Harmonielehre

During my freshman year in college, Sabrina Colman shaved her head. She was the TA for my Harmony 103 class, a cellist getting her masters in music theory. It was a dramatic look for someone so beautiful and sensually defined. She wore long denim skirts, often with cowgirl boots, and it looked odd with the fine black down that barely covered her head. Even from a distance, she was unmistakeable, crossing the quad with her cello case strapped over a green parka. But this was her act of contrition: to deny her own beauty and offer herself completely to the spiritual purity of music.

”Sing the alto voice while I play the other parts…”

I remember her hands on the piano, capable but unsure. Her fingernails were never long and always painted with clear lacquer. Her lips were the color of plums and though she rejected makeup along with her hair, she sometimes gave in to scarlet lipstick. On such days, her mouth was something extraordinary as it called out the name of each progression. Plagal. Authentic. The moist whisper of a Neopolitan sixth. Her head would swag over dominant sevenths and their resolutions. Sitting beside her at the piano, my chair slightly behind hers, I could see the black down swirling into a vortex on the top of her head. The transcendent harmonies aside, she was as mortal as any of us.

“…the four-two chord get its name from having a passing seventh in the bass…”

Her office was in the basement of the building, a stuffy practice room no more than 8 by 10. There was only one window, high up where the wall touched the ceiling. Students would pass on the sidewalk outside and cause the sunlight to flicker across the yellowed page – as if the world outside were stuttering while we pondered the unshakable luminance of Bach. And her cello case sat silently in the corner – a dark shadow shaped so much like her.

“…and here’s a partial cycle of fifths…”

The cycle of fifths was her favorite progression. It was an extended series of chords that sort of took you around the world and then dropped you off where you began. She would hold a hand to her heart whenever she spoke about it. And I could feel its power in my chest when she played it. It was like being lifted. Like being taken away and shown the meaning to things.

“Now let me hear you sing the tenor voice here…”

I am the cello and I am all things. I live in the full range of male and female, of god and goddess. I am the tension and the release. I am music and music is life, it is feeling. These dead rules will not constrain me. The ear need not see to know where to go.

The last time I saw Sabrina, she was bundled to her cello and crossing the quad. It was two weeks before graduation and she was about to enter the professional music world. I heard she’d won a position at Eastman and was soon to unleash the diligent silkworms of species counterpoint on young musical minds.

It was then that I realized she was only slightly taller than the height of her cello.