When a sculptor dies, I imagine that she would leave behind a spacious atelier filled with her lifework — bronze casts of plump nude women, their hands wrapped around their chests, suspended like flower heads from long metal stems; rows of life-size ballerinas, dressed in charmingly wrinkled plaster tutus, bending backwards, their right legs reaching for the sky; frightening masks of Poseidon and Athena; Zeus's eagle perched on a marble throne. One would wander around the atelier for hours, thinking about the sculptor's life, and the way her memories and emotions have been eternalized in the forms of her subjects. But what about musicians? What could a pianist possibly leave behind?
On a freezing winter morning in 2005, as I stood in an unfinished, bunker-like chapel in Sofia Central Cemetery, listening to the boyish intoning of the Orthodox priest, his long white beard gleaming with snowflakes, I thought about all the unrecorded piano performances which my piano teacher, now lying peacefully in her open coffin, had given during the years that I'd spent with her as her favorite student. She had died young — barely into her 40s — and even in the petrifying ghostly light escaping the metallic clouds above, her fingers seemed incredibly beautiful and strong, almost alive.What has been begotten by dust shall return to dust, the priest was saying, and the black crows hopping about the desolate white landscape beyond the doorless portal seemed to concur. She had spent 10 whole years of her short life working with me in building a formidable repertoire of virtuosic classical pieces, and I felt great sadness and also much guilt because I had quit my classical piano career as soon as she found a teaching job at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and left me behind. Just before the priest finished the opelo, the sky suddenly split in half and a blinding yellow light rushed through the portal, illuminating my teacher's face and hands. I stared at the portal in amazement. There was so much light that the snow-covered cemetery seemed almost entirely blurred out. Was this a sign that she was going to a better place? Or was this some kind of celestial manifestation of harmonic tension and resolution? I thought of my piano teacher's incredible ability to change colors and travel light years within a single phrase, or even within the space of two successive notes. I've never heard anyone play the Chopin nocturnes better than her, especially the 4th in F major, or the 5th in F sharp minor. She didn't ever have to fiddle with the tempo for she had control over something much more powerful — the space between the notes. Where was her lifework now, where was her atelier filled with her sculptures chiseled of air, of Bakelite memories, of space particles, of time dust?
Contrary to what many people might think, perfecting a piano piece is no different than creating and finishing a sculpture. With every repetition, a phrase becomes more solid, more refined, three dimensional. A perfected piano piece stands on its own, independent of its creator, endowed with gravity, temperament, and meaning. A simple thought experiment might just convince some of the skeptics: imagine you are holding a ball and then start slowly moving your hands, without letting them touch, as if you are rolling the ball between your palms and fingers. In less than a minute you will likely experience the sensation of holding something almost tangible. The process of learning a Chopin etude is very similar, only here the goal is not just to achieve the sensation of holding something real, but, through the sheer power of faith, to make it real. At the start, you have a concept of what the piece should sound like. Then you proceed to shape it with your fingers. In the beginning nothing happens. You practice and practice and all you have to show for it is some weak air movement. Hundreds of hours later, the contours begin to appear almost magically between your fingers, the shape solidifies, and then you shift your attention to all the small details — the corners, the ornaments, the wrinkles around the eyes of the ballerinas. At the end, you polish the surface smooth and you're done: The piece is there, it stands on its own, and other people can see it and touch it as well.
Over the years, the sculptures of my piano teacher had haunted me with their indestructible perfection. I was convinced that they existed somewhere. Then, one day, as I began work on my novel Wunderkind — which is a partly autobiographical story about a music school in Sofia, Bulgaria, near the end of the Cold War — I stumbled upon them in an abandoned basement, together with all the sculptures I had created in my youth. I dusted them, repaired some cracks and chipped material and moved them to my newly-built atelier, equipped with a brand new baby grand piano. I arranged her lifework on the piano — Chopin's etudes, Scriabin's sonatas, Debussy's preludes, Beethoven's Appassionata, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, the mazurkas, the nocturnes and polonaises, Chopin's scherzos and sonatas. She had left her sculptures with me for safekeeping and now I could catalog them and pass their beauty on to others.
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Nikolai Grozni began training as a classical pianist at age four and won his first major award in Salerno, Italy, at the age of 10. His memoir Turtle Feet follows his years as a Buddhist monk in Dharamsala and South India. Wunderkind is his first novel.
Books mentioned in this post