‘Tonality is a ghost’
by Simon Tedeschi
Published May 2022
There’s this thing you hear in music – or, if I’m trying for precision, in the silences in music. It’s a reaching, a stretching. There’s a suspended wonder to it; a lazy sensuality, sometimes. It’s probably in lots of places if you know what to listen for, but I hear it most in classical music, since that is where I learned to listen, to count, and to keep time. And I hear it in Simon Tedeschi’s intimate book of fragments, Fugitive.
A feted classical pianist, Tedeschi describes sitting with a priest: ‘He made me feel as I had years earlier, in a Cathedral in a foreign city, prodded forward by singing I could feel but never find.’ That’s interesting to me – that it’s a priest who sets off this encounter with the numinous. People you might call religious – I’m not – seem to talk about this thing a lot; I’ll call it the Stretch. When I try to describe it (the Stretch), I usually end up resorting to a gesture: drawing the fingers of one hand together and upward, away from my ribcage to about eye height, a sort of reverse-chef’s kiss.
‘I am drawn upwards by this something,’ French philosopher Simone Weil writes; ‘this something’, I think, being more or less whatever it is I am trying to articulate with my gesture – the same ‘something’ you can hear between the notes in a piece of Bach.
It also interests me that Tedeschi brings up cathedrals, which I’ve always found to be full of the Stretch: all that vaulting space, the floating anticipation, the thick fragrance of time. A concert hall is not unlike a cathedral. ‘From the moment I turn up to the venue, it’s a ritual,’ Tedeschi writes. ‘I am both officiant and offering, sacrament and sacrifice.’
What Fugitive does is to enact the sensation that emerges when you play or listen to music: a tactile excitement, a kinaesthetic sense of the sacred. ‘Any book worth reading contains its own music,’ critic Anna Goldsworthy – also a classical pianist, observes in her review for The Monthly, ‘but few books so closely approach its condition.’ (You can hear it in someone’s writing if they play, another erstwhile orchestra member said to me on a cold night recently, outside a reading somewhere, both of us a decade or so truant from any rehearsals. It would be nice if I could recall him making my gesture there, fingers tapering off into an anemone.)
Something of Fugitive’s elusive quality is expressed when you look for it in a bookshop. One musician’s reflections, yearnings, experience of history, laid out over a slim volume in dreamlike shards. Is it a book on music? Memoir? Poetry? Most stores seem to go with ‘cultural studies’. Tedeschi slings loose stanzas, fragments, over the skeleton of the Visions Fugitives: twenty brief pieces for solo piano by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, first performed by him in 1918. In the original Russian, they are called the Mimolyotnosti – any translation of this must, Tedeschi insists, capture ‘a very special, spectral quality that both contains and exiles itself’, he writes. ‘A shape without edges.’ The suite’s individual parts are not obviously mirrored in the text, but their titles hang in the margins: dolente, con poetico, una dolce lentezza.Prokofiev’s miniatures, and Tedeschi’s, touching in a formal echo.
I find recordings online, primed for a close, reverent attention. (‘Certain words reach out to me,’ Tedeschi writes, ‘clasp my cheek and force me to listen, not merely hear.’) The music is full of inky light – danger and suspended quiet. Like the book, the suite is held together less by any recognisable theme than by that feeling – the Stretch. It’s a kind of arc, a silver thread that could cut you – fishing line, a piano wire, a violin string – constantly drawing the ear home. Home is the tonic, the place where your ear can rest. But in the Mimolyotnosti, Tedeschi notes, tonality is ‘unstable’. The music is haunted by a centre that never arrives – that is just air. ‘In real life,’ Tedeschi writes, ‘I am not sure there is a tonic.’ The arc doesn’t need to lead anywhere; the arc is the point.
This arc curves between people, too: between a pianist and his audience (or a man and his wife – Fugitive is often directly addressed to Tedeschi’s wife, the artist Loribelle Spirovski, whose portrait of him appears on the cover.) ‘Seconds away from playing, there’s an invisible line between me and my audience that only I can see,’ Tedeschi writes. ‘If others had told me that they too had seen this line, or even felt it, then maybe it would have slunk away, ceased to be.’
‘Fugitive’: something fleeting, someone who flees. Tedeschi is preoccupied with presence and absence – in the musical, the psychological, the linguistic, the historical. From the slippage between, he draws out something spectral – a dissociated space, from where he might gesture at the emptiness looming beyond his family on both the Polish and Italian sides. ‘A perfectly passionless, grey void,’ he wrote in ‘This woman my grandmother’, his 2022 Calibre Prize-winning essay, ‘where normal, clever, cultured people destroyed other normal, clever, cultured people with the quiet, steady, equable hum of a machine’. No answering the Holocaust, no making sense of it. Tedeschi resists the instinct to fill the gaps – with the musician’s capacity for ellipsis, for holding back without turning away.
Fugitive is unafraid of silence and stillness. (Early on, Tedeschi quotes Kafka: ‘be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked.’) To play the Mimolyotnosti, Tedeschi writes, ‘a certain quality is needed. An ability to go deep but to wrench yourself out before it’s too late. An appetite for abandonment.’ For contending, continually, with the unresolved – the Stretch. Fugitive is a book of pauses. Artefacts of memory (Tedeschi’s, his family’s, Europe’s) push themselves forward simply to hover, glistening and unfinished. Floating in white space (broad margins, spare typeface) Tedeschi’s language is compressed, aphoristic. Rhythms build only to fall away; stresses repeat and dissolve; interstices take physical form – delicate painted infinities breaking the fragments (little silences, small breaths).
