Far and Near

Neil Peart is responsible for this blog.

I’ve already mentioned that Rush is, at the root, the reason I moved to Canada.  But it goes deeper than that.

What first captivated me about Rush was the music. With my classical music roots, I was drawn to the complexity of their works, how they were able to make a trio sound like a much larger ensemble because the rhythm section — bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart–did far, far more than simply lay down a simple beat and groove. But then, it was the lyrics. I was ideally positioned when I began listening to Rush in my junior year in high school to be taking various English classes that opened up some of Peart’s literary references–in particular, the Coleridge poem ‘Xanadu’, That, in turn, led me to broaden my own reading–this was the period when I finally read Tolkien beyond The Hobbit, and Vonnegut, and Hemingway, and Tom Robbins. I also read Ayn Rand, although I knew at this point that Peart had moved beyond her philosophy.

But there was more to it than that. I have always had an ear for words–their sounds, their feel, their rhythms. I have favourite words (like vespertine and coruscant), and I have reveled in learning other languages’ vocabulary and unique rhythms. This is what I heard in Neil Peart’s lyrics. As a drummer, I believe he was uniquely talented as a lyricist–and his lyrics were as complex as his drumming, full of wordplay, wit, sometimes humour, and always, deep thought. He put both research and inspiration into his songs, which were (especially in later years) deeply personal, yet at the same time reserved. He never wrote a pure love song, but many of his songs were about love, and of longing, of wonder, pain, alienation, solitude–the whole spectrum of human experience.

Peart was famously an introvert, revealing little directly about his personal life or feelings, but if you look in the lyrics, you find a door, which, if opened, was revelatory. And this continued on into his later writing outside of his work for Rush, in the various books devoted to his travels. I found a kindred spirit in these books, because I have always, always looked on each road trip as a chance to look around me and perceive how even places a few kilometres apart have a different look and feel–through architecture, through climate and geographical situation, but even through the little things like road signage and layout of the streets. The Rush song The Camera Eye is about this very thing, comparing London and New York, and the “quality of light unique to every city’s streets.” But Peart, in his writings, took this farther, since his travels focused less on cities and more on the vast open spaces of North America. Through his vivid descriptions of parks, of wayside motels and church signs, of the roads themselves, and the people he met along the way, he taught me that there is always a journey in progress, and to be alert to the unexpected paths off the main route, wherever you might be going.

And it bore fruit, sometimes directly, but more importantly, as an approach. I wrote earlier this year about my stay at the Park Inn in Mason City, Iowa, a place I knew about from Peart’s writings, a place he had found by his passion for finding back roads between touring destinations. But most of the time, it’s not about going to same places Peart went. My own travels have focused on my unique obsessions–from disasters, to Art Deco, to history in general, to Frank Lloyd Wright houses, to now, of late, my near-insatiable passion for hearing Shostakovich played live. Each time I venture out, it’s about more than the putative destination–that is merely the culmination. It’s about the world around me, and past and present and future, and the emotions evoked. I learned that from Peart’s writing, both in lyrics and in his books.

It has also highlighted the fact that sometimes you can leap forward by looking back. For nearly 20 years, the music of Rush had receded into the background for me–a passion I always viewed as foundational for me, but not so much an active pursuit. In 2010, I saw the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage and it all came roaring back. I caught my first Rush concert in years soon thereafter, and my passion flamed anew. From that point on, I didn’t miss a single concert in Toronto or Hamilton and found myself confounding my introversion to attend RushCon four times. And I read all of Peart’s books, grabbing each new one as it was published. With the home of my youth now lost except to memory, with my parents gone, there was a comfort in the persistence of this music and of a band which had followed their own path, at the same time affirming the importance of family, friends, and ethical engagement with the world. The performance of the music itself may have been beyond my capabilities, but to evince this kind of integrity in my daily life was something I could strive for in my every word, thought, and deed.

*****

My favourite Rush song remains “Mystic Rhythms”, which, I think, speaks to the mysteries of the universe which continue to fascinate and move me. When I heard of Neil Peart’s death yesterday, I had just checked into a hotel in Grand Rapids, MI, with a ticket to se a Shostakovich symphony in the evening. Traveling in January in the Midwest always means that Mother Nature is always lurking in the wings. Last year, I had driven through unexpected whiteout conditions to hear the Shostakovich 8th symphony in Detroit–and the week before, had made a trip to Cleveland to see Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–despite the fact that a snowstorm was forecast for that Saturday. So for this concert, I monitored the weather closely ahead of time.

My ticket was for Saturday night, and the plan was to drive down on Saturday, see the concert, stay overnight, and then catch the Meyer May House early Sunday afternoon. But on Tuesday, the forecast for the weekend changed drastically–and now, a major storm was expected on Saturday. Being the good project manager that I am, I decided to mitigate the risk of weather (and possible cancellation of the concert by leaving a day early and buying a ticket for Friday’s concert. I’d then hole up in the hotel, wait out the storm (maybe get to see the concert again, if I was lucky), and then head home Sunday, hoping the Meyer May would be open.

