January 4, 2006 at 7:00 PMIt was around two weeks ago that I found myself on the steps of St. Marylebone Parish Church in London, located across the street from the Royal Academy of Music. I plopped down, staring at the Academy’s locked front doors, sick with frustration and a sense of loss I find hard to explain. Closed for the holidays, the sign on the doors had read. For the next twelve days, starting that day, through January 2nd, the day of my return to California.
I’d intended to visit the RAM the afternoon before, as soon as my family and I arrived in London. My sister’s flat, where we were staying for a week, was just a ten-minute walk from Marylebone Street. Perfect, I’d thought. Just enough time to drop off the bags, run to the RAM and check out the York Gate Collections as well before it all closed up. But then the porter at my sister’s building informed me the RAM was on the far end of Marylebone Road. It was almost 4:30pm, and rush hour, to boot. Even in a taxi, the porter said, I probably wouldn’t make it before 5:00pm. I decided to wait until the next morning.
But we all know what I found the next morning. So all I could do was peer inside the barred glass doors, walk the periphery of the building and take a few snapshots. Then I crossed the street and sat on the chilly stone steps of St. Marylebone Church, feeling a great lump rise in my throat.
I suppose I should back up a bit and explain. My interest wasn’t simply the longings of a beginning violin student and classical music enthusiast wanting to check out a great institution. In truth, this felt more like chasing down a ghost—going to the source of something that’s been haunting me. I blame it all on this character I’ve created for my novel-in-progress. She’s a violinist, an orchestral soloist who studied at the RAM. I’m not sure if there’s a parallel in the violin world for this obsession that descends upon you when you’re deep in the artistic process. The best I can liken it to is being a teenager with a hopeless, irrevocable crush on an actor or musician. You dream about them, you can’t stop thinking about them, you seek out any information you can about them. Being close to anything or any place they were in gives you a visceral thrill. (I’ll admit it—this is the real reason I picked up the violin for the first time six months ago.)
Yes, I’m aware this is a fictional character I’m pining after. This longing, oddly akin to grief, makes little sense, even to me. But in a way, it reminds me of the soul-stirring feeling I get when I listen to a recording/performance of some really good music. It opens up something deep inside me and makes me feel both elated and full of some nameless pain, all at the same time. It makes me want to reach for my violin and head off in pursuit of the same destination, as if it were some mystery I could solve if I worked hard enough at it (like… decades).
Does anyone else feel like that when they play or hear the violin? Like you’re chasing something eternal, divine, so breathtakingly perfect and sweet that as you get closer to it, you can’t help but feel your throat tighten and tears sting your eyes? You might sense you’re getting closer, but in the end, you always come up against a sort of glass wall that eternally separates the mortal world from the divine. These kind of feelings haunt me so much. So there I sat, on the steps of St. Marylebone Church, seeing the RAM in front of me, wanting so desperately to get inside, as if the halls might whisper their secrets to me; as if I might catch a glimpse of my character. So close and yet so far.
Now I’m back in California, with Europe, London and the RAM far behind. The memories of the trip are sweet and yet they sting—I’m never ready to say goodbye to Europe, to its wonderfully old architecture and sense of history and spirit. At least now I can return to my writing practice and then go pick up my violin, which I lugged with me to London in spite of my husband’s protests. I like to think it picked up some of that European soulfulness.
I’ll close with a request. If you’ve been to the RAM (or a similar European institution), as a student or simply as a visitor, and can remember a specific detail, I’d love to hear it. It could be something about the high-ceilinged practice rooms or the way the radiators clanked, or the chilly hallways where you could hear the wind whistle in a mournful way. Or maybe it was the warm, steamy, bright pub/café that was located two blocks away where everyone congregated at the end of the day. Or the tutoring sessions. Group chamber music classes. Exams. The teachers/professors/tutors (anyone know what the RAM term most often used?). The tiny details are what I hunger for – the general stuff I can find in books, brochures, on the Internet, etc. And to any of you lucky enough to live in London or Paris -- let me know if you see my character walking around. Tell her I was looking for her.
But many thanks, you two, for your nice words. Makes me feel like I wasn't just rambling out into a void.
Writing and making art and making music all feel the same to me. They are all part of the same magical process of losing yourself in something beyond yourself, in something of great potential and beauty. I don't often have that glass wall kind of feeling, except when I'm THINKING about it all afterwards. I do go through "hopeless" periods every month or two where I think that I can't stand how much I suck at making music. Usually though, when I'm actually playing, I am connected to the real thing, regardless of how halting or rough my own technique/tone/interpretationetc is. I also play a lot with other people, and music is the amazing thing that happens between the musicians.
I'm so sorry that I can't help you with your RAM details search. If your characters are actually there in any scenes, it's probably necessary to know some of the details (though I know your reason for wanting to know goes beyond just that). I could help with other places (the Alhambra, freshman dorms at Harvard, the shores of Lake Superior). Good luck.
And you write beautifully, as well!
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