Don Byrd’s Concerto and the Courage to Make Music

Would you travel 500 miles back-and-forth to experience 30-minutes of music by an obscure composer? You might if the musician had dreamed about the piece for 50-years and his name was Donald Byrd; and if he almost died in the middle of its creation. Five friends, my wife, and I were present along with many who traveled much farther; grateful for Don’s life force, his friendship, and his art.

Don was well-into writing his Violin Concerto – a piece for soloist and orchestral accompaniment – when, in January, 2015 …

I’d been having moderate pain in my left hip off and on for months, and nothing seemed to make any difference. Then it got worse, and I returned to my sports-medicine doctor. He thought I just needed a shot of cortisone, but had me get an MRI. Much to our surprise, the report came back stamped ‘CRITICAL UNEXPECTED POSITIVE FINDINGS’: cancer. A week later, I had a definite diagnosis: stage 2 multiple myeloma. The prognosis was pretty good from the beginning; the treatment plan was chemo, possibly followed by a stem-cell transplant. Well, I responded exceptionally well to the chemo — so well my oncologist wasn’t sure I needed the transplant, but I went ahead anyway … and wrote the middle-section of the last movement in the hospital; I think the cancer mostly helped me focus on completing the damn thing; I really didn’t like the thought of dying before finishing it! The illness also gave me time to concentrate on it, since I couldn’t work much on my normal stuff.

Notice the matter-of-factness in Don’s account? Few of us would have been as resilient or optimistic. Few would have reframed the crisis as a spur to reach a goal.

Rumors claimed, back at Chicago’s Mather High School in the 1960s, that Don Byrd was a genius. What none of us, his fellow classmates, then realized, was that he was more remarkable for his courage. And, as you will read, some other things, too.

Master Byrd is a man who remembers those who helped along the way. A 1990 conversation with a Princeton professor, J. K. Randall, moved him from dreaming to doing:

I told him I wanted to create a violin concerto, but didn’t know how (despite having composed other, less ambitious pieces). He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Well, you’d better write it before you find out!’

Still, another five years passed before Don put any notes down. “Thus, you could say the composition took me only 20-years!”

By profession, Don is an informatics expert at Indiana University (Bloomington) – an aspect of information engineering – and one of the founders of the field of music information retrieval. For those of us less steeped in technology, however, his other interests are fascinating, too:

I’m a certified teacher and lover of t’ai chi. I’m a member of the local Quaker Meeting (“meeting” is the Quaker equivalent of church), and I often accompany hymn singing for the Meeting on the piano. I’m an avid but lazy road bike rider. I like physically challenging and dangerous activities: way back when, flying a plane, riding a motorcycle, exploring caves, swimming across a lake alone at night (and I’m not a good swimmer); more recently, rock climbing, mountaineering, and sky diving (the latter only once, on my doctor’s advice). I’m concerned about American society these days and especially its polarization, and over the years I’ve published dozens of letters to the editor and two or three guest columns, the vast majority in the Bloomington paper.

Based on Don’s daring physical activities, you might think of him as an athletic he-man. He is a small fellow (5’3″) except in his heart. There he is a giant.

As mentioned earlier, people came to the September 24th concert from long distances. Among them was a high school friend named Paul Nadler, an international symphony and opera conductor, who directed the performance. Others included the estimable violin soloist, Madalyn Parnas. Friends and colleagues of Don’s traveled from as far away as the San Francisco Bay area, Philadelphia, Florida, Georgia, New York, Michigan, Alabama, and Chicago. Generosity, too, came from three of the orchestra members and his buddy, Paul, who gave their services gratis.

How to explain this devotion? I asked the question of Doug McKenna, who himself journeyed from Colorado: “Don Byrd is a very loyal person and he inspires loyalty in others.” Many of these folks met the composer in school or became colleagues in the early part of his professional career. Some had not seen him for decades.

One might add something else. Many are, like Don, no longer young, except perhaps in attitude. We all knew the event was not to be taken for granted. The good vibe in the concert venue was enough to float the audience of about 150 people out the door. Lots of smiles and a tear or two. Jealous composers or something else?

We never get to hear eulogies for ourselves, of course, and Don Byrd – thank goodness – didn’t either. Yet, early in his battle against cancer, one could have bet a eulogy was more probable than a performance. My guess is that in Don’s worst moments, his wife Susan Schneider and their children would have gratefully given up the completion of the Violin Concerto for a guarantee of more time. Probably even just the shortening of treatment. But, the maestro survived and his magnum opus was performed. Their grown kids, Alec and Torrey, witnessed it, too.

