Interview with Joseph Mastroianni, Author Chaconne the Novel

Claire Cain Miller is a freelance journalist based in Berkeley, California. She has published in The New York Times Book Review, Grist Magazine, and the East Bay Express. She has worked for the Council on Foreign Relations. website, cfr.org, where she covered global terrorism, and as a staff writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press. Claire can be reached at clairecmiller@gmail.com or (203) 243-7216.

By Claire Cain Miller

 

The Chaconne, Johann Sebastian Bach.s masterpiece about suffering and resilience, has become a sort of theme song for Joseph Mastroianni. After hearing Andrés Segovia play the piece on the classical guitar, Mastroianni decided to learn to play it himself. With almost no experience, he moved to Spain to study guitar with Jose Maria Gallardo del Rey and Antonia Ortega. But seven years later he was struck by a car while crossing a New York City street, and because of his head injuries lost everything he had learned.

 

During his 11-year recovery, as he learned to walk again against doctors. predictions, the Chaconne took on new meaning for Mr. Mastroianni. He re-taught himself to play the classical guitar, and though he didn.t play the whole Chaconne until several years ago, he credits his recovery to the inspiration and empathy he found in Bach.s work.

 

The Chaconne also inspired Mr. Mastroianni.s first novel, titled Chaconne and published this fall. It weaves together the stories of Milo, who remembers his father playing the Chaconne when he was a young boy, and Bach, who wrote the piece in a fit of grief after his wife.s death. Part coming-of-age story and part historical fiction, the book is ultimately a tribute to Bach.s masterpiece.

 

Mr. Mastroianni, a retired helicopter pilot, lives in Santa Barbara, California, where he rescues computers from viruses, jogs, writes, and plays the Chaconne daily on his classical guitar.

 

Tell me about the Chaconne. How did you develop an interest in the piece?

The Chaconne was written for violin, and my father was a professional violinist with the New York Philharmonic. That was one of the pieces that I heard and somehow it stuck with me. Later in life, I heard Andrés Segovia play it. I was dumbfounded. It sounded much better to me on the guitar than the violin.

 

What was it about Bach.s piece that struck you?

There.s something in the music that.s quite wonderful. He wrote it at a time when he had been away on a very short travel. By the time he returned home his wife had not only died, she had been buried. He was totally devastated. I think he wrote that in memoriam to his wife, and others have come to that same conclusion.

 

How did you decide to learn to play the Chaconne on the classical guitar?

When I heard Segovia play it on the guitar, I thought it was impossible. But I thought if he can do it, so can I, he.s just a man. Had I known what I was getting into I wouldn.t have attempted it. It.s one of the most difficult pieces of music that.s ever been written. There was no way I could do it without studying seriously. I decided to go to Spain on the advice of a friend. It still took many, many years before I could play it.

 

 

Had you studied music as a child?

I studied piano, but then after my dad left when I was nine I studied no music. I didn.t like studying or the piano.

 

Had you ever played the classical guitar before?

No. I had a bang-up guitar that I used to fool around with. But I went out and bought a very, very fine one. That was in the .70s when I got serious. It was sold to me on time payments and it took me two years to pay for it, maybe more, but it.s priceless to me.

 

Was it difficult to not only learn classical guitar, but start by learning such a difficult piece?

Most people that try to achieve the level that.s necessary begin their studies very young, and I didn.t begin until I was much older. There were difficulties. My fingers weren.t as supple. I had been flying helicopters, which requires a whole different approach where all your fingers are used together, whereas with guitar you use them independently. I struggled to make one finger move without moving another. There.s also the problem of having the time to put into it, having to learn how to read music, just getting the basics down. But I used the piece itself, its scales and arpeggios made into exercises. So when I eventually got to the point where I.d memorized the piece, I had already been playing the scales and arpeggios for a long period of time. So it made it a little easier.

 

After you were hit by a car, did any of your injuries make it difficult to play the guitar?

In the accident I had seventeen or so fractures including three or four fingers and my thumb, and I had head injury and memory loss. I couldn.t even play a note. I picked up the guitar and couldn.t remember a thing. I also suffered nerve damage, which caused double vision. The music had so many notes and they were so small. A friend, my teacher, Jose Maria, took the music and broke it down into variations and had the notes enlarged so that I could more clearly see them. Then I memorized the thing. It took a year-and-a-half or two years to memorize because I couldn.t see very well.

 

Tell me about the car accident.

I was in downtown Manhattan, walking across 3rd Avenue. I almost made the curb. As I walked in front of a van that was stopped at the light, a fellow passed the van trying to time the light. I stepped toward the curb, and he hit me.

 

What were your injuries?

I had multiple fractures, almost lost my leg, and spent 11 years in rehab. They were going to remove the leg. I refused. I got a recommendation for an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Richard Ryu, in Santa Barbara, who had done a lot of work with major sport teams. He had to do bone grafts to save my left leg. Then he did surgery on my right knee where all the ligaments were blown out. He used pig ligaments to replace the damaged ones.

