Last night I watched that ’50s fluffball “Love in the Afternoon,” a poorly aging exemplar of May-September rom-com sophistication, Billy Wilder-style. Audrey Hepburn plays a Parisian cellist with an unfortunate haircut and a thing for graying American playboy Gary Cooper, despite his being a serial homewrecker and old enough to be an ancestor. Audrey spends a good part of the movie traipsing around with a cello case clutched under one arm like a hatbox too large and strange to fit into a shopping bag. Every so often the cello is let out of its case on good behavior, and Audrey sits behind the instrument looking all moony-eyed (l’amour! l’amour!) while she loops over the same four notes. We presume they are intended to fit into the larger scheme of Haydn’s Symphony #88, which she announces she is rehearsing with “the conservatory,” but the notes are so leaden and nondescript we can’t tell if they are Haydn #88, Mozart #9 or Lassie #2. (Instead of Haydn, Wilder throws in a gypsy band that bangs out more rounds of “Fascination” than have ever been endured by all the pigeons and tourists in Venice’s Piazza san Marco). The repetition becomes so grating that even Audrey’s detective father, an easygoing harbinger of Inspector Clouseau played by Maurice Chevalier, is compelled to comment, “Your Mr. Haydn seems to have run out of ideas when he got to his Symphony #88.”
I have never been a fan of Maurice Chevalier, but in this instance he has my sympathy. Repetition (which would also be M. Chevalier’s indigenous word for rehearsal) has become my raison d’etre, at least for the daily hour or two that I devote to Suzuki’s bloody French folk song. It’s actually a sweet melody—I love the little descending glide in the final clinch—but after sixty or seventy go-overs it begins to lose much of its down-on-the-farm je ne sais quoi.
This week, Tim adds harmonics into the mix, demonstrating the open string-third finger-open string-fourth finger combination that creates, voila, an arpeggio. It seems easy enough at first when I attempt my repetitions at home, but actually placing my fingers in the precise position to hit the proper notes is a whole other ballgame. Four notes, four invitations to go flat or sharp.
Tim also shows me how to tune the strings so they will be in tune with one another (even if otherwise out of tune). It involves an awkward splaying of fingrs that, while not terribly complicated, is just an inch over the border of information that I can absorb in one sitting. When I try to do it at home, I draw a blank. Mental note: go to music store, splurge on a tuner.
As Tim and I continue the pleasant-weird process of getting to know one another, we trade music stories. Tim discusses, with subtle but palpable disdain, a John Cage piece which involves the conductor holding his baton in the air for four minutes and thirty-odd seconds of silence, then putting it down. The coughing, murmurs and nervous laughter from the audience, the cellphone rings and tap-tap-tapping of texting addicts, become the music.
In return, I tell Tim about a misbegotten performance of a Ligeti piece that Matthias and me attended at Amherst College, in which 100 metronomes are set off together on stage like racetrack greyhounds that have been doped to slow down rather than speed up. The metronomes are busy doing their thing as the audience enters, and we spend the better part of the first 15 minutes chatting away before realizing that this is it, this is the piece we came to hear. So the chattter begins to recede as we indulge the hypnotic and silly spectacle of 100 metronomes incrementally pooping out, and eventually, one by one, coming to a halt. For the 20-odd minutes in which this is all supposed to play out, our ears and eyes keep readjusting, zooming in and out on different aspects of the event: the way that the chorus of clicking morphs and diminishes as each metronome slows down and bows out; the various trajectories of each metronome needle, each one swaying with an almost proud display of independence. The problem that the producers of the Amherst event had not anticipated, however, was that they had assembled 100 state-of-the-art metronomes which were far more durable in wind-down length than the ones available at the time Ligeti created the piece. After a half hour, over half of the metronomes were still clacking away; after 35 minutes, it seemed that no end was in sight. The audience, a typical Amherst assemblage of white, taciturn music geeks, began to get rowdy, yelling epithets at the metronomes and launching into a hostile, unison hand-clapping that drowned out the defiant little instruments on stage. After 45 minutes, a young man with a look of terror in his eyes came out and stopped the ten or eleven hold-out metronomes by hand, to the obvious relief of everyone in the theater. He was followed sheepishly by the program’s artistic director, who explained to us that we had just witnessed a “bad performance” of the Ligeti piece.
This was all news to Tim, who had not heard of the piece and cocked his head in amusement.
How odd, this business of being taught a new skill by someone half your age. Everything that I must learn about playing the cello will come from this 27-year-old guy who exudes the buoyant, boyish manner of an Eagle Scout with a hundred music merit badges socked away in a drawer. That said, I am able to give back, whenever it is relevant and organic to the lesson at hand, a few nuggets of knowledge and school-of-life experience.
I’d like to say “I’m cool with that,” but the knowledge concerns me, if only just a little. I can already see the potential: to patronize, to overstep boundaries, to push in and try to co-opt, however briefly and unconsciously, the role of teacher. Funnily, I feel reassured and comforted in hindsight by “Love in the Afternoon,” which, for all its silliness, subverts expectations of who is the neophyte and and who is veteran. While the dynamic between Tim and me is absent of romance, it is heartening to bear in mind that Audrey Hepburn grabs and maintains the upper hand with Gary Cooper.