The notes of truth

I met with Christopher Rouse exactly once. It was in the summer of 1997, when Rouse was composer-in-residence at Tanglewood, and I was working for the BU Tanglewood Institute, playing piano for the vocal program and being a teaching assistant for the composition program. The high-school composers and the Tanglewood fellows got together a couple of times, and somehow it came out that I played the accordion, and soon I got a call from Rouse. He was writing a piece with accordion in it (I don’t recall him divulging any details about the piece, but I’m guessing it was Kabir Padavali); could I come over and show him how it worked?

So I hauled my accordion over to Hawthorne Cottage. To be honest, I don’t think Rouse got very much out of it. For one thing, I was and am, at best, a barely-competent accordionist; for another, it soon became apparent that Rouse was thinking of a classical-style, button accordion, in which the buttons correspond to individual tones, rather than my stradella-type accordion, in which the left-hand buttons play bass notes and chords. Still, even after finding that what I had was not what he needed, he continued asking questions, requesting demonstrations, pulling whatever knowledge he could from me.

I still think about that meeting. I think about Rouse’s zeal for information, about the insistence and even impatience to know that kept breaking the otherwise polite surface of his personality. It helped bring into focus something about being a musician. It’s an argument I had heard mostly in negative terms: a musical career is a difficult and capricious undertaking; if you don’t want to know every last thing there is to know about music, why do it? Rouse, I realized, embodied the positive version of that calculus—that if you did have that obsessive desire to know, that if the possibility of learning some musical fact or technique or piece, however trivial, was what got you out of bed every morning, then just maybe there was a place for you to create something.

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