Da Milano: Fantasia No. 32

I completely forgot the name “Francesco da Milano” until a couple days ago. It rolled under the dishwasher, trapped in dust until I started rummaging around back there, writing about Beethoven. Beethoven is a name that never fades even when I have little attachment to the man’s music. Da Milano disappeared for seven or eight years despite the time I spent with him. Cultural significance has a way of doing that, overpowering even strong personal connection. There are names now that people would abandon in a blink were they avoidable. That’s regrettable even if their significance warrants the persistence. But no matter the oppressive weight, I still miss small things, tiny details pushed under bookshelves and into closets by cultural omnipresence that expands to fill whatever boundary its allowed. Big things get lost in the shadow of the next thing larger, but small things retain their value – apple varietals, sour gummy bears, Calvin and Hobbes, pleasant weather, and Francesco da Milano.

Pretty much everything I learned about classical guitar, I learned from my second private instructor in college. I took one lesson each week for four years, after hours, behind the closed door of an office not in use. Before my sophomore year, my guitar teacher left and the school hired a new one. John Boyles was infuriatingly, meticulously practical; a fantastic teacher, thorough and regimented. But I’m glad to have had one year with my other teacher.

Dr. Dorsey was a shorter than I, odd and quiet with long, gray-streaked dark hair, a full beard covering his entire face up to his cheekbones, and glasses that he routinely pushed awkwardly up the bridge of his nose with his pointer finger. He shuffled down the halls, rigid up to his chest but with his shoulders slouched in a way that reminded me of Pigpen dancing in Peanuts. I know he did and that I saw it, but in my memory he never blinks, eyes wide behind glasses. He didn’t teach me much in the way of technique, in part because he overestimated my ability or trusted too much my own overestimation. He was also a peculiar man. I credit him with one of my favorite bits of self-deprecating humor:

“What’s the difference between classical guitar and a piece of moldy bread? The mold is a living culture.”

I once asked him why I my right hand grew tired and tense so quickly:

“I read once about Buddhist monks that spend days on end meditating upon unanswerable questions. Like this one …  ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’”

For two weeks I asked him about my right hand and he responded: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I finally cracked, fuming to one of the seniors about the nonsense of it all. He lifted his right hand as if to wave and clapped his finger tips against his palm. The following year, John got the same question from new freshmen and responded simply: “Oh you pluck with the big knuckles. Not the small.” But that wasn’t Dr. Dorsey’s style.

What is the sound of one hand clapping? Infuriating as it was, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with classical guitar absent Dr. Dorsey. He let me play incredible music for a freshman – beautiful music, difficult, intricate, deep, ambiguous music. I played it poorly, but knowing it was out there and that – in a few years – I might play it well did more for me than he likely knew at the time. John was calculating – each piece served a purpose, taught a technique – but I might’ve been frustrated by his (excellent) teaching had Dr. Dorsey not hooked me before.

When I auditioned for the music program, I did so as a “jazz studies” major but about the time I was accepted, the stock market crashed. By February the economy was mush, endowments festering, and schools panicking unashamedly. One afternoon, I checked my email and found a message from the Music Department Chair – jazz studies was no more, but I could still major in classical guitar. I filled out an application for a different school, auditioned the next month, got waitlisted, and decided to buy a classical guitar. When I first walked into the studio with Dr. Dorsey it could’ve gone either way.

I’d love to think I possessed an inherent determination, my sticking with it preordained, but that’s never the case and I was oblivious to what lay ahead. At the top of my second lesson, Dr. Dorsey produced a coarse, eggshell-white folio with thick viridian type indicating the “fantasia and ricercare” of Francesco da Milano. An obscure lutenist of the Italian renaissance was an odd choice, but the doctor’s doctorate was in music history and his topic of study, lute music. He may have chosen it to interest himself, or sensed that I needed to see someone bubbling over about even the most esoteric music. Either way the effect was of the latter. I was bitter over my situation and it helped to see Dr. Dorsey, almost manic with excitement, point out strings of sonorities and dissonances spilling out over the page. I listened to him opine enthusiastically and drift into tangents – John Dowland, Medicis, various wars or revolutions, Guardame las vacas – long after our required hour expired.

His first choice for me was da Milano’s “Fantasia No. 32.” Twenty minutes with the music reveals that they’re all related – a delicate way of saying that major key, minor key, they sound the same. But they’re perhaps the only pieces about which that wouldn’t drive me crazy – they’re breathtakingly beautiful. I played the fantasia on my exam and almost certainly never again, but Dr. Dorsey kept me in the fold and his infectious fascination with renaissance music stuck.

The fluid character of Renaissance music separates it from the Baroque. A Bach chorale fixes a clear melody atop chords and a Scarlatti sonata pits it against a propulsive bass with incidental middle voices. The intricate counterpoint of Dowland, Gesualdo, Palestrina strikes the ear in a haze of consonance and dissonance, two or three or four strings woven into patterns, a whole that falls apart without each strand. A friend of mine kept a dream catcher by his bed when he was little. I picked it up and traced each bit of twine with my finger. I could follow one for hours, imagine unraveling it between thumb and forefinger without finding the ending, and simply hop to a different one as soon as a twirl or flourish grabbed my attention. No chords to fill hollow places, water spilling from a pitcher. Instead, a thousand drops – little intervallic splashes falling all around – cover the ground in a glistening film, rain on asphalt.

I shouldn’t say I appreciate Renaissance music inordinately. In truth, it’s probably counterpoint – two lines tangling, the jarring hum of note against note – that obsesses me. The democracy of the lines in that lute music brought me in close. No drop of rain is more important than the other and sitting with a book and a metronome made me a fly amongst the droplets, seeing them fall in slow motion. I could move between and marvel over the viscosity and surface tension of each, the way they sparkled in sunlight and the shape they took en route to the concrete. Each of the dozens of constructions sounded the same to my untrained ear, but they each contained a lifetime of subtly different listenings. That carried over, I think, into the way I listened to most other music and saved classical performance for me as much as anything else. I’m not sure how much I learned about the guitar from Dr. Dorsey or if he intended any of what he accomplished, but I suppose those are big questions, unimportant next to the small, the droplets falling.

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