Written by Alex Peh
The rolling hills of the Shawangunks, embellished with pitch pine and strewn with boulders of varying sizes. The jewel-toned waters of the Mediterranean that gracefully lap the pebbled beaches of Halkidiki, Greece. The perfection of a sea shell, proportions that speak to a secret truth. The desolate lava fields of Iceland, violence and destruction frozen in time and space.
My very first piano teacher taught me to find beauty in the natural world. We would gently arc a phrase like the smooth spiral of a sea shell. Legato, playing in a connected style was taught to me via smooth river stones, strips of velvet and soft leaves. We looked at photographs and paintings often, searching for inspiration from images when words failed.
I love to travel. It has been a yearly summer compulsion, and on these journeys I seek out inspiration for my musical projects. Every year, I travel to Greece where I teach at the Anatolia Summer Music Festival. After all the work is done, I run in to the sea for a swim, all the while marveling at the hypnotic light show of blues and greens. It is in these waters that I imagine I might brush up against Claude Debussy’s Ondine, the capricious and sometimes deadly mermaid (yikes). The rhythm and gestures of the waves, the way the light dances on the water--surely, this was what Debussy was referring to.
I have been redecorating my piano studio at SUNY New Paltz where I teach. Tired of the cluttered jumble of books, papers and old 1950’s office furniture, I decided it was high time to create my temple to music. It is here that I display the trophies won from my travels, musical inspiration for my class of fledgling piano students. The sea shells that I collected while walking the lava beaches of Iceland. The pine cones I found on my walk along the Bonticou Crag in Mohonk preserve. Ocean rocks from Greece. I pull these objects out and show them to my newest class of first year students, along with photos and paintings, cognizant of their sidelong glances when I tell them that Mozart should be played like the shape of some old leaf I found outside. It’s the same glance I would give my music teacher…sometimes I thought she was brilliant, a sage. Sometimes I thought she was…just so weird. An old German lady rattling on to an eight-year-old about the center of gravity and the way to feel centrifugal force in a musical phrase. Perhaps that’s how my students think of me? No, not yet. Though I could imagine no greater honor.