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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Shostakovich and kaleidoscopes

During the night, I was awakened, as I often am, by dream images. Somewhere in the reaches of my brain, I think I try to work out the proverbial “meaning of life“in these pre-dawn interruptions. At the forefront was a memory of Shostakovich that would not let me go.

Shostakovich holds a special place in my heart after first being introduced to his symphonies in orchestra. After years of the regularity of Souza marches in fall band and beautiful, soulful but predictable symphonic pieces the rest of the year, one day our orchestra tackled our first Shostakovich piece.

There were collective groans as we struggled through the cacophony and odd rhythms of his work. It was difficult and unsettling and, honestly, not very appealing to my young ears. And yet I loved it. I loved its wildness and unpredictability.

Fast forward to playing bass in a Colorado country rock band where most of my nights were spent inside a drummer’s country two step beat. The songs had a cadence designed to get your feet moving, and the dancers swirled and dipped as one entity around the dance floor. The songs were in happy keys that invited you to the party and encouraged you to ask for one more drink. The music was rhythmic and predictable.

As I think back on those extremes, I have always felt like the world around me is engaged in a continuous two step.

And I feel like I live in the middle of a Shostakovich symphony.

Nothing rests easy on the ears with Shostakovich. No matter how carefully anyone listens, anticipating where the next chord will be is impossible because the chord structures often seem strident and unfamiliar. The time signatures seem arbitrary and capricious. The keys fluctuate like the tides though without predictability. It is hard to breathe in the middle of that cacophony.

And yet, it is where I am most drawn and most comfortable.

Chaos, uncertainty, discomfort, brokenness, jagged edges, irregularity, unpredictability… peace…home. Those words to not seem to go together very well. And yet, like the kaleidoscopes of our youth, all those irregular pieces with their random riot of color trapped within a small lens does create an odd beauty.

This world IS like that Shostakovich symphony these days, and maybe since the dawn of man. All these jagged pieces…all this brokenness, all these strident notes fighting for attention.

But here’s the deal. Those notes are still confined to a musical staff. No matter how chaotic they may sound to me, or anyone for that matter, there is a time signature that determines its pace, and sharps and flats that dictate its direction.

Perhaps the chaos and uncertainty hold no sway anymore because in this desert landscape I have become trained to see the Staff that grounds the notes. Regardless of the capriciousness of human behavior, in the early dawn, the sunrise that takes my breath away becomes the clef, and the awakening birds become the notes that fill the measures at the direction of the ultimate Composer. I am not needed in the creation of this symphony. I am simply along for the ride.

And this brings great freedom.

So the notes swirl and change, moments come and go, humans do what humans do, and there are no surprises. The changing patterns, like those in a kaleidoscope, are beautiful but transitory.

,And Shostakovich is only one of thousands of lenses through which to view the world.

Today, and every day, I just watch from the outside of the chaos as the dark disappears and new light announces itself over the shadows of the mountains. No matter what this day will hold, I listen for the direction of the Composer as the new score is written in this moment.

And I am at peace,

and I am at home.

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Mary Dessein
Mary Dessein

You insight and articulation, Char. I will be reading this a few more times. Merci bien~



"Perhaps the chaos and uncertainty hold no sway anymore because in this desert landscape I have become trained to see the Staff that grounds the notes." I love this.

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