Taking the Fifth

Do you ever have that rare abeyance of your pedestrian day that makes you fall in love with life? Do you ever feel like a grounded insect and then some experience nudges you to discover your wings, and you take to the stars? Are you longing for transformation? To answer these questions, I recommend a night at the symphony.

Last night Andrew and I were members of the audience for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s performances of two fifths, Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto with Nobuyuki Tsujii at the piano and Shostakovich’s fifth symphony both conducted by Maestro Alexander Mickelthwate. As I’ve always had backwards inclinations (I even discovered that I can write backwards in high school), I will begin my musings at the end, with the second part of the program, the Shostakovich symphony.

The early movements struck me as powerfully menacing with an almost militaristic rhythm in parts. Violins expressed anxiety, and the music traversed a journey through dark landscapes, spaces mirroring those dark places through which we sometimes descend in our inner worlds. During the Largo movement, Maestro Mickelthwate conducted without a baton, using his hands to caress the music from the orchestra. His gentle movements conjured music from the instruments and the musicians, massaging our troubled minds from the earlier movements into gentle calmness. In the final movement, the Allegro non troppo, I felt a successful, resounding resolution to whatever conflict might have tormented the composer’s inner life. I felt a successful resolution was possible in our lives as well.

Full disclosure, I am not a music critic. I am fairly uneducated in music beyond my voice and piano lessons. These are just my impressions, ghostly images generated by the sounds I inhaled last night. I might not possess the expertise to critique a concert, but having existed as a human being my entire life, I possess the expertise to validate how moving the concert was. So often I look inside myself, listening to the voices in my head. A night at the symphony gives you the opportunity to look outside yourself and to listen to the music encompassing you, enabling you to grow on the inside just the same.

And I haven’t even begun to discuss the part of the concert that really touched my heart and mind, which was the first part of the concert, the performance of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, dubbed the Emperor concerto, with pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. I think the first time I heard part of the concerto was in the film Dead Poets Society in which I believe the Adagio is played as background music to an emotional scene. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have the CD of this piece with Leonard Bernstein as conductor and Rudolf Serkin on the piano. I have played this CD so many times, it is one of the most familiar pieces of music to me.

The first movement played by the WSO of the Emperor concerto airlifted me out of the daily battles that we negotiate just to get through life. The program notes written by James Manishen indicate that this concerto emerged during the time that Beethoven was forced to hide from Napoleon’s invasion of Vienna. The program notes also mention that the name “Emperor” for the concerto was not Beethoven’s choice, and I wonder which emperor to which it refers. Napoleon? Did the music in Beethoven’s mind airlift him out of his circumstances as well?

The second movement, the Adagio un pocco mosso, is more difficult to broach. In that movement, the music touches all those secret places in your heart and mind that you try to repress. I immediately began to cry with the opening bars of the strings and held my breath until the release with the entry of the piano. Nobuyuki Tsujii expressed all the broken parts that lay dormant (or not so dormant) inside of us and then mended the wounds all in a breath of music. The performers didn’t seem anxious about performing; the goal was not to show off or to exhibit, but to touch and to move the audience. To create beauty. I absolutely loved Tsujii’s interpretation. In the pauses that created suspense in passages lay poetry. Yes, there is poetry in spaces, music in silence. Then when the next note sounded, I felt a sense of ecstasy. The performance possessed all the qualities of a diamond with its distinct clarity.

We all face obstacles every day, some more than others. Beethoven suffered under the invasion of Napoleon and later became deaf. The pianist who performed Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, Nobuyuki Tsujii, has been blind since birth. Maestro Mickelthwate guided Tsujii, two partners in the creation of otherwordly beauty, to and from the stage, arm in arm. It reminded me of how Andrew and I have walked through our lives together, arm in arm. Tsujii could not see the immediate standing ovation of the auditorium, but I am sure he could hear the audience’s love and affection through our overwhelming applause. It makes me wonder what I don’t see in life even though (with strong prescriptive glasses) I do possess the ability of sight. We are all blind in some ways, and I can suspect through the beauty that Tsujii could conceive, he sees better than most of us.

I had had a difficult week and didn’t feel like mustering the energy to change out of my sweat pants and t-shirt to go to the symphony. We had paid the fee for the tickets already and are on a tight budget, so there was no doubt we would attend; I just felt reluctant. Andrew told me perhaps it would change my life.

And perhaps it did.


Who are you?: Part II

Who are you really? I am perpetually interested in the question of identity. I am sure people trained in psychology have precise understandings of how identity is formed and changes (or if it changes), but, as I am not trained in psychology, I can only muse on my own experiences with this. We evolve into different individuals all the time, reinvent ourselves, and behave differently with different people. We don’t treat our family the same way as our friends, bosses, or even other family members. We treat different friends differently, take on different personae, and even use different language or dress differently with different people. It’s as though we all have different personalities or roles that we play in the different arenas in which we play out our lives. How are we supposed to know who we really are? I suppose we are all these different versions of ourselves, some better, some less so. And we are not black-and-white entities, like angels or demons.

In theater and writing, one thinks a lot about characters’ motivations. I wonder if our motivations are central to our identity. What motivates you? To survive? To succeed? To fill up an emptiness? To help others? To advance humanity in some way? To fill the hours of your life? To be productive? To fulfill some mission? To amuse yourself? To amuse others? To have pleasure?

I wonder about what else is central to our identities. One of the first questions people pose to you upon learning your name is to ask your profession and possibly what you do when you’re not working. It’s one of the first things I identify when I create a character in my writing; I identify my characters’ professions. But do our professions really define who we really are more than what music we listen to, what books we read, or what kinds of tea we enjoy? Perhaps when I create characters, I should really explore the nuances of their identities, like how they take their coffee and what their favorite movie is. I do a lot of this, but I don’t fill in every blank for every character. To really know a person, either in real life or in fiction, you need to understand a multitude of details about her and her back story. There are so many details in what makes you who you are, like ingredients in a soup. People are complex and multifaceted, so perhaps it is in these details that our identities emerge.

Like the constant regrowth of our cells, our identities change. Or do they? I have lost touch with a number of friends over the years, and when we reconnect most of the conversations we begin, we pick up from where we left off. I visited California last year and reconnected with a number of my friends from UCLA graduate school and a number of my relatives.  The UCLA coffee shop Kerchkoff hadn’t really changed at all.  My clothing style was different, and I had lived in a different country for a number of years. I had attended a new school and had met a number of people who had transformed me in the interim.  I had studied quantum field theory. It had been eight years since I had seen these friends and family. I didn’t feel as though I were the same person as eight years prior, and they probably didn’t feel the same either, yet most of the reconnection was seamless. My friends and our jobs were different from when we were all students together, our experiences had diverged, yet I think we still managed to connect and converge most of the time.

Maybe the operative words are most of the time. People change both internally and externally. We develop illnesses that affect us. We lose people which leaves an impact. We are like a planet that evolves, building mountains, having seismic events, and being bombarded by meteors. Perhaps there are parts of our identity which are mutable and other parts which are fixed, like a planet with a core. I am curious as to what the core is though. I suspect motivation has a lot to do with it. And all these parts make us who we are. We need to accept all these facets of ourselves and others and to learn to adapt to the changes. And all of this, the good, the bad, and the ugly, is who we really are.

So who are you really? What makes you you?