My first memories invariably take shape as sound—if this is some retroactive reorganization of my memory because I have made music the singular focus of my life or if it is some indication that the very rudiments of my selfhood were fusion-sealed to sound, I do not know—and so I have this funny sense that before I could understand my eyes, I found my way through the world by my ears. I remember the scratch of my mother’s brush and the squeak of her towels streaking across the floors she cleaned; I remember the wobbling aquatic sounds of her knees shifting on hardwood and the snapping pop of her wristbones as she rubbed the veneer into the boards. I remember the splash and dunk, the giddy fizzing of the soap bubbles giving their inside-air to the outside. I remember the cars, the buses, the whole machinery of Chicago’s metallic organism life-murmuring with motion and hissing life. I remember the grates and the clatter of metal things banging into place. I remember the hum of her songs and the songs from the outside, the songs of children being herded from one place to the next, and the slamming of the doors as the families returned from work or from gathering their own little ducklings—I remember the rustle of paper money and the rattle of change going into my mother’s hands, and I remember the sound of my coat’s buttons going through the fabric. I also remember my father’s voice, deep and heavy like the biggest soap bubbles, but the fizz gave way to something else, some coarse-coated sound that ran up and down my cheeks; in the vague place beyond the scope of my memory’s sight, there is only the exchange of sound and tactile sensation, but always, sound is first.
The birth of my little brother Ivo is the beginning of my visual memory. He is silent and pale and small. The room where they keep him is full of beeping sounds and flickering lights. His digital heartbeat is a wavering blue-metal blip on a black screen tracing the electric route of his little, bitty heart. His head is bald and his eyes are big, but they’re squeezed shut. He’s trembling, always trembling. It’s so terrible, this little tear-shaped body in a crib that I want to squeeze my eyes close and never ever see it again, because the little blip-blop on the black screen is all that’s keeping him alive, and all I know is that I’m terrified, but mama says that he is ours, he is our Ivo, our little Ivo, so we have to love and take care of him, because he is ours. My mother is dark hair streaked with silver. Her face is round. She is small and slightly round, but solid. When I put my arms around her legs, they are rough with stockings but so hard. Her knees are knotty and they press against my lips when I kiss her knees, squeezing her as tightly as I can because I want so much to measure myself against something else real. And I hear it, the underwater murmur of her pulse. Papa is big, enormous, and he smells like ash. His chest is broad, and I, three years old, can fit on it if I curl up when he’s lying down. His rough fingers always find the soft corners of my body and he turns me over and over, laughing as he slides me up and down, keeping me in place except in the gravity of his hands. These images of my parents burst inside of my memory, come to me all at once without straining or struggling to summon them up. They are bright and searing, even in this dark period, when Little Ivo is a starving, sad little baby thing gripping on to the world with his baby hands; our Ivo. Full of sounds that want to burst out, but they cannot. Not yet.
I am eight the first time I make a sound on my own. It is my own sound, my voice. It bubbles out of me easily and smoothly as it ascends higher and higher; it is a pure tone, and I am singing in the boys’ choir at the Russian Orthodox Church down the street from our apartment. I can feel the vibration in my ears, and it is warm and perfect. It resonates and lifts higher. The other voices meld together, but I can hear my own, distinct and crystalline, lifting beyond the other voices, some lower or higher, but mine is the only mobile voice, the only voice sliding in and out of the main harmony, breaking away and curling, spiraling. The sounds are spirals in my mind, each one distinct in color and temperature. I can separate or blend them if I want. The instructor is watching me with mild frustration. I can tell he wants me to move back into the harmony so I do. I don’t know how I do, but I do. In my mind, I can make my voice do what I want, but I never know how. I only know that I do. And my voice slides into the others, and the instructor’s frown goes away. I love the way the voices, the sounds all lift and collect in the dome. Our sounds pool there, growing louder and louder, echoing from some invisible central point until they extend beyond even ourselves. I love singing. I love the words. I love the transition from silence into sound. Some of the other boys don’t. They frown, roll their eyes, shuffle in place, but I am still. I can make myself still. And the sounds come easily out of me, from some hidden place inside of me, it all pours out and into the sky. I like singing. It’s the best and purest thing. My own sound. I am eight when I begin tasting sound and learning its language. It’s the first time I learn to read music. The lessons the instructor taught me have remained. Scales, rhythm, melody, harmony, parts of the chest, breathing, the assembly of a voice, a voice that can and will last. I am the primary soloist, and Nikola Helionos is upset, because for two years, he has been soloist. But I take his place, because he cannot move his voice in and out of harmony without thinking too hard. He cannot learn the words as fast as I can. He cannot breathe sound.
