The Search for Mata Hari

Bruce Berger

Occupying a space between traditional nature writing, memoir, journalism, and prose poetry, Bruce Berger’s essays are beautiful and haunting meditations on the landscape and culture of the American Southwest. Wasteland architecture, mountaintop astronomy, Bach in the wilderness, the mind of the wood rat, the canals of Phoenix, and the numerous eccentric personalities who call the desert their home all come to life in these fascinating portraits of America’s seemingly desolate terrains. The following excerpt is from his essay “The Search for Mata Hari,” where Berger recounts his unexpected journey into the music world of La Paz.

In the winter of 1973, as the rain pounded and the critically ill Brandy and I burned ironwood to stay warm, more than bright weather I craved a consoling piano. I had played since I was eight, had ingested the classical repertoire and could fake the popular styles. My three-year nightclub career in Andalucía taught me that the piano was a good passport to a country’s interior. In 1973 I was more interested in soothing my own interior than in penetrating La Paz, but I had gazed with curiosity at a one-story building of rough-hewn cantera on one corner of the plaza. Labeled Escuela de Música, it could hardly be a music school without a piano.

One morning I stepped through the open door and found myself in a room of cool bare walls, utterly silent. Perhaps their day had not yet begun. Through the shadows gloomed an original painting of Schumann, his eyebrows like scrolls over a deep mad gaze, lost in the manic phase of his schizophrenia. From another room came a sound of sweeping. Open doorways gave in two directions and I advanced toward the broom. It was wielded by a boy in his teens. “Buenos días,” I said.

He jumped. “Buenos días.”

I explained that I was a visitor in search of a piano: was there one in the school I might practice on? There were two, he said, but I would have to ask the profesora, who wouldn’t arrive until later.

I returned at eleven. The front room was still empty but sounds of a keyboard and voices rose from the interior. I passed through a small room containing a single glass cabinet with a few stringed instruments and reached a third room with a middle-aged woman, a Yamaha console piano and two girls of about eleven. I excused myself for interrupting and explained my presence. The woman introduced herself as Consuelo Amador de Ribera. She did not seem startled by my request and explained that she was teaching a piece she particularly liked. Would I like to hear it?

I would indeed.

She played a mid-nineteenth-century salon piece, a little stiffly but with strong left-hand octaves I envied. I squinted at the score and didn’t recognize the composer. When she finished, I told her I admired her octaves.

“Really?” She seemed genuinely pleased. “But now you play something.”

There is an intermezzo by Schumann with a singing melody and a rolling bass that falls easily under the fingers, which I have trained myself to discharge amid most states of panic, inebriation or absence of practice, and I discharged it. I turned around to apologize for the wooden fingers and found the profesora staring wide-eyed. “But this is wasted on just the three of us,” she said. “I’m trying to teach a history of music course in the afternoon but I don’t have any examples. You must come back tomorrow and let me tape some music.”

It was clear that I was not going to sit down and practice, but flushed with the idea of recording, I promised to return tomorrow at the same time.

The next morning I was greeted by Consuelo, two colleagues on the faculty and some forty children ranging in age from six to late teens. Consuelo introduced me to the other two adults, then asked me to play. Not to repeat the Schumann, I played a couple of pieces by Brahms. During the applause I looked in vain for a tape recorder.

“Our problem here,” said Consuelo, “is that the government gives us this large building and our small salaries but no equipment. As you see, we have almost no furniture. We have this console, an upright in another room, and what the students can provide themselves. Do you think it might be possible to play a benefit concert for us, so we could raise some money?”

To be an international concert pianist was a lifetime dream whose possibility suddenly struck terror. Yet when would I be asked again? If I came apart, no one I knew would find out. Even Brandy couldn’t attend. “I don’t know how long I’ll be here,” I said. “I could be leaving as soon as next week.”

To be an international concert pianist was a lifetime dream whose possibility suddenly struck terror.

“Then we’d better try for this weekend. How’s Saturday?”

It was Tuesday. That would mean only five days of preparation, five days of dread. “Saturday would be fine.”

“And what are you going to play?”

Now I was truly off guard. “I’d need a day to figure that out.” At this point anyone who mistook me for a concert pianist should have wondered at my not having a choice of programs at my fingertips, but Consuelo merely answered, “We don’t have a day. If we’re going to put this on by Saturday, we should get the program to the printer this afternoon.”

“Then let me think about it and come back in a couple of hours. By the way, who is your favorite composer?”

“Mozart. But I really think any recital should begin with Bach.”

