In the rural town where I grew up it is now the fifth day of harvest. August throws me into nostalgia and remembrance like no other month; it is when I most wish for the country: the absolute silence that stills ... everything ... at around sunset, the morning chatter of northwestern meadowlarks, and the dry rustling grain in the fields--a party of old ghosts in starched petticoats. I wish, I wish, I wish... but nothing in the bay area sounds so pure. I miss, too, the leisurely walks with Grandma to the cemetery, though regrettably, since the town has no stoplights and (until very recently) no sidewalks, we always had to proceed down the middle of the road with caution.
Like The Tender Land's Laurie, I left the small town for a larger town, and the larger town for a compact city, and, who knows, maybe the future suggests another metropolis. Maybe. The "citification" of this country mouse has never been easy; I seem to inaugurate each move wondering if I've made some sort of stupid mistake: leaving a wonderful (and relatively unknown) piano teacher for The Conservatory Experience, then jumping the conservatory ship and its requisite solo piano recital for the study of Shakespeare and Renaissance poetry, and finally returning to music studies (not at all stupid) but alienating myself from yet another wonderful (and relatively well-known) piano teacher (stupid). (Me and piano teachers, sigh!) On the other hand, certain events changed my life and could never have occurred in rural eastern Washington. On the second day of college, for example, a voice instructor handed me the Rorem Plath songs and said, "Oh, as a piano major, you'll be accompanying some of my voice students this semester. This is your first assignment. Good luck!" After an afternoon spent plinking out vocal lines and trying to make sense of the seemingly mismatched accompaniments, I threw the "weird" songs to the floor and wondered how to obtain reassignment. Sticking it out with those Rorem songs broadened my musical awareness immensely--immediately--and helped develop an ongoing personal aesthetic.
From country to city--and back again--is a variation on old Aesop's fable and a pattern of behavior adopted by numerous musicians, especially composers. Major venues, and the cultured audiences to fill them, exist in the great cities, yet summer disperses the musical "scene" to idylls like Aspen and Tanglewood. City mice in the country, how cute. More seriously, consider Ives, who progressed from Danbury to New Haven to New York City, gathering in the sounds of modernization ("The Circus Band," "Ann Street") but never losing sense of peaceful New England ("Thoreau," "Serenity"). Europeans feel the lure, as well. Mahler spent productive summers in Attersee but could only acheive his fame and reputation in cosmopolitan Vienna. And where but far beyond Paris could Messiaen go to catalogue bird songs? The mystical in his music, however, is not so simple and needs a metropolitan mindset to appreciate it. Well, we shall have to convene around the dinner table some time and talk about the merits of the city and the pleasures of the country and vice versa. [John Cage, master mushroom forager, will cook for us, interspersing his description of forested trails with the names and goings-on of more citified avant-garde experimentalists.]
The San Francisco bay area is a reluctant Metropolitan, too, somehow shy of being 100% city. Places like Marin and the wine country, though hardly 100% "country," temper the urban experience. The choice between city and country is not so black and white. Many of my musical colleagues and I make pointed efforts to avoid certain urban luxuries, including the gym and, sometimes, the clean, perfectly parsed lanes of the swimming pool, because a walk in the hills or a dip in a secluded lake is much more satisfying. A performer's musical practice tends to focus so specifically on physical memory-mastery; trudging five miles over fire trails returns one to physical sloppiness and a more mundane reality. Yet after a long walk in the woods, the first thing I turn to is the most urban comfort of all--my laptop--who currently exerts (some wonder how healthy) an incredible influence on my life. The city mouse and her laptop? Of course. On the farm, far from wifi, a pen and a few sheets of lined notebook paper would suffice. In the end, I miss the harvest, yes, but distant reminders of it are plenty enough for me.