Saturday, April 17, 2010

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

It doesn't just happen in nature, and in T.S. Eliot, it happens in music. Musical memory--not the kind that allows you to play without music in front of you, but the other kind. The association of a sound, a combination of sounds, a timbre, or a glimmer of musical color stirs the inner senses in ways that evokes a combination of pleasure and deep sadness.

The happiest moments of my childhood were spent hearing my father practice. He would practice in the basement, early in the morning, and I would listen. There was a quality to his sound that meant everything to me: security, excitement, stability. All the elements of fatherhood where right there for me to hear. He always took care of every note, and every phrase, often practicing slowly while he walked around the room, out of rhythm.

When I was a baby he practiced the violin. When I play the violin, I know I sound nothing like the way he did when he practiced the violin, but when I play the viola I sometimes hear my father's "voice" in my sound. It was what I heard every day of my childhood from the age of five until I left home when I was 17, and it the sound that I carried with me (but could not produce) everywhere I went after that.

My childhood was (like many childhoods and for many reasons) not a happy childhood, so sometimes when I hear tinges of my father's viola sound in my viola sound, particularly when I'm playing Bach, I get overwhelmed with such a great mixture of emotions that I don't know what to do. My sad childhood memories are not event-specific; but they have a great deal to do with the way I felt about myself as a child, which was a rather general condition that only had occasional periods of relief.

This memory thing happened this morning when I decided to go from "can't" to Dont on the viola. The second Dont Caprice is a thrilling challenge on the violin, but playing it down a fifth, and on the viola is an adventure in emotional time travel for me, especially since I can now play it in tune. Hearing it under my own ear is as strong an emotional stimulant as the smell and feel of childhood books like One Morning in Maine, which I never owned, but I took out of the library again and again and again.

I suppose it is a good thing for a musician to have such a deep emotional reaction to a piece of music, but, particularly in April, when the world comes to life once again in shades of light green and lilac, it is difficult to really understand, especially when it is an etude.


Unknown said...

Your musings on how music stirs memory in such deep and rich ways reminded me of a wonderful essay on the importance of music--why it isn't entertainment but necessary for life:

(I found your blog because I was listening to recordings of Jerry Hadley this morning; I Googled his name and came across your piece from 2007. I was very moved.)
Doug Brandt
New York

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you Doug.

Ben said...

Great post, Mom.