By Susan Knox
The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.
I’ve rented a small room in a century-old Seattle office building for ten years and it’s been a boon to my writing. But my quiet space was compromised when a psychotherapist moved into an adjoining space. The opening for radiators that served both spaces and the thin wallboard separating our offices leaked sound; often a susurrus but it caused me to strain to hear the next-door discourse—although I didn’t always have to strain.
I was frustrated. The conversations were interfering with my work and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I ran through a bunch of ideas—everything from wearing earplugs to trying to avoid her office hours to rearranging the furniture. None of them appealed.
Then I had a brainstorm. As a writer, I’m always looking for new ideas. This was an opportunity to gather material for my stories —anecdotes, characters, unusual lifestyles. Psychotherapist and author, Amy Bloom, has said she never uses her clients’ information in her writing. Maybe she can’t, but I don’t have her professional restrictions.
This could be a gold mine.
The conversations were about as interesting as instructions for rewiring a lamp— I’ve had it with Jake. He expects me to do everything. He won’t even walk the dog or take him to the vet, and Romeo is his dog!
Or, I can’t sleep. My boss is getting ready to fire me. I’m sure of it. You should have seen the look she gave me when I left the office to come here today.
No gold here.
I abandoned eavesdropping. Even though I don’t usually listen to music when I write, I decided to muffle the voices with recordings. I looked for music that featured the piano and found Chopin’s twenty-one nocturnes. I thought they’d be a perfect foil for the unwelcome discussions—soothing and concealing.
A nocturne is a serenade, an instrumental night piece—song-like. The right hand carries the melody while the left hand provides rhythm with broken chords—notes in a chord played one after another, an arpeggio, rather than all keys being struck at once. Elegant, dreamy music. I hoped the melodies would cover the conversations from next door without distracting me from my writing.
I enjoyed the music and one Saturday afternoon, after I’d finished editing a story, I decided to give myself completely to Chopin’s nocturnes. Instead of going home, I spent the next two hours immersed in the lyrical music, enchanted.
That evening my husband, Weldon, and I had an early dinner at Le Pichet, our neighborhood French bistro. After dinner, we walked the seven blocks to Benaroya Hall for a concert.
When Seattle’s symphony hall opened in 1998, the auditorium received rave reviews for the acoustics. One contributing factor is the walls that are paneled in a South African wood from one fallen Makore tree cut into sheets the thickness of a credit card. The unique quality of this wood is that it doesn’t absorb sound—it rejects sound. Once during an organ concerto, the HVAC system went into high gear fluttering the score pages spread across the organ’s music stand. I was seated midway back on the main floor and I could actually hear the pages ruffling. I realized that my desire to listen to music is intensified by this magnificent hall. Recorded music is fine and I enjoy it, but the sound and sight of musicians and the conductor producing music is unmatched. I feel more at one with the music when it’s live.
Weldon and I have appreciated classical music concerts since our marriage forty-four years ago and we take pleasure in a wide range of styles. Our Seattle Symphony commissions at least one new piece every year and we always look forward to the premier. Contemporary music requires a different ear and can be difficult to take in. The music may seem dissonant, lacking grace, or raucous. It’s akin to going to an art museum and viewing Picasso’s cubist paintings of women for the first time. It’s shocking to see mismatched eyes, asymmetric breasts, and elongated necks. It takes time and education to appreciate the work. With new compositions, we try to keep an open mind and lean into the music.
Weldon and I settled into our seats and reviewed the offerings of the evening. First up, a world premiere of In the Shade of an Unshed Tear by Polish composer Agata Zukel. The orchestra was in place and the concertmaster, violin tucked under his arm, entered, and faced the orchestra. Once the musicians had tuned their instruments, he sat down and the conductor briskly walked to the podium, took a bow, and turned to the orchestra, his baton raised.
