As I was logging into work today, I was thinking “I wonder how much time it will take me to catch up?” and then I realized–I hadn’t missed any work. I worked a full day Friday. But the weekend was so full and so intense I felt like I had been away for days instead of about 38 hours. Everything culminated last night in the intensity of the final installment of the Shostakovich quartet cycle, which was everything. But yet, there was more.

But before that:
I mentioned in my previous post that I’d picked up two books at the bookstore in Guelph: Kate Beaton’s Canada Reads-winning graphic memoir, Ducks, and a second book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, by Dacher Keltner. The former was everything Mattea Roach said it was and more (there was much there that spoke to me as an arts graduate). The latter was an impulse buy, but confirmed so much in what has, in retrospect, the emotion I’ve sought out and cultivated ever since I was a lonely third grader staring up at the sky and marveling about those worlds so far beyond me. The book spoke to so many things that are important to me–nature, music, architecture, art, science, the inspiration of everyday acts of courage, and of ceremony and ritual. Seeking out, inducing, and sharing awe is at the absolute centre of my spiritual core. It is a catalyst to my intense curiosity, my joy in seeing patterns in life, and the incredible probability of my existence and consciousness at this time and place in a vast universe. If you look at my passions, so many of them spring from a sense of awe, of standing gape-mouthed in a place of wonder (or sometimes, of horror–not all awe is positive) at the stunning fruits of human creativity and their ability to evoke emotions; of the forces of nature from the subatomic level up through the universal; and of the everyday rhythms of life and death. I see the view (common in Indigenous cultures) of living life as Ceremony as an incredibly insightful way of expressing everyday awe, especially with nature. For me, immersing myself in music, looking with insatiable curiosity at the world around me–always questing for more, knowing full well that complete understanding will always escape me– and expressing myself through creation is my own ceremony of awe, one I live daily.

And what better time to have read this than immediately before a trip that would, as planned, likely stoke those fires of awe in so many ways.

My dialogue with the city of Buffalo dates back to 1976. On our way to Montreal, we visited my aunt and uncle and cousins (seven of them), staying in the city a couple of days. We visited Niagara Falls one day, but for the other, my cousins took me to a local playground program, incorporating me into their life for a day. My aunt Kitty quickly became my favourite aunt, and my cousins Jenny and Colleen two of my favourite relatives. They lived in an older house on a shady street near a university campus, one that we would visit many times over the years as my cousins grew up and married–those family weddings were always memorable. When I moved to Canada for grad school, my uncle Ken stored my car for awhile at his truck lot, and when I joined the SCA Aunt Kitty let me raid her stash of fabric. I became familiar with Niagara Falls Blvd. just north of their house–going to the local mall or out to lunch. When we moved back to Canada after a sojourn in the US, we stayed at their house again overnight, parking the truck full of our worldly goods up the street and stashing the cats in their carriers in the room where we slept overnight. The kids, of course, had all moved out by then, so there was plenty of space to stay. This was my Buffalo for years–that small orbit of family. Joining the SCA showed me a different side of Buffalo–I learned to fence there, attended Ice Dragon, and later made several friends from the city. We’d stop there on the way here or there for shopping, but the city itself remained elusive.

It was the Darwin Martin House that began to change this. Through learning about the house, I learned a little about the city itself, and I started to see it as something more beyond the place where family and friends lived. I learned more of its history, and started to realize that it was worth exploring on its own. There were things like the three ships in the harbour that one could tour, and Old Ft. Niagara to its north. There was the adjacent disaster of Love Canal. And there was some very interesting architecture I could see while whizzing by on I-190. I’d always wanted to take a tour, but the timing was always wrong. More recently, I’d seen videos on some of the area’s dead malls. One was the Boulevard Mall–the one we’d always go to while visiting my cousins; there was also the McKinley Mall, which was situated at the exit where I often stopped for Wegman’s, Olive Garden, and (once upon a time) Boston Market on the way home from Ohio; and there was a mysterious, rather creepy dark mall downtown.

