Saturday, October 27, 2007

What's Life without Music?

The Credo from Bach's Mass in B Minor

Music is an acquired taste. It’s in all parts of our lives but when we are young and open minded and the exposure to music is constant we can be open to any kind, be it bebop or Bach. At some point, the door to music is opened and we enter. In my case, it was the player piano at my grandparent’s home where I spent a lot of time up to the age of six and the case full of music rolls were 100% my grandparent’s taste, which is to say—"middle"classical. That is to say, music that would find acceptance in the parlor an early 20th century upper middle class home-Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, Mendelssohn etc.

My relationship with music started at Grandpa’s house on Campbell Ave. When they moved to Tucson they thoughtfully brought along their Weber upright piano with the Aeolian Pianola option along with a bookcase full of piano rolls, all what you call classical. In the years since the move from the humidity of Staten Island to the dryness of the desert, the mechanism had become decidedly wheezy, something that others had tried to fix with gummed tape on the cracked bellows, a temporary remedy at best. The more notes being played at once, the more the system was taxed. A composition like Liszt’s Les Preludes would bring things almost to a standstill!

This example is identical to our Weber Pianola. I have a memory of pumping furiously away one afternoon in a futile effort to convince Arthur Brinkmeyer that I was suddenly empowered with the musical skills of a prodigy. The ruse didn’t work of course. Arthur was more interested in how much noise we could make than the music.

A music roll at its largest size would contain one movement of a larger piece and the smaller rolls would contain a composition perhaps 5 – 10 minutes in length. There were even smaller rolls by other makers, which were the standard 3 – 4 minute ditties. There were only a few of them, probably bought by my aunts and uncle when they were making their own
musical choices. There was one I played over and over, Berceuse by Chopin. In 1945, there was a movie out called “A Song to Remember” starring Cornell Wilde and Merle Oberon that was based on the life and love of Frederick Chopin. In it pianist José Iturbi performed a stirring rendition of the "Heroic Polonaise". We had another Chopin Polonaise, the "Militaire". This I found frustrating, not being able to pump the now iconic piece to life on our own piano.

A wondrous collection of bellows, chain drives and 88 spaghetti-like hoses (which don't show here) were what you needed to produce the great music of the world. Some households chose popular songs and ragtime ditties, but in the Mathewson home, appreciation of the classics was the order of the day. Since both Grandma and Grandpa were deaf, I couldn't say how much of it they appreciated.

Mother noticed my inclination toward the Muse, and as soon as she could swing it financially, she signed me up with Miss Genevieve Westerman for piano lessons. At about eight, I was appreciative of music too advanced for me to perform and totally unmoved by the music that was within my ability. I was soon inspired to skip my music lessons and pocket the six dollars I was to give Miss Westerman. Not always, though. I did learn, somewhat, the easy part of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, which I enjoyed playing.

It was that piece that almost caused a calamity among the bass players of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra during a Sunday afternoon concert at the University auditorium. My fidgety propensities got the better of me and I departed my seat next to Mother and slipped backstage, where I discovered a grand piano. A little Beethoven didn’t seem out of place as long as it was pianissimo. At the intermission I heard the musicians returning from the stage complaining that they couldn’t keep on key with someone behind the curtain plunking away on the piano. Fearful for my life, I quickly became invisible, slipped back and settled into the seat by my mother’s side, saying I'd been to the bathroom.

The label of one of the family favorites-“No News”, by Frank Crummit and the exact model of Victrola it was played on.

We had a Victrola at home, a table model with doors in the front to act as a volume control. A modest collection of records, 78s of course, kept in a carrying case with metal corners and a handle, which ranged from novelty, "Two Black Crows", a vaudeville act and Frank Crummit performing “No News” and “The Three Trees” to a few more dignified classics on the order of Carouso arias and from Gounod to Moussorgsky’s Boris Godinov with the great bass Feodor Chaliapin as Boris in the death scene. My finances enabled me to add to the collection only occasionally, widening my musical choices to include Debussy, Satie and Puccini. Anything that was familiar had to be relegated to the “old chestnut” bin. It sometimes comes back to haunt me that many of the “old chestnuts” that are so familiar to me I can't even identify. For example, here’s a Wichita NPR radio station’s top "old chestnut" list:

