Tuesday, April 29, 2008

In Music and in Life

I've had this article in my email inbox for 7 years, since Aaron forwarded it to me in 2001. I still pull it out every so often, and it never fails to move and inspire me.

On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play. By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs. They wait until he is ready to play. But this time, something went wrong.

Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap - it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do. People who were there that night said later: "We figured he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage - to either find another violin or else find another string for this one." But he didn't. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again.

The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before. Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before.

When he finished, there was an awed silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done.

He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet us and then he said - not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone, "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left." What a powerful line that is. It has stayed in my mind ever since I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that is the definition of life - not just for artists but for all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on a violin of four strings, who, all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, finds himself with only three strings; so he makes music with three strings, and the music he made that night with just three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than any he had ever made before, when he had four strings. So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.

--Jack Riemer, Houston Chronicle, Feb 10, 2001

Monday, April 28, 2008

We laugh, we cry, we sing

Q once cited these to me as the three truths of life in such a casual way as to strike me as extremely profound. I recall her telling me that she was quoting Tagore, but when I questioned her about it some years later she had no recollection of saying it to me.

As promised, here is a picture of the azaleas in our front yard.

On Saturday I went to an all-day singing in York, PA. We sang in an old quaker meeting house with white walls and wooden benches, the doors and windows open on all sides to let the breeze through. It was a small singing (maybe 40 people) and the parts were a little lopsided, but it was thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. The food was abundant and delicious as always, and we sat outside on a blanket to eat. I got to lead twice, and I chose 274t and 384. I'm finding that it's the most fun to lead songs that I know by heart (which is still few) because it's easier to make eye contact with the other singers.

I spent the rest of the weekend with K&K hanging out in Baltimore. What a great city! On Friday night we wandered around Fells Point and then had dinner in a great seafood restaurant with N&J (rockfish with crab and wasabi sauce, mmm). The harbour is beautiful, and it's the last area in Baltimore that still has cobblestone streets. After dinner we had gelato then went to Tyler's to see another friend from singing play. He sang and played guitar with the country swing singer and a great fiddler, and it was so good! It made me want to go home a practice more...

I just have 2 weeks left at my internship. It's bittersweet--there's a lot of work to do before I go and I will miss my new friends very much, but I'm looking forward to being home again. Next weekend we're moving J into her new house, and I think I will stay there with her for the last 10 days before fly home.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I promise to start updating more often again!

I've been such a slacker, I know. I've just been so busy lately with many exciting things and time is passing so quickly.

On Friday night J and I hung out around home and drank and watched TV. On Saturday I had a museum day with the other interns. We saw the cinema exhibit at the Hirshhorn and the Color Fields exhibit at the American Art museum. Afterwards we came back to my place and drank and talked and watch a movie. It was fun and relaxing day.

The Hirshhorn exhibit was really interesting. It seemed as though almost half of the installations were by Canadian artists, and there was quite a variety of styles. The almost unanimous favourite was a Canadian film called "Trailer" and an easy second was an installation of a doll hanging from the wall with a projection of David Bowie's face looking around and talking as though he were talking to the people walking by. Creepy and wonderful.

On Sunday it rained and rained all day. We went to the market then relaxed and napped the rest of the day. It was the perfect Sunday.

On Monday I went with the interns to see a French ska/reggae band on the Millenium Stage at the Kennedy Centre. It was so much fun! We danced and danced and drank really cheap happy hour beer.

Tomorrow is my weekly trip to Baltimore for Sacred Harp, then on Friday I'm going back to Baltimore to spend the night and head out to PA for an all-day singing. I'm so excited, although it means I have to miss going to see Feist and Hayden play in Charlottesville. Ah well, can't do everything.

p.s. The azaleas are blooming. Pictures to come soon.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The "mountains"

Yesterday J and I went to Shenandoah National Park and hiked on the Appalachian trail. The Appalachian trail goes from Georgia to Maine, and it's got a lot of significance of some sort (which I haven't really read up yet, I just take people's word for it). The forest was beautiful, but very dead looking. It seems like spring doesn't hit the trails as quickly as it hits the woods by the road. We got milkshakes on the way home!

On Friday night I went to see the Skampa Quartet at the Library of Congress. I left at the intermission because the first half was really long, but the first half was great. They did Janacek's string quartet n. 1 and a collection of Moravian folk songs with an interesting singer. They are the first string quartet that I've ever seen stand for the entire performance.

The fiddling is coming along slowly, but I didn't make time to practice this weekend. This week I'll make more time.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The last week

I've been so busy (and when not busy tired) that I've sadly neglected to post for the last week. It's been wonderfully eventful though!