In this month of children’s holiday dreams, prayers, and guardian angels, we all try to get beyond the world’s dark side.

Don Byrd, his spirit, and his music make that a little bit easier for some of us.

Sometimes dreams do come true.

The concert program and program notes:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2p91S3Iky-VX3k1RENYRG5GU28

Also, before the performance, Don gave a short talk about the concerto, with musical examples played (with hardly any advance notice) by pianist Justin Bartlett. Unfortunately, only the second half or so was recorded, but that recording is here:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2p91S3Iky-VRGZVZktDSlhYOVE

Independent of the video, the concert was recorded by a professional audio engineer. An MP3 of his recording is here:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2p91S3Iky-VNDB0Uzd5Mlgycm8

PDFs of the scores of each of the three movements (slightly out-of-date) are at:

1st mvmt: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2p91S3Iky-VQVZxQWExRGlvVkU/view?usp=sharing
2nd mvmt: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2p91S3Iky-VQkUwN1RLeHFHaDQ/view?usp=sharing
3rd mvmt: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2p91S3Iky-VM0JFU2JXRUtuRXM/view?usp=sharing

Read more about Don here: http://homes.soic.indiana.edu/donbyrd/

The Taoist Farmer and a Patient’s Search for Answers

Part of the human dilemma is the trap of unhelpful, but habitual ways of thinking. Cognitive behavior therapists call them thinking errors or cognitive distortions. On occasion you probably have made one or more such wrong-headed mental turns into an emotional sink hole. Catastrophization is an example: predicting the worst possible outcome you can imagine happening to you, sure the expected calamity will finish you off, even when there are many less dire potential futures and most bad results are temporary. But other mental traps wait for us, ones not so commonly found in a therapist’s lexicon. Good/bad, right/wrong, lucky/unlucky are not as clear as we think.

Take the old story of the Taoist farmer.

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “Maybe.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “Maybe.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “Maybe.”*

As with any parable, multiple interpretations exist. Sometimes apparent bad fortune – like a broken relationship – leads to someone who is a better match. Being fired from a job can be a step toward a better one, even fuel your search and foster your growth. This is not to suggest all tragedies are the yellow brick road to Oz. Yet, we tend to recover, even if recovery can be lengthy, fraught, and incomplete. Then again, luck depends on when you take a measure of your situation. The farmer believed there was still time ahead, and the present moment represented a temporary vantage point: another evaluation down the road might change the assessment of his life.

One alternative way to think about this story is to recognize the problem of “keeping score.” We look around and ask, am I getting ahead or falling behind? In the West, the so-called First World of capitalism, we are trained in ladder-climbing, money counting, and concern with the opinions of others. A bit crazy-making, since someone else always owns “more,” and we are inclined to compare “up” rather than “down.” Put another way, we measure ourselves against those better off rather than those less fortunate. We also tend – after a moment of delight – to take for granted the Christmas toy for which we waited a year. Great honors don’t seem so great after the award ceremony is over.

Is there another way?

A Buddhist (or a Stoic philosopher) might tell you to become less attached to all things in the world: status, property, money; even relationships and health. Put differently, to give up clinging and craving, while practicing loving kindness and steadfast integrity. The more attachment, the more you will lose, so they say. Such an existence – preoccupied with getting and spending and fear of losing (and regret over what is already lost) – is a guarantee of suffering.

Yet another view is this one: maybe life is not a matter of assigning a grade to what we think or do, but to be experienced with little evaluation: passed through, lived. To be in the swim, not outside the pool, watching and afraid of the shock of the cold water if we should jump in. Not asking whether our stroke is beautiful enough, our pace fast enough, the distance traveled far enough.

To this way of thinking, failure and rejection are normal parts of life. They indicate we are still trying; necessary parts, too, because resilience grows from the knowledge you can come back from defeat.

Perhaps winning the game is not as important as playing the game. Perchance the world is to be tasted: different cuisines and flavors, not just chocolate and vanilla. If so, a person would experience many colors, sizes, possibilities. Engage in multiple careers. Know lots of people. Have your heart broken and sewn up and torn again and stitched until the twine itself breaks. And to read and discuss all the worthy books, play all the sublime music, climb walls until your muscles and tendons hurt. No, even past the time they hurt, adapting to the hurt. Not an either/or existence but “all-in.”