1 Beethoven: Symphony #5
2 Pachelbel: Canon in D
3 Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
4 Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desire
5 Brahms: Piano Concerto #1
6 Mendelssohn: Symphony #4
7 Beethoven: Fur Elise
8 Mozart: Violin Concerto #3
9 Tchaikovsky: Waltz of the Flowers
10 Schubert: Trout Quintet

At the top of my favorites list would be Bach, the father, of course. I’ve said elsewhere that his "St. Mathew Passion" ranks highest, but I enjoy so many of his works they would be on a revolving stage. The Trio Sonatas for Organ, Cantatas by the bale, works for unaccompanied Cello, Violin and Keyboard, Suites for Orchestra, Well Tempered Clavichord, etc, etc. After Bach? Who knows—Stravinsky? Khachaturian? Bartok? Prokofiev? Copeland? Brahms? Adams? Zappa?

The last remaining recordings of the Victrola era.

Old Time Radio, Not Much, but The Only Radio We Had

There were two radio stations in Tucson up to around 1946 when we got a couple more. When they were broadcasting locally produced fare, the music tended to stay in the popular realm, popular included Bing Crosby, Sammy Kaye etc. with some Mexican programming in the early morning (La Hora Mexicana) some country western, with the accent on Sons of the Pioneers, Bob Wills and Gene Autry, but no classical programs. But they had several network programs which carried the Metropolitan Opera broadcast, the Firestone hour and the Telephone hour, these latter having light classical music with guest soloists. Other programs we regularly tuned in were these 15 minute shows following the news that featured live dance bands like the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller and Harry James alternating with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. On Sunday mornings we listened to the Mormon Tabernacle broadcast while we ate our breakfast.

The Howard Communications Receiver. This beauty probably wasn't essential to Jim's and Jean's household which was on the move back East. When we got it, Jim had tried to domesticate it by giving it an "antique white" paint job with questionable success.

One of the treasures that Jim left with us when he was transferred from his base near Stockton, CA during the middle years of the war was a massive radio with several bands of short wave and the requirement for an outside antenna. This latter being a job I felt totally qualified to install, having already operated a crystal set. I got a couple of pieces of 1 X 2 which I nailed to the attic vents, attached the insulators and the antenna wire and ran the lead down to the dining room window near the radio. It even had a hookup for a second speaker, which we mounted over the door in the kitchen. It was a huge improvement in reception over our old AC-DC superhet. We could get Phoenix stations during the day and west coast stations as soon as the sun went down. I spent hours slowly tuning in distant AM and short wave broadcasts. We purchased an RCA turntable attachment and had the man at the radio shop install a plug in the back of the radio so we could listen to our record collection. What a difference a few vacuum tubes made!

My record collection in its early days

During my junior high days, I was still clinging to big band music that my brother Jim had favored, such was hero worship in my world. When I tried to impress my classmates at a Friday afternoon hop, nobody cared for my Glenn Miller records, preferring more contemporary artists like Johnny Mercer, Vic Damone, Frankie Laine etc. Once I broke away from the "oo-ah, oo-ah" of Miller's trombone section, I caught up to the rest of the crowd and picked up on Les Paul and Mary Ford, The Mills Brothers, Vaughn Monroe, Louis Prima, Perry Como. Jo Stafford, Frank Sinatra, the Harmonicats and many others. Singles were the usual offering although some artists would produce albums of 10" discs.

Records were quite costly back then, but the record stores had listening booths, which were available to prospective customers. Sometimes, a clerk was required to institute the listening session. Phonograph records were sold in an appliance store downtown on Congress Ave. called Grabe Electric. When I was older, I had a good rapport with a musically knowledgeable clerk who steered me to different composers and performers and when in 1948, the Columbia Record company introduced the long playing record, or LP. It introduced smooth playing vinyl to the ears of the public. The new records were so quiet as to be almost mystical and they would contain up to 25 minutes of uninterrupted music on each side. What a godsend! Fortunately, my collection of 78s had not grown significantly and consisted mainly of Glenn Miller recordings, a Beethoven string quartet, Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony, arias from Puccini's "La Boheme" and "Madama Butterfly", three 10" recordings of Walter Gieseking playing Debussy and Eric Satie.

My first LP player-a quantum leap in quality sound, quiet
and the vinyl records played 25 minutes per side.

