The Monolith Eric Wagner
Some time ago, while visiting my parents in Oregon, I was leafing through their local newspaper and came to the obituaries. I’m not old enough yet to make a habit of reading obituaries, so I was about to move on when I saw one for Betty Phillips, my childhood piano teacher. She had passed away a month before in some small Maryland town, where I heard she had moved to be closer to her daughter. The news of her death had taken some time, apparently, to make its way across the country to this coast. She had been 87.
Stirred by an unexpected melancholy—it has been almost 20 years since I played the piano with any seriousness—I sat down to read. The story began, “People who knew Betty Jane Phillips talk about her as a force of nature.”
I started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old. Like a vast majority of youthful musical conscripts, my relationship with the piano vacillated between indifferent and resentful. I had some talent but not a lot, and in any case I struggled with the rigors of consistent application. Each day I could be made to practice for precisely one half hour, muddling through scales and butchering lite ditties that were the supposed gateway drugs to more complicated works. Then the egg timer would ding! and I would bolt. During weekly lessons, a pack of similarly indifferent and/or resentful kids and I banged away at the upright pianos in Betty’s studio for an hour or so until she sent us home.
The years passed and the other kids drifted away, drawn to the more conventional pastimes of rural life in coastal Oregon—football, hunting, fishing, whatever. I, on the other hand, kept taking lessons. This was due more to spiritual inertia than any great love for music. My most significant artistic achievement was to perform a simplified version of the theme from Chariots of Fire for my high school concert band, but otherwise I remained defiantly unmotivated, refusing to devote even a second more than the daily half hour. Still, by the time I was 16, I was Betty’s most senior student, and in grudging acknowledgement of mutual longsuffering, she gave me a ticket to see the pianist Andre Watts in recital.
I had never been to a live piano recital. I would perform in Betty’s annual student concerts, but for those I simply had to sit in front of 20 some parents, blunder my way through a Bach two- or three-part invention, and look forward to a blessedly piano-free summer. It never occurred to me that, alone, someone might play the piano in front of thousands of people for almost two hours; much less that anyone would pay to sit through such an event. But the ticket was expensive, so on the appointed night my father drove me into Portland and dropped me off in front of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Only after I’d gone inside the hall and found my seat did I begin to appreciate the full measure of Betty’s generosity. My vantage was excellent, the seat about a third of the way back from the stage, slightly left of center in the orchestra section. I could see the keys of the massive concert grand, the shadows between them. Then the lights dimmed.
Andre Watts entered stage left. He was short but powerfully built, and after an almost perfunctory bow, he advanced on the piano as if he were about to fight it. When he sat at the bench his shoulders strained against the seams of his tuxedo jacket. He leaned forward, took a quick gathering breath, and raised his hands to begin the first piece, a rondo by Mozart. It was a welcoming introduction, glittering and impish. Watts had beautiful hands, with long, slender fingers. He danced across the keys, caressed them. Sometimes he appeared to be dusting off the keyboard, so light was his touch.
The Mozart ended, and then there was another piece, and another. Feeling heavy about the eyelids, I checked the program. The piece closing the first half was to be Beethoven’s Sonata in f-minor, Op. 57, better known as the Appassionata.
The atmosphere in the hall became somehow heavier and more severe. Watts arranged himself, glowered at the piano, and began: a slow, descending arpeggio, deep and ominous. The figure repeated, and again, this time with what the program notes called the “fate motif,” which Watts played with such menace that I shivered. Then in the highest registers, minor thirds struck sharply—cracks of lightning—and Watts’s hands tumbled down in a series of broken diminished chords. The first theme returned in powerful dense chords with quieter lines interspersed, whipsawing my ear this way and that, which led to a repeating E-flat in the left hand that beat like a nervous heart as Watts’s right hand leapt fretfully about. At last, in seeming summation, the principal theme returned in warm, reassuring octaves. But then the second theme burst out in a fury of sixteenth notes and the harmonies came in waves, towering up, crashing down, building, towering, crashing once more.
Watts played as if on fire. In the earlier pieces, he sometimes hummed with the music or smiled at the piano, his eyebrows dancing. Now he snarled, tossed his head, snapped his jaws. It was the most visceral art I had ever seen, and I sat, enraptured, as he brought the first movement to its end with a sequence of keening arpeggios that rocketed up and down the keyboard. Then the low growl of the first theme once more, and then silence.