Or, is life properly understood to be perplexing and without a “solution”? If so, any belief in your own secret formula is misguided: your solution is, at best, temporary. You are not only fooling yourself, but missing the point. Which is? That the pursuit of happiness is more a journey than an arrival. That when traveling to the airport we should always go to “departures” instead of “arrivals” because we are forever “taking off” for whatever is next and never reach a static endpoint while alive.

Left to you is the creation of a personal meaning, not to be found in a book or a place of worship or from a mentor, whole and flawless; unless, that is, you are among those for whom the answer is unquestioning faith and an ultimate, unworldly reward.

Still another path: one is told the most satisfying existence requires living for bigger things than ourselves, including the future of the planet, our children, and the lives of others. We are warned not to count on or crave a posthumous glory. Unless someone else is doing the scoring, the record book will be lost along with our names, in a fast-fading blue ink on a yellowing parchment. Or, as Arthur Miller suggested, on a block of melting ice.

Is human existence perhaps a multifaceted combination of tragedy, joy, inevitability, necessity, laughter, devotion, confusion, sacrifice, and the way things are until, too soon, they aren’t?

Having written all of the above, I fear my message – the answer without an answer to conceptualizing life – is unsatisfying. I’m not even satisfied. I have given you no certainty, nothing definite. Some of you will reject the inconclusivity. I won’t hold it against you.

To my way of thinking, therapy cannot provide “the answer” either. The counselor instead offers a remedy for specifics. He can help reduce or eliminate your anxiety or depression or some other malady in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. No text-book or training, however, offers a step-by-step solution to dealing with the human condition. I’m sorry about that, really.

We do what we can.

I offer this consolation to you, nonetheless:

No matter what we look like, no matter how happy or sad we are (or seem to be) for the moment – calm or stressed, wise or foolish – we are all in this porridge together. Sometimes we swim within a tasty bowl – “just right,” as Goldilocks said – though not for every meal and every appetite. Look around you and see all the swimmers. Tiny like us, precious like us. They come in all strengths and varieties, but they will not always be there.

No wonder we search for love.

*Source: Tao: The Watercourse Way, by Alan Watts. The first image below the youtube video is Ilja Richter rehearsing for his play Altweibersommer in Munich. The next photo is the work of SuzannePerry.enoughofit7. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Why Endless Sadness Usually Has An End

Rings_in_blue

When you are heartbroken, as most of us have been, it feels as though you will never recover. The loss of a parent or friend or lover can feel irreplaceable; indeed, is irreplaceable. The end of a job can be humiliating and frightening. The emotional pain feels that it will go on into infinity. It is hard to remember ever feeling better, and hard to imagine that the pain will ever stop.

But usually it does. Not in a moment and certainly, not soon enough. But things change and one’s mood usually lifts. Life goes on. Other events and people come to occupy the empty space inside of us. Not always, but for most of us, most of the time.

Sadness is especially hard in the dark months and sometimes the result of them for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The world breathes the gleeful air of the holidays while we reach for the last oxygen tank in the store only to see someone else get there first. It is hard to sustain hope when we seem invisible to the world around us. And yet, hope is still there if we have enough time and courage.

I am no Pollyanna in saying this. I have had my own sadness and loss. I have lost both parents and good friends, two of the latter in the last year. I have been betrayed by someone who stole $80,000 from me and my business partners. A college romance once left me bereft. I have treated many people devastated by needless cruelty, black depression, and the blunt force of ill-fate.

Mostly we recover. After all, we are the offspring of a genetic line of our predecessors who survived their own set of calamities, overcame hardship, and produced offspring who eventually led to our own emergence from the womb. We are not, or at least most of us are not, the children of people with little resilience. We come by our survival and recovery quite naturally, even if it remains hard-won.

Still don’t believe me? Then I have an exercise for you. Make a list of all the bad things that have ever happened to you. Try to remember how you felt when you experienced financial loss, betrayal, cruelty, severe accident or injury, the death of someone close to you, and getting dumped by a person you loved. Do not include any event that happened as recently as the last year or so.

Now, as you think back, did these things finish you off? Do you feel as terrible as you did in the first throes of your calamity? Did you kill yourself (obviously not)? Aren’t things at least a little better and, just possibly, much better? Perhaps you even learned something from the experience. Perhaps you even became more understanding, wiser, found a better job, or met someone else to salve your wounded heart. Maybe you discovered that you had more strength and resilience than you imagined.

I am not making light of your suffering. Nor am I suggesting that everyone recovers as I’ve described. And yet, most of us do, most of the time, even without therapy.

Yes, there are scars. But most scars slowly fade with time.

