On Music and Time
On March 22, 2016 I said goodbye to my boyfriend; Žilvinas had a plane to catch, one of his many trips home to Berlin while I continued my life in Brussels. He made his way to the bus stop, looking back once before turning the corner out of sight. I waved one more time and went back to practicing and packing for my own train at the end of the morning.
And then, an hour later, I checked the news: deadly explosions at the Brussels airport.
I raced to my phone and saw seventeen missed calls on my Belgian number and twenty-three on my German one. A wave of relief hit me: Žilvinas was alive. It took a few minutes before he answered my call and when he did, he explained the situation: he had gone through security twenty minutes before the explosion, while the last passengers who boarded the flight had heard the blast. He was one of the thousands who, while spared injury and death, would be in limbo for the rest of the day.
Not knowing what to do I called M., a family friend, and asked her if I could leave her my house key so Žilvinas would have a place to return to. I assumed he would not be leaving Brussels with the airport in disarray and expected to find myself on a train in another hour.
M. was sympathetic, understanding, reassuring. She agreed to take the key and even offered me a ride to the station, so I finished packing and waited by the door.
The minutes trickled by and I became restless, then impatient. I started to think that it would have been better to walk the five minutes to the Maalbeek metro station as I’d originally planned.
Still, I needed to give her the key and was looking forward to a calming presence.
When M. did arrive, I saw stopped traffic up and down our street. She told me that the five-minute drive had lasted nearly twenty and we weighed the pros and cons of my going to the metro after all; would I miss my train if we drove?
Just as we were figuring it out, a concerned friend gave me a call. He told me that, first of all, all public transport in Brussels had been stopped and that my train would not be leaving at all. And then he asked me if my metro station was called Maalbeek.
“Yes,” I answered, “I was just about to get out of the car and walk there. I’m a minute away.” “That’s the last thing you’d want to do,” he said. “There was an explosion inside the station. Fourteen people lost their lives. Go back home or get to a safe place.”
It was one of the most surreal days of my life, comparable perhaps only to the way COVID-19 brought everything to a halt overnight. And on that early spring day, time took on a new dimension. It became fluid, viscous, pliable, like a melted plastic container which was as startling as it was familiar in its new, ominous form.
Time separated me from Žilvinas now. It had separated us from death just hours earlier. I had no idea how he would get back to us, or if we would make it through the day safely.
And the only thing which could give sense the long hours to come was music.
It happened almost by accident. M. brought me back to her house, to a world in which she had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. A world of uncertainty that collided with the events of the day, leaving us both paralyzed as we parked the car and walked cautiously inside.
And so I looked up a piece which had served as both a childhood lullaby and as a soundtrack to hours spent in adolescence, wondering if my hopes and dreams meant anything measured against the backdrop of infinity: we played the second movement of J. S. Bach’s concerto for two violins and orchestra.
M. was a psychologist by profession, but a music lover. We didn’t have words to talk about the present, so I talked about the different ways in which the piece can be performed. We listened to the iconic recording of David and Igor Oistrakh and the English Chamber Orchestra, along with contemporary recordings of baroque ensembles and soloists.
I explained to her why some ensembles tuned up to A=444 while others were as low as A=415, and talked about how historical performance practice has changed the way we see Baroque music today. I told her that we can perform Shakespeare in period English or in standard American but that ultimately we are all saying the same words. As listeners, what we perceive is the marriage of those words to our own cultural context; within the uniqueness of both performance and perception lies the universality of music. She listened to Bach and listened to me, and we were both relieved to have this way of measuring time when all other methods failed. The second violin and orchestra start the second movement with a ray of hope. The soloist’s initial high F begins a beautiful phrase which gently descends, making its way down the octave in a lilting 12/8 meter. The concerto itself is in d-minor, making the F-major Largo a place of refuge within a more somber reality.
And for me, the most special moment of the entire piece is the entrance of the first violin in the third bar. If the F of the second violin is already radiant, the C of the first violin is heavenly. It’s the best way I can describe the simple but brilliant progression, the twin rays of light that greet us with each violin’s entrance at the beginning of this remarkable movement.
The fifth, as an interval, is often described as the most basic measuring tool within classical music. And here was this fifth, defining and immortalizing our own makeshift measuring stick of time. After that incredible C, slowly but surely, the first violin begins its descent just as its counterpart had already done, while the second violin is already blossoming, gently unfolding into a string of sixteenth-notes that carry us forward. The entire movement springs from that beginning with its gracious, self-evident flow until the first violinist’s sixteenth notes finally bring us home.
And eventually, we too came back to earth; she made us a wonderful lunch and we turned on the news. One of the perpetrators of the attacks at the airport had last been spotted three streets away from us. People were searching for their loved ones, injured victims were being rushed to hospitals.
Žilvinas, who had been in a hangar with a thousand other distressed passengers, had not had our calm oasis. He had been forced to leave his clarinet in the plane and had been watching wearily as hungry, exhausted, and increasingly worried passengers argued over emergency blankets and small batches of sandwiches. He hadn’t eaten but wanted to stay away from the shouting and grabbing, so he observed those around him. A group of Orthodox Jews had determined theirposition in relationship to Jerusalem and had begun praying together. Turbans, Saris, Kente cloth, and jeans swirled together, then fanned out and separated into small groups. For a short eternity, there was no further news.
And then, little by little, passengers were released from the hangar in small busloads. After four hours of waiting, he was assigned to a bus going to the city of Zaventem.
M. and I got in the car once more, finally meeting him outside a local church. Reading a book, Žilvinas looked pale but calm. And seeing him there on the park bench with no luggage felt abstract, like everything had been a huge misunderstanding, or like meeting an old friend after many years. And yet we knew: like the Bach concerto, this moment of uncertainty had ended.
I thought about that day many times, asking myself what would have happened if 20 minutes in either direction had cost us our lives or taken away our ability to make music forever.
I thought about that moment in the summer of 2017, when visiting the Jewish museum of Vilnius, Lithuania. The museum was small and there were no other visitors. I stopped in front of the display on music in the Lithuanian ghettos; in the Jewish ghetto of Kaunas, the arts had flourished. There were poetry competitions and music competitions, with makeshift juries and malnourished competitors. I thought about how often we discount competitions today as inhumane, problematic, or corrupt, whereas in the 1930s it helped to organize the hours, a lifeline during a time of dread in which the end, though impossible to predict, was looming closer each day.
I thought about it in the summer of 2018, when M. passed away; I thought about her struggle with cancer, about her incredible spirit and willingness to come to terms with both life and death. I thought about generosity on every level, and how she welcomed the music I care about so deeply into the madness of that unbelievable day.
I thought about it in the autumn of 2019, getting off a bus after 12 hours of sleepless travel just in time to say goodbye to a close family member. I was handed a cello and our friends and family gathered around him, the air thick with unsaid words of parting. While playing, I felt intense gratitude for this ability, learned over the decades, to produce sounds which could open the floodgates and allow the process of mourning to begin.
I thought about it in 2020, when everything was cancelled overnight and performers, audience members, and concert organizers had to come to terms with the slow but relentless passage of time without any of the signposts that they had relied upon their entire lives.
A friend recently asked: “what would this world be like if classical music had never existed?” and I think about the moments of solace, understanding, and interconnectedness that music has given us during weeks and months of isolation.
From either side of every musical instrument, listening tells us with certainty that we are a part of this world. And with that same certainty it tells us that this moment of time, this phase of being, will come to an end. At breaking points, it is the most powerful tool with which to understand the passage of time that I have ever encountered.