He wore his flaming red hair in a short mohawk, and he carried his cello around in a grey metal case shaped like a coffin. So naturally he was the one I had a crush on.
I was a teenager and accompanied my mother to the Windsor Symphony Orchestra with her season's tickets. On Friday nights I'd wear ripped jeans and Doc Martens as I snuck across the border to downtown Detroit to see everyone from The Descendents to Pixies to Love and Rockets play live. On Sunday afternoons I'd wear shoulder-padded dresses and black patent pumps and sit politely in the concert hall to take in the likes of Dvorak, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.
The truth is, I loved the classical music every bit as much as I did the new wave, garage, and punk. I'd come to learn that electronica is built on the same sonic scaffolding as the classical genre, and that the builds and breaks of symphonies and concertos produced in me the same biological responses — the pounding heart, the goosebumps, the catch in the back of my throat — as a thumping beat or guitar wail spilling off a stage and washing over a sweaty, writhing crowd.
But it was when those two worlds met — the wild and the refined — that my heart sang.
I stopped breathing the first time he walked out on stage. That hair... It clashed so perfectly with his symphony uniform of a black tuxedo and shiny shoes. He knew it, too, as evidenced by the way he smiled with wicked delight as he straddled his cello and then bobbed that red fin on the top of his head in time with the avant-garde themes of the New World Symphony.
Everything about him made utter sense to me in a way nothing had before. He balanced irreverence with tradition; he was outrageous and still cultured. He was a complete outlier in that group of musicians, and yet he still belonged.
He made me hear the music contained in my own heart.
* * * * *
I've always been skeptical of those who say they aren't into, or don't listen to, music. Because forget genres and streaming sites and lining up in front of concert halls. There's music all around us, and inside us: the hushed lullaby of a trickle of water over rock; the bittersweet cacophony of an urban downtown at rush hour; the a cappella rhythm of rope being pulled and tied. Most important of all: the guiding notes of our own hearts.
That heart song is how we navigate the world. While it loves to play in concert with others, it is just as compelling as an unaccompanied melody. It scales up and tumbles down and can waltz as smoothly as it can thrash. It's deafening when conducted by joy, and while muffled by pain it never fails to beat out its own name. Even its fermata is a rich, sonorous vibration.
That song knows the way, even when we don't. That song believes, even when our faith is broken. That song hopes, even when we doubt.
Listening for that song is how we survive. Isn’t it?
Or is this just a song a naïve fool sings to herself to soothe the pain that never abates?
* * * * *
It didn’t last.
There I was in the second row, having convinced my mother to sit as close to the stage as possible in the hope that he might look down and see me in my off-the-shoulder hot-pink sweater-dress, mesh stockings, and lace-up boots. (My mother was appalled, but I knew how cool I looked...)
It was the beginning of a new symphony cycle and I had a single mission: Make eye contact with my red-headed cellist. I knew that single point of contact would allow him to see inside my heart — and to hear its harmony with his. I was fairly trembling as the musicians began to file their way onto the stage. I felt like there was a spotlight on me. I knew I was lit from within.
The orchestra settled into their seats. The conductor lifted his baton. The music began.
I didn't hear any of it.
Where was he? My irreverent soul mate was nowhere to be found. The home I had found in his misfit song had vanished. And the only thing left behind was silence.
I know now that shock had temporarily taken away my ability to hear. But I also know that hollow echo was a precursor for the entity that now lives inside of me: The sound of emptiness.
This is no plush, resonant silence underpinned by the heartbeat of hope. No. It is the quiet born of having loved too many times in vain. Of having been brave in the face of too many failures. Of having leapt and smashed to the ground too many times to put the broken parts back together.
I expected to be afraid of this quiet. I thought it was tantamount to death. But here I am, still breathing.
I have crawled into its centre and learned what it looks like, tastes like, feels like. What it sounds like. No matter how much we evolve and love and risk, some of us are not destined to be symphonies. And so I am no longer scared of it — the song of this worn, empty heart. Its stillness.
This is my chamber music.