Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Up at Bethel Woods, standing on the patio listening to a Beatles recording playing in the gift shop -- "Tomorrow Never Knows" of all things, among the candle-holders, placemats, and t-shirts -- while waiting for the concert to begin, Korean-American violinist Jennifer Koh and her Israeli husband, pianist Benjamin Hochman, about to perform singly and together, Janáček, Chopin, Bartók, and Brahms. I look out over the sloping fields and windbreaks. Nothing is the same, not Yasgur's Farm, not the sixties, not the uncertain green woods, and certainly not us, me and a bunch of panting overweight gray-haired retirees. Out in front of the museum on the walk over from the North Parking Lot, four ceramic bells hung from beautiful wooden frames -- miniature torii -- called Shohola Bells by the potter David Greenbaum -- chime fitfully in the April breeze. The sound gives me chills.

We're at the end of mud season, excited to see the year's first green shoots peeping through the leaves: daffodils, crocuses, tulips. Green onions shimmered above the black dirt of Pine Island on the way up like a mirage: maybe the world will be green again. My wintry body straightens itself and begins its slow climb back up the way of belief, its dumb-stricken belief in resurrection, born of the recharged soil tinged with green. I see horses frisking on the far hills, cows standing mute, goats and llamas lying down and letting the sun stream into their bodies. Giving off primitive vibrations, even lower in pitch than the bells, the tableaux along the northern ridge make such godforsaken music. If I stand here long enough, it will become apparent nothing makes sense. It's only meaninglessness that reveals itself in music.

The sky appears vaster here than in the big city a hundred miles to the southeast. But it's just an illusion. The sky is the same. The people are much the same, not unlike the animals. Flocks of geese and herds of deer now inhabit the abandoned camps, distressed buildings, and crumbling barns that sit forlornly behind broken fences and peeling, faded signs, the names written in Hebrew. Many of the concert-goers are elderly Jews. They wink and wave at each other in greeting, keeping their other hand on their canes. The world was a different world when they were young -- these hills bustled with Jews taking a break from the city -- dancing, singing, swimming, palefaces squinting into the sun. Sex, sex was everywhere then. Today they are patient during the first half of the concert as they wait for orderly Brahms to organize their memories. Janáček’s folk melodies, Chopin’s sensual lyricism, Bartók’s microtones and called-for virtuosity, hell, such music is all too sexual, just like their young lives were fifty, sixty years ago, just like this April breeze that lifts the skirt of beauty and fuels their red-blooded dreams, the reveries of the dancers they once were. They stand here on the patio, transfixed, inhaling the fresh air. Max Yasgur was a Jew, may his memory live on.

There is no way to account for the effects of music. I too am an animal, like the retarded boy in the next-to-last row who rolls his head from side to side as he tries to pull his hand away from his mother. She holds on to him lightly out of love. He giggles at Bartók and cries at Brahms, reminding me of my uncle Gene who wept inconsolably at Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2. He was retarded too but that word has fallen out of favor, and so I don't know how to think of him straight or describe him properly. He wasn't challenged or disabled or merely slow. He's in a cemetery now out on the Island having returned to the dust from which he came, like all of us must. The Jews up here look prosperous, they look like fine professional people who made a good living, are now physically comfortable despite their afflictions, and want to hear a little Brahms before dinner. Their children and grandchildren are marrying out of the faith in record numbers -- America is the land of mutts after all -- and Asian musicians are playing the music of Eastern Europe as though it ran in their veins. Cripes, it's enough to make your eyes well up with tears, that the people of the world are coming together in places like this former farm on a wind-swept ridge in Sullivan County, amid the crows and sheep, the good intentions and hazy memories.

Back in the seventies I was caught speeding by a New York State trooper somewhere on Route 17 between Wurtsboro and Monticello. It was January, I was driving my step-brother back to school, it was early on a Sunday morning, and there was not a single other car out on the road. My step-brother and girlfriend were sleeping. The car was a bronze-colored Chevy Impala. I was doing eighty-eight miles per hour. The sun glinted off the snowbanks at the edge of the road. The cop came out of nowhere, as cops always seem to do, and caught me dead to rights. It was the most expensive ticket I've ever gotten, payable to the court in Liberty. The others in the car went back to sleep. Brockport was still hours away.

After getting the cop's lecture and ticket, I remember putting in a cassette tape of Brahm's Second Symphony and letting the sound wash over me, as we started up again, riding over these same hills while the world slept. The sky was clear but it turned overcast by midday and started to snow in the afternoon. Once you get out of the city, New York State seems endless. You can see for miles even if there isn't much to see. And now here he was, Brahms again, scared of Beethoven's shadow, his music architecturally sound, finely fitted, but already fading into a distant past. I wished I had some Joe Cocker or Country Joe McDonald with me. Something sloppy, brutish, sophomoric. Something the cows would understand. Sure, there's poverty and ruination nestled in these hills, a sadness in knowing that casinos won't turn the tide, nor will cultural tourism, the peddling of some plastic Woodstock bric-a-brac. But you wouldn't know it, sitting in this big room, listening to Jennifer Koh and her husband give their all to the Brahms sonata. In the company of these respectful, almost courtly, elderly Jews, their eyes alight, their ears open, it works: the room comes alive. Amazingly, we're still alive.

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