I made my escape before I received further instruction.

I stopped by the house to check on Brandy, changed into swimming trunks, grabbed a pencil and notebook, and headed to the beach. The sun poured on my back while my mind raced. I was safest with romantics like Schumann, whom I could blur with overpedaling if I got in trouble, and with moderns that could absorb mistakes in the general dissonance. The delicacy and precision of Mozart was treacherous: Mozart was out. I could pass off Bach with a couple of selections from the French suites, then recover with the Schumann. Next I listed Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor, two pieces by Brahms, four preludes by Rachmaninoff, Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, a movement from a Hindemith sonata, the “Sevilla” of Albéniz to touch base with the Spanish repertoire, and concluded with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which I could grandstand to the point of annihilating whatever had preceded it. I added the estimated times: it came to an hour and a half. Nine composers was unprecedented variety, but constant shifts would obscure the deficiencies of any particular style, and with a generous intermission and perhaps a late start it should see me through the evening.

I returned to Consuelo with the lineup. “Estupendo,” she proclaimed, ignoring the absence of Mozart.

“Before you take it to the printer,” I said, “I’d like to run through it to make sure the length is all right.” My actual motive was to assure myself I could get through it at all. We put a stopwatch on the piano, and while children gathered and the temperature spiraled, I plugged away to the end. It was just an hour and a half.

Consuelo was grinning. “Now,” she said, “I need to know something of your training and career so I can get going on the publicity.”

I told her that I had studied at Yale, that I had performed for three years in Spain as well as variously in the United States, that I had played for a theater company and for Ballet West. I did not tell her that I merely took lessons on the side while pursuing a degree in English, that in Spain I had played only restaurants and nightclubs, that the theater company was performing a melodrama called The Drunkard, that for Ballet West I ground out exercise classes, that my American career consisted of private parties, silent films and one counterculture funeral. I never directly lied but was judicious with the truth.

“There is another problem,” I said, “which is that I didn’t expect to be performing and don’t have anything formal to wear.” My wardrobe, in fact, consisted of plaid shirts and jeans, with a choice of hiking boots, sandals or sneakers.

“No problem,” she said, “we should be able to borrow a suit and shoes. We have several students your size.”

“Since this is a benefit, if you get anything from a store, make them donate it. Don’t spend any money . . .”

“You do the music,” she said, “and I’ll handle the rest.”

“One more thing. I can’t remember some of the opus numbers for the program.”

“We’ll look up what we can.”

Next morning I bought the papers to see if the publicity had started. I found myself on the front page of one and the third page of another, an international concert star with an extensive career in the United States and Europe, possessed of golden hands, magic fingers, the kind of paraphernalia thought to have been buried with Liszt. I proceeded to the music school to start practicing. The energetic Consuelo met me with a suit jacket from a tailor down the street who rented clothes, primarily to ranchers who attended city weddings. It was a small and hideous black-and-white checked affair that bound me like a cobra. The first cross-hand passage would surely split the back. “No,” recoiled Consuelo, to my relief, “that will never do.”

“Can’t you borrow something from a student?”

“Leave it to me.”

Next was the matter of the piano. The concert was to be held at the back end of town, in La Casa de la Juventud, a primary-school auditorium supposedly equipped with a baby grand. I drove us out there to test it. The action veered from the shrill to the nonfunctional and the instrument was, in concert parlance, a piano-shaped object. “What else is there?”

“The two at the school.” That meant the dysfunctional upright or the Japanese console, a model that was halfway between an upright and a spinet.

“Then it’s the console.”

On Thursday morning I found that Consuelo had assembled a full suit of clothes, including a well-fitted blue blazer, trousers, tie, and a white shirt and loafers in boxes from a store. “I hope you didn’t buy the shirt and shoes,” I said.

“Will you leave those details to me?” She then told me that the concert had been plugged constantly on radio and TV and was now nearly sold out.

The government had reserved the first three rows in a block. “And you have a live interview on television tomorrow, just after the evening news.”

“Incidentally,” I suddenly asked, “have any other visiting pianists played in La Paz?”

“No, you’re the first.”

The next day I got in some practice and studied the press clippings so as not to say anything that might conflict with my official career. In the evening I got into my blue blazer and drove out to the TV station, a small building on a hill over the bay. The sensations came so fast I had little time to panic. A pair of announcers under punishingly bright lights traded dispatches, international politics followed by local crimes. One of them then informed the viewers that they were in for a special privilege, an interview with an internationally known concert pianist. He got up and gave me his seat.

