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Sport 17: Spring 1996

Elizabeth Smither — The Lark Quartet

page 58

Elizabeth Smither

The Lark Quartet

Bea and Cathryn are sitting on high stools in a pizzeria across the street from the little theatre. They are eating entrées only and coffee, since a quartet is something like an execution. Half a chicken for the black man, a whole one for the white who probably burped. Once before Bea has been to a string quartet, a Soviet one, with a stomach full of spaghetti and meatballs, rough red wine. How hard she had tried to emulate the frozen faces in front of her, faces not even the lampshade with its frill, or the music, like streamers against the side of a giant liner, could soften. The woman next to them is going to the Lark Quartet as well. ‘Do you know them?’ she says. ‘I heard them in New York.’

‘No,’, say Bea and Cathryn in unison. ‘But we're looking forward…’

‘Absolutely fabulous,’ says the woman, consulting a huge watch on her wrist whose centrepiece is a treble clef.

Then there is just time to run across the street with umbrellas up, queue for a programme, slip out of their coats and stow them under their seats, lean back and begin to be briefed.

‘The Lark Quartet’, Cathryn reads, ‘is becoming one of the most sought after string quartets of the younger generation’ but Bea is only half-listening. She is looking around the theatre as if it is a drawing room they have just entered. The Soviet quartet had played on a box-like dais on a flat floor, just large enough to hold them and the ridiculous lamp. Bea had thought the lamp resembled a pair of lady's bloomers. Tonight there is no lamp, only a curving stage, not too high but high enough, decorated on both sides with autumnal arrangements of twigs and berries.

‘Shostakovich,’ Cathryn reads and Bea gives a little shiver. She hands the programme over and Bea places it on her lap. What is page 59 going on behind the blue curtain, she wonders. Is someone looking at a watch or straightening a blouse? Perhaps a grimace is being exchanged. What hotel are they staying in? Or are they staying together? Bea has read that quartet members often stay at separate hotels to create the necessary space between them. The blue velour seats that curve around the stage are bathed in lowering shades of blue, the voices hush, and onto the stage stride four women in white blouses, black skirts and glowing gold, red and silver cummerbunds.

Then for a few preparatory moments, it is as though the four women on stage are arranging themselves in a drawing room, pulling a chair closer, adjusting a stand, flicking over pages of music. They seat themselves, ceremoniously, and Cathryn sees that one long black skirt is culottes. Violin, violin, cello, viola. The cello is the mater familias, the ground, sometimes in the flurry, the leader. The instruments of a quartet must be of the highest calibre. The lightest of tuning is taking place: four good hostesses making sure the cushion is behind your back, the footstool just where you want it. Then there is a little hush and Cathryn wonders which player she will watch most, which fingering, which bowing arm. Or will it be one instrument she will try to follow, as hopelessly as the children lost in the woods tried to follow breadcrumbs. Or a face, the profile of one, the way the hair, swinging in the updraught the music creates, falls against a slender neck. The strength of shoulder into which the gleaming instrument fits as though a Titian-haired child has burrowed there to meet both comfort and a censure.

Bea too is looking for a place to focus. Unknown to Cathryn she has flung herself into her car after a vicious quarrel with her son. She expects to return to the chaos she walked out on: the remains of a meal spoiled by anger: Never talk with your mouth full, never talk at all should be the rule. Her son's mastication will have to be mentioned before he takes his first girl to a restaurant. Then she thinks of his bedroom, mercifully at the farthest end of a long hallway: a chaos centre into which only Peter Pan could penetrate. ‘Show Tinkerbell your room, dear,’ she hears herself saying. ‘I know you need space.’

