Day Before the Concert
Life and work converge very quickly, like storm fronts over the mid western United States. When I was going to school I often heard of my mentors' difficult moments where life and work would collide. It finally happened to me, on the night of my Carnegie hall debut.
Friction was selected to take part in the 50 for the Future project with Kronos Quartet at Carnegie. The project is an incredible gift to the world. Each year, for ten years, anyone with a computer and access to the Internet will get free access to brand new pieces commissioned by the Kronos quartet. The works are intended to be there for young quartets, so as David Harrington put it, "they don't have to play the same four guys who lived in one city two hundred years ago."
To study and work with Kronos was such an honor and joy. Their insight into performing was so beneficial to Friction, and helped us grow musically. The other quartets that were there, Argus and Ligeti, were also deeply inspiring. Each of us had such a different voice, and as Yogi Berra said, "you can observe a lot by just watching," and in this case listening.
The whole week was so rewarding, and the inner 16 year old Kevin was geeking out. There was one coaching in particular that was a perfect moment. We were playing the first movement from Garth Knox's string quartet Satellites. We reached one section where each person is going crazy, and I was playing a passage that was described as pizzicato shrapnel. We were ripping into it, and I look up to see David Harrington rocking out, and Garth smiling gleefully at the sound world we were creating. I love making weird sounds, and to have David and Garth enjoy those weird sounds was just fantastic.
The day before the concert, each group was scheduled to play their set. During lunch I decided to call my family, noticing that they were being weirdly silent. I had a sinking feeling things were bad at home, and knowing my family's tendency to not call before a big concert if things are bad, I was worried. It was especially worrisome for me, because my grandmother was struggling with her stage IV squamous cell carcinoma.
I walked out of the coffee shop, stood in the spring mid-day sun, watched a plane sail over a sky scraper, and called my mother. Her tone of voice immediately confirmed my dread. She's very good at staying strong when things get rough, but the emotion she was feeling was apparent in her inflection and tone.
"Hey Son, how was your performance?"
"It's tomorrow, but we are all feeling really confident about it."
"Oh for some reason I thought it already happened. Listen, things aren't so good with GG. Her sodium is really low and they are admitting her."
"Kristin mentioned that she might need to get admitted because of her sodium."
"Yeah, she is really confused. Like, the doctor asked her what year it was, and she said 1994. She said the month was January, and that Obama was president."
"They are trying to get her sodium up, but they just did a cat scan. The doctor wants to do an MRI tomorrow to get a better look."
"Did they find something in the cat scan?"
"It's looking that way."
"Wow..." We were both silent for about 30 seconds, the weight of what could be happening being felt by both of us, 1000 miles apart.
I broke the silence by clearing my throat. When I spoke the pitch was off, and the timbre something alien. I didn't even think before I pushed the air through my lungs as I confirmed out loud what we all feared, "It's in her brain."
"I think so. But we know more tomorrow, all we can do is take it one day at a time."
"Mom, can I talk to her?"
"Son you don't want to. She's really confused, and has a bad headache, and she's just not making any sense."
We said our goodbyes, and I wanted so badly to be alone, an impossibility in midtown Manhattan. I wanted to get on a flight home, I wanted to run off into the woods, I wanted to hop on a train, any train, and sit until the line ended.
I took a deep breath, fully appreciating the gift of clean lungs to extract the nourishment from the air that my blood needed. And I thought about what she told me the last time I was home. "If I die and you are at Carnegie Hall, you don't come home, you go out on stage and you play that concert, you play so purty that you make Yo-Yo Ma jealous." My grandmother really liked Yo-Yo Ma.
I focused my mind, breathing slowly, feeling the different muscles and bones in my body, hearing the buzz of the city, and feeling the sun on my skin. I felt much better, and I reminded myself that 6 months ago the doctors gave her 3 weeks. Every day from that point was such a gift, and it was my turn to give a gift to the world. It was very appropriate that we were playing a piece by Terry Riley called Good Medicine. That Good Medicine isn't chemo, or hallucinogens, but Joy. So I committed myself to finding the joy in this moment, that at least I have some time to talk to her still, and that I am able to pursue my dream with such inspiring colleagues.
I walked into the education wing of Carnegie, and I grabbed my instrument and music from our rehearsal room. I headed to the Weil Music Room, and grabbed a seat in the back. Taija could sense that I was a little distant and asked me, "What's up Kevin?"
She asks that question frequently enough, but there was something about the way she asked that told me she knew something bad was up.
"I don't really want to talk about it, but GG was admitted to the hospital today. She's really confused from her sodium being low." I withheld the fact that the cancer might have moved into her brain.
I don't remember what Taija said at that point, but I remember it being the response I needed, as well as the emotional space I needed. The other quartets played their sets. Argus played with a great deal of beauty and lyricism in their flowing sound. Ligeti embodied their namesake, and performed with a rich variety of colors and gestures.
