‘I do not want my music to be interpreted, it is enough to play it’ – Ravel (La Musique francaise de la piano, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1944)
We have noisy neighbours. Whenever they slam their doors, our doors open. And when they shout we cannot hear ourselves talk. I am retaliating by playing Bolero every day to do this writing exercise. But now I have a new version. A 17 minute version and when I press play to start the CD I always have to check that it is working because I cannot hear it for about the first 20 seconds. It is a more subtle version in keeping with Ravel’s intention for the piece to be performed more slowly than the 1979 version I was working with before. On the same disc is a piece called Concerto pour la main gauche, which was written for an Austrian pianist called Paul Wittgenstein who lost an arm in the First World War.
I am now typing to it with my left hand and it is a very difficult process. You have to retrain the way your mind communicates to your hand and tell fingers that are not used to making these movements how to find the coordination to jump from key to key. Already my fingers are starting to hurt. It is making a more pronounced noise as my fingers strike the keys more clumsily than their right-handed counterparts. I am right-handed. My left hand is an passenger.
The orchestra has come back into action now so I am typing two handed again to give my left hand a chance to recover from what is a particularly strenuous challenge. It throws you off balance. The pianist who plays on this 2005 recording, Claire Chevalier, mentions in the sleeve notes how you have to imagine the left hand coming out of the centre of the body, a cyclops of the arm.
Now she is playing more arpeggios and reaching the top of the notes available to her at the right hand side of the keyboard. It is the equivalent of only typing letters to the right hand side of the QWERTY keypad: ikolpmnjubhyui. It makes it easier to stay in the middle. To imagine yourself poised and to focus on channelling the words you want to say, the letters you need to type with the most economical movements. When you can do that it becomes less daunting.
The orchestra has returned so again I am typing two-handed. I am wondering if this practice, this poise, is something like the rehearsal process Torvill and Dean undertook to work to the music. I love the way they used Bolero to warm up before their routine and then when they were choosing new music to work to they turned to Bolero. I wonder how they used it as a warm up track. And if they would focus on moving both feet equally to achieve a perfect coordination.
Now the pianist is playing with a flourish and it is hard to keep up with the music. I am not typing as freely as I have done to Bolero and the speed of thought is becoming frustrated. It is hard to type as fast as the stream of consciousness. There are only 8 minutes left. We are over half way there.
I go to Paris on Friday and I have picked up a guidebook but I want to stay focused and disciplined like I am now. Not try and take on too much. But stay centred and aim to connect the disparate coordinates of the story; The Paris Opera, the house in Montfort L’Armaury, the Levallois-Perret Cemetery. There is another tomb in the cemetery that I would like to visit. The tomb of Gustave Eiffel and it is the only tomb to face in a different direction to the rest, because it faces his most famous architectural design, The Eiffel Tower. I like this idea of something being at a tangent, incongruous in its orientation. I feel this way now.
Typing one handed to the end of the music. My right hand trying to help my left hand out but my left hand not letting it. Determined, defiant. Chevalier says the original performance by Wittgenstein was touched by loss and melancholy. Haunted by what he had seen in the First World War. Haunted by the fact that two of his family members committed suicide. He is pouring his broken heart into the music. Communicating more sadness and longing with one hand playing the piano than most of us can ever dream of communicating with two.
Now the music is reaching its denouement. It is rising, swelling like the sea. The left hand soaring up through the piano’s register. As her body must be leaning to the right to accommodate the reach of the hand across her chest. I imagine some kind of choreography at the piano. Some kind of swaying from her pivot point in the middle of the piano stool and slowly the orchestra join her, hold her, urge her on, willing her to finish. And she does. And her right hand comes back to life.