One. Alone. She
Stood alone. With
Music, yes. But
Really all by her
self. Alone. Be-
gan to play the
Harsh chords that
Begged help me
Beat one was a rest.
Silence turned to music,
Formal end of the silence
That had always come be-
fore. Chaconne began on the
Second beat, and once be-
gun, it wouldn’t stop un-
til it reached the very
To scratch the strings for that first note was like beginning life: once you breathe, heart pumps, it doesn’t stop till death. Margaret hoped performing Bach’s Chaconne would be like that, a change, a brink, a portal. She curved her pinky on the string; she found the chord; she took a heaving breath. And looked for Annie. One. She dropped her bow across three strings and its horsehair strip set them vibrating in a wobbly chord that smoothed as it went, like a bicycle starting to roll.
That was it—there were no other rests in the piece, unless you counted the silence after the last note. But that wasn’t a composed quiet, nor would it be truly silent. The seconds would hold heater creaking, pew shifting, breathing, the shimmery ringing of her final notes. Applause.
Margaret had once heard a piece composed entirely of rests. The pianist stepped onstage, sat, and counted silently for what the program said was 100 measures. How do you measure silence? The audience waited. The pianist stood, bowed, and people clapped.
“If that was music, then what isn’t?” Margaret said to John, her sort-of boyfriend at the time. “Everything is…or could be. Maybe it depends on whether you’re listening or just hearing.”
John wasn’t interested in the concert or what it meant. “Maybe silence is silence,” he said. “Can’t you just enjoy life without trying to turn it into something else for once?”
Margaret so often made her life into something else that she had come to think of the transformations and distractions as the best part. Vladimir Nabokov’s father won the duel—no, the duel was called off—near the gate Margaret passed through on her way to work, the gate separating the grocery store parking lot from the courtyard of the housing development next door. The store was a mile away from Margaret’s apartment, all uphill, she planned to tell her children. Sometimes, she wished she could just get there and get home. But listening to a podcast of a short story made the whole thing wonderful. In that walk, she lived parallel lives. The undersecretary lunched with someone more or less important as Margaret climbed the hill past the two-family houses—two front doors, gambrel roofs—of Curtis Street. A boy pretended to read important books in city heat as she crossed the bridge and watched her shadow on the sidewalk. And there they were, Nabokov and his dad, every time she walked through that gate, months after she’d listened to a Speak, Memory excerpt on her iPod. This is how Margaret chose to see the world. Or not to see it.
Rest. TWO three
One TWO three
One TWO three
One two three
That was the rhythm of the piece, four-bar stanzas, each a variant on the theme. The Chaconne had sixty-four variations. Life had rhythms too; Earth and Sun in motion. Days and months and years. In life, you never knew how many variations were left.
Hannah, in a white wool coat, sat in the front pew on the center aisle, boots crossed. Her face was still round and rosy, and her lips, which turned down at the corners, were open as in contemplation. The figure of Hannah in Margaret’s head was that of girl in a party dress with full-length poofy sleeves that wrinkled as she moved her bow arm. “One, two, Mississippi hot dog, one two, Mississippi hot dog,” went the rhythm of the minuet Hannah had played at that recital, the little phrase meant to keep kids from rushing. Hannah had looked up to Margaret, four years older, who had performed the Bach Double that year. Then their paths diverged.
It was a year ago that Margaret was walking to work, earbuds in, and the radio said that Hannah Sharpe would play Bach’s Chaconne. At age eighteen, Hannah was playing the most difficult, greatest piece of music written for violin. Margaret smiled hard at people she passed, somewhere between happiness and jealousy and trying not to cry. She crunched through snow in bars of three, leaning first with one foot, then the other, as if stamping out her feelings. By the time the piece reached its climax, she was steaming up her scarf. And she was at the gate. Joe was getting carts in a yellow fluorescent vest. He waved at her, and she winced back, then sharply turned away and kept walking, over the bridge, away from the store: a “no-show no-call.”
Margaret turned off her cell phone and turned up her iPod. Hannah played well. Margaret walked past the river, up to the door, up the stairs, onto her bed, onto her back. She would focus, at last, on her distraction.
The first eight measures gave the theme. Then the Chaconne began its slow,
convoluted development. Margaret could almost imagine some voiceover as she
started the second variation.