To sit in someone else’s clothes, blinded by lights, and account for a fictional self in another language gave me a burst of confidence. I was asked where I was trained and where I had played, and replied with the information I had given Consuelo. When I mentioned what I was going to play, the announcer said, “Well, that sounds like a very melodic, very popular program,” suggesting a suspicious knowledge of music. The interview, which I’m told lasted five minutes, seemed over the instant it began.

The morning of the concert I woke at dawn and faced a long day of anxiety. Mid-morning I drove to the plaza, parked, and walked toward the post office. A pickup with the piano pulled up to the light as I waited to cross. It was the perfect diversion. I hailed the students riding with the piano and jumped into the truck just as the light changed. As the truck pulled away, I tumbled toward the street, the students grabbed me, and but for split-second timing I might have ended my apprehension with a broken arm.

We parked at the back of the auditorium and were supervised by a woman who seemed baffled by my presence. “Do you have a ticket to tonight’s performance?” she asked.

“Well, no,” I said, taken aback.

“Then I’m afraid you can’t come,” she shrugged. “It’s sold out.”

Inside I found Consuelo attending to the decoration of the stage. The piano was to sit on one side, balanced on the other by the manic portrait of Schumann propped on an easel between sprays of white gladiolas, glaring as if to say, you will enjoy this concert or else. Until now I had greeted every detail like a rapt spectator, but now that I was a concertista internacional, surely I could indulge my moment of temperament. Schumann, I informed Consuelo, had to go.

“¿Pero por qué?”

“Because,” I said, hardly knowing where to begin, “he just isn’t right.”

I arrived well before concert time, to find most of the audience already seated. From the wings I could see that the stage itself was lined with folding chairs, several deep, and the air was already dense and steamy. I glanced at the program. The Chopin Ballade in G Minor was listed as opus 4. “I looked it up,” said Consuelo. I knew that the Ballade had been written in Paris, that Chopin didn’t get out of Poland until well after opus 10, and that the number couldn’t be right. Admission, I noted, was ten pesos, about seventy cents. It was 8:30. “Shouldn’t we begin?” I asked Consuelo. She ignored the suggestion. I kept thinking that in a couple of hours I would be on my way to the banquet they were throwing afterward. However I played, I was soon headed toward food and drink. My heart hammered, but with a fatalistic calm.

At five minutes of nine the houselights flashed. I handed Consuelo my glasses, less for cosmetic reasons than to blur the audience, and like a first-time parachuter I walked out of the wings, through the folding chairs, past gladiolas bereft of Schumann, and bowed toward a mist of applause. The first few measures would determine it all. I raised my hands over a G major chord and began. I was answered by Bach, inexpressive but without a hitch. When I reached the end of the first piece there was applause, which I hadn’t expected until I finished the Bach selection. There was nothing to do but stand up and acknowledge it. I got through the rest of the Bach, bowed again, and dove into the Schumann with a flourish. From here to the end it was a matter of sheer perseverance and remembering what I was supposed to play next.

As I got used to the occasion, the playing loosened and I began to take in my surroundings. It was hot and getting hotter; it was easily eighty-five degrees. The entire audience seemed to be coughing. The flu had been sweeping La Paz—I was to come down with it the following week—and the more I listened, the more the hall sounded like a hospital. There were, in addition, children of all ages, many of them with me onstage, many of them whispering and playing furtive games. The distraction might have ruffled a career performer, but I have always played better when someone was running the vacuum or arguing in another room, and the clatter had a tonic effect.

In practicing the music, however, I had forgotten the nakedest moment of all: the bow. Scheduling so many short pieces for an audience inclined to applaud every cadence, there were many, many bows. When the piece ended I would stand up with my left hand on the piano, as I was once taught, make a forward nod from the waist, hold the position a moment and do it again if the noise didn’t stop. After the first three or four of those maneuvers I could hear a snickering, slightly more public each time. Why hadn’t I practiced in front of a mirror? Did I dare experiment with it now?

I bowed for intermission and escaped backstage. Consuelo was jubilant. I talked little and tried to sustain an inner momentum. Drinks were an hour away. The four Rachmaninoff preludes were next. To avoid bowing for each I extended my palm like a traffic cop, glared at the blur over the piano and recommenced. Soon I was through the Hindemith, through the Albéniz, and ready to plunge into the Rhapsody in Blue. I gunned the pedal, flung my arms, and gave a rendition my more candid friends refer to as “The Killing of Sister George.” I made a last wooden bow into sustained applause and fled backstage. It was over.

