Return to site

The Рахманинов Journey

Go ahead and stare.

broken image

I know.

That settled, we can now talk about other reasons I've had a lifelong love affair with Rachmaninoff.

It began before I was born....

My mom loved his 18th Variation. It was in the air at home, in the amniotic fluid I swam in. I never thought about it. As far as I knew, it was everybody's Favourite Piece of Music. (Today it is not my vote for best piece of music, that goes to the Bach Cello Suites, which are infinite. But taken as an oeuvre, the full Variations on a Theme by Paganini are still my Favourite.) It was just there, like the piano, like my mother's ever-growing collection of Russian tchotchkes and Russian dictionaries and, for a while, her Russian photographer. Rachmaninoff, like the culture he was born in, was Terra Cognita in my house and did not require consideration. Just acceptance.

When I was old enough (and young enough) to like romantic movies, my mom and I watched and rewatched Somewhere in Time, in which the 18th plays a pivotal role. I cried every time. (Ok...I still cry every time.) When I was that age, I heard the Tchaikovsky sourdough-starter as the dominant note: the sweetness, the warmth, the prettiness. We all have to start somewhere.

When I was old enough to think going to Juilliard and becoming a concert pianist might be cool, I had a crush on boy who also wanted to become a concert pianist and we had a friendly rivalry. Who could be the bad-assiest player of the Rachmaninoff Preludes? We were teenagers, and Rachmaninoff's raw electric side worked well with the raw electric nature of adolescence. Besides we apparently had forty hands apiece back then, making playing all those notes no big deal. —It probably didn't hurt that the pianos were intimately tied to sex, back in boarding school. More people lost their virginity under (and possibly “against” and “on”) those pianos than I care to think about; it was because the practice rooms were the only places boarders could be alone with members of the opposite sex. I wouldn't dispense with my own for another five years but I think the pianos soaked up all those raging teenaged libidos and they came charging out in the music. Rachmaninoff put up with us and let us do it wrong so that eventually we would do it right....

I finally discovered that #18 was only one of a set of Variations that played together like a perfectly-timed story, and discovered that the whole sentence was way awesomer than the sum of its parts. They can be handled separately but the genius lies in where they take us as an unfolding drama. I took dog-eared sheet music with me to Greece and trashed it. I wanted Drama and Passion, with a side dish of Drama and Passion. I wanted to emoooote, to plunge into the depths of human experience every single time I did anything. Life was brand new and thrilling and I could still play at feeling, trying feelings on like sample sizes with no risk, and Rachmaninoff was my favourite scarlet silk dress of Drama and Passion.

I saw Shine and desperately wanted to play the Rach 3. Then life happened.

College came along. Kill the king, marry the queen, and rule the kingdom. (Ondaatje) Put away anything associated with childhood. Study ragas, gamelans, Noh, conducting, MIDI, medieval music...whatever, as long as it hadn't been at home. I soaked up music and dances from Asia and India and the Middle East and pre-Baroque music and English Christmas carols and fell in love with Ella Fitzgerald and crushed on Esa-Pekka Salonen. Rachmaninoff had been important in childhood, therefore Rachmaninoff was childish and had to be kept out of sight of the cool kids. —I compensated for the lack of his brilliantly electric, smouldering, cerebral music (with a chip on its shoulder) by pining for a brilliantly electric, smouldering, cerebral Russian (with a chip on his shoulder) while we were editing the Amherst College political journal. We had just enough of a frustrating not-quite-nonrelationship to keep me gritting my teeth. I might have done better with the Rachmaninoff. ….But college is a time when one's mental hard drive is partitioned. Most of it is allocated to sex, and one tiny piece is labelled “Everything Else.” But you have to hold down Option when you restart your brain if you want to run the Everything Else side, and it only works for a few minutes at a time....

New York! I played Rachmaninoff when no one was looking. It wasn't cool to Emote, it was cool to be hip. And I had yet to figure out that the key to Rachmaninoff is that you have to be chill in the middle while you're doing it. You have to have equanimity otherwise you ruin the music. So I left him in the corner a lot. He was too intense, too impassioned, too grand, and too full of dark corners. But hindsight tells me that actually it was not he, but rather I, to whom all these adjectives applied. I had my hands full living with myself in my early 20s! All the youthful chemicals and energy, all the artistic soul, and none of the hard-earned skills of emotional distancing and maintaining a grounded core. My speakers went up to 11, and Rachmaninoff let that come out of me and then I would feel that way more, which often was not a desirable feeling. My at-the-time mental picture of his character exacerbated my own too-muchy tendencies. So instead, I soaked up a whole culture and musical legacy that informed my return to his work. Hi, Leonard Bernstein. Hi there, Gershwin. And hi, the greatest character of them all: New York City, Centre of the Universe. An energetic nexus like none other. New York pulses to a jazz heartbeat. When I finally dragged the Rachmaninoff out of the closet, he was not the composer I had put in there originally! Where had this hipster New York jazz cat with the cool music-theory-math come from? I wanted to call him and ask, “Sergei, why do you write music like a New York hipster?” I did my homework...oh...he was a New York hipster...