Clamor began to emanate from the stage. The orchestra sounded as though each section was playing from a different score. An odd insistent phrase played over and over dominated the beginning of the piece. I scanned the orchestra for the source and finally focused on the French horn section. The musicians had removed their mouthpieces and were blowing or humming through them. The violins were bowed with a technique that produced a tone like a rake being dragged across a concrete sidewalk. I have no idea how they did it. The timpanist placed a metal disc on top of the skin that when struck with the mallet fell like a thud instead of the sonorous thunder of a kettledrum. Other orchestra sections made similar modifications or played fortissimo. The emerging cacophony made me squirm in my chair, like a restless five-year-old, ready to bolt the auditorium. I willed myself to stay seated.
After the music ended, the composer, an energetic excited young woman with long black hair garbed in a flowing multi-colored dress, rose from the audience, walked a few stairs up to the stage, and took a bow with the orchestra as the audience applauded. Weldon and I often turn to one another to share our reactions and we’re usually in tune. This time was different. I whispered that listening to the composition was like being in a room full of barking dogs. I was surprised when he smiled and said, “I enjoyed it. I’d like to hear it again.”
The next piece on the program was familiar—Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. My mind sometimes drifts during a concert. I begin thinking about a story I’m writing or an errand that needs to be done. But not this time. I was fully engaged with the performance, totally present in the moment. My mind and body absorbed and comprehended the music in a way I’d never experienced.
On the walk home, I speculated that Chopin’s nocturnes had primed me for the concert. It seemed that, during the afternoon of listening, my mind had shifted. I had a fuller awareness of the evocative nocturnes and that intense concentration carried over to the concert—and the Beethoven. But what about the first piece? Maybe the same nocturnes that had opened my mind had restricted my ability to appreciate Zukel’s twenty-first century composition. Then again, maybe her contemporary composition prepared me to more fully appreciate the Beethoven. Maybe her unusual music stoked my heightened attention to Beethoven. Maybe her music marked a meaningful moment in my concert-going appreciation, something like moving up a level in chess classification.
A few weeks later we attended a piano recital by French Canadian pianist Louis Lortie. Lortie is an unassuming fifty-eight-year-old man with a short, compact body and receding hairline. He strode onto the stage wearing a dark-gray coat that fell to his knees in back and curved up and around in front. The morning coat fit his trim body perfectly—not a ripple in the fabric as he sat at the Steinway concert grand. Lortie’s coat reminded me of a painting of Chopin in a nineteenth-century frock coat. Perhaps Lortie’s sartorial choice was homage to his all-Chopin program.
I scanned the program and was disappointed that no nocturnes were scheduled. Instead, Lortie chose twenty-four etudes—music composed by Chopin to provide finger exercises for his advanced piano students but entertaining enough to be played in recital. They were a far cry from the Czerny finger exercises I’d practiced as a student and a lot more interesting. Lortie is an accomplished and sensitive Chopin interpreter, but halfway through, I tired of the music. The etudes began to sound repetitious. My mind drifted to a conversation with a friend earlier in the day.
The second half of the program was twenty-four preludes Chopin composed in 1838 after temporarily moving to Majorca for a respite from Parisian society. The short pieces, ranging between half a minute to six minutes long and played as a set, were new to me and contained a range of mood, emotion and passion. I was enthralled to listen to them all, one after another.
Lortie appeared exhausted as he left the stage, but the audience applauded and applauded and he finally sat again at the Steinway. He began a nocturne, a slow lilting melody that sounded like a lullaby. The piece was familiar. Nocturne in D Flat Major, Opus 27, No. 2. I relaxed into Chopin’s memorable music and I felt lulled by Lortie’s interpretation. I was happy that I’d spent time listening to this piece—familiarity enhanced my appreciation of the music the way repetition of a bedtime prayer comforts a child.
After he finished, the audience remained silent, savored the moment, and allowed the music to continue to resonate in the hall and in our heads. Then the applause began again and Lortie rose from the bench and took another bow.
I felt restored.
Although I owe the psychotherapist my gratitude for Chopin’s nocturnes, I don’t need to listen to music when I write anymore. Less than a year after she set up her office next to mine, she decamped. The space was replaced by a storage room and silence.
I was relieved. I was revitalized. I was writing again.
Copyright 2021 Knox