BEHIND THE SONGS
Smoke (Portrait of Rachmaninoff)
Smoke is, in many ways, a product of covid and all of 2020's trickery.
At the very beginning of lockdown, Tom and I went to Javas, one of our favorite cafes here in Rochester.
At the time, we were pretty unsettled by the whole situation - having to wear a face mask and stay 6 feet away from everyone - it all seemed so strange then. But I sat down with my notebook, hoping to be inspired by the atmosphere anyway.
I remember seeing steam rise off of one of their coffee / cappuccino machines;
as the light streamed through it, the colors morphed and scattered in such interesting ways. I found it so intriguing, how something so intangible could shape the world like that - much like the pandemic had. These musings on steam laid the foundation for a new poem about smoke.
Around the same time, I was listening to a fantastic podcast called The Great Composers. I was on the series exploring the life and work of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who has held a special place in my heart ever since I was little. Back in the days of CDs, my mom would often drive us around to the sounds of classical music, and she especially loved classical piano CDs. She had studied piano growing up, and had a rigorous musical education at a girl's boarding school in Vienna.
I was enthralled by this podcast; Rachmaninoff was such and complex person, and in many ways a amalgamation of extremes. He was a huge, hulking Russian man with hands that could span an octave and a 5th. (For reference, my little hand can just barely span an octave). A lot of his pieces are monstrously hard for mere mortals to play.
But, he was also very frail. Today, he would probably be diagnosed with what is called Marfan’s Syndrome. Sufferers of this disease are often tall and wiry, but experience a slew of ailments that make life quite uncomfortable.
He had long, flexible fingers, but experienced an immense amount of joint pain. His fingers would sometimes even bleed if he practiced too much. As a result, he practiced much less than most modern day pianists do.
He even experienced awful headaches that left him unable to work or even sit at the keyboard.
Still, he created these behemoth pieces and toured around the world playing them. He was able to capture such grandeur, but also had such a profound understanding of things that are delicate.
This sensitivity and scope of color and feeling is what made him beloved by audiences in his day (though often not Russian critics) and allowed him to leave such an important legacy. Many of his pieces feel like the ultimate form of Romantic expression.
Back to our song: in the beginning, I say “And the middle of the night came to me, and revealed a creature made of darkness, who could engulf all of the colors to wield their power.” And that's really how it happened for me.
There are so many different ways that creative people find their inspiration…
For me, it's like that scene in Emperor's New Groove where Kronk wakes up and is all like “The peasant... at the diner... he didn't pay his check.” Well, in a scenario just like that, I woke up in the middle of some night and realized that I had to combine the figures of Smoke and Rachmaninoff into a single personified entity.
The second spoken word section was inspired by Rachmaninoff’s escape from Russia. It was dramatic : narrowly avoiding persecution, he scrambled to get himself, his family, and some of their possessions into a sleigh, and off they went - just in the nick of time.
Rachmaninoff's family was part of the aristocratic class, though his father had drank and gambled away all their money. The Russian establishment at the time was increasingly intolerant of anyone with aristocratic blood.
The second spoken word section “The figure, dressed in night's cowl, fleeing, bled from the cracked inkwell” is inspired by this.
The “Writhed into a towering scowl” came from some critic dubbing Rachmaninoff the “six foot scowl” because of his severe appearance. I thought that was just too great of a description.
And the last line “From a once meek cower beneath the stairwell” evokes an early episode in Rachmaninoff’s life; he literally hid beneath a stairwell in shame during the premier of his first symphony, riddled with fear over the critical reaction to it. I thought all of these vignettes were apt descriptions of a rising column of smoke as well.
Rachmaninoff resettled in the US, but always missed his homeland. He found it tremendously challenging to write while not on Russian soil. So the last bit of our piece kind of shows him as this migratory bird, a bit displaced; “Forever bound to keep wandering through strange lands.”
The “But only spirits can travel in straight lines” comes from superstition / myth in many cultures, notably the Chinese. Supposedly, that is why Chinese architecture has those sloping roofs : so bad spirits can't enter.