Aspen Article

Aspen Sojourner Magazine - Spring 2007

"Summer Polyphony" by Bruce Berger

The month was July, 1995, and the day was turning awkward. The evening before, two houseguests had arrived from La Paz, where I spend the darker half of the year. One owned Baja California Sur’s only piano store and worked part-time as a civil engineer, the other owned a pair of shoe stores and both, like me, were amateur classical pianists. Neither had been to Aspen before and I had hoped to show them the variety of local life during music season. My wish was getting overfulfilled. A few days before, at a social occasion, I had met a piano student named Hsing-ay Hsu and her boyfriend, a composition student named Dan Kellogg. Hsing-ay invited me to her upcoming recital at the music campus, warning that she would be performing on an upright in a cubicle, and I suggested she perform instead on my 1919 Steinway, an offer she snapped up. Shortly thereafter, a City employee called to say that on the same day, three Italian engineers would be spending time in my yard, figuring the best way to span Castle Creek with a new bridge, then run a straightened Highway 82 through my house, a matter she couched most delicately. It rained heavily on the night of my guests’ arrival and we woke to a driveway deeply underwater.

My drive has parking for one, and while I didn’t mind inconveniencing the engineers, I wanted to provide comfortable access for Hsing-ay’s recital. Gifted with assorted stray planks, two-by-fours and a bad back, I asked my guests if they would be so kind as to build some sort of walkway so pedestrians could get in and out. They threw themselves into the task and soon had converted my scraps into quite the brilliant causeway. I had feared that the engineers would interrupt the recital and I was relieved when they arrived late morning crisply formal in coats and ties, jabbered and pointed over Castle Creek on the edge of my lawn, briefly squinted through a device on a tripod, shook hands thanking me profusely and made a steady exit over the planks.

Without knowing about my flood, Hsing-ay arrived well prepared, crossing the planks in jeans with her concert dress in a bag nearly an hour before the recital, with ample time to change in the bathroom and warm up. The audience consisted of friends she had made in town, including neighbors whose house was visible from my own. The only guest missing was Dan Kellogg, down with a stomach flu. We didn’t know that this was her first public performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, opus 110, and that the need to play it for an audience had partly motivated the recital, but with reason we were impressed, for her mastery of it would win her second place in the William Kappell International Competition a year later. She followed it with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, a piece so difficult that the composer practiced it for seven years before venturing to play it in public. Fernando, of the shoe stores, had grown up in a Baja California ranching town until the age of fifteen, when his parents moved to La Paz so that he could absorb the slightly higher culture of what was still only a fancier cowtown by the sea. He loved classical music but knew it primarily from recordings, had never witnessed playing of that caliber live before, couldn’t believe that he was practically on top of it in the intimacy of my combination practice room, writing studio and guest quarters, and was flabbergasted by the way Hsing-ay “twisted her fingers”. Marcos, of the piano store, had seen slighly more of the world and was merely awestruck. The concert we heard that evening in the tent itself was decidedly anticlimactic.

The odd cluster of events wasn’t quite over, for the next day a recovered Dan Kellogg apeared at the door with a tape he had made for me of the music that most inspired him. We immediately put it on, and while the tonal clusters and polyrhythms of Bernstein, Ligeti, Carter, Crumb and Boulez were probably as opaque to my houseguests’ ears as Dan’s running commentary in English, I had wanted them to experience Aspen’s classical gamut and it was showing up at the door. “Is it always like this in summer in Aspen?” asked Fernando during cocktail hour.

I couldn’t resist. “The culture gives you no peace.”

Any statistician will tell you that it is more probable that events will bunch themselves than spread themselves out evenly, and my guests’ first two days in Aspen seemed unusually bunched. Return visits have been less eventful, but Fernando has been back twice and Marcos three times, with surely more visits to come. Meanwhile Marcos, the civil engineer, went on to become a specialist in the central spans of bridges; globe-trotting Aspenites who drive between La Paz and Todos Santos, in Baja California, might be surprised that the designer of its most significant span, La Muela, has been frequently sustained by Maroon and Castle Creek bridges. We, of course, joke that he got his start in my driveway – and those planks to the recital were indeed his first bridge.

As for Hsing-ay and Dan Kellogg, Hsing-ay would send me invitations to recitals in New York, which I couldn’t attend, while Dan became my houseguest on visits from the East Coast. One one occasion, occupying the house alone in September, he composed a piece for string quartet, naming it Whitening Fury for the unseasonal blizzard outside. The piece was presented at Curtis where the students, finding the title a tad overwrought, gave Dan the moniker White Man’s Fury during a spate of computer games on the Net. I was invited to Dan and Hsing-Ay’s wedding in Pennsylvania, couldn’t attend, then lost track of them.

I was excited, therefore, to read through the 2006 Music Festival calendar and discover a piece by Daniel Kellogg. Contemporary pieces are played so seldom that composers usually show up for their performances and I was sure he would be in town. I acquired his e-mail address from the festival and he e-mailed back that he’d intended, as his first act on reaching town, to knock on my door. I was amazed at the catch-up: he had been a twenty-year-old composition student when we first met and now, at the age of thirty-one, he had recived a range of commissions from the Philidelphia Orchestra to the Van Cliburn piano competition, had been performed extensively in the United States and Europe, and was working on a commission from the Denver Symphony for the inauguration of the new wing of the Denver Art Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind. Furthermore, he was now a relative neighbor, having become an assistant professor of music at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, while Hsing-Ay was running the university’s contemporary concert series, called Pendulum. She would have accompanied Dan to Aspen but was nursing their baby, who was six weeks old.

When time ran out on the fancy condo supplied by the festival, Dan moved to my house and continued the visit. He was busy orchestrating the piece for the Denver Symphony, I had always wondered how music was composed on a computer, and I got a full demonstration. The next concert of Pendulum, in Boulder, was to be given by pianist Ursula Oppens, daughter of my close friend Kurt Oppens, the festival’s program’s original annotator, and Edith Oppens, my former piano teacher, both deceased. It was an opportunity to present Ursula with what I had written about her father, and meanwhile I caught up again with Hsing-ay and their baby pre-concert in a college dive.

And what is the point of this heap of circumstances? From my own standpoint, it is as if they all blossomed from the unexpected crush of events that welcomed my friends from La Paz a dozen years back. It is also the dizzying sensation that incidents pertaining to Aspen ramify in all directions while, at the same time, circling round and round. One could protest that life in general is like that, but there are crossroads, nuclei, vortices where the effect intensifies, and Aspen is one of them, particularly in summer, particularly in the arts. Personally, I wouldn’t be anywhere else because I have the sense that during music season in Aspen, all the elsewheres are coming to me.