Often, when a movement ends, the hall becomes a chorus of coughing and sneezing, as concertgoers give release to whatever bodily functions they have repressed for the sake of the performer. When Watts finished the first movement everyone was silent. He took a moment to compose himself before starting the second movement, a gentle theme-and-variations. This began with a quiet hymn in D-flat major, which was then syncopated, fragmented, embellished and quickened, the voices switching between the hands in seamless exchange. Where the first movement was wrath, this one was grace, but whatever reprieve it allowed was unsettled by a dark lurking energy, which roared out in the third movement that followed without pause. More than the first movement, this one was an exercise in fluid, almost frenetic pace. Watts swayed as he played, gyrating around some axis on the piano bench. His hands shot across the keys like frantic spiders. The sound grew and grew, filled all space, as the movement built to its climax: the coda.
Watts attacked it, stomping as the sonata crashed to a close. The final arpeggios cascaded down, and in a state of seeming savagery he pounded out the last chords, which blasted through the hall. So concluded, he slumped over. We stared at him, then erupted. Watts hauled himself up, bowed once, twice, thrice, and exited. We stayed for minutes more, clapping in unison—clap!-clap!-clap!-clap! The stage door closed and the lights came up. Still we stood, howling for him.
When it was time for my lesson the following week, I marched into Betty’s studio and told her I wanted to learn that piece, the Appassionata, and also that I wanted to become the best pianist in the world. She smiled and said that it was probably too late for that. When I refused to be turned away, swearing up and down that I was prepared to do whatever it would take, she gave me a book of Hanon scale exercises and told me that was as good a place to start as any.
I went home and practiced for three hours without a break, running my hands up and down the keyboard until my knuckles bulged and my fingers felt like they were made of hard rubber. Even then I willed myself to go an hour more, Betty’s parting words rattling in my mind. She had told me that I had to decide whether I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond, or a little fish in the sea.
Betty knew the sea and its meanings were important to me. I grew up half an hour from the Pacific, and had just started working for a local environmental group called the Haystack Rock Awareness Program in Cannon Beach. Haystack Rock is a coastal monolith more than 235 feet tall, made of volcanic basalts that are at least 10 million years old. Nearly every calendar that has anything to do with the Oregon coast features a picture of Haystack Rock somewhere, usually backlit by a glowing sunset.
As with most things having to do with natural history, the job was not glamorous. Every time a morning tide was sufficiently low—usually distressingly early—I would put on my monogrammed red anorak and drive from Astoria to the Cannon Beach City Hall. From there, my colleagues and I, a crew of three or four citizen-naturalists, would fetch a rusty municipal pickup and head down to the rock. We put out a few signs and set up a table on sawhorses, on which we laid plastic tubs filled with sand and seawater. Being the youngest of the crew, and thus the sharpest of eye and quickest of hand, I set out with a little net and bucket to collect creatures from the tide pools for display. Peering under algae, hefting barnacle-encrusted rocks, I snatched up an assortment of small shore crabs, sculpin (a type of fish), and sea stars. For the next several hours, we proffered our knowledge to whoever visited our displays, but mostly we patrolled the tide pools, intercepting people as they tried to make off with living souvenirs. We politely explained that removing organisms was illegal, and also whatever they were taking would likely die before they even got home and stink up their car, so, really, what was the point?
Yes: what was the point? For me, that question had other implications. Before the Watts concert, I enjoyed the work at Haystack well enough. I liked being outside, liked the seabirds that nested on the rock, liked all the other little critters. But in the throes of my new musical passions, I grew bitter. Every moment I was on the beach was one I was not at the piano, practicing to make up for all those lost years.
Time could crawl. Sometimes, when the sky was gray and the beach all but deserted, I would sneak off. There was a small passage on one of the large rocks in front of Haystack that I could slip through. If no one called after me, I clambered down to a little nook at the base of Haystack proper, concealed from the beach behind subsidiary pillars of rock. The route was treacherous, covered as it was with slick green algae, but the columnar basalts in the nook made a nice chair. I could settle in and watch the waves, losing myself in the white noise of their pleasing and resonant booms. I loved the nook. From the shore it was of course clear that Haystack was huge, but it could also seem oddly formless, like a cardboard cutout of a big rock. When nestled in its side, straining to see its summit, I could better appreciate its enormity.
