It has not been a good month. Unless you’ve been locked in a practice room for the last few weeks, you’ve heard about the acrimonious budget battle in my home state of Wisconsin. It’s becoming harder and harder to avoid the bitter partisanship and gridlock the situation is engendering. And it's not going to get any better; we're gearing up for a long fight in the national spotlight, funded by national interests, that will include a year or more worth of recall elections. Then came the massive quake and tsunami… It’s becoming increasingly difficult to shake the stress off, especially in a 24/7 news cycle, when it’s easy to feel irresponsible for not following these important stories as they develop hour by hour.
A couple nights ago my Internet connection died as I was vacillating between searching for "Wisconsin protests" and "Japan earthquake." In times like these, Google News is a drug, and I'm an addict. "Just one more story," I'll tell myself. Twenty later, I'll wonder where the time has gone. I tried several times to re-set the connection, to no avail. Finally I just gave up. I had half an hour before bed and was too tired to practice, so I brought out my mp3 player and laid down on the couch and gave permission to myself to stop being so agonizingly well-informed about events I have absolutely no control over. My player doesn’t have a lot of room on it, so I've only transferred bits and pieces of my extensive music collection onto it, and what's there really has no rhyme or reason to it (as you'll see).
The first piece was the Romance by Amy Beach for violin and piano. I love all sorts and styles of music, but my favorite pieces are invariably from the Victorian era. Bonus points if they can be dismissed as sentimental. This piece by Amy Beach - written for and premiered by the pioneering nineteenth-century American violinist Maud Powell - is charming, delicate, heart-warming, and...sentimental. Unabashedly sentimental, in fact. I’ve read through the sheet music a few times, but listening to this recording made me remember all over again how I need to get this piece up to a performable standard ASAP. I know plenty of audiences who would just lap it up, and for good reason.
The second selection was Bittersweet, a piece for piano and cello by Jim Brickman. This is a track that I gorged on in middle school, back in the days before I was a hundred percent on board the classical train. I loved it so much it actually became the theme tune for a novel I thought I was writing. Middle school was not a particularly happy time for me; I remember too well the insurmountable feelings of isolation. Every night after my schoolwork was done, I would retreat into the back room and turn on this piece and write. The novel never panned out, but I'll always be thankful for the escape that creating something - even something unfinished - gave me. Unfortunately, since I started taking the violin more seriously, I’ve abandoned a lot of this so-called “new age” music, and I’m not exactly sure why. Resolution: fix this.
The third track? Charlene (I’m Right Behind You), as sung by Stephen Colbert on his show The Colbert Report. I love Stephen Colbert. He’s hilarious, whip-smart, hilarious, classy, hilarious, wicked, hilarious, and also hilarious. He’s a talented amateur singer, and his show has featured memorable duets with musical figures as diverse as Alicia Keys, Willie Nelson, and Tony Bennett. I think that Charlene might have been his first time singing on the show. The song is a parody of eighties bands, and you can’t help but giggle seeing straight-laced satirist Stephen Colbert sporting fluffy hair and grooving away on the roof of his studio, belting out some very creepy lyrics directed to his character's unrequited love Charlene (Every time I see you, I think of you / every time I’m near you, I think of you / I think of you when I dream of you when I’m taking pictures of you! / I think of you when I’m in a blimp looking down from up above you!). This song brought a great big unexpected grin to my face. It also reminded me of one of my favorite quotes of all time, from the great Mr. Colbert himself in a rare out-of-character moment - “Not living in fear is a great gift, because certainly these days we do it so much. And do you know what I like about comedy? You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time - of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.” If you're laughing, I defy you to be afraid. That wisdom means a lot coming from Stephen Colbert, who has endured losses most of us can only begin to imagine. Dude's onto something.
The fourth piece on the playlist was Clair de Lune, by Debussy, as performed by Oistrakh. One of the greatest recordings ever. It doesn't need any words to describe it. Just go listen to it. I’ll wait.
The fifth piece was the Carnival Overture, by Dvorak. The night I first heard this overture, I was invited to an after-party by a student of Oistrakh's. Ever since it has been an anthem to remind me that wild, ridiculously wonderful things are indeed possible, especially in the world of classical music. For all its reputation of elitism and snobbery, its greatest practitioners are (usually) surprisingly affable and eager to talk with people who appreciate their work. Try going to a concert of the greatest country music singers or rappers - talk to them afterward (if you can get within shouting distance of them) - and see if they invite you to an after-party. Yeah. Good luck with that.
The last piece I was able to listen to before it was time for bed was John Boswell's piano piece Leaf Dream. Another relic from my “new age” period in middle school… Once again: why did I ever give this style up? While pondering the question, I realized that this song has a repeating bass line throughout its entire seven and a half minutes - it’s a ground bass, just like what I’ve studied in theory, and just like what's found in a variety of famous classical pieces. The two styles aren't that far apart at all. According to Alex Ross in his book Listen To This -
In Vienna, in 1928, Gershwin met his idol, Alban Berg, who had the Kolisch Quartet play him the “Lyric Suite.” Gershwin then sat down at the piano, but hesitated, wondering aloud whether he was worthy of the occasion. “Mr. Gershwin,” Berg said sternly, “music is music.”
Berg had it right. I’m going to remember that from here on out. Music is music, and I'm going to enjoy as many styles and genres as I can, and not rule out anything.
I came away from the listening session recalibrated. Music, and all of the memories sewn into it, has the capacity to heal, strengthen, brighten. It's more powerful than we'll ever be able to understand. Aren't we blessed to have this form of release in our lives?
Thoughts and prayers to all those affected by the earthquake and tsunami and whatever else may come to pass. May everyone who could use music in this time of need find it. And may those of us not directly affected by the disaster occasionally take a moment or two to step back, acknowledge our own powerlessness, and not be held hostage to the emotionally manipulative nature of the 24/7 news cycle.
More entries: February 2011
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings
Violinist.com Summer Music Programs Directory
ARIA International Summer Academy
Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine