Before it begins

Note: This was a short piece I wrote in response to the Marc-André Hamelin concert. I had seen him perform once before when I was a young girl in Canada. It was beautiful then. It’s beautiful now. 

The moments he is most proud of are when his friends come to see him in performance. They cannot tell between good or bad. They could never know that it took years of skill and technique and musicianship, but when his fingers flutter across the keys faster than the eye can follow, he can tell that they are impressed. For that, he might give himself an approving grin.

But tonight is different. Tonight, he has been given the simple and humble task of tuning Mr. Marc-André Hamelin’s piano. It is the minutes of intermission and no one will notice him. They certainly didn’t come to see him play. They didn’t drive for miles or run to catch the train to see him check if an A-flat was still an A-flat. And yet, his fingers play their part with particular care — even more so than when he’s showing off for his friends.

After all, Mr. Hamelin would know.

For these few minutes, as time washes by, the patrons will stretch their legs in the lounge and the young man will tune the piano. He knows that with this simple task, he too holds everyone’s evenings at the tips of his fingers.

Perhaps I have spent too long thinking about this, but I wonder if Mr. Hamelin was ever that young man for someone that he himself admired. I wonder if he put his ear to the hammered strings as diligently as this young man did, in order to ensure that there would be no wrong note if he could help it. A silly thought for sure, but isn’t music also about the preparation for the art? Doesn’t it also find itself grow in the moments before a key is even played?

But the bell has rung and the crowd is pulled in.

We look at the program — a Schubert sonata, one of his last. Some will know it; others will look onto page seven.

“An ominous trill on the low G-flat provides an atmosphere of suspense,” it says. So, the audience now knows that they should expect to be in suspense. They will wait for the soon-to-come “sweet parallel thirds,” hold their breaths for the “series of striking modulations” and later find themselves within “a lively tarantelladance.”

Just as the program instructed, I was ready to wade through majors and minors, bridges and dominants, with Mr. Hamelin leading me away and toward the home key. Yet from the meditation in the seconds before he began Molto Moderato to the last lift of his finger in the finale, I didn’t feel any of this.

No, when he started, I heard a young girl wandering along a trail on the outskirts of Ottawa. Every time he disturbed her calm walk with the underbelly grumble of the low G-flat trill, I saw her look back with worry to make sure her mother was still there. She was and so, the girl kept walking.

Mr. Hamelin soon reaches a sequence of repeated chords, each pressed more deeply and more vigorously into the keys. I see the young mother call for her child, warning her not to stray too far out of sight. The girl skips playfully behind a tree, peeking out once in a while to see if she’s fooled her mama.

Her mother hopes that it will always be this easy — as easy and whimsical as the switch from F major to D minor and B. As easily as Mr. Hamelin recalls the beginning in Schubert’s wandering coda, she hopes that they will always be able to return to this round around the park. Her heart shudders within this hope, but lets go so that she may enjoy the moment as it is right now. Mr. Hamelin lifts his fingers and it’s over.

Andante sostenuto, or as I’ve heard it called, the “tonally remote” section. I don’t see that either, but I do see the mother alone, her baby nested parallel to her breast. The melody seems somber and yet propelled into the momentum of a gentle rocking.

The young mother wills her newborn daughter to sleep. She traces the soft flesh of her index fingers along the baby’s temples as if pushing imaginary curls away from her daughter’s eyes. She is this moment. No one will notice what she made in this intermission of sorts. No one will know how she prepared for it and yet, she could meditate in this moment forever.

I wonder if she regrets giving up graduate school for this. To be a mother. Perhaps she does. Perhaps it shows for a bit, whenever that low G-flat trill tries to seep back in, but then it doesn’t. Instead, she thinks, everything beautiful in the world was made from scratch. Every good art was made from scratch and her art would grow. Her daughter would grow and she would be there to see it — to make it — to will it. She wonders if her daughter too will have the heart of an artist. She wonders if her daughter will have the sensibility of one — of being carried away by beauty like the tripping upper notes of the middle melody. She worries at everything that she will have to wonder. Then realizes this is something to smile about.

The music wanders in the moments before it itself begins, even in the moments before Mr. Hamelin reminds us of why we drove for miles or ran to catch that train. It finds itself within the preparation of the young man tuning the piano, of the girl on the trail and of her young mother.

The music is there.

Even before the bell rings and the crowd pulls in.

"A"

When I was thirteen years old, I spent my Saturday afternoons at a music school, drilling chord progressions and harmonies. My teacher — a classical music theorist — was Russian and an impossible romantic. He had these immovable caterpillar eyebrows and a mess of gray streaks in his hair. I imagine I was probably responsible for a few of them.

Mr. T’s classes were metronomic: fifteen minutes of pitch practice, a half hour of composition, another fifteen minutes of harmonic analysis, and an hour of history. If I was unlucky and it was the second or fourth week of the month, there’d be a practice exam at the end. But thankfully, there were seven other students in the class. Within a couple months, cheating became both systemic and systematic.

Mr. T spoke of music as this cosmic experience. Music was, he said, the voice of God. The metronome was His heartbeat and the conductor a prophet. That would make music notes the very atoms that made up the space between the fingers of Adam and those of the Divine Creator. And though Michelangelo would spend hours stuck in the strokes of different kind of art, I’m sure he'd still agree — there is no more profound communion than music. 

There’s little I can recall from Mr. T’s lesson plans — the cheating probably didn’t help — but there was this one class I remember. It was mid-November and the rain in Southern California had been uncharacteristically severe. Water pelted the wall of the classroom, the same wall that supported the back of Mr. T’s piano. And so, every note Mr. T played had this background of white noise, making every note a shudder of the pitch it should have been.

When it finally came to chord identification — during which he’d play a measure of chords and we’d break the notes down by name — even the girls with perfect pitch were having trouble. I was frustrated. He was frustrated. Everyone was frustrated.  Why was learning this important? Wasn’t music a feeling — an out of body experience, driven by heartbreak and heartmake and what feels right? Certainly, the calculations aren’t what make people cry or what make people remember their first loves.

Mr. T could have said a lot of things. As we now know, there is a science to musical composition. Even today, there’s a theory that the majority of pop music that millennials listen to is based on a string of eighth notes alternating between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, typically starting on the fifth — the “whoop,” as it’s called.

Instead, he quietened, as if retreating into himself now that he’d lost his students. He crumpled behind the keyboard — hands in his lap, eyes on the ivory — and breathed in. It was the same breath I’ve seen pianists start with at the beginning of concerts — a breath that could dim the din of an entire hall of concertgoers.

He lifted his right hand and played a single note.

A.

With only his index finger, he picked A, the middle white one that’s busy being hugged by the two black keys above it.

Then again, he played an A, this time sustaining it. AAAAAAAAA. He turned, goofy smile and all, eyebrows still hanging out where they were.

“They say,” he said, “that Verdi’s A is the fundamental pitch of the universe.” He claimed that mathematically, it was the sound at which the universe rang.

Verdi’s A clocks out at 432 Hertz — about eight Hertz below the 440 to which the concert piano is typically tuned. It’s been said that this frequency has magical, cosmic powers of healing because the purity of its tone manages to tune into some part of our human consciousness. Historically, fiction has sported the idea that ancient instruments like Tibetan bowls and Pythagoras’ monochord used 432 Hertz as their base pitch. There’s even a rumor, Mr. T told us, that Mozart tuned all of his pieces to 432 Hz.

                                                                        ***

Years have passed since I heard Mr. T wax and wane about the virtues of Verdi’s A — and over time, I’ve had to discount many of his idealistic lectures and factoids as little more than the musings of a man with his fingers on the keys and his eyes on the stars. 

But perhaps there is something otherworldly about a good song, whether it’s Schubert’s last sonata or Miley Cyrus’ Party in the USA. Almost all of my best moments have had a soundtrack amping me up — graduation, birthdays, first dates. Sometimes, my parents even joke that my middle name, Viola, comes from the instrument to which I was conceived. 

So, maybe it isn’t arrogance to think that music is man’s conversation with a higher power. And maybe it isn’t frivolous for man to try to project math onto this divine dialogue. Were it the case for music, shouldn't mathematics and physics be considered a product of His hand as well?

And perhaps it’s that we think, if we play that A long enough, loud enough and sincerely enough, we’ll remember what it used to be like in the gardens of Eden.