A Tribute to Isidor Saslav (1938-2013)
by Glenn Reed
(Swans - February 11, 2013) How to compose something worthy of someone's life? How to do so without having known that individual personally and on the basis of an awareness formed solely through some of his writing, from less than a year?
I fear writer's block. I worry about saying the wrong thing. I read articles on-line that show this person was loved by, and influenced, a great many people in his life; was a tremendously talented musician; was a wonderful husband, father, and contributing member of his community.
What can I possibly add to this? Who am I to say something fitting in 500 or 5,000 words?
So I decide to free associate. I segue in and out of prose and poetry. I hope I don't do an injustice or say the wrong thing in the process and if so, I apologize to those who have lost such a special person.
I take a few fragments, one piece of music heard, a single article that caught my attention a year ago (not the only one), let the fragments try to assemble in a whole that will speak just a positive whisper to those who have heard so much more for so long.
And so, my humble thoughts relative to Dr. Isidor Saslav, his family, and friends...
He wrote a lot about opera. So, I must reveal, first, that I really don't like opera. It does make me think fondly of my grandmother on my father's side, who was a huge fan. When I was just six, I'd go visit her and she'd often have some Hartford, Connecticut, radio program turned on that featured a daily opera program. If the wrong time for the show, she'd sometimes put on one of her opera records. I, of course, made fun of it and begged her to play Alan Sherman instead, and wish she'd had the Meet The Beatles album around.
Many (many) decades later I can appreciate opera as an art form, but still am not a fan. On the other hand, I love chamber and symphonic music, will listen to Brahms and Bach, have about a dozen Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma CDs, and know the difference between polyphonic and homophonic.
Would Dr. Saslav have taken offense to my not liking opera? From what I've read, I suspect not. Maybe, if I'd met him, he would have discussed it a bit to help me appreciate the form better. Just as likely, we'd have gone on to other topics of discussion, of which he'd had great knowledge of so very many. This includes some of the composers of whom I am fond (though know little about). Or he'd have encouraged me in those areas where my passions do lie. Maybe even my late-life, electric guitar pluckings.
Another thought. My grandfather on my mother's side. Though I hesitate to compare people to grandparents because it can come across as maudlin and ridden with clichés. No matter. It's what comes to mind.
I read this in a piece about Dr. Saslav's passing:
As Saslav held his violin in the library last year, he was asked what he enjoys most about playing.
He responded by saying, "What do you enjoy most about breathing?"
So what about my grandfather? Took some piano lessons in his youth, but was largely self-taught. Enjoyed playing before friends, sometimes would substitute as the church organist, was invited to play popular old tunes from the 1920s to 1960s show tunes at social functions such as Rotary Club gatherings. Mostly, he just played every night after dinner because...
Isidor Saslav said it.
Music and the other arts are inside you. Passions in life lie in your very being. You take experience in and you breathe out your interpretation. With your lungs and your heart and your hands.
How do you separate the individual scale that you practice from the whole of the song or the piece? Where does a composition begin and your interpretation begin to breathe into it? When do you cross the line of not thinking of it, but just feeling it?
Earlier last year. Not being into opera, what words would draw my eye? I'd noticed a Swans piece about the decline of the City of Detroit, Michigan, including its deliberate destruction of its historic buildings. Why? A few years ago I'd seen an engrossing documentary about the same subject. And because I've experienced similar situations to what Dr. Saslav referred to in the piece and his commentary spoke to me at the time.
Dr. Saslav particularly lamented the loss of a specific building in Detroit. A place that inspired him and launched him on a life's path rich with music and sharing of that love. A school that nurtured both he and others who exhibited a love and talent for the arts. It was a structure with heart and the soul of all who had passed through its doors.
My grandfather again. He'd become headmaster of a tiny, private school in western Massachusetts during the Depression years. The place was almost bankrupt at the time. He turned it around, brick by brick, recruiting student by student, literally going door to door to find support, walking the talk. By the time he was ready to retire in 1966, it had become a very reputable institution. A thousand or more students had been positively influenced by him and their time at the school. Some even noted fond memories of my grandfather's gatherings around the piano after supper. This was a place with heart.
My grandfather's successor proceeded to bankrupt the school within a few years. For decades afterward, the buildings lay unoccupied, decaying, windows being smashed in, a few dorms in old houses reverted to single family homes, with one gorgeous structure, built in the mid-1800s, burning down. Two remaining buildings were destroyed by a tornado last year.
No matter. My grandfather carries on.
History, culture, the arts, human interaction, and communication. The inspiration of a single person. Someone in Monson, Massachusetts, or Overton, Texas. Witnessing a society that has slashed money and programs and classes for the arts in public education and that tears down history for cold, ugly parking lots. The tragedy and loss to the nation, as a whole, for devaluing these things.
The spark provided by those who keep such vital components of our society alive. People such as Dr. Saslav.
This special person. This tiny piece. The words and notes radiating outward, planted in the memories of others, speaking forward in stanzas or crescendos or canvasses or when just sitting around and talking or singing together in a warm living room. The strings that connect us all in time and place and common humanity. A figure exiting the stage, but the notes still reverberating.
A Mendelssohn piece with a violin that sends shivers up your spine in the way only a string instrument can. Especially in the right hands.
If you find Glenn Reed's work valuable, please consider
Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Glenn Reed 2013. All rights reserved.
Have your say
Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.
About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)