Saturday, March 26, 2011
Music and Memory, Part 20: The Matrix
Last weekend I had a visit from A.B. -- my former mentor, the most important voice teacher I've ever had, and the generous donor of my autoharp -- because he happened to have business in a Northern Appalachian town not too far from here. We went to a hippie café that is often frequented by my family because of its surprisingly good draft beer selection and the cheerful tolerance of the staff toward little children. Although our pupil-teacher relationship ended badly in the mid-nineties (he ordered me out of his studio one day when I told him his instructions were confusing me, which was really only the culmination of many months of growing tension), after a few years passed we were friends again. In my doctoral program, I studied voice with his best friend, who was on the faculty, and A.B. was a frequent audience member at my New York-area performances, as well as a thoughtful and provocative critic.
At the hippie café, I showed him the repertoire for a concert I have coming up, and we talked about it. The concert's theme is childhood, and the music includes, among other things, pieces by Charles Ives and the three "Heimweh" settings of Johannes Brahms, one of which, A.B. opined, was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful songs ever written. A.B. is one of the most brilliant musicians I know, one of the rare souls who deeply understand the elusive language of music and are able to interpret it in subtle, powerful, and nuanced ways, and, when I have the opportunity to talk music with someone like that, I'm in my supreme happy place: the place where -- to quote Brahms himself, out of context and with inappropriate self-aggrandizement -- I start to feel as if "straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God." And this makes me wonder.
It makes me wonder, because my supreme happy place -- the nirvana achieved through strenuous periods of talking about music, performing music, researching music, studying music, reading about music, teaching music -- was all I ever wanted, from childhood onward. Once I discovered classical music, it was as if a series of doors opened one upon another, and kept opening in my mind, and as if something shifted into place in my being with a loud sort of thunk. I was about eleven at the time, and from that point, the everyday, experiential world became like a dream to me. Music was what I wanted, music was my real world, and everything else was the Matrix. I think the reason I was so happy in graduate school was that the time I got to spend in Musicland exceeded the time I spent in the Matrix, and everything that I did in the Matrix served what I was striving for in Musicland.
But we are all cast out of Paradise at some point; for some of us it happens sooner, for others later. I think a clear-eyed observer of my life would see an overly-sensitive and romantic girl, who, perhaps not atypically, found a form of escape from an unstable home situation and the anxieties of daily life, in a neurotic striving toward a Bacchic transcendence that can be gained only through an Apollonian rigor. Indeed, my self-imposed work ethic superseded that of practically any singer I've ever known, but the oblivion I found in practice and study was topped by the bliss I found in being able, after many years of hard work, to make music say what I wanted, and use it to express the deepest emotions of my soul.
And of course, my allegiance to this striving, this oblivion, and this bliss turned everything else around me to shit. I can only credit the mercy of God with the fact that I'm still standing, still able to have relationships, still able to function with some degree of effectiveness as an adult. But I'm rarely, these days, in my supreme happy place, the lost paradise that Brahms's "Heimweh" songs are all about. The most beautiful and most famous of these songs, the one that A.B. praised, is the first song in the video below. The great scholar of German Lieder Eric Sams has written that in this song, called "Heimwh I" or "O wüsst ich doch den Weg züruck," Brahms "is overcome by a personal feeling that goes far deeper than the regretful words, into real tragedy."
(The text is a poem by Klaus Groth, translated here by Leonard Lehrman:
Oh, if I only knew the road back,
The dear road to childhood's land!
Oh, why did I search for happiness
And leave my mother's hand?
Oh, how I long to be at rest,
Not to be awakened by anything,
To shut my weary eyes,
With love gently surrounding!
And nothing to search for, nothing to beware of,
Only dreams, sweet and mild;
Not to notice the changes of time,
To be once more a child!
Oh, do show me the road back,
The dear road to childhood's land!
In vain I search for happiness,
Around me naught but deserted beach and sand!)
I spend most of my time in Matrixland now, where I feel like a stranger who hasn't mastered the language, and I wonder if I ever will. And what Telly notes mournfully after this classic performance with Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street -- that it will never happen again -- is true not just of all musical performance, but also, of course, of all human endeavor, and is the final response to Brahms in his fruitless quest to return to Kinderland.