TALES OF THE UNCANNY
I once heard Menahem Pressler play the piano in Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major with four young women who call themselves The Cecilia String Quartet. At the time this happened Pressler was 87 years old. I do not know how old the young women were, but a good guess would be that Pressler was 60 years older than the oldest of them or maybe we could say three generations. Rebecca Wenham played the cello solo at the beginning with great elegance, and then Pressler comes in with the loud part and after that it was just Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major and it didn’t matter that Min-Jeong Koh’s violin was more than 200 years older than she was or what color dress she was wearing.
Harry Berger Jr. is about the same age as Menahem Pressler. He used to play jazz clarinet in a club near Santa Cruz, CA, the same club where one of my PhD students once played guitar. I never heard Harry play the clarinet but I did take his class about Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and then the next year he did that seminar on Modern Poetry where we read Yeats and Frost and William Carlos William. That was the class where I first read Beyond the Pleasure Principle and learned that once sexual reproduction emerged in evolutionary history immortality became a pointless luxury. We also talked about the Second Law of Thermodynamics in that class and I said something about it that made Harry laugh, which he probably stole my idea, whatever it was, but by the time he got done with it I wouldn’t have recognized it. Anyway, just in case he really did steal my idea I would never begrudge him, because he was always interested in what we had to say, no matter how weird it was, but even more important I learned from him how to be a teacher, or maybe he showed why I had to follow my vocation, but whatever it was he taught me I will always be grateful for it.
Well Harry was my teacher maybe fifty–five years ago, and then after that we were colleagues and friends for a long time and now Harry pretends to be annoyed that one of his old students is already retired and his retired student has at least one former student who just retired from his position at U. C. Santa Cruz where Harry used to teach but they don’t know each other.
He came to McGill last month to give a talk and we had a great reunion before the talk. After the talk he was tired and wanted to go back to his hotel for a nap before we all went over to the big reception in his honor. He invited me to go with him, along with Anna, the young graduate student who was assigned to be his personal assistant during his visit. So we get back to the room and he flops down on the bed in his grey herringbone three–piece suit and after a few minutes Anna says he is asleep and she comes over and kneels down on the floor, because the chair I was sitting on was only one in the room. She looks up at me with her beautiful brown eyes and says “can we read some poetry now?”
Anna was interested in John Donne and she had a beautiful voice and she even knew some music for some of Donne’s poems,which she was happy to sing, and then just around the time we were reading Aire and Angels Harry woke up and he thought we were playing cards. If you were just waking up and you saw a man and a much younger woman sitting on the floor cross–legged facing each other you might think they were playing cards, but what we were doing was reading poetry on Anna’s smart phone, which miraculously contained all the poems John Donne ever wrote and in addition it looked a lot like a deck of playing cards if you didn’t look too closely. So Harry read the poem too, which is all about the neo–platonic concept of love and beauty, but then we were all stuck on how to read this bit:
Whilst thus to ballast love I thought,
And so more steadily to have gone,
With wares which would sink admiration,
I saw I had love's pinnace overfraught;
I knew that a pinnace was a kind of smallish boat used as a lifeboat or maybe to offload ships in the harbor because I once came across the word in Treasure Island – or was it Mutiny on the Bounty. Two Years Before the Mast? Harry once looked up the word and found out that “pinnace” was also slang for a prostitute. So we had a nice long discussion about all this, and then about half–an–hour later Anna burst out laughing, so Harry asked “what’s so funny” and she said “I finally got the joke about the pinnace,” so we all grinned about that. It’s kind of funny to find stuff like this hiding in the underbrush of the language as Harry would put it, right in the middle of a poem about the neo–platonic concept of love and beauty, but that’s the kind of thing Harry taught us to notice. He used to call it conspicuous irrelevance, @ddailey, if that's what you're wondering about.
Qiao Yi Miao Mu was born in Kunming, Yunnan Province in China and moved to Canada when she was ten. I do not know how old she is, but probably older than she looks, although she could actually be younger than she looks and still play the piano part as well as it needs to be played. Why not? When she came out on stage in her white dress at Bourgie Hall earlier this month to play in Schubert’s "Trout" Quintet she couldn’t find the piano at first because the three middle-aged men in dark gray suits she was going to perform with kept getting in her way, not to mention the tall young man with the bass viol. She grinned her mischievous grin, dodged around the cello, neatly avoiding the violinist, found the Steinway and sat down. After that she ruled the stage, just the way she was supposed to. You need a good bass player to perform Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. This one, his father was the viola player, but I’m not sure if this fact has any kind of relevance here.