She has not entered Seth's room now for six months and still he page 60 shouts abuse about wearing the same screwed up soiled t-shirt three days in a row though to her knowledge he has at least five others. Bea's eyes go to the two EXIT signs, glowing like lozenges. Should she have one made to read LAUNDRY? The blouses of the quartet are so fresh. And their hair, each looks as though it has been brushed a hundred times, as though a bow has been passed over it. As she sinks further back into her padded seat Bea pushes Seth away from her like a gargantuan load of dirty washing. Get behind me, Satan, she almost says. No, not Satan. Almost imperceptibly, like the first notes, her spirits begin to lift.

As the first notes of Aaron Jay Kernis's String Quartet ‘musica celestis’ drift over the audience like disturbed dust, Cathryn too has come to a decision. Or is it the light snack, the glass of wine, the coffee settling in her stomach? Never again will she listen as she once listened to the Prague Quartet, the Borodin, the Medici, with her face drained of blood, eyes glistening, neck rigid. Until she felt like an icicle the music would crack. A test of stillness to correspond with the efforts of the musicians. She will give up the notion of self-blame as if quartet-listening is some kind of etiquette. She will think of whatever she likes and the quartet can flow in and out of her. She will be a fish in the sea. Almost instantly she thinks there is something gill-like about the bowing motion of the violinists. Yes, like her, they are breathing!

In fact what Cathryn thinks of is New York. She has never been to New York but its brownstones, Central Park, SoHo, and the glittering needle island of Manhattan are familiar in a secondhand way that resembles a grainy black and white film. The final shot of Woody Allen's Manhattan stays in her mind like the upper third of a vast cathedral. She forgets indecisiveness and the slow dining of Woody and Diane Keaton and sees again the lights of the vast panorama gleaming with fanatical lighted windows. But most of all, as the images come and go, she sees the occurrence of beauty, one frail second among a wagonload of seconds, an angle of light transforming a facade, the hopping of a sparrow. She closes her eyes tight and an image of a fox page 61

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;

appears in the shadow of a stoop. He materialises by a dustbin which he proceeds to inspect. Then he glides away leaving fresh paw prints in the slush.

Bea who has read the programme knows the scherzo is ‘made of bits and scraps of things’ but there are angels above the roof. The same old world drawn large and deep, deeper than the apple cores and pizza crusts under her son's bed, higher than the stars she looks at before retiring, blinking back the tears. What her son needs to govern him is Beethoven, a masculine presence so huge it can enfold the terrors that lie behind his childishness. When her husband left Bea had envisaged a gentler relationship: she would confide in Seth, not too much, but things like her financial woes. She would explain to him why he could not have Reeboks. Later she would bring him a cutting from Time about the actual costs of making a pair of Reeboks in Taiwan. She might even tackle Michael Jordan and his earnings. But she never has. Michael Jordan is not to be shared by a son and mother and when she mentioned exploitation and huge false advertising there was a blazing row. In the moments when Aaron Jay Kernis seems to hesitate between one emotion, one image and the next, Bea reflects on her failure and feels soothed by such a variety of experience.

Cathryn is thinking of birds. Not birds of elaborate and colourful plumage which makes even fashion models look wan but common sparrows, blackbirds and thrushes. Birds which survive in the unlikeliest environments. Hasn't she read of a bird nesting on top of lights at a football stadium? A large bird, blown off-course. She thinks of New York roof gardens, of sparrows pecking between the feet of passers-by, or flying up with wisps of cotton from the garment district in their beaks, or hair combings from an apartment window. Hasn't she once seen a white gull carrying an absurd shape in its beak that turned out to be a banana? Concentrate on the music, an inner voice tells her, and she refastens her gaze on the Lark Quartet.

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Eva, Astrid, Jennifer, Anna. Cathryn had memorised their names from the programme before she handed it to Bea. Strong direct names, unlikely to be shortened. And the faces, as her eyes linger on each one, drinking in the features—do they find this unbearable?—the eyes of hundreds crawling over noses, eyes, jaws, hairlines—the features are strong too, as though there is an equal drinking in there, of the music made with four voices. Such fine brows, such expressive mobile mouths. And though they are watched, examined, every second under the stage lighting, such inward concentration on their instruments. Absurdly Cathryn thinks of a Plunket circle. Four beautiful aristocratic women who have each given birth to a genius and are so confident of their child's merit they are graciously enquiring about the other three.