Chaconne two three
Written after his
Wife Maria Barbara
Did Bach pace the floor in threes, repeating variations on the pattern as if hoping that something would change, or change back, if he kept trying, praying, repeating? Sixty-four variations without rest. Alone.
The notes rang in the tall church like a struck tuning fork, the high-pitched sounds that hang in the air as the music carries on. They rose from the violin and gathered in the air and ears, and they mixed, forming ghost-like chords. Margaret had once thought that the ringing of notes was a sign. It was a magical sound. It felt right. Not silly.
“Remember how serious we were? God,” Annie had said to Margaret one day during a college summer as they looked back on their childhood friendship, the hours they’d spent near each other with a CD player, listening to musicals.
“I know. In ninth grade, I wrote a whole essay about the relationship between Jean Valjean and Javert.” Margaret really did love Les Misérables—the musical—loved it enough to carry around the green library book, with its too many thin pages, for an entire year in hopes of discovering in literature what she had already found in music.
“You had all the words memorized.”
“I still do. Remember when we listened to Phantom of the Opera in the dark?”
“Yeah. It actually seemed scary then.” Annie paused. “Now I know they’re not serious, musicals. They’re kind of silly.”
Margaret wanted to go along with her friend, but—
“But his voice filled my spirit with a strange sweet sound,” she could have retorted, borrowing Christine Daaé’s lines from Phantom. “ In that night there was music in my mind. And through music my soul began to soar. ” Music did that for Margaret.
During elementary and even high school, they had both taken “Les Miz” and Phantom of the Opera and Rent as expressions of what was most important, most essential in life. Margaret thought the same thing about all music. In a violin concerto, the minor sections were sad or conflicted moments and the recapitulations, happy endings. The beauty of music, supposedly, came from the way it expressed the emotions of life.
Except music wasn’t like life. It was better. Not silly: transcendent. Like Christine Daaé, Margaret loved a phantom: music itself.
No living person made Margaret shiver like Tchaikovsky’s music did. When she thought of Bach’s Chaconne and tried to connect it to some life experience, she ended up thinking of listening to Hilary Hahn play it, or of trying to play it by ear herself, with the CD as her guide, pacing her high-school bedroom. If the Chaconne made her think of any one person, it was her violin teacher, hers and Hannah’s, who had given her the Bach CD as a parting gift before she moved away. He had since died.
And Annie still wasn’t there. Margaret had texted her: “Door’s open. It’s okay to come in late” before the recital started.
Now Margaret began a gentler variation. The melody itself told a story that was, if not happy, bittersweet. The notes that accompanied this melody, forming double stops, or two notes played together on different strings, gave the music dissonance. It was not just sad; it was a pleasant story marred by grief. Or loss.
Bach had gone on a trip, and when he returned, his wife had died, suddenly. Then he wrote the Chaconne, a fifth movement added onto the partita’s usual four.
Arpeggios implored the listener to pay attention. Margaret loved this part, with its double stops, the melody entering on the lower of the two simultaneously bowed strings, then answering itself on the upper half of the following chord, because it was like playing a duet with herself. Her fingers were in place. She lifted her bow from the strings after each chord—“smile with your bow”—to let it ring. And so it did. But what did the ringing mean? A nod of cosmic approval? An echo of notes played in tune.
A sultry, lazy, cat-like variation sliding into thirty-second notes, four times as fast, running up and down the E string to transition to yet more quick finger-pattering tones. Insistent. Somewhere past the middle of the four-bar phrase, the notes would repeat themselves, then break out of the pattern in desperation before beginning, resigned, the next variation. Circling. The thirty-second notes formed broken chords spanning all four strings. In each chord, one note stood out from the others, usually the open D, the tonic. The notes that complemented that note would change, but everything returned to it in the end.
A strident section. (What a word, she thought.) The music commanded itself. Triumphant runs of thirty-second notes followed by solemn bangs on the lower strings, those notes her teacher told her not to fear, just slam down the bow. It seemed like the piece was about to end. It returned to the beginning theme. Alone. She was alone.
And then, something magical. Did the audience notice? The piece didn’t end. It switched to a major key. For a moment, the music was optimistic. As in the beginning, the melody played on one string was accompanied by notes on another. But this time, the accompanying notes were consonant. Not strident; it had its own quiet glow, like someone standing in a corner, content. The insistent notes, four repeated, were brighter: A instead of D; dominant instead of tonic. In the moment, you didn’t know what it meant, if it would end well or not, but you hoped. Margaret made her music as loving as she could, for Bach, for Annie, for the air. Behold, behear, beloved.
