The Mysteries of Leaving and Coming Back
On the cover of her most recent recording, Undersong, pianist Simone Dinnerstein stands gap-legged, hands in pockets, a scarf draped around her neck. Her face is swathed in sunlight. Headstones cluster at the roots of century oaks, whose bare branches extend against an ashen sky.
For the last two years, Dinnerstein has found herself again and again in this place – Green-Wood Cemetery, near her Brooklyn home. On her daily walks though the burial ground, nature in its cycles dies, comes back to life, dies again. It is the same walk each day, and yet each day it is different. And at the end of each walk, Dinnerstein returns home the same person, yet somehow changed.
In Undersong, Dinnerstein explores what it means to go to the same place again and again and to return home. The recording takes its name from the archaic word for a piece of music with a refrain, a passage of music that periodically repeats amid sections of contrasting music.
Undersong features musical works with refrains by Schumann, Couperin, Satie, and Philip Glass and plumbs the delicious irony at the essence of all refrains – each time the refrain returns, that passage, though familiar, feels different. For although the refrain may sound the same each time, we are changed because the contrasting sections of the piece have made us experience different sounds and emotions. We bring those experiences and emotions with us when the refrain repeats.
Dinnerstein had performed the repertoire on Undersong in concerts before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which brought her once globetrotting travel schedule to a halt. The extreme isolation and travel limitations during the last two years, she says, imbued this recording with an additional level of meaning.
“During the pandemic, this whole idea of refrain and repetition seemed really pertinent to what everybody was experiencing, that I felt I was experiencing, and the sort of strange sameness of our days, but also the feeling that every day was kind of repeating and we felt like we were on a loop,” Dinnerstein said. “But at the same time, everything felt really strange and new. And I found that conflict very hard to get my mind around.”
Dinnerstein’s struggle to reconcile how something familiar can seem foreign is at the heart of Undersong, the third recording she has made in her home since the pandemic began. For that reason, the disc is equally personal to her as her two previous pandemic recordings – A Character of Quiet and An American Mosaic – and to her noted Bach performances, which are cleverly reflected in Undersong’s overarching design.
Undersong begins and ends with performances of François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses much the way Bach’s Goldberg Variations begin and end with the same aria. But that aria feels different after the long journey through Bach’s variations. And in Dinnerstein’s hands, Les Barricades Mystérieuses has an entirely different effect on us at the end of our journey through the other works on the recording than it does right at the beginning.
As intimate a musical statement as Undersong may be, the recording also touches on the universal human desire to gain ever greater meaning from experiences by reliving them.
“We like to go to the same places, read the same books again, recapture experiences. It’s something that is a human quality that we want to revisit,” Dinnerstein said. “And the desire to recapture an experience that was meaningful is something that is tied to our innermost selves.”