THE BIRTH OF THE WILD BOAR (1/3)
By Sapphire Adizes
Written with Claire Trapp
Somewhere in hours and hours of voice memos and video files, in stacks of scratched DVDs and VHSes piled in my brother’s closet, is the story of my life. Without any discussion or planning, my brother and I set about recording all twenty-four years of my life. He is eighteen years older than me, so he caught moments too early for me even to remember. He showed me a story of my youth that I wouldn’t otherwise have known: I am sliding down snow on my belly; I am playing accordion beside my father; I am minutes old, in my mother’s arms; I am seven, playing the piano; I am seventeen, playing the piano; my father is saying to me, “When I die, I will not die, I will always be with you, son, in your mind, just remember that,” and I am listening.
I saw in the sum of those recordings a documentary about my life, and I scored it. I wrote songs to the scores, and then each song became like a scene from a movie, scenes I organized into a film that you hear. That film, or this album, is called The Wild Boar.
When I was eighteen years old, I had a near-death experience in the jungles of El Salvador. I contracted walking pneumonia, and for six days my lungs filled with fluid while my asthma closed my airways further and further. When asthmatics with pneumonia die, they often go in their sleep. They drown in their own lungs. So, after six days, my body knew what I didn’t: I was dying. My body refused to sleep while I resisted. I smoked, drank, and took El Salvadorian cough medicine, antihistamines, and a host of other drugs that pushed me to sleep while my body fought to stay awake. I spent the end of the night lying on the edge of my bed on my side, facing a wall, trapped in a paralysis between sleep and death.
Suddenly, I felt the entire bed start to violently shake while I laid still, thrust into an astral projection. My perspective zoomed out while I floated to the ceiling of the room, peering down with a bird’s eye view of myself: lying on the edge of my bed, still facing the wall while behind me, under the sheets, a full-grown Wild Boar convulsed uncontrollably.
The next morning, reeling from the experience, I took a local up on their offer to take me to a hospital nearby. I spent that entire day dazed and wheezing in their truck, weaving around cows and potholes and other obstacles in the road before arriving at the hospital. The doctors immediately admitted me, hooked me to an IV, and took and reviewed my X-rays. They told me that if I had come any later, I would have suffocated and died.
After holding me in the hospital for three days, pumping my body full of steroids and other drugs, the doctors finally discharged me. I took a cab from the hospital to the airport and flew to New York City to begin my freshman year of college at the New School’s School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. I was beginning an education I’d spent my whole life preparing for.
My relationship with music predates my memory. When my mother was pregnant with me, I only stopped kicking when I heard music. When she went into labor, my father turned on a jukebox so there’d be music playing as I came into the world. As a child, I became obsessed with the movie Amadeus—in it, Mozart can play the piano lying on his back beneath it or facing away, with his hands dancing behind him. I taught myself to play upside down and backward, just like Mozart, when I was five.
But I grew up, and I got tired of playing piano in the back behind the rest of the band, so I picked up a saxophone. I fell in love. I became a jazz and classical saxophonist and composer. By the time I turned sixteen, I was playing the saxophone sixteen hours a day, enough to fill my mouth with blood.
I got into composition. I wrote my first string quartet and my first orchestra piece. I turned seventeen. I wrote the movement of my symphony in two weeks, and on the night it premiered, I found myself on stage in a bright orange jacket, forty pounds underweight, nearly delusional with exhaustion, holding a bouquet of flowers to my chest and looking out at a sold-out audience breaking into applause.
I was so obsessed with jazz and classical music that I succeeded. I dreamed of playing at the Lincoln Center, and within three months of beginning my freshman year at the New School, I was invited to play in the atrium of Lincoln Center with my quartet.
In the wake of my success, the professional saxophonist I’d worshipped in high school offered me a private lesson in his Brooklyn apartment. I accepted. When I arrived at his place, he asked me to stand in his living room, take out my saxophone, and play anything that I wanted.
