Scrubwork

A woman is pictured scrubbing the Underground track in 1944 (British Pathe—dailymail.co.uk)

My piano teacher Stefanie calls it “scrubwork:” taking difficult, troublesome passages and meticulously taking them apart to see what you have not seen before that is creating the problem. I am at this stage now with all four new pieces. With the Bach, Beethoven, and even the Rachmaninoff, it is often just a matter of fingering (still)—working and re-working the fingering in measures that stop the “flow” so that they can be brought up to speed. With the Golec and, perhaps surprisingly, Beethoven, and, OK, at times Rachmaninoff and even Bach, it is my old bugaboo–rhythm.

Yes, it’s true, as Stefanie has told me, that one only needs to count to four (and multiples of four), but this is surprisingly difficult with slow, uneven passages. For instance, in Golec’s Toccata, written this century, there come passages like this, counted out in 6/4 time (quarter note gets a beat; six beats to the measure):

play and hold and two and play (three) play (and) hold and four and five play hold and six and

given that each of the plays is on a different octave or five-fingered chord in separate hands, it takes some scrubwork, for sure, to make the rhythm automatic—to get it into one’s ear where it will hopefully hold. And then to get those passages up to the same overall tempo (eventually 120 quarter notes a minute) as the rest of the piece, much of which is six sixteenths a measure, is the next task.

It is also the time in the process when I am tentatively trying out memory in the Bach and Beethoven, which just about have to be memorized for the scholarship auditions. I take it a few measures at a time, adding to whatever aural and finger memory are already there, the clincher: the cognitive realization  that here, where I’m having trouble, it’s a jump to a D, and there, it’s a shift to a C.  For me, all three kinds of memory have to be soundly in place for me to attempt performing.  (I will not be memorizing the pieces for the recital—I have talked about why in a previous post.)

Scrubwork. Satisfying. It’s work and it usually produces immediate results.  I remember Barbra Streisand saying, long ago, how much satisfaction she got from scrubbing out her pantry. It’s similar.

Scrubwork also applies to poetry revision.  I have been involved in the last several days re-working a poem from broken line form to “letter” form for a specific journal seeking “letters” about “protest.” My original poem, rejected several times, is called “Protesting ca.2012” and is about an American’s following from behind her screen the protests and resulting imprisonments of the members of Pussy Riot Punk Band.  I have never been completely satisfied with it (too one-dimensional, as poems about protest can be). But over the period of several days, changing to the letter form, the whole meaning has changed and, I hope, become more complex. Now it is a letter to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Aleyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich from a shape-shifting Black Madonna, Kali, and Tituba (American slave hung as a witch in Salem), responding to statements by Pussy Riot calling on the Virgin Mary to “be a feminist” and accusing Americans of being too comfortable in their ways of protesting.  Complete with illustrations, I think it now works, at least for me, having more layers and more shades of meaning. We’ll see whether the editors agree.

Meanwhile, as reported in Al-Monitor, The Pulse of the Middle East, “Iraqi Poets [Are] en route to Baghdad.” Omar Al-Jaffar writes:

                On Oct. 11, three poets from Karbala province will initiate the “Iraqi Poets’ Anti-Violence Convoy,” which will take off from the southern province of Basra and cross through nine other provinces. Members of the convoy will recite poetry in public squares near historic landmarks. According to the organizers of the convoy, the initiative aims to help eliminate the rampant violence in the country.

                Iraqi activists are constantly working to hold cultural and civil events to promote peaceful coexistence between groups and encourage the culture of moderation instead of the hard-line religious tone that has resounded in Iraqi cities.

                “The idea came about while we, a group of poets who believe in life, were thinking about the need for coexistence and tolerance in Iraq. This initiative aims to turn Iraq into a country of peace and diversity, where people are treated as beings with sacred value who must be preserved and safeguarded against all forms of violence,” Nabil Nehme al-Jabiri, a member of the preparatory committee of the anti-violence convoy, told Al-Monitor.

                “The convoy will carry a significant humanitarian message, whose motto is: no to violence,” he said.

                “Participants will recite poetry in public squares and in front of passersby but will not perform in halls. They will make poetry come alive, as poetry is first and foremost a way of being. Therefore, intellectuals would play their role as people who interact with their surroundings,” Jabiri continued.

                Since the beginning of the year, Iraq has experienced a sharp rise in the level of violence, which was further exacerbated when the Islamic State (IS) captured entire cities and provinces in a campaign that started on June 10. This has led to the aggravation of the security situation and an increase in killings, which amounted to 12,976 as of October.

                Jabiri said, “We posted the event on Facebook and the convoy soon turned into a global project.” He said they received “solidarity statements from cultural and intellectual figures and institutions from Europe and the Arab world.”

                The European Culture Forum in Belgium expressed solidarity with the anti-violence convoy and declared that it would start a similar activity at the same time, bearing the same name and motto. Moreover, the Iraqi Cultural Center in Tunisia, in addition to groups of Tunisian journalists and literary salons in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, showed solidarity with the convoy, according to the organizers.

                “The rampant violence in the world has turned into a phenomenon with well-defined features, which necessitates a counterculture. It is our responsibility to take to the street and take on our role to build a society free of violence and extremism. The convoy started with poetry, but it will end up affecting individuals and be part of their life. We hope we can bring about a change through the words of love and sincere behavior,” Jabiri said.

                Hussein al-Qassed, a poet, academic and member of the Central Council of the Iraqi National Writers Union, said, “The convoy will carry a message of love for everyone and is open for anyone to join in all Iraqi cities. It will take off on Oct. 11 near the statue of Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and will travel across the cities of Nasiriyah, Samawah, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Karbala, Hillah and finally Baghdad on Oct. 17.”

                Qassed told Al-Monitor, “The anti-violence convoy was an initiative based on personal efforts and is not affiliated with any political or cultural party.”

I have quoted a significant part of this story (which came to me via a link on Twitter) in hopes that you will read all of it. It brings a different kind of meaning to the “protest” of art. Compared to Pussy Riot, which has taken a (perhaps necessary) aggressive and confrontational approach to protesting the tyranny of Vladimir Putin, Jabiri and his like are taking a different approach, trusting poetry’s tolerance for inclusiveness and ambiguity to counter the rhetoric of hard-line religious extremists.

I think of Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass (s. 51):

 Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

 I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

And W.B. Yeats, who wrote in The Celtic Twilight around the turn of the 20th century:

We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images. And so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even fiercer life because of our quiet.

Of course, Jabiri’s approach reminds me also of Mahatmas Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. I read recently that the recent protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, can be divided into two groups: those who use the approach of civil disobedience, learned and practiced in the 1960s in America, and those who believe that modern times demand more aggressive tactics.

Who is an artist? What kind of scrubwork is required for art to come to fruition? How beneficial is its performance? And in what ways?

I woke at 6 a.m. this morning, my mind full of these thoughts and connections. Today I go to my piano lesson, see a doctor, run an errand for a friend, watch a baseball game.

Somewhere inbetween I will do interval work on the stationary bike to scrub out my clogged arteries:  starting at 92 beats per minute, I work my heart up to 140 or so (my limit) and then back, and forth, and back again.

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