The credit department at Grabe’s enabled me to finance the $29.95, ($205.14 in 2006 dollars!) price of the new Columbia LP attachment (probably layaway, now that I think of it) and my first purchase was Beethoven’s 5th symphony and it cost $4.98, ($34.11 in 2006 dollars!). My income was strictly allowance and odd job so by necessity, my collection grew at a glacial rate but each note on the disc was assimilated with sponge-like thoroughness! Imagine, an entire hour-long composition with no more than one trip to change the record. Beethoven's 6th and 7th symphonies followed, then Khachaturian's Gayne ballet suites, Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony and string quartets of Debussy and Ravel. When I wasn't listening to the records at home, I whistled the music as I pedaled around town, such was my immersion in this world.

My musical appreciation gained momentum and I gradually moved up through the romantic, through the impressionistic into the bombastic. My mentor at Grabe’s, obviously a connoisseur of modern music shepherded me through Stravinsky’s three ballet suites, Firebird, Petrouchka and the Rite of Spring, and on into Bartok. I remember talking with my friend at Grabe’s about Stravinsky and that I must hear this new recording of "Petrouchka"! “There’s a little trumpet solo on this recording that’s such a treat!” So there was. The London recording with Ernst Ansermet conducting L’Orchestre d’La Suisse Romande in its red jacket was my next purchase. The improved range of hi-fi recordings found a new audience for harpsichord performances of baroque composers such as J. S. Bach, Archangelo Corelli, Francois Couperin, Henry Purcell and Domenico Scarlatti. I purchased several albums during the early days of collecting. The premier artist was Wanda Landowska.

My first LP player-a quantum leap in quality sound, quiet
and the vinyl records played 25 minutes per side.

In 1949 and 1950 I lived with my brother Jack and his wife Gerry while attending my junior and senior years of high school and musical theater was peaking on Broadway. In their orbit, I found myself attracted to some of the big productions of the time like “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma!” They invested in season tickets at the Phoenix community theater artist series and we traveled the 90 miles to attend varied artists such as The First Piano Quartet, Victor Borge, Andres Segovia and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The student body at Miami High was entertained one day with a concert by the excellent Arizona State University concert band. During their performance of the final movement of the 5th Symphony of Dimitri Shostakovich, the steady beat of the tympani built and built in a crescendo at the end, I was feeling shivers up and down my arms. I had to have that symphony that restored the composer's reputation after being officially denounced for an earlier composition, "Lady MacBeth". The steady, march tempo of this movement pleased Stalin with its message of triumph of Soviet communism. Played slowly, it has a barbaric momentum, speeded up, it has almost a joyful message. All I know is, it made a deep impression on my young ears.

My intellectual friends, who felt they should be on top of all things avant garde had nothing on me when it came to music appreciation. One friend, Frank Keating, felt challenged by the level of my taste in music, insisting that he was as sophisticated as I in this area. At one point he conned me into trading his album of Bela Bartok playing the complete piano preludes called "Mikrokosmos" for one I had that featured orchestral arrangements of the same by Tibor Serly pieces and "Two Portraits for Orchestra". I felt real remorse at trading albums with him. He couldn’t abide my “advancing” to Bartok without lingering in the garden of the classic and romantic periods first. I still pine for some of the recordings I no longer have. The care of records has never been high on my list, but for a record to go missing is a major problem. I still have all of those first purchases, even though I seldom play them.

Mahler, Debussy, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Bartok. Just a sprinkling of composers who, by turns dominated my interest.

By this time, a summer of creativity hit me. I needed something special to play music on—an expression in three dimensions with a 12” speaker to get the benefit of a custom made audio amplifier I had made. It had a “push-pull” circuit that promised outstanding performance. Unfortunately, it also had an annoying 60 cycle hum that seemed to elude every effort to quell it. I designed a low table with a somewhat egg-shaped contour that fit atop a base with two turntables-one for LPs and one for 78 rpm records. Hiding the speaker, mounted in the table surface was an abstract cutout splat-shaped cover, reminding one of a giant sea bird that had chosen my creation to relieve itself as it passed over. I thought it was great.

As I progressed from early through contemporary music, it seems that I peaked with Schoenberg. He was a composer of twelve-tone music, though not all of his music could be so described. I purchased a copy of his third string quartet on an eclectic label called “Dial”. Much as I wished to absorb this music, I seemed to reach an impasse. Afterward, I concentrated on infilling my collection. But there was another world of music I had not really tuned in on.

