The Pianist

We got out of the car on Park Street, a steep hill in the centre of Bristol lined with shops from top to bottom. Park Street had shrunk since I was last there, which tends to happen when you spend considerable time away from a place you grew up visiting. What had been a mountain was now a mound. Living in America with its super-sized everything didn’t help. Our car had shrunk too, but this was because mum had recently traded in her old one for a newer model that could fit her and perhaps a medium-sized dog. This meant it took an extra 5 minutes when getting out the car for me to unfold my body. I’d only been back a few hours and all signs were so far telling me I had outgrown home.

I told mum I was ‘starving’ as we got out the car, something she was used to hearing from me as a child and to which she no longer responds. We hopped across the road to a cafe, legs still aching from the acrobatics I had to perform exiting the car, where I got an American-sized slice of carrot cake before heading down the hill.

On this warm Spring evening we had come to watch a concert at St George’s: a handsome Bathonian brick building with a regular clientele of unapologetically middle class, middle aged, middle people. As we walked towards the box office I recalled a story a friend had told me. A few years ago, in an attempt to diversify their audience, the venue’s powers that be decided to bring in a pop singer. The result was a rave in what was essentially a church (the only real raves). The clean-up afterwards sent the senior management into fits (‘the oak floors, the old pillars!’). Never again, they said. And it never happened again.

With a mouth full of carrot cake, I reminded my mother of this incident and then asked who we were seeing that evening. She said a name I’d never heard of. ‘A very famous pianist,’ she followed, which was her mild way of saying it was a disgrace that I didn’t know who he was.

Mum had originally intended on going with just her friend but she’d asked me earlier in the day if I’d like to come and I think I’d surprised her when I said yes. Getting an extra ticket meant I would be sitting away from them which was reassuring, I thought, because it allowed for the possibility of slipping away for a while if the concert became too boring for my millennial attention span.

We shuffled into the hall and I took my seat for the famous pianist, which would have given me a clear view of the keys albeit for a perfectly placed pillar. Served me right, I thought; I didn’t even know who I had come to see, why then give me the honour of seeing him? 

The first fifteen minutes of any concert seems to always send me into rapture, pillar or not. I don’t know why this happens. I could be watching a goat playing the triangle and I’d probably find it emotionally overwhelming. There’s something about the immediacy, the rawness, of live music that taps into an oddly fragile part of me.

I take comfort in knowing I’m not alone in this feeling. I was once at a music festival and while I was waiting for an act to come on I noticed a group of male rugby types in front of me laughing, beers in hand, at crude jokes made about people they’d seen at the festival that day. When the band started playing they fell silent. A few minutes later I saw tears running down the cheek of two of the men standing close by. Something about the chords, the singer’s voice, the elusive rhythm, had altered them from within. Music itself doesn’t soften us; it reveals a softness that is often lying dormant, waiting to be awoken by the right notes.

This is another reason why it was best my mum and her friend were sat separately. There was always a chance of having to wheel me out the house in a fit of violent weeping if it got too much. Tragic.

The pianist’s fingers danced on the keys to Haydn as the hall settled into a lull and I began to regain a sense of our surroundings. My eyes shifted from the piano to my fellow concert-goers for the first time. Once I’d done my usual scan of the room (no one attractive to talk to at the interval) I could say with scientific certainty that I was the only person in the entire hall who didn’t have grey hair. There was perhaps one other person under 40, his light hair already turning grey from all classical music he’d been subjected to. This was unsurprising, I told myself, since not only the genre but the composers being featured tonight (Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms) were beyond the consciousness of anyone under 95.

This lead me to a sad thought. A pastime such as going to watch a classical pianist perform Beethoven would, in my lifetime, likely cease to exist. The pace of modernity and our fleeting tastes told me that an appreciation of Mozart’s string quartets or Handel’s Messiah would wither, and with it their music played live. As I watched a sea of smiles transfixed on the raised platform, I felt their rapture too. Each ear (or hearing aid) received the notes a little differently, the melody recalling a childhood memory: a mother who used to play it on the piano before supper; a conversation in the hospital ward the night before Aunt Susan passed away. As the music drifted away in the background, I couldn’t help but think of the stories, memories and feelings being played in the mind’s eye of those in the hall around me. We sat together in bliss, and I could feel it.

