Quasi una tragedia

I got my first computer when I was ten. It was an 8088 PC XT-compatible machine with two 5.25” floppy drives (no hard disk) and a black-and-white screen. I had a few DOS games that I inherited with that PC: timeless classics like Digger, Pcman, Sokoban… I discovered Prince of Persia a few years later and wrote a program that would respond to a keyboard interrupt and dump the game memory to a file — it was really annoying that every time the Prince was pierced by the spikes planted by evil Jaffar in every imaginable place, the game restarted da capo. But my favorite game was Thexder. Thexder’s character was a robot that could transform into a spaceship — in the later configuration it was able to fly over bottomless abysses, while in the former it could blast alien enemies with a self-homing laser beam. I spent hours flying through lonely corridors filled with alien stuff to the sounds of poignant music playing in the background, very much in tune with the desolate views, rendered in CGA’s brilliant four colors (well, shades of grey, really). When the robot’s earthly remains fell to the ground (nothing lasts forever), the grim view of motionless debris was accompanied by the Moonlight Sonata, faithfully reproduced by the PC speaker. I let Thexder die a cruel death an uncountable number of times to hear Beethoven’s immortal triplets.

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I have always wondered if music could transform a person. Of course, mythology and literature are filled with sweet-voiced female characters like the Sirens or Lorelei whose enchanted singing makes men lose their reason and face a cruel end — and I’m not even mentioning the famous Pied Piper who with his unsophisticated woodwind instrument delivered a deadly adversarial attack onto the proprioception systems of all Hamelin’s rodents and, after having been denied his honorarium, enchanted all the children of the respectable town and conducted them away.

No, I’m talking about a totally different transformation — without any black magic. In The Lives of Others, von Donnersmarck depicts a heartlessly precise totalitarian apparatchik, Stasi Captain codenamed HGW XX/7 ordered to put the famous playwright Georg Dreyman (and his comely actress girlfriend) suspected of dissent on 24-hour surveillance. The agent meticulously documents the most intimate moments of the writer’s life until one day Dreyman plays a piano piece, Sonata for a Good Man, stating “If you really hear it, can you be a bad person?” Haunted by that question, as if it were directed to him, HGW XX/7 starts covering for Dreyman’s dissident activity in his false surveillance reports — at the expense of his own career.

Of course, it’s only a fiction movie. No sonatas for good men exist in the piano repertoire. And people are stubborn in being themselves, too. Nevertheless, I’ve always wondered: can a sequence of twelve notes liberate the good hidden deep inside the human heart and prompt a hopeless evil-doer to an act of kindness? I believe there exists at least one piece that has this power — Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor.

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Reading Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey I’m always struck by the epithets. Every time one (of course, ancient) Greek addresses another, he always remembers to mention a few virtues of the latter as well as the ever-present patronymic. For example, “Oh, Laertiades, much-enduring, much experienced man, Ulysses.” Laertiádēs in Greek stands for “son of Laertes”. A modern Russian would say Одиссей Лаэртович, Odyssey Laertovich — clearly, a sign of respect and good manners. And thus a few dozen times on a daily basis! The Greeks would often allude to the father’s virtues and say a few good words about the mother, too. But don’t be fooled — this is not some praise speech or, pardon my Greek, a eulogy, but rather an everyday practice. Slice me some bread, oh wise Odysseus. What plans do you have for tomorrow, man of many resources, son of the sage Laertes? Willing or not, you suddenly feel compelled to straighten up your shoulders as befits a worthy son of an honorable father.

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On the music stand of my piano stands open an old book of piano music. Chopin. Preludes and Impromptus says the yellowish title page in Russian. Browse carefully! the pages inside became frail with time and somewhat bleached, but as befits any eternal work, Chopin’s notes are clearly legible. The score the book is open at bears number 20 — Prelude No. 20 in C minor, opus 28.

This book belonged to my grandmother Enna. She used to be a very talented pianist. Born in 1933, she became part of the collateral damage on Stalin’s way to the Soviet paradise. One night unidentified NKVD agents knocked on her family’s door, shot their dog, and took away her mother (her father was already dead by that time.) Десять лет без права переписки — Ten years without the right of correspondence, the formula said. That was a Soviet codename for a headshot it an anonymous dark hazy basement.

