Gestillte Sehnsucht

Morning in Sewanee is quieter as we move through the festival. This day, one lone horn is practicing, its now-bell-now-bleat tones echoing from some unidentifiable point across the leafy hills. I’m almost solo at the coffee shop: my only companion is one intense entrepreneur, earbuds in, talking in a rapid mezzoforte about internet speeds. Berry pie and coffee in front of me, recovering musicians asleep in the houses around me: it’s summer nirvana in its way, despite the frat house mattresses and occasionally biblical rain. The gorgeous hiking trails will give you over to relentless chiggers, but also to breathtaking vistas. You have to take one with the other.

I’m happy to return to the morning coffee shop hang, a favorite habit on the road. I break up my email with the NYT Spelling Bee (a game I adore because it will call me a Genius- I own my shallowness) and greet my students as they appear over the course of the morning, signing on to their iPads to coach languages with the estimable Hemdi Kfir. I love that connection with a mind and heart like Hemdi’s is second nature to us now, her feet standing on the ground in Israel no barrier at all to her standing on our faculty. New vistas are part of our landscape in this Sewanee summer. Most days, either MtMn or I sit at our digital keyboard with the beloved face of a student on our laptop screen, shining into our borrowed room from Toledo or Atlanta or Cincinnati or Seattle.

The dream of combining virtual and live musical practices buoyed me through the early days of the shutdown, kept me excited about the future, and it’s reality now. That makes my heart sing. But every day, my social media memories take me back to last summer, to images of festivals that moved online. To the students confined, the colleagues and friends unmet. To the curricular and programmatic pivots, to the groups unformed, to the sounds unheard. And right alongside, image after image of friends all over the world returning to playing, singing, performing in their own hilly, mosquito-y festival paradises, face goofy with happiness like babies learning to laugh.

You take one with the other. You have to.

Yesterday, two colleagues and I had our first reading of Brahms Opus 91, which we’ll play on the last chamber music concert this Saturday. And again, as in every other chamber rehearsal I’ve had up here, we played for the first time beginning to end, one long unbroken, unhesitating breath. And then we looked up at each other and asked, “you want to just play it again?” Almost no talk, only feeling and listening, entering into the communal experience again to see what might happen. Curious and glad, we took sure steps together on a wide and generous path.

Maybe it’s just the particular colleagues I’ve had the enormous good fortune to make noise with up here; maybe it’s just the excellence of their playing and preparation, or that they just happen to not be super chatty or controlling in rehearsal. But I think it’s something else. After nearly a year and a half of figuring out how to do our work over screens, after the recording and re-recording, the negotiations and discussions that were essential absent a shared physical vibe, the return to music-making in person is more visceral than we expected. It is for me, anyway. I find, sitting at the keyboard, that words fail me, that nothing I might say would mean anything measured again the breath of my neighbor, the lip light and sure on the reed, the arm loving the string through the long bow, the first aching consonant of the word.

The last time I played Opus 91 (with beautiful colleagues at the Collaborative Piano Institute), my family had just lost a beloved daughter and sister in a terrible accident. That was the last time, before the pandemic, when I saw a community of people unutterably changed from one moment to the next. I played that concert in a kind of stunned gratitude, living in two worlds simultaneously, comforted by Rueckert’s poetry and Brahms’ interlocking melodies even as I stood on some other cold path watching, numb and remote. My body from that day was waiting for me in yesterday’s rehearsal. I may not even be comprised of those same cells now, but it surely seemed I was as the breath and tone of my colleagues and me untwisted the tangled cords of that day, of the past long year and change. Tears were waiting there, but so were light and air: vistas reached in awed surprise along the strenuous way.

The way ahead is surely full of peril, uncertainty, and unimaginable beauty, which can never be unjoined. So join hands on this strenuous path. Make music however you can. Keep breathing. Keep going.

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