Around 1981, Dharmonia and I were living in a rent-controlled fourth-floor walkup apartment in
That guitar studio had been a fantastic place for me, first as a student (where policy let me sign up for one class/night and audit as many others as I wanted) and then as a staff member. I didn’t have a music degree, could barely sight-read, and felt terribly handicapped. So I’d get up early in the morning, and ride the old Boston Green Line from
But such great times end: the owners of the studio were so anxious to live up to family pressures for “success” that they tried to expand to franchise-size too quick, and eventually had to file for bankruptcy. And, as so often happens (and as it happened again in our escape from the clutches of Dorian Group Records), when the chips were down, the collegiality went out the window (you know who your friends are not when things are good, but when things are in the shitter), and they reneged on a bunch of promises. So we found ourselves, broke and free-lancing, in a run-down rent-controlled apartment in
I remember standing on a bridge in
So I did: I enrolled (for a total of $76 a semester, as a commuting, in-state student) in the nascent music program at U. Mass Boston, getting on the Red Line five mornings a week and riding it south to its other end in the old Irish-American ghetto of
That place saved me: it was one half of one floor on the poured-concrete slabs (vertical and horizontal) of U Mass, but the half-dozen music faculty members included a few people who were going to have absolutely crucial impact on my sense of my own possibilities. As I labored through the core classes outside music (including almost coming to blows with a weeny psychology professor because I’d argued that the notorious Stanley Milgram experiments were deeply wrong), Dianthe Myers-Spencer (jazz), Joe Dyer (musicology), and my great mentor Robert Prins (orchestration) helped me start to think about the possibilities of a career in music that could include, rather than avoid, the academic. I remember when Bob Prins (an
I’d come home in the afternoons from U Mass, carry our ancient and hip-displaced Black Labrador down four flights for her afternoon constitutional, and, if I didn’t have to teach a private lesson, sit down to practice. I was working on developing a basic keyboard proficiency, because I knew that any graduate program I tried to get into would have either a required proficiency or required courses—and required courses meant extra money that we didn't have (if I’d known in 1986 that I would be in graduate school twelve years I might very well have given up and tried to get a job in my elder brother’s consultancy firm). Having no childhood musical training beyond a few guitar lessons, and thus having escaped the Arban/ et al piano methods, my entrees into the world of classical piano were Stavinsky’s Les cinq doigts (wonderful ironical little teaching pieces dating from 1921, in the midst of Stravinsky’s snarkily imaginative neo-classical period), and Bartok’s lovely, funky, infinitely compassionate and infectious Mikrokosmos (1926-39).
Bartok had been born in 1881 in
With the other late-19th/early-20th century nationalists, he also understood, like Dvorak, Debussy, Vaughan Williams, and Charles Ives, that a composer’s greatest contribution to his own nation’s or people’s sense of self might be to create a music that both reflected, celebrated, and expanded upon the expressive capacities of the indigenous musics. Unlike almost all 19th and all but a few 20th century composers, Bartok realized that to write a music that truly reflected that love and respect for indigenous traditions, he needed to get out there and discover the music amongst the indigenous peoples. So, very early on (no later than 1908), he donned “peasant costume,” loaded his baggage and manuscript books (and later, his early
That experience would inform the balance of Bartok’s life: providing the musical language for expressionist masterpieces like Duke Bluebeard’s Castle; the huge collection of settings, adaptations, and inspirations he derived from folk tunes; the harmonic and rhythmic implications of the folk musics which he built into one of the two or three greatest musical languages of the 20th century (only Stravinsky, Ives, and possibly Debussy or Schoenberg even come close in terms of their innovations, the scope of their musical insights, and the breadth of their musical influence); and, most relevantly for this story, the beautiful set of graded teaching tunes that make up Mikrokosmos volumes 1-6.
I loved this music so much—not only because it was beautiful, idiosyncratic, infectious, and uniquely sensitive to folk-music’s spikiness, but also because I could play it. I had been taught from childhood that I had little or no musical talent, that I had to work extra hard to accomplish anything, and that despite that extra work it was unlikely that anything would ever work out. But Dharmonia handed me the first two volumes, in their beautiful, Art-Deco inspired brown-and-yellow Boosey & Hawkes editions, and told me that I had to at least try these pieces. She was wise, and she knew me, and she was right.
So I sat in that rent-controlled apartment with the chunks of plaster falling out of the ceiling, at Dharmonia’s beat-up old studio upright, which some lunatic house-painter had stripped and refinished in a matte black sand texture and which we paid a crane company a lot of money to move in and out of two 4th-floor apartments, and I played “The Village Fair”, a wonderful spiky bit of pentatonic counterpoint, over and over again, struggling to play it up to tempo and with the gutsy character I thought it demanded. I didn’t know anything at all about classical music—was very slowly filling in the gaps at U Mass—but that piece from Volume II seemed to occupy something of the same territory as the wonderful “Shrovetide Fair” opening movement of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, something I’d encountered in an old LP performance conducted by Monteux, who had led the premiere, on a record I’d picked up as a child at a yard sale for a quarter.
And I felt unnervingly fortunate. I would never have believed, sleeping in my car in
Buddhism teaches you to leave things behind and to accept that events change. Life does this also. If you’re smart, or receptive, or not too psychologically beaten-down by a world that exploits the poor and favors the rich, you learn lessons from the suffering every life brings. You beat yourself up over things you can't change, and then you can't change them, and then next time, if you're lucky, you remember to beat yourself up a little less.
Buddhists are taught to accept that they are “homeless”—that the very fact of samsara (the physical world of birth, experience, suffering, and death) means none of us will escape suffering, or find our way home, in this phenomenal world. This is not a pessimistic but rather a profoundly liberating realization. If we are homeless, then we can learn to focus not upon material possessions but rather upon the less concrete but much more real experiences of beauty, imagination, and creativity; of connection, compassion, and love. I felt that sense of connection, compassion, and love, in the music that Bartok wrote to remember and to celebrate that land he remembered that was now gone.
We left that piano behind when we left the East. We were moving west, into the wild blue yonder, with bridges burnt by others behind us, and on the day we loaded the rented truck, it was pouring rain. We had no money to hire yet another crane company, and we left the piano, and an heirloom dining table, behind, in the hands of another friend who was inheriting the apartment. That day, Dharmonia and I said to each other, “we’ll come back for them.” But we knew we wouldn’t; that wherever we were going, we would not be returning to the same place in the future.
Franz Ferdinand and the Nazis taught Bartok about being homeless. World War I destroyed the old Transylvanian culture he loved, and the Nazis destroyed the
I played “The Village Fair” at my graduate keyboard placement exam in 1987—and it’s part of what got me into IU. Forty-three years after his death, he opened doors for me too. Sixty-three years later, I'm recommending Mikrokosmos to my own students facing keyboard exams—and I am profoundly grateful.