights, the lowlights. So without further ado...
Best Readers: You, obviously. *obsequious smile*
Best Concert as Performer: Community Table, April 2011. It impressed upon me what’s really important about our art. It’s not about the repertoire or the competition or playing every note perfectly. It’s about passion and communication – saying things that can’t be said in words. Everything else is a bonus.
Worst Concert as Performer: Let’s just say I’m glad I was paid for playing this concert. Interpret that as you will.
Best Concert as Audience Member: This category was super-difficult. I had the immense honor of seeing the Minnesota Orchestra three times this year. I only reviewed two of them. But I think my favorite was actually the one concert I never wrote about – the Ravel Inside the Classics concert in Minneapolis in March. First of all, it was repertoire I’ve loved forever, and second, it was a lot of fun to hear musicians talking about it. That weekend opened so many doors for me, intellectually, emotionally, professionally... It was everything a good concert should be, and more. Possible Honorable Mention – I have tickets to one of the music world’s most coveted concerts of 2011...the final Bon Iver homecoming concert in Eau Claire tomorrow night. I have a gut instinct it will be one of the musical highlights of not just the year, but my life.
Worst Concert as Audience Member: Once again, won’t say, but the problem wasn’t actually the music, it was the snotty people around me!
Biggest Musical Regret: Not being part of an orchestra. I’m in a string orchestra, and I love that, but there...are times...that...I miss the brass and woodwinds. Okay, I said it. I won’t say it again.
Favorite Repertoire: Bach g-minor adagio. I will work on that piece until the end of my days and still not get to the bottom of it. But it’s so satisfying to try.
Favorite Impromptu Concert: A friend played some solo Bach for me on a warm breezy August afternoon. We were in the parlor of an 1880 house and the porch door was open and the birds were chirruping out the bay window. Those few moments were perfect. For the rest of my life, whenever I hear that piece, I will remember that moment in the parlor, and how the tears started draining down my face, because in that place and time there was simply nothing else left to want.
Best Remix: The Oh Long Johnson cat remix. Obviously.
Best Comment by a Conductor: ”Okay, guys, let’s get out our Jewish Christmas carols!”
Worst Comment by a Conductor: From a guest conductor, and inappropriate to reproduce here.
Best Non-Classical Group And Track: Bon Iver. I love just about every one of their songs, but... The one that was the gateway drug for me was Skinny Love. Yeah, I’m a few years behind the times. Sue me.
Best Musical Movie Scene: Actually, make that seventy years behind the times. This year I discovered Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and in particular, their dance to Night and Day. I covet Ginger’s dress, which is the single most beautiful gown I’ve ever seen.
Favorite Soundtrack: The Fountain.
Favorite Blog Entry I Wrote: This one.
Favorite Blog Entry I Transcribed: This one with Marie Hall. Her personality just shines through the pages. She was fearless.
Best Lyrics: From Bon Iver’s Holocene – And at once I knew I was not magnificent / strayed above the highway aisle / jagged vacance, thick with ice / I could see for miles, miles, miles. Those words say it all, really. They celebrate the significance of insignificance. If that makes any sense. It’s my Song of the Year already.
Most Encouraging Hometown-Related Epiphany: You can be based in Eau Claire and still take on the biggest names in music.
Best Music Blog: Inside the Classics. If I can be half as entertaining and informative as the folks over there, I’ll be a very happy blogger. Honorable mention, Emily Grossman’s thirty-day blogging project here.
Best Music Website: Well, violinist.com, always. Duh.
Best Music Book: I’m not exactly in the center of the music book biz (/understatement); everything I read is courtesy of the Internet or the library. But the best book of the year that I did get my hands on was Alex Ross’s collection of essays, Listen to This.
Most Blatantly Obvious String Instrument Dub: The violinist on Celtic Woman.
Cruellest Violin-Related Tweet: "Sherlock" co-creator, writer, and minor deity Mark Gatiss, tweeting an image of Sherlock’s violin from the filming of season 2, with a quote from Doyle about Sarasate. New season of the show starts January first! (Forgive my enthusiasm, but when you’re 22, and you’ve been a Holmesian for over half your life, "Sherlock" becomes a pretty big deal... First-rate television; everyone should watch it!)
Favorite Single Line I Wrote This Year, Taken Completely Out of Context: Everything about her was predictable: her eagerness, her enthusiasm, her obsequiousness, her obsessive thirstiness for knowledge, her conviction that classical music is a sacred art and every semi-talented practitioner of it a kind of high priest.
Best Colbert Report Duet: Technically not on the Colbert Report. Stephen’s rendition of the modern-day classic “Friday” on Jimmy Fallon’s show. It was done to raise money for arts education in public schools, which is a cause I think anyone reading this blog can get behind.
Weirdest Google Books Find: This was a very strong category; I am a magnet for vintage Google Book crazy. In the end, I can’t decide between the article about brass players going bald from 1896 or this crazy hilarious sexuality of musical instruments article from 1921.
Favorite Tumblr: Aside from mine, of course? Cough. Actually, Facepalmmozart. About half of the entries I reblog on my Tumblr come from there.
Favorite Tumblr Post from the Song of the Lark Tumblr
I can’t choose just one, so here are five.
1) Violinist, poet, salon leader, and outspoken lesbian Natalie Clifford Barney.
2) Marie Hall anticipating the rise of female conductors in 1905.
3) Portrait of Marion Osgood, writer, violinist, teacher, conductor...the list goes on and on.
4) Portrait of Leonora Jackson in a lovely Victorian room.
5) A picture of Irma Saenger-Sethe and a quotation from the Bach d-minor partita.
Best Lesson I’ve Learned: Do what you want to do as an artist. Trust your gut. If you’re good at what you do, and you have potential, then seize that potential, and don’t make excuses. Don’t let anyone keep you from doing what you want to do. If people keeping you hostage emotionally, and you decide to keep quiet about it to not upset them... You’ve lost. You’re either going to do what you want to do and have them be angry with you, or you’re not going to do what you want to do, and then you’ll get angry with them, and then they’ll get angry back. Both alternatives are painful. Incredibly painful. But the first one less so.
Thinking toward 2012...
Best Bet for Best Concert of 2012: Minnesota Orchestra and Ehnes in Brahms concerto in January 2012. Or the premiere of Judd Greenstein’s new Microcommission work for the Orchestra in March. But who knows...it may turn out that the best concert will actually be the one I have no idea is happening yet. Now that is an exciting thought!
Crazy Musical Goal That I Feel Insecure About And Will Continue To Waffle About Over The Next Several Months: Auditioning for a local orchestra.
Secret Musical Goal That I Feel More Confident About: To become semi-fluent in alto clef. Yes, I’ll admit it: I’m seventy-five percent sure I’m going to rent a viola next year. Pedagogue Edith Lynwood Winn said every violinist should be able to play viola, and I definitely think there’s some truth to that. I can’t imagine it will ever become my first instrument, though. I enjoy viola jokes too much. (And more seriously, I’m a very highung tension-prone double-jointed small person, and it remains to be seen how well I’ll take to a bigger instrument.) But in any case, I do hope to do this, and blog about the experience.
What You Can Expect From This Blog In 2012: I don’t even know what to expect on this blog in 2012! But safe to say it’ll probably include a lot more discussion about female violinists and, more broadly, the history of women in classical music, period. Because there just is not enough information out there about the wonderful women who made it possible for me and all the other ladies out there to partake in this beautiful art form.
So that's about it! All I have left to say is that I love blogging and I love my readers. Really and truly. Thank you SO MUCH for reading what I write. A very happy holiday season to you and yours.
More entries: November 2011
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