TREASURES from the SANDS
by Robert Weiss
Robert Weiss met Ernest Bloch at his home at Agate Beach in the 1950s. Now retired, he was attorney to members of Ernest Bloch’s family for many years and through that connection became informed on aspects of the composer’s life. The narrative related here connects Bloch’s polishing of agates found on the Oregon Coast, musical composition and the infinite. In retirement, Weiss writes and believes that this account is one worth passing on to composers, musicians and music lovers, and those who just like a good story.
The speck of a figure far down a long, curving stretch of empty Oregon beach grew larger. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, it lurched closer, sometimes stopping completely as if contemplating an object in the sand, then moving off to one side or back to the other, poking here and there with what appeared to be a long stick. At that distance it was hard to be sure. The figure often retreated and when departure from sight seemed inevitable, at the very last instant of perception when haze and mist were about to erase it from view, it came back to the original course. It appeared to be traveling on a journey of many turnings, all somehow linked and patterned. The outwardly erratic movements nonetheless formed a graceful and intriguing whole, a passage, surely felt and understood by that speck of a figure, and which, given time, he would complete.
A morning mist clung to the sand and obscured the shore in the distance and the ocean far beyond the breakers. An occasional gull wheeled by screeching and crying into the mist. On one side, the waters rolled up from the sea across the wet lip of the shore, surging gently back and forth. On the other, a dense bluff of basalt, salal, scrub alder, hemlock and spruce broke randomly from the shore and rose up against the wet air and into a low lying fog that obscured the higher reaches of land.
The speck of a person had now moved much closer, revealed itself as a short, stocky man wrapped in a large black cape that hung across his body like a dust cover over a Morris chair. Who would wander the Oregon sands wrapped in a black cape instead of jeans and windbreaker or a Filson timbercruising jacket? That cape once filled a little boy with such bursting curiosity that he had to ask: “Are you superman?” The reply, eternally confounding to the boy: “I’m more than Superman.”
But on this particular morning no little boy played on the beach and puzzled about this person. Underneath the cape, knee-length black rubber boots crunched the shore. On top, a soft felt hat with turned-up brim shielded a short curved pipe. With his searching stick he had found what he wanted. From the flat packed sands he plucked a prize, held it up for examination, palmed it and tucked it away in a pants pocket, secure beneath the folds of the cape. Then, he moved onward, the restless journey resumed, searching for what had dropped from the sky or washed up from the sea or had been born in shore’s sand and rock and risen for him to find.
Again and again, five maybe six times, he pocketed some prize until he seemed satisfied, sniffed the lightening air and the slight breeze which had begun to blow across the froth at water’s edge and made his way up the beach to an invisible trail that broke through the salal and led to higher ground. He, the mysterious black cape and the found treasures vanished into the bush and mist.
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Atop the bluff, some would say cliff, he puffed to a stop, turned and looked across the salal, past the damp silent trees, beyond the wash and lather of surf that drained onto the arc of sand below, into the cloudbank and watery horizon that stretched into the universe somewhere beyond, took note of the infinite and the vast litter of finite pieces, paused, inhaled a few short breaths, looked again as if for a sign or token or perhaps in acknowledgment, inclined his head a bit and turned to the house that topped the bluff.
Inside the house—one of exposed beams and vertical boards, grays and greens and soft browns, like part of a forest come to rest—he threw the cape onto a peg in the wall and mounted the hat on top. Somewhat above, a fifteenth century wooden crucifix, worn and nibbled at by time, clung to the wall, taking it all in. He shook the cold damp from his shoulders, pushed down the packets of white hair that scraggled from both sides of his head, brushed back the considerable patch of bald skin that separated them, as if a thicket of hair still clung to it, and moved through a door into a large garage. Sufficient for the three cars of a prominent Salem banker and his family, a small shop room walled off one corner because there was no need to maintain a three car garage for a solitary dark blue 1939 Buick Special Coup.
