Saturday, October 6, 2018

Violin (October 5, 2018)

Juliek's Violin

Even here?
In this snowbound barrack?

Suddenly, the illicit sounds
of Beethoven’s concerto

erupt from Juliek’s smuggled violin,
suffusing this doomsday shed

teeming with the trampled
and the barely alive,

realm of frostbite and squalor,
clawing panic and suffocation—

Insane, God of Abraham,
insanely beautiful:

a boy insisting
winter cannot reign forever,

a boy conveying his brief,
bounded life

with a psalmist’s or a cantor’s
arrow-sure ecstasy—

One prison-striped friend
endures to record

the spellbinding strings,
the woebegone—

and the other,
the impossible Polish fiddler,

is motionless by morning,
his renegade instrument

under the haggard weight

of winter-killed, unraveling men.
Music at the brink of the grave,

eloquent in the pitch dark,
tell-true, indelible,

as never before,
as never after—

emending beauty,

linger in the listening,
truth-carrying soul of Elie,

soul become slalom swift,
camp shrewd, uncrushable;

abundance, be here, always here,
in this not-yet-shattered violin.

Cyrus Cassells, "Juliek’s Violin" from The Crossed-Out Swastika.  Copyright © 2012 by Cyrus Cassells.  Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press,

Music Is Time

Music is time, said the violin master.
You can’t miss the stop or you’ll miss the train.
One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four,
one, two, three, four.

She clapped her hands together
as the boy moved the bow across the strings.
One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four,
one, two, three, four, the violin master shouted,

louder and more shrill so that her voice
traveled through the house like a metronome,
guiding him, commanding him to translate the beat,
to trust his own internal rhythm.

Good boy, she said.
See how hard you have to be on yourself?
How will your violin know who you are
unless you make it speak?

The Negativo Trio

NO was a violin, NOT a viola, and NEVER a cello. They were noble instruments, but highly nonconformist. Prickly in personality, if sexy. Wayward. Always went in their own direction. Made odd choices. Loved the difficult. Naysayed the popular. Collectively unified in a single reaction to the mainstream: negative.
      When they first chanced to come together, they doubted they would ever meld.
      But the minute they began to make music, they discovered a numinous core to their triangle. They couldn’t see this core, smell it, or touch it—and neither could their slender audience (thirty people on folding chairs in a church). But all felt it was a natural union of sound, nimble and sublime.
     That night they became the Negativo Trio.
     Retiring to nestle in the velvet warmth of their cases, they whispered to each other, debriefing and musing in the first of many nightly pajama parties. This very first evening they discovered that what they wanted above all were two things. One was to play their music with the very nacre of its nature, and the other was fame.
     Night after night they played. Increased their bookings. Recorded. And were downloaded. They raised money to pay off the debt of their obscure choices. On stage they each shone with the patina of centuries: maple, spruce, and willow with an elegant varnish of gum arabic, honey, and the whites of eggs.
     But they weren’t famous, even though they played a nocturne as if every note were a black pearl.
     Yet NO, NOT and NEVER did everything everyone advised them to be famous: they networked, they nodded nicely to publicists, they flashed their Negativo news on social media. But the fact was, the trio wasn’t for everybody.
     “Do you think it’s our name?” NOT the Viola asked. “Would we be more famous as the Nightingale Trio?”
     “Nope,” said NEVER the Cello. “Negativo has our brio.” And NEVER was right. The three of them played with nerve. The knottier the piece, the better. They made their audiences reach.
     “We should be sexier,” NO the Violin said. “Naughtier. It’s our propensity for the minor key; we should lighten it up.” But when they played in the minor key, their audiences felt they had arrived at the navel of the universe. The instruments could never give up the minor.
     Would the Negativos ever learn what the people in the seats knew? The trio wasn’t famous because, well, they kind of unnerved people. You had to have nettle to take them on.
     Though they certainly wouldn’t have said no to notoriety, eventually they had to admit that they could not surrender their quirks.
     “We will never be famous,” NEVER said one night after they had nestled in their cases for their midnight debriefing.
     “I’m nauseous,” said NO extravagantly.
     “And neglected,” said NOT excessively.
     “Never,” said NEVER decisively.
     They would never fill the biggest halls. Or be the first name on the tips of tongues. And with the inverted logic of misplaced dreams, even though they had toured, had notched up review, and had triumphs and fans, and websites and bloggers, and a body of criticism devoted to them, they felt they had reached their nadir.
     The next morning they couldn’t seem to get up. They lay immobile, as if their velvet-lined cases were coffins.
      A netherworldly silence descended.
      The dust of despair drifted through the crack between the case tops and bottoms onto these living dead.
     Time dragged like a dirty hem.
     Naught into Nil.
     Desolation into Dormancy.
     Dormancy into . . .
                                 . . . Rest.
     Rest into Snoozing.
     Snoozing into Sleep.
     Sleep into Healing.
     The nostrum of sleep lasted until the pinkish light that heralds spring.
     A noisy nuthatch drilled for insects in a nearby tree. It was a forest sound, yodel-y and ebullient. It awoke the maple and spruce and willow of the Negativo’s constitutions. Their bodies couldn’t help responding to the vernal signal given when spring utters its only word: Nevertheless. 
     If not fame, nevertheless music.
     “Numbskull nuthatch!” NEVER growled.
     “Ninny nuthatch,” NO yawned.
     “Bumptious bird,” NOT shifted, inadvertently jostling the snap to the dusty case. It sprang open. NO unclicked and climbed out, too. And NEVER heaved the lid.
      They played immediately of course, trying a violin piece by the underrated Nardini. Most thought him a lightweight, but the Negativos gave it their signature interpretation of naked necessity.
     “Oh it was NOTHING,” they began to say to one another as they did musical favors for themselves, producing scores of synchronicities and the occasional juicy nihilistic dissonance. They buoyed on their notes, as if a midnight Pacific of calm, rich, dark negatives were effused with luminescence.
      How relieved their listeners were to have them back. Again their audiences were made aware of the noses between their ears. That slight, brief piquancy in the nostrils was the smell of earthly harmony. It came from within the airy column that united the instruments, the nucleus of their refusal to suit. Such accord, though it is as rare as ease, seems like nothing.
     And so the Negativo Trio was known as a trio’s trio.
     Not famous, but known.
     Contrary to the vicissitudes of fame, ease is the path of the known, smooth as the satin of the instruments’ finish. To be recognized, yet not to suffer the disadvantages of fame, is a state so ideal it is the pinnacle of a career. NO, NOT and NEVER had at last woken up to that.

Bach in the DC Subway

As an experiment,
The Washington Post
asked a concert violinist—
wearing jeans, tennis shoes,
and a baseball cap—
to stand near a trash can
at rush hour in the subway
and play Bach
on a Stradivarius.
Partita No. 2 in D Minor
called out to commuters
like an ocean to waves,
sang to the station
about why we should bother
to live.

A thousand people
streamed by.  Seven of them
paused for a minute or so
and thirty-two dollars floated
into the open violin case.
A café hostess who drifted
over to the open door
each time she was free
said later that Bach
gave her peace,
and all the children,
all of them,
waded into the music
as if it were water,
listening until they had to be
rescued by parents
who had somewhere else to go.

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