Music, Late and Soon by Robyn Sarah

A baby grand piano inside a glass bottle forms the cover design of Robyn Sarah’s remarkable memoir, Music, Late and Soon. The bottled piano represents the muted sounds of the author’s instruments, her understated prose that gleams under glass, her bottled-up emotions during rehearsals and performances, and the preserved music of her life. The lid on the jar remains closed while the grand piano opens diagonally to emit a range of sounds from lyric pianissimo to moderate and dramatic narrative, to an epic arc that spans decades. Part sonata, part symphony, far more than a memoir, Music, Late and Soon introduces a number of memorable characters worthy of a novel, and an array of orchestral instruments that modulate the prose, melodies, and personalities surrounding the author’s life.

If her title alludes to Wordsworth, she immediately explains its application: “Early in life, at the hands of an unworldly music teacher, I learned that there are worlds within this world. I found one in music – a pursuit that replenished my powers instead of wasting them, a bulwark against the hustle of getting and spending. Late in life, I found it again.” A twenty-first century

“Part sonata, part symphony, far more than a memoir, Music, Late and Soon introduces a number of memorable characters worthy of a novel, and an array of orchestral instruments that modulate the prose, melodies, and personalities surrounding the author’s life.”

Wordsworthian, Sarah balances early and late, musical life and writerly life, found and re-found. Multidimensional and polyphonic, her memoir unravels worlds within worlds, while her hands demonstrate the dexterity of an ambidextrous clarinetist and pianist. Her unworldly music teacher is a protagonist in this narrative, sharing that role with his student, whose understated poetry pits the onomatopoeic “bulwark” against the sibilance of hustle and spending. The rustle of Sarah’s prose runs from start to finish in the musical directive Da Capo al Fine: repeat from the beginning until you reach the end.

A circular structure of fugue-like flow captures and captivates her worlds with this world, a broad musical repertoire that is punctuated by the segno ( 𝄋 ) symbol.  Another form of repetition, this slanted S bisected by a diagonal and flanked by dots resembles a string instrument in miniature. Sarah’s segno allows the reader to breathe with her, to consider breaks in the prose where one section prepares for what follows, while the later section echoes what has preceded it. Each of her musical subtitles forms an organic whole where late and soon are precisely on time.

The composer-conductor raises her baton: “I was late for my piano lesson. Thirty-five years late, to be exact.” A late start spreads over decades, her piano and clarinet accompanying her throughout Montreal. Retrospection in memoirs means that some memories will inevitably be lost, others distorted. “Pieces of my past were colliding,” and those collisions dramatize the life that at times is not sure if it is dreaming or remembering. Musical instruments in her memoir become characters in the keyboard of her writing. Her first toy piano triggers a memory of its sound: “the thin yet echoey resonance of a struck note, the loose lightness and faint clicking of the key action.” Sarah’s poetic voice makes the instrument and music come alive.  She soon graduates to a Mason & Risch upright, then to a series of grand and baby grand pianos with different teachers and venues.

After a series of early piano teachers, Sarah finally finds Philip Cohen, her mentor for life. Her narrative skips thirty-five years from her lessons as a child to her resumption as an adult taking lessons again with Phil Cohen: “my message in a bottle, tossed across thirty-five years of water under the bridge, had been picked up.” Yet another meaning for the book cover’s image, the message and measure of time, the spatial, temporal, instrumental and narrative bridges that Sarah crosses. Cohen is a philharmonic philosopher, posing questions and challenges that his students need to answer for themselves. His advice may be abstract or anatomical. She asks him why her music can fall apart after so much rehearsing, to which he replies that her fingers stray because of boredom.

“Working on a piece should be different all the time, trying different things, like the sketches of an artist – like the literally thousands of sketches among Beethoven’s papers, among Michelangelo’s.” Improvisation in technique is but one of Cohen’s suggestions. To keep track of all of his ideas, her questions and her progress, Sarah maintains a journal that gives added structure to her memoir. A second great teacher in her life is Rabbi David Hartman, who taught her philosophy at McGill: “To be serious about a thing is to be willing to do the undramatic.” Hartman’s wisdom influences his student who is never melodramatic in her writing, but holds her drama in check, knowing precisely when to lift the lid of the bottle or the top of a Steinway.

Her second piano teacher is Pamela Korman, whose methodology differs from Cohen’s, but both teach her that the piano is her heart. Cohen teaches her to sink into the key rather than strike it, and then reverse the movement: “The upward movement reminds me of pushing off against the side of a swimming pool with my feet.” These swimming movements lead her to conclude that her piano plays her in a reversal of roles. Once the piano becomes the protagonist, the memoirist’s ego gives way to the undramatic self that struggles with virtuosic vulnerability. This process may take the form of a digression to describe the death of Mr. Cohen’s young son. At the funeral Mr. Cohen wraps his arm around his wife: “For years that pose, that gesture, so full of humility yet so abounding in human dignity, remained with me.” During the growth of a pianist’s mind, Sarah’s elegiac, Wordsworthian tone wraps around her teacher.

