This Moment's Earthly Commotion: Author Theresa Krier on returning to the piano after 30 years
(photo courtesy of Bob Dionne)
It's an honor when a writer agrees to contribute to No Dead Guys. And when that author writes with poetry and sensitivity about her return to the piano, it's a gift and an inspiration. Author, retired literature professor, avid amateur pianist Theresa Krier shares all the joys (and some challenges) of falling in love with the piano late in life.
This Moment's Earthly Commotion
a guest post by Theresa Krier
(with thanks to Rhonda Rizzo, David Lee Miller, and the
spirits of Lou Harrison and George Frederic Handel)
The Zucchini Shofar
by Sarah Lindsay (b. 1958)
No animals were harmed in the making of this joyful noise:
A thick, twisted stem from the garden
A thick, twisted stem from the garden
is the wedding couple's ceremonial ram's horn.
Its substance will not survive one thousand years,
nor will the garden, which is today their temple,
nor will their names, nor their union now announced
with ritual blasts upon the zucchini shofar.
Shall we measure blessings by their duration?
Through the narrow organic channel fuzzily come
the prescribed sustained notes, short notes, rests.
All that rhythm requires. Among their talents,
the newlyweds excel at making
and serving mustard-green soup and molasses cookies,
and taking nieces and nephews for walks in the woods.
The gardener dyes eggs with onion skins,
wraps presents, tells stories, finds the best seashells--
his friends adore his paper-cuttings--
"Nothing I do will last," he says.
What is this future approval we think we need;
who made passing time our judge?
Do we want butter that endures for ages,
or butter that melts into homemade cornbread now?
--the note that rings in my deaf ear without ceasing,
or two voices abashed by the vows they undertake?
This moment's chord of earthly commotion
will never be struck exactly so again--
though love does love to repeat its favorite lines.
So let the shofar splutter its slow notes and quick notes,
let the nieces and nephews practice their flutes and trombones,
let living-room pianos invite unwashed hands,
let glasses of different fullness be tapped for their different notes,
let everyone learn how to whistle,
let the girl dawdling home from her trumpet lesson
pause at the half-built house on the corner,
where the newly-installed maze of plumbing comes down
to one little pipe whose open end she can reach,
as she takes a deep breath
and makes the whole house sound.
What a wonderful poem, full of wit, tenderness, spaciousness, psalmic joy, unexpected turns of thought. A wedding poem that turns into a meditation on the passage of time, a celebration of music that singles out instruments of zucchini and water pipes, that dawdling girl at the end who makes the sound of a mighty wind: that girl is my hero. (As a retired professor of poetry, I could write pages and pages about the excellences of this poem. But I refrain....) Thanks, thanks, and ever thanks to Sarah Lindsey.
When I took up piano again in my mid-60s, not having played for more than 30 years, my path wasn't clear to me. I wanted to noodle around, in solitude, with no pressure, so as to find my wishes and my capacities. One certainty has abided from the outset: if the experiment showed me that I could only play songs to myself and warble with them, off-key, that was fine with me. That's what retirement could be about: trying something old and renewed, welcoming whatever arose, without expectations. And it would have the satisfaction of picking up threads from my earlier life, because early in my work as a literature professor I'd developed and taught courses on music-and-poetry, which mostly meant song.
But no. Not only song, although always song too. Something yet unknown was calling.
Maybe the first steps would be about taking up piano while managing those infirmities, ailments, and conditions that didn't exist 30 years ago: nerve damage in one wrist and hand, a plate in the other wrist, for instance; and fibromyalgia and late-discerned autism and . . . . Ailments and injuries just come with living, to everyone, but by default I thought of them as handicaps, limitations that needed what I was calling an adaptive music practice. Thus no fast octaves, limited ornamentation, no huge chords, no Phil-Spectorish walls of sound to overwhelm my nervous system.
But no. This is ableism, I came to feel, and based on a young, normative body which no one ever has, or not for long. There ought to be a different way of thinking music.
