Jeanne Koré Salvato

t has been sobering and at the same time exhilarating to contemplate the sacrifice of a person who offered her life to fight against the Nazis, pledging herself to freedom. Arthur Magida’s recent column emphasized the aspirational aspect of Noor’s upbringing. I’d like to look at music and the arts as a way of appreciating her sacrifice.

Nothing can fully explain her idealism, it seems to me. It’s hard to imagine being detained in chains in a concentration camp, and executed, without revealing any information. And yet the family was so steeped in music that I can’t help but wonder if the discipline of studying, playing and composing music was a means for her to develop an understanding of that freedom she so prized that it was her last word, liberté. One of the things Noor’s father said about freedom is this: “The path of freedom does not lead to the goal of freedom. It is the path of discipline that leads to the goal of freedom,” and surely, if I may say from my dogged (if unsuccessful) forays into piano music, there is a lot of discipline required even to be untalented! (I remember a piece called “Tone Clusters,” an impressionistic chord piece, which even I grudgingly admired, although it was not a walk in the park to keep up with it.)

Just because…

Noor’s refinement came not only from her father’s ideals, but from the immersion of the entire household in musical pursuits. Her mother, an American, played the guitar, her father the vina, she herself the harp, and the vina, her elder brother the cello, her younger brother the violin, her youngest sister the piano. Her great-grandfather had turned his hand to a system of musical notation in India, and all her uncles were members of the Hindustani Musicians who toured with her father, playing Indian classical music. And not one but all of the siblings (Noor, her brothers Vilayat and Hidayat and her younger sister Claire) were gifted enough to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, whose nationalist politics have been disparaged, but whose depth of insight into a musical compositional is unequalled.

Tansen of India

The depth of musical study on the part not only of Noor, but also of her whole family is astonishing, at least to me. Her father performed for the Nizam of Hyderabad, the wealthy ruler of an Indian state; he was awarded the prize Tansen of India after a famous Indian singer. I don’t know that we can overstate the devotion to music expressed in that family. And while I sincerely hope we do not have to follow in her footsteps to be betrayed and murdered, I think there are other footsteps she took that we can gladly follow.

I read something the other day that said freedom is what a piece of art gets us to, reminds us of. I couldn’t help but think of Noor.

I hope not! What I mean is that I don’t think there is world enough or time for me for that accomplishment. But I wonder, could we draw nearer? I think of Pablo Casals who played a Bach cello suite every day. I think, okay, I could listen attentively to a little music every day, couldn’t I?

Today I was in the car, and here is something a bit trippy, a jazz piece, I heard on the radio. I got home before it was over, and so I sat for a couple of minutes and listened until the end. A little attention, a little extra attention to appreciate this musical creation.

I am not suggesting we listen only listen to Indian classical music or to European classical music, (although why not include that)?! But I am suggesting that if we follow in a musicians’ footprints, we wind up, rather obviously, in artistic terrain.

And why is that important again? Well, in a film adored by all French people, called Les Intouchables, Philippe, who is paralyzed from his neck down, talks about art to Driss, the guy from the hood. And while it is a funny exchange, it’s also a subtext for the movie. Philippe says that art is a trace we leave of having been on this earth. And while the painting in question is not the Mona Lisa, and Driss has no patience for this particular art, the movie itself can be seen as a similar trace.

While Driss has merciless fun at Philippe’s expense, he also decided to try out this painting idea.

But the best scene in the movie is Driss dancing. This dance follows a classical music concert where Philippe tries to pique Driss’s interest by asking the musicians to play various classical pieces, which really don’t do much for Driss. He decides it’s time for modern music and here’s what happens. Notice that the two men each have a stud earring! On y va! (Let’s go!) A little romance for Philippe at the end.

Well, this is pretty tall subject, wide and fat, with many books under its belt. But from time to time I think of a moment in history (my own) when I was invited by a friend to a little church in Syracuse, NY, to hear the Dalai Lama speak. He said there are three kinds of suffering: 1) the suffering of pain; 2) the suffering of change, where you go from a cold room to a hot room and back again; 3) the suffering of pervasive conditioning. While he didn’t elaborate on this last one, it stuck with me. And I think it’s the arts that helps us upend that conditioning, to see things in a fresh way, to free up our way of seeing. The two vagrants and their creator, who may or may not be Godot but who certainly is Samuel Beckett, do exactly that, undoing our conditioning. We’re all going forward to somewhere or something, or so we think. We’ve got the oar in that river of life, helping our craft along. But the play opens, “Nothing to be done,” and ends, “They do not move.” Don’t we find this refreshing? Freeing? At least in part, or at least briefly? Say yes, dear reader, say yes.

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