 

And you recovered much better than the doctors predicted?

Finally I got to where I could walk again without a limp. That.s when I took my bike ride. I celebrated my rehab in 1999 by riding a bike across the United States.

 

Tell me about your recovery process.

I spent several months in a wheelchair. I can.t tell you how many months I spent on crutches for one leg or another. I got so good I could move on those crutches faster than I could run. It was 160-odd steps down to beach, and I could fly up and down those steps on crutches. All told, on and off, it was at least four or five years that I was in some fashion immobile.

 

How did you deal with that emotionally?

Just like anything else. At the time, when something bad happens, you think it.s the worst thing that ever happens to you. Often it turns out to be the best. It gave me a lot of time to think and study and write and spend with my son . how can you think of that as bad?

 

Do you think the Chaconne helped you recover from the accident?

I don.t think I could have gotten through the ordeal without it. I used the guitar just doing chromatic scales, following the frets. I started doing that to exercise my fingers and as a meditation. Slowly things started coming back. It was a year-and-a-half before I could start playing anything again. I studied three to four hours everyday all through my rehab. Now I study at least two hours a day.

 

When you heard the music, could you connect to the pain Bach felt writing it?

Oh, absolutely. You will hear everything in that music. 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. 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. That.s what got me connected to the music.

 

When did you first play the whole Chaconne?

Well after my accident. When I finally played it through it took me 32 minutes, still making mistakes. Violinists play it in anywhere from 13-15 minutes. As you gain more confidence and accuracy you start speeding it up. It took five years until I got to a speed I liked. I play it every day at least once. It.s a meditation.

 

You also took up writing during your recovery?

During that time I was just writing therapeutically. I wrote notes and poetry and so on. About five or six years ago I ended up with about 5 or 600 pages of notes. I couldn.t conceive of it being a book, writing about my own experiences. A friend advised me, .Look, just write it as fiction. That freed me. When I was able to fictionalize, it all came together.

 

The sections about Bach are a mix of fact and fiction, correct?

The Bach is historical fiction. Bach was not known well in his day so there wasn.t a lot written about him then, but his music is so profound that as it was found and analyzed, people developed a sense of the person he was. I went through much of the literature and most of it was analysis of his music and not much about the man.

 

So how did you go about turning Bach the man into a character?

The literary view of the man is totally different from the one I came up with. I looked at what his life might have been like, within the context his music. Bach is thought of as a very holy man, a religious man, because he wrote church music. But I went back and found that much of his music, when analyzed today, would be considered jazz, very secular. He wrote for the church, but in his time if you didn.t work for the court or church you didn.t work. He had to take his jazz and sell it as holy to get paid. In my mind, in the book, he had to convince the Church that his secular music was sacred. The historical facts are accurate, but the story is fiction. The Bach chapters give him a voice in the first person, and fictionalize how he came to write the Chaconne.

Do you find a connection between writing and playing music?

Certainly, I love the way Bach wrote his music; to make things harmonize, with clear melodic themes, rhythm, tempo, and counterpoint. I think it.s the same with writing. I don.t know if I was able to achieve that, but I tried to write in that fashion as a standard. If you.re reading and the rhythm somehow gets broken by a word, you trip over it, and it breaks the tempo. It.s very much the same with music.

 

What about the processes of writing and performing music?

It.s kind of a similar process. Really they.re both languages. I.ve never composed any music, but I would assume that the processes are pretty much the same. You have to have a theme or plot, a beginning, middle, and ending, a resolution. You can.t leave people hanging when you write a story . it.s the same with music except there is a more dynamic connection with the audience because they are listening rather than reading.

 

In the novel, Milo describes what the Chaconne means to him. He says, .To put a tag on it, I.d say a perception of truth.. He says that when he sensed the music, .things, decisions, seemed to work out better.. Is this the way you feel about the piece?

You.ve heard people speak about the ring of truth. When you were young and did something wrong, whether or not your parents knew, you always knew the truth, didn.t you? It is often referred to as the ring of truth. I sensed that in Bach.s music. When you look for that sensation, it helps you make good decisions. Everyone.s had situations when they know they shouldn.t, but do it anyway. Truth can be ignored, denied, but it can.t be altered, so it.s that sensation of ah ha, you just know, a bell goes off. And yes, having sensed that feeling in Bach.s music, I look for a similar sensation when trying to make decisions. It helps me make better choices. it acts as a guide.

 

At the end of Mastroianni.s novel, the protagonist Milo, now retired, listens to a guitarist play the Chaconne and hears .loss and triumph, fear and courage, pain and bliss, sorrow and joy, denial and acceptance, anger and everlasting love, all embodied in Bach.s glorious dance of life, death, and continuum.. For Milo and for Mastroianni, the Chaconne is a guide for all life has to offer, from heartbreaks and tragic accidents to the strength and tenacity to make it through.

 


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