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Lera Auerbach
Hermitdom (fluctuating between loneliness and solitude)
Lost in the labyrinth of words and sounds.
Interests: poetry, prose, poetry., music composition, piano performances
Recent Activity
Ink on Paper by Lera Auerbach I walked around the house in search of chocolate. (There must be some chocolate somewhere, right?) No, I don’t think it’s a sweet tooth craving, I just have an excess of dissonances today. Chocolate makes dissonances resolve. (Or it doesn’t.) Regardless, somehow, you feel better. (Or you don’t.) Oh well, At least, you’ve tried. Continue reading
Posted 2 hours ago at The Best American Poetry
Watercolor on Paper by Lera Auerbach I am looking at the world globe with my father. He points and says: “This is where you are.” “What do you mean? I am here with you,” I respond, not understanding. Father laughs: “You are here, but you are also there.” “You mean there is a tiny copy of me who lives there?” “No, I mean here is there.” That did not make any sense, so I never learned geography. Continue reading
Posted 7 days ago at The Best American Poetry
Photo Credit: Lera Auerbach (1) At times like this, I feel sorry for postal workers. It must be very stressful to be one. To always have to sort things out while thinking of viruses. One can easily distinguish a postal worker who thinks of viruses from the one who doesn't. Those who think wear gloves and masks. But most of them do not; most of them are young and careless. At the beginning of the pandemic, an entire hotel in China that was converted into a hospital for coronavirus patients had collapsed suddenly, killing everyone inside. How does a building suddenly collapse? How does a human being? What is the breaking point? What is that something, usually insignificant in itself, that makes all the difference between life and death? I think of Sylvia Plath. How she returned to her dirty home (her housekeeper left), overwhelmed by unhappiness, with her two small children always in need of her care. If she had returned to a spotlessly clean and welcoming house instead of a messy one full of dirty dishes and laundry, would she still have killed herself? Perhaps, but maybe not then. Maybe the breaking point would still hold a while longer. (2) Last year there was a postal worker who was overwhelmed by his responsibilities of daily deliveries of packages. He just had too many parcels to deliver to too many houses and not enough time allotted to do so. Even if he worked past his hours, he still could not manage all deliveries and be often scolded by his superiors for the delays. At first, he kept undelivered packages in the trunk of his car in hopes of delivering them the next day, but the next day he would have a new bunch of boxes, and soon the trunk of his car was too full. After a while, he gave up on the idea of being able to deliver everything, so he left all packages he could not deliver in a shed next to his house. He hoped to deliver them one day when his daily load would be lighter, but such a day never came. After a while, the shed was full of packages, and he had to keep the new ones in the garage. He never opened the boxes. In his mind, he never stole them, he just kept them for better delivery times. It was not his fault that better times were slow in coming. Nobody appreciated any of his past accomplishments (for he did make numerous safe and timely deliveries) when police discovered his shed and his garage full of packages belonging to other people. He tried to argue that the packages didn't belong to anyone – they were still in transit on the way to their final destination, but some of them were in transit for over a year and, after all that time, were considered missing in action like lost soldiers. (3) Sometimes my poor head makes me feel like the trunk of... Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
In Vienna, they have same-sex pedestrian traffic lights. Typically, traffic lights are sexist: they display a matchstick figure of a man that turns green or red and sometimes flashes nervously, trying to speed up pedestrians so that cars can start driving. In Vienna, they replaced the matchstick man with two matchstick figures holding hands. No, I mean touching hands since matchstick figures have no fingers. In some Viennese traffic lights, instead of a matchstick man, there is a matchstick woman figure. No curves, but a triangle of a dress. Instead of a flashing man, there is a flashing triangle of a woman or, even better, two women touching hands. Gay traffic lights appear only in the center of the most touristy areas. "Such a progressive city," I thought. "No," my Viennese friend Verena objected. "They are more intolerant than most; they just hide it better." My apartment in Vienna remains empty throughout the pandemic, and sometimes I imagine that a part of me lives there, but then I remember about the lockdowns and quarantines and feel gratitude for spending the pandemic away from any large cities – in the Middle of Nowhere, surrounded by nature. With the flights cancelled, cars parked, restaurants closed, and theatres and concert halls paused in a year-long fermata, the traffic lights in Vienna remain working, touching invisible fingers of the matchstick figures made of lights and reminding us that human touch may still be possible again one day and isolation will not last forever. Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Inner Voices – Oil on Canvas by Lera Auerbach (1.) I think of the mountain from Rafael's childhood. Once upon a time, there lived a woman. Her name was Soledad. Nobody lives on that mountain now. Nobody is left who remembers Soledad, only Stella (Rafael's mother) and Rafael. She's also in my memory. And if you are reading this, she's now in your memory, too. You may forget about Soledad as soon as you finish reading this. Or, perhaps, I may make her a bit more memorable or bring her name again later, so if you forget her now, you will remember when you see her name later on. Soledad was 82 years old when she died. The house, high in the mountains, had no electricity, and each morning, she would milk cows and look around for snakes. Snakes loved the sun and would come out to lie on the stones. Some of the snakes were poisonous, but they only bite if frightened. Nobody knows how Soledad appeared and from where she came. She was always living with Rafael's family, although she was not related to any of them. Soledad never married. Every night she would make bread in