Book review of Wild Harmonies, the first literary work by pianist Hélène Grimaud.
Book Review first published in Italian
(Leggere Donna, 140/2009, Tufani Publishing)
“I have no nostalgia at all for childhood”. The first book by Hélène Grimaud, pianist of international fame, opens with these words. It would be reductive to describe it as an autobiography. As a matter of fact, it is an original work of art and looks a lot like a musical composition or perhaps a literary account of a research on freedom and wisdom. Elegantly and essentially composed, this work ranges between music, literature, and search of the true self, opening the mind to those intuitions which only the encounter between different forms of art is able to offer. Hélène Grimaud is astonishing: she offers a picture of herself made with words as accurately as her hands mould the notes until they shape into an inner universe. And it is worth noting that this literary alter ego introduces herself to the world beginning with the very word “no”…
The author seems to speak in the first person. She recalls her childhood and the origin of that vital nucleus from which her music flows: she is a restless and wandering child who rambles through the Corsican countryside exploring the tastes and smells of a wild land and loves self-inflicting little wounds. To describe her, adults collect an incredible amount of adjectives starting with “un”. Uncontrollable. Unmanageable. Unadaptable. Unpredictable. An anecdote: Hélène was asked to draw some chickens in a barnyard, but she sketches a wire mesh.
Worried about her rebellious temperament, her parents search for an activity to control that absolute personality, a territory for the soul able to contain that “excessive psychic energy“. Thus, after several efforts with sports, the child sits in front of a piano for the first time. She is seven years old: “I remember, as if it were yesterday,the enchantment I felt, as though I had being seized by the idea of the infinity that music evokes. I had the physical sensation of an opening, the impression that a path opened in front of me, as if a door as opened in the wall and a luminous, straight path led from it to a harmonious revelation. I remember breathing deeper, more expansively.”
Music enters her life like a wave and takes her away. She starts studying in Aix-en-Provence with Jacqueline Courtin and perfects herself with Pierre Barbizet, whom she would always remember as her master: “He was someone you naturally and spontaneously called “Master” because he was one. The influence he had over you, bathed in the sun of his accent and the sparkle in his eye, turned the work into something luminous. Above all, he was extraordinarily generous – he gave unreservedly, sharing everything with you in a poetry that resonated with images.” And after all the big city: in 1982 thirteen-year-old Hélène enters the Paris Conservatory and gets the title three years after with full marks. 1987 is a turning point year: against all, Hélène decides to debut as a soloist and takes part in the La Rocque-d’Anthéron piano festival. Then she plays with the Paris Orchestra directed by Daniel Barenboim, appears with several orchestras, takes to flight.
But sketching with grace the backstage of this precocious artistic life, the author always reminds us about that “no” which opens the book. Before the concerts, she is a young girl who spends hours and hours rearranging the objects in the hotel rooms, at the mercy of an obsessive desire of “symmetry”. She is confined in an attractive body but behind a charming smile and wonderful blue eyes she falls into an anorexia of the heart which slowly devours her. Until it is clear that Paris, the city which has fed the pianist, cannot appease another kind of hunger.
She is twenty-one when she moves to the United States. It is a period of deep crisis: moving from a room to another, she observes the wildness and indifference of the big cities and in the end arrives to Tallahassee, a small town in Florida, far from the coast and without many attractions. Finally, along the paths covered by hunting dogs, the Parisian world shuts up. Tallahassee is an absence, but it is bordered by wild nature and is slowly filled by the kindness of people and a discreet peacefulness which makes its way to the heart with the soft step of wolves.
From the distance, Hélène loves courting that territory which is teeming with untamed life. The inhabitants immediately warn her against the presumed mentally deranged man of the area, a Vietnam veteran whose experience of the war has perhaps transformed him in the eyes of the community. But once again, it is choosing an unusual path that Hélène finds herself for the second time in her life. It is two o’clock in the morning: under the appearance of the wolf Alawa, her wild soul trustfully sits down at her feet. Aztechs would speak of nahual and perhaps today children – attentive readers of The Golden Compass – would not have any doubt about the nature of that desire of “symmetry”: Hélène meets her daimon. It is the beginning of a new harmony.