After a brief intermission, it was our turn to play. We sat down at our seats, tuned, and started off. My mind grew clear, and just like I felt on the street after talking to my mom, I was fully present, listening to the sounds everyone made, and focusing on the passage of the phenomenal music around me. When we finished it felt great. The dust from the day was falling off of me. And I knew I could get through the next night.
The day of the concert was a bit of a blur. Doug and I went and found some very beautiful Indian shirts and had them tailored to be a hybrid of east and west. It was a very appropriate outfit to go with music by Terry Riley. We headed back for our afternoon rehearsal, and grabbed some crepes on the way. I went back to the hotel to change and briefly called my mom.
"Hey Shug, how you doin?
"I'm good. About ready to perform. How are things back home?"
"Well not so great. The MRI happened this morning and now we are just waiting to find out what the doctor thinks."
We chit chatted a little bit longer, but got off the phone pretty quickly. My goal was to prepare for tonight; after all, GG had already expressed what she wanted me to do. And she was still incoherent.
Our rehearsal carried the normal pre concert jitters and tension, but we were mostly settled. We then headed to our sound check. The sound and lighting guys that work with Kronos were there, and we got to experiment with our set a bit. We played through one piece by Wu Man, ancient Echo, and suddenly the lights went to black. As we were playing we all felt how cool that piece was in the dark. Otis piped up asking if we wanted to try the whole movement that way. From there we decided on a transition to Good Medicine in the dark, with the lights lifting at the beginning of Good Medicine.
Later I went to dinner with Doug's Family, Doug, and Otis. We crowded around a round table in a busy Italian restaurant across the street from Carnegie. I was getting nervous because I was going to talk before our set. I had a cappuccino in order to stay awake for the late night concert start of 9:00 P.M., and then needed to use the restroom. I left the table and walked to the basement to find it. On the way I pulled out my phone and checked my messages.
Ma: Bad news, doctor says it's in her brain. We talk to Dr. Meyerson soon to find out what the next step is.
I went into a private stall, and just sat on the toilet, burying my face into my hands. I was hit with the thought that the last time I would be able to talk to a lively and spirited person was two
weeks ago. It was like I had already found out that she passed. And to a certain extent it's true, but I tried to remain positive. I could still enjoy the glimpses of her that would pop up between moments of mental confusion.
I walked back upstairs to rejoin the dinner, floating through a blur of loud conversations, wine glasses clinking against each other, and the sound of silverware scraping against porcelain plates. The dinner was very pleasant, but I constantly had my mind in another place, either on the concert or on my family. Before I realized it, the time had come for us to leave to get dressed.
After saying our goodbye's to what feels like our quartet family, Doug, Otis and I walked out into the brisk air. There were oscillations between fresh air, and steam and truck exhaust. We walked with purpose through annoyed drivers, articulating their frustration with their horns like our ancestral shepherds jockeying for better grazing land. My stomach felt sour, full, still hungry, nauseated, and heavy.
Otis and I rode the rickety old elevator to the 8th floor, got off the turbulent lift, and went to our room to finish ironing our concert clothes. Otis left me to go warm up, and I was grateful for the brief moment to be alone before the big concert.
I ironed my new shirt, careful not to burn the light fabric. My focused wandered to my hands, and I recalled my grandmother had taught me how to iron my clothes. For a second I could see her hands in mine, like a reflected memory.
Wild thoughts about metaphysical connections began to run through my mind. I wanted to believe that even though she no longer could use her phone, or read, or carry on long coherent conversations, that my profoundly deep desire to share the excitement of this moment would somehow transcend the physical distance between us, and the physiological impairment she was having to face. I was overwhelmed with a tangible sadness over my body, and I bitterly fought back tears. I suddenly became so angry. I was enraged that one of my biggest supporters would not be able to see this performance tonight.
I remember the last conversation I had with her in person. She had just gone through her first round of radiation, and the only active tumor was about a cubic centimeter in her lung. We were waiting at the airport for my return flight to SFO after coming to town to play with my old youth symphony, something my old conductor had set up to give my grandmother a chance to hear me perform as a soloist. As we waited at the airport I told her I would see her at Carnegie. The confidence I had in that moment was unbreakable. Now nature was reminding me how arrogant and fool hearty that was.
I half drifted back to the present when I noticed that I had absentmindedly placed the iron face down on the ironing board. I snapped the iron up into the air, just as my focus on the present snapped back into place. I checked the time on my phone, and rushed to finish getting ready. I unplugged the iron, made sure I had my iPad and page turning pedal, put on my shirt that was now warm from ironing, shut off the lights and left the room.
I got in the elevator, and tried to remember that this year had been a gift, a gift of being able to have such an extended good bye to tell her how much I loved her. I got off the elevator, grateful for many things. I stepped onto the busy Manhattan street, and looked at the illuminated
Carnegie Building. Instinctually I inhaled deeply, and took a step towards the building, letting my body gently be taken by gravity as I began my journey to the stage.
End part I