Every rehearsal of the Maggiore (String) Quartet begins with a very plain, very slow three-octave scale on all four instruments in unison: sometimes major, as in our name, sometimes minor, depending on the key of the first piece we are to play. No matter how fraught our live have been over the last couple of days, no matter how abrasive our disputes about people or politics, or how visceral our differences about what we are to play and how we are to play it, it reminds us that we are, when it comes to it, one. We try not to look at each other when we play this scale; no one appears to lead… When I play this I release myself into the spirit of the quartet. I become the music of the scale. I mute my will, I free my self.
~An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
A blast from the past last week, in the form of a facebook friend request, sent me reeling down memory lane to a time of tormented relationships in the local music community. In the performing arts, fragile egos are at stake, competition for gigs or jobs can get ugly, friendships and other relationships can bloom and then explode.
There have been a few unpleasant situations – the power struggle of singer and pianist – friends to start with but then each trying to dictate terms – collaberative work becoming combative, strong personalities clashing, jealousies raging, and the list goes on. It’s been there throughout history – examples abound – and it’s been there in my life and career. And it continues as we try to sort through some administrative details in the local community.
In the fight or flight scenario – I’m the bird. I hate conflict and confrontation and don’t think well on my feet. I’m still that shy 5-year-old who needed my (younger) sister to walk me to kindergarten, holding my hand. And that terrified grade 1 student who begged to stay home because I didn’t know how to read yet. Junior high only got worse. For the most part, I’ve overcome this because I’ve had to, but it can rear its ugly head at the most inopportune times, leaving me either paralyzed or babbling idiotically.
I first read An Equal Music by Vikram Seth quite a number of years ago when I was involved in one of these uncomfortable situations. It’s a novel about a string quartet – their lives as individuals, as a performing group, and their relationships. The plot is driven by a romance but one of the overall themes is learning to work together for the greater good of the music. The passage above stayed with me all these years, and that blast from the past drove me back to the book.
An Equal Music is written by someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about; the writing about music is among the best I’ve read. The novel also deals briefly with ghosts from the past – an unhealthy relationship with a former teacher – and the economic reality of being a performing musician, in this case in the “violin jungle” of London. It’s a sadder story than I had remembered but the ending is warm and redemptive.
Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music – not too much, or the soul could not sustain it – from time to time.
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