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Emily Hogstad

What might have been lost

December 27, 2011 at 11:27 PM

This is more a meditation on the power of music in general and how a small-town girl perceives her place within the arts, rather than an entry about classical music, violins, or violinists specifically. For that reason I hesitated a bit before posting here. But finally I said, what the heck. And to be fair, the band I'm writing about makes good use of its violinists. That can't be said for a lot of other outrageously popular contemporary music groups.

***

Imagine. You’re an ambitious kid from a small town. This small town’s most famous export is the inventor of fraud-proof ballot paper. The arts scene is pathetic compared to the ones in Minneapolis, Chicago, or New York. Every artist you admire – every artist you love and respect and desperately want to emulate – is from a big city, went to school in a big city, found themselves in a big city. Nobody comes here because they want to. Nobody stays here and is successful. As long as I’m here, you think to yourself, I will have no chance of making what I want to have happen, happen.

Why, then, is it so difficult to say good-bye?

As you grow older, never making the break, never quite finding the courage or the cash to move away, you struggle to choose between forging a career in the arts and embracing the family and the small-town culture that raised you. You try your best to come to terms with things, and to not be ungrateful. Because there are worse places to be.

Then, suddenly, a neighbor becomes an international superstar. He’s an alumnus of the high school your mom went to. You hear breathless rumors in the press that he shops at your grocery store. Your youth symphony rehearsals were held on the same university campus he attended. The superstar’s drummer used to play at a restaurant two blocks from your house. Thirty years ago your grandparents almost bought a house on the corner of Third and Lake…an unassuming intersection that the superstar makes famous in a Grammy-nominated song. You hear these things, and you’re heartened.

Slowly but surely, you start experimenting with shedding the insecurity. You start trusting yourself a little bit more. You think, well, if he can make it…why can’t I? You feel a tentative pride. I’m from western Wisconsin, and I’m not ashamed of it. Which isn’t to say you won’t ever leave your small town…you know you will; you know you have to, someday. But you see now, with clarity, what should have been obvious all along: your provincial background shouldn’t keep you from dreaming anything. There’s a chance that you might live happily – or at least, contentedly – ever after.

This isn’t some weird fairy tale. Bizarre as it seems, it’s a true story, and it’s mine.

The superstar in question is Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver, the genre-busting nine-member group that has fused virtuosic musicianship with elements of rock, folk, jazz, and even contemporary classical to create their own unique, wildly popular indie-rock sound. Vernon is from my hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, population 65,000, but he hasn’t given a hometown show since 2008. It turns out that earning multiple Grammy nominations, collaborating with celebrities, and embarking on sold-out international tours tend to take up a person’s time.

But this fall, Bon Iver announced they were coming home. Two hometown shows, December 12 and 13 at Zorn Arena at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. $15 for gallery seats.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I said to my laptop when I read the news. “You are kidding me.”

***

Nothing went the way it was supposed to in 2011, for better and for worse. Three of my family’s four cats died. I met some outrageously talented people whose kindnesses moved me to tears. I participated in some disillusioning family feuds. I went to several world-class concerts. I tentatively started coming out of the closet as an asexual (a process much more difficult – and much more liberating – than it sounds). I had the chance to take a violin lesson, my first in five years. I played a couple of solos with string orchestra. I spent a day in Minneapolis admiring the cultural diversity and then came back to Eau Claire and found out that someone I’ve known my whole life takes a perverse pleasure in employing unspeakable racial slurs. Back and forth – forth and back – lows and highs – highs and lows. The combination of the dreadful and the divine was disorienting.

In short, everything got turned upside-down. So maybe in a weird way it was fitting that I, the self-avowed classical freak, found myself closing out the year by waiting in line for an hour in the Wisconsin winter to get good seats for an indie rock group.

I went to the show with the two people I love best in the world. (…If I admitted that one of them was my mom, would I lose some cool points? … I would? Okay.) We got a bit chilly and loopy in line, and so we started a drinking game, substituting hugs for alcohol. Hug whenever you see beards, flannel, plaid, blaze orange, or a Recall Walker petition. This was a Bon Iver concert held in Wisconsin directly after deer hunting season, so as you can imagine, we spent more time embracing than not. Our game was interrupted when the line began moving forward, and moving forward very quickly. I’m used to the leisurely pace of ticket collection at classical concerts, where elderly volunteers slowly rip off stubs and then hand you programs. Nothing like that here. People were jogging along the corridors to secure the best seats. We spun up the concrete stairs and into the gallery, and got front row bleacher seats overlooking the stage.