Next it seemed, to my scholar-self who loves fidelity to historical detail and precision, that I would fill in the gaps of my youthful education by studying technique, theory, how to practice, historically informed performance. Pursuing subjects like these certainly did my understanding some good, and I am now grown-up enough to make judgements about what was useful to me and what wasn't.
But no. The more I studied, the less I wanted norms, rules, or argument among music specialists. I don't ask for permission. As the adamant line goes in movements and communities of autistic people:
Compliance is Not My Goal.
Next it seemed that my piano and I would want to dwell forever in the gorgeous airs of Baroque, and especially Bach. Most of the music I remembered playing with pleasure from half a century ago was Baroque, though I knew nothing of that at the time. But no. At least, No to the ways I was experiencing it. Going too far too fast into Bach, whose role in music history I hadn't really thought critically about, I couldn't breathe: too many notes, too much forward drive, not enough air and space. (Lou Harrison says of Wagner, as distinct from the divine Mr. Handel, that "My problem with Wagner is that he again has no fenestration, no time to breathe," while Handel is "a man who knows how to breathe and open windows." No air: that's how I experience an excess of Bach, or Bach as excess. God bless the divine Mr. Harrison, who freed me to discern and hold my own views about Bach and many other musical subjects.) My early-life meltdowns about piano perfection, my shutdowns and dissociations in public performance, pressures from every which way heated up again and made practice a misery. As I can put it now, but could never have done decades ago, there was less and less room for myself, my own heart, my own tempos, as I worked on those unwindowed pieces. Rather there was a joyless compliance, constriction, petrifaction.
For my birth family's motto is, "If there's a harder way, a Krier will find it." All my siblings and I love accuracy, concentration, detail, fidelity to history and how things work. As the poet and essayist Randall Jarrell says, "Such unnecessary pains, such fantastic difficulties! Yet with manners, arts, sports, hobbies, they are always there--so perhaps they are necessary after all."
That's my inheritance and I wouldn't want it otherwise. But it can get exhausting. How might such concentration and weightiness meet with joy, buoyancy, pleasure, the bliss of melody, the yielding to dance energies? How to find ease, breadth, amplitude? I want to inhabit a world of music like the one Sarah Lindsay's poem sketches. I want to be one of the animals not harmed in the making of a joyful noise. I want this moment's chord of earthly commotion. At the same time I want to be able to elicit from the piano, or between myself and the piano, the prescribed notes, all that rhythm requires.
Yes, I can say Yes to this as a path for now: mending past harms by following glimmers of ease and expansions of energy; finding how to move fluently between strictness and breath; discerning in my own terms how to keep myself alive and present in dialogue with – let's say – Bach's phrases, rather than suppressing or obliterating myself in the practice session.
Here's what I found, sometimes by reading books on practice, more often by turning away from books on practice.
* Let me never abandon the body (my sister, myself). Keep it warm and alive. For me this means intentionally breathing for a good long while every morning, usually in combination with a rhythmic, varied practice like Qi Gong, which energizes but needn't tire me out. If I activate multiple, interacting bodily rhythms and tempi, through gestures that take me through the whole body, the more joyful and expansive I am at the piano. Sometimes I dance before practicing – not period gigues or sarabandes, but shake-it-out dancing to my 1960s playlist or swaying to American standards.
* Let me never abandon the voice (my heart, myself). If I sing along with any piano music, simply with la-la's, simply with whatever melody arises, my heart is right there on the voice, in my hands, not dissociated or shut down. That's been a miracle to discover. Madeline Bruser also recommends singing every note of every voice in a work. I find this practice helpful for cleaning up and hearing afresh a work I've already gotten familiar with, but I go back again and again to melody, even when there doesn't seem to be one. As French philosopher Luce Irigaray says in one of her many pages on the voice, "It is capable of renewing in us a familiar something destroyed, dead--from distress, despair, mourning. . . . It suggests a path without imposing it. It gives back life and the taste for life."
