we are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams

(the title is from a line of an Arthur O’Shaughnessy poem, which was subsequently borrowed by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

I don’t know where the time goes when I sit at the piano.  It feels like the clock freezes for me but not the rest of the world.  I swear there’s a parallel reality that exists when my fingers are touching the keys, and only after I manage to wrench myself from that world do I find that hours and hours have passed when I thought no time had passed at all.

When I peeled myself away from the keyboard today, my mind stumbled clumsily across a vague memory… a few passages I once marked on the pages of some book or another.  I pulled a couple of my favorite books off the shelf and started sifting through the pages until my restless memory felt satisfied.

This is from Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, where the character Agnes, who had been suffering from some form of amnesia, finally regains the knowledge that she is a talented and passionate pianist:

She stood in the entrance to the new church one afternoon, regarding the placement of the piano with an uneasy, critical eye.  Later, she was sure it was the long summer light, the full golden quality of afternoon light that wakened her hands and set them moving about more restlessly than they had for some time. …The key to the keyboard was hidden in the piano’s odd claw foot.  An aperture behind a toe.  Suddenly, Agnes bent and removed the key.  She then opened the keyboard.  All of a sudden there it was, the notes spread out before her in the slant light of afternoon, the discolored ivories of the sad keys gaping at her, the breath of the thing sighing out like an animal.

There was a small brown bench Sister Hildegarde had found and placed before the creature.  Agnes sat, adjusted the distance, and watched the keys carefully.  Nothing happened.  There was nothing to be afraid of, after all, except that her hands sprang out of her sleeves.  Then they jumped off her lap like claws and crashed down in an astonishing chord. She clutched her hands to her chest.  The sound reverberated.  With a soft and, she feared, insane longing, her hands crept forward again.  This time, quite movingly, they brushed the keys in the secret contradictory melody that opens the Pathetique.  Her hands moved on and on.  She crouched over the keyboard in amazed concentration and played, or allowed herself to be played by, the music that had racked her inside and struggled for release.  …As her hands assembled and disassembled their patterns of old harmony and counterharmony, the mystery of their motions became entirely sensible.  She understood the intricate purpose of [this] language….  Music poured out in a rational waterfall.

Time passed, or no time passed.  Absorbed in the rush of knowing, Agnes felt eyes watching.  Perhaps children, she thought, unable in her awed greed to quit.  Or one of the sisters, or an Ojibwe curious or gripped by longing.  She played in the embrace of that special sense of being heard, that expectancy, but when she finally set her hands in her lap and looked up to acknowledge the listener, no one was there.  Only the still new leaves faintly twitching between the studs and the haze of gold light through the tremulous scatter of clouds.

And from E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, about Lucy Honeychurch’s love for the piano:

It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano.  She was then no longer either deferential or patronizing; no longer either a rebel or a slave.  The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected.  The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort, whilst we look up, marveling how he has escaped us, and thinking how we could worship him and love him, would he but translate his visions into human words, and his experiences into human actions….

[Lucy] was no dazzling exécutant; her runs were not at all like strings of pearls, and she struck no more right notes than was suitable for one of her age and situation.  Nor was she the passionate young lady, who performs so tragically on a summer’s evening with the window open.  Passion was there, but it could not be easily labeled; it slipped between love and hatred and jealousy, and all the furniture of the pictorial style.  And she was tragical only in the sense that she was great, for she loved to play on the side of Victory.  Victory of what and over what—that is more than the words of daily life can tell us.  But that some sonatas of Beethoven are written tragic no one can gainsay; yet they can triumph or despair as the player decides, and Lucy decided that they should triumph.

A very wet afternoon at [Lucy's hotel] permitted her to do the thing she really liked, and after lunch she opened the little draped piano.  A few people lingered round and praised her playing, but finding that she made no reply, dispersed to their rooms to write up their diaries or to sleep. …Like every true performer, she was intoxicated by the mere feel of the notes; they were fingers caressing her own; and by touch, not by sound alone did she come to her desire.

Mr. Beebe, sitting unnoticed in the window, pondered over this illogical element in Miss Honeychurch…. [He remarked to Lucy] when she closed the little piano and moved dreamily towards him: “If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting—both for us and for her.”

I don’t imagine that I play with much skill or accuracy, or even that it’s enjoyable for others to listen to me, but playing fills me such a release that my inadequacy has never bothered me much.  Playing brings me to a strangely ephemeral yet “more solid world” where “time passes, or no time passes” and my mistakes are okay.  It’s where my worries melt neatly away, where reality looks beautiful, and where I begin to believe that I may one day find the courage to live with passion.  What an exhilarating notion.

Category: books, quirks, quotes, what's inside One comment »

One Response to “we are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams”

  1. *Star

    The odd thing about pastimes like this is that too much concentration can foil them. If I concentrate hard on playing the piano, I slur and slip and twang my way through the entire piece. But if I can coax my head into another avenue entirely (or into no particular avenue at all) then suddenly my hands become remarkably proficient. Maybe that says something about the way we live. Maybe not.


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