Time is going faster and faster – is there a way to slow it down? With so many things flying around, and with our attention pulled in so many different directions, where is the place for prayer in our lives?
This week I travel to Cleveland for three performances of Saint Elizabeth Bells, a cello-cimbalom written in memory of my father, Sándor Agócs (1932-2011). It will be played by the cimbalom artist Chester Englander and the cellist Nicholas Diodore on three concerts presented by No Exit Ensemble. I’ll also be in the studio with them as they make the world premiere recording.
If you aren’t familiar with the cimbalom, it’s the Hungarian version of the hammered dulcimer - -originally a folk instrument, made bigger and fancier for the concert hall. This work intuits the thoughts that my father experienced during his final hours over Easter weekend in the Saint Elizabeth hospital in central Budapest. His room faced the cathedral, and through the open windows he would have heard, in semi-consciousness, the tolling bells drifting and resonating. Every phrase of the work’s trajectory comes out of the natural intervals of the bell sounds as I mis-remember (and imagine) them, with the purest version—and the part that I composed first—heard near the end. The piece is not mournful, but has a light, evanescent, delicate quality. Inhabiting a meditative space populated with memories just out of reach, the work is a dialogue of colours in which time is suspended.
I remember him telling me about how excited he was when a cimbalom arrived in his village. From a family of watermelon farmers—the first of his family to be educated—my father fled the county as a political refugee after the 1956 uprising. He was welcomed in Italy and studied for a time at the University in Padua, but the lure of New York was too strong (and eventually he settled in Canada before moving back to Hungary in the 1990s). I wish I had probed more about that year in Budapest before he left, and asked him to take me to the actual places in the stories - -many of the buildings still existed, some with the bullet holes from back then. I did hear about his escape across the border into the countryside near Vienna in November 1956. He told us how he escaped by foot with a small group of friends. He lay himself down like a bridge over a creek (or brook) for people to climb over, taking peoples’ hands from below and helping them cross. I remember the emotion in his voice as he remembered this. To be 23 years old and leaving one’s country for the first time far a completely uncertain future, like the countless people escaping perilous places across borders right now. To start over from nothing in three completely new places.
I thought that we had more time. I miss the conversations that we never had. We did talk during walks around his neighbourhood on the Pest side, takeout Chinese food in the little apartment, on the city bus to the snowy hills of Normafa, seeing the El Greco paintings at the National Gallery, and on visits to Matthias Church on the Buda hill. But it was the unsaid things that meant more, and I was always such a rush when I was in Hungary during those years. I wish I’d sat for hours and listened to him recount the events that he witnessed. I wish I’d paid attention in a different way while I had the chance. Suddenly one day, when you don’t expect it, it simply ends.
I only learned to that kind of attention later, when my daughter was born, nine months after he died. A baby forces you to be fully in the moment, to connect, to make space and time. My father was able to do this with me. I remember one time when was about twelve, and obsessed with the Beatles. He sat in the back seat of the car with me and we shared one pair of headphones, one ear apiece, listening to one of my favourite songs in mono. For those few minutes he entered my world - heard things from my perspective. Not only did I learn how to actually pay attention when I had my daughter - I learned that we need to apply this same sort of patience and concentration with older people – to slow down, stay, and talk -- to fully inhabit moments that we might otherwise miss.
It’s the same with our art: We need to enter it completely, to focus so deeply that we lose our sense of time and even forget who we are. There is much talk about “process”, and composers sometimes ask me how I focus. I limit the projects that I take on, and only work on only one piece at a time. In terms of studio practice, I wake up early, preferably before noises begin in the world around. When I build sustained, intense concentration and fully inhabit the music so that I lose myself, that is when the unexpected magic comes into the musical material and its development (the parts that I never could have imagined in the planning stages of the piece). This happened in Saint Elizabeth Bells. It’s always a very emotional experience to hear it performed, and it makes me feel closer to my father, who was only 78 when he died. When acknowledging that he thought I had an artist’s temperament as a little kid, he told me that what sets artists apart is that we are able to turn the pain and sorrow of life into something tangible - -something that has its own life. That thought is one of the most important things I have left from him. I’ve begun to think of attention as our most crucial and valuable asset as artists.
Composition can be a transcendent act. It’s not about trying to get attention from the outside world. You exist in a realm of pure music – thinking in music. My first impulse to write concert music was a sacred-music urge. Often I have to remind myself to pray; when night falls I am sometimes too tired, falling asleep as I formulate the thought. Music is inherently sacred. This is true for anything that you focus on very deeply – it doesn’t have to be music. It might be another art form. It might simply be communication. We need this more and more right now. If we focus long on one thing, with our most sustained concentration, our work itself becomes prayer.