December 18, 2002

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Memory nocturne

I'M LISTENING TO Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp Minor in my living room. I'm listening to it trip and flit, unfold in delicate and urgent jolts between closed windows and drawn blinds that glow with morning sun. There is only one piano, one set of hands working one set of fingers on one set of keys, and yet the room is saturated with what the music carries: traces of possibility, roads that lead out my door.

But for all of the piece's power to transport, I can't imagine what it sounded like when Wladyslaw Szpilman played it in his Warsaw ghetto attic before the end of German occupation. I can't imagine what it sounded like on an out-of-tune piano with his frozen, brittle fingers, fed only on old loaves of bread, playing it on the command of a German officer. In his memoir, The Pianist, the piece is a musical boomerang: it leaves the piano and floats across the street into the ghetto's ruins and returns to him as something else, something that is not music, not Chopin, but its phantom: "a muted, melancholy echo." There was silence before he played it, but the silence after was something else, something far more alarming, because now silence had a price. He was, as he put it, buying his life by playing the piano.

The performance of Nocturne in C-sharp Minor feels so disruptive in The Pianist because its slow and stirring warmth spills across a place that for more than three terrifying years had been the murderous icy opposite: an expanding graveyard blanketed with bodies, rubble, ashes, and feathers rising toward heaven. "The feathers of slashed pillows clogged the gutter," Szpilman writes. "Every breath of wind raised great clouds of them, eddying in the air like a thick snowfall in reverse, going from earth to sky."

Szpilman's rebirthing of Chopin in the tomb of Warsaw keeps echoing decades later in another song, "El pianista del gueto de Varsovia" (The pianist of the Warsaw ghetto), a song for Szpilman by Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler. Drexler is not Polish and not a piano player, but he is a displaced Jew (a Latin American living in Madrid) and his German-Jewish grandfather escaped Hitler's Berlin when Drexler's father was four. Drexler's song, which appears on his most recent album Sea, brings Szpilman back to life – "two generations less, two generations more" – in the voice of Drexler himself. "If you were your nephew," Drexler sings to Szpilman, "and I was your grandfather, perhaps you would tell my story." But instead Drexler tells Szpilman's, the story of music refusing death and endowing strength and unimpeachable will. At song's end, he even fades out his guitars and sequencers and lets a distant fragment of Chopin play.

Drexler's Szpilman project is part of his six-album ode to making music about memory. He gets to memory through recycling motifs and metaphors, whether he is writing about heart or homeland. There is always sand and shooting stars, and there are always roads, most of which lead to the sea and its breezes. On "730 Dias," from his 1996 album Vaiven, Drexler sings of a house that is a sandbox, a testament to a lost friend that is full of grains of memory, each corner of it bringing back his ghost. On Sea's "Un pais con el nombre de un rio" (A country with the name of a river), it isn't sand but the sea that takes him back to where he wants to be. "The smell of wet earth, the breeze of the sea" Drexler sings, "carry me to my home."

But for Drexler, it is in music where memory dwells the most. His long-ago winds carry guitars and voices, his ancient rains boleros and waltzes. On 1999's Frontera, he recorded "Memoria de cuero" (Memory of leather), which told – using drums in the bowels of cargo ships – the story of his family's flight from WWII Germany. The boat that carried his grandfather was tossed from Jamaica to Brazil to Uruguay to Argentina until it was allowed to dock in Bolivia – a chain of memory linking the music to the leather to the ship to his grandfather.

Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp Minor leads off the soundtrack to The Pianist, the film based on Szpilman's memoir. It features seven Chopin pieces played by Polish pianist Janusz Olejniczak, and as stirring as his take on "Nocturne" is, the album's most haunting moment comes in its final four minutes: Szpilman's own performance of Mazurka in A Minor, op. 17, no. 4. Recorded in 1948 in Warsaw, Szpilman's light dances over the piano's keys break through the spinning disc's shroud of crackle and hiss. It was only three years earlier that Szpilman was in his attic bunker, playing Chopin in the shadow of a uniform. The difference those years make is the difference between Szpilman and Drexler, the difference between the music of experience and the music of memory.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.