by Maria Thompson Corley
Even though I don’t particularly want to fall into the trap laid by the marketers of jewelry, cards and chocolates, as February 14 approaches I nevertheless find myself thinking about love. Because I have to admit that when two people find in each other true companionship, it’s beautiful, and deserves celebration.
The Song of Songs says, love is strong as death. But when death takes one we love, what do we do? If you’re a maharajah, perhaps you build a majestic edifice. And if you’re a musician, perhaps you compose something as a way to process your grief, as Johannes Brahms did with his Four Serious Songs, inspired by the passing of his dear friend, Clara Schumann. David Cohen a classical guitarist from Philadelphia and his beloved wife Tanya were together for 17 years, 16 of those as husband and wife. On Valentine’s Day of 2011, she went to the hospital for a chemotherapy appointment and stayed there. The cancer that would claim her life eleven days later had spread from her ovaries to her liver. So that February 14 was their last together. The CD David Cohen: Guitar is his Latin-tinged Taj Mahal.
First, a few confessions: 1. David Cohen is my friend, 2. I have a secret fantasy about taking Latin dance lessons, and 3. My only brother died of cancer. The pieces on this CD were a way for David to process his very personal grief, but as I listened to them, I found that they spoke to me, too.
Not surprisingly, each track has a deeply personal connection to Tanya’s life and passing.
The first track, a rumba, is called “Breath;” the full title is “One More Breath, Just to Say How Much We Love You.” It is full of rhythmic drive and interest; I wouldn’t have guessed at its subject matter.
“Letters to Joann” refers to a woman David met playing the bagpipes two weeks after Tanya’s death. He hadn’t practiced and his thoughts were, understandably, elsewhere until Joann thanked him for playing, confiding that she had just finished her first round of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. When she was diagnosed, she’d thought she would never hear the bagpipes again. The piece, which is inspired by the playing of Joni Mitchell, was meant to contrast David’s tension when he doesn’t hear from her with his joy when he does. I hear more tension than joy in this piece, which again contains the constant syncopation that is characteristic of many of the pieces on this recording, although the end does seem more upbeat.
The joyful “Every Minute in Paris” grew out of a conversation during Tanya’s hospitalization when she asked David if he could remember a recent time when they’d had fun together, and he told her he remembered every minute in Paris. A week after her death, this piece came to him “in an explosion in my head from start to end.”
“Turn Towards Me,” which is also very upbeat, refers to Tanya’s being a dental hygienist. She loved working with her patients, who loved her back. Joan Armatrading was an influence on this piece, the only one that wasn’t written to “control through sound” David’s grief.
“The Last Genuine Smile,” which, unlike the other pieces, was written specifically to be technically challenging (which was influenced by both Bach and Michael Dunford), refers to a time when Tanya was in remission. She and David had canceled a cruise when she was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, but were finally able to go about a year before she died. When they returned, so had the cancer. A picture taken in the dining hall, which David brought to surprise her, showed them cheek to cheek, smiling and full of hope. In David’s words, “I look at that now and realize that was my last genuine smile.” I must admit that I didn't find this piece emotionally engaging, despite the subject matter.
I feel just the opposite way about “Saying Goodbye,” which was the result of an aural hallucination so real to David as he was bidding farewell to Tanya that he looked up, thinking that someone was playing music nearby. This is a beautiful piece, full of emotion.
“Cold Rain” came to him similarly, while he was standing at her graveside in a damp and chilly March day, wishing she could be there with him to feel the rain, which is represented by a tremolo that also conveys his tension.
“In My Dreams, We Fly” was inspired by a vivid dream he had about Tanya that left him surprised, happy, and confused because he remembered seeing her in her coffin. She said "Yeah, but dying won't stop me". They flew around like birds, holding each other, and then he realized he was dreaming and started crying so loudly that he woke himself up. The mournful opening yields to an exuberant rumba.
The title, “Power of Attorney” refers to Tanya’s request that David act as her voice in conveying her love to their grandchildren. Again, I hear the influence of Bach, despite the use of seconds; rather appropriately, I don’t hear a lot of grief, perhaps because the piece is based on a township jive rhythm.
My second favorite track is “Tatyana,” which was Tanya’s formal Russian name. A celebration of who she was, it is in a major key. Since the CD was recorded in order, this piece came last. By this time, David was so comfortable in the studio with his producer, Phil Romeo, that he felt free to improvise, so that what started as a guitar tremolo piece became a piece for pipa (one of several other instruments David plays), played on the guitar.
The folk-tinged bonus track, “Tabernacle Tea,” was written years earlier and used by Fox Chase Cancer Center as background music for one of their training videos. This is my least favorite track on the CD, which may be due to the fact that I'm generally not fond of folk music.
David told me that Tanya’s final days were full of laughter, music, and libations—a going home party, in a sense. So even though there are moments that ache with emotion, most of David Cohen: Guitar will leave you more inspired to dance than to weep, which is the best way to celebrate the kind of love that transcends the annual mid-February dose of hearts and flowers.
Maria Thompson Corley is a Julliard-trained concert pianist and published novelist. She lives in Lancaster, PA. www.mariathompsoncorley.com