Gathering Stones

While I was reading Frank J. Oteri’s offering on the novel vs. the familiar (“A Temple for the Familiar”), I was struck by the notion that most of us derive our greatest pleasure from the things we already know. Although I think what Oteri was actually describing was how members of a concert-going audience might most greatly express their pleasure from something they barely know; i.e., live music.

This is probably the result of going through my mother’s effects for the last week. So far, the experience has been like traversing an emotionally charged landscape that, like a never-ending carpet, unrolls to reveal a fascinating design of discovered and rediscovered possessions that belonged to a person I’ve known from the start of my life. But the pattern of this carpet’s design is also reflexive (or maybe reflective) because of a critique of the world written in journal entries that include descriptions of her daily activities, as well as musings on her friends, work acquaintances, and family—including me.

This carpet’s threads are made of paper, porcelain, pewter, bamboo, terra cotta, glass, oak, and leather. Some of the threads are comprised of words, books, computer data, pictures, drawings, and sculpture. There are also more traditional materials, such as silk, cotton, denim, wool, and even some polyester. But the material that currently has my attention is vinyl. It’s not my favorite material for recorded music (I think it’s too cumbersome and fragile, and the frequency response isn’t as good as digital), but I know more than a few people who don’t agree with me on this and I wouldn’t want to try to dissuade them. Besides, this particular collection of vinyl includes the stuff I first understood to be that special arrangement of vibrating air molecules called music. It was in this assortment of classical, jazz, and popular music that, between 1960 and 1968, I found the inspiration to spend the rest of my life making music.

Of course the first records I heard came before that. My brother and I were given our first record player around 1959 with a special collection of 45-rpm discs suited to our tastes. It featured such greats as: Popeye and Olive Oyl (Jack Mercer and Mae Questel) singing “Never Play With Matches”; Bing Crosby singing “The Headless Horseman”; and Doris Day singing “When the Red, Red, Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.” Soon I began adding to that collection of my own accord with red-hot items like: “I’m A Believer”; “Walk Don’t Run”; and “It’s A Gas.” Around 1965, though, my brother’s and my own tastes diverged (of course, arbitrarily), and I realized that the best way for me to listen to the sides that I wanted to listen to without engaging in protracted sessions of primitive negotiation techniques was to gain access to the Big Machine downstairs that mom and dad used.

Dad agreed to let me use his hi-fi monaural record player (not quite stereo, yet) as long as for every record of mine I listened to, I listened to one of his. This agreement exposed me to the music of Count Basie (with and without Lester Young), Nick Travis, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Bach, and Hindemith. I’ll never forget the day I was lying on the floor of the living room, listening to the Andante from Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D (after listening to “Pleasant Valley Sunday“). It was during the sublime recapitulation of the theme that I knew music would become my life’s work. (That was the USSR Melodiya recording, distributed in the U. S. by Angel Records, featuring David Oistrakh as the soloist with the composer conducting.) I didn’t just hear the music, but could see it and hold it. Since then I’ve learned that this type of experience–synesthesia–isn’t uncommon among musicians. At the time, though, it came as a total shock. Of course, I had to repeat the experience, so I set out to listen to every record Mom and Dad had to see if it would happen again. It did when I heard Mom’s recording of Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka and again when I heard Robert Gerle as the soloist in Hindemith’s Kammermusik No.4 with Hermann Scherchen conducting on the Westminister label. The “flip” side of that album introduced me to the music of a familiar name, Kurt Weill, with his Concerto for Violin and Winds, which had almost nothing about it that resembled the music of Weill that I was familiar with.

In 1968, I began to attend live music events regularly, which introduced me to a different kind of listening experience. Instead of listening to music in familiar surroundings, I was spending more and more time listening to it in novel and unfamiliar settings where it was difficult to hear every note as clearly as I could at home. I realized that “recorded” vs. “live” resembled a binary situation where the listener could dispense with paying attention to the music filling the room and go on to do whatever she or he wanted to do (including listening to the music) in the former, while the latter demanded a modicum of decorum from its audience. As I attended more and more live performances, though, I began to feel less and less of a connection to the aural aspects of the music and more of a fascination with the musicians’ techniques. I found myself watching the musicians more than listening to what they were playing. It wasn’t until I began playing improvised music that the level of involvement with the sound of music in live performance was on par with that of listening to the records on mom and dad’s stereo.

Training one’s ear to have its own listening life while playing forever changed the way I hear music. I now have no problems watching a performer play while giving the music the deep listening it deserves. I have often had my synesthetic episodes while listening to a live performance and, while not as profound as the first isolated times, they happen more often. But listening to recordings that I’ve played on doesn’t offer the experience very often at all. I attribute this to residual stage fright coupled with a sense of self-criticism that may or may not be overblown. But so far only a handful inspire that special place. I can appreciate the serendipity of finding a few in my mom’s collection, especially Kenny Werner’s hard-to-find 298 Bridge Street and Jane Ira Bloom’s Modern Drama.

Listening to her collection while cataloging its contents for its impending sale has given me plenty of opportunities to experience music I haven’t heard. For one thing, her collection is quite eclectic and, while I can take or leave new age and electronica, she liked it. Fortunately, mom was satisfied with having a fairly small number of recordings to listen to, so I only have a few examples to sit through. But the experience of listening again to some of the recordings that she had before I was born conjures a sensation that is somewhere in between familiarity and novelty. I’m not yet sure if it’s the milieu that I’m doing the listening in (her apartment) or whether this will be a new paradigm for these recordings that goes with this eerie rite of passage.

I also wonder what things would have been like for me if, like the musicians of times before Edison’s invention and the ensuing recording industry, I had not been able to hear music on recordings. Would I have ever heard Count Basie? Duke Ellington? Doris Day? David Oistrakh? Would I have even heard of them? Would I have chosen music as my life’s work? And if I had, what would I be playing, composing, writing about? Well, whatever it is, or will be, I know that it makes me want to listen to a not very well-known song, “Gathering Stones,” that Kenny Werner wrote for his dog, Chachka, who had a strange habit of collecting rocks everywhere she went. Quite a bit like us and our records and CDs and such. But I’ll have to wait until I’m back home from Jazz Camp West for that.

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