Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"100 Greats in 100 Days" #056: Bela Bartok, Mikrokosmos

Around 1981, Dharmonia and I were living in a rent-controlled fourth-floor walkup apartment in Cambridge Massachusetts. The street door’s lock was broken for the entire tenure of our lives there, we’d find winos asleep on our landing, and big chunks of plaster fell out of our ceilings—but the apartment had been “in the family” (e.g., with the same family surname on the rental agreement) since around 1971, when my brilliant Senior Brother was an underage undergraduate at Harvard, and the rent was $247 a month. It’s a good thing it was so low, in fact—the guitar studio where Dharmo and I had both worked, and where we had met (and there’s a story for another day) had gone belly-up with little warning and, despite assurances to the contrary, we were out on the street without even access to the student lists we’d been promised (kinda like the record company who tried to include rights to our masters, which we’d leased-not-sold, in their bankruptcy settlement—fortunately, we took ‘em to court and won that one). So we were poor and scared.

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 Brookline downtown, working my way through various basic-theory books, get to the studio 3 hours before they opened, and sit there in the empty, dusty rooms above Boylston Street, trying all on my lonesome to construct the fundamentals of a basic musical literacy. I was greatly facilitated in this by the generosity and genius of the stuff there: Mike Bevan, Dean Magraw, Larry “Guitar” Baeder, and many others. I even met Dharmonia there—God help her, I was in her ear-training class. As students, in the intervals between classes, Larmo and I would sit in the lobby and play fiddle tunes (to which Dennis Horvitz would crack “The ever-present threat of Irish music rears its ugly head”); as a staff member, I’d sit behind the desk and drive people crazy playing scales, arpeggios, and chromatic approaches. I even took voice lessons and piano lessons, bartering for guitar lessons and home repairs. It was a great, great time--and I felt like I was fortunate, catching up on missed opportunities.

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 North Cambridge. We were scared—and it wasn’t working.

I remember standing on a bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia, near the end of a short road trip we’d taken with family, via ferry from Brunswick ME all the way to the peninsula. It would have been a great visit—and I wish I’d known more at the time about the beauty, richness, and ubiquity of Cape Breton Music—had we not been so very scared. I stood on that bridge with Dharmonia, and finally said out-loud “this isn’t working.” I’d come to the realization that I couldn’t make it just as a working musician, and that I was going to have to go back to school and become a teacher. I felt like I’d been gut-shot. But I didn't feel I had a choice--I had to make a change.

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 Dorchester.

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 Indiana graduate who’d studied there, via the GI Bill, under the legendary Bill Adam), said “Have you ever thought about graduate school?” “NO!” Have you ever thought about Indiana?” “NO!”—which shows how much I knew. Those folks on the top floor opened a lot of doors for me.

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 Hungary, at a time when young Eastern European composers had a tendency to be interested in both musical and political progressivism. Coming to manhood in the decadent world-ending twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire, passionately interested in the causes of nationalism and ethnic rights (Bartok understood totalitarianism’s aversion to unique cultural expressions decades before Alan Lomax coined the term “cultural grey-out”), he was the 20th century’s first and maybe greatest ethnomusicologist.

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 Edison phonograph) on the back of a donkey, and went up into the hills to find the music and the people that it came from.

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 Midland Texas, left on an East Village street-corner at 17 to fend for myself in college, hypnotized by the beauty and seductive power of the musicians I heard as a child, that some day I would be able to make these sounds myself. That I would have Dharmonia in the next room. That I would have even the possibility of a lifetime in music on the horizon We were broke, and cold, and scared—but I could feel, if not quite trust, that my luck had already turned.

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 Hungary which was his home, and he went into exile in the west, and eventually in America, where he struggled, in the midst of bad health and colossal disregard by the mainstream of classical music, to feed his family and continue writing. In his quiet, understated, Mittel-Europaerisch fashion, he created one of the greatest bodies of work by any 20th-century composer. He continued to work at transcribing recordings from his fieldwork days, he published articles arguing with great precision and passion the value of “peasant” music as a source of inspiration for new music, he wrote music on commissions from Koussevitsky, Menuhin, and Benny Goodman, and he never, ever gave up. In his great works; in his life; in the literally thousands of tunes which he collected, recorded, transcribed, and built into his compositions; he both accepted his own exile and fought to remember the place and people he had loved. And in so doing, he conquered imperialism, fascism, genocide, and death itself. The fascists were defeated; the music survived. And he left a legacy that, forty years later in a rented apartment, helped me survive my own exile.

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.


XaurreauX said...

I don't know how I stumbled onto this blog, but your recollection of the crack I made all those years ago looks like something I would have said.

Those were fun times at the Guitar Workshop.

Dennis Horvitz

CJS said...

You son-of-a-bitch! You're absolutely right that it was you! How the hell are you???