‘I need space between [words],’ he writes, ‘which cannot be seen, only felt (in its absence)–in order to write, I must be a ghost.’ Tread lightly, in order to write, to play, to love; use words and music not as hammers to break through, but to trace the whorl of an absent centre (‘the unnameable aspects of you that I can only approach but never encroach,’ as he tells his wife). ‘The transgression of a border is a formal dismemberment,’ he states. I see his point. But it feels dangerous, to be a ghost, to keep a looser grasp. As he writes:
The risk is monumental. To play a note so softly that it almost doesn’t sound. A quietness almost deniable. This is one of the hardest things a musician must ever do–even harder in front of groping eyes …
But if the note sounds just the way you want it (and you’ll never know why)–if you manage to make a sound so quiet that it breaks through everything–then God is in the room.
The Mimolyotnosti can be played together or apart. By selecting just a few of them, Tedeschi explains, he brings himself ‘to an edgeless realm’ – infinity stretching through each suspended chord, shining in the absent pieces. He has an enemy’s respect for that ‘interstitial’ place – understands its terror, the way it unravels our sense of control.. He toys with it, on the page, at the keyboard. ‘The longer I hold that gulf between movements, the more unbearable it will be,’ he writes of another composer. ‘I make myself fearful of what could happen if I did it longer … neither in the second movement nor the third but in-between.’ It’s the place we yearn to touch, the whole instinct that drives the Stretch (‘prodded forward by singing I could feel but never find’). The apprehension, about ‘what could happen’ if we do succeed, and brush against it, is painfully familiar.
When I played the violin, I used to hold my breath. (‘I refuse to be vulnerable,’ Tedeschi writes. ‘I fear to be remade.’) It drove my teacher to distraction. ‘Breathe!’ he scolded in my lessons, tapping me lightly but sternly with his bow, as I resisted my way through another passage. If I breathed, I thought, I might dissolve. (‘Am I real or is the wind?’ Tedeschi writes.) ‘Breathe!’ my teacher would say, again and again, eyes alight – with impatience, I thought; now, I suspect, maybe understanding. ‘The most important secret,’ he wrote in one of his many emails, ‘is relaxation’.
Tedeschi writes, ‘When Mozart was asked what the heart of music was, he replied no music’. I didn’t know – still don’t really know – how to leave room for nothing. My teacher wanted me to listen, to feel how music is as much a question of intervals – of spaces and stillnesses – as of movement and sound. He was trying to show me how to leave room for the ‘state of grace’, as Magda Szabó’s narrator in The Door calls it: that place of ‘stimulus and composure, inner peace and a kind of bitter-sweet excitement’, in which one might create.
‘Music is in the body. There’s no thought,’ Tedeschi said in an interview earlier this year. In Fugitive, he cites Maurice Merleau-Ponty: ‘The body is our general medium for having a world.’ Fellow Merleau-Ponty fan Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish architect fundamentally concerned with space and sound, writes in The Eyes of the Skin that ‘a great musician plays himself rather than the instrument’, echoing Heidegger’s idea that the hands might be ‘organs for thought’ – and bringing me back to Tedeschi: ‘The hand has a centre, but I’m not sure exactly where it is,’ he writes. ‘It should be held up like an arch, the type that can be seen in virtually every Italian city, and the empty space beneath the arch, the crown, is the source of all strength.’
The Stretch may reach to an ‘out there’ (Tedeschi again) ‘set to a glacial stillness, a glorious, inconsolable music’, but it is also grounded in bone and sinew, kinesthetic and kinetic. If to make music, to write, is to make yourself a ghost, it is also a way to return to your body, to haul yourself back toward life – pushing, as Tedeschi does, against the tonic, the missing home. ‘Tonality is a ghost,’ Tedeschi writes. ‘I feel it even when (I’m told) it isn’t there.’ And thus, for him: ‘Art exposes my fissures and fault lines. I improvise a semitone higher than the chord symbol dictates. I wander in a fugitive tonality. I play what is wrong, even ugly, grotesque.’ It is satisfying to go against the grain – a friction that feels important, generative – principally because of our deep and physical sense of the grain. Just as true: the pain of exile is sharpened by the sense of home – even if that home is gone (lost to the past, or never known). The fertile ‘fugitive tonality’ in which Tedeschi wanders is called into play by that original ghost.
Phrases in music ‘move forward with the line but also remain wedded to the ground with each change of harmony’, Tedeschi writes. Wrestling through this in-between, ‘is where the battle lies, why each piece of music grapples with its own destructive potential.’ We stretch toward infinity; we curve back to earth; reaching between ghosts, in a state of grace.
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr Rah, Routledge Classics, 2002.
Anna Goldsworthy, ‘Ghost Notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’’, The Monthly, May 2022.
Simon Tedeschi, ‘This woman my grandmother’, Australian Book Review, no. 442, May 2022.
Magda Szabó, The Door, trans. Len Rix, NYRB Classics, 2015.
Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, Wiley & Sons, 2012.
Benjamin Law, ‘Pianist Simon Tedeschi: ‘I’m profoundly acquainted with cortisol’’, in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 8, 2022.