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Memories of Music

Eben Harrell
Special to The Aspen Times

I was 9 months old when I first came to Aspen and, almost without exception, I have spent every summer here since. My family followed my father here for the Music Festival. For me, Aspen carries with it all the buoyancy and freshness of summer and childhood and music; it is a world with dew still on it.

I am privileged. I was born in the house my father, Lynn, built. My father was an artist, and he built the house out of music. It is a beautiful structure, subtle and generous, and one in which I have always felt at home. We moved and we traveled through my childhood, but there was always the music – always the music and always Aspen.

Even as a boy, the place was somehow indivisible from the music itself; on the lawn outside the tent (for years I was too young to sit inside) the grand architecture around me, from Pyramid Peak to the Pass, seemed in perfect harmony with the music filling my life.

It’s always difficult to reach back into the past and find anything solid to hold on to. Many of my memories of Aspen have been lost to that vast jumble of childhood experiences that form my current sense of self. It’s possible there’s some repression involved too. My sister and I were known for a time as the “dreaded Harrell twins.” We were “music brats,” and Aspen was our playground. We never quite understood why it wasn’t appropriate to play tag outside the tent, hide-and-seek among double-bass cases backstage.

It was only last summer that I learned from Gairt Mauerhoff backstage that my father was the original “music brat” at the festival. He first came here in 1950 at the age of 6, the son of the baritone Mack Harrell, one of the founding musicians of the festival. It’s a special bond that we both spent our childhood experiences with the Aspen Music Festival and somewhat reassuring for me that my father shared my proclivity for mischief. There’s a house off Main Street where, 50 years ago, a windowpane was shattered by one of my father’s errant fastballs; Dad still cowers when we drive past, retelling the story (despite my weary groans) with a childlike relish.

I don’t think either of us could imagine Aspen without its summer soundtrack. After both my grandparents died, when my father was still only a teenager, I know how important it was for him to come to Aspen himself a musician. There’s a grainy picture of him rehearsing as a 17-year-old at the tent. He’s in splendid ’50s attire – plain white T-shirt, shorn flat-top hairdo. He’s holding his cello, and he couldn’t look happier. He was there not just to carry on a legacy, but to find a new family.

Art at its most basic is about community building, about pulling people together into shared circles of empathy and understanding. I have witnessed it here with my father and his new family of musicians – refugees mostly, Eastern Europeans, their lives swept by war and history. Yet they love and accept my father – a blond-haired, big-chested Texan – because he plays the cello and loves music.

To see the great musicians in Aspen play chamber music together is to see individuals taking delight in each other’s talent, in the breadth and beauty of the human spirit. On the days when he would practice chamber music, it was not unusual for my father to return late at night, and not because the performance needed work. Even when they took the stage, straight-backed and bow-tied, you could see that here were people celebrating the joy of harmony, the pleasure of making something beautiful together.

Music has always been at the base of my relationship with my father. Even during my teenage years, when, moody and detached, I found it difficult to talk to him, music was what saved us. It was our perfect code – outside of language, at once untranslatable but immediately comprehensible.

As I was without him for most of the year, his recordings were the connective tissue that kept us close. There’s a memory I have of when I was a child. It’s one of the first memories. I was ill in bed with a fever. Someone (my mother?) put on my father’s recording of Bach’s cello suites. The Bach suites were written from the inspiration found through one man’s relationship with God. They are meditative, devout, at times exultant in their attempts to summon a celestial harmony. In my feverish state, I remember thinking that my father was actually in the room with me, talking to me, soothing me. When I hear them now, Bach’s efforts to communicate a strong, out-of-body euphoria, his attempts to demonstrate the feeling of a relationship beyond language and perhaps even human understanding, take me back to that night as a child, when I felt my father’s presence in an empty room.

If given the choice, I always preferred to attend my father’s concerts. And with a full summer schedule of recitals, concertos and chamber music, Aspen was the perfect place for it. There were so many performances, it’s difficult to distinguish them. What remain from my summers are certain universal memories. The wind blowing through the old canvas tent. My usual seat (near the cello section, of course). The shadow of Aspen leaves dancing across smiling faces.

There’s one concert that I do remember in particular. I was 17. An avid basketball player, I had just shattered my ACL and with it my dreams of playing college basketball. I felt like I had lost my identity. Unapproachable even to my mother, I agreed to go to the tent to hear the Lutislowski cello concerto. Lutislowski is a Polish composer, a man who witnessed firsthand the unparalleled destruction and barbarism of the last century. The piece sets the cello against the orchestra in a struggle between the single and the collective. My father calls the concerto the most searing plea for the individual voice that he knows in music.