The applause continued. “They want an encore,” whispered Consuelo, prodding my arm. Was this never to end? After the Rhapsody it would have to be something quiet and simple. I played the first section of Chopin’s Étude in E. The audience collectively sighed. I stopped where it comes to a cadence, before the pyrotechnic middle, stood up and bowed once more.

When I was backstage and the audience was at last filing out, Consuelo asked, “Why didn’t you play the rest of the étude?”

“It’s not under my fingers at the moment.”

“Anyway, they all knew the melody, since they used it on TV for a tissue commercial.”

But not all the audience left. A fair crowd had gathered around the stage to have their programs signed, mostly children, with a couple of middle-aged women who gushed and raved. When their demands were met, we piled into cars and headed to the banquet.

El Yate was the most exclusive restaurant in La Paz, but my dreams of eating there had only gone as far as fresh lobster and hadn’t imagined a dinner in my honor. A U-shaped table awaited, glittering with silver and white napery. Consuelo and I presided at the center, flanked by people Consuelo identified as local officials, parents of students, financial contributors and assorted relatives. I ate copiously, drank all that appeared in my glass, and was gnawed by a lingering doubt. What if some reporter knew the difference between overpedaling and clean playing? What if I was unmasked in the morning papers? I asked Consuelo whether any critics might be reviewing the event.

“Oh, yes,” she said brightly, “they’re here with us tonight.”

“Which are they?” I asked in fright. When she pointed to the two gushy ladies who had asked for photographs, I knew I was home free.

In the morning I stopped by the music school to return the suit and find out how much they had made from the concert. At ten pesos a head they had netted almost three hundred dollars, indicating an audience of about four hundred. “We had to buy the shirt and shoes,” admitted Consuelo, handing them back, “so please keep them as a gift.” I assumed that the spotlight had passed, but for days afterward people came up to me on the street, or detained me as I cashed a traveler’s check, or collared me as I bought potatoes, to tell me they especially liked the Brahms or the Debussy. I still felt I had acted out a fantasy, but if people took me for the real thing, was I the deceived? La Paz struck me as unturned soil where anything artistic, or at least musical, might grow.

La Paz struck me as unturned soil where anything artistic, or at least musical, might grow.

I watched for the reviews. I never found anything by either of the ladies, but I did discover one of some length by a man whose name was unfamiliar. He praised the precision of the Bach, the delicacy of the Debussy, the vigor of the Gershwin, then denounced the hair in the musical soup—the wretched behavior of the children and the failure of parents to control them. I bought the last copy on the stand, then rushed from store to store looking for more. I ran into an acquaintance who asked why I was dashing about with so little dignity. When I explained, he told me the reviewer was a close friend and he would conduct me to him. I found myself in a newspaper office talking to a man in his mid-thirties from Mexico City, a veteran of many concerts who was stuck in the provinces and sincerely liked the performance.

And there the episode would have ended but for a strange coda. A few days later I received a call from a woman named Quichu Isaïs. She belonged to a faction that had split from Consuelo and had rallied around an old and distinguished composer who had written, among other things, the official Baja California Sur state song, “Costa Azul.” Luis Peláez had been the music school’s first director and had taught there until Consuelo, they claimed, kicked him out. They couldn’t be seen at any function arranged by Consuelo, but neither did they want to miss the visiting pianist. Quichu would be so grateful if I would go some morning to the composer’s house and repeat the performance for him and a few friends . . . Was this a musical tar baby from which I would never be free? I couldn’t imagine anyone not liking the gracious and lively Consuelo, but what did I know about La Paz intrigue?

I met Quichu at her home near the waterfront and rode with her to the composer’s house. I asked about the rift between the composer and Consuelo. It was a scandal, she said. He had taught Consuelo music, hired her to teach at the school, then put her in charge and she fired him.

A silver-haired, ruddy-faced man in his sixties met us at the door. Instead of shaking my hand he took them both in his, inspected them as if estimating karats and pronounced, “We must take advantage of genius when it comes along.” I nearly broke out in a cold sweat.

In the room were a half-dozen people, including two nuns with a tape recorder. I accepted coffee, then asked the composer about his music. Was any of it recorded? Could I hear some? He said that he had never gotten around to copyrighting it, was afraid someone would steal it, and therefore kept it to himself. He would, however, play some for me. He played a couple of fast character pieces, of mild syncopation and dissonance, then announced he would play his personal favorite, called “Mata Hari, or the Bird of Morning.”

“Mata Hari, the spy?” I asked.

