When you hear music
Heading south on San Pedro, the landscape changes. As I drive past Little Tokyo, past 3rd, then 4th street, tents appear on either side of the street. The tents hearken the change: you’ve entered Skid Row — the largest community of unhoused people in America. One is confronted with a new facet of Los Angeles: here, a human pain is apparent, unmasked, laid bare in the form of people grappling with demons unseen.
I remember the first time I drove down San Pedro — by mistake — in 2007. Ensconced in a dark blue Toyota Camry, I felt myself reach for the button to lock my doors as a shirtless, toothless black panhandler came by my window. I looked around and saw dozens upon dozens of people spilling into streets, the contents of tattered lives overflowing the city’s concrete grid, laid naked, bare for all to see. Brutal and tender, horrifying and utterly ridiculous. I felt fear, disgust, and fascination. I felt a physical pain in my gut — nausea with a razor’s edge. I couldn’t look away.
I also heard music. Reena often talks about how when she talks to a new commissioner or artistic partner, she knows she’s going to share a real musical connection with them if she ‘hears music’ during their conversation. That day, driving through Skid Row, feeling the gut punch of driving through the cracked devastation, I felt like I was finally seeing something real about Los Angeles: not the glittering, glitzy stainless steel veneer — but finally, a place where I was really hearing music.
I can’t say what piece I heard, exactly, but at the time, I was listening to the Emerson String Quartet’s recording of Beethoven’s late string quartets — especially the Opus 130, 131, and 132 quartets, which played on an endless loop in my car. Even now, I choke up with emotion if I imagine seeking Skid Row while hearing the “Heiliger Dankgesang” from Opus 132 or the profound “Cavatina” from Opus 130.
Somehow, that music felt like a prayer, an offering of complicated humanity reflected within itself. It certainly was for Beethoven: the late quartets were the last works he wrote in his life, even after the 9th symphony. He returned to the laboratory of the quartet as a way to continue exploring his most human, most complicated emotions: labyrinthine searching and constant questioning, rage and catharsis, grace and redemption.
At the time, I didn’t know how, where, or when — but I knew that this music had to be offered back to this place. They seemed to come from the same place. They seemed to be asking the same questions.
It was around this time that I met someone from Skid Row who felt the same way about Beethoven as I did. Nathaniel Ayers became my guide through the wilderness of Skid Row, showing me that it was a place he, and the many voices he heard while grappling with a severe case of paranoid schizophrenia, could find some place of resolution and belonging. In the shopping cart filled with instruments and his home, Nathaniel carried two 2x4 plywood clubs labeled “Beethoven” and “Brahms” — which he would use to drum on the sidewalk to scare away rats at night, before laying out his bedding. The specters of these composers protected him.
He heard music all the time.