* Let me honor pauses, drift, and reverie. This one is not hard for me; I have spent years thinking about pauses and stanza breaks in poetry. At the piano, I'm a natural at breathing big through rests, fermatas, commas; looking out the window (fenestration again); rising from the piano bench to make literal, physical bows of gratitude to the composer whose phrases I am conversing with. All of this is for the sake of receptivity, and giving the heart time to find its own movements. Receptivity matters so much more than performance. The heart, my heart anyway, needs that time.
* Let me remember to open the piano lid. I have a studio piano, not a grand, so it's not a sure thing I will always remember to do this. Opening the lid lets a world of shimmering sound pour out.
* Let me welcome imperfection. Better, let me cast out the idea of perfection altogether, and instead love evermore the passing of time, the art of paper-cuttings, fleeting arts. Now, I know that this is easier for a retired person than for a young person with a career in mind. Still it seems to me possibly detrimental to anyone's soul to be too devoted to a perfect performance, chiefly because that perfection, or virtuosity itself as an ideal, seems to require an effort to control or fix time. Shall we measure blessings by their duration? A compelling performance is a blessing, not a fixture for all time (we have been badly trained by recordings, in this respect).
I like the following model better. In the 13th century, one Kamo no Chomei, skilled in the biwa, a stringed instrument, moved away from the city of Kyoto and into the hills. He says:
Some mornings, when I reflect that this life of mine is as fleeting as the white waves, I go to Okanoya to watch the boats. . . . Other times, at evening when the wind in the maples sends the leaves to rustling . . . If I am in the mood for music, I often play "The Melody of the Autumn Wind," blending it with the sighing of the pines, or perform "The Flowing Fountain" to accompany the rippling of the water. I am a very unskilled player, but then my music is not intended to delight ears of others. I play by myself, sing by myself, and in this way refresh my spirits.
This moment's chord of earthly commotion / will never be struck exactly so again. In Lindsay's poem, love spreads around from that moment's chord, and time unfurls into its futures. Let the shofar splutter, let the nieces and nephews practice, let living-room pianos invite unwashed hands. The world generously invites music at every turn. I now say, with some years on me, that life is too short to want to fix and control time. When I die, I'd rather have been like the girl dawdling home who has the crazy inspiration of taking a deep breath, blowing on a water pipe to make the whole house sound. The house is always unfinished.
Theresa Krier is Professor Emerita of Literature, and has taught at the University of Miami, Notre Dame, and Macalester College. She's written extensively about poetry, often but not solely from within feminist philosophy. She is the author of Birth Passages: Maternity and Nostalgia, Antiquity to Shakespeare (Cornell, 2001) and Gazing on Secret Sights: Spenser, Classical Imitation, and the Decorums of Vision (Cornell, 1990). She is the editor of Refiguring Chaucer in the Renaissance (Florida, 1998); co-editor, with Elizabeth D. Harvey, of Luce Irigaray and Premodern Culture: Thresholds of History (Routledge, 2004), and co-editor of two special issues of Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual. Most recently she's been made very happy by writing a review of Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage, volume I of his second trilogy The Book of Dust. Now she's retired, and has enjoyed the delicious leisure to write a long, unpublished book about dawns in poetry; to turn to piano again after 30 years or more, and to move to the beautiful Driftless Region of Wisconsin. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Zucchini Shofar:" Sarah Lindsay, Twigs & Knucklebones (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2008), pages 111-12. Reprinted here with permission.
difficulties: Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age (New York: Vintage, 1955), page 183.
Lou Harrison: Interview from 2000, cited in Bill Alves and Brett Campbell, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017), page 302. The equally divine and liberating Mark Morris, who also loves Harrison and Handel, contributed the foreword.
voice: Luce Irigaray, "Before and Beyond Any Word," in Key Writings (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), page 140.
Kamo no Chomei: "Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut," in Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life, trans. Burton Watson (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1994), pages 31-64, at 57. Kamo's date of writing is 1212 CE.