Chopin Plays The Changes

Oct 08, 2020

School is back, sort of, but getting there on time was never our strong suit, and now we're rusty. We live close enough to walk, but some mornings when I come into the room and throw back the curtains to wake the Dauphin, he makes a hissing noise, the sound a troll makes just as it turns to stone from the daylight. I admire anyone who can summon that kind of irony so early in the morning, but it's hard to instill discipline when you're laughing out loud. So occasionally, tempus fugit, we bail, and make the two-minute drive down the hill, meditating all the while on our environmental profligacy and atrophying calves.

This morning, driving back, I put on the classical station, determined to make the most of my other two minutes behind the wheel. They seemed to be in the middle of a piano concerto. I'm as guilty as the next guy of treating the three B's like tasteful sonic wallpaper when it suits my purposes, but this was one of those times when every note felt like I could reach out and touch it. Scale runs, ornamented arpeggios, modulations – it was all right there, as plain as a Wynton Kelly blues or a Dave Van Ronk arrangement. These moments come, like triumphant signposts, every once in a while along the trail, realizations that, abstract as it is, spend enough time with music and it absolutely will grow more tangible. Or maybe more audible, is the word I want. More hearable.

Which, I imagine, isn't really a word. But whatever the right one is, it's a reminder that my personal trifecta of learning, listening and laboring is having another moment of paying off. Learning, in this case, has been reading up on European music history, so as to have a context for where various composers, forms and ideas belong in the cannon, and studying the mechanics of harmony and counterpoint to understand how it's done from a classical perspective. Listening, well – that's ranged from casually flipping on the radio to play "guess that era" to peering somewhat myopically at string quartet scores with headphones on, doing my best to scope out how the pieces fit together. And laboring, that would be the actual doing: the countless writing exercises I've plunked out at the piano, filling a succession of manuscript books with student-level four-part harmony, two-line counterpoint, orchestral voicings and more, two, four or eight measures of chicken scratch at a time.

Mostly, it's slow going, a half hour or an hour a day that nearly invisibly moves the ball down the field, one glacial step after another. Which is why a moment like the one this morning is so startling: working for so long, with my head down, just doing the thing, I had no idea I might look up one morning and suddenly hear with such a shocking degree of clarity. Granted, plenty of this is just the state of the moment; tomorrow I could just as easily flip on the same station and think, "right, enough of this, where's that sci-fi podcast I was listening to?" But there's no question that moment of clarity came from a lot of gradual, incremental, inexorable attention, a kind of immersion in the details that rarely shows anything but long-term results.

When I got home, I looked at the station's playlist online. Turns out it wasn't Chopin at all, but an Irish composer named John Field. I had to look him up. Born in 1782, he's reputed to have influenced several Romantic-era composers, including Chopin, and is credited, in addition, with creating the nocturne. He evidently also gets a shout-out, if Wikipedia is sound on the matter, in the pages of War And Peace. Regarding all of this, I would have to say, "I did not know that."

And now that I do, I consider the morning well-spent indeed.