In the struggle to live purposefully during the short span of an individual life, it’s a revelation to discover that rhythm is everything.
By some colossal stroke of good fortune, the recording of Bizet’s Carmen — my first in-depth acquaintance with that opera and slated to become one of my most beloved childhood friends — that very nearly ruined me for any other still holds up, decades later, against all that has been recorded since, as a brilliant example of what the composer surely intended, especially in the case of Leontyne Price in the leading role. (It is heartening to note that ArkivMusic carefully tends to this version’s continuing availability by re-issuing it on demand.) That opera, in that performance, has been a lengthier kind of leitmotif in my life.
Life: is it a carpet? You decide.
Someone in my past was fond of recounting a story in which life was likened to a carpet — or not, depending upon any opposition to the protagonist’s sage philosophy.
I have had the habit of comparing life to playing the violin, but I find myself thinking more and more of the castanets as metaphor for existential strivings. Melody can be stripped away; the rhythm that remains will still convey the message unmistakably, recognizable and inevitable.
Life of a musical instrument: expressive even while silent.
In another turn of incredible luck in my life as a musician, I found myself, during one week long ago, accompanying the incomparable Lucero Tena, castanet virtuoso nonpareil. Despite an abiding love of flamenco music and dance, I had been ignorant, up to that point, of her having forged a place for the castanets as solo instrument — not only in the expected Spanish repertoire (where often, but not always, the role played by the castanets came from the original composer), but in classic selections of orchestra literature that had been given specially written parts to feature the castanet soloist front and center. I could not have dreamt that such a thing existed before being exposed to it, and then, in an instant, I was completely spoiled forever. The Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (together with the famous violin solo), Flight of the Bumblebee — I could believe neither my ears nor my heart. The range of color and dynamic, the melodic expressivity, the rhythmic impulse so centered that the very concept of rhythm appeared to have been revolutionized: first the rehearsals and then the concerts flew by, and how I wished somehow to hang onto the sensation for at least a few more days, if not weeks.
Life artists of the noblest sort make time stand still while propelling all of us ever forward. We can talk endlessly (and so we shall) about how we think they do it, but any conclusions we reach are worlds removed from their timelessness.