Tuesday, May 21, 2013

into the jaws of ... something

It was an odd venue for a performer who might otherwise bring together polished Bentleys disgorging evening gowns and rubies, tuxedos and monogrammed gold cufflinks ... people speaking quietly from behind their cupped playbills, the scions of a self-assured comme il faut.

The college gymnasium at Berkeley had lousy acoustics. Its backboards were tilted up in deference to the event, but there was no mistaking the tinny rattle of the folding chairs laid out on the basketball court. The raucous cheering of the past, though stilled, seemed to lurk in every corner.

The Soviet violinist David Oistrakh took his place beneath and a bit behind one of the up-folded backboards. Everyone quieted down. I don't recall his standing on any bit of elevation. He stood, rather, at the same altitude as his seated audience. In that vast expanse, he seemed lonely and small from my vantage point along the running-track mezzanine of the gym.

A man with an instrument. No supporting cast. No foot soldiers to protect his flanks. The king without retainers. Alone.

It was 1962 and I was visiting my then-girlfriend on a weekend break from what was then called the Army Language School that lay to the south on the California coast.

And then he began to play.

Don't ask me what, but whatever it was, it was the kind of music I could accede to ... nothing dissonant or cubist in the way of 'modern' classical music ... something tuneful and alluring, and a little at a time, I was allured. Oistrakh was not my favorite violinist -- he was too etched, somehow, too perfected -- but on that evening, he drew me in. It was pleasant at first.

Pleasanter and pleasanter it became. I let myself go and sank into the beauty. But the beauty went on and on and on and on. Deeper and deeper. Stronger and stronger. I loved it and yet there came a moment where I realized that I was somehow being overwhelmed ... I was drowning ... I was being stripped bare ... I was, if I didn't pull back, going-going-gone. I loved that music to death and I was being threatened with precisely that -- a death I lacked the courage or wherewithal to embrace. I panicked. And later I would say, as if it explained anything, "I had to stop listening. It was like staring at the sun."

Of all the anythings that can take anyone to an honest home, I like music. Music has no explanation and no meaning. Music has no nothing and yet asserts a something that might be described as music: Where the music ends, the music begins.

Like love, anyone might dance around the peripheries of music, but come close -- close, closer, closest -- and it will burn you to the ground. No more religion, no more philosophy, no more belief or explanation, no more Bentleys, no more "nothing." Since there is no one to be naked, nakedness falls far short. Speak and you fail; remain silent and you fail.

Music is extraordinary only to the extent that the music has not yet expressed itself fully... like a partially-eclipsed sun. Extraordinary stuff is for door-to-door Bible salesmen. But the same is true for ordinary stuff ... salesmanship and rubies in an effort to elude the sun. Comme il faut can't cut it and yet the back-thumping agreements of the great unwashed work no better. Embrace? Elude? Cut the crap.

Things can burn you to the ground. Pick your thing, whatever it is.

So perhaps there comes a time when feeding the fire must stop, a time to stop acceding to back-thumpings like "be the music," a time when immense and minute are chickenfeed, a time when birthless and deathless are OK, but remain in the secondary, a time when IS is saying too little and too much, a time of, perhaps ...


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