So when I found out about the Shostakovich quartet cycle, I planned an overnight for the final two concerts, which took place on a weekend. I’d visit the Martin house again (there were always new things to see there). I’d finally take that architectural walking tour on a Sunday morning. I’d go visit the Boulevard and McKinley malls. There’d also be time for dinner with a friend and visits to Joann’s and Wegman’s/

There is certainly a ritual to crossing the border. For many years in the 90s and 00s, I did it regularly–first, as a grad student, visiting home three or four times a year (as well as crossings for SCA events); then, in the 00s after we’d moved back to Canada, briefly weekly but eventually monthly to be onsite for work, and then, after that job ended, a few times again before my father’s passing. Since then, the crossings have been for travel and for the SCA, and then, during COVID, not at all. But what has not changed: Reading the oracles to understand which border crossing would have the least wait, and then the ritual of picking a lane and swearing when, inevitably, we seemed to be in the slow lane (or rejoicing in the rarity of no wait at all.) The nervousness, the questions, even though as a dual citizen I have a right to enter. The sigh of relief once across. None of these have lessened. I have learned to build padding into my itinerary to accommodate for any glitches. I had crossed over at Lewiston for all of the trips for these concerts, and something about those twin arched metal bridges taking the traveller on and off of Grand Island, so narrow that the driver could look straight down to water below, did not fail to invoke a certain sense of wonder. I also noted at the progress of deconstruction of an overpass, which I’d seen gradually shrinking on the past three trips, sparks lighting up the sky at night as first the concrete, and then the girders themselves were removed.

A steady rain had been falling this Saturday morning, and the warmth of the day before had been drained out to leave a cold, greyness to the world. But at the Martin House, it stopped for a bit. All around the house, in the restored landscaping plan, spring flowers were in bloom. Towards the back garden, in the raised boxes, fiddleheads were starting to unroll.

Someday, perhaps, I will see the wisteria fireplace with sunlight filtering through, allowing the iridescent mosaic to explode into colour. Today was not that day. But upstairs, the primary bedroom had been completed with a built-in bed constructed to Wright’s specifications (apparently, it was too short at just 5’4″–Darwin Martin’s height, incidentally, but with no room to spare) and the Martins had it taken out. Still, seeing the symmetry of the room with the bed in place was striking. I learned new things, too–how the wisteria planted in the garden had been taken from nubs of the original wisteria found in the ruins of the previous gardens, where apartment buildings had once stood, and also about the clever two-layer built-in bookcases. Mainly I just reveled in the gorgeous interior of a Prairie-style masterpiece. Every time I walk through the main floor, I remember the stories of how it was once open to the elements and neighbourhood children would rollerskate there. Every time I walk down the pergola, I remember my first visit when the rebuilt pergola did not yet exist (I never saw the ugly apartment buildings that once stood there). I sometimes have a dream that if they could rebuild the Martin House, maybe they could rebuild the Larkin Building. For now, a replica of one of the plaques with inspirational virtues will have to do.

After checking in at my hotel, it was off to an Olive Garden dinner with an SCA friend. There were comparisons of cat photos and lives, and mutual disillusionment with certain aspects of the SCA, as well as appreciation for the creation of her Laurel ceremony. For someone doubting her ceremony chops–or rather, perhaps, her ability to write ceremonies that others will find moving–those words were everything.

IV: 10-12
This stretch of the quartet cycle was lacking in any that I would consider a real favourite (although 10 does come close as sort of a liminal space of transition into Shostakovich’s late period.) 9 and 10 were composed very close together, and sound that way. There is an intense allegro furioso movement that in the performances I’ve heard, always sounds angry, but the following movement is so gentle and soothing. Wendy Lesser calls it both the harshest and the friendliest of Shostakovich’s quartets, and the program notes also mentioned this dichotomy. The Alexander Quartet’s interpretation definitely leaned towards the “friendly” side–the furioso wasn’t so much, and as a result, the whiplash into the balm of the third movement was lacking. Still, 3 of the 4 movements were not marked furioso and were beautifully played.

