Time, Alla Breve

1 August 2012 in Heather

Growing up on a farm meant growing up with chores. Plant the garden. Pull weeds. Pick up rocks, “—but just the ones bigger than a doll’s head; they make it hard for things to grow.” The rhythm of any given day was constant yet varied, and my dad knew it so well that he didn’t even need a watch to measure the passing hours.

I remember standing on the tops of his boots, my fingers hooked in his belt-loops. “What time is it,” I asked. He turned his face to the sky, and my personal slice of shadow shifted left. “What time is it!” “It’s 11:30.” With an exasperated half scream, I might then let go, falling fast to the dirt and crumpling into myself like a shot rubber band. “I don’t believe you! You don’t know.” So he’d pull a worn wrist-strap from the pocket of his jeans, and we’d look at it together. 11:30. I stared long and hard, as if memorizing the position of the hands on that old Timex was the secret to telling time my dad’s way.

I left the farm to master time through music, moving to San Francisco to study piano at the Conservatory, where for two years, my list of daily chores rivaled those I had grown up with. Practice with the metronome. Play while counting aloud. Conduct while singing solfège. In the practice room, I could check the accuracy, mark the differences, and measure the changes of time. Check, double check, check. There is logic in rhythm and meter, of that I became sure.

Like my dad, I learned how to make a little magic out of my endeavors. With Bach, I keep time the way a Formula 1 engine keeps time, smooth and precise. With Brahms, I might let the meter and phrasings run away in romantic contradiction together. I know the time signature and the number of beats per minute, of course, but in performance, I would never hold up the score or consult the metronome to prove it. The best ruse I have is, simply, to play, conjuring the spell as if from the sky.

Several summers ago, while home for a visit, I overheard my dad talking with a neighbor as they came out of the small town bank. “Yes, she’s been in California more than ten years now. Still doing piano. She’s always been very independent.” He climbed in the truck and we headed home. “What time is it?” I asked. My dad leaned forward as if attempting to see beyond the frame of the windshield. “It’s 11:30. Almost time for lunch.” I closed my eyes to the sun and felt myself letting go, falling fast backwards.