the oven, enough for the whole family. She would drink coffee all day long, and her hands smelled of coffee, bread, and milk. When we moved to our house in Florida, Rafael bought a machete to protect against the snakes. He never used it, and the machete was lost, just as so many things tend to get lost and never found again. (Where do all these lost things go?) (2) Before coming to the Mayo Clinic, I was preparing to perform my 'Arctica' with the Oslo Philharmonic. In my hotel room in Rochester, I had a piano, and after long days of tests and doctor's consultations, I would return and practice for the upcoming concert. Very few people knew I was at the Mayo Clinic. One of them was Enric Sala. Enric is an explorer with National Geographic and my partner in the "Arctica" project. Enric encouraged me to put my health first and not to postpone the surgery. I don't know if I would have the strength to cancel my performance in Oslo without Enric's support and perspective. Fortunately, the presenters found another pianist who was able to learn the solo part in time. The performance in Oslo went on as scheduled. I felt like the captain who abandoned the ship, yet the ship miraculously sailed on, while the captain was left alone on the reefs, bruised and confused. Each day in the hospital, some part of me was in Oslo, rehearsing with the choir, rehearsing with the orchestra, practicing alone. Another part of me was back in the Arctic, listening to its silence (which is never silent) and trying to grasp the enormity of its solitude. Arctica – the fragile giant, the North of the North. Only a small part of me, the least real one, was in the... Continue reading
Posted Apr 9, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Home © Lera Auerbach, Oil on Canvas (1) The doctors warned me that I might get depressed after the surgery. Before the surgery, my tumor was producing five times more cortisol than normal. After the surgery, it would take months before my remaining adrenal gland would start producing enough cortisol. In between, I will feel tired and low even though I will be taking hydrocortisone pills. Ideally, I will be able to taper them off slowly, reducing the dose every week. "It will be a long and tiring process," the doctors assured me. "I felt tired and depressed before the surgery so that it will be nothing new," I tried to reassure my doctors. "Yes, but before, you felt tired and depressed because you had too much. After, you will feel so because you don't have enough. It's very different," the doctors seemed concerned. The doctors seemed tired. And somewhat depressed. But they were also excited because they would get to cut my tumor off. And cutting tumors is exciting and admirable. And then one gets to experiment with those tumors once they are cut and out. No patient asks for a tumor back or expresses the wish to keep it for a souvenir in formaldehyde on a shelf in a library or on a bedside table. So, the doctors get to play with other people's tumors and write papers about their findings. (2) My clock lost its hands and could no longer tell time. "It's okay," I reassured doctors. "I understand the complications." "You may no longer feel like yourself," the doctors continued. "I'm not sure if I feel like myself now before the surgery," I said. It was true. I could not tell if I felt on top of the world, or downright miserable, or even if it mattered at all how I felt. I no longer knew. After the surgery, I discovered that my tumor was made of fear. That's why it was producing so much cortisol: the fight-or-flight hormone. Now, while the remaining adrenal gland is still half-asleep, I seem not to feel fear. No, I don't feel particularly brave, but rather… indifferent. Fears are hopes in disguise. Have I lost hopes too? (3) One of the scars on my belly is bigger than the others. Sometimes, I dream it becomes unglued, my belly opens up, and my insides start falling out for everyone to see. Last night I dreamt I was having surgery, but the surgeon kept forgetting what kind of surgery it was and kept waking me up to ask over and over again. He was also not sure if he had my name right. Drugged by anesthetics, I kept misspelling my name until I, too, was doubting if I was the right patient. (4) It is now two weeks and three days since my surgery, and I can no longer see the surgeon's initials marked on my belly next to the four scars. Strangely, I miss them. The scars also look different. The... Continue reading
Posted Apr 2, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Suite del Ocells © Lera Auerbach (1) At first, the days were numbered. They were numbered before the surgery and then after. Going under is a bit like dying, but you know you will wake and that you are not entirely alone in this. You welcome the temporary oblivion that anesthesiology provides. What if we knew for certain that reincarnation is real? Would it change our fear of dying? The days after surgery are marked by progress, life stripped to its essentials. The body learns how to function again, how to adapt, and you are just grateful for any sleep you can get. You long for things to return to normal, or at least their appearance, even though you suspect that the new normal and the old may never be reconciled. The news from Europe and Asia is full of numbers and statistics: the new virus ravaging through China has made its way to Europe. I don't turn on the TV in my hospital room. Instead, I open the All Good Things book on my Kindle. I enlarge each painting or drawing and drown in each image, appreciating its beauty. The book is a personal anthology created by Stephen Ellcock – one of the very few people I follow on social media. (Every day Stephen posts images that speak volumes; images that reassure me that not everything is dismal and there is beauty hidden in the open, just waiting for someone to give it form.) (2) Today is the 24th of February 2020. As I write this, I feel the longing for the present moment – this moment in time. Last week, I was in the hospital at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. It was snowing, and February felt as cold as the Februaries of my childhood in Chelyabinsk. I remember waking up in intensive care after the surgery. The pain was overwhelming. If I have to endure this pain all my life, I would rather die, I thought. There were two men in intensive care in hospital beds like me and some shadowy nurses. I couldn't see them clearly: everything doubled in my eyes and made me feel nauseous. One of the men was moaning. The other was interrogated by doctors or nurses who kept on asking him if he had ever had a heart attack. They just kept on repeating the same questions, but the man didn't seem to understand them. Or did I dream this up? When I woke up, nobody was next to me. For a moment, I thought I had already died and this combination of pain, nausea, loneliness, and moaning was hell or purgatory, or whatever is waiting for us in the forever beyond. I drifted in and out. Then there was a nurse next to me. She kept on repeating the same question over and over again, "Can you rate the level of your pain on the scale from one to ten?" At first, I could not understand what she was saying. How... Continue reading
