Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Itzhak and Me

DISCLAIMER: I read this lengthy, wordy, wandering blog post to Sean who suggested I maybe split it up into two parts or make some edits of some kind. I agreed that it does need some editing but I also know that I'm pretty lazy and unsure of how to go about it. So in the meantime I'm just going to publish it so at least it's out there. I'm never afraid to go back and edit blog posts from yesteryear. But staying put as a draft just doesn't seem right. 

So i recently shared a bit of my muffin making experience while listening to a podcast with Itzhak Perlman.  This is the kind of day that makes me real happy. First, i make good muffins that turn out really well. Second, brain food brain food brain food. The podcast, I mean. And probably the muffins. They are magic.  But it zeroes in on and revives the very soul of me and makes me feel so good. It's emotional, it's invigorating, I feel alive and creative even if I'm not actually creating (even though I totally am--the muffins).  It's wonderful. Click here to read back.

I wanted to expand on this listening experience that I felt like overlapped and cross-referenced several other experiences I'd been having lately and I hope I can remember them all and connect them in a way that makes a tiny amount of readable sense for you.

But let's go back a bit. I recently returned from a trip to New York that I'm still riding on a high from and it's been about 4 weeks since I've been home to the moment I'm writing this and I'm still reeling a little bit.  I'm debating whether I could attempt to blog about it or if it's even meant for the blog. I've already journaled about it and included journaling snippets I took while there. For now, let's summarize it by saying it was an emotional reckoning and reconciliation, a joyous reunion, rejuvenating and redeeming. It was just what I needed. It was perfect.

On the plane home I watched a documentary on film scores and I loved the whole thing. They interviewed various composers, some I know well and some not at all.  They took turns describing what the process looks like for them, what it takes, what goes into it, why they do what they do and how they feel about it.  I loved so much about it but one composer-- i can't even remember who--said something like, "this may sound arrogant but I have to write music that gives me the chills. If I don't feel the chills, then how can I expect others to?"  I considered this and it resonated. I've been writing music lately, just a little here and there, and it feels really good. It helps me to remember who I am, which definitely always feels good. But I am always pondering what about a song do I like? What makes it good, in my opinion? And I've always held to the idea that you have to love it yourself if you want others to.

Fast forward to a few days later when we received our December Reader's Digest in the mail with one of the article headlines reading, "Why Men Don't Cry."  And add this to reason #3 I feel like I'm succeeding as a parent when Julian read it and exclaimed, "What?? This makes no sense! Of COURSE men cry!" Which is exactly right, and it would be preposterous to think otherwise, Reader's Digest. (Those italics mean I'm chiding, not merely identifying a publication, just to be clear)  Julian is an emotional creature and I herald this. I try to help him bridle it but we definitely allow the emotions their due, their place. Crying is a complicated procedure. When is it beneficial. When must you call it good. How would you ever try to make another person cry at something beautiful?

Itzhak said he receives lots of questions on how to make someone cry. How do you evoke emotion. He said, "you cannot make someone or teach someone how to make someone cry; it's something you were born with." He mentioned there were many variables at play.  Is the audience open to being moved? Are they "listening"?  Are they going through something in their life that might make them particularly vulnerable? (I'm mega-paraphrasing here)  Do they recognize elements at hand that they can translate into emotion for themselves?

Which makes sense. I mean, if there were a formula that would sound utterly bizarre and just mechanical and wrong. It's never my goal to musically make someone cry, the thought is absurd.  But now that he mentioned it, and watching that documentary, I was desperately interested in what actually is required to make someone feel a thing, to tears even.  One of the composers from the film sat at a mixing/sound table (?? console) in a studio and fiddled with the volume of a recording. He showed us the melodic line and then to draw our attention to it, brought in a deeper, underlying harmony that made the music richer and balanced. The melodies are nothing without the harmonies, something I strongly believe in.

"To be a musician," Itzhak began, "it's not normal. It's abnormal. Anything that you do as a child that's special, which requires practicing, what's natural about that?"

I loved this. I thought about me, I thought about Julian and taking lessons and experiencing witnessing his brain learn an entirely new and complicated language.  I've never felt normal, not necessarily because I'm a "musician," but just because. And I've always loved it., embraced it. So listening to Itzhak felt like a i was listening to a brother. A smart and quirky brother who knows a thing or two about what he's saying, and whose language felt very familiar to me.

He said that if you want to explain it scientifically, what it is about music that makes a person cry, he said he supposed, "it's probably a thing about the harmonies. The harmonies affect you in a certain way. It's a harmonic reaction."  And then he gave the example of Puccini, and the opera La Boheme, which Sean and I saw once upon a time and loved. And I may have actually yelled, "YES! THE HARMONIES."  I felt like I was hearing all of my privately and long-held theories and it was so validating and helped me feel a little less isolated. Fortunately I have a best friend artist at my fingertips where art chats happen on the reg, but with music specifically, i felt a little vindicated, if to no one but myself. See? Itzhak agrees!  I'd love for such a thing to be scientifically explained and if harmonies is it, I'll buy that. Our brains crave the blend, the cooperation, the teaming up, the balancing out, the weaving in and out of supporting or dominating or even conflicting lines of music, the dissonant resolve into harmony.

