Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Concert

I saw him at the last concert of the series to be held in the Bethaniënklooster.  The Bethaniënklooster, originally a convent, lies in the old heart of Amsterdam. A recent Facebook posting indicated that the concert venue was closing its doors, the asking price was three million. A hotel will probably move in, and many local musician’s comments were bemoaning the fate of the hall. “It’s their own fault,” people sniffed, “They ask too much to rent the place.”

My old acquaintance was sitting in a leather chair in the foyer munching away on the free peanuts. I didn’t spot a drink.  I tried to gage whether he had indeed bought a drink. He spotted me and greeted me royally.  Eternally randomly dressed, the man was sporting a black tee-shirt with the words “Amsterdam 23” spread across his chest under a degenerate type of jock jacket. Otherwise he looked good and seemed his old self. For the previous time I had encountered him, on an escalator at Utrecht’s train station, he looked limp and without personality; they must have medicated him, I thought then. Or maybe it was the dullness of the Utrecht Conservatory Opera Class that had done him in. He didn’t seem to be medicated now. His eyes sparkled and he wanted to know if I still sang. I told him this and that. “And you,” I asked, wondering in the back of my mind whether I would inquire about him perhaps having written a score for soprano and violin that might be hanging around a drawer.  I had heard much of his music while in the Conservatory. It was very modern, modern in the sense of non-lyric, disjointed and tedious. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to ask him about his dusty compositions. I refrained. “Retired!” he beamed at me, “I am 68 and retired! The last years were horrible. One time we had a five hour rehearsal and managed to get through three pages.” His hand grasped the side of his head in agony at the memory. “Mozart!” he spat.

I burst into laughter. Years ago when I was in the Amsterdam Opera Academy, or whatever it was called then, he was a coach and would sit on the piano bench bouncing up and down waiting for the cue to start rolling in the opera rehearsals. He had a stillness that wasn’t stillness, behind the waiting a brain was churning in circles like twenty horses. Sometimes he couldn’t stand it and would have a music pad next to him composing a measure or two while waiting for the stage director to finish talking to the students about left from right. Most of the time I felt guilty whenever I went in for a coaching with him, as if I was just getting down to basics busy figuring out B followed A, and the coach was busy with Sanskrit. It was that much of a difference. Even though he put on a brave face, I always felt he was suffering.

“It all sounds the same,” he announced at me, “All this modern music sounds the same. I stopped writing it. It’s all the same.” He had a point. I would have never announced this to him but it was amusing that he himself stated it to me. The concert series was a sponsored by the foundation to aid modern composers. We had suffered some very third rate music in the first half of the concert. The audience, full of intellectuals, was restless and I heard mutterings around me, “What is this elementary school grade stuff, terrible.”

My old acquaintance also had held a job as an assistant to the orchestra in the Concertgebouw. He’d jump up from his seat rush off from the Conservatory, at that time located across the street from the Concertgebouw, to make some other rehearsal. He could scan an orchestra score like a printer and reproduce it on the piano. “I am ADHD and borderline bipolar,” he said matter of fact to me in the foyer. I didn’t doubt it, it sounded like an apt description of his personality. He always understood people weren’t exactly up to his speed.

I liked seeing his old self back. “Relationships!” he barked, “Through with them. All that fuss.” He blinked. “Poetry!” He stated. “I now write poetry. I get up at 6 am and start. It’s surreal!” Here followed a tale about his method of writing poetry. 

“Have you published something?” I asked intrigued.

“Yes. A book.”

“What’s it called?”

“Playing With Nothing.”

Delighted, I howled with laughter. Talk about the Gifted People going for it.

I told him I had moved to Amsterdam less than a year ago and had found a part time office job. “What do you do?” he asked. “Documents in English, filing, ordering coffee, etc….” I trailed off. “But,” I added, “Most of the time there isn’t that much to do. So I write.”

“BRILLIANT!” he exclaimed loudly at me.

He suddenly lurched, “Gotta go!”

“You’re not staying for the second half?” I asked.

“NO! She plays horribly, always out of tune. Too high.”

“I thought the piano was out of tune.” I wondered aloud thoughtfully.

"Bye, Persephone," he said, reaching out, the back of his hand carressed my face. He'd never done that before, and I thought it very sweet of him.

And he abruptly passed by me, leaving me to my immediate destiny, which was, come to think about it, a piece composed by an acquaintance entitled, “Persephone.” Afterwards I went home and ordered a copy of “Playing With Nothing.”

Monday, April 13, 2015

Surprise Me

She used to say this at restaurants.  “Did you want the green beans or the corn?” The waitress would ask, her pen ready for the response.

“Surprise me,” my grandmother would reply. It’s a good way to handle the situation. Give the responsibility to someone else to keep you in good hands for simple matters. After all, the waitress would then select the best option, as she knew what was going on in the kitchen, and she would hope that she made the right choice for the customer.

But sometimes we let other people sway our decisions so that we don’t find what we need or prefer even in mundane matters. Take, for instance, my interest in an article passing by Facebook about the “100 Best Books of the Decade.”  Great I thought intrigued as I mainly read old musty books found at the thrift store for 50 cents, what are they? Click. Voila a book I recently read, passed down to me via a book swap, that I felt was a great concept yet poorly written. I avoided scrolling any further down the list.  It was precisely that book, among others, that I had taken last week on Good Friday to the used book store to exchange for a fresh lot of used books. People keep recommending Nabokov to me, but the Nabokov section was pretty dry.  I looked around. The last time I was standing in the claustrophobic back room of an 18th century house, surrounded by walls of books, I had chosen authors whom I had previously read and enjoyed. I selected Jeanette Winterson’s “Written on the Body” and Emma Tennant’s “The Adventures of Robina.”

“Ah,” the young man behind the cash register looked over my choices.  He tapped the Winterson, “This was great.” I wondered, two chapters in, about my prejudices. Had the book had been written by a heterosexual man on the prowl instead of an entrepreneurial lesbian, running from conquest to conquest, would I like it better? Let’s recap, a heterosexual man (no obvious judgment there) and an entrepreneurial lesbian (are lesbians supposed to be non-entrepreneurial? And why then the business aspect of this description?)  In this wording I give myself away as a typical prototype of Neanderthal heterosexual woman.  Sigh. Libertin versus Libertine? So much for my liberal education. The Tennant was a bit of a feminist version of Fielding. I gave up on the books, and presented them to a friend whose glance swept across the titles and murmured, “You know what I like.”

So, on a whim I thought, “Surprise me,” and immediately James Joyce fell into my eye. A few years ago I had read an article about a group of people who took two years or more to read “Finnegans Wake” because they read it slowly and aloud.  The whole fantastical idea of a novel which was so complex to read that it was slowly carved up and presented in whiskey fumes circling an insurmountable obelisk celebrated at midnight hours among a host of devotees, became transfixed in my brain. “But it’s not hard,” I complained to friend. “It’s not hard at all.”

“Of course not,” she said. “Who said it was?”