Posted Mar 26, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
© Lera Auerbach Something peculiar occurred on the night of October 13th, 2020: my personal Facebook page disappeared. It was abruptly deleted by Facebook with the warning that this action was permanent and irreversible. I have used Facebook since 2008. During these years, I have never received any warnings or suspensions. I am not involved and do not comment on political matters. Mostly, I use Facebook to share my art, poetry, and music. So, I was at a loss as to why my page was removed. The explanation I was given is that, according to FB, I was impersonating a public figure. In other words, I was accused of impersonating myself. Before killing my page, Facebook asked for proof of my identity. I uploaded a copy of my driver's license, and a few seconds later, I was informed that my account was permanently closed, and I was irrevocably banned from Facebook. I maintained two pages: a personal page with 5000 friends and a professional Artist-page with around 25,000 followers. While my personal page disappeared, my fan page remained frozen in time, with the last post on October 12th, as my connection to the fan page was removed together with my personal account, which administered it. I had no way of accessing or posting on my fan page even though it was still published. I felt a strange emptiness as if some part of me died with my page. I never considered myself addicted to Facebook, although addicts rarely admit their addiction. Yet, I probably spent far more time on FB than I should have, never realizing the extent that FB had become embedded in my life. I am a private and introverted person by nature. On my FB page, in the short description about myself, I wrote, “Hermit in search of a hermitage.” As a concert pianist and conductor, I enjoy performing in large halls, leading hundreds of people in an orchestra, and facing 3000-plus people in the audience. I love the magic of being on the stage, but behind the spotlights, I am a hermit, at least as much as my profession allows it. I'm shy. I don't speak much – unless it is a public speech. I don't go to parties, and I'm terrible at small talk. Strange as it may seem, when I'm not on tour, I can spend weeks without ever talking on the phone. Over the last few years, I use email less and less. Facebook became my primary connection to the world; its messenger replacing email and phone. Yet, Facebook also became an overbearing presence continually feeding information, acting as Orwell's Big Brother – predicting my likes and dislikes with frightening insightfulness, bringing to my attention offers that would feed not my needs but my desires and, yes, seeping away my time and concentration. Often FB’s feed would appear with precise knowledge of my most recent conversations, thus giving an uncomfortable sense of being spied on and analyzed by something or someone on the... Continue reading
Posted Mar 19, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Photo by Lera Auerbach (1) The problem with the future is that it is unforeseeable – the great unknown is full of opportunities for dreadful disasters. Their multitudes are inexhaustible. The stars are the pores of our reality. They shine because that’s how we see the light of another world. The Arctic fox dances its foxy dance, pretending to be a woman, pretending to be a nurse. The seal waits underwater. It knows it is being hunted. The stars are not the pores; they are pills, round white pills the woman-fox is giving me. Pills for pain, pills for sleep, pills for blood pressure, pills for muscle aches, pills for adrenal gland function, pills for inflammation or rather against inflammation, pills for/against nausea. And steroids. And more pills for pain. Killers of pain. (How many universes did I swallow today?) (2) Everyone is very kind to me. So kind, it breaks my heart. Everyone is doing their best. Or his or her best. I feel generous with the pronouns. I think pronouns are so yesterday. So are all nationalities, religions, sexes, and any other boxes of definitions, including self-definitions. If everyone were so kind, there would be no need for any of these limiting concepts. I understand how beautiful it would be, how connective, how whole and wholesome, and it breaks my heart that it is not yet universally so. I cry from the unbearable weight of my love that I cannot express. My husband, concerned, asks if I’m in pain. “No, on the contrary,” I try to explain what I feel. “I understand what it means to be ‘we.’ I am the seal; I am the fish it ate; I’m the polar bear waiting for the seal to breathe; I’m the polar bear hunter, waiting for the polar bear to strike the seal. I’m the polar bear hunter’s mother, wishing to feed the polar bear so that the bear could feed her son one day; I am the polar bear hunter’s girlfriend, enjoying the safety of the aroma of the Lancôme perfume. I am the surgeon searching for the patient who has his initials drawn on her belly. I am the patient praying to be her surgeon’s masterpiece.” (“You are on drugs. It’s the painkillers,” says my husband.) (3) Where do all lost things go? Perhaps, lost things are dislocated not in space but in time. It is why something may disappear and then later appear right in front of your eyes – where you have already looked for it and more than once. Instead of moving in space, they fall into the holes in the fabric of time. Because time is made of porous material and things may fall through. Sometimes things reappear, moved back by some internal tides; at other times, they disappear without a trace, and new strange things appear instead. It is hard to hold on to your belongings when they keep falling through the porous realities of time and space. It’s quite difficult, especially... Continue reading