That was cool, but by the time I figured that out, I couldn't play the work any more. I had switched to dabbling on the violin in my continual quest for differentiation and interesting experiences. And my focus wasn't on music anyway. I was working on becoming a hotshot theatre and film designer, in the few minutes available between chasing men. And most artistic practices adhere to the Mr. Miyagi School of Committment: “you karate yes, or you karate no. You karate guess so...squish like grape!”

Eventually I went into Nesting Mode. In retrospect it may just have been fatigue. The depression hit New York and every job I had been trained for dried up or went overseas and never came back. I stopped my second Master's studies at Columbia due to being broke. I dropped out of my karate and jiujitsu training too, because I had reached the crossroads where it was either, go for your black belt and seriously up your chances of getting your nose broken every time you come to dojo, or drop out. I couldn't get work anywhere and didn't like living off of bananas and rice paid for with change scrounged from someone else's couch. I was also way tired of Manhattan men, who knew that they could take a single nibble out of each member of an endless chorus line of incredible, beautiful, brilliant, successful, charming, sweet, Grade AAA women, and keep doing this for the rest of their lives, because there would always be more women like that pouring into New York. This exhaustion and scarcity anxiety was not conducive to Rachmaninoff. You have to bring a cool head and a solid heart to his work otherwise it explodes in your face.

I moved in with my boyfriend and turned our home into an oasis of relentless calm and tranquility. We were champion conflict avoiders. I decided I would only ever play music that matched that vibe. I wanted all oatmeal cookies and flannel pjs and no black lace lingerie and scorching glances. I wanted be a new person with a permanently quiet life (whereas the truth is that sometimes I oatmeal and sometimes I scorch). There were at least two years where I only played the Goldberg Variations and nothing else. Rachmaninoff had to go. He didn't match my new persona. He was too big, too red, too inflamed, too deep, too juicy, too...much like me....

If I had just kept him with me from the start, that might have been a home where more of me could live, instead of just the 20% I decided I would allow myself to inhabit. I can go for months without him and it's fine, but putting a self-imposed moratorium on him should have been a big red flag to myself. This guy was just one character in my wide world of music, but feeling like it wasn't ok to be the person I was in his company, in this new home, should have raised an internal alarm bell. (Ah, hindsight.) —Plus, his music would have been the aural equivalent of intentionally leaving clothes hanging from the shower rod at the beginning of a relationship: a warning flag saying, “look, this is how it is, sometimes. I need to feel like it's ok to have this in my character, and that I can let this out in an accepting environment. You can either handle it or leave.”

California. Violin at the Conservatory with an awesome teacher. Serious daily practice. Baroque, baroque, and more baroque. If it was written after 1700 I didn't want it, unless it was a fiddle tune from the British Isles, in which case bring it on. Rachmaninoff, my entire wardrobe of clothes and underwear I wore before becoming Mrs. Married, my long hair, my name, all of it was gone. I had stuffed that person into a trunk and locked it and hidden it far away, where it would never cause any trouble and I would never have to feel pain or suffer ever again.

Right. California Part 2, the transition years between being Mrs. Married and the Big New Chapter Up North. Alternating between yearning for that intoxicating combination of heavy-hitting raw meatiness, mathematical elegance, and often too being difficult to actually play; and occasionally giving in to that yearning only to step back in sorrowful regret, unable to handle the magnitude of...what? Why did life have to be such an opera? Why was this particular composer such a trigger for me? Why did he bring out that conflict between the desire to shout one aspect of myself from the mountaintops and the simultaneous need to hush that side up, make it smaller, make it easier for me to live with? ….Meanwhile I was dancing and doing bodywork and yoga and trying hard to learn from more messy painful affairs and debilitating injuries and chronic physical pain and becoming a Reiki Master and producing concerts and trying to get my work into galleries and still not finding a job and raising a small child and....

