“Free Solo Climbing” and “A Beautiful Fiasco” by Stephen Frech

Free Solo Climbing

Climbing comes with its own urgencies—a discipline that speaks only in imperatives:

-three points of contact
-adjust limbs, secure holds, then shift weight

So while his colleagues were invoking Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet:
“I must!”

or quoting Shelley:
“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”

the new violin professor introduced free solo climbing to the traditional music instruction. He wanted his students to feel, literally feel, the sensations of taking chances, risking, so by year’s end his students had to climb the cathedral’s high tower without ropes or safeties or nets. The stakes were high, sure, but they should be for artists, he said. “You can never truly risk one part of the self and not the others,” he said.

Throughout the school year, violin students scaled buildings all over town, practicing their technique. They climbed progressively higher walls with progressively more narrow holds. There were times that year turning a corner when you found the university orchestra’s violin section on the Main Street Bank and Trust building, reaching and exploring for finger holds, two and a half stories above the ground.

While many of the students grumbled, no one refused. No one complained to the dean. Remarkable really how willingly the students participated. In fact, they met on their own outside of class to practice advanced climbing techniques: hand stacks, heel-toe cams.

If they failed, if they quit, if they never climbed, never played the violin again, they would have him to blame—the climbing gave them that easy excuse, easy option out. But none of them took it, and so they committed to their own dreams of being violinists at any cost, and they absorbed their own failure, their own weak stamina or stomach, their own inadequacies. They would be the distance between themselves and what they wanted. Dreams are hard in this way: merciless, bitterly clear. And we must learn to live with alternatives. Life teaches us that.

The students, in fact, began to project onto the tower their own limits in talent or upbringing, their own, often unspoken anxieties or insecurities they were trying to master, urging them on. So they climbed the Town Hall, St. Brennan’s Hotel, the abandoned rail depot.

No one fell to her death. No one impaled on the cathedral’s lower church spires. But children falling out of trees, out of windows, off fire escapes, out of their parents’ arms to their deaths more or less, on their way down pass violinists who are climbing up and incredibly make it out alive, hopeful, frightened, reckless, and certain.

By year’s end, those students who completed the climb sat for the written portion of the exam and watched in the distance their classmates, specks on the cathedral tower, ascending, slowly, imperceptibly. And the violin professor at the window with binoculars saying quietly to no one:


A Beautiful Fiasco

They realized only after the accident that swinging the piano onstage suspended from wires was a bad idea.

“Yes, but what an entry,” the stage manager reminisced.

Two of the four cables broke and the piano swung in like a battering ram, the pianist riding it like a swashbuckler. The piano skidded on its side, then toppled over, keys knocked loose and scattered.

Counterweights, relieved of their burden, tore through the rigging and thudded to the floor backstage. Back curtains fell. Crew members, now completely visible to the audience, ran for cover in the wings.

The pianist, thrown clear, braved the rain of equipment, gathered loose pieces, and stood over the broken instrument in disbelief.

The conductor tried to direct the actors, extras, and stagehands to safety, but the orchestra saw in his gestures a new, frenzied interpretation of the score. He was improvising, they thought, calling in sections early with frantic rhythmic cues they understood as molto allegro. So they gave him molto, molto.

The baritone, singing of enduring love’s triumph, continued unaware and held the soprano with too much ardor.

Don’t be afraid, my flower.
The seas may thunder,
the winds roar, the heavens fall;
the world may conspire, but my love for you . . .

His voice broke up with real emotion. He had come to the brink of all. When the soprano pointed to the wreck behind them, he held her closer, more impassioned.

A beautiful fiasco. You only have one shot at that kind of entry, like the single shot of a Buster Keaton catastrophe, walls falling and the star positioned exactly so the window passes around him, the star untouched.

One take. Beyond comedy.


Stephen Frech has earned degrees from Northwestern University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Cincinnati. He has published three volumes of poetry, most recently The Dark Villages of Childhood (2009). His fourth publication is a sustained narrative of prose poetry/flash fiction titled A Palace of Strangers is No City (2011). He is founder and editor of Oneiros Press, a publisher of limited edition, letterpress poetry broadsides. Frech is professor of English at Millikin University.