Posted Feb 26, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
"Opening" by Lera Auerbach The Absence of Trees You know you're getting closer to the North when trees disappear. The world without trees. At first, you don't notice that the trees are missing. Then you feel the absence of something important, but you are not sure what it is. By the time you understand that the trees are gone, you are too far North to turn around. (After a while, there is no way back.) Unborn Music In the Arctic they say – this world is porous, that's why there are Auroras in the sky. You can glimpse the light of the other worlds through the tiny holes in the material of our world. Shamans can travel through different worlds in search for answers. They fly through the pores and find their way back. Sometimes such flights are not possible, thus many questions still remain unanswered. A dermatology-inclined friend explained to me once – when a pore is clogged, nothing can go in or out until it explodes. At times, I feel like a blocked pore that needs an explosion. (My cat gently examines the strings of the piano as if sniffing unborn music.) An Opening to Breath I need an opening to breathe. Is that what writing is – the making of an opening? Far in the Arctic, a polar bear can wait for hours and hours next to the breathing hole made in ice by a seal. A seal needs to breathe. Sooner or later, it will come to the surface to gulp air. That's when a polar bear, if quick and attentive, can kill the seal. That's when a polar bear hunter can kill the polar bear who is hunting the seal, because you cannot see white on white. They say in the Arctic, “If you see a polar bear, it's the very last thing you will ever see.” (There are no cats in Svalbard.) Quiet Chuckle A book can only lead to another book – a trail of steps in the snow: reassuring but disappearing before your eyes. Why do we voluntarily subject ourselves to harsh conditions? Why? I gave my Arctic friend Gaya a fancy perfume bottle from Lancôme. "This is so perfect," she beamed. "Polar bears hate French perfume." (Her boyfriend, an Inuit, a polar bear hunter, only chuckled.) Trail of Breadcrumbs If I cannot weave a protective blanket of words, I could at least leave some breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs could be useful. Not as useful as a hot meal in good company.But still. Breadcrumbs can help you find your way back. That is if you can turn around. If not, breadcrumbs could feed your followers. Maybe your followers could rescue you one day. They could also drown you or feed you to the polar bears. (But one shouldn't assume a pessimistic view.) What’s Not Allowed in Svalbard The reason why no cats are allowed in Svalbard is, perhaps, because cats have nine lives. Before you come to Svalbard, you sign an entry form. Many... Continue reading
Posted Feb 18, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Leitmotifs Photo by Lera Auerbach At the Marlboro Music Festival, returning home at night – my door was covered by moths. I opened the door quickly as not to let them in, but at least twenty managed to fly in – into the light of the dining room's lamp. Today I found them dead all around the entrance, dried angels, almost transparent in their fragile death with the powder – angel's dust – still on their wings. I think of them while listening to Chopin's mazurkas – so fragile, so transparent, immortal in their captured beauty. I gently lift the dead bodies of white&gray moths from the floor – sliding them into an old glass jar. There they shall rest. They look alive. Most have their wings open, as if in flight. My fingers are covered with the powder from the wings. Their silence is music too. When I wake up tomorrow morning – they shall still be here, under the glass, frozen in their death, as in a dream hearing the music only they can hear. Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Arctic Dreams - Photo Credit: Lera Auerbach (1) I learned that a friend of mine was going through a tough time. His mother died, and he had debilitating neck pain. He needed to write the obituary and arrange for the funeral. His mother had dementia. Was he able to say goodbye? I did not ask. I don't know which scale would measure grief. Such a scale doesn't exist. Physical pain is easier to manage. If it is yours. Because at some point, the pain stops defining you. Grief buried deeper, so deep it can't be torn away, it becomes you. In the Arctic, old babushkas, when they become unable to take care of themselves, hope to be killed by a polar bear. When they become too ill and weak, they look for the bear to eat them. I asked why. Being devoured by a wild animal didn't seem to me like an attractive way to finish life. "The bear will be nourished by eating me," explained an old Inuit woman. "The bear will become strong and fat. Then one day, my son will kill that bear. My son and his family will eat the bear's meat, make healing mixes from its fat, and make trousers from its fur. Thus, through the polar bear, I will nourish my son and keep him warm, even past my life, even past my death." Post mortem motherly care. (2) A few years ago, I travelled to Greenland and stayed in Nuuk in the apartment of a polar bear hunter. A polar bear hunter's home looked like an IKEA house made by children constructors of adult sizing. Everything was modern, functional and perfectly unremarkable. A photograph on the wall showed a polar bear (or rather its fur) covered in blood, soaking in a bathtub. I realized it was the same bathtub in which I had showered that morning. It had rubber ducklings as lucky ornaments. Perfectly, chillingly, unremarkable bathtub. (3) "I wish I could make a blanket of protective words to shield you," I wrote to my friend, whose mother died after suffering dementia for several years. “A protective blanket of words” could be a definition of poetry. “Could be” because, like everything else, it rejects any definitions. Poetry is no different than spell-making or alchemy. As if words could make a difference. As if anything could still make any difference. In the world gone mad with apocalyptic craziness and fear, can words remain protective talismans? (4) Bears in the Arctic are suffering from global warming. They're skinny and weak; they couldn't kill even old babushkas on their suicide mission. If I could stitch a protective blanket of words, I would make one for the polar bears, another one for the suicidal babushkas on their mission to feed the polar bears, and the third one for the polar bear hunters. I would then make a gigantic frozen quilt for the Arctic to protect it from climate change and even a bigger blanket for the entire... Continue reading
