Dots and Threads

gam199

I’ve had the incredible luck of having parents naturally inclined to confront all of their children with copious amounts of beauty in any shape or form, even if sometimes complex for very young minds. Not only was reading books, listening to music or appreciating art very much encouraged but also developing a sense of superior harmony in manners, kindness, humbleness and sense of humour.

I’m not absolutely certain that the way I’ve led my life has always made them justice; come to think of it very often it has not, but be it as it may, the dots are still here in the sense that I hope that what they meant is that our quest was never one for absolute perfection but rather for a continued clarity and modesty in bettering our ways.

They are responsible for my first contact with classical music: it was a book-and-record version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I couldn’t have been older than ten and at that age, at least to me, music wasn’t “classical”, “modern” or anything else, there were just two kinds of music: good music and bad music.

Prokofiev made a profound and long-lasting impression on me not the least because Peter and the Wolf is one of the few pieces of classical (or rather, “classical”) music written specifically for children. It should come as no surprise that there is an animated version by Walt Disney, which was the one I first experienced. Since it is a piece specifically for narrator and orchestra, the combination of story and music, for a child of ten, is simply too potent a fix to resist: I was hopelessly hooked.

I loved everything about it (still do) especially the way the characters are portrayed by different instruments which makes it fascinating to identify them and their dialogues throughout the music: Sasha the bird is a flute, Sonya the duck an oboe, the french horns play the wolf, the strings play Peter, the grandfather is a bassoon and the hunters Misha, Sasha and Vladimir are woodwinds and martial trumpets, their guns the percussion instruments. For a portuguese kid at the other end of Europe just those names alone were a promise of wonder. My favourite however was always Ivan the cat, played by the clarinet. I’m not a cat person at all and have always liked dogs better but that clarinet sweeping like a comfortable, gentle and familiar breeze over the music is simply fascinating. It’s not an obvious instrument to like of course and I have no other explanation to offer other than the fact that Sydney Bechet’s music entered my life at approximately the same time.

There’s a movie version somewhere which I can’t find but here’s the original book version:

Prokofiev naturally led to Fantasia, still one of my top ten movies of all time and one which incidentally made me both very afraid and very curious about Mussorgsky: listening to Night on the Bald Mountain at that age gave me actual nightmares. I don’t know if it still does because I remain a little afraid of discovering that it will.

At this point I was an addict and there was no going back.

I needed my dose at regular intervals and it thankfully appeared in the form of a Sunday afternoon television program called Young People’s Concerts, where Leonard Bernstein explained and demonstrated everything about classical music with such an apparent simplicity that to this day I still hold them as the very best way to create new addicts out of anyone, young or not. It has everything you’d want to know about concertos, symphonies, music modes, melodies, sonatas, waltzes, orchestras small and large and even jazz.

There is a DVD for sale (9 DVDs actually) and I’m sure you can find the individual episodes on YouTube (all 53 of them), but do try to watch them in the proper sequence. It will change your life, I promise.

Since then, it’s just been a matter of connecting the dots, sometimes adding new ones, making sure they fit with the existing ones in a way my parents would likely agree with even if they were new to them too.

In the end what my parents gave me, knowingly or not, is priceless: they planted a few or many dots (it doesn’t really matter how many) but more importantly they made me aware of everyone’s natural curiosity to connect them and set them alight. They made me see that beauty lies in connecting those dots in as many ways as you can with endless and gleaming threads of light.

They made me see that that’s precisely and simply where love (love, yes) is.

And it never stops.

• • •

The Phrygian Mode

This is almost too beautiful and delicate to share, given that that the internets do not take well to something that demands more than thirty seconds of your attention. Still, I need to bid you goodnight: if one hour is what it takes, well, indulge me.

Scarlatti was a perfect example of what being an european means: born in Italy, friends with Handel (who was born in Germany, but became English), life-long teacher of queen Maria Barbara of Spain (and daughter of king João V of Portugal), spent most of his life between Lisbon, Seville and Madrid and composed  an astounding 555 single-movement sonatas, all meant as exercises for the queen, who became an extremely talented pianist, his pupil for more than 35 years.

Oh the title, right. “The Phrygian Mode” is a musical mode produced by raising the third scale degree of the mode, used mostly in Iberian and Arabic music (by way of maqām Ḥijāzī) and usually foreign to the music of time, including Bach (of whom Scarlatti was a contemporary). In simpler terms, you can sometimes detect whiffs of flamenco guitar chords but played on the piano.

Sleep tight.

• • •

Loving And Liking

An astonishingly lucid essay by Jonathan Franzen on how constantly ‘liking’ odd bits on social networks can never amount to — and is probably even incompatible with — loving someone. Worth reading while  waiting for his new book.

We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery. And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.

And:

We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.

(And yes, I am fully aware of the irony of publishing this very post all over the internet; I hope that, should you click that ‘Like’ button, you too will be aware of it.)

• • •

Tell Me a Story

Close your eyes and listen to the music. Imagine yourself by the water: there is soon a story unfolding in your mind.

When the music is over, tell me the story of the water.

 

 

• • •

The Life She Thought She Wanted

To her mother, it must have looked as though she could do anything she wanted to do. She could move from one end of the country to another, change her name, live on her own, sleep with whoever she wanted to without marrying them, drink tea at the Ritz, make babies disappear overnight, probably bringing them back again, if she felt like it. And it was true, she could. But it seemed to her that to take advantage of all these opportunities, she had to turn something off inside her. She had to pretend that nothing mattered, as long as she got the life she thought she wanted.

Nick Hornby — Funny Girl

• • •

Saved

Cajon

 

From a friend, via email:

Your soul doesn’t need salvation: it’s enough to watch you play, your body, to know you’re saved.

This means so much more to me than any praise for my technique (of which I have very little) especially taking into consideration that I positively hate to see myself play.

Solace.

• • •

Catlike Unctuousness

Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with catlike unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.

Gerald Durrell, on his brother Lawrence — My Family and Other Animals

• • •

Felicities of Touch

forster

I can’t say I am an avid reader of E. M. Forster; I read and liked Howard’s End and a Passage to India among others but maybe at too early an age to fully appreciate the wider context.

These days however a multitude of threads seem to capriciously weave a cathedral of wonder pulling me in. A subset of them is discovering that Forster not only visited Alexandria and wrote a guide to the city, but that he actually then met Cavafy, whose work he helped to introduce in England. What’s more, the guide’s introduction is written by — of course — Lawrence Durrell.

This work is something more than just a work of literary piety devoted to that strange and evocative city called Alexandria… it succeeds in being a small work of art, for it contains some of Forster’s best prose as well as felicities of touch only a novelist of major talent could command.

Lawrence Durrell — Introduction to E. M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and Guide.

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