Thursday, April 26, 2012

Chopin at Midnight, Chopin Behind Bars (Vol. 3, No. 6)

Midnight Fire - Diamond Rose Brooch on Black Velvet, for Poem by Maja Trochimczyk
I listen to Chopin when I drive. My most recent find - all the etudes recorded by Louis Lortie (You Tube recording of Lortie ). The three dramatic ones at the end of Op. 25 are, as a set, a particular favorite. His timing is impeccable and the drama in the music well balanced with the classical perfection of form.

Another favorite CD that I recently returned to is of the two Piano Concerti with Krystian Zimerman at the keyboard, conducting his specially assembled orchestra - Polish Festival Orchestra. The clarinetist from that orchestra, Jan Jakub Bokun, has told me about the experience of rehearsing and playing with the Maestro. It was very strenuous, but immensely rewarding. One phrase, one detail, would take a long time to polish - sometimes aggravatingly long time. It had to be done to perfection... and it was. Just listen to the miraculous details - bringing out inner voices, phrasing, expression... Zimerman's Chopin is a true romantic, quickly moving from one emotional extreme to another, from enchantment to torment. An astounding vision of grand proportions. These are not little pieces of "stile brillante" provenance, ornamental, made to please. These are powerful expressions of the soaring human spirit.

OK, let's leave it at that. The spirit... What about the spirit? First, let me reflect on the spirit of Polish pride. To welcome the year 2010, just as I was finishing the "Chopin with Cherries" anthology that gave rise to this blog, I went to friends' house for a New Year's Eve Party. I never spent that time with this particular family and wanted to do something different, something I had not done before. It was interesting - filled with children and games, not serious adult dinner conversation and dancing.

Young Chopin Vintage Postcard from Maja Trochimczyk's Collection
But one dance captured my attention and remained in my memory: Chopin's Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, nicknamed "The Military" (the link points to a YouTube recording by Maurizio Pollini). Yes, the same Polonaise that gave its first notes to a signal of the British broadcasts to occupied Poland during World War II. And here we are, dancing? Just after midnight all the guests at the party lined up in a long line of couples, the host sat at the grand piano and off we went. Around the living room, out onto the patio, up and down the steps, out one door, in another, all over the house... The moon was unusually bright that night, surrounded by an enormous halo, a portent of things to come. I felt a rush of pride, elation even, when we moved along with dignity, in triple meter: one long step with bended knees and two short ones. Down, up, up, down, up, up, around the house, around the world... It was so incredibly moving - a small group of Poles and their international rag-tag bunch of friends dancing to music written almost two hundred years ago and heard in so many homes, on so many concert stages. Welcome the new year, the year of Chopin! That was two years ago - and the tradition of dancing that particular Polonaise at midnight continues.

On the way back home, I drove through an unfamiliar neighborhood and saw boys playing with a bonfire on the front lawn of their small house. It was a working class neighborhood with tiny houses squished in neat rows on streets leading up to the hill of the Occidental College. The moon, the fire, the dance - I was inspired to write a haibun about it. It was recently published in an Altadena anthology, Poetry and Cookies, edited by Pauli Dutton, the Head Librarian of the Altadena Public Library:

Midnight Fire

In the golden holiness of a night that will never be seen again and will never return… (From a Gypsy tale)

After greeting the New Year with a Chopin polonaise danced around the hall, I drove down the street of your childhood. It was drenched with the glare of the full moon in a magnificent sparkling halo. The old house was not empty and dark. On the front lawn, boys were jumping around a huge bonfire. They screamed with joy, as the flames shot up to the sky. The gold reached out to the icy blue light, when they called me to join their wild party. Sparks scattered among the stars. You were there, hidden in shadows. I sensed your sudden delight.

my rose diamond brooch
sparkles on the black velvet -
stars at midnight

© 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk

I wrote more verse about the Polonaise itself, but all the descriptions fell short of the delight I felt that night, so it was reduced to just an introduction to a story that has no end. The contrast of warm flames and icy moonlight was unforgettable. I added the romance, of course - poetry is not supposed to be real, though, when rooted in an actual experience it touches a nerve in listeners. After one reading I was asked by an eager member of the audience: "So what about the man who gave you that brooch? Where is he now?" "There was no man. This is my brooch, I got it for my daughter and it returned to me," I said. There was nobody lurking in the shadows. . . The poem sounds better this way, though.

