Guest contributor: Thierry Kauffmann
categories: Cocktail Hour
There were binoculars, pointed at the stage like mirrors of a telescope, there were eyes probing the darkly lit hall until they had found the keys of the piano, and the hands, that moved those keys. The music, essential and articulated, resonated its simple brillance in the packed hall. That night, the first Tchaikovsky piano competition had been won by a young man from Texas. The year was 1958, the man was Van Cliburn.
Thirty years later I land in the US for the first time. I had promised to myself I would cross the ocean before reaching the age of thirty, I’m right on time. And torn, torn because i’m here to study science and all I want is to play music. I have started writing songs but the dream is not strong enough yet to cease being a dream. I must first fortify my heart.
I fall in love with New York, with its music, the ones I hear, and the one in my head. I stay one week, then classes begin. In Indiana.
There are no mountains in the Midwest, no summit to claim my soul. The city I live in is Lafayette. I’m ready to adjust, to make a new life for me. I’m ready for everything, except this. The music stops. Completely. It only exists in New York. Michael J. Fox plays in the Secret of my success. I watch the movie in the old Lafayette theater. Before returning to the campus, I walk in the deserted streets. New York is calling me, I miss the height of skyscrapers, the saxophone playing to the moon, the dream. As if the city itself contained its own music, sealed in the geometry of its design, and in the soul of its buildings. I don’t know how to exist, if I don’t hear music. Spontaneous music, like breathing, permanent, inseparable from who I am.
The architecture of Lafayette is bare, flat as the land. Lafayette is no Jerusalem, it has none of the seven hills of Rome. I must find where its music comes from, what its soul is. I look up and I see the immense sky, like an ocean. It looks unreachable. It looks as if I will never be part of such a foreign world.
One summer, it is the summer of 1993, early June, WBAA, the campus old AM radio, is playing music. No, not music, fire. Pianistic fire. Chords falling like rain. The concert is broadcast live from Fort Worth, Texas. A competition just ended. I hear the name for the first time: The Van Cliburn competition.
I read about Van Cliburn, like a sponge, soaking in the missing ink, the one telling the story of him, and with it, the story of me.
The early years of Parkinson, I mourned the loss of my hands. They could no longer play. Their silence felt like a tomb,
I was a ghost. Patiently, I taught myself how to play again.
Two weeks ago, I found a recording of Van Cliburn’s performance in Moscow. I am so taken by the simplicity of what I hear, the clarity of a sound reduced to its melodic line, that I forget this is Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto. The hardest piano piece ever. Here is my version.
[I was born in a state of grace. I heard music and I counted numbers all day long. In school I improvised stories. Before the age of 30 I moved to the US where I taught science and learned modern dance. I was a financial analyst when the bell rang: I had been diagnosed with Parkinson. I am now writing a memoir of my journey, combining science, music, and illness. My first story was published by Bill and Dave’s. Two other stories appeared in Nib magazine. I live in France again, in my hometown with my parents.]