Victory.

By nine o’ clock, after the opening act (the lovely Lianne La Havas) wrapped up, the anticipation had reached a fever pitch. The electricity was just burning through the arena; it was all I could do to keep from shrieking myself hoarse with excitement…and the band hadn’t even taken the stage yet. I briefly entertained the idea of what it would be like if orchestral audiences behaved this way – screaming, stamping, hollering F*** YEAH, MAHLER!!! WOOOO! before the conductor ascends the podium. (Sacrilegious as it sounds, I now kinda want to experience this, for, as the cool kids say on Tumblr, reasons.)

Finally the band came onstage. Justin Vernon was there, and I was there, and my mom and my best friend were there, and 3497 other people were there, and we were all there, and were all there together, and in some inexplicably moving way, the fact was sacred. It felt a bit like we were at an indie rock revival: we had a wild hipster crowd of laypeople, eight virtuosic back-up apostles, and Justin Vernon as our bearded, angelic-voiced preacher. As soon as the band launched into Perth, the crowd went berserk. Right away I was so overcome by the percussion, brass, and audience thumping my sternum that I started grinning uncontrollably and tearing up like a crazy person. What a relief to be in a venue where I could react to good music however I like and not be afraid of showing it, instead of tightening up and holding it all in, as I’m forced to do during particularly thrilling bits of Shostakovich or Sibelius.

After Perth and Minnesota, WI came the gentle guitar in the entrance to Holocene. I completely and immediately lost it. This was a song that I’ve inadvertently tied up to the memory of one of my cats. She was the closest thing I’ll have to a child for a very long time – maybe ever – and her sudden death in May was the most devastating thing I’ve ever endured. Late this summer there came an afternoon when I realized, suddenly, that it was time to fold up the blanket she slept on. To steel myself, I turned on Holocene, and I did it.

And just like that, the lyrics burned into the memory, and the memory of the loss itself -

At once I knew I was not magnificent / High above the highway aisle / Jagged vacance thick with ice / And I could see for miles miles miles.

I cried that afternoon, but less than I thought I would. Less than I would have if I hadn’t had the companionship of the song and the lyrics and the voice. Of music.

I set the folded blanket down and looked out the open window. The breeze picked up. I looked beyond the trees and far away into the empty blue sky. Somehow I’d survived the loss. I might have cracked open, but, miraculously, I hadn’t broken.

“And I could see for miles miles miles,” I sang to myself – sang to the sky – and five months later, to Bon Iver.

***

One of the many life lessons I’ve learned this year is that genre doesn’t matter. If music is engaging, and if it touches you, it doesn’t matter what form it comes in – whether that be an hour-long violin concerto or an indie rock song with gorgeously impenetrable lyrics. And if Bon Iver is anything, especially live, it’s engaging. From the pulsating lights, to the astonishingly virtuosic bass saxophone solos, to Vernon’s oddly endearing bobbing onstage as he plays guitar…it’s all engaging, all of it.

Eventually Vernon paused for a moment to catch his breath and talk to us. I won’t use quotations since I can’t remember word-for-word what he said, but I do remember the gist of his impromptu remarks, and I always will.

Since his commercial success, he said, things have been strange. Everywhere he goes, everyone tells him how special he is. “Well, I already knew that,” he said. “My parents taught me that!” The crowd giggled. And that’s, he said, the reason he knows it’s important to stay connected with one’s geographically isolated small-town roots – to keep a sense of perspective, to remember not to rely on what “important” “big-name” people say. “Even though we do like to complain about all the sh*t that goes on in this town…” (Audience applause.) Being from a small town reminds you that we are, in fact, all small and – in the long run, no matter how successful we are – insignificant. “We’re small,” he said, “we’re small,” and he shrugged.

