I remember there was dark everywhere — dark and smoke. The smoke burned at the base of my nose, inside, where one feels the air as he breathes in deeply. It stung, and reminded me that I was somewhere I usually don’t find myself.
I came only to watch him play. He’d traveled three thousand miles from the East Coast, playing at various bars and theaters. This bar happened to be on his route because it was an attraction in San Francisco. I felt that perhaps a concert hall might be more appropriate for an accomplished pianist, but he preferred the “earthy” quality of places of relaxation like this. Here, amidst the dark and smoke, people opened up their hearts to pour out all that was in them. And while open, the heart is in a suitable condition to receive. You might not think that, with all of the emotional release, there would be enough room for anything else to enter (one pictures a boat trying to float upstream), but the nature of the heart is that it is forever pumping in blood at the same time that it’s pumping it out.
The people seated around me tonight, feasting on a chance to expel their garbage of the day, were at the same time allowing his gentle music to settle into their lives, nestling in places of the heart that are only accessible at times like these. Where there is a lack of the genuine, the real and painful, there is also a lack of true sentiment. Perhaps concert hall feelings are more grand or exalted, but at the same time these are feelings lifted up out of an ambitious soul, and not placed there by the artist who, by placing them, gives a gift of his art to those of us without a concert hall to go to.
I find that the notes flow more smoothly, that they are mellower in a place like this. One has to concentrate to separate the music from the noise, but this effort yields a certain reward. Where there is only silence and the music, it is too easy for the listener, and sometimes a thing is more pleasurable if a small barrier keeps us from having it all-at-once and immediately. In some aspects of life, people thrive on frustration. It is not a bad thing, but spice.
He continued playing for an hour before taking his first break. Most of the music was contemporary, or well-known classical. The bar was quieter than one might imagine such a place in the middle of the city to be. About eighty people were seated among the two levels, sipping coffee or drinking. Some sat by the bar, and a small crowd danced slowly in an open area near the window. The piano was back from the center, closer to my table on the far side of the window, and the music lifted evenly through the upper-balcony tables. Some sat listening, as I did, wondering some far-away thing, abstracted in a state of deep appreciation. But this was by far the minority reaction. Most seemed to ignore the music, or to let it flow into a nondescript background of chatter and noise. It was strange to hear Chopin played under such circumstances, but that was the desire of the player, and it was good.
He returned to his bench and continued for another hour, playing favorites that attracted attention as well as others I had never heard of before. It wasn’t until ten o’clock that the people began to thin out. Then more time passed, and the people became fewer still. Once there were about thirty or so, he began to play things more and more inappropriate to the venue: Beethoven, Bach — music which made the difference between a bar and the concert hall even more striking. No one complained, however, and he continued on.
The night was slowed by his music, as he drifted further into the fields of the nocturne. It was during this time that I first heard him play Moonlight Sonata, by Beethoven. It was preceded by a long silence – one whole minute — and the expectations of the group were piqued. His eyes remained closed the whole time, and he sat perfectly still, arms drawn in, almost as if in a kind of pain. I found out later that my perception of pain was correct, but his action was not one of defense. He was calling on the muse of broken love, and dreams out of reach. But none of this did I know then as I heard the first chord, gentle, stroking like a lover’s touch beneath a canopy of moonlight. Was there an ocean near the balcony, and the dinner guests now from another era, standing in admiration as the wan lover spoke of his heart’s sickness, speaking to the cure who sat at her table listening with admiring eyes to his serenade?
Then came the first sigh of agony, colored by hope: the lover, don in a black suit with long tails that hung openly over the bench, and the one played for, with her dark braids coiled in a comely fray about her back. She sat spell-bound, frozen in silence by the sincerity of her lover’s tone. He caressed each note into being, playing the gentle harmonies and rhythms, ever-attended by a deepening current of bass. She was plied, opened by the seeking power of his notes. Above, the cold moon was dispassionate, suffused with the fullness of a black night. The clouds had kept the stars away, but she, in her brightness, could not bear to be absent from this rendering of love. Does devotion call the stars into being? Or do we imagine as our gods those things we feel they ought to be, such as sun, moon, planets and stars? Then if these are tokens of the great mysteries, why is not Love herself a goddess? Not ascribed as the virtue of some seething planet, but a true goddess in her own right: fickle, playful, leaving as dead those who would offer her their lives as sacrifices. That is the god our lover played to, unfolding his melody to an accompaniment of inward tears. Such tears have softened hearts of white granite as Love takes her hold and does not let go. What chance do we have, or reason to submit? But somehow, in her girlish charm, she is able to portray death to us as fairer than dear life. Her poison is true favor, and we, Socratic thinkers all, when offered this cup of hemlock, do trade our one life for another we only imagine. No sign of the future life is given, but for evidences of pain and anguish. It is mysterious that her hold is deeper than the mind itself, reaching through the brain to lay cruel hands on a thing as tender as the human heart. And we submit willingly, with smiles on our faces. This is the mystery hidden deep within the mystery.
He continued playing, not as the heaven-struck lover, but as a simple piano-man playing his song, making me see him as the truest lover I had yet known. I looked at the aimless crowds peering through their glass bottoms and yawning — such that from disgust as well as intrigue I turned back to see the woman in braids giggle as the music became more playful. She understood too well, but yet did not understand. Perhaps women cannot know the secret passion of men, how it surges in us like a groaning sea, desperate to cast its burden on some lovely shore of tenderness and warmth. Again my mind singled out the hoarse, throbbing bass, and I felt my attention drawn there though others be distracted by the playful rhythms above. The bass was electric, whispering, strong, subtle and yet patient in a manner that was agony. The damsel’s face remained innocent: did she refuse to realize the menacing tone of that bass? It, below, sent up froth in a mighty wave that pounded on her shore of precious grains. And above, the thoughtful melody separated those grains through kindness and soft-spoken words. Man is both these halves, and though often a woman would have only the one, yet she is doomed to both if she would have a man in her life. Gentle women! You must know the double-mystery, or else find some way to calm the roiling current which stirs always in our breast. I hate to be a man for this at times, but then I realize it is the lens through which I view the world, and without it everything would be blurred and indistinct. It is the dark that pulsates through the left hand, dark and ever-cursed as the side of evil and mischief. But the right hand, honored and a title of trust, is the voice we use to speak where our worlds meet. This is our song: the sound of an anguished lover, fingers on ivory and clutching at the vacant hollow of his flesh. He sings to the woman in braids who can only ever half-understand him.
I could feel the image slipping away as the song reached to its gentle conclusion. The player paused, feeling more silence was necessary, then decided it were best to take another break.
Late into that night, when everyone had left, I asked the man how he had played that song so deeply, and what story there must have been behind it. He smiled, and gazed deeply into my eyes to see if I would understand his answer. He said, in a very simple tone that vastly differed from the rarefaction of my own soul, “If you want to play the Sonata, you need to remember only one thing: that each hand is different. You can’t play them the same as you would play Chops or something simple like that.”
Then he looked even more intensely, and waited a moment. The air drew apart between us, and a curtain lifted to reveal his eyes of penetrating green. He said, with his eyes and with his words, “And remember always that your left hand is the tone of your passion, and the right is what you reveal of that passion. Don’t reveal it all, or you might scare people away, because not everyone can contemplate the passion that dwells in some. But rather mete it out, soft and gently through the right, and those who can hear it will understand.”
With that he closed the piano and stood to walk away. I felt like asking more, but my voice was silent as he continued toward the door. But before leaving he turned, and looked once more with his green mirrors into the depths of my soul. And for a moment, only a moment, I swear that I saw the reflection of a distant woman in braids.