Typically, a jazz solo starts off kind of slow. The soloist comes in, but they play safe at first. Then, with time, they grow progressively less and less guarded in their note selection, in the speed they’re playing. So, I started safe and slow. After fifteen minutes, my host got up and left the room. I played a little faster, a little bolder. A half-hour passed, and I could hear him shuffling around in the kitchen, making eggs and toast for his breakfast. After forty-five minutes, he turned on a soccer game. I played faster and faster, more recklessly, more wildly. When, after an hour and a half, I delivered the brash climax I’d built up to, he rushed into the living room and yelled, “Stop!”
“That was good,” he said. “That last chorus, those last five minutes—those were good. Next time start there. Every time you take a solo, start with your last chorus and see where it takes you. Don’t spend all that time working up to it. Start with the chorus you’re planning to end on, start on a wrong note and try to get out of it. Every time you play your horn, you have to throw yourself into the fire.” He collected his $350 and kicked me out of his apartment.
I stood on the sidewalk holding my saxophone case, dumbfounded. But as I walked down the street in Brooklyn that night, my near-death experience of three months earlier came back to me. An intense and awe-inducing kind of liberty to be alive rushed over me, and so did the fear that death could return for me at any moment. I’d moved through my life like a trained soloist, constructing my career a note at a time. I played classical and jazz more hours than not; I went to the right school and passed the right exams; I composed a symphony at seventeen. I allowed my career to grow in speed and intensity each year, just as I’d been trained to. But, my teacher’s point was this: don’t just develop into your last chorus—start with where you plan to end up and see where you go from there. Don’t spend an hour and a half moving towards a chorus you had in you all along. Throw yourself into the fire: start where you plan to end.
What if I was doing it all wrong? What if he was right? What if I needed to throw myself into the fire? Why limit that idea to a solo? Why not make it about my whole life? Why not start with the climax of my life and go from there? What would the album I need to make before I die sound like? What if I made it now? Not after succeeding in the jazz world, not after graduating college—but now? What does the climax of my life sound like?
The answers to those questions shoved me far beyond the margins of jazz and classical. The sound of my life is so much bigger than an orchestra. If I could use any sort of sound, why would I limit myself to the sound of a diminished chord or a saxophone or a piano? Why not seek out the most powerful sound? What about the sound of my being born? What if I were to play a recording of two newscasters talking and one interrupting to say, “Oh my god, oh my god, that appears to be a second plane”? Wouldn’t that make you feel things that a diminished chord wouldn’t be able to make you feel? Why write a song about my father welcoming me into the world when I can play a recording of my father welcoming me into the world? When I can score his voice like a scene in a documentary? When I can score the soundscape of my whole life using every sound available to me, why do anything else?
Years later, a shaman told me that in many cultures, if you see the Wild Boar on a vision quest, it means that you need to find the courage to fulfill your destiny. I believe that there was something deep inside me demanding to be set free, and I needed to make a massive identity change in order to free it. I could see myself continuing on as I always had: finishing out school, writing another classical symphony, playing saxophone every day until my mouth bled—but, behind me, I could feel that Wild Boar shaking uncontrollably.
So, I quit the jazz world to make this album. I put down my saxophone, left school, and taught myself how to make a new kind of music on a computer that I didn’t know how to use in an apartment where I lived alone in a city thousands of miles from home with no proof whatsoever that my idea to combine electronic and classical music would work. I knew that my life and work would be bigger than that of institutionalized music. I had to tell all the people in my life that I didn’t respect their axioms of music and that I needed to make my own. I abandoned the life that I’d worked so hard to create to live the life I couldn’t wait any longer to live.
The story of my life is a familiar one. We are born with love and innocence, and after we grow up, we must find the courage to fulfill our destiny, which comes with fear and hedonism, but if we choose to, we can be reborn into appreciation, power, and love. It’s a hero’s journey, a journey I’ve scored. Each phase, each scene, each moment of our life is set to music. Watching the film of my life, I could hear something waiting to be revealed—this album, this symphony, this Wild Boar quaking behind the soundscape of my life.
[To be continued in January 2019]