Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Music and Memory, Part 33: The Key-Flower

I was thinking today about a man I dated for much longer than was reasonable, because it is his birthday. The last time I saw him was from the window of a bus going up Madison Avenue about ten years ago. On that day, as I was gazing idly out of the window on my way uptown, I happened to see him, my former love, driving a pedicab against traffic and hand-signaling a left turn with a vaudevillian flourish. After my first son was born, I mentioned to a new friend with a same-aged baby that I had once dated a pedicab driver, and she told me later that my revelation had shocked her. Since I'd done a lot of worse things, I wondered why.

I suppose it was because I was a serious classical musician, at that time pursuing my doctorate in music, writing my dissertation, teaching in the music department of one of the four-year colleges of the City University of New York, and gigging out. I was also, by then, a married mother, living in the Bronx in a leafy working-class neighborhood with freestanding houses and well-gardened postage-stamp yards. On the face of it, I must have seemed a nice hardworking girl, and nice hardworking girls, one would think, don't date scruffy downwardly-mobile alternative-transportation fanatics, nor, moreover, those whose lives are foundering in the mire of extreme past trauma (sexual abuse at the hands of a close relative from the age of five; drug abuse from the age of nine; and all this in a nice middle-class family from New Jersey). In short, intellectual women who spend the better part of their time, talent, and treasure pursuing an elite art are somehow inoculated by their specialness from slumming it with losers, except in novels in which their characters are inevitably doomed, or unless, in real life, they are convinced that they possess some salvific power that will make everything all right.

In other words, it's really not that shocking. How many of us striving women haven't thought we could save a hapless man?  And how many of us haven't thought, too, that, through our special abilities, we could even somehow save ourselves? Although classical music is not exactly the same thing as drug abuse or wanton sex, its relentless pursuit, for some of us, promises a similar sort of escapist release. I have known other musicians who became excellent rather incidentally in the course of running like hell from a troubled past. There was the wonderful tenor whose father had systematically violated every child in the family, and another male singer to whom dark things had been done in his poor Appalachian childhood, who remains to this day one of the greatest musicians I've ever had the good fortune to know. There was the soprano fleeing from an abusive marriage who brought her baby to her classes at the conservatory and later became the chair of a well-regarded university voice program. And I often ponder the preponderance of gay men in our profession. I have no idea how much of gayness is nature and how much nurture, but I do believe that there is a compulsion toward purification in the pursuit of great music: while it generally doesn't work out that way, the urge to cleanse oneself of one's sins through sustained hard work and an ascetic life focussed on high art cannot have been particular just to me.

My great voice teacher and mentor A.B. once told me a fable in which a shepherd idly picks a flower, whereupon a cleft in the hills opens to reveal a hidden vaulted treasure-room, its coffers open and overflowing. The amazed shepherd goes from one treasure-chest to the next, filling his pockets with gems and coins and ropes of pearls, while all the while an angel hovers near him, exhorting him: "Don't forget the best! Don't forget the best!" Finally he can carry no more, so he makes ready to leave, planning to return with a wheelbarrow. "Don't forget the best!" the angel whispers again in his ear. The shepherd looks about wildly, trying to find a jewel more precious or a coin more brilliant than those with which his pockets are already bulging. Finally, in confusion, he gives up and stumbles out into the daylight. The treasure-room disappears, and the cleft in the hills closes over it as if it had never been. And he realizes with despair that he has forgotten the best: he has left the key-flower behind, the simple flower he plucked that had opened all the treasures of the mountain to him.

Things get so complicated, so labyrinthine, when you try to make something out of something else, to do something with that something else that it cannot do, that it was not ever meant to do. Art cannot be salvific -- though how very, very close it seems at times. Music is still for me the elusive sacred tongue, the holy language which, when I hear a few words of it spoken here in exile, pierces my heart like a dagger. It is the language whose words at once cut to the quick and heal. It is the key-flower I search for in my memory, which will unlock the riches of the history of the human spirit. It is medicine and elixir. But perhaps it is none of those. Perhaps it should never have been any of those at all.

Nevertheless, if my own great pain and the pain of so many of my colleagues had not driven us to seek its solace and transformation, we would have been fortunate to find ourselves driving pedicabs against traffic down Madison Avenue.