“There is the delusion. People think she was a spy, but I have read all the books and sifted the evidence. She was innocent and she was martyred. I have written her music.” He turned around, and over a bass of sevenths, with a melody colored by grace notes a fifth above, he picked out an obsessively reharmonized phrase that called up some ravishing slow movement from Villa-Lobos.

“Could I hear it again?” I asked. He obliged.

I knew that my moment was fast approaching. The composer excused himself and went to the kitchen. Under a clock that now read 10:30 I saw him pour a stiff splash of what looked like Kentucky bourbon into a tumbler, toss it off, steady himself a moment, then return. Might that have been a factor in his dismissal? The composer resettled in his armchair, one of the nuns punched on the recorder and I lit into the trusty Schumann. I played a few more pieces without trying to repeat the entire program. As a gesture toward the composer’s own heritage I concluded with the “Sevilla,” which trails off in diminishing chords and ends with a final chord that should blaze like a gong. I have learned since to place my hands over the keys and snap my wrists so that the chord rings true as the hands fly up, but at the time I knew only to swoop upon it like a hawk. I missed.

I was the only one to laugh. The rest applauded politely and the nuns switched off the recorder. I asked the composer if I could have a copy of “Mata Hari.” No, he said sadly, he couldn’t risk having it pirated. I rose to go, urging him to get his work copyrighted so it could be heard. He urged me to keep playing and, in the episode’s most truthful moment, to find more time to practice.

On the way back Quichu said she had been trying for years to get the composer even to write down his work so that she could copyright it but, she sighed, he was basically lazy. I left La Paz with an image of a public hungry for music and a small musical community at each other’s throats.

• • •

Over the next seventeen years I kept marginally in touch with music in La Paz. I, too, was haunted by Mata Hari—the music, not the spy—and in 1975 I knocked on the composer’s door. He greeted me warmly and asked me in. I told him how much I had admired “Mata Hari.” Would he play it for me? When he finished, I asked again for a copy of the score. He was so afraid it would be plagiarized, he said, that he hadn’t even committed it to staff paper. In that case, would he play it again? He did, and I asked to hear it one more time. Pleased, he repeated it as I ran my mental recording system. If I could hear it a few more times, I thought, I could capture it, but to ask for it again was awkward. The music itself was elusive, and when I left the house it vanished like a dream that melts as one reaches for it.

The music itself was elusive, and when I left the house it vanished like a dream that melts as one reaches for it.

When I returned to La Paz in 1977, a friend drove me to the music school’s new location on a street off the plaza. Consuelo was bustlingly in charge but the quarters were cramped and no better equipped. Consuelo asked me to play, and in front of a dozen students I attempted Chopin’s Ballade no. 3, which had been well under control before I left home. Half blind and stiff after weeks without playing, I slaughtered it. When I inquired after Luis Peláez, the composer, I learned he had died, presumably taking “Mata Hari” with him.

In the early eighties I learned that the music school had acquired its own campus, and I pulled up to the orange iron fence endemic to state-run schools. I walked dumbstruck into a complex of long, elegant buildings landscaped with hibiscus, oleander, almond and rubber trees. I found the office and asked for Consuelo. A secretary told me she was in conference; would I please be seated. Consuelo, ten minutes later, was friendly but harried and offered me a quick tour. There were rows of practice rooms, classrooms and a small auditorium, all surrounded by immaculate foliage. I recognized the Yamaha console and saw that the mad portrait of Schumann was part of a series that included Beethoven and Bach. How had all this sprung into being? It was, said Consuelo, a conjunction of luck. A man who had studied eight years with the music school became governor and allocated funds for the campus. When the buildings were up but empty, Carmen de López Portillo, wife of the Mexican president José López Portillo, came through La Paz and Consuelo staged a concert in her honor. Señora López Portillo was so impressed that a month later the necessary instruments arrived—pianos, guitars, violins, violas and cellos. Meanwhile, the school had snared a Brazilian pianist who had studied for five years in Vienna and was the new star of the faculty. Consuelo’s five minutes for me were up and I left awed by the music school’s turn of fortune.

Bruce Berger grew up in suburban Chicago. A poet and nonfiction writer, he is best known for a series of books exploring the intersections of nature and culture in desert settings. The first of these, The Telling Distance, won the 1990 Western States Book Award and the 1991 Colorado Book Award. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Sierra, Orion Magazine, Gramophone, and numerous literary quarterlies; his poems have appeared in Poetry, Barron’s, Orion Magazine, and various literary reviews in the United States, Scotland, and India, and have been collected in Facing the Music.