Beautiful Things

Jackson Lake 3 cropped 2Recently, I subscribed to an internet program that is supposed to help with relaxation and meditation, using images of nature accompanied by peaceful music. Lots of flutes. I like to listen while I work; it cuts the silences of working from home.

I was reading one day, listening, glancing up occasionally to see what beautiful thing was on. Suddenly I felt sad, but I wasn’t sure why.  After a while, I realized that I was sad because I would never actually see the beautiful things that were on the screen. Except on a screen. I may never visit a beach in Thailand at sunset, or the Alps at sunrise. Because of time. Because of distance. Because of money. Because of age or health. It is world of beautiful things but our time here is short and for most of us our resources are limited.

And then I thought, yet here I am now seeing these things on television at least. That is seeing of a kind. Some of them I might have guessed at their existence. But many I would likely never have known about, except for this seeing. And if the images in this program are beautiful, there are many more beautiful images, stunning and extraordinary and strange, shown on TV and the Internet these days, on channels dedicated to them.

And not just natural beauty. Art is more accessible than ever before. Major museums are putting images of masterpieces within the reach of everyone at a click or two. And music also. Sites stream Bach and Mozart, Schubert and Prokofiev (my personal favorite), and so many more, many I have never heard of. Fifty years ago― no make that one hundred years ago, I forget how old I am―you would have had to attend a concert in Oslo or Vienna or New York to hear them.

This is a miraculous age of beautiful things, offered to us wherever we turn. I’m sure that they are more beautiful to experience in person. I would rather see them from a concert in Oslo, an evening at the Met in New York, or flying over the Alps at sunrise (okay, I might have to close my eyes at that one).

But even in seeing them in this removed way, they are still beautiful. And I can see more of them this way than I could possibly see in a lifetime. That’s a gift, and something to be grateful for.

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Me and My Music

It’s not so bad after all.

Coming home to an empty home.

Music indeed is therapeutic.

Makes good company.

 

I can’t help but think about the recent suicides.

Such famous people.

Who am I to think less of myself.

I cannot imagine the internal suffering that results in suicide.

 

I thought I’d sleep longer being alone for a few days.

M1 asked, “why are you awake you don’t have to make my breakfast.”

Yes, at 26, I still make her breakfast and pack her lunch.

I make sure to pack in a whole lot of love since they’re gone most of the day.

 

It’s my way of remaining connected to my young adult girls.

I’ll eventually be left on my own someday.

In the company of my music and house chores.

Oh, I mustn’t forget my knitting needles!

 

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Clockwise

metronome_2

I don't care for metronomes.

I've never used one when I've practiced, and I've never had a teacher who suggested I use one. Maybe I have a good sense of rhythm, maybe I've been lucky; I can't say. I always seem to know where the beat is, how to subdivide, play cross-rhythms, count. Very important skill—counting.

But more important, I know, as my teachers knew, that the rate of a musical pulse  is as subject to change as a heartbeat or breath. It may stay constant a bit, but then it will speed up or slow down, shrink or expand according to its needs. That's when the metronome becomes a nuisance, more than that, an impediment to understanding the music.

I did, recently, install a metronome app on my iPod, because another musician wanted an exact tempo on a piece we were playing. As I listened to the gadget tick away, its beat led my focus elsewhere, away from the time I was supposed to be marking down, to memories of an old wind-up brass alarm clock.

It went to college with me where it got placed on the desk next to my bed, within reach, so I could quickly silence the alarm once it went off. The clock had a tick very much like the metronome's, and drove my roommate crazy. After a week of sleepless nights, she presented me with an electric clock, and begged me to use it. I did, but only to keep her from flinging the brass one out the window.

Her reaction to the sound puzzled me. I loved the sound of that old clock. Its regularity comforted me, in much the same way as a mantra. It lulled me into a zone where I could relax. It quieted, evened out my brain. What could be so disturbing about the steady beat of a clock?

After all, it wasn't a metronome....

Such irony.

In 1999, Chicago's Field Museum hosted a Cartier exhibit. While people clustered around displays of spectacular rings and brooches—large and intimidating jewels, I was captivated by a small, exquisite, and remarkable timepiece.

Cartier Mystery Clock
Cartier Mystery Clock

The clean lines, open face, case, kept me spellbound. There was no tick, but I imagined that it must have had a lovely one, and wished I could have heard it.

There's great history to fine timepieces, their movements—jewels, perfectly balanced gears and teeth, mainsprings, stems—form and function, art and engineering.  They bring centuries of wisdom with their reminders of where we are in the second or minute, hour or day. With each hand, they reflect our transience on earth, our need to respect the moment, and they do so without preaching or admonishing. They never ridicule, they never sneer: they just move.

Longines 17 Jewel Movement
Longines 17 Jewel Movement

And sometimes, they tell us more than the fact that time is passing: they chart the movements of heavenly bodies.

Celestial Clock, Prague
Celestial Clock, Prague

Sadly, the brass alarm clock disappeared during that first year of college. However, the electric clock is still with me, next to my bed. It hums, which is all right, but not as soothing as the brass one's tick. Every now and again I hold my watch up to my ear and listen. It's battery powered, but, thankfully, it has an audible and percussive pulse. I suppose, if I really needed to, I could turn on the metronome app and listen to that, but where's the tradition? Sense of motion? Balance? Romance?

