Wednesday 23 May 2012

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Most fairy tales have the same beginning: "Once upon a time...". But what if your story starts with "It makes perfect sense that years later I remembered this moment for what it was: a combination of sounds. The incidental prologue provided by windows opening and closing around me on the street, the loud clutter of seats, the shuffling of feet and, of course, the concert itself." What would you say to that?

It'd then make perfect sense to tell you that over the years I've reminisced more about the circumstances surrounding the event and not just about the event itself. Especially the windows. As I walked down 25th St., past the Faculty of Biology, the little stall with the funny, large, coloured umbrella selling hot chocolate and the old, crumbling building on the corner of 25th and G Avenue (official name, Presidents' Avenue, but nobody ever called it that), it was the windows that alerted me to the sound of the city slowly awakening from its sleep on this typically mild, though with a cool breeze, Havana Sunday winter morning in 199... On my way to the theatre, windows kept being snapped open or slammed shut, like a well-orchestrated, choreographic and yet, at the same time wild cacophony of urban sounds. Havana goes to bed late, so it takes its time to shake the bedcovers off.

On the corner of 25th and G I turned left and walked on up the ample avenue with trees on my left side and the Infantil Hospital on my right. I crossed the road and carried on past the improvised graffiti park (my favourite one was "Floods don't occur because of excess of water, but because the country is sinking"). A bend announced that I was now in the vicinity of the Castillo del Príncipe, the fortress whose irregular shape was off-limits for tourists and which loomed large and powerful from the top of the hill where it was situated. In the distance the sound of an open window banging repeatedly against a wall travelled on the wings of this cool morning's breeze. Its loose hinges cried out for a dollop of oil.

I finally arrived at the venue. The Avellaneda Hall of the National Theatre teemed with early risers for this concert by Cuba's National Symphonic Orchestra. The crowd could easily be divided into three groups: the older generation dressed in their Sunday best, the young'uns in their scruffy clothes and both professional and amateur musicians in casual wear sporting their own instruments and surely on their way to a rehearsal or performance after the concert. I was still a young'un in those days. My jumper with the Japanese caption whose meaning I could never really decipher paired up with my bell-bottom black jeans and sandals to give me a somewhat hippyish look.

The auditorium filled up quickly. Those without a seat, like my friends and I, had to make do with the floor. Around us there was a loud clutter of seats snapping shut as a line of shuffling feet carried their owners to the few vacant spaces still remaining. Near me a television camera rendered the concert its formal and official nature; the first one in a series of events which, though short-lived, aimed at bringing the Symphonic closer to new audiences. After a few minutes the lights began to dim. The noise died down. Some throats cleared. A woman behind me whispered in my ear that if I wanted to lie my back against the front of her seat I was welcomed to. I thanked her and slid backwards on my bottom. The curtain rose. Although it was still dark it wasn't difficult to spot the silhouettes of some instruments leaning on the chairs. Suddenly a light came on, illuminating the stage. One by one the musicians made their entrance until, finally, it was the turn of the conductor. Loud applause welcomed him. With his back facing the audience he raised his hands. A thick veil of silence descended on the hall.

It made perfect sense that years later, when he was already settled in London and whilst looking out of the window of his flat on the fifteenth floor of a high rise, he pondered about the circumstances that had made that occasion so special. After all Beethoven's 5th symphony (the first piece on the programme) was a popular choice on CMBF, the radio station that broadcast mostly classical music in his hometown, Havana. So, there shouldn't have been anything extraordinary about this melody or the performance of it. And yet that Sunday carried with it such a sense of importance that he often wondered if there wasn't more to it than met the eye.

Nakedness. He said to himself, as his wife and son slept in the next room. At last he'd cracked it. In that hall that day what he saw was the conductor baring himself, and, in the process offering his vulnerability in exchange for the audience's. It was a scary thing to do, this vulnerability trade-off; he might not have been reciprocated. But from the first da da da daaaaa/da da da daaaaa, this man stripped himself of his armour. And so did the audience of theirs. As soon as the two fortissimo phrases kicked in, the public began shedding the layers of their hitherto black and white lives in order to let this warm, musical moment of colour in.

You can't rehearse magic, he said to himself in the dead silence of the London night. You can put in the long hours, practising technique, layout and lighting. But you can't magic magic magically out of thin air. In order for a concert to be memorable, you need honesty from each and every single musician in the orchestra. They have to be unafraid to call to a part of themselves that might expose them to a hungry and unknown audience. And this can only be achieved by invoking that which underlines our common humanity. Only then is the public also allowed to let go, too.

He came back every single Sunday thereafter to the same theatre, the same hall, to meet almost the same people. The concerts that followed were not the same, though. There were no more goosebumps. This didn't mean that the quality had declined, but rather, that the expectation had grown. Tenfold, maybe.

In that flat, up on the fifteenth floor of a high rise, and whilst looking over a part of London that wasn't dissimilar to the downtown part of Havana where he'd been raised, he thought of the beginning of fairy tales. He also thought of the conductor's symmetrical posture, legs open, his raised arms at equal angles and his baton pointing upwards. He thought of the short silence before the da da da daaaaa. And he thought of how, instead of "Once upon a time...", sometimes it's better to start a story with "It makes perfect sense that years later he remembered this moment for what it was: a combination of sounds. The incidental prologue provided by windows opening and closing around him on the street, the loud clutter of seats, the shuffling of feet and, of course, the concert itself."

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 27th May at 10am (GMT)


  1. Funny how those moments of intensity happen and cannot be reproduced.

    What you say about dress reminds me how not so long ago I accidentally found myself in a rather high-class exhibition of modern art. I was wearing my gardening jeans and a rather shapeless and disreputable old baggy sweater at the time. A very well-dressed lady approached me enthusiastically. 'You must be one of the painters,' she said. 'Which one?'

  2. years later I remembered this moment for what it was:

    This is so often true, I think: years later an experience that we almost let go of comes out of hibernation and we see what it was and the difference that has/will come from it. Remarkably, the first time that happened to me in any memorable way also involved Beethoven's Fifth.

  3. Wow,I can still hear that succession of windows opening and closing. This just whets my appetite for the book you will eventually publish about your life in Cuba.

  4. You went out into the world and heard and saw!

    All the best from Boston

  5. Your words talk to me. Nice...

  6. As I read, I see the scene unfold in front of have quite a talent and I am looking forward to your first book. But when it's published, I will claim to be one of your (many) early fans.

  7. Many thanks for your wonderful comments. They mean a lot to me.

    Greetings from London.

  8. Ahh the magic of that moment, when the music just comes out so raw and pure. Most people wait forever for that to happen to them.




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