Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Impact

11/18/07
Crossing into South Dakota, I did a double take on the highway sign. The state silhouette surrounding the highway number was Connecticut (my adopted home state)! Actually, it was Connecticut in reverse - the little tail of Greenwich that reaches towards Manhattan is on the lower left, and South Dakota's tail reaching towards...nothing in particular, is on the opposite side. Plus, SD is about 15 times the size of CT, but that wasn't clear on the highway sign.
Other things are opposite as well. CT is currently green and red and yellow and orange, about three weeks late donning fall colors. SD is black dirt spotted with beige corn husks, its fall colors. The cows are black, some with beige heads. Snow dusts the fields.
CT roads are winding and hilly. SD's roads are arrow-straight. CT's highways are jammed at all hours, unless there is an accident, in which case it flows rather freely - if you are downstream from the accident. SD's highways were made for cruise-control. It is very difficult for a foot to keep a car going consistently at 80 mph (speed limit is 75) and there is no traffic to make you ever need to slow down.
Billboards in CT generally tout money, hospitals and cars. Billboards in SD are for gas, farm supplies and fetuses. Do I really need a reminder every ten miles that life begins at conception? Right next to the sign showing a kernel of corn with a computer chip embedded in it.
CT is generally beautiful overall, with its rolling hills of thick forests and historic houses. SD is generally uneventful, with sudden bursts of big-sky jaw-dropping.

I spent today driving through the Plains, traveling between recitals venues, taking in vast stretches of Minnesota and the two Dakotas. I stifled a laugh when my rental car's GPS guided me through a turn, then announced that the next turn would be to the left, in 232 miles. I set the cruise control on 78 and set to work mentally on developing an imbedded highway guidance system that would relieve me of needing to keep the car centered in the lane. I discover my Forrester has a slight preference for the left. Then I thought of a moving sidewalk for cars in the median space that I could drive onto for long stretches. I watched enviously an endless train chugging parallel to my car, wondering how such a huge load could be powered by just one engine. I remembered that some woman in China towed a 2 ton vehicle with her mouth. Another man did it with his eyelids.

When I wasn't inventing a way to delegate my driving, I was listening to recording session takes of Beethoven transcriptions, my next recording. While Beethoven might be considered more CT-style - dense with detail and beauty, and certainly European - it seemed fitting as well to be listening to the spacious, contemplative Fourth Concerto, arranged for two pianos by Liszt, while cutting through agricultural lands. One happy coincidence took my breath away, as I reached the peak of a small crest, and just at the apotheosis of the final movement the landscape suddenly revealed before me a vista of 180ยบ, showing me the next 100 miles of my trip fading into the distant horizon.

Another "big" thrill - a truck carrying two blades of a wind turbine, looking like immense whale bones from some freakish Natural History Museum, and myself a Lilliputian as I passed it on the highway, at that moment truly wishing for an automatic steering system. The sight of dozens of assembled and functioning wind turbines across South Dakota was deeply satisfying to my environmental and political nature. I wish I had a camera on me (and the automatic steering) at one spot where a single giant wind turbine churned above a lone house, seemingly the direct blessed benefactor of this pure energy. My mind amused itself looking for other designs, other shapes for wind turbines. I think I came up with one, a little complicated, that would turn around a central pillar like the tower fan I have at home. But it was not quite as elegant as the three-blade propeller.

Avis is now renting the Toyota Prius, which is what I have at home. I was willing to pay the premium price for it, partially recouped by the lower gas bill. I could have done the entire tour on three tanks of gas, instead of seven. Unfortunately, Avis wouldn't let me drop it off one-way in ND. My tour will take me from IL to ND, through IN, IA, MN and SD, over 1500 miles on the ground and 4000 miles in the air. Concerts in small towns, often on challenging pianos. One piano had keys that stopped working during the recital - they went down fine, but didn't come back up. I played Beethoven's Fifth Symphony transcribed by Liszt, one of the hardest pieces I've played in my life, with the added job of lifting up those keys at truly critical moments with whatever free finger I had.

In the context of these huge fields of freshly turned dirt, gigantic wind turbines, endless train convoys, empty highways, I wondered what kind of impact my concerts could possibly have. The scale of the land was overwhelming. The idea that probably very few people were involved in the decisions about an immense field that would determine its fate for a season, or for a generation. Was it one of these corporate cornfields loaded with genetically modified corn destined to become steaks and chemical fertilizers washing into the Mississippi? Or was it part of an organic farm that would feed all of SD's vegetarians? What person or small committee of persons decided to put in that particular wind turbine? (Why did I see almost 100 turbines in three hours in SD and only 1 in three hours in ND?)
In the face of the potential significant, long-lasting impact of certain decisions by individual corporate managers, or local town representatives, it seemed quite ridiculous to imagine that what I was making such an effort to accomplish could have a worthy impact. What was the point of driving 8 hours today in order to play for an audience tomorrow for two hours?

Chatting with one of the concert presenters afterwards at dinner, I learned that his local series had run for a number of years in the 80s under his guidance. When he was relocated for work overseas during the 90s, no one stepped in to take his place, and the series ended. Upon his retirement and his recent return, he saw the need and undertook the daunting task of reviving the series. When I played, there was a turnout equivalent to 10% of the town's population. It was the first classical concert for many of them in many years. And for the young people in the hall, who were numerous, it was probably their first ever.
If that man hadn't made the effort, there would have been no concert. It all depended on that one person. The sparseness of the Plains, its vastness, rather than diminishing the impact of his actions, actually increased it. In the densely-populated Northeast, if someone put together a concert series, it would be only one of many, and if you missed one piano recital, you could choose from a dozen others within 20 miles, or hundreds if you extended yourself to New York or Boston. In the empty expanses of the Midwest, you can change a person's exposure to Classical music from 0% to 100%. That's a lot of responsibility!

The program I had chosen acknowledged this potential responsibility, mixing various composers and various approaches to the piano, creating a showcase of the piano's immense impact in history. Just as the book brought information to the masses, the piano brought them music. And just as the book is still thriving, despite the information revolution brought by computers and the internet, the piano will also certainly survive the electronic revolution of recorded sound and electronic instruments. The piano recital will always be a moment of intimate sharing, whether it is for an audience of 2000 or an audience of just yourself. It is such a simple and yet versatile platform, able to render a simple melody or (with work!) the complexity and power of a symphony orchestra.
Many miles passed much more easily with these thoughts. And it will take many more pianos with keys that get stuck to erase the satisfaction from these performances.