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Strange architecture

April 10, 2013

Our office manager loves music. I’m not sure what set her off, but she’s been on a mission to start a concert series starring her coworkers. One of my staff played the inaugural concert. It kind of inspired some of us and we decided to pull together a performance of the staff of my main toy. We had our first rehearsal on our lunch hour today.

Playing chamber music is a funny and intimate thing. Playing with people for the first time is usually a bit of a challenge as you get to know each other’s style, tendencies to speed up or slow down, and other more ephemeral qualities. I don’t know if it’s because we work so well together on other things or that we spend so much time working together, but slipping into our trio was like putting on your favorite pair of old jeans. We were sightreading our piece, so it wasn’t perfect, but it was very easy. The stuff you usually work so hard on when playing with people for the first time required no work at all. Also, how cool is it to be able to play chamber music on your lunch hour? Only uncool thing: schlepping a large instrument on the subway at rush hour.

I am also reading a wonderful novel that is about music and the Civil Rights era and a million other things: Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing. It’s the best novel I’ve read in a long time. It is a page turner you don’t feel guilty about because it’s also an epic about serious things. But it’s the way he writes about the experience of music making that gets to me. It’s beautiful, poetic and dead on.

Also interesting to me about this book is they way he manages time in a very musical way. Scenes cut back and forth between time periods. At one point, one of the time periods arrives at the place another begin at the very beginning of the novel. Powers retells the scene nearly word for word. It’s an eerie device, one I can’t recall having been seen before. It has the effect of turning the story — it tells of a character’s first performance in a competition — into a refrain.

Refrains are funny things too. The repetition renders them simultaneously the most memorable parts of a piece — that thing you take away with — and that thing that you stop paying attention to because it doesn’t change.

In a novel about race and performance, this device is subversive.

The piece we played in our rehearsal, is a rondo — the refrain keeps coming back. It’s based on a song that was one of the earliest megahits — lyrics appeared in just about every European language. The tune was set and reset by dozens of composers. The refrain repeats so many times that in practicing, we start to leave it out, focusing on other parts of the piece that are more difficult to play. But when we walk away from our rehearsal, it’s the refrain that follows us back upstairs to our deskx. It’s the sound that we can’t let go, even if we want to.

Is Powers playing race like a refrain? Is it that thing that is so omnipresent that it can be overlooked because its foreground becomes background? Not quite. It’s more complicated than that, and Powers let’s it be.

I’m only about halfway through. I’m not sure where we’re headed, but I’m enjoying the song.

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