an example of being figured by the work

in the essay, “the dream-ego in the dream, the waking-ego in creativity,” i write of how we (in this case, composer, performers and audience) are figured by the creative work. Here is a stark example.

Background for the Rouse composition from 


Christopher Rouse’s 2009 composition Odna Zhizn (Russian for “a life”) is what he calls a love letter to his wife Natasha. In a September 2016 interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Rouse revealed that she “was sexually abused as a child, so she ran away from home at 16 and decided to hitchhike out west. One of the people who picked her up held her for three days and raped her repeatedly. She ended up in Arizona in Tucson and she was homeless, so she was living under a bridge and eating out of dumpsters. And all of that before the age of 18.” He added, “I certainly couldn’t have survived that, I don’t think, and I’m not sure most people could either. But that’s why the fact that she is this warmhearted, wonderful person is all the more amazing.”

Sometimes the most loving and transformative thing we can do is to be with someone through their suffering and the telling of their tale – to be present without succumbing to the desire to flee. Rouse’s loving act of being unflinchingly present to the whole of Natasha’s life, the violence and her resilient loving heart, is incarnate in Odna Zhizn. I was at a performance of the piece by the Kansas City Symphony in September 2017. The story was told and the piece performed. It left an indelible mark. His love for her and her suffering and triumph were present in such an immediate, raw and compelling way.

The audience response after the piece was lukewarm at best. Most were not ready to live the brutality she suffered and in turning from it also missed his extraordinary love for her and the triumph of her resilient heart.

The composer Rouse is present in the work as an invitation into his empathetic, loving participation in her life. If the orchestra and conductor have the courage to connect with the music enough to perform the living heart of the piece, it exerts an undeniable force on performers and audience. They must choose how to relate to her life and his courageous act of embracing the whole of it. Those who choose to open their hearts to the piece share in that act and the life and love that inspired it.

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