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A concert for hope and remembrance: Cornerstone alumnus carries the message

Courtesy of Jackie Stevens

The Daily Times newspaper of Maryville, Tenn., featured an interview with Cornerstone of Recovery alumnus Kristofer Rucinski, a professional pianist who’s organizing an overdose awareness concert on Sunday, Aug. 26, at Emerald Avenue United Methodist Church in Knoxville.

The article in full:

In planning “A Musical Message of Remembrance and Hope,” pianist Kris Rucinski wanted to highlight an important theme: overdose awareness.

In his case, the theme — spread across five sprawling works by classical composers (Rachmaninoff), minimalist maestros (John Adams, Philip Glass) and contemporary up-and-comers (Drew Dolan and Rucinski himself) — is also an intimately important one. Rucinski himself is a recovering addict who, during his journey through the wastelands, overdosed and was pulled back into the light.

When he performs on Sunday evening, Aug. 26, at Emerald Avenue United Methodist Church in Knoxville, every note will be an expression of the spiritual pain he remembers so vividly and the light of recovery in which he walks today.

“As an overdose survivor, the message resonates with me,” he said last week. “If it wasn’t for first responders, I wouldn’t be here. If it wasn’t for friends being willing to get help for me, I certainly wouldn’t be playing this program.”

Rucinski’s love affair with song dates back to his time in the womb; his mother says that during her attendance at a performance of “Carmina Burana,” he began moving spastically in utero as the music washed over his mother’s spirit.

His father was a professor, and the family moved frequently before his parents divorced, and Rucinski started the third grade in Ashland, Ky. His dad, a piano player, was a big influence on Rucinski’s style, and his rebellious musical spirit infuses Rucinski’s own playing today.

“He told me that he did a degree recital once that was 100 percent modern music, and he got into a fight with his teacher because she said she wouldn’t attend such a recital,” he said with a laugh. “Back then, combining electronics with piano was viewed with a lot of disdain, so he had to do another recital, because they didn’t accept it.”

By the time Rucinski was 10, he was an avid piano enthusiast, falling in love with Romantic composers like Brahms and Chopin; for the final two years of his high school career, he attended a music school in Michigan, where his passion was received and encouraged by like-minded peers and teachers.

“Being in that environment, I started getting exposed to modern composers and working one-on-one with something that was alive and still being created and hadn’t been played 100,000 times,” he said. “I started loving new music and playing the music of living composers.”

Music, he came to understand, was a spiritual experience. Whether it was the pounding, aggressive rock of Soundgarden, the angst of Nine Inch Nails or the intricate resonance of the Romantic greats, he found that each piece told a story, and every listen revealed intricate layers of a powerful expression of human nuance.

When he first was introduced to drugs, they seemed to augment that experience, he added.

“Cannabis had a really strong effect on me in terms of my experience of music,” he said. “I found that when I was under the influence, I had a different vivid and visceral experience of listening that started adding layers to the experience and to the interpretation. I found that I liked it so much that I really sought to do that as much as possible, and through playing organ in a rock band and being around the party scene in Cleveland, there were other drugs around. And because of my affinity for cannabis, I was willing to try pretty much everything.

“At the same time, I started doing a lot of research, because I thought it would be helpful to understand how, physiologically, this experience of consciousness was being affected by drugs. It really became a pretty serious point of investigation and research, and when I started doing psychedelics, ecstasy and speed, I started to build a picture of the range of experiences that were available through just ingesting chemicals.”

His first stint in rehab only served to help him network with other addicts and introduce him to a broader range of chemical experiences, including opiates, which became his greatest love. It didn’t take long, he said, for drugs to become a way of life more than just a portal to creative experiences, and his music began to suffer.

“As my use escalated, music became a less-important facet of my life and my personality and my time,” he said. “Around that time, I dropped out of school and started working in Cleveland as a pizza delivery boy, and not surprisingly, this shift exposed me to more of the drug culture. So music became something that I really put on the back burner until I had lost so much, and was so spiritually bereft that I needed help, that I finally asked for help.”

In 2006, he moved to East Tennessee for a second stab at rehab. This time, the recovery process took hold. He threw himself into a 12-step program with the same zeal he’d used to approach music as a teenager, devouring literature and attending meetings and surrounding himself with like-minded peers. He became active in service work, sponsored other addicts and built a life for himself that was fulfilling, save for one large hole: music.

A chance meeting with an old acquaintance from that Michigan academy of music where he finished high school led to his enrollment at the University of Tennessee; once again a student, his focus shifted from recovery to music.

“There was not an element of balance,” he said. “I still maintained contact with recovery friends, but I stopped going to a lot of meetings, and I stopped talking to my sponsor regularly. At the time, it seemed pretty benign, and I thought I’d get the same kind of spirituality out of music that I was getting from the program.”

As music became the center of his universe again, he moved again, pursued graduate degrees and began a professorship. A painful breakup sent him into an emotional tailspin, and that, combined with the absence of balance, led to a longing for the alleviation of pain. The temptation of his old ways beckoned, and he eventually succumbed.

Legal troubles, combined with a desire to get clean again, led him back to Tennessee, where he took up residence at Cornerstone of Recovery in Blount County. In the Polly Bales Building on Airport Highway, he discovered a piano, and the presence of that familiar friend in an environment of healing led him to the understanding that balance is paramount.

“As I continued to complete outpatient and was in the building with the piano, I had time to make music, and this was a vehicle that helped inspire people,” he said. “At the same time, I met people who wanted to hear music and wanted to get that kind of inspiration and identification from hearing music. By being clean, they found some sort of emotional, cathartic experience in playing or learning music, so I taught some lessons to a few of the guys, as a vehicle of expression of them, and I started to realize that this is what I was missing the first time.”

Today, Rucinski is a resident of the E.M. Jellinek Center, a recovery community for men in Downtown North Knoxville, and it was at a meeting at Emerald Avenue UMC that provided inspiration for Sunday’s concert, he said.

“We were having the meeting, but upstairs, I could hear what sounded like a pianist and a French horn player, and it sounded like they were rehearsing something,” he said. “It sounded really good, like they had a good space, and hearing that throughout the meeting, I thought, ‘Maybe there’s some way to use this music for the benefit of the recovery community.’ As months progressed, I started hearing about fundraising events that were going on for International Overdose Awareness Day (the local observance of which is scheduled for Aug. 31 at Volunteer Landing in downtown Knoxville), and I got the idea of doing this event using all of this music that’s played such a huge part in my life.”

There’s no admission charge, but donations with be accepted to benefit Tennessee Overdose Prevention. Financially speaking, it’s a steal, given Rucinski’s prodigious talents and experience. Over the years, he’s become an in-demand performer for young composers eager to showcase contemporary works, and one of those — “The Mysterious Fountain,” by his friend and fellow composer Drew Dolan — is part of Sunday’s program.

“It’s inpsired by a Fellini film, ‘La Dolce Vita,’ and a particular scene in it,” he said. “The piece ends abruptly, and I thought it was a good parallel to the remembrances of people’s lives who have died from overdoses.”

And closing with Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36,” he added, is an ideal epilogue for such a concert.

“It ends with a message of hope, and that’s the most important thing,” he said. “That’s why overdose prevention exists — to give hope for the future. The main idea is that there needs to be enough reform that if somebody does overdose, the people around aren’t afraid to call first responders to get them help. The more that we can get the word out about that cause, the better chance those addicts have of surviving and eventually finding recovery.”

You can find out more information on the Facebook event page for the concert.