Friday, July 11, 2008

2 Summer Wrongs

Yesterday on the drive home two wrong things happened, and both were perpetrated by the afternoon public radio host who sounds exactly like Rowlf, the piano playing dog from the Muppets.  (Click on that link and imagine him saying "Temperatures for the Central Valley tonight and tomorrow night..." and then a long string of Native American names and 3-digit numbers). First, he played Camille Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, which I've always gleefully associated with the month of October and Halloween, but here he was playing it in July in the middle of a smoke-choked, reddish brown afternoon in the desert with the sky so hazy and flat that the sun was a big bloody eye glaring down at us all.  Wrong.  The second was to follow the music with an "Excessive Heat Advisory" effective until six o'clock the next morning.  112 apparently qualifies as excessive, which was news to me since I'd had heat rash in a ring around my neck for a week and wake up every morning in a glaze of sweat.

Back to the music.  Of all the things I've forgotten from elementary school, like basic math and how to avoid girl bullies, I've never forgotten music education.  I had two teachers, appropriately named for their personalities, Mrs. Rust and Miss Bell.  Mrs. Rust had black hair, a beaked Roman nose, hissed her s's and played the violin like she had rigor mortis.  Miss Bell was soft, cerebral, and giggly, and used to get teared up when she'd play us certain pieces of classical music on the record player.  

Both played classical pieces for us and explained their history, but Mrs. Rust stopped at teaching us annoyingly unforgettable memory lyrics to the main themes, (example for the Danse Macabre's main theme: "H, A, double L, O, W, double E, N spells Halloween!"  Saint-Saens would have puked.)  Miss Bell, though far from immune to the memory lyrics charge (Handel's Water Music Suite was thusly raped: "This.  Is.  The horn pipe!  From Water Mu-sic!  From Water Mu-sic!  By George Frederic Handel... drip-drip-drip-drop it goes, drip-drip-drip-drop it goes!"), made more of an effort to tell us about the sordid and twisted lives of the composers.  

I became one of devoted pack of nerds under Miss Bell's sway and was entered into the city-wide Music Memory competition, the chief benefits of which were after-school music history lessons and free mix tapes of classical music to memorize.  I found I had a knack for this because of my natural tendency to close my eyes and picture an accompanying story to any music I heard.  My mother played records in the house quite a bit for anything from cleaning binges to afternoon quiet time, and she had favorites for particular moods.  I remember lots of Robert Cray blues, Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good," the Police album Synchronicity, The Pointer Sisters, and lots of Gershwin, and I used to walk my Barbie dolls along the window sills and make them dance and fly to the music.

So I made up long stories for each piece that had little to do with their titles or themes.  Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition was a favorite, but difficult to memorize because each segment was different from the next (here, Mussorgsky would snort with derision and point out that that was the whole point).  Edvard Grieg's Pier Gynt: Mountain King came with such a completely fucked up folk lore story about goblins and ripped out eyes and that I decided I couldn't do any better and devoted myself to imagining empty sockets and feeling your way in the dark while being chased.  Aaron Copland's Rodeo was easily my favorite and lent itself to a detailed vision of my personal conquering of the West, but in a way that edited out Indian murders and included long galloping scenes through golden fields.  Occasionally I would rope something, and staid pioneer mothers would clutch their throats in awe.

Despite weeks of preparation spacing out with my Walkman, I performed less than memorably at the Music Memory competition.  The event was held at the university auditorium, and for some reason I was not properly briefed (or was wrapped in fantasy during the briefing), and thus was not expecting an actual live orchestra to play us little snippets of the pieces.  I couldn't stop gawking at the musicians and wanting to go up and poke their instruments, and so I had trouble actually listening.  When I finally did close my eyes, I discovered for the first time my intense irritation with individual conductors' interpretations of tempo and dynamics.  That part's supposed to be faster!  This should be quieter!  Now you're rushing it!  Damn it, stop!  It was like seeing the lame movie version of your favorite book.

The problem was that most of the renditions I'd memorized were conducted by Leonard Bernstein, whose style I've loved even after listening to many others over the years.  He's histrionic.  He slashes at the air and pushes the trumpet section to the edge of control during accelerandos in Rodeo and then just as suddenly slams the lid on it and picks out a tiny oboe melody like he's knitting lace.  Hearing a piece he's conducted and then hearing the same one conducted by someone else is like looking at a whole gallery of high-saturation photographs and then having to sit through someone's tour of their frayed wallet photos.  It's frustrating.  It feels like violence has been done to the original piece, which, ironically, is probably the impression many of the composers had if they lived long enough to hear Bernstein get a hold of one of their pieces.  

This frustration with interpretation was part of the reason I started playing the clarinet.  Partly I loved music so much that I wanted to be in it, and sitting in the front row of a huge band or orchestra is a great way to do that.  You feel the louder parts vibrating up the legs of your chair, and there's a smell to it, too-- valve oil for brass instruments smells sharp and metallic, cork grease for the joints in woodwinds smells woody, and the taste of a good reed is somewhere between pasta and wood glue.  But you can also be as cheesy and dramatic as you want to be when you can actually play the notes and understand all the weird little ticks and slashes and apostrophes that denote grace notes and pauses and read the Italian directions-- pianissimo (very quiet), allegro (walking speed), ritardando (gradually slowing down), fortissimo (very strongly), saltando (jumping), and one of my favorites, sussurando (lightly, whispering).  

In fact, this was one of my greater strengths as a musician.  I was never as technically precise or skilled as other musicians I played with, mostly because I got bored with repetition and scales and theory, but I learned to play up my strengths of clear tone and dynamic interpretation.  Soulful, but not particularly skilled-- that's me.

Anyway, I heard the Danse Macabre on public radio in the strangling heat of a red-brown afternoon, and then the way too permissive definition of "excessive," and both of these things inspired me to retreat to the base lap pool for the first time this summer in an effort to rinse off the wrongness.  What happened there gets a whole separate post.

1 comment: said...

Rachel, this was a great read - I would like to quote some of this on my blog at:

You were fortunate enough to become a nerd and that has obviously stuck with you :) That you remember your teachers as well as you do means they made quite an impact during those formative years. We all have had the Rusts - thankfully the Bells make them tolerable. Who doesn't enjoy sordid and twisted tales? And by the way - soul beats skill every time in my book.

I recommend you dust off the old licorice stick if you still have one and if not, go get one. The familiar smells of the cork, grease, reed and oil haven't changed and neither has your inner passion for music.