Thursday, December 22, 2005

Sunsets and sad songs

While the Great Grading and Writing Odyssey of 2005 continues, I have iTunes to keep me company (and the Lotos-land of blogging to tempt me). I am usually not someone who can work while listening to music--with the almost-lone exception of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, to which I've been listening since my parents fell in love with it after the (unfairly derided!) Somewhere in Time came out in 1980, featuring Rachmaninoff's most lushly romantic strains at a key plot moment. They promptly bought the Great Performances LP (you know, the one in the beige cover with the giant sans serif headline titles) of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Bernstein, performing the Rhapsody; my teenaged babysitter fell in love with it, too, and so we spent some evenings listening to that exquisite three minutes, sometimes many times. (I should perhaps note at this point that I listened to the Rhapsody for about five or six mid-night hours, during the overnight vigil I sat while proofreading my dissertation.) (I should perhaps also note that if you know the movie Dead Again, you will have heard the opening strains of the Rhapsody; it's the piece the orchestra performs the night that Roland [the conductor/composer/tortured genius] and Margaret [the solo pianist/sex goddess] meet. One more reason to love that movie.)

It was around that time in my childhood that I started to realize how much I loved and feared the pathos of sad music; I have an unclassifiable memory of simultaneously desiring and dreading the moment when this album would come off the bookshelf. I knew a basic outline of the violinist Paganini's Faustian legend, and I knew a bare, relatively unromantic version of his biography
from my Junior Oxford Companion to Classical Music (yes, you already knew I was that child). But when that few minutes of music was on, I imagined such intricacies of pain and desire, of yearning and affliction, as were well beyond my years. Think of the chain of possession that made those moments: Paganini, supposedly having sold his soul to the devil for the gift of his musical genius, inspired Rachmaninoff, whose rhapsodies in turn gripped a whole symphony, whose performance plucked me out of time and self over and over in my childhood. A good performance of the Rhapsody--and alas, I've never gotten to hear it live--can still do a number on me, though now the narratives into which it drops me are vortices of my own regrets and longings.

It was the fact that Emmylou Harris, who also moves me immensely, came up next in the iTunes queue that prompted me to sit down and reveal how much I revel in heart-breaking music.
Because somehow these things all link up, I'll also note that that same babysitter with whom I used to swoon and sorrow over Rachmaninoff also introduced me to the quirky hotness of art-geeky music men, the night she dialed through the supercable band to find that new channel, the one that played videos all day long, and tuned us in to David Byrne's sweating and twitching his way through "Once in a Lifetime." I maybe ought to write and thank her.

Oh, and that sunset? I almost missed it, what with the grading. The picture's a little darker and more impressionistic than I'd have liked, but the light was going fast by the time I got into the yard and there was no time to try and get to a less obstructed view.


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