The melody turned to broken chords, slower this time, two double stops separated by a flick of the wrist in the same rhythm as the opening theme, but in a major key now. This wasn’t the brokenness of injury; it was more like enunciation. The chords were majestic and seemed to lead somewhere, like a gate.
She heard something at the back of the church and crunched her bow for a second. She stared harder at the Virgin Mary.
The gate swung open. Oh God, the double stops, in a descending scale. Normally double stops happened once in a while, here and there; now the melody had the richness of an accordion. The two parts sung together, consummate. That longing that always seemed to swell midway through the variation was there, but this time, it was fulfilled. Had Bach stumbled on some joy? Margaret shivered so hard that her legs moved underneath her.
This section in this piece of music was supposed to be the peak of the peak of her year. Those double stops were like nothing she’d experienced before in life. Then again, there was one supposedly transcendent experience that she hadn’t had. More and more, it embarrassed her. It used to be something she didn’t consider important. But now, at twenty-three, she was starting to feel that without having had sex, she couldn’t judge anything. Maybe all that she knew was “lame” in comparison. She feared that the love she had, for art, for her parents, for mentors she admired, was somehow glaringly naïve. And she felt guilty both for her naïveté and for her faithlessness.
She didn’t believe it. Her love for Bach was real. Her goosebumps were real. If orgasms were better…
The following measures were wistful. The music began to wander, hands in pockets again.
“I don’t think I want to be in a relationship right now,” John had said, moving his glasses up on his nose. And Margaret wasn’t disappointed. She had met up with him the night he broke up with her, as on other nights, out of a sense of obligation. She wasn’t really attracted to him. But then again, she wasn’t attracted to anyone, and he liked her.
John was there now to watch her perform, and she still didn’t feel anything but embarrassment at her lack of feeling.
Damn it. If she hadn’t been playing, she would have made an “ech” sound. She thought of her book there on the front pew: Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Was D.H. Lawrence right? Was physical communication the only kind you could trust? Were the other forms of expression, the other signals sent and received, just “counterfeit emotions?” The way she understood Lawrence, she’d never really felt love. Bach, books, friendships—these were dildos. And she didn’t know what a dildo felt like.
Well, she decided, she’d had aural sex. She was half serious.
Here near the end, a dramatic scale on the D string, with every note echoed by an open A, that specter of a repeated note. But then somehow the music picked itself up. Something in the repetition shifted from meek weariness to something like gusto. A series of ascending arpeggios: the notes rapid as they had been so many measures ago when it seemed the piece was about to end. Triumphant bangs on the lower strings.
It really did end this time. Back to the opening theme. Five chords formed a question mark. The last note was a D played as a double stop, the curved fourth finger on the G string next to the open D, two parts united. But the piece, which so clearly began in D minor, now seemed unsure what key it was in. Is an open D major or minor? This ending could be happy or sad depending on how she heard it or depending on which notes she imagined accompanying that open D. There was hope. Was there?
The Chaconne began with chords like open wounds, and ended with ambiguous peace. In her little story, there was hope for Bach. But as for Margaret? Debatable. When she had walked away from the grocery, euphoric and jealous, she had that feeling, so familiar, that this probably wasn’t truly the right thing to do but that nothing else seemed any better.
She thought back to that first beat. That quarter-note rest was defined by the sound that followed. Beat one was what came before beat two. She hoped that performing the Chaconne would define and give meaning to all that had led up to it. She wanted to look back on the last twelve months as the year before everything changed. She’d been holding her breath, making a wish, screwing up her eyes, and preparing to run at a brick wall in hopes that, like with Harry Potter’s platform nine and three-quarters, it would dissolve onto another world. Crazy. Whether or not it was crazy depended on now.
The day after she quit her job, Margaret woke up and played her violin and listened to music, happy, though she spoke only to herself. At 5 p.m., when everyone was coming home from work, she left the house. She enjoyed the fresh air on her face and the movement of the streets. Then she went home and listened to Itzhak Perlman’s vibrating, sliding, drunk-with-drama rendition of the Paganini violin concerto.
The money ran out. Since she didn’t play well enough to get paid for performing, she started teaching violin students in her apartment. She wasn’t that good at teaching, either. The only thing she was really good at, if you could even consider it a skill, was listening to music and letting it carry her from her life. Once music became her life, though, it stopped being an escape. Everyday activities, then, became her music.