On the girl’s brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because, take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived. (Chris Cleave, from Little Bee)

As Lord Byron wrote in Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates…

Perhaps you know the Sufi tale of a great king who asked his wisest advisors to fashion a ring that would make him happier when he was sad and, simultaneously remind him that even good fortune is only temporary. After much consideration these wise men asked an artisan to forge a ring for the regent. What was inscribed on it was very simple:

This too shall pass.

The above image is called Rings in Blue by Giulia Ciappa and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Of Clocks and Weddings and Getting Cold Feet

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/29/Marshall_Field_and_Co._clock_at_State_St..JPG/500px-Marshall_Field_and_Co._clock_at_State_St..JPG

It could have happened to you, but it probably didn’t.

The young man was 28 years old and in love with a 21-year-old beauty. His prospects were not great, but he had finally landed a steady job at the Post Office near the end of an economic downturn. Marriage was now possible, his intended said “yes,” and her parents gave their permission.

A marriage license would be required.

They agreed to meet in downtown Chicago at the famous Marshall Field and Company Building, now known as Macy’s. That block-long edifice faces State Street on the west, Randolph on the north, and Washington on the south.

The time was set. From Field’s they would make the short walk to City Hall to get the legal document.

“We’ll meet under the Field’s clock,” he’d said off-handedly and she’d quickly agreed.

The day came and at the appointed time he was there. Right under the clock at Randolph and State as he’d promised.

Only she wasn’t.

What could have happened? Did she get delayed? Was she injured?

Or, just perhaps, did she get cold feet?

Meanwhile, a lovely young woman aged 21 stood at the corner of Washington and State.

And she was thinking to herself, “What happened to Milton? He is always so punctual. Where could he be? I’m standing under the clock just as we agreed.”

You see, a small misunderstanding had occurred. Marshall Field’s had two clocks, one at each State Street corner.

It wasn’t long before one or the other figured things out and walked toward the corner opposite. The meeting occurred, only a little late. The marriage license was obtained and the wedding followed later that year, just as planned.

Both the bride and the groom showed up for that, on time and in the right place.

My parents’ wedding.

How easily it all could have gone wrong, in which case, you wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t have written it, because I never would have been even “a twinkle” in my father’s eye, as he sometimes referred to me.

And my wife couldn’t have married me — a man who didn’t exist. And our kids would never have been born, etc., etc.

Getting “stood up” at weddings is hardly unheard of. Movies have been made about such events. Think Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Then there was the 2005 media circus surrounding Jennifer Carol Wilbanks, who disappeared in order to avoid wedding bells, later falsely stating (in an effort to explain her absence at the alter) that she had been abducted and sexually assaulted.

The worst “real life” tale of this type that I ever heard from someone personally involved in the event concerned a “high society” wedding — one for which no expense had been spared, enormous numbers of people had been invited, and everyone showed up other than the groom, who didn’t even call ahead to cancel or ever apologize to his fiance by letter, e-mail, phone, or text message, and certainly not face-to-face.

And then there is an Internet story of a young man who actually went so far as to go through the wedding ceremony and reception, only to speak to the assembled throng of well-wishers declaring that he intended to get an annulment the next day because of his new wife’s recent sexual escapade with his best man, upon which he pulled out photos of the two that more than verified his report.

Now there are those who would say that “everything happens for a reason,” and that everything turns out well in the end.

I am not one of those people. I believe in accidents, good and bad, which seem to be randomly distributed despite our best efforts to control events.

And, as far as happy endings are concerned, they do happen sometimes, although not everything ends happily.

But, I do believe that you have to make the best of things.

The young woman of the “high society” wedding I mentioned was humiliated and devastated, but did eventually marry a man who loved her to pieces and actually showed up on their wedding day to prove it. They’ve been married forever and continue to be very much in love.

And, it’s hard to argue that the man who promised annulment would have been better off married for more than a day to his unfaithful if temporary spouse.

Let’s hope they both learned something from the experience and went on to find happiness elsewhere.

In the end, especially when you are young, most set-backs are relatively brief, especially if you have some resilience.

Of course, whatever children might have been born of the last two ill-starred matches I’ve described never came to be.

A good thing? Not a good thing?

Did we miss the next baby Beethoven (who was born of a very unhappy marriage)?

I can’t say.

All I know for sure is that I’m glad my folks had enough confidence in their love to stick around, and that one of them walked down the block to find the other.

But for that… well, you know.

One of the two State Street clocks of the old Marshall Field and Company Building in Chicago, now known as Macy’s. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons, photo by DDima.