Some distance from my nook, around the side of the rock, there was a cave. At low tides, those so rare that they occurred only every few years, one could enter it and walk a short way. Years of wave action had excavated the cave into a tunnel, but it curved such that its exit was just beyond view. In this it hinted at larger mysteries. I had heard what was on the other side, on the back of the rock: seals hauling out to bask in the sun, storm petrels bounding among the swells, an ocean unbroken all the way to Japan. But I had never seen this inaccessible world. A previous summer, during one exceptionally low tide, my younger sister and I scrambled as far as we dared until we saw a clammy haze of light. Then a wave hit the tunnel’s seaward side and slopped up to our shins, and it occurred to us just where we were: underneath a massive rock, with the mighty Pacific lying in wait. We shrieked in terror and delight and scampered back.
Perhaps because of this trepidation I was largely content to sit in the nook. It was, of course, flagrantly illegal for me to be there, but I didn’t care. I was an artist, or a burgeoning one. I burned with secret fires.
In the afternoon, once a program at Haystack ended, I would rush home to practice the piano, or to Betty’s studio for a lesson. She lived in a pink rambler in a small township between Cannon Beach and Astoria called Lewis and Clark. Her music studio was detached from the house, behind the carport. She had three upright pianos and a small five-foot grand. Little plastic busts of the Great Composers presided atop the pianos—Bach, Schubert, Mozart. The studio windows looked out on fields where her neighbors ran a few cattle. Past them, Young’s River was visible.
Betty was from a small town in northeastern Washington. She was a prodigy, her musical talent apparent early. She started piano lessons when she was six years old. Her first teacher, she told me once, would blindfold her as she played Bach to hone her ear, her touch. During the summer, he locked her in a church to practice for several hours at a time, to keep her focused.
She had moved to Astoria in the early 1980s with her husband, who passed away shortly thereafter. She then opened her piano studio and taught local kids according to the methods of Robert Pace, with whom she’d studied at Columbia University. Weeknights, to earn a little extra money, she played piano at a lounge on the Astoria waterfront. She dazzled the patrons with her perfect pitch, her near total recall of any song she had ever played, and her sight-reading wizardry. When time and circumstance allowed she would perform, as she put it, more seriously. Once I went to hear her play with the community band in the converted church that was Astoria’s performing arts center. She strode out onto the small stage dressed in all black—at nearly six feet tall and in her early 60s, she was an imposing figure—and I watched with some amusement while the musicians struggled to keep up as she thundered through a Rachmaninoff concerto.
Faced with my newfound zeal, Betty told me that if I wanted to take the piano seriously and learn the Appassionata then I would first have to confront the physical limits of expression. Music was as much physiology and biology as artistry, and after years of indolence I was about to ask a lot of my hands. She took mine in hers, which were rough and enormous, and examined the tips of my fingers. “They’re too soft and round,” she said. “They should be flat, broad, calloused.”
I redoubled my efforts with the Hanon exercises, playing until my fingers bled.
She suggested we meet earlier, at 6:30 in the morning, when the mind was fresher. As the sun crept over low hills, she told me more about the Beethoven. She did not dwell on his famous deafness, his infatuation with and eventual repudiation of Napoleon, other well-worn anecdotes. She was more interested in the idea of Beethoven as naturalist. Bach had the church, Mozart the court, Chopin the salon, but Beethoven ruled the earth and sky. His were natural affinities. Richard Goode, perhaps his finest living interpreter, had said of his works, “These extraordinary man-made things evoked in me something of the sense of wonder I had felt about animals and natural history.” Just what exactly that meant was unclear to me, but Betty was sure I would figure it out. “You have an earthy technique,” she said. “That’s good. Beethoven is not just about transcendence. Sometimes you have to root around in the dirt.”
A couple of weeks later, after much isolated toil, I brought the first movement of the Appassionata to a lesson and muscled my way through a very un-Watts-like rendition. Wrong notes fell thick and fast, but I felt I had captured something of the essence of the piece. When I finished, I was giddy.
Betty was inscrutable. She told me to start again, and she would stop me should the need for further instruction arise. I nodded, raised my hands, and played the first measure.
“Stop,” she ordered.
“What do you think of when you play this?”
I considered. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess a big army coming over a hill or something.”
“Really?” she said. “Interesting. When I play it, I think of Death.”
I blanched. Obviously I did not have the proper feeling, or was unwilling to test myself against certain metaphysical barriers. I thought for a moment, summoned up whatever capacity for audacious overstatement I had, and said, “When I play I feel like I’m talking to the gods.”
Betty shook her head. “No,” she said. “You aren’t talking to the gods. The gods are talking through you. You are their vessel, their medium.” She paused, searched for words. “You are a priest. And like a priest, if you aren’t careful you mistake your slavery for power. And then you wonder why no one follows you.”
