Background noise and foreground music

During the quiet movements of Rodrigo’s Fantasia for a Gentleman, I heard the refrigerator compete for attention. Its crescendo to a fortessimo intruded upon the guitarist’s solo and intercepted my dialogue. I could feel its girations on the floor and against my piano bench.

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The black grand piano sat in the corner next to a refrigerator that was to play a significant role in the morning concert. We are weary whenever we enter a hall that doubles up as an eating area with an ensuite kitchen.

Yesterday in Deventer, over an hour’s drive east of Utrecht and east of the famous Veluwe forests, the distinct odour of fried fish lingered from lunch. Barely a week ago on a sunny August morning in Zoetermeer, a half-hour ‘s drive west of Utrecht, thankfully there was no smell but rather the anticipation of something imminent.

I don’t know which is worse: to endure the smell or the noise and unsettling traffic of cooks, staff, volunteers, and residents.

And it certainly doesn’t help when the refrigerator rattles its own ostinato and cadenza.

That August morning in Zoetermeer (which means Sweeter Lake in Dutch) we asked the head volunteer to ask the kitchen staff to switch off the refrigerator. The volunteer mentioned to us that there was not enough staff that morning to get all the residents into the hall, an indication that she was helpless to change the situation.

We sat in the small windowless dressing room wondering what to expect if the fridge continued its buzzing as we had experienced during our warm-up.

The ominously looking refrigerator welcomed us into the hall while more residents were being wheeled in, behind us. We tuned and began the concert with a short Badinerie, the famous one from Bach’s second orchestral suite. The low ceilings didn’t do justice to the grand piano. The volunteer sitting closest to me set a poor example for the audience when she chatted at will. Any amount of noise and restlessness was detrimental to our delivery of music intended for the foreground not background.

During the quiet movements of Rodrigo’s Fantasia for a Gentleman, I heard the refrigerator compete for attention. Its crescendo to a fortessimo intruded upon the guitarist’s solo and intercepted my dialogue. I could feel its girations on the floor and against my piano bench. The vibrations conflicted with the rhythm of the Baroque dance of Gaspar Sanz, whose theme lent Rodrigo the air of antiquity.

Just when the noise became too loud to bear, it died quietly to a near niente. Peace at last, I thought, but not for long. By the time we ended the first half with Torroba’s Sonatina, we had heard several such cycles of the uninvited instrument.

During the break, we asked the volunteer again if she could get the kitchen staff to switch off the fridge. She said it was impossible. At first I guessed that the rules of the house made it impossible. But the guitarist thought otherwise.

“Of course it’s possible,” he said. “If the power is cut off, the fridge wouldn’t buzz. The cakes won’t melt in 30 minutes. Just unplug it.” He was angry for he had overheard the earlier conversation between the cook and the volunteer.

The cook had refused to switch off the fridge and complained that it wasn’t his fault that the piano was put next to the kitchen. In other words, the dining hall should not be used for concerts. And he wasn’t about to switch off the fridge, just because somebody asked him to.

Accepting fate, we grudgingly returned for the second half.

No amount of concentration could tune out the vibrato of the refrigerator. At some point, an elderly woman sitting in the front row began to sob uncontrollably. Perhaps the slow movement of Summer from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons had brought back memories that ignited such an outburst. She was quietly led away.

The attention then returned to our duo but not for long.

The distant shuffling of paper, more precisely cellophane being unwrapped and rewrapped, permeated the hall from the kitchen. With my back turned to the refrigerator, I could not see the kitchen but I could hear the staff. They went about their duties, taking out things from the other fridge, unwrapping food stuffs, and making sounds typical of a meal being prepared.

We were furious.

“Next time this happens,” declared the guitarist. “We should just leave. We can’t perform under such noisy conditions. I can’t even hear myself.”

At the next concert (yesterday afternoon in Deventer), the fridge and the kitchen were silent. But one volunteer walked on stage during our performance, to sit at a table with his back to me. It seemed strange that he would sit alone, even more strange to share a stage with a live performance. He scribbled notes on a writing pad and later, during the break, advised me that I should announce the previous piece played when I’m introducing the next piece. Was he a volunteer or a resident of the nursing home? I wonder.

Needless to say, I was grateful for the quiet kitchen and mindful of the stranger who entered on and off stage.