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Fri, 13 May 2005
I make it a habit to avoid reading obituaries. That and passing antique stores without entering are my two hobbies actually.
So my long time friend Jen had to call me to tell me. I checked the paper, yes it was the same name, and that would be about the right age. Survived by a husband.
I can't be entirely sure (it has been several years), but as I remember it, she was really cute. I also can't be sure because knowing a person has talent changes my other perceptions. She was just a teenager when I first saw her, bright engaging eyes and a smile so genuinely innocent that it made me sad to look at her and know what the world had the power to do.
We were all gathered under the small canopy, sitting on the ground to listening to various fiddlers who were sitting on folding chairs arranged on a small low wooden platform that served for a stage. The fiddlers took turns, each being introduced by the previous fiddler and then playing three or four tunes. Some stood up, some played from their chair. All the fiddlers playing that morning were good, some of them regular performers with whom we had over the years become very familiar, and some new names, who played very well.
To tell you the truth, it is hard to remember any of them. Her playing pushed all memory aside. She was the last to perform. Until it was her turn she sat politely, clapped with the rest of us at the performances of the others, and otherwise acted naturally. None of this is surprising of course, and would never be mentioned except that in my memory it is impossible to believe that nobody could know what was to come. If I had half her talent I would not be able to sit still and act naturally.
When it was her turn she picked up her fiddle and stood up. Without further comment she commenced to playing a slow air. From the first note we were all transported into a kind of rapture. It was apparent that the other fiddle players, many of whom knew each other, were not familiar with this new prodigy; they sat in a kind of astonished rapture no different than ours. Some fiddlers are good in an understandable way. You hear them and say to yourself, I could do that if I worked at it hard enough. I am not sure there are enough hours in a day for me to put in that much work, or I might have had to start when I was five years old, but at least there is a path between my playing and theirs.
Other fiddles are good in an untethered way. Their playing seems not connected to your playing, the precision and energy of their playing seems unreachable by any method. If you dwell on it too long you can get discouraged, thinking there is no point in trying if you don't have the genes.
The slow air was new tune to me, mournful and sad, without being trite or overly dramatic. The notes seemed to speak to each of us individually, and carry us along through the landscape of the tune. She followed the air with a march, which seemed thematically related to the slow air, but with more momentum. The march was followed by a roaring slip jig that I knew, and so beautifully played that the tune itself seemed happy to be born from the F holes of her fiddle. She finished her set with a very fast reel, played flawlessly. Even at its breakneck speed, every note was hung carefully in its place as if with Christmas ornament hooks. The driving rhythm and precision of the notes was in stark contrast to her calm presence and glorious smile. It wasn't that it was easy for her, it was that it took no effort at all. No effort at all! For all we could tell she might have been thinking of something else, what ever else it is that 15 year old violin prodigies think of.
She finished her tune with a ripping phrase, and then sat down quietly. A moment of stunned silence, followed by enthusiastic applause that seemed to actually amaze her. It was as if she could not understand our enthusiasm; perhaps because she was from planet prodigy where everyone plays well, so playing well is nothing special.
The only other fiddler from her planet I can recall ever hearing years ago back in Edinburgh, in a pub near the university. He wore an corduroy suit jacket that looked like he had slept in it to make it fit, and he carried his fiddle case under his arm like you might clutch a sack of potatoes. I had earlier heard him play some lovely fiddle tunes - tunes from the Orkneys, with their Swedish influence, and his fiddle playing was kind of a sing song rocking style, giving steady but not obtrusive emphasis to the rhythm; gently driving the tunes along. Even his slow tunes had a way of flowing and moving forward, never stagnating. The tone of his fiddle was such that without amplification of any kind it sounded closer to me than it was. It had a sweet full tone, you might almost say proud and weighty, except for how he could make the high strings sound so perky and bright. I wanted to get a closer look at his fiddle, but I never got a chance. I remember that it was undoubtedly a good one because but it had some interesting designs carved into the ribs, and some fancy purfling and nobody was likely to take the time to decorate a fiddle that wasn't going to worth some money.
I thought his playing was better than all that I had heard that week, and certainly as good and better than a lot of recorded fiddle music. I told him so as I bought him a drink, and I could not tell if his "thank-you" applied to the drink or the compliment. I asked him if he had any recordings, or played in a band. It turns out he had played with the same piano accompanist for many years, until she had died. He had considered making a record but could not find another accompanist he liked, and then there is the constant hassle of getting to the studio on time, and he hated appointments in general and having to wake up to an alarm clock.
I heard him play later that night, at a spontaneous session in a different pub, and just delighted in the way he could make a tune sound energetic without seeming to put much energy into it. I got to thinking about how good you have be to make it look so effortless, also about how much more than just playing well a musician has to master, in order to make a good living at it.