Ivo is three when I am eight, and he is the small brother because I am the big brother. He is not walking yet, but when Mama holds him under his arms and steadies his weight for him on his knobby, small-thing legs, he is excited and tries to race away from her. He runs before he can walk because he’s surprised and ecstatic about the sensation of his own weight for the first time; his legs can’t wait to eat up space on their way somewhere, even if it’s just across our scuffed floor to Papa’s open arms. They take turns this way, holding Ivo, coaxing him into his first steps, but Ivo doesn’t have patience, and doesn’t want to walk; he wants to run and leap--he giggles and squeals. His baby hair is thin, and it sticks up in a tuff at the centerpoint of his skull like a hen’s feathers. His eyes are big and his cheeks are fat and flecked with spittle and baby sounds. He is our Ivo. I like my turn best, when I get to hold him between my legs, Indian style, on the rug and play with his fingers while Mama and Papa sway together in the kitchen, singing and laughing. He surprises her this way, at dinner time, when she is cutting up the few potatoes she bought after work, slicing their thin white skins into disks for boiling in the stew; he comes up behind her and puts his arms around her waist and he sings from deep in his chest, unsupported notes, badly constructed, but they belong to Papa and to Mama and the kitchen at dusk before he goes out to drive the taxi until the sun comes up and he comes home as we are going out to catch the bus across town to my school. Outside, the sky is a flush of green and blue; white ashes spin their way into gritty grey dusk as evening blinks into life one knife-point glint of star-metal at a time. Ivo is heavy on my legs, flailing, trying to get free, pressing against the palms of my hand and steadying himself before he drops again on to my legs. He’s getting ready to fly the nest, I know it, and I tell him that I know it, and we look at each other. It’s a secret the two of us keep, that he’s getting ready to fly the nest, that he’s getting ready for something big, that now is just practice, getting his legs ready. He looks at me. He can’t make whole words yet, but I understand him. He is my Ivo. And his thoughts are the underside of my thoughts. We’re trapped that way, like the two surfaces of water’s edge, reflecting into one another infinitely many times.
When I turn nine, I wake up with a burning pain in my throat, and it scares me. I tug on my mama’s dress, and she turns to frown at me because she’s trying to concentrate on her sewing. This is one of the only times during the quiet winter afternoons on weekends when she doesn’t have to worry about bending down to clean other people’s floors, when she can focus solely on the solitary ecstasy of pulling her needles through fabric, shaping cloth into new forms for her antique dolls. It’s one of her few pleasures, but I’m nine and because my throat hurts, I want to curl up on her lap and pout. It’s my right as a child, and I don’t understand how this is selfish. Because she is not selfish, her frown fades, and she presses her hand to my forehead then slides her fingers under my shirt to check my chest and back for fever. She purses her lips, runs her fingers up my neck, and I stand there, lower lip sticking out, feeling cold and unwell. I have singing tomorrow, and I don’t want to be sick because I’ll miss it. The look on her face darkens, and she tells me to get my coat. I know it isn’t good news. This sinks into my stomach like the cold rocks I’ve taken to tossing in the pond at Mama’s Tuesday job, the one with the ducks in their small backyard. Though this time, when the weight settles, it isn’t satisfying.
The doctors tell mama that my tonsils are swollen and will have to be removed, which means that I should rest my voice. No practice. No overexerting. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do without my voice, without sound. It’s an ugly, ugly thing, and I pout and fold my arms across my chest. I’m petulant, I know, even without knowing what the word means. But I don’t care. I don’t care what anyone else thinks or feels about me, even though I am aware that I should not be behaving this way. Sulking and sullen and full of self-pity. These are things Mama does not tolerate in me: self-pity is for the entitled and she will not have a spoiled child, she says. Do not be spoiled, Ilya. Be grateful for your health. As she says this, she looks at Ivo, who is winding around on the floor in dizzy circles, giggling to himself, putting his fingers in his mouth and squeezing his lips until they sputter. Be grateful, she says.
My uncle Vanya and my grandfather come to visit us in America for the first time. They look just like Papa, except even bigger and even broader. Their laughter is loud and booming. The three of them together are like giants over mama and Ivo and me. Even my father’s father, old, is energetic and boyish. He gets on to the floor with Ivo and tickles him, tickles his thin little legs until they flail and kick and spin. Uncle Vanya is the biggest of the three, and he stands in the corner whispering to Papa over drinks. Their lips are wet and smooth, but their language is fast and precise like chipping ice. Mama sits alone in the kitchen, humming to herself. This is the first time I have ever seen her smoking, but she sits there with her eyes closed, letting the smoke lift slowly from her lips. She catches her ashes in her hand and gently folds them out of view so smoothly that you doubt that they were even there. Our house fills with smells and sounds of the old country, and when the sun sets, my father’s father sits on one of our rickety American chairs and pulls from an enormous black case: a cello. Its body is lacquer perfection, and catches the light, pours the light down its body in deep, mahogany currents. Ivo and I sit at his feet. I hold Ivo on my lap, and Ivo is clapping, always so happy. I forget for a moment that I am supposed to be sulking. Excitement ripples up my spine.
