Into the Black Sea

Into the Black Sea

Kevin McMullin

 One gentle summer night in the city of Timisoara, I watched my friend, Brandon, throw his trumpet out of the second story window of our dormitory. 

Our high school orchestra was gigging a route through Ceausescu’s Romania, traveling from city to village to town to wherever the buses took us. Guests of the Romanian government, we were carefully housed far away from unruly, informative, or even ordinary citizenry. We were to pay no attention to the currency sharks that wanted to trade expensive goods for American dollars. We were to be careful what pictures we took. We were vigilantly escorted through a meticulously staged world. We imagined a set crew traveling half a day before us, getting it all ready: costumed Romanian peasants; happy, thriving factory workers; scenic, bucolic villages.

Well, he tossed his horn into the dark abyss of that Iron Curtain night, on a wild eyed whim, leaving me slack jawed at the enormity of the risk. At the trust he had put in the friend who caught it. At the disregard of the horn.  I couldn’t tell which.

Back at home we had nearly finished the job of losing the Vietnam war. Woodward and Bernstein were peeling back the layers of Nixon’s own facade. We were hungry for any kind of news. In Romania there was precious little of it. Occasionally a gleam from a London paper, a paragraph about the latest Presidential aide to be fingered. We had no idea what we would come home to.

Ahead of us was tranquil Transylvania, where Vlad the Impaler’s castle lay in wait for us on a memorable Friday the 13th; passionate, frenzied performances in small town halls, village squares and large concert auditoriums to audiences that were enthusiastic about classical music in ways we had never dreamed possible; long bus rides at breathtaking speeds down winding narrow roads; a bracing plunge into the Black Sea.

And yet it is the trajectory of that trumpet that stays with me forty years later. Its path out of the window and into the impenetrable night of a tightly controlled world falling apart. The trumpet itself falling, a silent glissando into somebody’s fortuitously capable hands.

And what of the hands that launched that fine horn? Were they letting go? Tossing aside? Preparing to receive? Was there any meaning to their action?

And do not forget the afternoon concert in Iasi, where state videographers asked people in the half full auditorium to move to the center section so that the auditorium would seem full on film. With camera lights blazing we launched into “El Salón Mexico,” a syncopated, meter bending, 20th century work sure to be new to Eastern European ears. We raced across Aaron Copland’s stuttering rhythms and tempo tripping time signatures. But in the middle of it all the lights went out. We fell into blindness.

The conductor, the cameras, the audience, the sheet music, our very instruments… all disappeared. Our oboist took the reed from his mouth and laughed. But most of us kept on, tackling the next passages from memory, too startled to be lost. Forging forward unseeing, with no sense of hope that we could finish, but unwilling to give up on the next note. Or the next. Or the next. And then, the lights came back on

and we stumbled back into our parts, finishing the piece over the growing ovation of an audience that had been hurtling through the dark for much, much longer than our young minds could fathom.