Posted Jan 10, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Untitled - Ink on Handmade Paper by Lera Auerbach 1. When I think of my Great Aunt Rosa, I hear her laughter – deep chuckles rising from the belly of the Earth and exploding like an uncontrollable volcano. My earliest recollection of Great Aunt Rosa goes back to the time in my life when crawling seemed easier than walking, and every situation had a fantastic array of discoveries. Aunt Rosa was a gigantic mountain that captivated my mom's attention entirely. I was free to crawl around on my own to my total satisfaction. I had a small, plastic red fox. From time to time, I heard volcanic explosions of Aunt Rosa's laughter and thought that a tiny fox may not fully comprehend these sounds and feel scared. Remembering from one of the fairytales that foxes liked hiding in dark spaces (or in pretty wooden huts they would steal from the less intelligent animals), I looked around for a hiding place for my fox. I found it in Aunt Rosa's shoe, which was perfectly designed to be a home for a small plastic fox, combining the best qualities of a foxhole and fox-hut. I must have fallen asleep somewhere next to the shoe rack. My parents carried me to the apartment of my mother's sister, Natasha, where we stayed during our Moscow visits. The little red fox spent that long night alone in Great Aunt Rosa's shoe, probably wondering if she would ever see the daylight again or if I had abandoned her forever. 2. Nothing lasts forever. Perhaps, only the Great Nothing lasts forever until Something appears. Of course, it could not have been "forever," but perhaps it was – if Time (as we understand it) did not exist then. No space, no Time – nothing. Or, rather, everything so condensed and indivisible that it all had to fit into Nowhere. Then – Big Bang – everything explodes, divides, and we hear singing – the Word – God's name. Or His laughter. Or Her laughter. Or Great Aunt Rosa's laughter, which explodes and spills over as I wake up. My mom, who is holding the telephone receiver away from her ear (so as not to be deafened by thunder), is also laughing. I can't help it and start laughing too, even though I have no idea why we are all laughing. And Natasha, my mom's sister, walks into the room and starts laughing too. And from the receiver booms Great Aunt Rosa's laugh, filling the room, spilling through the windows into the sky and breaking into snowflakes, dancing in the wind. 3. My tiny red plastic fox had bitten my Great Aunt Rosa when she (Aunt Rosa) tried to put on her shoe. It did not surprise me. After the long night, the fox must have assumed that this shoe was her home. I wondered if small plastic animals have the same concept of time as we do. I decided that no, a night spent in a shoe could seem... Continue reading
Posted Dec 29, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Personal Mythology - Acrylic on Wood Board - by Lera Auerbach I love old rugs. Rugs with animals, flowers, and small people. Prayer rugs and large entrance rugs. Rugs with dragons and monkeys. Tiger-rugs. Yes, especially tiger-rugs. One day I will buy a house and fill it with old rugs. I'll put rugs everywhere on the floors. And on the walls too. And, perhaps, even on the ceiling. I will lie down on a rug and listen. The silence of a room covered in rugs is very different from the silence of a room with naked floors. I will listen to the rugged silence for such a long time that I too become part of it. I will shrink and disappear into the rug, becoming one of its tiny people. I will jump from rug to rug, meeting its wondrous animals, befriending a dragon, fighting with a tiger. One day, one of the flowers in the rug will swallow me whole, and something would change in the silence, it would gain an extra stitch. (The silence, not the rug.) Continue reading
Posted Dec 25, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Hidden Room • Ink on Paper by Lera Auerbach When you struggle to survive, there is simplicity in perspective: You take one breath. Then another. You take one step. Then another. You learn how to respect your body's new limitations. You learn how to challenge it. You try to hold on to who you are. You try to reassure others. You give yourself permission to rest, to stay quiet. You grow impatient and irritable. In anger, you call yourself a failure, then remember – you have given yourself permission to fail. Sometimes you feel alone. Sometimes you feel loved. Continue reading
Posted Dec 23, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Ivan Shishkin's Morning in a Pine Forest & Russian Chocolates On the grand scale of things, it's not always clear what keeps the balance. But things are not scalable. Memories hide in the smallest details and surfaces like a shy relative of long-forgotten relations: in the color of the window-curtains from childhood, in the taste of sgushchyonka (sweet condensed milk of my childhood), in the sound of unwrapping a chocolate candy – the favorite one with three brown bears-cubs and their mother-bear on the cover. The picture of four bears was from a well-known painting by Shishkin, a famous Russian painter. Come to think of it; I'm not sure why Shishkin was so famous if the work he was mostly known for was this painting of four bears playing in the forest. Later it was discovered that Shishkin did not paint this painting, or rather he painted the forest but not the bears, because painting animals was not his forte, and he asked a friend to do it. 'Shishka' in Russian means a pinecone, but it also means a bump, as when you hit your head. It also can mean, in a slangy way, a big shot – a person in a position of power. The painter Shishkin clearly loved Russian nature with its pinecones, but he also hit his head hard with the bears' fake authorship. He did manage to remain a big shot in the annals of Russian art. I stopped liking these chocolates at the age of five when I discovered wriggling white worms in one. It was 'war chocolate' from the boxes of food my nanny kept in case of a new war. She had some of these boxes since WWII, some 40 years earlier. Time was eaten by worms, leaving only crumbs behind; crumbs dressed in the picture of the cute bears painted by a man who didn't get proper credit for painting them and whose name escapes my memory right now, unlike Shishkin. Continue reading
