Turning Back Time
Never say never. On Saturday I did something I once told The New York Times reporter Leslie Kandell that I would never do: I attended my high school reunion. Chock it up to the power of social media—after being friended by some of my former classmates on Facebook and having some interesting online exchanges with them it seemed downright rude not to attend.
But it has been thirty years, which is more than half of my life at this point, and to be honest my memories of that time are somewhat blurry and mostly selective. Oddly, I’m more comfortable talking about 1976, a year in which my own personal narrative mercifully plays absolutely no part, than in those awkward formative years of 1977 to 1981. Admittedly I had it better than most folks with artistic aspirations. I attended a place that not only tolerated but encouraged outside the mainstream quirks—the High School of Music and Art, which at the time was housed in a stupendous now-landmarked castle-like building on the top of a hill in Central Harlem. It has since been consolidated with its then sister school, the High School of Performing Arts, as the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts which is located in a far less magical building even though it’s now right in back of Lincoln Center.
My personal nostalgia trip began with walking up the once seemingly endless cascades of staircases in Morningside Park that lead from the 135th Street subway station to the “castle on the hill”; it was the first time I made that climb in 30 years. Others attending (which spanned graduating classes dating back to 1941!) thought the steps were more impossible to navigate than they had remembered, but to me it actually seemed a shorter journey. Memory is an unreliable historian. Anyway, once inside, alumni were allowed free reign of the building, wandering through hallways and open classrooms. It is now a different school—the Asa Philip Randolph High School—but much has remained basically unchanged. An art studio on the ground floor looks exactly the same as it did thirty years ago and a penthouse music studio which offers a staggering view of the neighborhood is still there as is its tattered upright piano. However, the drum set on the elevated stage would have been totally verboten back in the days when the empress of that particular space was an elderly vocal teacher whom I will always remember for her hatred of the 20th century. (She called it “the age of mediocrity.”) The school library no longer has a Grove Dictionary (the first one I had ever seen), some of the other music spaces had been converted into labs, and, though its pipes are still there, the organ that wasn’t working by the time I arrived as a freshman in 1977 had finally been removed from the school auditorium. (A piece I composed for it back in 1980—in the arrogant hope of them fixing it because I had done so—has still never been played.)
Compared with that time portal experience, dinner in the current school building was somewhat anticlimactic. While the steam-table dinner was far better than I had expected, conversations at my table were largely perfunctory exchanges of pleasantries that did not go much deeper. To be honest, this was as much my fault as anyone else’s—it was too crowded and the new and unfamiliar scenery did not inspire reminiscing.
However, after dinner it was great to reconnect with my one-time voice teacher Judy Gray (she’s NOT the one who hated the 20th century) as well as to get into a heady conversation about salsa—a music unfortunately not yet on my radar back in 1981—with my one-time classmate Juan Martinez, another now “longhair” who had been heavily into this music at that time and who read and really appreciated my talk with Willie Colón.
Following dinner was a concert by the school’s symphony orchestra and chorus. When I was there it was just called “Orchestra 8.” But that’s not all that had changed. The program included When David Heard, a choral piece by Eric Whitacre—geez, he’s everywhere. Back in my day the most contemporary piece the chorus had ever done was the 1939 Te Deum by Zoltan Kodaly, which was a labor of love at the time by Judy Gray. The other aforementioned vocal teacher, who also led the chorus during my time there, focused exclusively on Haydn and Bruckner. So it was particularly gratifying to know that music by living American composers can now be included on the curriculum—how else is this stuff ever going to enter the repertoire?
The evening ended with an extremely overcrowded after party at a rather bland midtown bar with overpriced drinks and inattentive bartenders—it’s nearly impossible to coordinate any activity involving that large a group on a Saturday night in New York City. (Apparently 100 members of the 1981 contingent showed up.) I had a fabulous conversation about travel and wine with someone I was delighted to become reacquainted with, but otherwise it was all a bit too overwhelming, even though I’m frequently at overcrowded gatherings of music professionals during my “normal” existence. Perhaps overwhelming is the wrong word, it’s more like unfulfilled or unresolved. I suppose that’s what people mean when they say you can’t turn back the clock, although some folks there seemed to be having the times of their lives reliving their glory days. In my case I don’t really want to turn back time, which is why I never wanted to attend past reunions. But then again, when I told Leslie Kandell that I would never attend a high school reunion I also told her that there was no point in doing so since anyone who wanted to find me could because I was listed in the phone book. I no longer have a listed phone number, even though I suppose finding my email address is relatively easy. Of course, the person they would find is thankfully not the me of 1981, who hadn’t even completed the first musical composition I still acknowledge.
Ultimately, though, it prompts a question: will the me of thirty years hence look back on the me of now, equally content to keep a safe distance? Inevitably every time you finalize a musical composition or even a collection of words (such as these), you are creating a moment that is fixed in time; one that you may later regret. There are early pieces available out there by composers ranging from Philip Glass to the late Donald Martino that have precious little in common with the music that they would want you to know them for. It’s perhaps the single scariest thing about creating anything. While you can play hooky on your high school reunion, you can’t erase things that you do once they are part of history.