By the time I’d gotten over my bout of sentimentality the pianist had completed his ceremonial exit and entry on the stage, resetting the genre and in the process regaining my attention. Onto Beethoven, who began to re-energise us again. My thoughts turned to less angsty places.

Sometimes, when the mind is given enough space to wander, I will imagine stepping outside of myself, looking at my situation from without. Psychiatrists might call this self-observation, referring to the reflection and analysis of our thoughts and actions. Except the observation will be of my relationship to my environment rather than my thoughts. This will often happen to me when I don’t have access to the distraction of my phone. It struck me that to the outside world, a twenty-five year old man among a crowd of elders might look a little strange. What was I trying to prove to the world, my extracted self wondered.

We are, hopelessly and yet happily, products of the culture in which we grew up. I was raised in a household that placed great value on music and culture that today might be called ‘traditional.’ What happens when the culture of our adulthood stands in opposition to the culture of our childhood? How do we reconcile a fundamental, perhaps even embarrassing part of ourselves (one we didn’t choose) with the fact it now signifies something different – something, for lack of a better word, elitist? Going to a classical concert used to be routine for me. Today it is an affectation.

How cliched, how trite it was to turn up to see a performer whose name I didn’t know play classical music I, by virtue of being part of a different generation, cannot and (culture suggests) should not relate to. I was in that moment a caricature of my cohort: woefully out of touch with real problems, cowering behind an image of false sophistication.

As much as I hate to admit it, several times in the past few years I have felt ashamed of myself for enjoying certain things my generation deems antiquated. This was one of these times. Perhaps I should just leave the concert and pop down the street to Thekla, the trendy concert venue/club on a boat and nod my head to music I can’t hear. I concocted a flimsy exit strategy: at the next pause between movements make a dash for the doors, telling my mother afterwards that I got so overwhelmingly hungry my stomach was making awkward noises that disturbed my entire section; I had no choice but to leave.

But for some reason the chap at the piano, who at this point had become noticeably more physical in his gestures, had transitioned several times between pieces without leaving the stage. I was stuck in my seat, my conscience snickering at me while I sat quietly relieved that the dreaded boat rave was now out of the question. 

This was not the first time my self-conscious side had laughed at me that day. Early that morning I was at the supermarket and got chatting to an attractive brunette while we were in line to pay. She had asked if I like yoga. ‘Yeah I do yoga all the time back in America,’ I lied. So fate was giggling when she said she ran a yoga class and suggested I come along that afternoon. ‘2:30pm, across the road. You’ll enjoy it.’ Trapped, I smiled. I had nothing else to do, so I went along.

One of the most frustrating things about physical activity is that there is very little crossover when it comes to levels of competence. You can be a really excellent swimmer and yet also be a terrible runner. Fitness in one area does not guarantee fitness in another. I don’t like this. I consider myself as being fit but the last time I’d attempted yoga I was uniquely terrible at it.

This class was no different. In fact I had somehow gotten worse. If my fellow yogis had come for a peaceful hour of downward dogs, I had ruined their trip. My attractive new friend, leading the class, showed an impressive level of patience with me as I sweated buckets in my little corner of the room, shaking helplessly at every movement. Even child’s pose (a position of ‘rest’) sent my body into a sweaty, wobbly shock. The odd glance sideways from my flexible neighbour told me that I should just give up, that I was disturbing what might otherwise have been a very enjoyable class.

What my flexible female friend failed to mention in line at the supermarket was that this beginner’s class was exclusively for pregnant people. Either that or the only people who came to this particular class just happened to be with child (or overweight, the lines were blurred in a few cases). Despite being the lightest person in the class, I could barely hold myself up without making awkward stress noises.

So I had already endured the laughter of my conscience for a good 75 minutes, most of those spent in a very poor downward dog, earlier that day when I’d been rightfully condemned to my pillar-ed seat at the concert.

The day had turned into a series of sketches on stereotypes, I thought to myself. The piano player who has no need to move any more of his body than his hands (maybe also his eyes) but decides the occasional head twitch and shoulder shimmy will add to his flourish as a ‘performer,’ the really uncomfortable ‘oms’ sung at random intervals during the yoga class (there’s always a token tone-deaf person), the boy in the back of the concert hall who threatens to boycott tradition for more hedonic pleasures.

