To Mr. Ivan Kochev, our teacher
“Hi, Sashko!” No way I could have mistaken the grumpy voice in the receiver. “Where are you?”
I hate being called Sashko.
Just one person was allowed to address me like that. Any other would meet my fist, the dumb aristocratic disdain of the offspring of an old clan from the city of Rousse, or the contemptuous pen of a Sofia writer cynicologist.
In this order.
“I’m in Rousse”, I replied, genuinely happy that I could meet him. “How are you?”
“I’ve got cancer and I’m going to die!” He laughed with a throat of an ocean of fags and long years of pub experience.
“Pardon?” I knew it was true in spite of the laughter.
“They said I’ve got lung cancer and it is serious.”
My jaw dropped, I grasped the wheel and my foot on the pedal felt limp.
I pulled over and stared at a black dot crawling along the windscreen.
“How would you like us to meet?” He took a difficult breath and after a few slow seconds exhaled with partial relief.
The black dot was moving between me and the nearby bin.
“What, now? Sure!”, I replied. “Just name the place. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“I’m sitting at the ‘Olympian’.”
“Inside or outside?”
Naturally I knew the restaurant, signature for the city of the recent past. Old fame. A bit worn out, but charming.
Like my home town.
“Inside, on the table across the bar.”
The annoying black dot turned out to be a fly, of the tiny type, typical for Rousse. Hairy and ugly. Like a tumor in the colorful autumn fairy-scene around. Sunny and warm.
“But yes, of course, you don’t smoke”, I said and started the car. “Not anymore.”
“Are you crazy?” he laughed. “I smoke like a chimney.”
My doctor’s mind was instantly focused onto an avalanche of treatments. Healthy slop meals, wish-wash prevention, healing through hunger, green foods from Eastern diets, mind cleansing and the most important – no tobacco for life.
The avalanche reached the rail of the speech center in the cortex and then smashed against my teeth, clenched in fury. I was going to go there and give him a stern lecture about his life style.
But who are you, Sashko, to scold your teacher?!
He is the one to scold and beat you with words.
You drop your head, keep silent and listen.
You bang your forehead against the floor and pray.
Like before an icon.
That’s how it was in the nostalgic times of Spartan discipline, communist courses in classic guitar and aristocratic local manners.
“Five minutes, okay? I’m coming.”
I’ll admit it, I drove wildly and recklessly, stunned by the news of death.
But why death, actually?
We’ll fight it!
An hour later I’m off to Sofia to find the necessary person.
Only the best for my teacher.
“Come in, Sashko – Ivan smiled. – What will you drink?”
He was sitting and grinning with an ashtray full of cigarette butts by his side. His fine white beard followed the lines of the gentle face.
“Just a soda… I’m driving.” – I turned to the waiter, who appeared suddenly like a mushroom following rainfall. “Could I have…”
“Vodka!”, Ivan said firmly, waving the waiter away.
“But I don’t drink vodka, Mr. Kochev, I…” I started mumbling even before the alcohol had touched my palate.
For a long time now I myself had been addressed with “Mister”, but I could not bring myself to call him by his first name.
If I ever met a genuine aristocrat by nature, it was him.
Elegantly tall, with his typical stooping gait. The grey beard, mostly white now, the long hair of a rock’n-roll fan. The inborn manners of a Count, described by Dumas. Majestic, exciting, unforgettable.
“Can you imagine? Those idiot doctors tell me I’ going to die!” Ivan Kochev said laughing.
“Let me see the test results” I insisted with pragmatic surgical voice. “What type of cancer is it?”
“How the fuck do I know?”, he replied and suck on the cigarette like it was a life-saving snorkel. “They saw some formation on the scan.”
“Formations can be informal”, I tried to alleviate the tension. “They could be wrong.”
“Of course, they are wrong!”
“I’d like to see the scan.” The tension was coming from me mostly. “We must go to Sofia! A friend of mine is a lung specialist, the best one, there is also another one, a University professor…”
“Scans, tests, Sofia, take me where you want to, I trust you completely. There is just one thing I won’t do.”
“Let them cut me, slice me and do to me whatever they please, but I’m not going for chemotherapy.”
“But the results are promising. Survival rate is…”
“Forget it, it’s all crap.” He was smiling at me but I knew he was laughing at death.
