Mum and stepfather - I see them as two pianos riffing together

Liam Heitman-Rice's mother and stepfather Claire and Jonas. Picture: LIAM HEITMAN-RICE.

Liam Heitman-Rice's mother and stepfather Claire and Jonas. Picture: LIAM HEITMAN-RICE. - Credit: Archant

I recently saw the film Call Me By Your Name, whose opening credits burst onto the screen with a piano composition by John Adams.

Its title is 'Hallelujah Junction' and immediately sets the tone of the film: a joyous dance of notes played by two instruments, out of sync yet beautifully in-key. Despite this slight delay between them, the two pianos both become one unified character, harmonising in their varied interpretations of the same music. Adams himself says of the piece, there is a 'sense of pulsation one can get by having two pianos working at the same tempos, same material, and tossing back little motific ideas, back and forth, and then riffing: one piano will stay down low, while another goes up high'.

This sense of pulsation parallels the vortex of emotion presented in Call Me By Your Name, a love affair between adolescent Elio and his father's American intern Oliver. In this brief, charged period of sexual discovery they experience the same thing, they both have in front of them the same sheet of music. But it is each man's unique interpretation of the music that unifies them both in one intense, mesmeric performance. They are both pianos playing together, the ideas passed between them, back and forth, riffing. As differently as they may play, they meet at the one junction and harmonise across this one shared experience. It is love, wild and mad and disparate but held together, breast to breast.

Since seeing the film, I have thought a lot about this idea of experiencing something with opposing interpretations. It has made me think about the dynamics of a relationship, how both parties of a couple will approach the same thing differently. I myself have not had a romantic relationship with someone, not beyond a week, so I derive my understanding from watching others. The strongest reference point I have is the twelve-year marriage between my mother and stepfather, and I do see them as two pianos riffing with one another. Claire and Jonas both play the same composition, they both perform the base expectations of the notes written in front of them: they both work full-time, pay bills, cook, walk the dog. But it is their interpretation of these notes, that slight delay, which highlights their differences as two separate instruments. Jonas watches rugby on the weekend and occasionally plays, and chats with old friends in the pub; Mum goes to the gym, buys Vogue, dances to Depeche Mode, watches trash TV. Both of these people live their lives in accordance to the notes laid out on the page, but that sense of pulsation between them is generated by the way they play. Together, they are the same and different.

My parents do not often fight but they voice those instances of vexation present in any strong relationship, the loud sharp più forte of their performance. These flares of angry volume are necessary outbursts. One may not see this emotion printed on the sheet music, but it is up to the interpretation of the performer to facilitate its release. Simply, no relationship can last without vexation, without that outward expression.

The performers learn the music as they become better acquainted with their fellow pianist. Because once the honeymoon days of infatuation pass, a couple will really begin to understand their compatibility. When the other half of a relationship begins to infuriate you, then you can begin to love them. Once anger, frustration and annoyance begin to encroach upon those joyous opening notes, when the music gains greater depth and its meaning becomes more than simply ink and paper, then the two can begin to harmonise. As a masterpiece is created only with rehearsal and commitment, so too is a lasting relationship made with time and shared experience.

Elio and Oliver are together for just one summer. Their performance is quick and frenetic and euphoric, but unfinished: a harmony denied its final coda. Elio and Oliver are two pianos playing, for just a moment a time.

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