Souvenirs from a Parallel Universe

Souvenirs from a Parallel Universe

I owe most of the stamps in my passport to my trips with the Eastman BroadBand. I’ve played with the group since its first project in 2007, a recital at the Conservatorio de las Rosas in Morelia, Mexico. That fall, I also played with the group in a series of performances with the Garth Fagan Dance Company. I stood six feet from Fagan’s lead dancers in the Joyce Theater during our performance of Edge/Joy, a piece accompanied by a suite of Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon’s music. I toured with the ensemble to Chihuahua, Mexico, in 2008 and played with the group on an album for Bridge Records in 2009. I’m getting better at anticipating the special demands of these projects, but I’m hardly an expert.

The group is affiliated with Eastman, and directed by professors of composition Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon and Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez. Many of our players are Eastman alumni—like me, they played with the group while they were in school and return for projects like our most recent tour to the Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato. Others are still current students. Because most of us (including our conductor, Juan Trigos) don’t live in Rochester, rehearsals are crammed into a hectic week-long period at Eastman. The schedule on the road is just as demanding—late nights onstage, early mornings on planes or buses, rehearsals at all hours.

I’m not complaining about the hard work—in fact, I relish it. Nothing makes you feel like you’re living the good life more than when you realize that you woke up in another country yesterday. That was yesterday, right? For me, projects with the BroadBand have always been something like a visit to an extraordinary parallel universe, one in which there are no day jobs, no classes or lessons, no cats to feed or house plants to water. It’s a little like the vacation I’ve always dreamed about, one that erases any memory of my mundane responsibilities back home. During our week of rehearsals in Rochester, I’d get the occasional text from my cat sitter and for just one millisecond before I responded, I’d think, “I have a cat?” Buried at the bottom of my suitcase were souvenirs from courses I’m taking, things I should be reading, plans I should be making. I’d glance at their titles every morning as I fished out a clean pair of socks with the same curiosity as an amnesiac reading his grocery list. Remind me why I packed all that stuff about Paganini and Schumann?

Something about my experiences with the BroadBand forces this question—not specifically the one about Schumann, but a more general one about the world I’ve left behind in favor of these projects. Can I reconcile these two lives? I certainly do not need to defend Schumann—or the other details of my cat-feeding, book-reading lifestyle, for that matter. I love Dichterliebe as much as I love my cat. But what can compete with performing alongside many of my closest friends, playing with some of the leading artists in contemporary music, engaging audiences in concert halls all over the world? How much better does it get? If I had to cash in my cat, my students, my master’s degree, and all but a suitcase of my possessions to live forever in this wide, brightly colored alternate world, I’d do it without hesitation. I wouldn’t even feel guilty. But that’s not how this thing works. You have to go back. In fact, returning, saying goodbye, reentering your routine is a big part of the experience. You watch your life contract again. I suppose this is obvious even for novice travelers—it’s built into all vacations, this feeling that your life billows and shrinks, stops and starts. But knowing that doesn’t make it much easier.

Guanajuato, for me, is a special place for this feeling. Embedded in a narrow valley, the city feels guarded, hemmed in. Streets fold in on themselves and rise steeply. Most of them are paved in stone or brick, and some are lined with worn stairs. Many avenues are only navigable on foot, narrow, terraced alleys leading always upward. The old colonial sewers have been cleared out to accommodate a complicated system of underground roads. The town is a maze with high walls painted yellow and blue—somehow I managed to walk only uphill all week long.

But sometimes the city relents. You hike up and up, around a corner, your bearings long gone—and a vista opens up just on your right, a view of the entire city and all its colorfully painted buildings. The tour van jostles up a hillside in first gear, barely inching by the cars parked on either side of the street, and suddenly the buildings give way and the valley spreads out against the passenger-side windows. Even our hotel was a life-sized puzzle, rooms tucked away in remote corners, courtyards linked to each other through a complicated network of stairs and passages—but from the roof you could see the entire city, at night a hillside studded with many tiny white lights.

I shouldn’t force the analogy, but Guanajuato seemed an appropriate place to be working out this problem of my two lives. These surprise views of the city remind me very much of the feeling of this instant expansion in the midst of the everyday. The same feeling that’s built into working with the BroadBand. We rehearse for nine hours a day, penciling in diligent notes, perfecting the details—and out of nowhere, just one moment on stage expands, opens up onto rich and satisfying experiences, a kind of broad vista. Even a delicious taco can spark a revelation; it can crack open your life for a full second, in only as much time as it takes you to chew and swallow. In a moment you realize you haven’t called your parents in two weeks, you’ve ditched your students, your cat, your books, you’ve been staring at music twelve inches from your face for the better part of six days—and a late night of salsa dancing makes itself available at exactly the right time. I know I can’t live in a world of ecstatic taco eating and salsa dancing, but thanks to the BroadBand, I have just a few of these experiences to live on for a while.

Of course there’s nowhere to eat a life-changing mole in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Now that I’m home, I also feel the acute absence of my close friends and my favorite players. But to expect my life to deliver the same constant excitement and beauty of our recent tour would be more than a little unfair. I’ve got to figure out a way to compromise, to close the rift separating these two selves. So this week, I’ve been engaging in little games with myself, setting tiny traps. Who says these sudden, spectacular expansions in my life are triggered only by the finest foreign foods, the most excellently preserved colonial towns, the most eminent concert halls? I’m certain that under the right circumstances—if I could surprise myself, if the day unfurled in just the right way—the details of my own mundane life might ease up in their crowding, open for a second or two. I had the whole week in Guanajuato to perfect my technique in seeking out these rare panoramas—I’m certain I’ll discover some of my own here, even as I empty out my suitcase and reenter my normal life.

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