I was silent. Betty had never spoken like this before. Usually she was wry, witty, insouciant. I started to understand there might be something more at stake. We were contending against more powerful forces, while outside the cows chewed their cud.
Spring turned to summer, and I spent more and more time with Betty in her studio. We met three mornings a week, and then I came back in the afternoons to practice on my own. At the piano, I tried to translate my bursting heart and muddled head into something that resembled musical coherence—that tricky calibration of mechanical fastidiousness and emotional release that constitutes mature performance. Slowly, and at times agonizingly, I became more adept at passages that once tormented me. Sometimes I hardly recognized what my hands were doing as my fingers rushed over the keys, following orders that did not seem to come from me. It was mesmerizing, an almost trance-like state, but also unsettling. I felt like I was being visited by a skill that would leave me the moment it detected a hint of conscious awareness, like when you fly in a dream.
The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote that when words leave off, music begins. I was finding this to be true in ways that perhaps even the poet did not intend. Once one no longer needs as much technical guidance—use the fourth finger here, play the arpeggio this way—instruction becomes more abstract. Betty’s directions were like koans.
Every note you play must be a complete statement.
You should be able to end the piece on any note.
Listen with your fingers.
Your fingers should be like the roots of a flower, sinking into the keys, always seeking water.
This last one she said she paraphrased from a Maeterlinck essay, which she photocopied for me. My approach to the Appassionata, she felt, might benefit from some scholarship—a little less heart, a little more head. There are unities in music, she said, both within the score and outside it. She implored me not to become one those “piano-eaters” who spent eight hours a day at the piano, who saw music as life itself, rather than as one art among many others, each contributing to a conversation about life. When I looked at her in confusion—was she telling me not to practice as much?—she sent me away. It occurred to me only later that, while she had things I desperately wanted (talent, skill, knowledge), I might also have something she desired (choice, possibility, more years before me than behind).
At home, at Haystack, I devoured essays on Beethoven, on music more generally. To buttress the naturalist theme, Betty gave me Kant. There was precedent, she said. “‘The moral law within us and the starry heavens above us’—Kant!!!” That scribble in one of Beethoven’s notebooks is his only known reference to the philosopher, but it was enough to justify selections from The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, in search, she said, of the sublime.
I was casually familiar with the idea—awe, terror, inspiring outdoor scenes, things like that. But Kant gave the sublime more of a spiritual hue than earlier philosophers, who had seen it primarily as a response to natural phenomena. He argued that it could not be found in nature alone, but rather in the relationship between nature and the mind. For him the sublime was not the soaring mountain or raging storm. It was the realization that the mind conceiving of the majesty of the mountain or the storm was both outside of and in a way superior to them. We see but cannot comprehend the fullness of what we see, and from this incapacity comes reverence. “The mind feels itself set in motion in representation of the sublime in nature,” he wrote. “This movement, especially in its inception, may be compared with a vibration, i.e., with a rapidly alternating repulsion and attraction produced by one and the same Object. The point of excess for the imagination is like an abyss in which it fears to lose itself.”
It was heady stuff. Having something in mind that could never be physically realized? This went to the core of my musical being. At the piano, I tried to interpret passages as one who has lost sight of the base of a monolith before he perceives its summit. Again, I wasn’t entirely successful. The point, Betty said, was not to play an essay into sonata form. Don’t try to recreate what made the piece astounding 200 years ago—make the piece astounding now. Refract its natural vitality through your own prism, creating newer dialogues. Like so: from Beethoven to Kant, from Kant to the rock, from the rock to the shore, to the sea around us, and back to Beethoven.
I augmented my reading with a broader if still literal-leaning eye. “The emotional force of the classical style,” musicologist Charles Rosen wrote, “is clearly bound up with the contrast between dramatic tension and stability.” Analogs of this tension were everywhere. At Haystack, for instance, one of the things we loved to tell people was that life in the rocky intertidal is constrained by two things: competitive prowess below, and the ability to withstand prolonged exposure to the sun above. The strongest competitors occupy the spaces closest to the water; the smaller species make due above them, subsisting on sea spray. Organisms segregate themselves precisely, the boundaries between them maintained by constant pressure and strain. From my nook I saw these clearly demarcated bands of life as the staves of a score—dotted by the occasional quarter note of a sea star—and felt the full heart-swell of interconnected being.
