The First Circle

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…There you are, standing with your instrument and the music is just great. The most sublime moment of the whole festival is right now and you know it. It’s a little chilly and you forgot your jacket, but it doesn’t matter. You’re reasonably comfortable and you’re very close to the kind of music you have always dreamed of playing. As a matter of fact, you’re almost in Heaven right now. But you’re not in Heaven. You’re in the First Circle…

I’ve always liked Russian novels. This month I finished Anna Karenina even though it ran to nearly 2000 pages on my iPad. Here’s my advice: if you want to read Tolstoy, read War and Peace first. I admire Tolstoy as a great writer, but I much prefer Dostoyevsky. I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov three times.

At one time in my life I read several novels by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He fits the classic mold of the Russian novelists but if I had to recommend a Russian novelist from that era to a friend, I would say stick with Pasternak (who wrote Doctor Zhivago). Solzhenitsyn wrote some pretty depressing stuff about his experiences. Like being a patient in a cancer ward or a Siberian gulag for example. Not for the squeamish.

One of Solzhenitsyn’s semi autobiographical works is called The First Circle. It’s about his experience as an inmate in a Stalinist prison for gifted scientists and engineers. They’re treated fairly well compared to other prisoners, but everyone is well aware that they are only one misstep away from the prisons of Siberia.

The title The First Circle is an allusion to Dante’s Inferno, in which admired intellectuals like the Greek philosophers, are allowed a special place in Hell just outside the gates of Heaven. A nice garden with a brick wall. Not too bad, But not Heaven either.

A Bluegrass festival can be like Heaven. You wake up whenever you want to, and as soon as you make it to the main stage you can listen to the music of the spheres for as long as you want. After dark the fun continues. You can jam with your friends or you can wander around the campground in search of new music and perhaps new friends. Often the big name performers are camped in your midst and they have their own jams which you can listen to for free.

It would be great to jam with them but a good jammer must know his or her place. You have to be respectful. Some of the performers might have a line for campers to take turns playing with the pros but that’s unusual. Play along softly and don’t disturb the featured performers. Standing there in the First circle is a great way to show your respect and gratitude to these great musicians who have entertained you all day long and now into the night. Stand there proudly in the First Circle and soak it all up. You’re almost in Heaven.

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