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A Russian-American Love Story

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First, there's The Look. Not just any look, but The Look: a thousand stars exploding in silver threads at the bottom of your heart, weaving from across the room the very first stitches in a sparkling story. Love. It starts so small, it's a miracle we can feel it. But when we do, and when it catches fire, and when we take care to feed to flames, it is unstoppable.

For me, it was not a look. It was a sound. It was last July, the halfway point of my master's degree in violin performance. Nashville sweats rivers in July, and on one particularly sweltering day I sat in the refuge of The Well's air-conditioning and iced coffee and let the atonal waves of Shostakovich's "Sonata for Violin and Piano Opus 134" wash over me. I grimaced. Not out of dislike, but out of misunderstanding. And yet, I felt I needed to play the piece. I needed to understand it. I needed to understand him.

I emailed my violin teacher, who approved the sonata's addition to my graduate recital program. Between the mouse-click order of the music and the package's arrival on my doorstep, I couldn't stop listening. I have been a musician my entire life, but this is the music that stole my heart. And so, I fell in love with Shostakovich.

He taught me to trust in what my own hands can make. There is a point in the practice of any physical skill where the necessary movements become second nature and you can let go of all the intensity that was required in the learning process. After months of going back and forth from pencil on paper to bow on strings, the ecstasy of performing this work was an achievement incomparable to any past experience I have had. The three-movement work takes an emotional toll on the performer, but it was a tax I willingly paid. The returns on my physical and emotional investment in this piece were invaluable.

He taught me to sing. The melodies are difficult and inconsistent. They require endless, intimate listening, the way you listen to the breath of a sleeping lover. Intervals in music are nothing and everything. The listener rarely thinks in intervals and so they are nothing; the performer must internalize the intervals to the level of marrow, and so they are everything. Singing, I found, made the internalization easier. I will never understand how the synapses connect across major sevenths and tritones, but they do. And if they can connect over such discordant notes to the point where they sound right and even beautiful, it seems to me they can connect over anything.

He taught me the incredible brilliance of pure chaos. Discordia concors, the theory of the divine tuning of the universe, stretches back thousands of years into Western history. The desire to accept and welcome the strange, the different, and the dissonant is inevitably met with backlash and resistance to change. The grimace on my face back on that sticky July day was my resistance. But now that I know and understand the piece, I know that today's constellation, built from yesterday's disconnected and random stars, was there all along. "Magical" is the only adjective, however adolescent, that accurately describes the sonata's transformation in my mind from atonal confusion to perfectly sensible melody. From the fragmented impossibility to the divinely tuned.

I've been saying "he," and after learning and performing this sonata, I can quite truthfully say that I am in love with Shostakovich. But in reality, this love story is about loving difference. Last July, I sat down to have coffee with atonality. After a seven-month affair full of lengthy discussions and bickering and, most of all, listening, I learned that we should strive above all else to learn and to love that which seems most unreachable and confusing, for it is these things that have the most to teach us about our own souls.

My recital was on March 16th. I have no doubt that the Shostakovich fell on confused ears and even grimacing faces in the audience. I hope they took what they heard with them that day to ponder, to sit with over coffee, and maybe, someday, to love.