On Thursday I went out to Baltimore for Sacred Harp, as usual. In the first half it was quite a large group with many visitors. The second half pared down a little and I sang tenor for the first time. It was an interesting experience, and I fared much better on the unfamiliar songs because I didn't already have a part stuck in my head. I think it's a little too high for me to sing comfortably, but it was fun to really hear the melody for a change. I think I'll still keep on tenor now and again for the practice singings.

On Friday J and I went for games night at the O'Malley's. It was a small gathering of us, but it was fun. I chatted with Matthew about career stuff, and he had a lot of good insight on what sorts of jobs I might look for. He and Margaux are very similar to me in interests and it was good to hear their web design stories. Then we played Carcassonne... I love that game! I think 4 is the perfect number though, it goes a little too slow for me with 5 people. I lost, but it was still great fun.

On Saturday and Sunday I went to the Potomac River Sacred Harp Convention. It was small (no more than 120 people at any time I'd say) but powerful. There were so many good singers and good leaders and the energy was consistently high. I skipped the social on Saturday night and came home and made soup and relaxed on the front porch. I got to lead 4 songs over the weekend, and I think I led well on all of them (although when I led 335 I turned the beat around on the last repeat, but everyone went with me so it wasn't so bad. That's what I get for leading from memory. I made up for it with an awesome "three-peat" on 76 on the bottom). I've realised that I really like to lead fast songs, and this group of singers likes to sing fast. Most of the tempos were above what I'm used to, except for a handful of exceptionally slow and long songs (not my taste so much. Anything slower than walking speed is too slow for me to get into).

On Sunday night J and I started watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice again, and watched more last night. I was so wiped after the weekend that I just didn't have the energy for anything else, except for grocery shopping. I *love* Whole Foods and will miss it so much when I go home!

Yesterday at lunch I went to a lecture-demonstration at the Library of Congress with the other interns. It was on Jewish women's songs from Kerala. I'd had no idea that there was a Jewish community there, but I learned that the oldest standing synagogue, called palli in Malayalam, was built in 1553. However, there are only a couple dozen jews still living in Kerala because most of the community moved to Israel in the 1970s. The people who put on the demonstration are from a small group who are working to preserve the traditional Malayalam songs, and have produced a few CDs and books on the subject--including a book that has the transliteration of the songs in Hebrew for the young people living in Israel. It was a very interesting demonstration, and I wish I could have seen the accompanying concert!

Today I have more fiddle practice planned. I've started gathering a compilation of Folkways fiddle recordings for myself so that I can learn after I go home. I've decided that I most want to learn old-timey fiddling, and Matthew introduced me to an old-timey fiddler at the farmer's market last weekend. They are planning on holding a house party when she returns from Guatemala in a couple of weeks, and hopefully my skills will be good enough by then to play a few songs!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Beaux Arts Trio

I saw the Beaux Arts Trio last night with friends from work at the Library of Congress. The concert was wonderful! I loved the Ravel trio that they did in the first half, and they came back for three encores. I felt as though it was a little excessive, but the bonus was still nice--particularly the movement from a Shostakovich trio that they did as the first encore. I have always loved chamber music... I think partly because of the intimacy of it and partly because you really get to see the performers' characters.

The concert was free, but it was a whole evening event just to get tickets. We arrived at 5:45 to line up in the lobby of the library for our free tickets, then at 6:30 someone came around and passed out numbers, telling us to come back at 7:30 for our tickets. We were numbers 12-15, so figured we'd probably get in (they reserve a certain number ahead of time through Ticketmaster, so the available tickets are from no-shows or something). We went for cheapcheap beer and chicken wings at a bar down the road, and came back at 7:30 where we sat down in a waiting room that looked like it was set up for a lecture. At 8, two ladies began calling numbers and passing out tickets. We got 2 pairs on opposite sides of the hall, but it was okay. I was on the left side, aisle, close to the stage, so I had a fantastic view.

It was a very strange experience to get into the concert, but totally worth the trouble. I think next time I'll try to reserve my tickets online though!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Music and more music

The NY Times posted some videos today about Bjork's new video, "Wanderlust". Here is an interview with her about the process. It's a 3-D video, so if you see an opportunity to watch it in 3-D, don't pass it up!

The Strathmore singing on Sunday was not spectacular; most of the people in attendance were new singers. However, my friends from work came and were nonetheless taken (at least a little) by the music. We're going to try out doing a short singing school at lunch time after we eat and try to learn a song each day we sing. I hope it goes well!

This weekend is the Potomac River Convention. I'm so excited to finally be going to a convention where I can bring food! I'm thinking cucumber salad and cookies.