What happens if you are born in the latter part of the twentieth century in America and find your most personal reflection, the mirror of your inner self, in music created on another continent more than a century or two before your birth? You become a musician as a child. You learn desire in music before you know it as a woman; you know the sorrow of loss before you have mourned. You feel all this as you translate the black dots and lines on the score into sound and try to make sense of them. What does this do to your relationship to your own present, the physical present that surrounds you? Where are you when you lift your head from the keyboard and look at the world?
The differences between a child musician and an adult musician are minor. I perform today works of music that I first performed when I was eleven years old. When I play these works now—say, Chopin’s mournful Prelude in E Minor—my entire life is there. The living room becomes again suburban, the piano sits under a stairwell, my father reads the newspaper in the armchair, my mother is in the kitchen talking on the phone, my brother is in his room behind a closed door. The Chopin Prelude, when I was eleven, became a place; a place I could enter that was entirely my own. With no walls around me, I could move far into an interior space that was untouched by the activity and the tension around me, the often palpable potential for explosion underlying the domestic scene. The Prelude was a haven—perhaps one could say a haven from the present, but it was the present, as I put my foot on the pedal, lifting it and then pushing it down again with each changing harmony, and listened to the resonant sounds float upward around me.
The music was also a code. Here was a magical universe where I could confide my deepest secrets, make my most personal anguishes and unknown desires public, without revealing a single name or betraying any confidence. No one knew what I was saying, yet here was a limitless repository for feeling. And so I discovered early on the importance of living in a world beyond words. Years later, as a student in Paris, I read André Malraux’s La condition humaine: “He who so fiercely seeks the absolute will find it only in sensation.” Malraux was writing about a terrorist, but I thought it was about myself.
In early October 2001 I played my first concert after 9/11. It was a concert of chamber music by Mozart—the Kegelstatt Trio for clarinet, viola, and piano, and then the dramatic Piano Quartet in G Minor. In the second half, I sat backstage and listened as Richard Stoltzman led the transcendent quintet for clarinet and strings. The audience was rapt. In those strange days, any large assembly of people felt oddly defiant, tinged with danger but also with a deep need to congregate. As this was, for almost everyone present, the first concert post–9/11, there was an added intensity of both playing and listening. The music of Mozart, with its uncanny ability to communicate the full range of human emotions with disarming simplicity, spoke with new urgency. How many times in the last two centuries, after horrific acts of inhumanity and violence, had Mozart’s music reaffirmed for us the possibility of beauty, of life? Now it had for me a new fragility, a new vulnerability. These works were not inevitable; they did not have to exist and they may not always exist. What had previously been unthinkable to me came as an obvious thought: Music became a cultural artifact that could disappear like anything else.
The music that I love relies on memory. The forms cannot be seen, the plots cannot be summarized. The landscape of music is followed by our ear blindly, and it is only the ability to remember, the unconscious absorption of material so that its variations and returns are recognized, that allows us to perceive a cohesive shape that gives pleasure. The narrative is without subject—it is about nothing. But it is about nothing in the same sense that life itself is about nothing. In this sense, it is about everything. Defined by time, it is time itself.
Since Aristotle, time has been viewed as a succession of nows. Kant warned us that “time yields no shape.” Yet within the confines of a period that begins and ends in silence, a great piece of music carves meaning in the air. It establishes a grammar of tension and resolution. Out of nothing, a structure emerges, an invisible landscape of place; with home, conflicts, wanderings, crises, doubts, climaxes, and, finally, return. The ability to engage with music is sensorial; in the moment of listening, the music is experienced rather than understood. Sensorial but, unlike the primal sensual pleasures of food or sex, in need of the filter of the mind. The listener’s engagement is a complex mix of attentiveness and distracted daydreaming, only moments of which can be translated into words; and with complex forms of music, it is only upon repeated listening that our engagement deepens. “In music . . . there is always a gap (a lacuna), bridged by the imagination of the listener,” wrote Baudelaire. How can we recognize the return without memory? We don’t know we remember until we hear the return.