Posted Dec 20, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
No Longer My Own - Ink on Paper by Lera Auerbach Some books matter only for the future-books hiding in them. Books with strong plots offer safe captivity, allowing us to hide. Books without plots may dangerously spiral, exposing us to memories of unburnt desires. When you are writing a book, in reality, you are writing two books: one is the book you are writing; the other is the book about writing the book you're writing. I face myself in the mirror, but I'm no longer my own. Continue reading
Posted Dec 16, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
На птичьих правах - Ink on Paper by Lera Auerbach There is a phrase in Russian, ‘na ptich'ikh pravakh’, having birds' rights. To live ‘na ptich'ikh pravakh’ means not having proper rights to occupy space (i.e., no correct documents or inability to pay rent) but being temporarily tolerated and allowed to remain. What rights do birds have? And why birds? Why not say opossums' rights? The flattery of wings? Geography? Lack of stability? Can the lack of stability be something stable, constant? If you're constantly absent, does this make you reliably absent? The bird can sing and leave. I do the same, but behind me snakes a trail of debt and obligations, a chain to keep me within its reach, stones available for throwers. Personalized gravitational pull. * * * In the world of confusion, only a dog knows the truth. But we rarely listen to dogs. We forgot how to listen. A dog knows what would make us happy. Because it's precisely that which would make a dog happy: a walk in the woods, smelling the fresh air, that sense of well-being which only comes when you can commune with nature and feel fully present. A dog is not interested in words. Words are the mythological woods in which humans get lost instead of visiting the real woods and taking long walks with their dogs. A dog knows the danger of words. That's why it can understand all human languages. It knows to smell beyond words. Because words are only shells. What's essential lies within, beyond the shell. And the shell may be misleading, a disfiguring perception of the shape it contains within. A cat also knows it all but doesn't have the patience to deal with human stupidity and stubbornness. A cat knows – it is futile to change us. Dogs are more hopeful. * * * Living life in dogs' years. How many dogs will still adopt me? My childhood's big Sheila, then Toto and Daisy (all three were still alive when I left Russia for New York at the age of 17.) Then came school years without a dog, living on ptich'ikh pravakh here and there. For a while, I managed to keep a lizard at the Juilliard dorms, but it was difficult to shop for live worms and keep them all hidden. The moment when I rented my first apartment – little Sheila joined my life. I named little Sheila after big Sheila who died peacefully in my father's arms in Russia after I left for New York. Little Sheila also died in my father's arms, but in Boston, many years later. She was aging, she was ill, and I knew my father would take better care of her than I, in my birdy ways, fluttering from one city to the next. And for the last two years of Sheila's life, there was Finek, whom Sheila hated as only an old cranky dog may hate a young puppy, who stole her human's attention and love.... Continue reading
Posted Dec 13, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Ink on Paper by Lera Auerbach A tree is never just a tree. Social distancing one could measure. But how distant should one be from oneself? Too distant, and you risk losing yourself and becoming numb, incapable of true empathy and love. Too close, and you fall apart, unable to hold on to the imaginary thread that keeps different parts of you together. A book is like a tree: it needs a chance to grow, to take hold, to find enough nourishment in the soil, enough water. In its early stages, it's too fragile, while the hurricane season is just around the corner, and strong winds could uproot and demolish it. Where do all the unwritten books go? Half-written? Completed manuscripts waiting for editors? Forgotten manuscripts waiting for readers? Forgotten lives? Like a child, a book requires sacrifice. It hurts you, its birth can be bloody painful. It can also give you the greatest joy. Ultimately, it is never yours. It is born through you but doesn't belong to you; you are simply its tool and a highly imperfect one at that. To read a book the way one asks for forgiveness, as an act of searching for solace. But a book is just a book – a collection of words, resonating at random only when struck. Continue reading
Posted Dec 11, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
The truth is that I do not know how I feel about Beethoven. There seem to be two separate things – one is Beethoven, the other one is our admiration for Beethoven. The second is so thick that it's impossible to find the real Beethoven. Just try to move the world's admiration for Beethoven aside: what will you see in its place? The admiration seems to be made of bronze: it can take any patina or color, yet it is so heavy it cannot be lifted or moved; it seems to replace Beethoven forever. Beethoven became insignificant compared to what he symbolizes: the greatness, the spirit, the best of the best of humanity. Was the real Beethoven a great genius, a spiritual leader of free men, an example of the best of humanity? Nobody knows; the bronze veil of admiration is just too great to move aside. I suspect there is something awkward about Beethoven. We admire him because he can rise above his squareness, grumpiness, and inability to fly easily. He triumphs over his limitations, and that is why he's closer to the masses than Mozart with his Mozartian divine ease. Beethoven is a lion who tears music with his teeth, claws, and sforzandi. Through the efforts of his stubborn will, he can roar at the end triumphantly. We celebrate his brows; we celebrate his sweat; we forgive his foul smell, nasty hygiene habits, and bad manners, his lies. None of it matters. We forgive him for a choir that has to wait for an hour before singing for a few minutes at the end of the ninth symphony. We happily forget that Beethoven didn't write his most famous tune: it is a drinking song. None of it matters. When a man becomes a god, he sheds all his humanity alongside his life. Godliness, like anything else, requires sacrifice. Was that Beethoven's choice? Beethoven's Death Mask Continue reading