Sometimes, after giving a tough lesson, she would walk to the grocery store, past the Nabokov gates, pick up a recipe card, and buy the ingredients for “chicken with harvest vegetables,” or something like that. She was so happy to see her cashier.
“Hey, how are you?”
“Aagh,” Margaret said. “Not so great. How are you?”
“Doing very well, thanks. Keeping busy.”
There was a line of customers.
“Have a good day, Margaret!”
So she went home, chopped vegetables for soup, and enjoyed the feeling that something was happening by virtue of the pot on the stove. After dinner, she resumed her violin practice.
She also enrolled in a composition course. In her compositions, she put together recorded sounds from life—squeaking wheels, the sound of sneakers on pavement. And she scheduled a recital, rented a church, made plans to perform the greatest, most-difficult piece ever written for violin.
Now it was over. She’d played the Chaconne. Margaret lifted her bow, felt its weight in the air. She let out her breath. And looked toward the back of the church.
Annie wasn’t there. Margaret hoped if she played well enough, and concentrated, and didn’t look at the door, Annie would be there when she finished. She had played her best for that rustle. But there was someone else there, a man.
Next on the program was Margaret’s composition. She queued it up on the CD player. It told the story of a week, seven variations on the day. Each variation opened with the sound of an alarm clock and ended with the silence of sleep. A knife scraping butter on toast. Water running in the bathroom. There was the peculiar minor-seventh squeal of the subway leaving the station. Before their fight, Margaret had asked Annie to carry a digital recorder for a week and let her, Margaret, edit the sound.
Annie had been glad to do it at the time. Margaret had felt close to Annie as she arranged the recorded noises into what she called music. At the same time, she felt a sense of foreboding about creating this other, musical version of her friend, as if an alternate were necessary.
The piece ended in a measure of silence. Then people clapped.
Now they formed a line down the center aisle. There was Hannah in that spotless white coat, violin case on her shoulder.
“It was beautiful, Margaret,” Hannah said. “Such a great piece.”
“Thank you for coming. What are you up to now, Hannah?” Margaret asked.
“Oh, my chamber group is rehearsing at 5.” She looked at her watch. “I’d better run, but it was great to see you! Thanks so much for inviting me.”
“Thank you for coming.”
And so it continued as people filed out of the church. The exchange: compliment; acknowledgement; hug; goodbye. John congratulated her, and she thanked him for coming. He was fine, he said: busy with work and with contradancing, his main hobby. But no Annie. Whoever did come in midway through the performance had apparently slipped out. It was a queue of disappointments.
Margaret walked home from the church with her violin in one hand and the CD of her friend Annie in her pocket. She’d played the Chaconne. A teacher’s praise came back to her: “We’re so proud of you.” But then she heard Annie’s voice, the recorded voice. Don’t think about it, she thought, and slipped on ice. She cursed more than necessary.
And then she was home and unlocking the door. The wreath smelled good. There was mail: holiday catalogues, the utility bill.
She took out her violin and played a waltz. From the beginning, this piece was not about love but about regret, the memory of a waltz. She closed her eyes as played and swayed from side to side, bending her knees and bobbing up and down. She and John had danced together. They’d met at a contradance. But this waltz was about itself.
Margaret opened her eyes.
They had been on a morning run around the lake, she and Annie. It was two weeks before the recital. Margaret had earbuds in.
“My cousin’s wedding is next month,” Annie said.
“Oh yeah?” Margaret was listening to Paganini caprices, trying to memorize them. She did the fingerings on her left leg as they ran.
“In New York,” Annie continued. “I’m thinking about going.” Margaret fiddled with her iPod. The volume spiked.
“Are you listening to—”
Margaret knew her mistake as she made it, but that was too late. Annie ran ahead. Margaret pulled out her earbuds and tucked them down into her sports bra.
“Hey,” she said, panting. “I’m sorry. I was distracted.” She forced a smile, as if the facial expressions of “no big deal” could make it reality.
“I’ll ask somebody else,” Annie said, not looking at her.
Margaret apologized the whole car ride home. Annie didn’t answer. Margaret got out, and her friend drove away.
Itzhak Perlman was still playing away in her bra. Margaret had reached in and shut it off.
At the conservatory the day after her recital, Margaret stamped the snow off her boots. She signed in at the desk. She entered the lecture hall and felt affronted by what was projected on the white screen: “Creating mood in music.”