Where is the soothing sense of past and present and future conveyed by one reliable conductor?

Only here:

retro-clock-face-4527639

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A Soundtrack to Growing Up

Not long ago – I forget where – I read an article in which several writers listed the most influential books of their childhood; books that changed their lives and inspired them to become writers.

Inevitably, I thought back to my own childhood, trying to recall the books, or even one book, that had made a definite impact on me, whether mentally or emotionally.  For a long time, my mind was a blank.  I was disappointed and somewhat embarrassed.  Had I read nothing, as a child? Eventually, memories of swashbuckling novels by Alexandre Dumas, detailed longitudes and latitudes in Jules Verne, the cosiness of Louisa May Alcott’s poor but ever so good Little Women, and the exaggerated to the point of being unrealistic bad luck of Victor Hugo’s characters, began to trickle through.  Even so, I can’t honestly say that a book ever inspired me to write. 

In many ways, reading was tantamount to homework for me while I was growing up.  I started to read at six, in Italian, and was sent to an American school at seven.  At eight, my grandmother began teaching me to read Russian.  At nine, we moved to France, so it was learn French or get kicked in the shins during recess.  No sooner did I get used to reading in one language, than I had to change.  

My mother actively discouraged me from reading fiction in my mid-teens.  “Novels are for children,” she used to say, leaving on the kitchen table books about philosophy, mysticism, medicine, history and – above all – self-improvement.  At least, that’s how I remember it.  Then, at high school and university, I read what I was told to read, while an increasingly frayed non-fiction book on some highly-cerebral topic moved from my bedside, to my rucksack, to my desk, to my handbag, then back to my bedside.  The bookmark progressed at a snail’s pace...  

What did inspire me to start writing, paradoxically, was music.

I can remember every significant episode of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, as accompanied by music.

According to my grandmother, when I was about three I avidly watched the Italian children's song contest Il Zecchino d’oro on television, and asked my mother to buy me the record of one of the songs.  I couldn’t yet hold a tune but kept repeating a couple of words from the refrain.  We went to the record shop but the seller had no idea which song I meant.  I just said those couple of words over and over again.  He humoured me, and began playing one record after the other.  I kept shaking my head.  Then, finally, after half a dozen or so, there it was – and with the refrain I’d remembered.

My earliest musical memory was one evening, when I was about four, a new Phillips record player being delivered to our flat.  I’d already gone to bed but got up and went into the living room.  My mother was trying out the new record player with a 45rpm of “Strangers in the Night”.  I stood in my pink pyjamas, transfixed by Frank Sinatra’s voice filling the room.

I always wanted Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 to be played when I built houses with my Lego blocks.  When I lost my first milk tooth, I asked my mother to tell the tooth fairy to bring me Swan Lake.  We didn’t have much money at the time, so my mother said the tooth fairy was too small to carry the heavy records.

When I was about eight, my mother sat with me on the Persian rug, the libretto of Puccini’s Turandot open on her lap.  She played the records and told me the fairy tale about the cruel princess and her three riddles.  I was swept away by the power of the music, so violent and yet so tender.  Everything about it felt so important, so overwhelming.  

A couple of years later, my grandmother allowed me to stay up late and watch The Flying Dutchman on television.  The hairs on my arms stood up at the colourful chords in the Overture.  I could feel the despair of the wandering Dutchman, and Senta’s devotion to him.  

I began writing poems and stories when I was twelve.  I’d come home from school, do my homework, then put on a record and, once enveloped in the world created by the music, start scribbling away, trying to convey words on a page the immensity of the emotions music triggered in me.  I wrote fairy tales with the mystery and melancholy of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  I wanted my words to engage in the haunting, spinning dance of Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Stravinsky’s Firebird.  

When, at the age of nineteen, I moved to Cambridge, a nightly helping of Evensong at King’s instead of the dinner I had to skip because my landlady served it at 6 pm, gave wings to my bicycle on my way back up the only hill in Cambridge.  Once back in my freezing attic room, I tried to write like the moonbeam trebles that rose and quivered beneath the fan vaulting, like the counter tenors that gave a strange, eerie yet fascinating edge to the responses, like the booming, thundering organ chords pushing against the stain glass windows.

The one and only time I was consciously influenced by advertising, it was because of music.  I didn’t know what it was.  It accompanied a clip of a pretty French girl with a heart-shaped faced and a dark, glossy bob, walking down the street, taking off her beret, looking back because she thought she heard someone call out her name, Lou Lou.  I was twenty-two.  I went to have my hair cut in exactly the same bob, bought a beret, and went to the department store to buy the perfume advertised in the spot – “Lou Lou” by Cacharel.  The magic of mesmerising music only worked so far, though.  Once the sales assistant at the perfume counter produced the baby blue and burgundy bottle – which I found deeply unattractive – and let me smell the fragrance – which made me wince and walk away – I’m afraid I went and spent my treat money on a bottle of “Cabochard” by Grès, instead.  Still, the mysterious, longing tune remained in my head for years until, one morning, they played it on BBC Radio 3, and gave it a name – Fauré’s “Pavane”.  And so I tried to write words and sentences that would reproduce its wistfulness, its haunting quality, its sophistication.

Even now, I often play a CD to spur me on when I write.  

I hear music in my head when I write.

I think I write words because I cannot compose music.

Scribe Doll

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