An Artist Sits In The Audience

By the rivers of Babylon, we left something
And our tears joined with the water
and they flowed away
taking with them our memories
but also
our sounds
our songs
our melodies
our harmony, our completeness

It’s a cold night and everyone is appreciating the welcoming light of the entrance hall. A jazz duo of cello and saxophone is warming up the atmosphere, and a table full of assorted wines is warming up the conversation. The crowd is a mix. A couple on a date, the woman in a short, wavy sheitel. A few of the musicians who will soon be playing for us. Families with children. An older man on his own, with a long gray beard and gleaming bekishe.

After we have a chance to meet each other and shake off the winter chill, the house manager herds everyone into the hall. It’s not a traditional theatre; there’s no stage. Only a concentric arrangement, with several rows of chairs facing inward toward an empty space. The space contains a circle of four empty seats, four music stands.

There is a place inside us
An inward place
that is empty, now.
A void yet to be filled, a grief unresolvable 

The songs are scattered
The fingers and voices that brought us closer
To infinity
The strings that vibrated, the notes that soared
Are they still there?
Has the right hand forgotten its skill? 

Applause echoes throughout the room as the performers enter through an unassuming corner door. I know how it feels to wait for that entrance, I have walked through that door, but tonight I am here to listen. The event begins with some speaking – not just the usual reminders to turn off your phone, but something different. This group wants to make music accessible. And so with a disarming smile, sense of humor, and deft sense of timing, the program organizer (one of the violinists) prepares us for each piece. Historical context; points of interest; emotional highlights – what is there for us to hang on to? We are primed to listen. 

When we were exiled, things became less clear
Spiritual potential got dispersed
and sometimes, now, it’s revealed in places you might not think to look 

The world is one world and maybe this is a controversial thing but I think
what J.S. Bach or Brahms or Beethoven accessed
was part of what was put there to be discovered
when it was all created 

The first two pieces are a light, bright string quartet by Frank Bridge, and then a much more layered and intellectual selection from Bach’s Art of the Fugue.

One of the cellists, not part of this piece, has taken a seat in a back row, listening. The couple on a date have hidden themselves out of my line of sight. A girl leans into her mother’s lap – not sleeping, just hearing. We are all facing the musicians, but we are also all facing each other. We are all in this together.

This piece is the work of
a builder
an inventor of Inventions
an architect of sound
the notes are spinning out like a fractal expanding
like a feat of engineering, a suspension bridge
spanning physical space
and also metaphysical space
each note fits exactly where it was placed
each apex and each cornerstone 

is there hope for those of us who have left all we loved behind?
the stone that was rejected
can it again become the cornerstone?

Without a stage, we are on the same level as the flying fingers, the carefully drawn bows, the pages on the music stands. I can practically feel the heat of the stage lights that highlight the middle of the room, the only indication of who is performing and who is observing; who is communicating and who is receiving. The boundaries are blurring and my memories of performing are blending with my active listening. I am realizing that this is one experience, that their experience is my experience. The wall between player and audience is false and we are shattering it.

This music is so far from elitist or unapproachable; this is not a celebration of unreachable “talent.” I hope preconceived notions are being questioned tonight. I hope they can see the sweat beading on necks, the effort of bodies whose souls strain against the limitations of physical existence – this act has little to do with any kind of façade of refinement or sophistication, and everything to do with capturing something and trying to get it across. As Torah is passed from rebbe to talmid, so the essence of the infinite (when we’re privileged to access it) makes it across the gap only by virtue of a listener as well as a musician. To receive is a skill as rare and valuable as giving.

Are you listening?
I am listening.
What can you tell me?
I can’t tell you in words. 

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This is not a demonstration of skill
This is not an evening of culture
I am not an icon or an idol
I am only a transmitter
I am only a channel
Don’t bow to me 

Just listen.
Don’t listen to hear.
Listen to feel. 

After intermission, we return refreshed. The final piece on the program is a string quartet written by Antonin Dvořák, a Czech composer, upon returning to his homeland after years spent away. Our violinist guide points out the clash between the joy of returning, and missing what you left. Gives us musical clues, hints, then leaves us on our own to solve the unanswered questions that the piece asks.

There is that moment before a piece begins. A kind of tandem focus. That look that you share, over the tops of the music stands. Are you ready? I am ready. Let’s go.

And then you jump and you are in freefall
And you leave behind your body to join something bigger:
the intensity and exhaustion of elaborate communication
Of four voices singing, not as one, but as One
More powerful and capable and true than any single voice
What can we gain together that we could never reach alone?
Can you stay focused? Can you leave yourself? Can you maintain the connection?

The adagio is an incredible tapestry of varied texture and deep emotion. A woman in the front row looks into the air over the performers’ heads, blinking slowly, as if in memory.

Take me away
Take me with you
Whisper in my ear
Let me in on the Secret
Move the earth under me
As you move, gritty and insistent
Four bows but one Purpose
Exuberance tinged with determination.
Take me outside of myself
Take me Outside
As Avraham was taken to see the stars
Will I number among them?

The rhythms and resonances of the final two movements, so evocative, have everyone in their grasp. The spotlights cast double shadows, making four instruments and eight hands into eight and sixteen. Everyone is so close. I can hear the musicians breathing; I can see the messages they silently send each other as they play. The resonance of the low strings feels like an extra heartbeat or a current of electricity.

There is gypsy music woven into the texture of the violinists’ parts. In the whirling contour, a dancer’s full skirt whisks past as she turns. On the downbeats, the confident step of her partner’s feet. The air vibrates with the intensity of their eyes meeting across the room. A young girl bounces with excitement in the front row, smiling, her sparkly shirt shimmering in the stage lights.

With the final rush, with the last chord, the separate threads become one. The bows fly into the air.

The purest silence is after the last note but before anyone breathes
Shhh, don’t break the spell
Let me stay here a little longer
Let me continue to forget my limited existence
I don’t want to remember my imprisonment
Not yet—

The hands of the audience meet in raucous applause. We acknowledge you, the communicators, who have given something to us. What you gave wasn’t just yours, was something more universal, but we couldn’t have accessed it without you. And yet, you bow to us… your receivers.

The audience files out, uplifted and full of enthusiasm – but after a night like this, I am always left with something more complex than just satisfaction. I try my hardest to hang on to the experience, because I know it is ephemeral, irreplaceable. We can never go back to the place we reached, at least, not in the same way. If I hear the same pieces again, it will be different. Even if the same musicians play in the same location, it will be different. There will be other opportunities to make a connection – other audiences, other melodies, other chances to play or to listen; but this one is over. The taste of gratitude is bittersweet. 

One day, what we lost
By the rivers of Babylon
will be returned
The tears will dry
We will understand everything 

But for now
we can only grasp greedily
for these short moments
We can only dream; and lose ourselves in the feeling
of infinity
In small parcels of time
In tiny gifts; none quite the same as the last
What a privilege
That we can experience them at all.