And at ‘dumb doctors’, who dared give a diagnosis to magic.
I felt like one of those ‘dumb doctors’ at this moment.
“Aren’t you scared of death?” I decided to shoot directly with the sole purpose to motivate an endless treatment, keeping up the corpse of hope.
“Why should I be scared?”
I’ve heard people say they don’t care and then go back on their statements. I’ve seen many who claimed to be recklessly courageous.
But him I believed.
Ivan really had fun with all this. No trace of sadness or fear.
Not to mention panic or confusion.
We drank, smoke and ten minutes later I realized I was talking not of hospitals and death, but of books, art and women while we were laughing in a cloud of smoke.
“Promise me you’ll stop smoking”, I said, finding some courage after the second vodka.
“Right now, I’m as strong as an ox, but if I stop being myself and give up smoking, I’ll really succumb to the big C.”
And again, talks of history, jokes, plans, psychology, people, concerts.
Never small talk, intrigues or tasteless gossip.
The Holy Trinity, music meters, possible connection with the Thracians, the origin of Proto-Bulgarians, doctrines, dogmas, theories, evidence.
Byzantine art, Rousse music school, yogurt and cancer, Dr. Emilova, the healer through hunger, may suck it…
Where have you been again, Mother asked me as a kid.
I’m with Kochev.
The hours flew away in the singularity of genuine communication.
Even in my thoughts I did not dare shorten the distance and call him a friend.
“What are you writing now?”
In a moment like that this omnipresent man was really interested in my pitiful attempts at writing.
“I’m considering writing about Bulgarians. You need to help me again.”
He smiled. Why asking at all?
“I’d like to describe the fire of the Balkans, traditions, customs, humor, madness, cruelty, virtues… everything by way of the ‘redundant note’.
Led by the narrow-mindedness of classic education I had come to the opinion that uneven notes in even meters bring up “redundant notes”. And I had been pestering him to explain it to me for a long time.
“It’s not redundant, I’ve told you many times!” He took a piece of paper and a pen and started drawing, writing – dates, history, events, staves, notes – and explaining with all of his heart and deep eyes… here it is… there-there, and then like that… the rutchenitsa folk dance is of so many types, while the belly-dance, which you wish to describe in term of politics… I inquire, absorb, steal the pieces of paper, fold them and put them in a safe place in my zipped pocket. I mustn’t lose this wisdom, nor have it stolen, or forgotten, or misplaced… Everything is logical and interesting as for a book, and difficult, and clever, and beautiful…
“But why don’t you want this treatment…?”, I return to the important issue.
Important for me, while not for him.
“I’ll lose my hair. It contains my force.”
I remembered the god Tangra, the Legend of the Unicorn and the divine symbols of Proto-Bulgarians.”
“I just pray I may survive till April, so that the concert is not ruined.”
“Don’t you dare die before that! I doubt it that someone else will be able to present your musical perversions.”
“You are damn right!”
We both laughed.
Now I understand why geniuses are not understood and appreciated.
At least in their life time.
Because no one can conduct their great works but them.
It was a year ago.
I asked him for help.
I was writing a book in which there were musical notes. And in terms of staves I may be the most ignorant and ignoble among his students. In the book in question the aliens had to send to people a coded message through ‘Smoke on the water’. I decided the only person mad enough to go with my fantasies lived in Rousse, smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and would always invite me in his home as a welcome guest. I knew that he took seriously even the most unconventional and crazy ideas and would never laugh at me.
He himself was often a target of attack because of his vanguard productions.
A moment after I stepped into the tiny living-room, I realized there were two aliens there.
Him and me.
As always, he put on the table a clean ashtray and cold meal. And it was cold because the artist in him had not paid attention. For the last two hours.
Or for the last two years.
There were numerous music sheets of colossal dimensions, scattered on the floor. He told me how he prepared the score for each voice and instrument. One hundred guitars. A children’s coir of sweet voices. A symphony orchestra. And all of this on a single stage. Plus, Bulgarian folk dances, stage effects, multimedia, video, actors for the recitative, sets and whatever more was borne in his head of a genius.
This was the person, who had invented a new musical instrument – a mix between a guitar and a mandolin.
“Is it a colossal production?”, I asked.
“A festival of the guitar.”
“But who pays for all this?”
“How long have you been doing it?”
“Every two years for some time now.”