Posted Dec 10, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
During the time of the pandemic, I am thinking of people that have inspired me and my work. On March 16 Sergey Yursky would have celebrated his 85th birthday. He died last year. While his name needs no introduction in Russian-speaking countries - he is truly legendary, many of my friends who do not speak Russian probably have never heard of him. Yursky was a legendary actor, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that he was, perhaps, the most celebrated Russian actor of the 20th century, but his contribution was far greater than acting. He was a writer himself with several books published, and his greatest love was poetry. He was one of the very first artists (if not the first one) who would publicly recite poems by poets who were oppressed at the time when it was still rather dangerous to do. He would tour with his "poetry concerts" reciting poems by Tsvetaeva, Mandelshtam, Hiippius, Brodsky, all his concerts were always full, he was one of my childhood heroes. I met Yursky for the first time in New York when I came to one of his poetry concerts in Brooklyn. I was 19 years old, shy, and quiet. By that time, my poems have appeared in many Russian magazines and newspapers, and three small books of my poems were published. My parents were living in Chelyabinsk while I was in New York alone since I was 17. I came backstage and gave Yursky one of my small books of poems. I thought he would never open it and that most likely, I will never hear from him again. A few years passed. One day my parents called me. At that time, it was still complicated to call from Russia, not to mention very expensive, so we rarely talked, mostly exchanging long letters that would sometimes take a few months to arrive. My mother’s voice was excited: “Lera, you would not believe this! Last night we went to hear Sergey Yursky’s concert, he is on tour in Chelyabinsk. The program was called “Russian Poets Abroad.” It included poems by Tsvetaeva, Tyutchev, Brodsky and … you!! We are coming again tonight - he is repeating the program." Needless to say, I was shocked. I asked my parents if they could ask Yursky if he would consider recording a CD of my poetry. They did. He immediately agreed and spent that night in the radio station recording each poem in different interpretations, sometimes five different takes of the same poem, so I could choose the interpretation I liked. He continued to champion my poetry and even written a preface to one of my books. We met from time to time. Most memorable was a walk through Soho galleries with him and Ilya Kabakov - another legendary Russian artist, but in the visual art world. Sergey Yursky had a larger than life personality. He was a giant, not only in his stage presence but in his views, his perspective,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 7, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Final notes of Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang On Beethoven, my new string quartet, and the eternal Song of Thanks Beethoven wrote his Heiliger Dankgesang as an expression of gratitude for surviving a near-fatal illness. The tradition of ex-votos (“from a vow”) artworks created in gratitude and to give tribute to divine intervention of deities in personal calamities has a long history. Ex-votos can take a wide variety of forms. They are not only intended for the helping figure, but also as a testimony of the received help.[1] They can be found in many cultures from those in Abydos in Ancient Egypt to Mexican folk art.[2] Just as in ex-voto retablos, the religious aspect is present as slow sections of the Heiliger Dankgesang which are based on a choral, with its timeless hymn-like meditative nature while the faster sections in Beethoven celebrate the dance of life, renewed strength, the joys of recovery. Beethoven lived in a time when humanity still believed in heroes and antiheroes; children's stories and fairytales represented a clear division of good and evil, and words still kept some capacity not to betray their meaning at the very moment of their utterance. I live in a different time. After the extremes of romanticism, distortions and distractions of the 20th century, and the confusion of the 21st century, my initial reaction is to question and doubt everything. Perhaps, when one is or considers himself (as Beethoven did) mortally ill, the gratitude addressed is not towards the future which might be too brief, but towards the past with its memories of the life lived? Perhaps such thankfulness carries the sweet sadness of acceptance? Maybe the song of gratitude is the act of letting go, of embracing the inevitable - like a return to true home, to that interconnected place of true peace, to the origins from which we are expelled for the duration of our lives? Perhaps the sense of real recovery is possible only through the full embrace of the finite aspect of our human existence? Maybe we are only able to appreciate how precious every moment is when we are fully aware of its finite nature? Artists tend to be superstitious; they love finding inner rhymes in life and deciphering their hidden meanings, finding still resonating overtones through the centuries. I am no exception. It was the Artemis Quartet’s wish for my new quartet (String Quartet No. 9) to connect in some form to Beethoven for his 2020 anniversary. How and in which form this connection would take place, they left up to me. I admit that although I was pleased to collaborate once again with Artemis, initially I dreaded the thought of needing to connect the commissioned work to Beethoven. For a while, I was at a loss of how and where to begin. I knew that such a relationship or homage to Beethoven needed to feel genuine, organic, unforced, inevitable. The concept of structuring my quartet upon Heiliger Dankgesang came during a prolonged illness; perhaps this was... Continue reading
