Thursday, August 30, 2012

One side of my father

Through the window I can see a boy seated at an upright piano. His thin unruly hair lays over his collar, his posture is bad, spine curved, shoulders hunched. He sets his jaw and bites down on his tongue as he tries to force his left hand to run through the rapid sixteenth notes in Chopin's Polonaise in A flat. You can tell that he is fighting the music, that the piece possesses and overmasters him, even while enrapturing him. He watches his fingers make mistakes, missing notes, sometimes hitting the wrong ones. But he doesn't quit. He keeps going.

The boy idolizes Rubinstein, whose hands were so strong he could tear a phone book in two, but he resents his father, also a musician, who drank and gambled and never made enough money to support his family. The boy, with his mother, sister, and brother, lived on welfare in a Brooklyn tenement while the father lived out on the Island, playing organ and directing the men's choir in the Catholic parish that also employed him as a sexton.

"Pop was a fine musician in the standard repertoire -- Bach, Brahms, Franck, Widor -- and, like all Poles, he adored his Chopin, even though he played him with a heavy hand. Not for him the delicate, elegant Chopin of the Waltzes and Nocturnes. No, he loved the Polonaises instead, the more martial the better. His playing had to look like work -- it was very dramatic, very animated, the swaying of the body, the foot depressing the pedal, the rocking of the head, all were very pronounced, outsized, almost parodic. And his choir was something too. He somehow got a bunch of hard-drinking, hard-working fishermen and farmers to show up sober on Sunday morning and sing beautifully. What a sound they made. I remember sneaking in to listen to their Thursday night rehearsals. They would practice for a couple of hours, then out would come the vodka and the cards. I don't know how they did it."

The boy carries in himself some of the standard accoutrements of an Eastern European immigrant's son -- a love of mathematics and chess, a humiliating awkwardness around money that shows itself as disdain, a close identification with the lower classes, and a fervid reverence for the old country's national heroes: Copernicus, Mme. Curie, Paderewski, Conrad, Ulam, the usual suspects. America will afford him every opportunity to define himself and pursue material wealth. But it can offer him nothing to assuage his soul sickness. So he is doomed to cling to the symbols of the past he is sundered from and sit in bitter judgement on the emptiness, the crassness, the cultural and spiritual void, surrounding him.

"The lie you tell yourself, sitting in front of the keyboard, I don't give a shite how many drinks I've had, I can still play this fucking thing. The truth is you can for a while, especially when you're young and your body can recover. But not after years of continual abuse and neglect. You may go through the motions and rely on muscle memory to try and fake it but you can't hide the tremors, the uncertainty, and the meanness that grows out of self-loathing. It's no longer music you're playing, it's just mechanical sounds."

The boy pounds the keyboard. He plays the piano the way he does everything -- headlong and heedless, without subtlety or nuance, a battering ram always ready to knock down a door, whether or not it is locked. His Chopin is loud and brutal, his fingers are clumsy and tired, but he will not quit. He has something to prove.

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