So many facets of life have become cliched – even ‘post-cliche’ – that to partake in any of them is to do so ironically. I’m not sure how good this is for us. At a time when the pressure to succeed in the Western sense of the word is at an all time high, it is becoming ever more difficult to find comfort in who we are. We used to go to group meditation classes to help us deal with our anxiety. Now we go to post about it on Facebook. We used to go to a museum to enjoy art. Today we go to show the world – and convince ourselves in the process – that we are cultured. Social media has given us the ability to showcase moments in our lives by removing them from their true context: a retreat from the stresses of work, an opportunity to see an artist we’ve always admired, and so on. On a perpetual timeline of photos of people doing that same thing, it is easy to start grouping people into ‘the type that is a little too enthusiastic about being vegan’ or ‘the mildly racist friend who posts deliberately provocative right-wing news articles’. Thus the stereotype is born.  

The sad repercussion of this caricaturing move is that we more easily become self-conscious, and perhaps ashamed, when we do something we genuinely enjoy, like going to a public talk about the environment. To begin, not shouting about it to the world might help us to regain a clear idea of why we decided to go in the first place.

This was my train of thought as our performer scurried on and off the stage one more, shifting effortlessly from the commanding tones of Beethoven to the more romantic Brahms. I couldn’t help but follow suit. Perhaps I was doomed to the romantic notion that we can and perhaps should embrace a side of us that (god forbid!) actually enjoys singing an om at yoga, or going to hear a pianist play to a hall of pensioners.

It occurred to me then that I’d had this thought before in this very room. I’d come to see another pianist, a well-known Italian minimalist with a distinctly cinematic style that had captured the attention of young people who wanted to learn to play simple yet emotive pieces. I’d learnt to play several of this artist’s songs myself as a teenager. The pieces were so overtly wistful, my technique so self-consciously soft, that my mother once asked me mid-practice whether I’d fallen in love with someone.

I’d been sitting on the balcony at that concert, looking down to an unobstructed view of the Italian’s hands, when a set of chords flew from the piano and sent me into a deep appreciation of that moment. I reveled in the way music could draw you back to the present at a time of change. I was 16 then, spotty and confused, full of existential angst and unrequited lust. I don’t care if it’s not rock or pop, I remember thinking. I don’t care if it’s a bit ‘soft.’ I was moved then, as I was now, uncontrollably. Surely that was all that mattered.

A few years ago the author and philosopher A.C. Grayling wrote a book called The Good Book. The book is a compendium of all the wisdom and advice he’d found throughout his years teaching and writing, on the topic of the ‘good life.’ Its critics, most of whom were religious conservatives, chafed against the obvious religiosity of the project, quick to point out the irony of the author’s atheism against his need to rival, or one-up, the original Good Book. A loyal disciple of Grayling’s, I’d come to see him speak at St George’s when e was on his book tour. During the question portion of the event I remember a member of the audience – one of those tedious sorts of people who turn up to events merely to mock public figures they outwardly despise – did the usual thing of blurting out an opinion rather than asking a question. He said, I recall, that the book was an insult to Christianity, that Grayling was highly presumptuous to embark on such a thing in the first place. I remember this moment not because of the comment but because of Grayling’s answer:

An artist, he said (and I paraphrase), will undertake feats that are extravagant or modest. Some works might be personal, kept hidden for years only to be discovered after the artist’s death. Others might be set free, open for people to enjoy and to criticise. And the artist can be rightly criticised, particularly if she goes about the whole thing trivially. But you will find little to frustrate you in the artist who crafts her work with sincerity. Because it is sincerity of spirit that produces a book worth reading, or a painting worth seeing. My book is no modest feat, I agree. But it was done, at the very least, with sincerity.

As our pianist played his final bars of Brahms, I thought of these words and smiled. I’d sat in the same seat then, too, behind the pillar. I’d come to this concert blindly in more than one way, it is true. But my love of the music was anything but blind. If anything it was the only thing I was clear about. And that love was sincere, developed alone, in my lonelier moments. I didn’t need to justify that.

After several rounds of enthusiastic applause at the encore, the crowd rose and began to shuffle out towards the doors. I joined the shuffle, the air full with the smell of old suits and conversations about the ‘nuance’ of our evening’s performer. Once freed from the crowd, I sat on the steps outside waiting for mum, listening to the curious crowd and the occasional birdsong as the sunlight crept up the great Georgian facade. I had done a lot of growing up in this place, I thought. And in that moment I was grateful for having stayed.

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