We were exploring Le Marais district when I remembered one of my favorite places. Ah yes, just a short distance away. I succeeded in persuading my friends they really must experience the oldest square in Paris. We turned down a side street that opened into Place des Vosges. Its elegant French classical façade spoke to the aristocracy that once lived above the arcades below. It didn’t take much to imagine Victor Hugo striding along anxious to be home to continue penning his novel of the moment. We noticed a bistro just in time for lunch. Salad, cheese, bread and wine somehow tasting so much better than it ever did at home.
Exiting, we started to round the corner that would take us out of the square when we noticed activity across the way under the arches. Some ten or so people setting up—a musical ensemble! We edged closer to watch. A few others began to gather. The discordant sounds of musicians tuning their violins and cellos ensued. And ensued. And ensued. Until finally my friends were getting impatient, wanting to leave. Oh no! Just a few more minutes, I was saying in my head. Feeling the tug of the group, I started to turn away with them.
And in that moment, the cacophony stopped. A split second of silence brought chaos into perfect order as the haunting strains of Pachelbel’s Canon filled the air. The acoustics amplified the notes to such a degree that we were enveloped, rooted in place. The beauty of the moment was overwhelming. I didn’t want to move from that spot. The energy continued to rise as they went on to play Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi. Thankfully, a violinist broke away and began offering CDs. I gladly purchased one and then discovered their name: Classique Metropolitain. What an unexpected gift, an extraordinary dessert, one we wouldn’t have had if we’d not been willing to pause.
Now when I play their recording, especially when I paint, it takes me right back to that split second of perfect order when my spirits soared—to experience it all again, gaining inspiration. Only much later did I discover that Classique Metropolitain regularly frequented metro stations and Place des Vosges playing to passersby, perhaps to lend pleasure to their day.
On a nearly annual basis, I sponsor a spiritual travel program called Entering the Maya Mysteries in the Chiapas region of Mexico. I usually go in January and we spend several days in the highlands participating in ritual and religious festivities for San Sebastián. One particular year music was a thread that ran through our time together—sacred and celebratory, vocal and instrumental—something to be expected considering our itinerary. But it was unexpected music, taking the edge off a situation and lifting our spirits or instilling a hush to any tumbling thoughts, that I most savored and have tucked away in that same place where Classique Metropolitain and Place des Vosges reside.
Lalo Ed Adams lives in New Jersey. Some years ago his search for someone going to Piedras Negras brought him to me. He joined our travels, in the process discovering a new name that he wore proudly. On his second trip with me, Lalo came along again wearing the glow I saw develop on the first one. Early on, he brought out a guitar saying he’d learned to play a couple of years ago and now gathered weekly with guitarists back home. During our days staying at El Panchan outside the Palenque ruins, he inched his way from casually playing at our table at Don Mucho’s Restaurant—until fully on stage with microphone and sound system going! I admired his chutzpah and his playing.
One thing about Lalo was that he understood how music can intervene and shift the energy in a moment. We’d been on our way to the Lacandón Jungle village of Najá anticipating the upcoming ceremony with Don Antonio Martinez when the van began to hesitate and sputter. Our driver was worried. “Bad gas,” he said, finally pulling over. We all bailed out; it appeared there would be a long wait while the situation was remedied. It was hot. We were in the middle of nowhere milling around on the side of the road.
It didn’t take long before Lalo pulled out his guitar. I finally couldn’t resist. I joined in with what he later called my “vocal chops”—that hadn’t been let loose in years. Some of the others chimed in until we had a plein air concert of sorts going. It turned a difficult situation to a light one full of fun. We continued to find moments to sing, all the way up to our closing dinner when we essentially took over a restaurant, and the other patrons joined our musical frivolity that ranged from “I Shall Be Released” to “Nowhere Man.”
But backtracking a bit, the latter half of our journey we stayed in San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Chiapas highlands. While we were visiting Na Bolom I heard faint notes of piano music and wandered into a room. Beautiful, I thought. Taking note of the pianist but not wanting to disturb, I examined the religious icons in the room. At leaving, I saw a poster announcing Richard Pierce Milner as the current artist-in-residence with evening concerts being held regularly. In the next day when we were in the Maya village of Zinacantán witnessing the raucous festivities for San Sebastián, I noticed the pianist there with a friend. This time I made sure we met and, on a whim, invited him to come with us. We were on our way to Don Xun Calixto’s home above San Juan Chamula where a special ritual awaited us. In return, I joked to Richard, I must have a concert.
Indeed. A few nights later, after the group had flown home, I went back to Na Bolom. At one time, before it had been the home of Frans and Trudy Blom, or a museum, the old hacienda had housed a seminary. One long room still bore reminders of that time, an altar at one end, religious paintings on nearly every inch of wall. But a grand piano at the other end dominated the space. The only light source was candlelight. I took a seat. Richard began to play. And I was transported.
Truly, Richard’s compositions are hard to categorize, a blend of neo-classical and crossover jazz as descriptor not at all doing them justice. What do you say about pieces that snatch you up to share a deeply personal journey with the artist? That wend their way through memories of a moment by the sea, a difficult healing process, or tribute to a mentor now passed? That touch on something not often touched? I can only say that Richard exposes his innermost feelings through his music and extends an invitation for listeners to join him. As I write these words, piano solos from his CD entitled Other Ways of Knowing are taking me back to that candlelit time at Na Bolom when I first heard him play.