| An instrument of
By CLAIRE CAIN MILLER
Santa Barbaran Joseph Mastroianni found healing in Bach's
Chaconne, both playing it and penning a novel inspired
by the musical composition.
After Joseph Mastroianni was hit by a car while crossing
a New York City street, doctors told him they would have
to amputate his leg. Twenty years later, the 64-year-old
gets up each morning at dawn to jog along Santa Barbara
"First I used to wheelchair
to the beach, and then I crutched to the beach, and when
I couldn't do either of those things the doctor rigged
me up with a waterproof system for my leg and I did my
exercise at the Santa Barbara Racquet Club at their pool,"
the former pilot said. "Whatever I had to do, I did."
Besides the beaches, he credits his remarkable recovery
to a mix of his doctors' work, his steadfast determination
and the inspiration he found in the hobbies he picked
up while bed-ridden -- playing the classical guitar
The culmination of his physical recovery came in 1999.
After more than a decade of rehabilitation, with 17
healed fractures and a knee held together by pig ligaments,
he rode his bicycle from California to Boston to raise
funds for cancer and cardiac research.
The fruit of his hobbies came in September with the publication
of his first novel, "Chaconne" (Damian Press,
$24.95), named after the Johann Sebastian Bach masterpiece
that Mr. Mastroianni spent years learning to play on the
For the author, the fact that his book is on the market
is less important than the achievements its publication
represents. During the 11 years he worked on the novel,
he said, he was learning several things from scratch
-- how to write, how to play the guitar, and how to
"I've already gotten my reward, because my reward
is in the doing," he said. "And now if the
book happens to sell, that will be like the cherry on
The novel is sold at Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara,
where Mr. Mastroianni has lived since the 1970s when
he arrived to repair the pilings supporting Stearns
The book weaves together the lives of Bach, who wrote
the Chaconne after his wife's death, and Milo, whose
earliest memory is of his absentee father playing the
work is fiction, but Milo's story is heavily autobiographical
in parts. The plot follows Milo from childhood through
retirement, taking the reader from Massachusetts to Vietnam
to Spain as the protagonist goes through rites of passage
and adventures similar to Mr. Mastroianni's own.
"Nobody writes in a vacuum," the author said.
"It's a lot easier to use somebody you know and
change their name, because you know how they talk and
how they look."
He started writing during his recovery, recording thoughts
and memories that he never intended to coalesce into
a book. "During that time I was just sort of writing
therapeutically," he said. "It was just 500
or so pages of scribbling and junk."
A friend suggested that he turn his notes into a book.
Mr. Mastroianni didn't want to be confined by trying
to remember everything exactly as it happened, so he
decided to write a novel loosely based on history --
his own and that of Bach.
"It frees you to do a lot of interesting things
that you can't do when you're writing something that's
nonfiction," he said.
Chaconne offered a natural structure for the story, given
its importance in Mr. Mastroianni's own life. Like Milo,
he remembers his father, a professional violinist, playing
the piece before he left the family when Mr. Mastroianni
Many years later, he heard the classical guitarist Andrs
Segovia perform it.
"I was dumbfounded," he said. Mr. Mastroianni
decided he had to learn to play it himself. He set off
for Spain to spend four years with a teacher there learning
the skills to eventually play one of the most difficult
pieces in musical history, made more difficult because
it was originally written for the violin, not the classical
guitar. It would take many years to perfect his technique
enough to play the piece all the way through.
But when he was hit by a car eight years later, in
1988, he lost everything he learned. In addition to
his leg injuries he had several broken fingers, double
vision and memory loss.
"I couldn't even play a note. I picked up the
guitar and couldn't remember anything," he said.
But just as he wouldn't cave to his doctors' predictions
that he would lose his leg, he didn't let his injuries
keep him from the guitar.
A friend blew up the Chaconne sheet music to a size
he could read, and he started doing exercises on the
guitar to retrain his fingers. "Slowly things started
coming back to me," he said. "I studied two
to three hours every day all through my rehab."
It wasn't until two years ago, 15 years after his accident,
that he played the entire Chaconne. But Bach's piece
-- with its message of pain at the composer's wife's
sudden death and resilience to carry on -- guided Mr.
Mastroianni through those years of physical therapy
as a kind of mental rehabilitation.
"I don't think I could have gotten through it
without it," he said. "I play it every day
at least once. It's like a meditation."
Indeed, one of the leitmotifs of the book is the process
of dealing with grief and fear through art. Milo, Bach
and the author all faced tragedy, and each used the
Chaconne to overcome it.
Mr. Mastroianni believes in the redemptive power of
art so strongly that he's made promoting the arts his
pet project. He has planned benefits for various arts
organizations in Santa Barbara and Carpinteria, he will
donate some of the book's proceeds to libraries, and
he works to preserve music and other arts programs in
"Music should be mandatory, just like mathematics,"
he said. "Believe me, any young child who learns
about music automatically starts learning about mathematics.
They learn about creativity."
In the book's coda Milo listens to the Chaconne and
contemplates his life, and the reader can hear the echo
of Mr. Mastroianni's voice. For him, Chaconne the musical
piece and "Chaconne" the novel are about reflecting
on life and coming to grips with what it has wrought.
"If you sit and listen to it you will hear the
pain and the anger and the turmoil, and then the acceptance
that hey, she's not coming back, it's over," Mr.
Mastroianni said of Bach's piece. "And then there's
the resolution of the acceptance that it's done. It's
kind of a microcosm of life. It's everyone's experience,
so everyone can relate to it."
Who: Johann Sebastian Bach composed the piece.
What: The Chaconne, perhaps Bach's most famous work,
is a Spanish slow dance in triple meter made up of repeated
variations on a musical theme.
Why: Scholars say Bach wrote the piece in a fit of
grief over his wife's sudden death.
Where: He wrote the masterpiece while living in Cothen,
When: Bach lived from 1685-1750 and wrote the Chaconne