poetry

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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25.02.2019

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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17.02.2019

A secret chord

 

During one of my visits to the Research Institute for Mathematics (MFO) in Oberwolfach I stumbled upon a Steinway grand piano hidden in a remote room in the basement. I couldn't resist the urge to hammer on this masterpiece of musical hardware (those who know the itch in the fingertips and the magical attraction of the ebonies and the ivories will certainly understand me.) I played a lot that day, forsaking perhaps some of the talks. One of the pieces happened to be Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah (unfortunately, the quality of the sound in the video is even worse than the quality of my playing.) This song was written in 1984 and (surprisingly!) had little initial success; with the years it has become hugely popular with some 300 interpretations (with different lyrics) existing today.

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