Beethoven’s music, Rosen had written somewhere else, is full of memories and predictions. When I read that, I thought he meant the composer’s own memories and predictions. I dug through his published correspondence trying to find what they might have been, but Haystack showed me alternate endings. The waves, the continuous rises and falls of the first movement of the Appassionata that I thrilled to—these were peaks of desperation. I was to feel the frustration of the music attempting to free itself from the tonic key, only to return to it again and again. In the deconstructed silence of the second movement, I heard a bittersweet memory of unrequited longing. The quick third movement, the one that Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s most famous pupil, said should be “only rarely stormy,” I heard as a cool calculus of betrayal.
Another day, I pulled a slim volume from my pocket and read that Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler, once asked the man himself the meaning of the Appassionata. “Read Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” Beethoven was said to have replied. His answer prompted some apocryphal speculation. Maybe he was joking, or maybe he had never read the play and just liked the way the title sounded. But I thought I understood, for The Tempest, at its heart, is about two people who find themselves marooned on a large rock.
Near the end of the summer, I determined I had gone as far as I could under Betty’s tutelage and would be better served if I had a teacher of greater reputation. To me this seemed a natural progression—an evolution, if you will. I explained all of this to Betty as best I could and discontinued my studies with her. I found a teacher in Portland who had trained many famous pianists. She accepted me as a student, and with assured skill prepared me for the pageantry of conservatory auditions. The following spring I auditioned at several and was admitted to a prestigious music school, one I really had no business getting into. When the dean called to welcome me, I danced around like a fool. I called my new teacher and thanked her for all she had done. I called family and friends who had sweated out the wait with me. A month or so later, I ran into Betty at a grocery store and told her my excellent news. She said she was happy for me, although I thought I detected a hint of acidity in her compliment. I thanked her all the same, and then made some excuse and ran out to the parking lot. That was the last time I saw her.
The rest of the year passed as a blur while I prepared for music school. I practiced with a greater serenity now that my promise was externally validated. At the beach, I continued to tell people about the marvels of life in the intertidal, but my mind was usually elsewhere, and I snuck out to my nook when circumstances allowed to commune with those greater forces that were, at last, willing to grant me the audience I deserved.
In August, just before I was to leave for music school, a storm hit the beach during our program. This was not unusual. Oregon beaches are known for being windswept and cold, and even in the height of summer, rain can wash through. We waited until it was clear the storm wasn’t going to let up, and then returned the creatures to their tide pools and took down our tables and signs. The truck packed, my fellow naturalists prepared to leave. But this seemed an auspicious gale, and I held back. “Go ahead,” I told them as we all huddled against the truck. “I’m just parked on the street above.”
I waited until they had driven out of sight, and then I went to my nook. There I stood, breathing in the sea air. The rain was fresh and warm. In a few days I would leave for the landlocked Midwest. Here was my chance to see the parts of Haystack I had always wanted to, but had been denied. The tide was not especially low—it was actually rising—but flush with daring I started past the nook, picking my way along the side of the rock. Each shuffle brought a delicious thrill of fear, but in the lee of the rock I was mostly shielded from the wind and rain, and handholds were easy to find.
Then I passed onto the backside of the rock and was at last exposed to the sea and the storm. The rain lashed my face and the red anorak was pressed flat against my chest, its loose fabric snapping violently behind me. The wind tore my breath from my nose. My foot slipped on the thick blanket of seaweed and for an instant my toes were immersed in the ocean, not deeply, but enough to give my stomach a hideous lurch. In that moment, I realized just what a terrible idea it had been to try going all the way around the rock. Everything that from the beach side had seemed fragile and small here was brutish and strange—hulking sea stars, enormous mussels, pendulous anemones that hung obscenely from the rocks. Before me the waves tossed and chopped with rebellious force. Cormorants gazed down at me blankly, while above the gulls wheeled and screamed. It was a chaos of sight and smell and sound, a chorus at once mesmerizing and terrifying, this music at the limits.
My head spun. I started to shiver, then convulse. I clung to the rock so tightly that I cut my fingers. Thin tendrils of blood leaked onto the algae. I took a deep breath to gather myself and then retreated. After many anxious moments, I made it back to the nook, and then at last I was safe on the sand. It took me several minutes to catch my breath before I could make my way unsteadily to my car. When I got in and slammed the door, I put my head against the steering wheel and closed my eyes, trying to block out the roar in my ears of waves beating ceaselessly on the rock—the pounding, and the pounding, and the pounding.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.