Posted Mar 3, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Labyrinth for Solo Piano Inspired by The Book of Imaginary Beings and other writings by J. L. Borges Tomorrow evening, March 27, 2018, I will premiere Labyrinth, a large work for solo piano commissioned by San Francisco Performances. I have been fascinated with labyrinths - real or imaginary - all my life. So, it is not surprising that J.L. Borges has been one of my favorite writers for a very long time. Labyrinth is an exploration of Time and its different prisms, mirrors, faces, games. The passages of the labyrinth are the passages of Time. Or, perhaps, Time itself takes the form of a labyrinth in which the inner and outer sides are the same, infinitely expanding and infinitely contracting. Inspired by the hidden set of variations in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (the series of Promenades portraying a man walking through the gallery) in Labyrinth appeared the "Traumwanderer" (Dream wanderer). I do not know where the Traumwanderer came from. I asked him, but his answers are cryptic. Perhaps, the Traumwanderer is my double. More likely, he is a shape-shifter and becomes the double of each listener who comes to a concert hall and unexpectedly finds himself in the bestiary of a labyrinth. Together with the Traumwanderer, we discover different passages, become lost and sometimes recognize reflections of our memories, fears, and dreams in the strange and at times disturbing shapes of the imaginary beings that the Traumwanderer meets. These beings have encounters and relationships not only with the Traumwanderer but also among themselves. There are connections and hidden clues that allow the Traumwanderer to recognize his features, even the most grotesque and foreign elements. Is the Traumwanderer inside of the labyrinth, or is the labyrinth within the Traumwanderer? Is Time standing still while we are searching for our way, or is the labyrinth made of the same material as Time itself? Is the Wanderer's progress through the passages of the labyrinth illusory? What is passing — us or our Time? Together with the Traumwanderer, we meet the invisible A Bao A Qu, who has lived since the beginning of Time on the spiral staircase of the Tower of Chitor. This tower is known to have the most perfect view in the world, which — as with any perfection — can never be reached. We meet the Kilkenny Cats, who get into raging quarrels and devour each other in anger, leaving behind only their tails. We meet the poor Squonk, who cries himself into nothingness. We encounter the magical binding of the gigantic wolf Fenrir, who is kept on the strongest, yet lightest chain ever made — a cord woven of six imaginary things. (Of course, Fenrir eventually breaks loose.) We experience the terror of the Traumwanderer as he becomes increasingly lost within the mirrors, dead-ends, and detours of the maze. We hear the calling of the mystical Simurgh, the immortal bird that nests in the Tree of Knowledge. The other birds (after a long and difficult pilgrimage to reach... Continue reading
Posted Mar 26, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
As I prepare a recital program for my concert at San Francisco Performances next month, I return to a work that has accompanied me for most of my life. Modest Mussorgsky's masterpiece, Pictures at an Exhibition, is a unique bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries. Debussy and Stravinsky, two giants of the 20th century, were influenced by this work. Pictures have inspired an epidemic of orchestrations – from Maurice Ravel's famous symphonic transcription to the imaginative electronic adaptation by Isao Tomita, more than seventy versions exist to date. What is the unique magnetism which attracts musicians and composers to this piece? Is it a secret fascination evoked by the childlike, fairytale images hidden in the work?I think that Mussorgsky was inspired not directly by Hartman's artworks, but by the idea of creating a musical exhibition in itself. The connection between Mussorgsky’s music and Hartman's images is tenuous at best. Mussorgsky's music cannot be regarded as representational of Hartman's subjects any more than Hartman's images can be interpreted as illustrative of Mussorgsky's music. Mussorgsky chose the form of a suite as the most natural for his musical exhibition. The suite starts with the Promenade. It is a musical self-portrait of the composer walking through the halls of the museum. The Promenade recurs seven times in the work, (only five times under its own title), each time sounding different, thus creating a subset of variations. I believe that these promenading variations reflect the alterations in the mood of a person passing a series of paintings in a museum gallery. Thus, Mussorgsky gives us both: a series of brilliant musical sketches, and their reflections in his own soul; he is an author who creates his work and finds himself changed by it. Unexpectedly, I found yet another hidden form of variation in this work. It is a partita-like structure, which occurs within the musical architecture of the piece. Bach designed his partitas to include several common elements, which unify the widely contrasting dance movements. These elements are usually a recurring interval relationship or a melodic and/or harmonic device. This is true of Pictures at an Exhibition. The entire work is based upon two primary intervals: a descending second and an ascending fourth. These two intervals appear within the opening three notes: G, F, B-flat. These three notes become the foundation upon which the entire work rests. Each movement is based on these intervals or their inversions. In Gnomus, the weeping of the dwarf is built entirely on the descending second (mm. 19, et seq.). The ascending fourth in the opening of The Old Castle resembles calling of a distant horn, or, perhaps, the nostalgic song of a Minnesinger recalling the days of old. By looking at the final six measures of this movement we realize that the entire movement is built on the 'calling' fourth and the 'sighing' second. In Tuilleries: The Children's Quarrel, the concealed descending second which is heard throughout the piece sounds like capricious children. It reminds one of... Continue reading
Posted Feb 15, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
GUACAMOLE TREATMENT [From The Infant Minstrel and his Peculiar Menagerie] There was once a man With such a long nose That his wife had mistaken it For a garden hose. When she started watering plants His nose turned red and tense. Then he sneezed, as he was allergic to pollen, With tears in his eyes and his throat swollen. “Oh, my darling, I am so very sorry! I am going to catch the best guacamole To make for you a cold green compress – The best-known treatment for a nose in distress!” Cried his wife and cut for him her best rose. “Pretty rose for your suffering nose! – Ooops! I did it again: I forgot – You’re allergic to all pretty things, poor lad!” The man sat sadly In a defeated pose While his wife applied Guacamole to his nose. Continue reading
Posted May 31, 2016 at The Best American Poetry