Wordsworth and earlier pastoral traditions are brought indoors in Montreal where her musical education and private drama begin. “The shadowy front room with its glass-paned door; white curtains always drawn on the window giving on the street; wine-red carpet with threadbare spots; floor lamp beside the piano.” The décor of threadbare, yet sublime, spots of time: a drawing room on Mountain Sights closed off from the outer world; an oxymoronic interior of baby grand, pianoforte (soft and loud), and mystifying kitsch; a triptych of bas-reliefs in tones of dark grey and white depicting a ponytailed teenage girl with a pet dachshund. Any pastoral serenity is compromised by nerves and tears of practice and performance, as her teacher imparts enigmas, love, and humour.

Proustian elegiac tones continue: “For thirty-five years those lessons were like a room I could go back to in my head. Rainy afternoons; light of the brass floor lamp warm on the piano keys; the glass of water atop the piano, water trembling a little, shimmering in the lamplight as the glass picked up vibrations of bass notes.” These sympathetic vibrations between remembrance of things past and emotions recollected in tranquillity poeticize the empathy between teacher and student. The memoir flows in time between the bottled piano on the book’s cover and the glass of water trembling on the piano. “The flow of Mr. Cohen’s very quiet, very kind voice revealing hidden truths about music and life – bringing life into the music, bringing the music to life.” The vibrancy of vibrato and the quiver of fingers across octaves may take the form of chiasmus or a tightrope between the profound and the absurd. Cohen’s and Sarah’s subtext: “deep peace with an undercurrent of excitement and secrecy, the transmission of a musical Kabbalah that was, in code, a guide for how to live well in the world.”

A page begins with Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major, continues with Mr. Cohen’s

Kabbalistic code, and ends with one of Sarah’s poems, “The Cyclist Recovers His Cadence”:

At the bottom of the key fullness hangs on a fingertip. See, a moon-sliver, the blanched rim of the nail. Blood presses against it. At rest like this, sunk in a tuned stillness the hand becomes capable of motion.

The cadence around fullness and stillness that comes to rest in motion articulates the Kabbalistic code in this musical memoir that connects blanched keyboards, fingers, and blood pressure. To complicate Cohen’s enigmas and variations she quotes Wallace Stevens: “resist the intelligence / almost successfully.” Robert Frost also participates in her visionary company, along with Bach, Mozart, a string of composers, teachers, pianos, and venues.

As if life as a pianist were not enough, Sarah switches to her clarinet in “Fugue: Blowing (hot and cold)” – her subtitles exhibiting an ironic sense of humour, which downplays ego in favour of the sensitive self. “How I loved my clarinet!” Her exuberant apostrophe comes to life: “I loved the faint spicy smell of the grenadilla wood from Madagascar, I loved the word grenadilla, I loved the ebony-smooth surface of the dense black wood in which, in strong light, you could see glints of deep red-brown and hints of grain.” Repeated sensory love moves from the olfactory to the aural sound of the exotic word and wood, to the tactile, to sight – glints and hints of grain containing their own textured poetic mysteries. Soft sounds and touches characterize Sarah’s aesthetics: “I loved the feel of the metal rings under my fingers, the quiet clicking of the keys, their soft gleam against the blue plush lining of the alligator case.” Madagascar in Montreal: the exotic intrusion into domestic space that returns to origin through music and memory. The silent glissando of pianissimo.

From the kitschy girl with ponytail and dachshund she progresses to Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” with its “overtones and layered, shifting chords” – characteristics of Sarah’s poetic prose. Debussy evokes an Impressionistic pastoral strain: grasses bent by wind, long hair like a veil as cloud shadows play over the landscape with sheep nearby, unseen. A fugue or circle of fifths connects Debussy’s unseen sheep to a ram’s horn in a synagogue in Montreal when the shofar is blown on the Jewish New Year. Curves echo curves throughout her memoir.

Away from her McGill Ghetto she experiences a summer at Vermont’s Adamant School of Music, where she invokes Frost’s road not taken. A comedic anecdote lightens seriousness: “Geese, a large flock of them, paraded around the verdant grounds of Adamant.” They are followed by the elderly owner of the place whose broom and metal scoop are put to use. The syntax raises the question of who actually owns the ground. During a piece by Gabriel Fauré, the geese march up to the wall of the floor-to-ceiling windows of the concert hall and leave once the piece is finished, refusing to listen to the next piece, a Brahm’s Intermezzo.

From Adamant where she is the oldest student, to the atrium at Baycrest’s Home for the Aged in Toronto, where she is among the youngest entertaining her elders, Sarah writes truly about a life in music. With the death of unfathomable Phil Cohen and other friends, she eulogizes in the chords of the piano, the lilt and wail of clarinet, and codas after fugues. The memoir’s acoustics trace the growth of a soloist who gives pleasure to others. Fortunate in her teachers, she hands the lesson over to her reader. She plays in an atrium where the glass absorbs the sounds of her human touch. When the maestro rests her baton on the score, the house falls silent, but the faintest traces linger, late and soon.

Poet, writer, literary editor, and musician, Robyn Sarah is the author of ten poetry collections. My Shoes Are Killing Me won the 2015 Governor General’s Award and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for poetry. In 2017 Biblioasis published a forty-year retrospective, Wherever We Mean to Be: Selected Poems, 1975-2015. Her poems have been included in The Norton Anthology of Poetry and other anthologies in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., and two collections have appeared in French translation. She has also published two collections of short stories and a book of essays on poetry. Since 2011 she has served as poetry editor for Cormorant Books.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Aug. 24 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 348 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771963565
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771963565

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.

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