A Fusion of Fact and Fantasy

Last night’s HSV Open Mic Night had the largest attendance, by far, of any held to date: 152 people in the audience. Last night’s performances were eclectic. Banjo, acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar, viola, violin, conga, bongos, trombone, spoken word poetry, harmonica. The music mix was just as diverse: country, folk, classical, hard rock. And the people, both audience and performers, ran the gamut from very young to very old, rock “groupie” to folk aficionado, country fan to student of classical, conservative to progressive (I discerned political bent from my biased perspective and not through overt observation). I was pleased with the event, though I can’t really take responsibility for it. The performers, after all, were self-selected volunteers with the exception of the feature performer (an incredibly talented guitarist who brought a singer/conga player to accompany him) and a string trio, who I invited. But I take some pride in it, regardless, because I got the word out and encouraged involvement.

As I think of the characters on stage last night, it occurs to me that I could use them (or my interpretation of them) in my writing. I could (and probably will) craft histories surrounding them: their backgrounds, their motivations for their music or other expression, their attitudes and ideas about life. For example, the duo of two aging artists who rocked the house by playing White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane give me fodder for a story in which country roots and southern racist culture clash with 1960s and 1970s progressive and left-wing rebellion, creating an odd mix of  chauvinism and tolerance. Mind you, I have no idea whether the story would have even a kernel of truth or parallel with the players; it’s my mind taking a close-up snapshot of a flower and using the photo as a model from which to paint a landscape of a mountain range.

Listening to some of the musicians’ self-deprecating comments, warning the audience not to expect much, was at once endearing and heart-breaking. Every person on stage last night had more musical or lyrical talent on display in a few minutes than I could display in a lifetime, yet many of them felt compelled to call attention to what they saw as their inadequacies. That’s painful to watch. That, in and of itself, is the stuff of literature, literature that mines the complexities of the human psyche.

I got off track, didn’t I? I intended to touch on some of the characters I might create from last night’s performers. All right, back to the track. The talented middle school student who sang and played piano and guitar could serve as a model of a young woman who is nurturing a dream of stardom. As the story unfolds in my head, I see her exhibit a single-minded focus that’s rare in someone so young; she wants not only to develop her talent to the fullest, she wants to share it on the world’s stage. But as she matures—physically, emotionally, and musically—she becomes skeptical of fame and stardom. Instead, she finds fulfillment in using her talents to call attention to the plight of the less fortunate, becoming, for lack of a better comparison, the Joan Baez for her age. The altruism that drives her, though, conflicts with the almost unavoidable financial riches her talents deliver to her. Her torment resolves when she comes to grip with one painful truth: the world is not a fair place, but only by pursuing the impossible dream of fairness does it become tolerable.

Following a theme similar to the one that emerged from my thoughts about the young musician, I consider the people behind the intersection between jazz and poetry. The musician, a man whose life has taken him from poverty to riches and back again many times over, struggles to define which experience had the greatest impact on defining who he is at his core. Whenever he find himself at a crossroads, emotionally, in that search for self, he returns to music. The poet, a retired senior-level government diplomat, yearns to forget a lifetime that, in retrospect, has been an empty vessel into which is poured and emptied repeatedly an elixir designed for political gain. She seeks meaning outside her career, which she now sees as hollow and meaningless. Through their unique mix of music and message, the musician and the poet feed one another the energy they need to explore what’s missing from their lives. Neither realizes the power of symbiosis until they achieve, separately, what they could accomplish only by sharing music and message together.

The members of the string trio are sisters who pursue classical music in homage to their father, a brilliant composer who died in a hotel fire in Luxembourg when they were young children. His death devastates their mother. In an effort to keep his memory and his music alive, she insisted that the three sisters learn to play stringed instruments which formed the core of their father’s classical compositions. For years, she had them practice—day after day after day—an unfinished symphony her husband was writing at the time of his death. Her aim, though neither she nor the children knew it at the time, was for the unfinished piece to be completed. She believed, unconsciously, that at some point her daughters would continue playing beyond the notes written by her husband, filling in the emptiness he left with his unfinished piece. At the mother’s insistence, the three sisters—by now adults with children of their own—play a concert of his music. The last piece they play is their fathers’ unfinished piece. But when they reach the last note he wrote, they continue playing until the piece their father was writing comes to a thunderous conclusion, prompting the audience to rise in applause and the mother to finally achieve a moment of peace before her death, just seconds after they play the final.

The rest of the performers could just as easily stoke the fires of creativity, as could every member of the audience. I could make up stories for every one of them. But would I finish the stories? Only the rest of time will tell.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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