Monday, February 26, 2007

The colors of harmony and discord

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, pianists, wolves

Intense focus, obsessive focus; distaste for crowds and for most human contact; wide-open emotionality; mixed-up senses: would you consider a combination of OCD, agoraphobia, social anxiety and synesthesia somewhat of a handicap? Couple unquenchable emotional directness with overpowering physical beauty: a dangerous combination? Without the piano, Hélène Grimaud would be a basket case.

In Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves Mlle. Grimaud positively drags one across the landscape of her memoir, that of a consistently misunderstood "problem child"; a rebellious and wilful teen; a musical career alternately triumphant and tormented. When at age seven she was introduced to music and piano lessons, she found the first great love of her life. It took her fourteen years more to find the second, the fulfilling great love: a wolf. Since then, she has founded the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York, where she lives with three wolves she raised from infancy, and a number of others in various stages of rehabilitation. As of the writing of the book, she employed thirty people.

Listening to music samples found at her website and others, I find that she plays piano like no other. She is left-handed, as is my son and another pianist we know. This lends particular authority to the lower register of her playing, as it does to theirs. But even more, she plays with a lyricism I find unique. I found a track or two in which she plays pieces that I have played, and her interpretation taught me much in just a minute or two.

In most who have it, synesthesia is a handicap, a barrier to communication, at least. Visual artists profit from it. She profits much, as it lends several dimensions to her emotional response to music as she plays, and in turn to the response of the audience. This is not her only advantage, however. She reports learning English all by herself, from videos and recordings; from a standing start, in about six months. This reflects both obsessive focus, and mental brilliance. She brings these to bear on any piece she deigns to perform.

When a genius would communicate with a dullard, the burden is on the genius. She takes that burden in both hands and fairly blasts you with all the soul and sense of the piece. Compared to her, I am surely a musical dullard. Her music ennobles the dullard with glimpses of sublimity.

Her writing is as lyrical as her playing; it is equally unique. This attests also to the brilliance of the translation by Ellen Hinsey. Ms Hinsley knows how to bring Mlle. Grimaud's French prose into English idiom without losing this unique quality, even leaving certain words in French as appropriate. The book reads to me as in slightly French-accented English from someone with ambassador-level skills. I took the trouble to find excerpts in French, to be sure the translation did not exaggerate the sense of the text; it does not.

The writing provides us a glimpse of how the author's mind works. The memoir vignettes are in order, interspersed with bits of the natural history, mythology, ecology, and lore of wolves. In keeping with her synesthesia, she sometimes personifies music, or the soul, speaking directly to it in our presence, rather than about it to us. The writing is eminently charming, overwhelmingly intense. She nearly produces synesthesia in the reader.

Does she see herself as a wolf-girl, feared or hated by many for her very wildness and exuberance? She is clearly akin to these animals she so loves. She strongly emphasizes the love-hate relationship humans have with wolves, or their ideas of wolves. Dispelling the mostly-negative myths is a huge focus of the Center's educational program. She lives now in balance, between the order music imposes, and the freedom of a wild life, living with her wolves.

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