Friday, January 1, 2016

Music Is Enough for a Lifetime -- Take Two

But a Lifetime Is Not Enough for Music

            In an earlier blog post I referred to this quote from my favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff. It’s one of my favorite quotes because it proves true time and again.

            In my work in progress, working title Jamie’s Children, my protagonists are both musicians but are following very different paths. Laura is a violin prodigy who discovers her music at the age of four and begins an international career at nineteen. Younger brother Niall finds his way to his music later in his life. He’s drawn to folk music and learns to play guitar. He begins to use his voice … a voice he inherited from his opera singer father … and finally, Niall begins to write songs; all when he is in his twenties.

            As much as I love to listen to violin music, I knew very little about the instrument when I started writing this book. A local friend who is an exceptional violinist and teacher, Chris Souza, has been a great help to me in understanding more about the challenges of mastering the instrument, and I’ve listened to a lot of violin literature. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons I write about musicians; I can’t think of anything I would rather do than listen to music.

            The Brahms Violin Concerto plays a prominent role in the book. I first heard this concerto as a freshman or sophomore at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music when the legendary Jascha Heifetz played it with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to a standing room only crowd in Cincinnati’s Music Hall. It was mesmerizing, and I’ve loved the Concerto ever since.

Listening to it when writing the book, I tried to put myself in Laura’s place. How would it feel to bring this magnificent piece to life?  For Laura it represents a milestone in her professional … and personal … life. The work is filled with technical challenges for the soloist. But along with those technical challenges, there is Brahms’ brilliant and descriptive music. What a joy it must be for a musician to become one with that music.

Niall’s path presented many more challenges. Folk music was a genre I was only dimly aware of, though I appreciated and particularly loved some folk songs and singers. I’ve always loved some of the music of Simon and Garfunkle, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, John Denver. I’ve come to appreciate the artistry of so many more great folk singer-songwriters, among them Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, James Taylor, Jim Croce, Judy Collins, and especially Gordon Lightfoot, whose music I find especially appealing.

I’ve come to appreciate the skill of these performers as well as the beauty of the songs they write. “Both Sides Now” … wonderful lyrics, beautiful melody. John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” is quite possibly one of the loveliest songs ever written. Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” is, I believe, skillful writing and a great song. It’s become one of my favorite pieces.

Again, I’ve had help trying to understand the folk singer-songwriter, this time from a former voice student who over the past couple of years has begun writing and performing. Nate Taylor has been kind enough to read my attempts at lyrics for Niall’s first songs. The more I work on these, the more I appreciate what I hear from established folk artists. Playing the guitar … another instrument that’s beyond my experience. So I’ve been watching videos and listening to the different ways in which folk artists use guitar.

And just when I think I’ve come to know a little more about music, I find out how little I actually know. I’ve barely scratched the surface. I heard a recording today by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. A magnificent artist with an astonishing mastery of his instrument. Intricate finger-picking that seems impossible, yet in the video I saw his fingers fly across the guitar strings and he makes it look easy. And I never heard of this man ─ who was world famous and had a career which went beyond flamenco to jazz and classical guitar ─ until today, nearly two years after his death.

“Music is enough for a lifetime … but a lifetime is never enough for music.”  (With apologies to Maestro Rachmaninoff.)