The first sounds are milky darkness. Those first, beautiful sounds, deep and smooth, open into our small apartment, and suddenly, there is only the cello under my grandfather’s hard, tan hands. He isn’t playing any piece I’ve ever heard, and to be honest, the notes don’t seem to follow any particular pattern. It’s as if he’s just playing, just letting the music come from wherever it is that music comes. He closes his eyes and smiles as he slides his hands, each one independent but entirely in-sync with the other, unfolding music. I feel overcome by its warmth and by the deep sadness that tinges this strange natural song he is playing. It is like recognizing yourself after a long, long sleep. It is like gazing into your own eyes and feeling an instant affinity that suggests that you have become strange enough to yourself to be surprised by this connection. It is the same feeling I get when I remember something that I have forgotten, cross a street I used to cross but stopped when I found a new route; it’s like watching Ivo play with an old toy I stopped caring about, but found myself wanting it back when I saw it reinvented in his hands. This music. This music calls to me, and I call back even though I have not tested my voice in weeks. I call back and match the harmony, letting my voice sink into the rich, velvety undertone. I am surprised when the pitch is within my reach, and I settle into it, singing along with my grandfather’s playing, letting the resonance carry me wherever it is that he is going as well. When it is over, there is silence, and my grandfather leans down and puts his hand on my head. He is smiling, smiling broadly and big, and wonderfully. I smile too. I smile and he smiles, and then he kisses me and then Ivo and says in Russian what wonderful grandsons he has.
For a week afterward, I beg my mother for a cello. She is hesitant at first. She says, what about your vocal lessons, what about the church. She doesn’t want to foster impulsiveness in me. She doesn’t want a spoiled child who leaps from one to the next. She wants structure and to nurture my talents and my desires, but not at the expense of losing discipline. Discipline was her father’s gift to her, and it is one she intends to pass on. But I press her. I use all of the cunning I have in begging and pleading to my father who in turns uses his charm to beg and plead to her. Ultimately, it is my grandfather who decides. He says that passion is a gift and freedom is a gift, and that he had given up both for the sake of tradition and making a living in a hard land. Why should these children, these wonderful American grandsons of his, have to give up their dreams and their passions when they have done nothing wrong. And just like that, Mama gives in, and I have a cello.
What a strange creature it is at first. It’s wooden, and it is apart from me. I am used to resonance being inside of me, but here I have to channel my energy into an instrument. It’s different from my voice, and at first, it is alien to me. But soon, I find that the cello is really just an extension of myself.
My first cello instructor is my grandfather. He has wonderful technique. He teaches me in the apartment he shares with my uncle Vanya’s family. These lessons are free, but they are also demanding. Practice, Ilya, practice. My grandfather’s fervor for the cello is crucial during these formative lessons. It is during these lessons that he teaches me the hard truths of the cello. Perfection is necessary, but unattainable. Rigor is expected, not exceptional. And practice is an absolute. He corrects every mistake the instant it happens, and I play the same part over and over and over. I play with a view of the lake, and I can see it reflecting the sunlight back into the sky. I play with the echo of the boats and with the fluctuating blasts from the streets below. I play with distraction after distraction, but eventually, the stiffness in my fingers recedes, and I feel only the nimble flexibility of the strings and my bow. I carry the scales in my mind and run up and down them repeatedly at every spare second. When I come into my lesson, I have already practiced one thousand times in my mind. I know where the music will bend or dip or rise, and these instincts guide me when my technique, still unformed and fledging, wavers. My grandfather calls me a prodigious improviser, which means that I can make my mistakes look intentional, but that is no excuse. You must play the piece as it was intended, Ilya. Creativity is a pleasure, not a virtue. These words sting, but he always smiles when he says them, so his mustache lifts and curls, which makes me laugh. After each lesson, he gives me a small chocolate for myself and one for Ivo. Then he walks me downstairs to the front of the building, where Mama and Ivo are coming up from the subway. I rush to them and take Ivo onto my back, and we spin making airplane noises. Mama and grandfather talk a bit, pass a few minutes, and then we take the subway home where I help set the table.
I spend hours practicing after my lesson. I play and play and play, running up the scales and down the scales. These are the basics. These are the foundation, and I understand instinctively that this means that mastery is absolute necessary before I can begin to play anything else. Strangely, it doesn’t feel menial. It excites me, each note as it forms in my mind and then in my fingers and then on the strings and then in the air. Each note, no matter how many times I have played or listened to it in my mind, excites me. This makes the monotony of practice easier to bear. After a while, my mother stops asking me when I’ll go back to singing lessons. She seems to understand my obsessive nature.
When I am eleven, my grandfather announces that I need a new teacher.