Aaron Jay Kernis's quartet comes to an end, reminding Bea she has not concentrated properly or was that part of the composer's intention: to forgive? To allow that melody which we most admire is built from fragments of discord like dust sent flying into the air from a cleaned surface. That we no longer believe, Bea ponders, so we need to see the workings. That if we are honest at the end of a day we achieve a few seconds or minutes or quarter hours of real happiness? The lights come up, the quartet leave the stage, and Cathryn and Bea sit on in the blue velour seats.

Finally they get up and follow the slow procession for coffee. Bea feels she could do with a gin and tonic like the flat gin and tonic with her name on a slip of paper covering the rim at Wyndham's theatre. She and the actress she had gone with had flicked the slips of paper off and taken their gins to a vantage point, superior to those not in the know milling around. To be in the know is the great thing: to know something about Aaron Jay Kernis for instance but the programme only says born in 1960—.A fine pale face, somewhat long, Bea decides, with fingers that have not seen the sun. Owner of an apartment or a loft. A huge bare space where crowds assemble for a modern salon. The glasses they sip martinis from are shaped like filters. Or is it a brownstone with trash lying about and snow piled up? Is this where Alan Jay gets his inspiration, plodding with his page 63 head down, amid the garbage?

‘Didn't care much for that, I'll admit,’ a voice says in Cathryn's ear.

‘Bit of a curate's egg really. Still we always have to have something modern.’

‘I suppose it shows off their technique in a way.’

‘Be interesting to see what they do with Mozart.’

‘Can't stand Shostakovich, can you? Wish it was Borodin…one of the nice Russians.’

Cathryn and Bea return their cups to the servery and slink back down the steep steps to the blue seats like descending into a well.

But when Cathryn decides she is going to concentrate totally on Mozart, String Quartet in B flat, K589, it seems she can't. She closes her eyes and concentrates and all she can think of is wallpaper. Herself lying on top of a huge wardrobe papering a passageway in a little cob house in Lawrence. A crib was the word for it. A crib to which she had tried to bring a touch of House and Garden. Layers of wallpaper had come off, bubbled on the surface, smooth and professional underneath. It was like turning the pages of an old book: each paper darker, more sombre and formal, until the paper Cathryn had chosen: cream with a small forget-me-not pattern seemed frivolous. She had laughed as she lay on the wardrobe, imagining a guardian angel in a Chagall painting looking down: bright stars in a cerulean blue sky, the pointed roof, herself flattened on the wardrobe, the kitchen table with its rolls of paper and paste pot beyond. Oh why can't she concentrate?

Mozart is Cathryn's favourite composer. If the world ends tomorrow or lasts for another million years, if there are thousands of brilliant new composers, it will still be Mozart on the winner's podium with the gold medal around his neck. When Desmond leaves the house in the morning Cathryn rushes to put on K504 or K551, the Prague or the Jupiter. Then, while she cleans and wipes surfaces, she feels her soul being restored. It is not that Mozart is above agony, far from it: he catches at agony and drags it with him: he uses it to make the tempo urgent for who is so urgent as Mozart? Even Mozart's trills have agony in them, as if he is pressing on a sore spot, page 64 staunching the pain and the melody together.

But tonight Mozart himself seems weary. Is it the commission from the King of Prussia who wants to play the cello? Cathryn can imagine the King in a lemon frock coat and lace ruffs sitting in a little circlet of gold chairs, his royal elbow sawing at the cello and the sounds being drowned by flattering remarks. And Mozart knowing there would have to be rather a lot of the royal elbow, the royal sawbones. Mozart who is two years from his death, beginning again, as weary as Bea passing down the hallway and averting her eyes from Seth's bedroom door. She will not look but her nose twitches: the miasma of dead apples, mildewed sandwich crusts, bits of burger bun. There will be coke cans, incompletely drained, with possibly a moth or a fly at the bottom. Try to keep focused, she tells herself, as Mozart kept himself focused on the King.