On this NY trip I fluctuated back and forth from feeling like a tourist and a resident. It was a surreal experience. It had been two years since i'd been and i had begun to forget it, much to my fear and sadness. This place i am now is so extremely different in almost every single way and the old life just felt so far away. I was beginning to think it wasn't real, that it had all been a dream.

And then when I arrived, a flood of emotions, and stirred-up memories from multiple phases of living there were overwhelming to all my senses.  I spent the first day being a little nervous, too, at being in the "big city" which was so beyond ridiculous. I scolded myself, "get your city legs on, Jen!" and I felt myself feeling like a tourist, but had this past life I was struggling to remember.  It's like, there's the New York people see on TV or in movies and then the one I experienced, and I know how it feels to view both.  Plus I stayed in a hotel in midtown which was extremely touristy of me. But I knew my way around a bit, had frequented many locations nearby, and just found myself knowing things I couldn't possibly know as a tourist.  Like how to walk (fast, and intentional). How to move and position my body in this context, within hundreds of constant other bodies around me.  How to weave around people, how to cross the street. There are subtleties there that you learn only from lots of practice.

When I finally decided to take the train (because I had some trepidation--???? WHY? as only a tourist would!) I went down with my suitcase, bought my metro card, swiped and then walked further down the platform to wait, because I knew that's what you do.  And I got on the train, found a seat, and straddled my suitcase as out of the way as I could because somehow I knew that's what you do. I texted Sean all of my feelings throughout the whole trip and on the train (because you can get a signal on the train now[!!]) I told him I felt like I was experiencing the strangest sensation of muscle memory. It was all muscle memory. Like my body knew what to do, I just didn't know how I knew! I could do all of these things but how?? And he sagely replied, "Like Jason Bourne. You're Jason Bourne!" and I replied, "I AM  Jason Bourne!"   It was so strange, and funny. But straaaange.

On the subway I had the most idyllic subway-riding experience I could have ever conceived of having. The whole trip had me swimming in this heightened sense of nostalgia and it was so potent. Eeeevery little thing struck a little chord with me but I recognize that that is just the New York magic, casting its little spell. I knew the feeling while living there of course, but wow, the feeling was intense this time around.  At one point, on the train, a man near me was struggling to clean his phone. I dug into my backpack and found an alcohol lens wipe and told him i thought they were pretty handy for such tasks. He graciously accepted and then that of course broke the stranger barrier and though I was happy to resume silent solo passenger'ing, I could tell he felt like he should chat with me now and then.

At one of the stops a woman got on, sat by me, and voiced her frustration with the local train across the track that never came. She hoped the express train we were on (which ordinarily skips stops) would take over and make local stops which would benefit her greatly.  A few stops in, sure enough, an announcement was made that this express train was now making local stops and she cheered and exclaimed, "I called it, didn't i!" And I agreed she did, and she concluded her celebration by saying God works in mysterious ways. I told her it was her lucky day because usually He works the other way, which I later realized sounded much more pessimistic than I intended, but really, the train rarely works in your favor. I mean she'd already been waiting for who knows how long for a ghost train never to appear. But I was really, really happy for her.

A little while later, a musician got on, a man with a guitar, and played the most beautiful rendition of something or other. I can't even remember what it was but it was lovely, so much so that my phone-cleaning friend and I exchanged a look like, whoa, this guy! And as I continued on the ride, we passed one of my old stops near my house and ALL OF THE FEELINGS punched me in the face and heart (as New York feelings do) and the whole experienced reached a pinnacle of dangerous portions and I let myself weep a little. Just let the ol' eyes well up. My friend looked at me (we were sitting perpendicular) and I wondered what he must have been thinking. Probably not much, as public crying isn't so weird there, and I let it happen because I couldn't not. Also, having broken that initial ice, there was a shared experience there that went largely unspoken, merely by being so close to humanity. We exited and he thanked me for the wipe and I said he was welcome and he walked on and that was the only time I let myself actually cry on this trip, because the brink and threat of an enormous emotional eruption remained the ENTIRE TIME I WAS THERE, and that just wouldn't have done.  (not sure if I can use that in the past tense-- "just won't do")

Itzhak said that his job was not to make anyone feel anything, but to effectively communicate to the audience what he was trying to say.  There's memorization and recitation, but what exactly are you trying to communicate? It had to be new and intentional for him every time, no matter how many times he'd played a piece. Otherwise it would fall flat, and would not translate.  And I jotted down on my notepad there, "maybe being a great musician means being a great communicator?"

Whatever it is, I benefit so much from it. From the collaboration of great musicians, and the music all around me.  In New York, I felt, a lot, and I marveled that it did not subside once, not while I was there, not even after I landed back in UT. From my conversations with strangers, to culturally edifying experiences. Reconnections with old friends, (human and non-human). The rediscovery of all these existing but forgotten layers to my current and past self. Elements I brought back with me to my life now, with the people I'm with, the experiences I'm having or trying to have now, the music I'm trying to create now.  I marvel, but with so many magnificent harmonies playing off each other, scientifically, it really shouldn't come as a surprise.

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