Once through the shop door, he turned on a light and pulled a Havana cigar box off a pile of similar brown, wooden boxes, placed it on the workbench that occupied most of the little room and swung its lid open. From his pants pockets he took out the treasures plucked from the sands below, a half dozen stones—agates—of various colors and shapes, none larger than a half dollar, all smooth to the touch, buffed by ocean and sand, but not burnished and lustrous as they might become in the hands of a skilled lapidary. He laid the stones on the workbench, turned them over one by one, examined each carefully, seeming to take note of its potential for beauty, even holding one or two up for closer inspection near the light. Satisfied at last, he gathered them up and dumped them into the cigar box, closed the lid and put the box back neatly onto the pile of others, stamped his rubber boots, turned off the light and clumped back into the house.
The stones would wait his return when he would select them from the box for polishing. He did this individually, by hand, not mechanically, not using a motor-driven tumbler designed for mass production and the tourist trade. The stones had been flung from the universe of sea and sky onto the sand for him to discover, and each stone, in his hands at least, might find a small destiny outside the tourist trade, might shine with a special beauty which he sensed clung to it, a secret which he would reveal and to which he would carefully give life.
When at work in the shop, he would take a selected stone and with sealing wax affix it to a small stick, usually hand made from one of his cigar boxes. He heated the wax in a bunsen-like burner, dripping it onto the selected stone and plunging the end of the polishing stick into the tacky mass before it hardened. When it had set up and was secure, he turned on a vertically-mounted belt sander, and held the stone at the end of the little polishing stick against the sander, applying pressure by pushing harder and going easy when that seemed right, turning the stone this way and that, until the tone and surface suited him.
No doubt polishing agates was a counterpoint to the composing process, giving the melodies, the movements and harmonies space and time in which to mature.
Often he would polish only one surface, leaving the underside as it was when he had plucked it from the shore, the unfinished surface displaying God’s lustre, the other side contrasting, slick with the gloss that he had worked onto the surface, the random touches of a worldly artist made by turning and twisting the stick, pressing more intensely at one spot, easing off at another. When he was done with a stone, he tossed it into one of the other Havana boxes, each of which he had labeled with a category, such as “Cedar” or “Alder” or “Fern.” When he died, he left many boxes of polished agates.
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In 1996, Murry Sidlin, the resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony was invited to come to Madrid to conduct a symphony orchestra performance of Ernest Bloch’s “Sacred Service.” Before leaving this country to go to Spain, Bloch’s grandson, Ernie, gave Sidlin one of the polished agates to take with him, something of his grandfather to carry and be present, if not at the performance then at least in his luggage. Yehudi Menuhin had two of Ernest Bloch’s agates, so why not one for this conductor as a talisman or good-luck piece? Sidlin was pleased with the gift, felt the smoothness and surface of the stone, admired its sheen and thanked Ernie very much for this token of goodwill.
In Madrid one day, before releasing the musicians for a rehearsal break, Sidlin rapped on the music stand with his baton for attention. He announced that as a matter of interest the members of the orchestra might note that Ernest Bloch for a hobby had polished agates, stones that he found on the short stretch of Oregon beach where he had lived for almost 20 years until his death in 1959, and that Bloch’s grandson had given him one of the stones personally polished by the Maestro. He said that he had brought it with him, something of the composer which was personal and tangible. He held it up for them to see.
As he turned to step off the podium to take a short rest, the musicians, one by one, the entire orchestra, in fact, came forward and asked if they could see the stone close up, hold it, feel it, like those who would touch the cassock of a priest or pope as if by touching it they would touch God, although in this case the musicians were not hoping for salvation but to feel the essence of Ernest Bloch, feel his artistry as expressed in the polished agate, compare the natural smoothness on one side as he had found the stone in the sands with the burnished finish that he had given it on the other side, somehow by touching the stone to have him burnish and transform their playing, to have his music, now blessed with spirit from the stone, flow through fingers to their instruments.
© Copyright 2009 by Robert Weiss