When my father died of lung cancer at fifty-three, his death wrenched me out of the ocean of music that I\’d been swimming in since infancy. Even as a toddler, I was so immersed in his music that my mother found me on the potty one day, humming the third movement of the Beethoven violin concerto, which my father was preparing to perform.
I spent a major part of my childhood attending–more like being dragged to–concerts. Sunday mornings, in Barcelona, my mother would take me to Mass, and then to the symphony concert in the Palau de la música catalana. There, in the hallucinatory Art Nouveau hall, swinging my legs, which were too short to reach the floor, I would sit through endless programs. Once I\’d located my father in the violin section, I would entertain myself by gazing at the plaster busts of long-haired muses that emerged out of the wall behind the orchestra.
When the Ecuadorian government imported a quartet of Catalan players to Quito, with my father as first violin, we all–the second violinist, the violist, the cellist, my parents and I–shared a house so the quartet could spend mornings practicing for their bi-weekly performances, which I was required to attend. At twelve years old, even though by then my feet did reach the floor, a late Beethoven quartet seemed to last an eternity.
By the time we came to the U.S. I was in high school, and had been playing the violin for several years. By sheer dint of exposure, I was finding it easier to sit through and even enjoy my father\’s symphony concerts, and his chamber music and solo performances.
Then, as I was finally maturing musically, my father died, and I stopped going to concerts. Half a century later, I still find it painful to attend live performances. As a result, over the years I have missed a lot of good music. In Vermont, there is a vibrant musical community, and magnificent players regularly spill out of New York looking for venues, but it\’s all wasted on me. I can enjoy listening to music on the car radio, or on CDs in my living room. But live performances bring tears to my eyes, and so I avoid them.
Why, I\’ve been wondering, shouldn\’t I get the same joy out of going to concerts as so many of my friends do? What is it about live performances that plunges me back into a state of mourning, as if my father had just died? Why can I listen to music in my car but not in a concert hall?
And then it came to me. There is one sound that is never heard on a recorded piece, but that you always hear whenever a string player picks up his or her instrument, whether preparing to practice scales or to perform at Carnegie Hall: the sound of tuning up.
For the violin, it starts with the two highest strings, A and E, played together, then A and D, and finally D and G, the tones growing sharper or flatter with each turn of the pegs, the adjustments finer and finer until the three perfect fifths are reached.
Together with my parents\’ voices, the sound of a violin being tuned, that homely wah-wah without which no music can begin, was one of the first vibrations to reach me as I swam in my mother\’s womb. So that, to this day, hearing the search for those perfect fifths immerses me in my father\’s presence: his hyper-flexible, tobacco-stained fingers, the circular sore on his left jaw from too many hours of playing, the aroma of cigarettes that enveloped him.
But if I open my eyes and see someone else tuning the strings, my father is suddenly wrenched away from me, replaced by a stranger who may well be a better violinist than he was, but is not him. And I am plunged into mourning once again.
If for me my father\’s persona was inextricably identified with music, it\’s little wonder that music, which like smell bypasses the obtrusive medium of language, can bring him back so vividly. And just as vividly–since it\’s no longer him playing, nor will ever be–snatch him away. I don\’t suppose that there\’s much I can do to alter this, nor at this stage do I really want to. I simply accept it as a fair price for all the years that I spent floating in the warm currents of my father\’s music.
|My father (mustache, violin) and the Catalan quartet in Quito, 1955|