So Bea focuses on the faces of the four women, whose faces seem to have become naked with so many people examining them. If it is only a desultorily good quartet, if Mozart himself despairs of it, their faces show nothing of this. The four faces wear an attentiveness that is more than musical. Perhaps they are historians too, students of costume and manners; they play as if they are looking down from a great height upon a tableau in which Mozart is dissolving in quicklime in his grave and the King is mopping his forehead with a silk handkerchief. The notes carry Mozart's distaste, his ache for the simplicity he is required to provide, the conversations between cello and first violin he despairs of, but eventually they carry something more. A triumph of spirit, Bea thinks, or immanent death. Or is it just that we all take what we have with us at any time and weave from it like the bower bird? Four beautiful foreheads beam back like beacons, making gold from straw.

Suddenly Bea wonders if they have chosen this quartet because they are women. Because they sympathise with Mozart's difficulties and ennui; that they are at home with the need to flatter, to overcome dominance by guile. That they are actually helping Mozart, strengthening him as a nurse strengthens a child. Acknowledging that Frederick William II wanted a large share on the cello, wanted it to dominate the first violin, then the second violin and viola in turn as if the other instruments were making a court visit. And that poor page 65 Mozart has had to make the King's bowing look agile and rapid while the notes remain depressingly ordinary. Only women could do this, Bea reflects, watching the four serene faces, faces that beam at a child's drawing, all holes and flat perspectives, giant flowers and stick legs. Not merely beam but act as if the child has brought home a beatitude.

Cathryn believes that melody, like a good moment, comes from its opposite: discord. There is discord, or searching, and then the melody appears like someone arriving at a door and throwing off a cape. Pressing the door bell, setting the shoulders, and calling ‘Darlings, I'm here.’ But the discord, or neutrality—like Mozart's neutrality and effort to rise above it in K589—is part of it. Only rarely does melody spring forth fully-fledged. Perhaps it might in a song? But it's not expected in a quartet. How moved Cathryn had been by Isambard Kingdom Brunel's bridge over the Thames with all its workings showing, girder added to girder, rivet to rivet. Gliding under it in the tourist barge she had hugged herself with pleasure. How I love you. Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. How I love seeing all the parts and how they make a whole. It is as well Cathryn has these thoughts when the Shostakovich begins.

Bea who did not mind the Mozart, finding its eventual panache uplifting, like a moral sampler, is now plunged into doubt. She is back in the Russian film of Hamlet where the stage becomes a great steppe. She barely remembers Hamlet's face—except that it is pale and fine-boned—but she sees again the wind disturbing something like chaff. And again this returns her to Seth. Only now his room is swept bare: apple cores, pizza crusts, squashed Cola cans are siphoned up into a deadly tornado. The walls are flattened to the ground, a net curtain dances like a ghost. And Seth seems to be staggering about, clutching himself as though he has suffered a stab wound. His inordinately long arms, accentuated by long sleeves and ruffles, are wound about his body. A terrible fear tightens Bea's chest. She thinks of the young men who die in battle and whose last cries echo their first: Mother, Mama, Maman. To calm herself she tries to locate the eerie sounds in the strings. Just above the bare board ground, about the height of a child's torso or an adult's knee. The height of page 66 unassuaged misery and clinging. What does it matter that Seth's room is a rococo mess?

Cathryn is thinking about Russian novels, half-forgotten but never entirely erased images of Pierre Bezuhov wandering about the battlefield in War and Peace or a family sitting outside a dacha with packed trunks. Vaguely she thinks of the rows of cots in Cancer Ward or a day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. There is a vast sweeping misery against which struggle is useless. Sonya Tolstoy leaps a small hedge as she runs towards Leo, keys clanking at her waist, but years of being amanuensis lead only to a dilapidated railway station, a grave covered by swirling leaves.