Tuesday, as it turns out, was the day that Neil Peart died. So the universe, I like to think, conspired to put me in a hotel room on a Saturday with the time to write.

So many things I think about
When I look far away
Things I know, things I wonder
Things I’d like to say
The more we think we know about
The greater the unknown
We suspend our disbelief
And we are not alone

Mystic rhythms
Capture my thoughts
Carry them away
Mysteries of night
Escape the light of day
Mystic rhythms
Under northern lights
Or the African sun
Primitive things stir
The hearts of everyone

We sometimes catch a window
A glimpse of what’s beyond
Was it just imagination
Stringing us along?
More things than are dreamed about
Unseen and unexplained
We suspend our disbelief
And we are entertained

********

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I found my passion for Shostakovich not long after Rush retired. Even though the music is very, very different (and Shostakovich wrote no lyrics) I find a similar kind of emotional engagement and impact in his works as I do in Rush’s. More pointedly, I find the same devotion to artistic integrity. Shostakovich had to write certain things to survive, but he never stopped imbuing his works with layers of meaning, His Eleventh Symphony is a case in point. Subtitled “The Year 1905”, it was lumped for many years in with the 2nd, 3rd, and 12th symphonies as more propaganda than art–until Shostakovich’s private letters (as well as Testimony, the memoir that was probably not a dictated autobiography but likely based on a combination of published stories and others overheard by the author) revealed that there may have been much more at work. First was the fact that Shostakovich’s father was present at the events described in the piece–the January Winter Palace massacre that set off the first Russian revolution in 1905. This was, therefore, somewhat personal for him. The second was the fact that the work was written in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and its brutal quashing by the Soviets–a fact mentioned not just in Testimony but in other private letters. So, yes, the piece is about 1905, but it is also about 1956, events that would have been fresh in the minds of listeners in 1957.

The important thing, however, is not whether the Eleventh has a double meaning–it’s whether it works as a piece of music. It’s full of all kinds of revolutionary songs a Russian would have recognized (adding another layer of meaning we Westerners or even more modern Russians likely miss). It’s sometimes been described as a movie soundtrack without the movie. Lasting about an hour, the Eleventh does not follow a typical sonata-form symphonic structure; its four movements work better if thought of as “scenes.” The first movement sets the scene in the January cold at the Palace square, full of icy stillness punctuated by trumpet calls and ominous percussion to underscore the military threat. Gradually, tension builds, and in the second movement, the murmur of the crowd and their ever-louder cries is punctuated by gunshots and the massacre itself, followed by chilling silence. In the third movement, a funeral cortège moves along, first mourning quietly, then bursting forth in deep grief. The fourth movement points to the response to the tragedy–the remaining emotions of tragedy along with anger and defiance.

I suspected–and was proved correct–that this work would absolutely bloom when played live. The Grand Rapids Symphony was let by guest conductor Peter Oundjian, who I don’t believe ever performed this work with the Toronto Symphony during his long tenure there. This is unfortunate–he brought a clear passion for the work and total engagement with the orchestra through the whole of this hour-long work. And no one should ever underestimate the power of an enormous orchestra playing quietly.

The setup of the first movement, with its gelid, transparent open harmonies underscored by the harp and its distant trumpet cries, was achieve a kind of perfect, nervous stillness–(even if the high trumpet bobbled a couple of notes). But the second movement, as the orchestra opened up, culminating in the “gunshots” from the snare and the entire orchestra joining at full volume, bows furiously working as if evoking a scene of battle, was breathtaking, particularly the sudden cessation and return to the theme that opened the first movement, but this time expressed not in long, slow bowstrokes but by trilling. At the moment the full orchestra dropped out, the lights were dimmed dramatically (not to fully return until the fourth movement) I also noticed the presence of the celesta, a favourite Shostakovich technique to express a kind of otherworldly emptiness.

The opening of the third movement is restricted to low strings, with the violas carrying a beautiful, understated funeral march. This eventually transitioned into a tremendous emotional outburst of grief by the entire orchestra before ending in quiet and stillness. Then, the fourth movement–the highlight here was the long English horn solo just before the alarm bells (the Tocsin of the movement’s title) began ringing and the entire orchestra roared to a spectacular and sudden conclusion – made all the more dramatic by the fact the lights were completely extinguished as the final tones from the bells were left hanging in silence.

The standing ovation was immediate.

As of this writing, I am still not sure whether I will get to see this a second time tonight.

Incidentally, there is an odd connection between Dmitri Shostakovich and Neil Peart. They share a birthday – kind of. Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906, but using the Julian calendar that was in use when he was born, his birthdate was September 12. Neil Peart was born 47 years later, on September 12, 1952. Does that mean anything? Nope. But I find it nonetheless fascinating.

The more we think we know about, the greater the unknown.

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