Take the final ballade of Chopin, the magnificent Ballade in F Minor. It welcomes us gently, enfolds us between the bell-like repeated octaves of the treble, adds a quickening middle voice, and leads us downward to the resonant bass, searchingly repeats itself, and then finds a still centre and waits. Waits for a memory of a theme to arrive: a memory of something we do not yet know. The theme emerges haltingly, searching for itself, coming from a distant past and moving gradually into our present. The unfolding of this haunting melody is one of the most exquisite sequences in all of Chopin’s music. But for each of us who listens, what is the memory of? The music is always in flight, can only be recognized in motion.
I live in three cities, and each one seems to inhabit a different century. In Paris, the nineteenth century is not just nearby, it is present, we are still living it; we need only to get up early enough to cross the Tuileries and the Seine before the tourists awaken. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries are experienced as intrusions here. Plumbing and electricity seem to be recent inventions, awkwardly added on to older structures and functioning temperamentally; the Internet is fleetingly available and more a luxury than a fact of life. The solidity of the past and its beauty are our daily companions, and it is always against this backdrop that the present is seen and that we see ourselves.
In New York, we are firmly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, securely surrounded by grand apartment buildings, libraries, and museums constructed with confidence one hundred years ago and living in discordant harmony with their randomly designed and placed newer neighbours. Change is a constant here, but the city remains grounded in monuments, landmarks, a vast central park, and buildings whose functions may shift but whose presence is continual. The sudden disappearance of the World Trade Center left a gaping wound, but mourning quickly transformed itself into pragmatic argument, and disputes over the redevelopment of Ground Zero became part of the city’s return to life.
In Houston, there is no past. The continual construction is synonymous with destruction: expensive houses are demolished after a few decades to be replaced with larger models; nothing is built to last. An exuberantly entrepreneurial town, Houston boasts cultural institutions that could be the envy of many a mid-sized European city. Ambitiously built upon a swamp that is frequently flooded, this is a place where things sprout easily but nothing takes root. Here we are free of the burden of the past, which can stifle a city as perfect as Paris, but are condemned to amnesia in this sea of newness. Nothing survives, the physical present constructs itself as a paper city, a theatrical decor not meant to last any longer than a temporary production. In this thoroughly modern city, one sits alone in a car, protected from strangers and random encounters. The idea of the city in the European sense—a community imagined around a cohesive centre of market squares, town halls, and cafés—is absent; the urban mystique of the flâneur who wanders aimlessly through crowds is lost. The automobile defines a distinctly private space where the city is observed rather than inhabited. Reaching one’s destination is the only goal of movement.
But here, in tension as it is with its rootless surroundings, culture can become truly transformative. The soulful melodies of Schubert reach out to the isolated driver waiting at a red light. The radiant beauty of Mozart lifts us from our banal surroundings as we sit in rare communion with neighbours in a concert hall. The trajectory of the music looks forward and back, and speaks to us from a time and place far from where we find ourselves.
Still, culture is lonely here, finding no sympathy on the street. There is no building as old as a Beethoven sonata, and few that date back to the early modernist works of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. In Paris, I walk the streets traversed by Chopin, Liszt, Baudelaire, and Delacroix, and their ghosts walk happily beside me. I visit Square d’Orléans, where Chopin and George Sand set up house in stylish, new mid-nineteenth-century apartments soon after the productive summer that brought forth the F minor Ballade, and standing in the courtyard I imagine easily that Chopin is still working at his Pleyel. In Houston, Frederic Chopin the man is as distant as ancient Greece.
And yet, in each of these cities, when I get up in the morning and sit down at my piano, I am in the same place. I am home. Piano as place.
What do you do when the present is so strange that you need to dissect and analyze your surroundings on a daily basis, as though you had arrived from another planet? The hours at the piano need no explanation. But the outside world hovers precariously, nervously, alien.
Immortality is not about living into the future; it is about having access to the unending past. This is the magic of great art, this time capsule that comes to us breathing life. It is an error to view immortality as a forward trajectory. When I sit at the piano, the music is of a culture and the culture is of a time and when I live in it, which is often, I live elsewhere. We could call it reverse immortality.
Sarah Rothenberg is a concert pianist. Her solo recordings of works by Brahms, Schoenberg, and Fanny Mendelssohn are available on Arabesque Recordings. Her writings have been published in The Threepenny Review, Conjunctions, Nexus, and The Musical Quarterly. She is artistic director of Da Camera of Houston and lives in Houston, New York City, and Paris.