As the relentless and pure music fills her heart Cathryn thinks of her marriage and is frightened by what she foresees. The absences, the courtesy, the passionless habit, what are these intimations of? The dumb animal content of their sex life, like two creatures bundling and bumping together. Shall she be left holding a seagull or searching in the snow like Lara? Tears for herself run down Cathryn's cheeks. Desmond does not like string quartets, does not like what he calls the excessive strain of four players aping forty. If he were here, under protest, he would complain at the excessive expressions the four women are wearing. He would feel challenged by gleaming eyes, a unique identification with an instrument, almost an act of lovemaking. The cellist, he would say. Anyone would think it was a man. And the violins babies, mothers with offspring in their arms. And the viola? A beautiful cat, one that perches on a shoulder and purrs.

Suddenly Cathryn realises how much personality it takes to play a quartet, how each is an uncompromising soloist. Even each instrument is carefully chosen for individuality. Where has she read that the tone of the cello is dark and robust, chocolaty. And the second violin is not really ‘second’ at all but equal, only different, like two friends, herself and Bea. Each of them, at times, has dominated. There has been Bea's moment of triumph as the lead in a stage play, where Cathryn, who thought she knew her friend so well, saw her page 67 transformed, taken out of herself, so poised and confident under the spotlight. She had crept backstage with a posy of flowers and imagined, though the theatre was small and very badly served with dressing rooms, the scent of furs, a whiff of expensive perfume, the popping of champagne corks. Then Bea had sunk back, deliberately, modestly, into her daily life. Cathryn's moment had come when her book, Flower Presses and Pressed Flowers, was published and she had made an amusing speech about the morality of crushing flowers and preserving them inside books. Now she is thinking she will write something about the meaning of individual flowers, tying them to the books they are inserted in. It will be like someone ransacking a bookcase for banknotes.

We have taken turns, Cathryn reflects. Occasions when one or the other has sat at a kitchen table—in Bea's case the corner of a kitchen table—hands wrapped around a coffee mug, listening to the explication of a bad patch. Why shouldn't the instruments in a quartet be allowed a bad patch, to offer those soothing monosyllables that affirm, one to the other, before being called on for an opinion. How strong and masculine a statement might come from a cello. Or the excitable banter of two equally-talented friends die into accord. How useful the differentiating viola.

When the Shostakovich comes to an end Cathryn claps until her palms hurt. She claps for the driving brilliance of the final Allegro, for the glorious spectacle of four souls, bowing arms, instruments united, but most of all for the triumph of melody. She has seen it created in front of her eyes, the labour it requires, the steadfast hopeful heart. As the bows of violinists and violist rise towards the heavens Cathryn imagines she sees generations of life to come. She turns to Bea and their heads lean together.

‘Wonderful,’ breathes Cathryn.

‘Wonderful,’ Bea agrees.

Four beautiful brows with their instruments held like trophies—except for the cello which looks as if it is going to do a twirl—bow in unison and then the faces are raised as if they have skimmed through water. Cathryn examines the shoes protruding from skirts and trousers and finds they too are individual. Then the Lark Quartet page 68 turns and goes through the curtain. There is a last glorious flash of gold, red and silver cummerbund, a poise of the nape of the neck that is heartstopping and they are gone.

Bea and Cathryn have clapped until their hands ache. Three times the Lark Quartet has returned as though pulled back on strings, bowed and skipped off. Finally they turn and smile at each other conspiratorially and grant an encore. Neither Bea nor Cathryn hear what this encore is because it is announced from the stage and next day's paper does not mention it, going on instead about how The Larks miss their families and whether they have large phone bills. But this encore is as full of dance and harmony as all three quartets combined. It is perfume extracted from a field of flowers.