The last number of the night was The Wolves (Act I and II). The second portion of the song – the second act – is a line that drips again and again with desolation: “What might have been lost – what might have been lost – what might have been lost…” It’s a tradition at Bon Iver shows for the audience to sing along with the band, beginning very quietly, then getting louder and louder and louder, culminating at the end with a primordial, gut-choking, venue-wide shriek. Vernon was about to describe the tradition to us, but then suddenly he stopped short and stepped back from the mike and said, “You all know what to do.”

Yeah. We did.

The band began the song, Vernon’s voice sailing and straining and aching through the room through the first act. Then came the quiet, agonizingly insistent refrain. Sitting up high in the gallery, those five short words meant more to me than they ever had before, and probably ever will again.

What might have been lost…

The deaths of my cats – my sweet darlings – my kids…

What might have been lost…

The resulting vulnerability that cracked me open in ways I was never, ever expecting…

What might have been lost…

Having to let go of relationships that have become untenable, for heartbreakingly stupid reasons I’ll never really understand.

What might have been lost…

People I love, people I trust, telling me that I really shouldn’t do what I want – that what I want is too much to expect, too much to
hope for. That I should sit down, shut up, stay in town, settle for the status quo, and stop rocking the boat…

What might have been lost…

New faces, kind faces, dear faces, telling me the exact opposite…

What might have been lost…

Having to choose between the two paths…

What might have been lost…

The relief and agony of knowing the latter path is the inevitable one; that even more difficult good-byes lay ahead…

What might have been lost…

My own paralyzing insecurity…which maybe, in the final analysis, is the only thing holding me back.

Don’t bother me…!

Eventually I couldn’t hear my thoughts anymore. My voice became the crowd’s, and the crowd’s became mine. At the end we let out a crazy long communal cry, together.

I broke down, gutted out.

Catharsis.

There was no encore after that. How could there be? The band took their bows. Vernon looked up at the gallery where I was sitting and waved. He couldn’t see me, but I waved back wildly with gratitude, tears staining my face.

After the show I emerged from the buzz of Zorn Arena out into the dark December night. I walked over the university footbridge to get back to the car. I glanced over the railing at the blurry lights of the city wavering in the river. I’ve lived in Eau Claire my whole life, but from this new vantage point I couldn’t recognize any of the landmarks. All I could see was their abstract, impressionistic beauty, smeared across the night, floating away in the water.

***


From Yixi Zhang
Posted on December 28, 2011 at 6:41 PM
Emily,
As I read your blog, I kept thinking to myself what a lucky person she is! Just to name a few, you live in a world allows you to express freely your thoughts and dreams. You are clearly talented and intelligent, and most of all you've got passion and have dreams. Like many others, there are limits, some are external and sort of in your face, some are self-imposed. I have so much to say to you but instead I'm going to share the following video with you. You probably have already seen it but just in case you haven't.
Happy New Year!
Yixi
Randy Pausch Last Lecture

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on December 28, 2011 at 7:22 PM
Thank you for your words, Yixi. :)
From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 28, 2011 at 7:29 PM
What Yixi said. You are clearly a talented, very intelligent, self-aware young woman. Those qualities will serve you well in life and give you the opportunity to achieve goals of importance to you. They will be particularly important in facing what is likely to be a major challenge to you, particularly while you are still relatively young: your sexual orientation. It can be quite complicated in this society not to be hetero. And, you may have some important decisions which will not be easy. Good luck and do not hesitate to seek advice from others as you deal with this and other issues.
From Royce Faina
Posted on December 31, 2011 at 12:36 AM
I enjoyed reading this. This band you mentioned is one I will enjoy and will shortly be downloading their music! They had the effect opn you apperantly the way that Rush has on me (I wish they used more violin). May you have success in the good things you wish to accomplish.
Kind Regards,
Royce
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on December 31, 2011 at 8:50 PM
Tom, Thanks for your kind words. In one way it certainly is hard to be non-hetero, but in another it was actually much harder to pretend I was something I wasn't. I'm determined to never let a minority orientation keep me from love and affection, from either giving or receiving it!

Royce, I hope you enjoy Bon Iver as much as I have. It's a new experience for me to get addicted to a non-classical group, and one I hope I will repeat many many times in the future...

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