….And then one day it was absolutely fine to hear and play Rachmaninoff again and I was as at peace with him as I had been as a small child, only now with conscious awareness. I realized that the only way I had gotten there was by doing all that stuff in California Part 2. Somewhere in all that, I had rewired myself into someone who was at peace with herself and the world. I have no idea how it happened although suspect that constant daily practice probably helped, as it often does. (“Sometimes it's necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” —Edward Albee) We're chill, man. Rachmaninoff happens. He's a normal part of a balanced life diet. It's all good. Suddenly I could take him on his own merits, without worrying about whom I would become if I merged with him. Perhaps because now I could sit down at the piano and still be myself instead of turning into whomever I was playing. Which is not to say I was going to rush out and douse myself with Chopin (except for maybe one or two of his best pieces), but there was now a critical element of self-grounded distance that made a legitimate artistic discussion possible.

And, because we see things not as they are but as we are, he sounded completely different all over again! He wasn't the sweet syrupy lush romantic of my childhood, he wasn't the sexy showoff of adolescence, he wasn't the hep jazz cat of my starving-artist phase, and he wasn't the cerebral cold modernist I occasionally accused him of being once I saw through his Tchaikovsky overlay. He was...something brand new and beautiful and yet at the same time, much more familiar.

For one, I no longer heard the piano. I barely heard the composer. I heard Rachmaninoff looking at something and telling us the story of what he saw, and he was such a good storyteller, I saw the thing too, through his eyes.


By that time, I was way into vertical tastings of composers. The Rubinstein is delicious tonight. Have you tried the composer playing his own works? How do they compare? What do different recordings of the same work tell us about different artists? What do they tell us about the composer? Most importantly, what do they tell us about ourselves?

Rubinstein is my default setting because he's as warm and rich and full of heart as Itzhak Perlman (no, I have no higher superlative in this category). His version of the 18th made me fall in love with it all over again. (And yes, I still cry every single time.) He also brings a much-needed humanity and kindness to the other works, which have to be handled with soul and compassion in order to come out right.

And then there was Horowitz. He kept it real, man. His playing was the most grounded. Horowitz gave this cerebral composer legs and roots and plonked him down onto Planet Earth with the rest of us. Here was a concerto one might realistically consider sending out to pick up a gallon of milk. Horowitz nails my root chakra down and I love him for it.

Listening to Rachmaninoff playing with himself is a portal-opener. You hear a human stuck with living with an incredibly fast Pentium processor, Intel seriously inside. It must have been lonely on his planet, where all he could do was send us messages about what reality was really like for people who could just see it. But when he plays, the tonal pictures come out. The shifting colours come out. He plays a mind-rearranging spell and draws our attention to the negative space around the notes. For him in fact the compositions are mostly air, and the notes are there to hold the air and stillness together in the right shape. This is the opposite of what I thought he was when I was a teenager and assumed he was “all the notes all the time.” But it fits my atomic theory of dance (which is that dance is a whole bunch of stillness we perceive to be barely held together with a tiny bit of movement, maybe, somewhere but we can't be sure quite where), which should be universally applicable to all art forms. When Rachmaninoff plays, my usually representational mind heads over to its impressionistic and postmodernist wings, my heart-rate changes, my cranial-sacral pulse rearranges itself.... Rubinstein works a spell on my heart, Horowitz works a spell on my id, and Rachmaninoff works a spell on my mind.

And then I heard Van Cliburn....

And I realized what I wanted out of life, which is not bad for a 20-minute YouTube clip!

When Van Cliburn played, I heard light coming out of his head. He worked a spell on my spirit. More importantly, it was not the spell I would have worked myself and as such was infinitely more valuable. He was what wasn't already in me that I wanted more of. In his hands, brilliant hands, Bernstein-esque larger-than-life showman hands full of razzle-dazzle and bright stars, the sun came out. Who knew that there was sunshine in Rachmaninoff, and yet, according to Van Cliburn, it's all sun! Sparks and lasers and radiant shining and glowing and light, light everywhere. I love light! Fiat lux! I felt closest to Rubinstein and his warm human heart and identified most with his values and life philosophy. But here was this wonderful present: a different approach that was, entrancingly, equally germane and valuable. ¿Do they even make those? —Here was this terrific nutrient and I saw it and I wanted it. I realized, if I had to pare it all down, what I really wanted out of life was a warm Rubinstein heart and a luminescent Van Cliburn spirit.

Sounds like just about the best pairing ever to me too.

And so

Sometimes it takes us our whole lives to see ourselves as we are, with compassionate lucidity, with self-directed freedom, and with love. Awesome art earns its technical ranking of “awesome” by continually reflecting back to us whatever's going on in our life, a teaching mirror, a tool for self-discovery, although we don't always realize this at the time. The human spirit is a holograph, each one of us containing worlds that reflect in and on others' worlds, which is a power to be handled with as much personal responsibility as we can muster. Art makes us feel and teaches us about life and about ourselves. If we let it, art can help us practice recognizing self in the other without losing self in the other. It can help us remember what we all are: bright reflecting jewels in the Shinto net of life.