No.11 was my favourite of the night. Like no. 7, I think I vastly underrated it. Because it’s chopped into short movements, there is so much going on there, so much interplay between the instruments that does not come out in recordings—it’s so much better live. Lesser calls this one “the quietest, most broken” of Shostakovich’s quartets. It is indeed quiet, but I’d argue that it’s purposely fragmented rather than broken–and there are all kinds of intriguing bits. Oh the glissandos! They are counterpoint to a figure I think the Emerson Quartet was referencing when they said it sounded like a Suzuki exercise. This was a memorial quartet for the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, and the amount of silence, shimmering harmonics, muted sections, and those glissandos really invoke the feeling of ghostliness.

No. 12 continues to grow on me. That long second movement has an interesting narrative that alternates whacked out borderline atonal stuff with gentle, rather beautiful parts. There’s a narrative there that I’m going to have to listen to a few more times to get. This quartet was is also WAY better live. The piecing together of each musical phrase among the four voices—again, you just don’t hear it as much in the recordings, but live, you SEE it, and you start to understand the structure and thus the entire piece. I will be seeing the Emerson play this on their farewell tour in June.

Sunday morning: Ah, the good kind of cinnamon rolls at the hotel, and not chopped into pieces as they had been during our stay in Ottawa.

Then, the architectural walking tour. I was happy I’d purchased a sweatshirt at the Martin House, because my leather jacket wasn’t cutting it alone with the wind coming off the lake. Finally, a chance to see some of Buffalo’s architectural treasures! The highlights for me were certainly the spectacular Art Deco City Hall building and the Louis Sullivan-designed Guaranty/Prudential building, with all of its amazing terracotta tracery, but the Yamasaki-designed M&T building (same architect as the original World Trade Center) was also a highlight. And then, at the centre of the loop around Downtown, there was a black hole, as it were, of Main Place, a dark, looming office tower attached to one of the dead malls from the Expedition Log and Ace’s Adventures series. It was certainly not mentioned on the tour at all, and in the midst of the architectural jewels we visited, it looked ominous and foreboding. Back when the videos were made, it still had a thriving food court. It seems completely abandoned now–there were just little signs on all the doors that said “closed.”

After my tour, I was eager for some actual inside dead mall content, so it was off first to the McKinley Mall south of town. I’d seen this mall many, many times with its Frank Lloyd Wright-esque signs, but had never ventured inside until now. Every dead mall is a little different. This one was down to one anchor (a rather junky JCPenney) but still had a lot of thriving stores, including a Best Buy and a Barnes and Noble. along with a decent number of chain stores. With the announcement that Bed, Bath and Beyond will be winding down their operations just a day or so before, that will be another loss for this mall. It’s a really pretty mall–but, alas, it’s pretty dead. The creative use of one storefront for a cornhole league, the sad food court with just three off-brand stores, and the large, tacky Buy American store were indicative of its desperation. On the other hand, there was a really nice cat adoption place. I believe this one is owned by one of the notorious mall slumlords, though, and the parking lot certainly showed it. I did pick up a nice sweatshirt from a Buffalo-themed store. Plus I picked up the usual minestrone soup from the adjacent Olive Garden (that was certainly doing fine) and some really nice herringbone cotton fabric that looks pretty much like wool.

Then it was off to Boulevard Mall, the mall of my childhood visits. This one had two anchors left (JCPenney and Macy’s) but otherwise, almost all of the stores were one-off Mom and Pop-type places. This one hosted a bridge league (with a fair number of enthusiastic players), plus a still-functioning fountain. Both the Macy’s (which I remember from past visits) and JCPenney seemed to be well-kept.

