INSIDE THE MUSICIAN is a new series in which music people of all descriptions write about their experiences of music from the inside.
Loss has loomed large in my life of late. (Too much alliteration? Don’t care.) I have recently experienced in duplicate the drawn out grief of a northern latitude night or a US election campaign. And then the sudden death of one for whom life itself was the endurance test, through a poorly chosen birth right. These have been immediate familial losses, all. I still take out the habitual number of plates for family gatherings but could break a few without anyone noticing.
It is the perfunctory aftermath of death that is hardest to deal with. Bureaucracy descends with vulturesque precision coupled with human ineptitude, pecking voraciously at the genetic inheritors’ remnants at a time when one can only feel, not think. So crass, so calculating.
It was shortly after the most recent of these events that, on a whim, I booked a ticket to the Prince concert held in February this year. A brief escape from grief. I thought I’d miss a ticket having, at the appointed ticket release hour, sat in a dentist’s chair being told that rather than my experienced pain emanating from cavities, I was grinding my teeth, probably in my sleep. Really? But I logged in on my return home and scored a spot with a lone seat on the edge of the balcony. How fittingly precarious, I thought at the time.
It was a strange place to inhabit. For here was a man who, on the other side of the world from home, learns (off-stage) that a former muse is no longer. And, ironically, he is to perform with only a piano, kaleidoscopic images and a few flickering flames. So un-Prince. And yet, so Prince.
So there it was, a conduit to my own sense of loss. I had not anticipated this part of the narrative and wondered both how on earth he had walked on stage and how we could endure the performance together. But of course music transports, and so it was. He extemporised his way around every black and white key and the crevices between with such finesse, such audacity, such charisma, such ease, inhabiting the musician’s mind as it turned off all but that which was necessary to keep the music in play. A seasoned listener, I was shocked by his incredible musicianship. Awe and loss make strange bedfellows, but then, most couplings do.
He’d left the stage. I found it hard to turn my back and face instead a remonstrating exit sign – like breaking the filament.
It’s strange how some people understand the grief you feel for someone you’ve never met more empathetically than they comprehend your sense of loss for family, mess and all, but so it seemed in the aftermath of Prince’s death two months after this encounter. It’s the music of course. It’s always there, mortality no barrier, this wondrous connection wrought through the touching of objects with enough force to cause vibration. How extraordinary that a shaping of them can render such a tenacious grip on all the molecules of one’s being. I really get musicians. I get the succour from sound thing.
I’ve been reading Julian Barnes’ account of the life of Shostakovich. Barnes also writes from a place of loss and his insight into, and portrayal of, the mental endurance of the composer is corporeal. I race to listen to the cello concerti – angst, despair, still there, late in his life, and exquisite beauty! Barnes depicts Shostakovich’s reading of Stalin’s written address to the Americans, denouncing Stravinsky, for whom, of course, Shostakovich had huge admiration.
It is the lot of many musicians to live a double-life, like those magazines that have a front cover at each end presenting alternate profiles that meet awkwardly in the middle. One has to turn the magazine upside down to read the other half.
Musicians often dwell in isolation as they tinker with sounds and caress the implements that produce them. Music offers fulfilment – a companion, pure, complete and unconditional. The vagaries of a performer’s life could not be more at odds with this existence. As illustration, Prince threw many after-parties at his home, but rarely attended them for more than a short time, if at all. But the show must go on, and on, no matter what. And perhaps for him there was a vicarious pleasure in being the ‘audience’ in this scenario rather than the other way around.
If life is purposeful, then music is my meeting place with that concept. I can channel Mozart by simply throwing a CD into the tray. I tolerate and revere Bach’s wry humour every time I attempt his ridiculously difficult string crossings and revel in the politicised poetry of our very best contemporary songwriters. So as I methodically take on banks, telcos, lawyers, real estate agents, power companies and their ilk the mundane aspects of post-mortality fade as I Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. I offer praise to music, first introduced to me by my late Father, and to all who devote their oft-deleterious existences to its insatiable demands, no matter the cost. May this sum be better understood and your value more adequately compensated with the wholesale enlightenment that is required, despite the post-cultural, ‘innovation industry’ paradigm in which we currently find ourselves.
Mandy Stefanakis is a music educator, composer and writer. She continues to receive musical sustenance from her two adult children, twin brother and music education students at Deakin University. Playing the cello provides enormous frustration, comfort and joy. She is a member of The Music Trust Advisory Council and Life Member of The Association of Music Educators (aMuse).