An Autumn Gift of Listening
Oct 14. They say the best things in life are free. After living in Toronto and other environs, I know, of course, that is hardly the case. However, the free concert at the Operahouse is an amazing gift to the city. I try to attend several times a year and this week I had decided to hear Joseph Johnson play cello. He did Bach and Britten and it was amazing and compelling.
The amphitheater sets the scene and tone. The ceiling to floor glass windows designed by Diamond architects situates the viewer onto a scene of everyday life of buses, scurrying peeps who have no thought that they are being observed, the colours of their early fall coats dashing and weaving into a pattern of hurry. At my eye level, straight ahead if I glance above Johnson’s entranced body, there are the thick impenetrable branches of the Law Society. Now in their faded fall greenery they set the stage for thoughtful somber thoughts. Johnson also lost in deep cello reverie, eyes shut, is deeply enclosed in his music. Hisleft hand, a moving spectre,that seemed not really attached to his body, as if an alien powerfully moving up and down the instrument’s chords.
Bach is a study in patterns. Once I read a book by Douglas Hofstadter that discussed Bach, Escher and Godel, analyzing the repetition and brain patterns that all three hold in common and the commonality of their neurology. Much like Escher’s staircases that move impossibly up and down at the same time and into a variety of dimensions, Bach is a triumph of embroidering notes in an impossible didactic manner. My mother said his music drove her crazy as my father played it over and over again in his shop, maybe trying to parse the difficulty of his phrasing. Not at all mathematical, I rather enjoy it myself: clean, precise and orderly. And from the look of Glenn Gould, it suited him perfectly !
But for me, the Britten regned supreme. A third suite, the result of a bet between Shoshtakovich and Britten and written in 1971, Johnson explained that after Britten died, Shoshtakovich never played it again. It is a magical piece, so moody and diverse in techiques. Johnson explained to the audience how each part of the suite would work: the intro, the march, the canto, the flight of bug-like sounds that took him six months to learn!, the fugue, Britten’s take on the Bach piece. All intricate elements working to make the sum of the parts more incredible than each one by itself.
You listen in different ways.
I listen as I watch the artist move over his/her instrument, awed at how the left and right brain must work together while engaged in vastly different acts: the bowing and the pizzicato, co-ordinating flawlessly. When often I cannot even co-ordinate my own walking and thinking, and trip over my feet as my thoughts fly off past my bruised knees. A musician’s mastery is awe-inspiring and I reflect that it is likely that few endure Altzheimers because of the numerous synapses and connections that have formed and endured in the course of their lives. How intricately beautiful must their brains be in frozen cross sections.
I listen while looking over University Avenue at the bustle and movement that appears almost dreamlike with the music entwined but not the star in my thoughts.
But I listen best with my eyes shut and my body takes over as I sway and internalize the music that moves me on visceral and emotional levels. Some sounds replicate my breath, the in and out contractions of my lungs, other chords move up and down my spine, encouraging me to sit taller,stacking my vertebra like precarious diamonds , but then I sway further from side to side, knocking them a- Kimble. Others loaded with meaning resonating in my heart and I feel those moist droplets in the corners of my eyes.
I listen to discern what Johnson has taught us about the sections that will not be differentiated by bands of non-playing. He has asked for a group cough as silence is important to the performance of the piece. I exhale so deeply that I catch some phlegm in my throat that necessitates a quiet cough but I force myself to swallow and dissipate the need to break the quiet. I am successful. But the memory of a holocaust film where a suppressed cough choked a child almost causes me to interrupt this perfect performance.
I feel the music as greens, browns, sienas and somber tones. Once I could see music in a variety of colours called synesthesia, a real condition and I imagine Franz Marc or Kandinsky might have boasted of that sensitivity. Sadly, I no longer see the notes as verdant fluttering streams or outrageous yellows or wavelike blues or dancing reds. I wonder why I have lost that sensation, but I am glad that I am responding as I am today. The performance is reaching deep inside me and when it ends I long for it to endure; it’s not over, I silently beg, inspite of the cessation of sound. A John Cage moment where the sound of silence morphs into the sweet desire for bliss.
I feel so much, so intensely, now not with visualizations or suggestions of imagery. I experience the music and this is a revelation and something fresh for me. Johnson has taken me to a very new place because the music has pierced and invaded my entity of what I conceive of as me, a me I rather like.
Perhaps I have begun today in a moody fashion, the weather threathening rain and thoughts of autumn that naturally accompany the ideas of decay, closing down and making ends. I don’t know. We have just passed Thanksgiving and I have reflected on the many gifts I have been given.
But this gift of music is so different, so intimate, only experienced by myself alone. I feel it has been meditative for me, a time out of time where I have chased away the occasional thoughts that threathened to impose themselves on my listening. So there has been a purity and thoroughness of this free gift today, a gift that in freeing me from everyday worries has also made me sad, emotional, a vehicle for the cello’s powerful cries.
The price of this free concert is gratitude.