At the University of Arizona,my philosophy professor, Dr. Matthew M.R. Schneck. had a reputation for great intellegence. I asked him who he thought was the greatest composer, figuring to see where my collecting should head next. “The greatest artist of all time, and I include DaVinci and Michaelangelo, was J. S. Bach and his greatest work was the Mass in B minor, the most sublime part being the Gloria.”

Well, I had it in a nutshell, now, I thought, and immediately contrived a way to purchase the composition. It ran three discs and about two hours in length. I had to special order it at Grabe’s and was performed by the Robert Shaw Chorale on the RCA label. After getting four subsequent versions of it over fifty years, I can’t stand to listen to that recording anymore. Its pace was too slow. Sadly, my favorite recording was by the Berlin Symphony under the leadership of Fritz Lehmann, but which has some bothersome skips. Another Bach choral epic, the St. Mathew Passion became my all time favorite and remains so today. Bach became my steady company for life.

The new student union became my favorite place to spend time, either in the “Co-op” cafeteria or in the music listening rooms, where you could check out LPs and play them in private. Their collection wasn’t large but contained works by many composers I hadn’t familiarity with, such as Benjamin Britten, Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius.

The following summer I got a job at the same aircraft plant that Mom had worked in during WWII. I decided to share the ride with one of my co-workers -a black guy who introduced me to the world of jazz. It is a little vague in my mind who the artist was that he played for me, but my guess is that it was someone cool like Miles Davis. It took a while for the seed to germinate, but eventually, jazz was on my mind continuously. I was introduced to Turk Murphy and the Yerba Buena Jazz band by an artist friend who had done a group portrait of them for an album cover. There was a jazz club in Berkeley near the UC campus that I’d spend hours listening to combos play.

During my overseas tour in Germany, I found the post exchange, (PX) to be a fruitful source of music and the prices were a bargain. I picked up contemporary jazz such as Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader, Phil Woods, Coleman Hawkins and Chet Baker-mostly white jazz. Traditional jazz wasn’t so appealing then but later became more a part of my music.

Before there was a Brubeck quartet, there was this trio

While jazz was my new interest, I never abandoned classical music. Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” was all the rage during the mid-fifties. I had a recording of it and in Bamberg, went to a performance of it conducted by the composer. Bach continued to be the anchor of my collecting and while on leave in Paris, picked up a recording of his Trio Sonatas for organ by Marie-Claire Alain-a very extravagant indulgence.

One part of my collecting that doesn’t give me pride of ownership was a period when trying to reach a common ground with my significant other, I subscribed to the Columbia Record Club, accumulating a glut of movie music and lush orchestral crap like Mitch Miller and Jackie Gleason, which neither of us particularly liked. Gradually, I found that Welda’s and my tastes in music already shared some common ground and if I didn’t constantly play composers such as Bartok and Hindemith, we could coexist, musically.

American composers got my attention for a spell, Ernest Bloch, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Howard Hanson, Charles Ives, Walter Piston and David Diamond. These composers made me realize that not all music has to possess European genes to be significant. Prior to my discovery of this rich source of music, I thought that George Gershwin and Ferde Grofe and Edward MacDowell were all America had to offer. Samuel Barber changed all that. In more recent years, I included Philip Glass, John Cage, John Adams and Leonard Bernstein.

Radio in a large metropolitan area used to afford a wide choice of most kinds of music, but since the large broadcasting conglomerates came in and bought most of the stations, music of all genres has become very predictable and homogenized, with programming centrally planned based on advertising revenue. For many years, KJAZ in Alameda with its staff of knowledgeable D Js provided the best jazz fare on the West coast, if not the whole country. Sadly, it went belly up in the nineties. A public station at the College of San Mateo, KCSM, inherited a good part of the KJAZ library, but not the D Js.

Classical music, once being broadcast over two stations in the Bay Area has been reduced to one, which is owned by the Bonneville Corporation out of Utah which sets the monotonous tone of its daytime broadcasting. Everything that is played is so familiar to its audience that it has been reduced to background music. Its better fare is played at night when you want to watch TV.

