Reading Practice

Brenda Miller's essay, "The 23rd Adagio," is an example of a writer exploring events an ocean away through the impressions of one man's music and another artist's appreciation of his act. The essay is constructed with elements of journalism, and may be considered literary journalism. Consider how Miller places herself into this narrative. What effect does her insertion have on the text?

The 23rd Adagio

In May of 1992, a bomb exploded outside a bakery in Sarajevo, killing twenty-two people—Muslims, Croats, Serbs—who were waiting in line for bread. Each day, for the next twenty-two days, Bedran Smailovic, a cellist with the Sarajevo Opera, put on his black suit; he dragged a chair onto the ruined sidewalk in front of the bakery; he lifted his cello out of its case and played "Adagio en Sol Mineur," by Tomaso Albinoni. A simple piece of music, a sorrowful piece, suited to the cello's frowning countenance. No one asked Smailovic to do this, but each day he closed his eyes and fixed his thoughts on a particular person who had died on that sidewalk. Only when he had this person clearly in mind, would he lift his bow and touch it to the strings. For twenty-two days, he played this music through sniper fire; he played despite artillery shells exploding in the streets; he played as the war in Bosnia escalated around him. He played until the deaths of all twenty-two people had been memorialized by the voice of his solo cello.

When Seattle artist Beliz Brothers heard about Smailovic, she created "22 Adagio," a large wall sculpture built with over a hundred charred bread pans hooked together, some holding flowers reminiscent of wilted petals laid on a grave. She displayed the piece for twenty-two days in Seattle in September of 1992, and on each of these days twenty-two cellists played the Adagio in twenty-two different locations around the city. Seattle, for a brief time, was dotted by a music that told a grief most Seattle dwellers could barely comprehend—not only for the twenty-two dead in the bakery bombing, but for the thousands of civilians who died every month before as the war continued. Brothers took the sculpture to Washington, D.C. during the Clinton Inauguration, and the cellists played for twenty-two days in front of the Red Cross headquarters, the Holocaust Museum, the Senate Rotunda—continuing the line of music begun when the Sarajevan cellist picked up his bow.

Year later, Smailovic called Brothers on the phone. "Hello, this is Vedran," he said to the stunned artist. He told her he had heard of her work. Brothers told him her sculpture had been chosen as a permanent installation in the lobby of the Seattle Opera House, and they arranged for Smailovic to fly to Seattle for the dedication of "22 Adagio" on May 24, 1995.

As I drove to Seattle Center for the dedication, I saw clumps of people in tie-dyed shirts ambling down the sidewalks, khaki school buses nosing into full parking lots, girls in long skirts holding up signs that read "I need a miracle." The Grateful Dead were playing in Memorial Stadium, next door to the Opera House. In earlier years I would have put on my best swirling skirt and joined the excited crowd surging toward the arena. But on that day I wore chinos and a white T-shirt while I circled lower Queen Anne, just trying to find a parking spot.

By the time I got to the Opera House, a large audience had gathered in the lobby: all the chairs were filled , and groups of people talked together in loud, animated discussion. I pushed through the dense crowd, settled onto the floor, and spied Smailovic across the room: a stocky man with long hair, wearing a black suit with a silver-threaded white scarf draped across his shoulders. No one spoke to him as he leaned on his cello and gazed at "22 Adagio."

A security guard cracked open a door just as the first amplified notes of Bob Weir's guitar burst from the stage of Memorial Stadium. I peeked out and could see the yellows and purples of the Grateful Dead crowd already up and bobbing to the beat. The mammoth black speakers stood no more than a hundred yards away, and the opening song picked up speed and volume, the bass booming against the walls, Jerry Garcia warbling in his seductive way to the crowd.

A collective gasp of amused protest, surprise, and apprehension rose from the audience in the lobby. We looked at each other and shrugged, good sports, but surely we wouldn't be able to hear Smailovic clearly, we wouldn't be able to appreciate his passion, we wouldn't experience this music in its purity. The door quickly closed, but the Grateful Dead remained a presence in the room, hardly muted, the beat driving hard for dancing, the words of the songs loud and clear. People shook their heads. "Too bad," someone murmured. "Poor planning," I heard someone reply.