Bea and Cathryn cross the street in the rain, searching for a cup of coffee. The shutters of the Pizzeria Napolitana are up and the lamp over the door glows forlornly. Bea remembers a converted bank whose ground floor is a chemist shop. Soon they are seated at a gingham table with a Vat 69 bottle and ossified candle with two espressos and two wedges of Black Forest gateau.

‘Was it a good performance, do you think?’ Bea asks, stirring sugar crystals into coffee. ‘I mean a good performance is unavoidable but was there something extra tonight?’

Remembering the four triumphant faces, the joyous congratulatory looks, Cathryn thinks there was. After all why should a superb performance not occur in a provincial town? ‘It could be accidental,’ she says, looking out the dark window at glistening streets, a few neons desultorily flashing. ‘In the lap of the gods, I mean.’

‘Or a good dinner, a better than expected hotel, a shorter journey between towns than anticipated.’ How did the Larks travel, come to think of it?

‘Not the good dinner,’ Cathryn responds, stabbing a large piece of Black Forest and conveying it to her mouth with a bowing arm. ‘They always eat after.’

Cathryn imagines a late supper in a hotel room, a trolley with silver dishes, a waiter with an ice bucket. Bea who has a low opinion of provincial sophistication sees the Larks opening the miniature page 69 bottles in their mini-fridges and slicing a loaf into jagged door-stoppers.

‘Surely a performance like tonight's must make eating seem rather irrelevant?’

‘I doubt it,’ Bea replies, stealing a corner of her friend's cake. ‘They are probably as hungry as horses.’

‘Do you think they go to different hotels? I've read some quartets like to.’

‘Where would they go? The Regent or the Hyatt? Perhaps they might in a proper city.’

‘One or two of the hotels are not bad,’ says Cathryn defensively.

‘No, it's a cold night. I see them huddling together.’

Bea spears the last piece of Black Forest and thinks how difficult it is to retain one's personality. She could sense the Larks struggling: their superb instruments, the music, themselves. Like falling overboard from a beautiful mahogany-fitted yacht and swimming around it with beautifully executed strokes.

‘One of the Larks, the married one, has very high phone bills,’ Bea says.

‘And the others probably phone their families or partners.’ Cathryn cannot bear to think of the Larks not being equal.

‘We should have waited by the stage door and thanked them.’

‘We could have invited them to autograph our programme.’

‘Or invited them home.’ But Bea's voice falters. There is not only Seth's room but Seth himself. Probably at this moment the house is rocking to Def Leppard or Motorhead.

‘Welcome to the Hotel California,’ Bea imagines herself saying as she and Cathryn huddle against the stage door. Beds of flax are snapping in the wind and their umbrellas attempt to fly. Then, naturally they are walking in single file along the wet street. Cathryn will offer to carry Astrid's cello and be gently rebuffed; she will hold her umbrella over it instead. ‘Don't worry,’ Astrid says. ‘My cello is well-protected.’

Up the stairs to the dark little coffee shop with its ornate plaster ceiling and dark panelling. Bea carries plate after plate of Black Forest gateau and asks for bottomless cups of coffee. ‘Make mine latte,’ says Jennifer.

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Then what will they talk about? ‘Do your instruments have names?’

‘When did you first meet?’ ‘Here,’ says Eva, thrusting the programme under Bea's nose. ‘It's all in here.’

Bea shakes herself awake and watches the rain trickling down the glass, the pedestrian crossing globe reflecting in a puddle.

‘More coffee, more cake?’ she asks her friend.

‘I couldn't,’ says Cathryn. ‘After the music I feel full anyway.’

They walk to the parking lot together, heads bowed under their umbrellas. Bea bows lower than usual, imitating the radiant Anna. But Cathryn, unfurling hers and lifting her face to the rain as she fumbles with the key, is a lark ascending.