Dancing with Copland by
(5 Stories)

Prompted By Drugs and Alcohol

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The Owl Shrine at the Bohemian Grove. Photo credit: Aarkwilde, under Creative Commons license.

I was trying to master a new piano piece, one of Aaron Copland’s Four Piano Blues, but it wasn’t coming easy. The key signature modulated from E♭ to A♭ but the score was full of naturals and additional flats and it wasn’t in any recognizable key. The rhythm was syncopated and awkward. The chords stretched my hands to the breaking point. When I played it, the piece seemed angular and full of rough edges.

Someone said “We need some music,” so I got up, stumbled dizzily to the nearby grand piano, and began to play the Copland.

Then a musician friend invited us to the Bohemian Grove for Labor Day Weekend. You may have heard of the Grove, a vast, idyllic preserve on the Russian River in Northern California where Rich and Powerful Men (women not allowed) gather for three weeks in summer to smoke cigars, get drunk, pee on redwood trees, perform concerts and bawdy plays for each other, and plot world dominance for another year. But on Labor Day Weekend, the rules were relaxed, and our friend had invited several of us to join him in more intimate celebration.

One afternoon, some of us had taken ecstasy, which I had obtained from a chemist friend in Berkeley. Others had gone off to explore, but my wife, our friend, and I were lounging at a picnic table in an outdoor amphitheater in a grove of towering redwoods, sapped of energy and very mellow. Someone said “We need some music,” and I gestured to our friend, and he gestured back to me, so I got up, stumbled dizzily to the nearby grand piano, and began to play the Copland.

I didn’t know how it would go. I didn’t even know if I could remember it. But somehow it just flowed. All the edges were smoothed out. Somehow I was inhabiting the soul of Copland, or he was inhabiting mine, and I knew exactly how he wanted the piece to be played. The rhythms weren’t meant to be awkward at all; they were just as close as he could get to notating a kind of flowing syncopation. It was a dance, really. So I danced with Copland, until the last poignant, bluesy notes hung in the air.

It blew me away. It blew all of us away. I found my way back to the picnic table, and our friend shook his head in wonder, and my wife, who had listened to me practice, said, “Where the hell did that come from?” and I just beamed. We all did.

I haven’t taken ecstasy since the ‘80s. But I can still dance with Copland.

Profile photo of Reginald Reginald

Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Of course we will never know if you really played it well, or the drug made you THINK you played it well, but perception is everything and you were free to play and inhabit the notes. Sounds thrilling.

  2. Susan says:

    Now that is a compelling example of the joy of altered states.

  3. Suzy says:

    I love, love, love this story! Sounds like it was literal ecstasy, not just the drug of that name. Now I have to hear you play Copland!

  4. Wonderful music description in narrative, not so easy to pull off but you gave me such a clear sense of the music and its difficult pitfalls. Then to resolve the difficulties with your floating ecstacy-driven resolution brought your tale full-circle. Also, never heard the Bohemian grove described so accurately, humourously, and succinctly, from peeing on trees to world domination. I suspect the two elements are — in some way — related. Thanks!

  5. Off to listen to Copeland’s Four Piano Blues!

  6. rosie says:

    The release when one is one with their art and is flowing naturally with life is so remarkable. Thank you for reminding me of how wonderful that experience can be.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    What an amazing experience. Too bad no one recorded it.

    • Reginald says:

      I hear you, Laurie, but I’m not sure a mere recording could ever capture the experience of hearing (or playing) that music, in that setting, on that glorious afternoon, in our heightened states of mind. I’m quite certain that the recording would never match the transcendence of that moment.

  8. Khati Hendry says:

    So well described. I envy your musical talent, enhanced or not. A magical and wonderful experience.

  9. Thanx Reginald for this wonderful story of your amazing Copland piano performance.

    You knowingly credit the ecstasy, but am sure the Bohemian Grove redwoods set the stage.

    Looking forward to more of your stories!

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