Michael Jones – Playing Rain

Michael’s Story of Return

Michael Jones: I want to share a few reflections on my own experience of “return.” I don’t know as an artist that I can think about the return without also thinking about place. We just experienced, in my sense, “a place making.” This is the opportunity to capture, to document, to bring forth, the images of the place, the stories or narrative of place that we have gathered through our time here. As an artist, I’m always playing from somewhere. Music is not abstract. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes from somewhere. Almost any piece I play has a narrative. It has a story line, that is connected to where the music has come from.

That became apparent to me once when I came back to Toronto from having been at University for four years, studying music. I was going on to do graduate work at the University of Toronto. I also wanted to find some opportunity for a place where I might play. I knew that there was a dance theater not far away from where I lived in downtown Toronto based on the Martha Graham School in New York. And so I was curious. I thought I might go over and see if they would hire me part time, so I could at least have a piano that I could play because I lived in a small apartment and had nothing to practice on. I went up these stairs overtop of an auto body shop in Cumberland Avenue in downtown Toronto and saw this marvelous nine-foot concert grand piano and knew I’d found home.

Place, I think, also speaks to home. It is place that just feels right and natural – where we feel that  we belong.  In a sense it is like a reunion  – a  sense  that we’ve returned.  And I thought maybe at that moment just seeing that beautiful piano and the natural light coming in through those floor to ceiling windows that I had come home. And so I said “My name is Michael, I’m looking for work,” I was talking to Patricia, who was the director of the school, and I said, “I’m doing some graduate work at the University but I’d like to find some part-time work playing the piano. Would you have some work here.” She said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, one of our regulars just left for Vancouver. We have an opening; Amelia’s class is in need of a pianist. Could you come by tomorrow morning? Let’s just try it out. Be curious to see how this might work out for you.”

I went back to my apartment and as I thought about what I’d just committed to I got very nervous.  I realized I didn’t know how to play for dance.  I didn’t quite know what I’d gotten myself into. And so I gathered up all the sheet music I could find around my apartment and put it into a box. The next morning at nine-thirty I carried the box of music under my arm heading off to my first dance class.  I walked up the stairs again, settled in, put the box down just beside the piano. And Amelia said, “Welcome, Michael its wonderful to have you here. There are thirty dancers all warming up on the stretch bar,” and she said, “ I would like to begin with just some improvisational work to warm up. Could you play some music for us, please, that has the feeling of rain in it?”  I thought about my years t the conservatory where I had performed Beethoven Bach and Chopin.  I realized in all my years there I don’t think anybody ever taught me how to play rain. So already there was a limitation.

So I started sorting through the box, Looking for something, like maybe “raindrops falling on my head” or, something that I thought would get the spirit of what she was asking for. She could see I was in some difficulty, so she came over to the piano. It  turned out she was also a pianist, she came right up to the piano, sat down right beside me, and just very quickly, in the very upper notes,  played something very light and beautiful. And said, “Like this! ”  And then she went back to join the dancers, and I immediately put my hands, actually put my fingers in exactly the same note she had just played. And I started to do exactly what she had just done. I was really just trying to imitate something that she had  just shown me. And as I did that the dancers started moving out across the floor, doing these marvelous movements, like this, with the fluttering of hands, to give the impression of rain. And I was just, for a moment, just captured by what was beginning to happen around me.

I’d never had an experience before in my life where as I played – others were moving. And they through their movements, were beginning to suggest things that I might be able to do with my own hands as I began to move around the piano. It was a marvelous opening because I realized, one composer, whose music I love was Chopin. Chopin for me was a sense of home because when I entered into the feeling of touch, which was the language of Chopin’s music, it really opened up this whole language for me of touch, of the nuance, of how I could begin to shape and bend the notes rather than strike or force  them, so I could capture the subtle shadings of what it might be like to create this, kind of, whole, sound field of rain.  As I was doing that,  the dancers started to open up even more, feeling unto the  exploratory movements, and as they were doing that, I began to forget myself and move into these exploratory movements on the piano as well. I couldn’t tell; am I leading? Am I following? It was all happening all at one time. And, as I was becoming totally immersed in this and captured by the inspiration and the imagination of the moment, I heard Amelia call out and say, “Now play wind.”

In my own mind I’m saying, “I’m just getting good at rain.” But yet there was another stretch coming. So, she could see, once again, I was in difficulty, and to guide me  she began to demonstrate with her left arm something that conveyed the movement, the gesture of wind. And as I found that gesture in my playing I could imagine, I was feeling my own body captured in this. I realized to do what I was doing I really could not just play from my wrists or lower arms, which is commonly how you get trained as a pianist. I had to re-orient to play from my whole body. So the music was really coming, the sound of it, the sensation was coming from, really, the center of my back, through my shoulders. And  I took advantage of that to begin to get the movement of what wind might feel  like, in my left hand, creating a kind of ostinato l pattern that I thought might capture what she was suggesting. And as I did that the dancers started doing these marvelous grand movements across the whole floor, great leaps and so on. Well, of course, I just lost myself at that point, totally immersed in what they were doing. I was playing all eighty-eight keys, leaping from the base, to the treble and back to the base and doing these things as they were doing it and it was just a marvelous moment as this was happening not knowing if I was playing – or being played or leading or following when Amelia called out  to me  Thunder  –  Now, play  thunder.”