This brings me to streaming audio sites on the internet. After scanning dozens of stations from major population centers over the globe, I found one that plays entertaining long hair music from my old alma mater, the U of A, KUAT in Tucson, of all places. As I write this, KUAT has played a variety of works that are usually below the radar by composers I've never heard of. There are many stations online I could go to, but this one is the most consistently interesting. I do miss the total immersion I experienced whenever a new record was played over and over until I had absorbed every note and nuance and committed it to memory. This youthful concentration, like practicing hoops in the back yard, is what helped found the body of music I call mine. While much more music is accessible to listen to, buy or download than at the beginning of my exposure, I find I don’t listen as critically as I did then. That’s part of life. All first time experiences tend to stay with you.

Rock and Roll

In the middle sixties, when our family was living in Berkeley, there was much happening, musically. The San Francisco sound was dominating the airwaves with such as Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimmi Hendrix, Country Joe and the Fish, Grateful Dead. The East Bay had its Sly and the Family Stone and the peninsula produced Santana.

This was not to say the British Invasion wasn’t a big part of the music scene and there were folk singers like Maria Muldaur, Joan Baez, Bud and Travis and Linda Ronstadt, who became an integral part of the scene drawing arena sized crowds, (well, maybe not Bud and Travis, but I had a personal acquaintance with them, Travis while in Tucson High and Bud when I was at Art Center School).

My friends at work really turned me on to the Beatles and it seemed like they were turning out a new album every few months. Drew and Todd were crazy about them, too. We were submerged in Beatlemania at our flat in Berkeley. I collected all their latest albums and we played them over and over. For some reason, I never was a collector of the Stones or many other groups. I didn’t feel the need because the music was everywhere, though I did get a few Joan Baez albums and a Jefferson Airplane album.

As the kids got older, I became more interested in what they were playing. Of course, they collected music themselves, but it was basically limited to the bands that were popular at the time. When we moved to Mountain View, on the peninsula, they got instruments and formed their own bands. Todd joined a band called “The Feds” which was a step up from garage band level and opened for some touring acts that played in local clubs.

My exposure to rock and roll was inevitable when Michele took up the drums. A natural at anything she took up, she started dating another drummer, Brian McLeod, a very talented drummer-percussionist who was member of Group 87. He introduced her to the leader, San Francisco composer, trumpeter and electronic music composer, Mark Isham. Mark had a recording contract with Windham Hill and had already produced a couple of albums and a tour was being planned to promote them. These were in the realm of ambient music, sort of free-form and allowed the musicians ample opportunity for improvisation-and they needed a percussionist. Michele tried out and got the gig. This was big, as it was a European tour, followed by a North American tour. One of the high points of the European tour was an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival where their performance was televised on French television.

Michele and Mark Isham’s group on a pre-world tour concert in Palo Alto’s old Varsity theater.

Mark Isham was a Windham Hill artist when Michele played percussion in the group on tour

We became great fans of Mark’s music, but Michele’s career with his new age group ended with the tour. But with Michele on her own, living in San Francisco, she and two friends started a girl group called “Three Color Sweet”. External and personal problems besieged the girls, threatening the band. Although the girls were quite close and supportive, the band began to show signs of breaking up just when recording their first album and then the husband of the lead vocalist put away his checkbook. Rock musician and guitarist extraordinaire, Ronnie Montrose was producing the album, but without funding was forced to call it quits, having accomplished only a demo tape. Ronnie was so impressed with Michele's playing that she became the drummer in his band.

Michele keeping the beat while Davey Pattison wails and Ronnie Montrose strutting his Strat at a concert in Santa Clara, CA.

I can’t say that his music really had a hold on me, although when I attended his gigs at various venues and watched Michele banging away on the drums, it was very eardrum abusive but exciting experience. Michele worked on album art for several CDs during the nineties and performed on the "Roll over Live" album.

Music has been an influence on me and on every member of the family. While the kids have taken their own musical paths, I have been affected by their interests and have absorbed much of them into my musical stew. As they have gone on their way, I have largely returned to my core musical interests, classical and jazz. I still like rock and could listen to the Beatles over and over. Hip-hop and rap annoy me, I'm afraid. This is due to the-thud, thud, thud-exposure one endures on a daily basis while out and about. For me it is anti-music. I can't make out the lyrics and presumably those are the most important part of the writing. It all reminds me of the mocking oratory of the black power movement when Angela Davis and Bobby Seale held forth during the sixties. Every word seems to have a dropping tone which loses effect after about three words. When stream-of-consiousness poetry was popularized by Alan Ginsberg, I could appreciate it. Rapping seems to be the unintended offspring gone terribly wrong. So much for my curmudgeonly tirade.

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