By Colin Pip Dixon
Many years ago I had one of my most important experiences in chamber music. It formed me and taught me what chamber music could really mean. I was studying for a year at a unique music academy located in an 18th century palace in the middle of nowhere in Poland. We were a small group of students from all over the world, coached by well-known teachers who would come for one or two weeks from many different countries. We were on full scholarship, housed, and fed for free.
In the first months, I felt intimidated by the other students and couldn’t find my place. I experienced an unspoken mean-spiritedness hidden behind smiles that was new to me, and I found myself retreating into the woods (both metaphorically and literally, spending more and more time alone in the surrounding forest).
I became friends with an Australian clarinetist named Gillian, and we started working on a Khatchaturian trio together with a Hungarian pianist. The pianist clearly wasn’t into the piece and neither were most of the teachers, who thought the piece was second-rate Soviet music by a mediocre composer. Even though Gillian and I really wanted to work on it, nothing came of it in the end.
When the winter term began, some new students arrived. Among them, two young women from Yerevan, Armenia — a mezzo named Anna and a pianist named Margarit. They were different from the others. Very different. They barely spoke English at first (which was the required common language) and their serious expressions, their being dressed mostly in black with white lace, and their general quality seemed to come from far away and long ago. No one talked with them much at first.
Since our Hungarian pianist no longer wanted to work on Khatchaturian with us, Gillian and I decided to ask the Armenian pianist (after all, Khatchaturian was Armenian). We gave Margarit the music. “I look and I tell you,” she answered us, taking the score and holding it close to her heart.
She came back to us a couple of days later and nodded, “Yes.” Anna (the singer) and Margarit were inseparable since their arrival, so it just seemed natural that Anna joined us for every rehearsal…. She would turn pages, help with the communication, give us feedback or criticism, and she sang for us. Yes, we began every rehearsal with her singing Sharakan — a capella 12th century religious songs that sounded like a cross between Gregorian chant and Middle Eastern music. Her voice was extraordinary, and we would lie on the floor of the lavishly furnished palace rooms with our eyes closed, transported as we listened to her.
When we rehearsed the Khatchaturian, our two Armenian friends would show us how a passage in the trio was inspired by a specific Armenian percussion instrument, or a traditional Armenian dance (and they would go ahead and dance for us). We would rehearse for hours, laugh, play games with the music, eventually deciding to perform the trio by heart. We also decided we would begin the performance with Anna singing a Sharakan, and then transition without a break directly into the trio. This somehow set up the musical and cultural context that the trio was coming from. It also reflected our group and our rehearsals. Anna was as much a part of the trio as the three of us were. We would rehearse late past midnight and never saw the time go by.
One of the deans of the academy (a cynical Polish woman who had worked in her youth for the Ministry of Culture under the former communist regime) later told me, “When the doors opened and you all came out of your rehearsal room, we could see that there was something different about all of you — something different from the others. The look on your faces, it was as if you had discovered heaven.”
In contrast, there was another group at the Academy that had assembled all of the “best” musicians and they were preparing a Brahms quartet very seriously. As far as I could see, they were out for the kill. They rehearsed for hours and hours, and I remember seeing the door to their rehearsal room swing open violently at the end of the rehearsal. Each of them would leave in a huff — storming out in a different direction with (so it seemed) smoke coming out of their ears and nostrils.
Little by little, Gillian (the Australian clarinetist) and I began to realize that our Armenian musicians, who seemed so modest, awkward, and out of place, were actually truly phenomenal musicians and artists … probably the best at the academy. We felt like we had won the lottery. And they had slowly become our dear friends. The four of us were known as “the Armenian Mafia” (Gillian and I were Armenian by adoption). The teachers at the Academy began to take notice of our little group and our Khatchaturian (which we had assumed would was destined to only be heard by the walls of our practice rooms) was programmed at the end of term festival in Krakow in the city’s beautiful chamber music hall. When the local news station came and asked to film a group for the evening news, the Academy director chose us.
With this group I had the incredible experience of the whole somehow magically becoming more powerful than each of the parts. It was an experience that only chamber music can give — here we were all giving fully as individual musicians and yet we were speaking together as one, and both our individuality and our collectivity were equally important. All cultural differences and barriers of language disappeared in the music. Somehow the excitement and love of the music and work we did together in our rehearsal rooms was palpable to others — teachers and an audience, and it was in some ways more powerful than other groups who were out to prove something.
The memory of that experience has guided me throughout the years of making music. Gillian and I went to Yerevan 10 years later to be reunited with our “Armenian Mafia.” Anna was now a celebrated singer in Armenia, and Margarit an accomplished pianist and teacher. We played a full program together and concluded with the Khatchaturian. More than ever I was filled with a sense of gratitude that life had allowed me to be a part of this, and that my playing had been lifted up by these other wonderful musicians. Once more I had the impression that we had discovered a little piece of heaven.