Fast forward two years, and I'm playing recordings of Chopin in jail. This is the path that I took, and this is where it is going. . . forward. My students are inmates who have completed the Sheriff's Education-Based Incarceration program, and are approaching dates of their release after completing their sentences. I do not ask what they are in for, it does not matter. What matters is that once released they never come back. Jailing them is a huge cost to society and committing crimes does not help them or anyone else. It is just not the right thing to do. But many offenders keep returning to jails, keep doing the same thing that they were always doing. My approach to changing their thinking, their image of self and the world, involves classical music. Chopin, in particular. Due to his serious illness, dying of TB, composing between fits of coughing and spitting blood, he can be an example of heroic courage. William Pillin expressed this idea very well, in his poem "Chopin" (included in the Chopin with Cherries anthology):


(excerpt from a poem by William Pillin)

White and wasting he dotted
with splashes of blood his lunar pages,
carrying death like a singing bird
in his chest, his tissue held together

by dreams and bacilli. “I used to find him,”
wrote George Sand, “late at night at his piano,
pale, with haggard eyes, his hair almost standing,
and it was some minutes before he knew me.”

In Majorca, the doctors
shuddered at his blood-flecked mouth,
burned his belongings, compelled him
to take refuge in a former monastery.

“My stone cell is shaped like a coffin.
You can roar — but always in silence.”
When it stormed he wrote the ‘raindrop’ prelude
and from the thunder he fashioned an étude.


“I work a lot,” he wrote to his sister,
“I cross out all the time, I cough without measure.”
With death’s hand on his slender shoulder
he created ballades, études, nocturnes.

Chopin had what it takes to succeed against all odds. He used his time well - he created something lasting that speaks to us two hundred years later. They can do it too. It is heroic courage that is needed to succeed when you leave jail with a felony record, no friends to turn to (because those you had would bring you straight back to jail and those you hurt would not speak to you again), no home, no job...

America is very punitive. Not only does it have the highest rate of incarceration in the world: one in thirty one adults is under correctional supervision, well over 700 people per 100,000 adult residents. The second highest rate is in the second most punitive country, Russia. There, about 500 inmates are locked up per 100,000 of adults. Other countries have a fraction of that. The "war" of imprisonment was clearly won by the U.S. There are serious societal costs associated with that dubious victory. The stigma of having been once in prison or jail remains and permanently marrs the record of an individual who has virtually no chance for redemption. Job applications feature a box: have you ever been incarcerated, or committed felony, or misdemeanor? Once you check the box, the application lands in the garbage bin. I tell my students behind bars that they have to be really tough to ignore the rejections and insults that will come their way. Their sentences are finished but the stigma is there and will bring them back if they do not fight it by having the courage to be good.

Poster for Polanski's The Pianist
Chopin helps here. How? We listen to a Nocturne and then to the same Nocturne played by The Pianist's Adrien Brody in an old-fashioned suit. The camera pans out to show the engineer's booth. This is a live broadcast of the Polish Radio in Warsaw. This is September 1939. Soon the bombs begin to fall, the pianist initially refuses to stop playing but has no choice. He falls off the bench, the building is destroyed by German bombs, and his odyssey begins. The astounding, true story of survival against all odds - the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, as told by Roman Polanski (another Holocaust survivor) leaves the incarcerated men I'm speaking to visibly shaken. The stellar beauty of the soaring Nocturne melody is cut down by the noise of explosions. War is evil, always evil. What did the musicians do to deserve their fate? What did the residents of Warsaw do to deserve being killed by German bombs? Nothing. War is a calamity that has to be survived. Living with the stigma of incarceration requires survival skills too. It requires a lot of courage - shown by the pianist in the film and the character's real-life model. It requires a persistent clinging to life, the good life.

I pan forward to another favorite scene in the film: the famous Ballade that Szpilman played for the German officer. This has to be one of the most famous music scenes in the whole history of film-making. When the can of pickles falls down from the pale, think hands of the starving musician and rolls to the feet of the uniformed German officer... when the gaze of the emaciated, long-haired pianist dressed in rags meets the eyes of the proud soldier... Then, the pianist begins to play and the Ballade takes them both on a journey. Away from destruction, away from hunger and suffering - somewhere else.

Here, courage and humanity triumph. The officer has to break his laws and his orders if he wants to save the life of the starving pianist. He does so, moved by Chopin's music that brought him back to the time when there was no war, only life and happiness. He must have heard such beautiful music at home, before the tragedy began. The extraordinary courage of the pianist, the compassion of the "enemy" and the drama of the music speak directly to the heart. Would the lesson stick? I do not know, I can only try to share it.

Is it worth my time? I hear comments: "lock them up and throw away the key." Not everyone behind bars committed, serious violent crimes and those who did would have been sent to the prisons, not jails. Once they did something wrong, paid the price for it and returned to the society "rehabilitated" - their sentences are supposed to be over and a new life is supposed to begin. But more often than not, it does not. They cannot find jobs, cannot earn a living, cannot function. Some are willingly returning to drug dealing or stealing. Others feel cornered, feel they have no option. If they do it the second time, the sentence will be longer, the return to the "narrow path" harder. I do not write it to excuse them. But it is important for them to know that they can stay on the "narrow path" of honest life, if they make some sacrifices, just like Chopin had to make sacrifices in order to continue to compose. What other option do we have?

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