by Kleitia Vaso

“Ting, ting, ting,” the piano keys resound with a hollow, tin-like sound. An uncontrollable burst of laughter leaves my chest and makes its illegal way out into the quiet room. Embarrassed but unable to control myself, I turn towards my co-sufferers J. and S. and they bite their lips and roll their eyes to signal both their disapproval of my childish behavior and to put a stop to something that might provoke their own laughter.

You can’t really blame the little girl playing the piano. She seems tiny, maybe 5 or 6 years old, but her playing sounds as though a pair of body-less hands are haphazardly pounding on the piano keys. Or, as the crazy piano starts playing by itself, urged by an invisible demon. In short, someone tapping on an empty tin can would have produced more melodious music. But, let’s forgive the little girl because of her age.

Then, after a few pleasant but forgettable performances, an older girl, precociously sure of herself. From the self-confidence she exudes, we expect to be hypnotized by the tempestuous sound or the angelic music her magical fingers will produce. Yet, she sits on the piano and proceeds to make no technical mistakes but plays soullessly. Her raised eyebrows and uppity chin betray all the entitled but precarious self-satisfaction of a zealous girl who has steadily received all possible platitudes from her teachers and parents. Even the bow at the end of her playing contradicts the very nature of the gesture; her effort at conveying a sense of gratitude to her audience screams a “you’re welcome!” rather than a humble “thank you!” Accustomed to her close circle shaking their heads in approval, if and once she stands outside their warm protection, the girl will be repeatedly disappointed for not receiving the accolades owed her by the cold world. But, she will continue collecting points, perhaps in terms of grades, awards, certificates or money, and those will fill the void. Their never-ending collection will conveniently distract from a vital but concealed absence which may not be seen but will surely be felt.

After her, a strange-looking boy with a disproportionately huge head and a tiny body.  His somewhat melancholic face seems promising and, indeed, once he begins playing, one’s spirit lifts up. Despite of the sadness, because of it, an emotion within him reaches across the room and, for a brief instant, transports me away from the specific room, city, time. Finally, a sliver of a soul accompanying the melody. I cannot tell whether he makes any mistakes; I only know that I am happy to feel something, even share in the sadness of a little boy who, though he may know how to play, has little confidence that this moderate amount of talent will spare him any future pain.

His uncertain but emotional playing reminded me of a “lecture” by my unofficial opera professor, B., who, once, so beautifully explained the differences among sopranos. Maria Callas, he said, is imperfect technically – she may even make obvious mistakes – but the emotionality of her voice, i.e. her character, can transport you, move you, make you cry if in the right frame of mind and/or emotional state. She can embody, as all great artists, both a character, whether it is Violetta or Aida, while remaining determinedly herself. The paradox of inhabiting another and transporting the spectator/listener to that particular world without having to renounce one’s distinct presence can be reached only by the most authentic. This dual presence reminds me of the greatest title of an exhibition I’ve ever heard, When I give, I give myself, fittingly bestowed on the belatedly rewarded giver, Van Gogh. The brilliant title implies that the great painter offers that which is most valuable instead of substituting it, rationing it with something easier and more pleasant to offer. I suppose he would have chosen something easier to give if he could have. Instead, in his paintings, he is always there, as energy,  in tense lines and halos that are still alive, always moving; his works, equal parts him and stars, cypresses, peasants or fields of gold. His being would have poured out anyway, whatever the medium – paint, music, voice, prayer, extreme gestures of harm or adulation – because regardless of the mode selected, the primary tool of art is the human being.

by Kleitia Vaso