V: 13-15

To recap: when it came to the previous concerts, I was surprised that some of the quartets I had eagerly awaited were surpassed by dark horses. In particular, 5 and 10 were two I was eager to hear, but 7 and 11 unexpectedly engaged me more emotionally. (Note that this is more a matter of emotional impact–there wasn’t a single one of these works that was less than amazing–there were just some that were spectacular.

So coming into that, I was wondering what 13 in particular, and to some extent 15 would be like.

And then, at the very first notes played by the viola in 13, I teared up. There is Shost again, using partial tone rows to convey a deep sense of aching, yearning, searching for something, culminating in dissonant chords that will not resolve. And then the other instruments pick it up and it’s just full of this kind of glassy shimmering, before moving into the section with the stabbing crescendoed notes traded amongst the instruments. Those were a little more subdued than I’ve heard in some renditions; instead the emphasis was on the three chords played by all of the instruments together right before the section with the tapping–and I suddenly realized I’d heard that rhythm before in the 8th quartet, 4th movement–it’s the so-called “knock at the door” part. And suddenly I realized that motif was everywhere in that central section. For that section, the 2nd violin and viola tapped their chinrests and the cello tapped the side of his instrument (oddly enough making the cello tap seem higher pitched than the others). What struck me here is just how much the various lines just flow into each other. There’s such a strong beat here with that jazzy bassline that any hiccup in coordination would have stood out–and it was just perfect. Then the piece arcs back to the opening themes, and by the time the end approached and things shimmer back into the solitude of the viola, I was legitimately crying. The ending just left me agape at the improbably high note on the viola and how the violins rush in as if to support it, so that the final note hangs in the air as if in the aftermath of a slashing tl/dr, the 13th left me literally awestruck.

14, after 13, was Shost whiplash. Oh my gods, it was so beautiful and bouncy and lyrical and dark all at the same time. The cello lines recall parts of the cello concertos but also the bit from Lady Macbeth that he quoted in the 8th quartet (that sort of lovely, searching, aching kind of lyricism that he does so well, combined with late-period sound worlds). Once again–I’d underrated this quartet.

For 15, which was after the intermission–I made the mistake of checking my phone during the interval and had let my mind drift to SCA BoD controversies (perhaps for another post, so as not to distract from this one). So I was a little in the wrong headspace to start, and it didn’t really make me cry like the 13th. But its repetition began to calm me (no flies dropped dead, though). Unlike the similar ones in 13th, those long searing one note crescendoed bowstrokes literally made me shiver, especially after that long first section. Seeing them flow like waves back and forward through the four members of the quartet – violin 1, violin 2, viola, and cello (remember they were seated in that order)–and back was, again, a visual component that added significantly to the performance. And more than any of the other quartets, the communication between the performers was remarkable. I can also feel a lot of the viola sonata in the work–they are of the same world for sure. The whole 15th reminds me a little of watching the ocean–in both calm and storm. As the end neared, the shivers increased. The bit near the end with all of the fast, chromatic, metallic (insect-like?) notes was like looking at something iridescent, almost beyond description, and then by the end, with the viola trilling over that long final note out into darkness——-

The entire audience than rose in appreciation of what the Alexander Quartet had done for us lucky enough to witness it. It was everything I’d hoped for, and more. It was awesome, in the full sense of that word. I am in awe of both Shostakovich’s achievement in writing these 15 works, and in the Alexander Quartet’s ability to bring each to life over the course of five concerts. I made a bracelet in commemoration, one with a sliding stone for each quartet, representing the month of its birth. I will wear that to any single Shostakovich quartet performances in the future, and remember.

A stop at Tops for French Bread pizzas. Another at Wegman’s for ice cream. Then, home.

Tonight, a pause before the next adventure–Springfield, then Chicago. A new Wright house, and one I’ve seen before. And, at last, the Chicago Symphony playing Shostakovich. Once, it would have been Symphony no. 7. Now, in a different world, it is no. 8. It will be a different kind of awe–not that of victory, but of survival.