Don't Let Gravity Win
'Fugue subjects,' said David Diamond, expertly sketching one on the sheet of music paper on the piano rack in front of us, 'are like snakes.' Over his shoulder I could see snowflakes whirling outside through a tall sliver of window. 'Every one of them has a head, a body, and a tail.' Chop, he slashed a line between the head and the body; chop, he slashed another between the body and the tail.
'Or like people,' I replied, 'with a head, a body, and a tale.' He laughed pleasantly. January of 1986 — the Regency Theater just around the corner was in the middle of its three week Truffaut retrospective; Marc Blitzstein’s Piano Concerto had just received its first performance in fifty years; I was one of David’s students, having a lesson at Juilliard.
'Or a Life,' he frowned, 'with a memorable Beginning, a Middle ripe for development, and an End….' He stopped writing. 'Now sketch a counter-subject.' I took the pencil from him and began adding my squiggles to the line above his. He pursed his lips. A sharp intake of breath: 'Something memorable,' he said, 'not ... mechanical.' I tried again, but all I could think was that Life, like 'a Pretty Girl, is like a Melody.' I giggled nervously.
'What’s so funny?' he asked.
'If Life is a Melody, then Energy must be the human compulsion to organize sound into Song,' I rallied, half-serious.
'And Force is the application of creative energy,' he smiled.
'And composition is Birth?' I asked.
'And pulse is Gravity,' he answered. 'Which makes entropy, or the lack of pulse, Death,' he said, taking the pencil. 'Look,' he circled the head of my counter-subject, 'this is memorable, so why not just take the tail of the subject, invert it, and use that as the head of the counter-subject?'
Chop, I thought: the snake devouring its tail. Chop. 'In my beginning is my end. Eliot,' I risked.
He chuckled. 'Right. The Ouroborus. My end is my beginning. Mary, Queen of the Scots. Earlier. Better,' he replied with finality as through the door the three light knocks of his next student indicated that my lesson was nearly up.
I carefully placed the enormous pages of my manuscript into the elephant portfolio in which I had brought it.
'Mr. Hagen,' he said, gravely, as I reached for the doorknob. 'Don’t let gravity win.'
Next page: Knuckles and Digits (2)
Previous page: Pushing Notes Around