Smailovic sat down in a chair in front of the sculpture, the cello held lightly in his left hand, the bow in his right. He closed his eyes, and suddenly he was gone from us, a shadow of deep grief falling across his face. "Touch of Gray" blasted through the walls, but Smailovic seemed oblivious to the music, oblivious to the fact that he was in America, incognizant of his audience of well-wishers and sympathizers. Behind him, an enlarged black-and-white photograph showed Smailovic in Sarajevo, his arm crooked around his cello, one hand covering his eyes. Now, here in Seattle, Smailovic sat in front of that bakery again, the rubble all around him, sniper bullets whizzing through the air. He carried the war with him, tangible as the smell of smoke on a person's clothes, or a stain of blood on a shirt.

"The war in Bosnia," Smailovic told us, "is not a civil war, but a war against civilians. 300,000 of my countrymen have died. This is a massacre, not a war." Turning to the sculpture he said, "A twenty-third person died in hospital many weeks after the bombing. So tonight we will play the '23rd Adagio.'"

Eyes closed, Smailovic leaned forward and drew his bow across the strings, the high notes soft at first, barely audible, then gradually descending in scale, the bow pulled a little more forcefully across the instrument. The voice of the cello expanded in gradual increments, the line of melody asserting itself, a little louder, a little louder, until finally the piece crescendoed—and the single cello, played by a single man, completely drowned out the amplified rocking of the band next door. Smailovic played the "Adagio en Sol Mineur" for the twenty-third victim of the bakery bombing: he played for the 300,000 dead, for the Muslim women raped in concentration camps, for the children of these rapes left in orphanages across the country. The cello, so loud the music completely enveloped even those sitting far back, became the undaunted voice of Smailovic's rage and sorrow.

When Smailovic played in front of the bakery in Sarajevo, he did not wait for the noise of the war to die down; he did no planning to its climax, the strains of the Grateful Dead merged back into the room, so that for a moment the two musics played against one another, within one another, moving together in uneasy balance. Here, as in Sarajevo, Smailovic's cello was not isolated or rarefied, heard only in the controlled setting of the auditorium, all unwanted noises filtered out. In his homeland his music emanated from the center of the chaos, meshed with it, cried out a message in direct contradiction to the war as it happened all around him.

Smailovic lifted his bow off the strings and held it upright as the vibration of the "Adagio" faded away. You can't wait, sometimes, for the setting to be perfect, he seemed to tell us in his silence. You have to make yourself heard, even if it's just for a moment or two, when the music takes on a life of its own and leaves the protective embrace of your hands.

—Brenda Miller, "The 23rd Adagio"

Notice Miller's beautiful ending clause, an opening up of the significance of her essay. Like Smailovic's music, at this moment the essay takes on "a life of its own." Initially, Miller's narration sounds like an article that might appear in a magazine or newspaper, as if she were reporting on Smailovic's music. But she introduces herself as she drives to Smailovic's Seattle concert through the happy chaos of a pre-Dead show. The narrative shifts. Miller uses the clash of the two performances to illustrate what she comes to understand about the intensity of Smailovic's act. In the final scene, the "two musics" intertwine and Miller embraces the situation's meaning. Her last sentences pull the reader into that meaning by shifting into second person. In that moment, the essay leaves a "protective embrace," as well, and we are left with a verisimilitude of the profundity Miller experienced.

And we understand that the profundity is not necessarily one of identification. After all, she's listening to the "23rd Adagio" in the comfort of the Seattle Opera House, far from the bakery in Sarajevo. However, Miller identifies the power of art to transcend the boundaries of individuality and personal experience. Without having experienced the horror of the war in Bosnia, Miller absorbs and translates Smailovic's grief as he speaks it with his cello.

Was this article helpful?

0 0


  • Leon Herzog
    Why did smailovic play the adagio?
    8 years ago

Post a comment