Non c'e un unico tempo: ci sono molti nastri
che parelleli slittano
spesso in senso contrario e raramente
s'interseccano. E quando si palesa
la sola verita che, disvelata,
vienne subito espunta da chi sorveglia
i congegni e gli scambi. E si repiomba
poi nell'unico tempo. Ma in quell'attimo
solo i pochi viventi si sono riconosciuti
per dirsi addio, non arrivederci.
[Montale speaks of time in terms of parallel paths "that rarely intersect." When these paths do cross, the observer experiences their intersection as a single moment, negating their multiplicity. Yet in that moment, the observer perceives that only addio (farewell) is possible, not arrivederci (see you again).]
The poem is by Eugenio Montale, the summary by Elliott Carter. Even this dispassionate, deliberately non-poetic summary (oddly, describing the poem from a place "once removed") managed to blow me away, the night of the concert. Two days ago, when I came across it in the pile, it seemed less earth-shaking, but then yesterday it hit me again, full force, with one of those lovely non-insights. (Poetry not as a collection of insights, aphorisms, truisms, but as the expression of lack-of-knowledge.) It came in and out of focus, like a lens. You know there is a truth there, something that speaks to your experience. But you hesitate to nail it down. Once you have nailed it, it will seem less beautiful. Anyway, it is sufficiently "nailed" by the poem, right? (But something tells you you still want to know/name more.) I will chance a metaphor from my own daily experience: a piece of silverware falls behind the refrigerator, but you know this only from the sound, from the clunk; you cannot tell which; a knife, fork, spoon, spatula?; is it one of the essential utensils, that you cannot go another day without?; or can you wait till the next spring cleaning?; is it worth leaning, reaching blindly in the near-dark brought on by the burnout of my halogen bulb?
Such hesitations do not trouble one of my dear friends, for which I tease her unfairly. In the midst of my gesticulating ecstasies on a passage of Roland Barthes, she will fix me with the gaze of a woman judging vegetables at the market, and ask "but what does it mean?" And I will stumble to explain. In the process I discover how little of its meaning I possess, perhaps even how little I want it to mean anything at all. Curse your pesky questions and meanings. I am often satisfied if it simply beautiful, well-phrased, intriguing, if it has the "appearance of meaning;" I am a dandy of ideas, like the man in the gold leather zip-up boots in the Barney's catalogue I also recently unearthed.
So, annoyed, I wait for my friend to leave and then I pursue her question in solitude. This is often productive, but of course I never admit to my friend that her skeptical question was helpful. (Except now). I played through a recital program for her once, which included Beethoven's last Sonata, Op. 111. And I came to the Arietta:
Well, it got better as it went along, but the opening theme really didn't "click." I was tentative, didn't have the sound I wanted, was playing on edge. This theme is so spare. If you don't "get" the essence of that basic motive (C G G), you're building a pretty massive structure on sand. Well, I finished, and my friend gave me one of those looks again, a look with a small portion of "so what?" I'm sure it was not intentional; it just seeped out of her. My (internal) reaction: don't you get it? This is a towering masterpiece of Beethoven? But how could she "get" what I didn't give to her? More relaxed, and by way of illustration, I replayed the opening theme for her. Ah, if only all recitals were the second time around! It was now solid, and she looked illuminated. The theme seemed beautiful to her, now; but they were the same notes as before.
So, perhaps, there IS a point to all this practicing and crap. (But what IS it? The illumination of meanings? Communication to others? Fidelity to a score? Preservation of cultural heritage? Exploration of the self? I don't want to nail it down.) But you never know when it will precisely pay off. The other day, spontaneously, my friend Eddie asked me on stage to play the final waltz of Davidsbündlertänze, to illustrate a point he was making in his lecture on Schumann. Well I hadn't really prepared it, but I think anyway it was one of the best times I had ever played it, and I felt I "got" it in a way that I had not before. It was a pleasure to play it and simultaneously listen to it (a rare performing pleasure), and simultaneously also--learn from it. Time sort of stopped; threads intersected; many past practicings came together, unexpectedly. And at that moment, I also knew something of this epiphany was irrecoverable... what I was feeling was definitely not a confident "see you later," such as you bid to a friend who you are soon to meet for coffee, lunch, whatever, but was much closer to "goodbye."