The fall before the performance, my father had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. He was losing feeling and strength in his fingers. A team of neurosurgeons opened his wrists with the understanding that he might never play again. Watching my father onstage that night in the context of Lutislowski’s piece, a sad and lonely figure fighting off an entire orchestra, straining to be heard, broke something inside of me. Seeing the look on my father’s face as the piece ended – exhausted but defiant – I knew he understood. It was a cathartic experience for both of us, and I’m not sure that without it I could have faced my final year in high school.

As much as Aspen was about the music, it was also about the people that made the music. Of the performers, I had my favorites: Yefim Bronfman, big Russian bear, is known for his muscular technique and virtuosi power, but it’s the sensitivity of his playing during delicate passages that comes closest to his soft, effusive nature. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, flirtatious and playful, but always a little wild, a little dangerous, a combination which made her music thrilling. The Emerson String Quartet – penetrating and intelligent, each of the members putting their individual musicianship in service of a coherent and often dazzling interpretation.

But it’s not only the big names that make Aspen special musically. The musicians I was closest to were usually hidden in the background. Brooks Smith was an accompanist in Aspen for many years. Already carrying a mythical significance because he shared his name with a beautiful species of trout, Brooksie was everything I imagined the fish to be – slender, elegant, furtive. When I met him, he had played with most of the great musicians of the 20th century, but you’d never guess it by his humble bearing. My father was aware of Brooks’ history though, aware that Brooksie had played with his own father, a fact that meant even as the soloist, my father would almost always defer to him musically. Those close to him knew him to be a great man. My father always said he was the consummate accompanist – he made the people around him better.

Even friends in the audience have become fixtures in my memories. Although I could never have said it when she was alive, Patricia Moore, longtime Aspen resident and music lover, was probably the closest my father had to a mother after he was orphaned at 16. It’s hard to imagine the tent without Patsy. Sitting in the back, stone faced and upright, even in front of those close enough to her to know that, always, the music stirred her deeply. I never thought it strange – her blue sneakers, vodka-for-breakfast, wild house cats. Over 6 feet tall, raspy voice, big, bony hands, she was an awe-inspiring presence. But I was never scared. There was something so dignified, so patrician, about Patsy. She demanded respect, not fear. And of course there was the way my father softened in her embrace, as if the whole world were about to melt.

As I grew up, my sister and I tended to seek out other music brats, children of musicians who’d also make the annual summer trip. We took to one another immediately. Nick Sidlin, son of conductor Murry Sidlin, and Abby Ranger, daughter of the great trumpeter Lou Ranger, were two of our regular cohorts. There were often musicians our age who would hang out with us too. For a while, Sarah Chang was a partner in mischief. But, as fun and nice as they were, musicians always felt a little different – for them music was the foreground, not the background, their life not the backdrop for it. It’s strange, us music brats never really talked about music. To do so seemed inappropriate, even intrusive. When the baton rose, silence fell.

When the teenage years came, there’s no doubt that music was the food of love for me. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was my first real “crush.” She was pretty and mysterious and could throw a baseball farther than me. I don’t think I’ve met a woman since that fills that criteria. Violinists were my most popular dates, probably because they never gushed about my father (violinists are always slightly disdainful of other string instruments, whatever they may claim) and probably because they were strong-headed and confident and immensely difficult.

An interesting thing about young musicians, though, is that in my experience they aren’t music lovers, at least not outwardly. All my musician friends spent most of the time criticizing performances – nitpicking technique, questioning fingerings and bowings in tough passages, complaining about artistic interpretations. It’s a ruthless profession, there’s no doubt about it, and I understand now why my father never kept musician friends of his own age when he was younger.

And so in the end I kept mostly to my music brat friends. Sons and daughters of musicians who, like me, didn’t like or dislike music, just as one can’t like or dislike the air or the sky; it’s just there, always around you.

The product of three generations of musicians, I cannot even read music. An aspiring poet, I have settled with language as my mode of expression. In my heart, I know music to be the deeper, more numinous code. Rigid and claustrophobic, language gives us words but doesn’t let us sing. We poets struggle constantly against it, pushing it to its limits, hoping to lift black and white off the page the way musicians do every time they open a score.

So now the closest I come to studying music is T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” In my favorite of the poems, “Dry Salvages,” Eliot searches for something that can redeem the struggle of our fragmented, modern lives. He concludes:

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.

Eliot once wrote, “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older/The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated.” I am 23 years old and finished with school. For the first time in my life, I struggle in my private hours with questions of the soul.

This is the first summer I have come to Aspen without my family. But I still go to the tent. Sitting there, squinting into the brilliance of the late afternoon sun, I find the world is no longer strange or complicated but beautiful – my soul and my memories coming together into a harmony so perfect that it is not heard, but lived. As the music washes over me, I feel my life being gathered again into something large and immaculate. And I know that, yes, there it was, in that great cathedral space of Aspen and childhood, there it was from the very first.


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