“Today we are going to discuss how to evoke particular feelings through art—music, of course,” the professor said, in his British accent. “I’m sure you’re all familiar with the feelings of happiness, contentment, sadness, and so forth, that music produces in the listener. They seem pure and simple, eh? But for you, the composers, the task of evocation is not as simple as ‘having a feeling’ and picking up your instrument. No, musical emotions are engineered. And today, using our musical building blocks…”
People around her were taking notes. Margaret walked out.
As she opened the door to leave the conservatory, she heard a voice behind her. “Hey, Margaret? Sorry to bother you.” It was Jonah from the front desk.
“No.” She turned around. “How are you?” She whispered, conscious of the lecture nearby.
“Good, good. Listen, I was wondering, I get off work in an hour. I was wondering if you might like to do something.”
“I came to your recital. Actually, I came in late. The door was open. It was great!”
“Thanks. And thank you for putting up that flier at the conservatory.”
“Of course. I wanted to see you perform. I didn’t say hello or anything. Guess I was shy. You must have been pretty tired after, what is it, eighty-four variations? Hope you didn’t need help cleaning up.”
“Sixty-four—There was nothing to do, except maybe scrub the sound out of the walls.”
“What?” He had a face like something out of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a homesteader’s face. “No, it was perfect. I was sitting next to your old friend—she introduced herself, what’s her name, Hannah? With the violin. After you finished, she whispered ‘bravo!’”
“Of course really.” Jonah had a huge grin. “Listen, I live around here, and I was planning to cook some enchiladas. You like Mexican food?”
“Yeah, that sounds great.”
Jonah unlocked the door to his apartment holding two grocery bags and a six-pack of beer and motioned for her to go in. She was holding a bag of pears. He seemed to be one of those people who could hold ten things and still open doors for people.
They entered a dark purple room where a Phantom of the Opera poster hung above a brocade sofa that was covered in round throw pillows. A cat roused itself from the rug.
“Hey Ruby Foo,” Jonah said. “That’s my cat. Actually, the landlady’s. Cat’s name’s really Penelope. I’m taking care of the place for this woman.”
“Is that your poster?”
“No, not mine. I haven’t even seen Cats. Why, are you a fan?”
“Sort of. I used to love it. Or I do love it, but it reminds me of someone.”
The kitchen, to the right, was not the neatest room in the house. Jonah put on some jazz. The falling leaves drift by the window… Jonah offered her a beer and a seat at the kitchen table. Margaret wasn’t a jazz connoisseur, but “Autumn Leaves” made her happy because Edith Piaf had performed it: “Les Feuilles Mortes,” dead leaves. What beautiful death, though.
“Can I help?” Margaret asked.
“No; I like to cook. Just make yourself comfortable.” She was very comfortable. Her mind was empty, filled only with this feeling, like a smile spilling over.
Jonah carried two glass bowls of salad over to the table and spooned the enchiladas on top. Before he sat down, he flipped off the stereo. “I wanna make sure I can really hear you,” he said.
“You know what interested me about you?” he asked her as they ate.
“I like how you always sign your full name in the book, not just some scribbled-off signature.”
“Hah. Well, I like the way you seemed so upbeat about everything. Like at the fruit stand, you wanted oranges, but they had pears. So you bought pears, and it seemed right, all of a sudden. They were three for a dollar, so you bought three. It was just so nice.”
“You liked that? Well, you’re pretty upbeat yourself.” Margaret screwed up her face.
“No, seriously. I remember one time, you came into the con with earbuds in, and you just had this spring in your step, like you were dancing.”
She was smiling, still.
“What?” he asked, touching her cheek.
“That’s how I feel now.”
From magazines, it had seemed that sex was a visual art, the connection of one beautiful body with another. But this was completely tactile. Goosebumps. Warm skin. Slimy jousting. Fullness. Warmth. Pressure. Noses bumping, cartilage jiggling. Pleasure. Gravity. Nearness. They lay next to each other, tired, damp, glowing, but not for anyone to see. They engaged in a sightless, sensual, wordless way. It was like music.
It was like playing violin, except that Margaret didn’t have to be in control. It was like playing a violin that was also playing her. Skin brushing hairs, hairs brushing skin, uncountable hairs brushing past each other like bows on strings, tripping neuron upon neuron in the same way that vibrations in the air bend hair cells of the inner ear to signal music to the brain.