The four-year-old girl was adopted by her parents’ colleague, an unmarried lady who would become my great-grandmother Anna. In those years of terror when people were afraid of accidentally putting a tea mug on top of a newspaper with a print of their beloved Leader’s face (five years of strict regime detention), adopting two “people’s enemies’” daughter was an act of unbelievable courage. We all learned that she was not our biological grandmother only after she passed away in 1987 — her foster daughter Enna kept this fact in secret for forty years! And she was reluctant to talk about her past long after the fall of the Berlin wall.

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I visited Mallorca in summer 2016 as part of a little family reunion. I admit my weakness for islands — I had a great time on this sunny piece of land of which I have fond memories. I particularly remember one dinner I had with my wife Susy in a very good restaurant. The set and the setting were right and the food was delicious — quintessentially Mediterranean. We have collected many Michelin stars since then, but I don’t recollect enjoying such tasty food in other places. Reflecting on that experience I came to the realization that there is no way back — the water and the salt of the Mediterranean Sea now run through my blood vessels.

The yummy restaurant was situated halfway from Palma to Valldemossa, and I tried to imagine the place without the sun and heat, perhaps, even covered with snow. I fancied how one winter almost two centuries ago a strange couple accompanied by teenage boy and girl drove along that road. The gentleman was none less than Frédéric Chopin, at that time in the zenith of his career: a widely acclaimed genius composer — one of the brightest stars in the European musical firmament of his epoch and a sought after piano teacher for whose lessons affluent piano aficionados and their (obviously, very talented and promising) young offsprings across the continent were prepared to pay through the nose. While himself a virtuoso pianist, Chopin lacked the showmanship of his friend (or bitter enemy, depending on the mood) Franz Liszt and disliked public performances. He preferred the more intimate atmosphere of private salons and, in fact, was always a welcome guest in the most exclusive venues where money met culture.

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Never forgotten

I first visited the United States in 2004, destination Silicon Valley. With three suitcases filled with equipment, I and my colleagues were roadshowing a 3D camera and a face recognition system to the Sandhill Road venture capitalists. Bottom line: it didn't work that time -- we were trying to boil the ocean; it was a mistake to educate the market; we had no "socket" -- in short, if you cannot resist the masochistic desire to be humiliated with style, come to Sandhill Road! Eight years later the ocean must have been boiling already, the market educated enough, and the socket wired and online -- at least, that's what Intel thought when it bought our company. But this is a totally different story. My schedule then was quite packed, but I left a free day for sightseeing, rented a car, and went to San Francisco. One of the first things I visited was the old Presidio which, among other things, hosts a collection of Great Depression murals. Apparently, the main goal of commissioning these frescos was to create jobs rather than undying masterpieces — consequently, they have little artistic value. However, I was looking for a specific image titled Peacetime Activities of the Army depicting the old Presidio Army command building with the star-spangled banner proudly flying on the mast at the center. I paid little attention to this historical nonsense, as my attention was drawn to the figures of Maria de la Concepción Marcela Argüello y Morago, the daughter of the Presidio Commander Don José Argüello, and Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, a Chamberlain at the court of the Russian Tsar Alexander I, her promised husband.

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One starry ferragosto night I stayed to sleep aboard my yacht. The boat was moored in the marina right in the heart of the little harbor town of Sant’Antioco that in August bursts with life once the sun sets and the evening breeze cools the hot streets. The piazza of the marina often hosts concerts and guest performers — some are awesome, some others… well, also full of awe. I was in an all-male company: my five-year-old son, alias Captain Daniel Bronstein Pitzanti, immediately took possession of the commander’s cabin determined to put to use all the seaworthy objects he could sight — from fire extinguishers to binoculars, but the incessant gentle rolling and rocking, and the sound of the waves tapping on the hull instantly cradled him to sleep. Whoever tried to nap on a boat knows well the potent somniferous effect of the sea. I stayed a little bit more outside on the deck to watch the show (without buying a ticket, I had a better view than in the front row), but I also succumbed to Morpheus without listening through the end.

That night on the stage was the Tazenda band, whose repertoire is a fusion of folk Sardinian music with contemporary rock and Italian pop. The name should ring the bell to Isaac Asimov’s aficionados — Tazenda, the world where the stars end, a planet in the Foundation series where Hardy Seldon’s arcane Second Foundation was supposed to be (wrong guess! in reality, it resided on Trantor, just under the nose of the prepotent First Foundation.) I’m not an expert in Tazenda's music and not a big fan of theirs either, with the exception of one song that, undoubtedly, made them famous and is, until now, one of their signature pieces. This song is Non potho reposare.

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