In my head suddenly there was a bustle of names, telephone numbers, email addresses, people, contacts, producers, journalists, former girlfriends, foundations, TV stations… the entire media rubble in Sofia.
“Don’t you want us to make it a public event? To put it on film? I know people who could help, this is a marvelous undertaking!” I was searching in my mind which one of my exes I could make the sacrifice to meet for coffee in the name of true art.
“I don’t care”, he replied with his usual smile and with the most charming slit between the front teeth.
“Why not? Let’s broadcast it. There are patriotic Bulgarians. In London in the States, everywhere… Why do you do it if nobody except for the audience in the hall will know about it?”
“Because of the artistic diarrhea that drives you to write, to compose, to create and take it out of your system.”
I quote him all the time when I’m asked why I write books.
“Two years of gigantic effort! Thousands of hours of hard work just for one night?!” I really wondered whether it was a heroic deed or sheer stupidity.
“You work day and night…”
“My wife says I am mad.”
“And all this for a concert of two hours?”
“Yes, one single performance.”
“And there will be no more concerts.”
“Not until after two years.”
“But why do you do that?” I was sure now it was madness.
“Why do you write books?”
We started from uneven strokes through Guido d’Arezzo, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and size 4/4 which is characteristic of classical music. He told me that it consists of first strong component, second weak, third strong and last the forth component which is weak again.
And then… bum!
The ingenious rock music arrives and turns everything upside down. The components are interchanged and now it is like that: first weak, second strong, third weak, forth strong.
Kochev said it was a revolution that changed the rhythm system and the sound itself. We passed through Thracian folklore, the pan-Slavic lie of Catherine the Great, classic death metal and ended with brandy.
Home-made. He always gave me a treat.
He did not drink much.
But he smoked.
Except when I was with him. I always lit a cigarette.
He spoke a lot and on various topics. But always in depth, with solid arguments and confident erudition. He ever stopped surprising me.
With Kochev hours turned into minutes and raced through the discussions.
He had gone ahead of his time and beyond the narrow-minded prejudices of his own medium.
Worshiped and outcast.
I was ten.
An arrogant and egocentric little bastard.
Now I am the same minus the ‘little’.
There was a family gathering in the living room. Musicians from Rousse. My mother had never sent me away from adult company and now, as usual, I was exposed to cigarette smoke, political anecdotes and sexual vulgarisms.
The evening was swelling up with alcohol and self-conscious idle talk.
One thing led to another and it was mentioned that I had won a guitar contest after being trained by my teacher Ivan Kochev.
One of the musicians said that Ivan was not a great specialist.
Mother shot a glance at me, knowing my fierce loyal nature.
I just told him to shut up.
“Piss away, kiddo!” he snapped at me.
“That’s not a word in the vocabulary of my family”, I declared and left with dignity.
Not like a defeated person, but victorious.
Nowadays I would have tried some of my three methods. In reverse order.
Behind the slammed door a fight started among the adults. Something about upbringing, spoiled kids and the arrogance of the young people of present times.
I never spoke to this man again.
I can’t remember ever telling him this story.
I mean Ivan.
My teacher was a real encyclopedia.
Well-read and at the same time very modest.
I remember being exceptionally impressed when he described Bach to me as such a significant musician that his death in 1750 marked the end of an epoch.
How could it be possible for someone to be so important that he could define an entire stylistic era of development in European art?
After Ivan I could understand.
The musical culture of Rousse, the society in this most beautiful of Bulgarian cities and the class of classical guitar at the musical school will never be the same after him.
The end of an epoch.
I’ll tell you I did not cry.
You can tell a lie too.
He wanted us to smile, not to cry.
He taught us to despise death.
I have never been good with a pick.
Oh, sure, I can pick brain or pick a fight.
I mean the pick, which is an extension of your soul and fingers, the one with which you make love to a guitar.
The instrument of youth.
Of the bad boys with eternally shining eyes and big hearts.
My love with the guitar never brought to conception.
I just did not have soul enough and quick enough fingers. I only had my teacher who gave me a start. And love for music.
Everything a young man needs.
Love and idols.
Some idols melt under the rays of time and leak from their pedestal into muddy reality. When you grow up you realize your dad is not the strongest person in the world and you yourself are rather mediocre and just an ordinary idiot.
Other idols are forever.