The world is full of amazing musicians who for reasons unrelated to the music never get recorded or develop much a of a following beyond their home town. It could be lack of ambition, lack of sobriety, lack of connections, inability to get along with people, or in this age of television and music videos, not being particularly attractive looking.
Attractiveness is hard for me to assess, because, as I said, my perceptions can be overwhelmed by talent. I remember a woman at the coffeehouse, who I thought was more or less average looking from her promotional material, and even in person when she came to get a booking. Later that year however, when I saw her on stage playing smokey jazz fiddle, wearing that herring bone man's blazer with the sleeves rolled up - I was in love. Her playing was gritty and street wise, and came from somewhere a lot older than she was. I thought she was the most attractive woman in the word.
Word about the 15 year old fiddle prodigy had apparently spread all over the festival grounds. The audience that evening at the main stage seemed impatient to see her again. Like me, they all clapped politely through a series of performers that at any other time would have seemed entertaining and even impressive . They were fine musicians all, and played convincingly, but I can't recall a single performance. The entire audience and I waited patiently through what must have been some very beautiful fiddle music.
Intermission. The audience got even bigger, as friends gathered friends. It felt like a rock concert after the opening act is done and just before the band you spent all your money to see has come to the stage.
When she did come on stage I was once again struck by how young she was, and how seemingly unaccustomed to such attention. She was accompanied by a tall older woman, who took the seat at the stage piano. A couple of beats of pregnant silence and then... there was music.
There is a third group of musicians, I suppose. Group one includes those whose talents seem achievable, though you may not want to work hard enough to obtain them. Group two - those whose talents seem all out of proportion with what is achievable in a life time of practice. Its either in the genes or its not. The third group is a rare collection of those whose playing is so expressive and beautiful that concepts like technique and tone quality, precision, rhythm, are all given up to the music itself. The music entirely transcends the player, who becomes a sort of vessel, through which eternal beauty is expressed in sound.
Music itself - no players, no instruments, just glorious music reincarnated on stage. She played several sets of tunes, each set starting with an air, followed by faster and faster tunes, a jig or a slip jig, and ending with a rip roaring reel. Some of the tunes I knew, but I was hearing all of them for the first time.
I would like to say the piano accompaniment was perfect, unobtrusive yet supportive, and certainly it was, but to say so is as ridiculous as tasting an excellently prepared shrimp scampi and commenting on the quality of the butter, or the freshness of the garlic - all the parts are so subsumed into the glorious whole as to make it impossible to separate out the contribution of any one element. In fact, I could say how flawless the fiddle playing was, but that too was invisible - I can't repeat it enough, there was only music. Fiddle tunes from an old tradition, passed from one generation of fiddlers to the next for well over 150 years - were once again being born into the world as if brand new, and with giddy enthusiasm living their short lives. Landing on our ears and hearts and dying as the next tune is born.
She played a total of four sets of tunes. What was to be the last set was gaining its momentum; singing out into an amazed world. It was during the reel, the last and fastest tune - a veritable down hill train of a tune; it was during this tune that she started to dance. Without missing a beat of the reel she started into a sort of a high stepping clog of a dance. It looked so spontaneous and joyful, as if the tune was too big to be communicated by a fiddle alone, and her entire body was called into the process.
The effect was stunning. The girl's unselfconscious glee seemed to overwhelm her, and dancing seemed the natural result. The reel took over her will and compelled her to play it, compelled her to dance it. She was under a spell, as passive as the rest of us, responding to Music itself.
I looked over at several of my friends in the audience, who like me were in stunned silence. My friend Jen looked back at me from across several rows, and that was enough - we both started crying. One moment I didn't know I was going to cry and in the next I was engulfed. Many of us were crying - it passed among us like a kind of mass psychogenic illness - a response of pure overwhelming joy at the perfect music washing over us, and the knowledge that someone so young, so fragile, had "it". Perhaps all transcendent beauty is so fragile, just some vibrations in the air, just a small fifteen year old girl with the most engaging smile in the world - dancing and playing - a 15 year old vessel, channeling a much older beauty into our plane of existence. She was a means of creating a miracle. An ancient miracle to which we respond with as much (or little) sophistication as the ancients themselves, when log drums and sticks and hollow bone first talked directly to our hearts.
With a flourish the tune came to an end; and during the spontaneous standing ovation, wave upon wave of clapping and screaming, I finally understood why Saint Patrick chased the faeries and wee folk out of Ireland - their music. How could he communicate the salvation of Christ Crucified, with such a competing pagan ecstacy coming out of every corner of the forest and hillside.
The obituary said that donations could be made in her name to the ALS Society of Canada.
I am not comfortable with the adage that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. It is what it is. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." says Hamlet, and yes there are. There are ecstasies untold, and there are undreamed of horrors and sorrows, and they don't balance each other, they don't annihilate each other, they coexist. And sometimes they intersect.