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And as soon as she said that, something just shifted in me. I realized this was not new. This was not a new experience for me entirely. I knew this world that she was speaking of, and she was drawing me back into it. For many of the formative years of my life I used to got to the YMCA camp in the Northern tip of Beusoleil Island, a windswept rock scape, which was in the near  wilderness of Central Ontario and the Georgian Bay wilderness waters.  These wonderful barren rockscapes, with jack pines bent to the winds offered a unique and marvelous interplay of light and water, and wind and rain, and I was totally captured by that world. That was really where I  really found, in a sense, what it felt like to ‘be played’ by the elements – to play not from the idea of rain but the feeling of it – and the feeling of wind and the light playing along the water’s surface.  I was there in a hot July afternoon, when the weather was really muggy and sticky, waiting and listening because those were the days that the storms would come. And, already, at some point in the afternoon, often around 3:30 or 4:00, I could actually hear the thunder, not as an auditory experience, but feel the vibration in the rock. It was like I could feel it underfoot before I could hear it. That was a signal for me. As soon as that sensation came, that first kind of very deep ominous rumble, that called me like a summons to the camp lodge, where they had this beautiful old upright piano. I’d open the screen wide so I could be there for the full unfolding of the storm.  I’d sit poised, ready for the storm to come. As the thunder amplified, I’d play to the thunder, and I’d play to the lightening, and I’d play to the rain. Now I’d be part of the whole enfoldment of the ferment that was happing  all around me. All the other campers would sit back in their cabins reading comic books and eating toffee but I’d be down there in the lodge. They’d go, “Jones, we’ve lost him,” but I was purely in my element. Somebody could have put me on a boat and sent me off to one of the other islands of Georgian bay, I would have been totally in bliss, I think, during those times.

I realized that, in a lot of ways, my return to music was also a return to Georgian Bay. At midlife, as I came back to music, when I was trying to find what is the music that really speaks to me? What is the music that most inspires and brings me to the center core of my being? It was the music of Georgian Bay, to capture all of the fullness of the impressions of wind and rain and thunder and the interplay of light the wind whispering through the pines – the stillness of the echoes of the loon calls at night  It was such a marvelous language to work from and it was such a marvelous place to play from.  Poet William Stafford once wrote, “I’m an alien in an alien world making myself a home.”  J.M. Coetzee, a wonderful South African writer, writes, “Where is home and how do we find our way there?” William Butler Yeats, when he was in London used to, when his friends would go back to Dublin, say, “Would you go out to this Sligo shore? Would you go out to the Sligo shore and would you bow sown and kiss the earth  and would  you go out there and get some mud and put the mud in a bottle and bring it home to me please? So I could taste the mud again of Sligo

I think, in that sense, the return is never abstract. The return really, in a sense, is a reunion and coming home to oneself and to the world – is coming back to the place that we can think of as where we most belong not only as a place to return  but  also to grow out from – to discover Georgian Bay in other places later on – And so in that context  we can’t often return to home. Georgian Bay, if I went there now, is very different than it was then. So home is also, I think, a place from which we learn to love other places later on, so we can create other places perhaps in the world that we can also return to as a part of that experience of place.

Rilke wrote a beautiful poem, I think, that speaks to me about the nature of return. And he says, “This clumsy living that moves lumbering as if in ropes through what is not done,” he writes, “This clumsy living that moves lumbering as if in ropes through what is not done reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks. And to die, which is a letting go of the ground we stand on and cling to each day, is like the swan when he nervously lets himself down into the water, which receives him gaily and which flows joyfully under and after him, wave after wave, while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm, is pleased to be carried, each minute more fully grown, more like a king, composed, farther and farther on.”

To die, which is a letting go of the ground we stand on and cling to each day, is like the swan when he nervously lets himself down into the water, which receives him gaily and which flows joyfully under and after him, wave after wave, while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm, is pleased to be carried, each minute more fully grown, more like a king, composed, farther and farther on.”

I thought I’d share some music that was inspired by Georgian Bay and as I do you might listen for the wind and for the rain and for the thunder. And you may also imagine for yourself, what is for you Georgian Bay? What is the place that you return to in your imagination or in your memories, a place that for you is home, a place to which you can also return, a place that you can grow out from, in the sense that when you do return there’s a place to which you can, put your feet in the ground that feels like home…As Ward says, we go through these cycles repeatedly, and each return home is also a call to a new possibility. So I’ll let you just go to that place of possibility that  is your imagining as I play…

Michael Begins to play ‘After the Rain’

  • Vivian Wright

    Michael’s discovery of the dance of rain and its sharing is the essence of what I understand from Peter Block’s iconoclastic teaching of inverse: that the classroom makes the teacher, the donut hole makes the donut. For Michael, the storm and then dancers made the music of rain. This is what teaching is all about. Michael, I bow to you…from under your piano.

    Vivian