Tuesday, October 21, 2014

   I live with a family whose members are dedicated to music. My daughter, Ellie, has for a long time been principal clarinet of Mexico City’s Sinfonica Nacional and her husband, Miguel, is principal oboe of the Querétaro Filarmonica and commutes. Max, the older grandchild—now a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design—was a constant musical presence practicing his guitar and rehearsing pieces he had composed for his small band. Eva, my 17-year old granddaughter, is a violinist, getting ever more competent, though a career as a violinist is not her ambition. Given this brief background, you are not likely to be surprised at the “revelations” to be made in the comments to follow.
   Most of us who care about music think of those who devote their lives to that trade as playing their instruments, alone or in ensembles, for audiences of listeners, many of whom, one hopes, are genuine music lovers. Not so, not at all so. While musical sounds are an almost constant presence in the house, they are not sounds designed to be listened to by some attentive audience. First there is the huge amount of time that is devoted to practicing, an activity that divides into two categories. The first consists of studies—exercises is probably a more accurate label—designed to have the player maintain or improve technical skills of a great variety pertaining to the musician’s instrument.  An oboist, in addition, has the craftsmanly job of making reeds, an activity that has the listener hear brief bursts of experimental sounding followed by longer silences while a knife scrapes the bamboo, refining the shape of the reed. Miguel told me that an oboe guru declared flatly that working on reeds will take up half of his practice time.
   Part Two of the practicing department consists of working through and polishing music that is about to be played as orchestra member, as chamber musician, or as soloist. This is where I recognize much of what I hear, though I don’t tend to focus on the repetitions that lead to the desired perfection. Pleasant background that has come not to distract me from what I am up to at my desk.
   That’s even more true for the playing of students who come to be taught in the house. Both advanced clarinet and oboe students come here for lessons of an hour and often longer. 
They, too, are put through their exercise paces, but, more interestingly, they are guided in the playing of orchestral excerpts and concerto movements, so that tunes of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and other greats waft through the house. The lessons take place downstairs while I am usually at my desk upstairs. But I hear them, mostly without really listening; musical sounds at a distance: pleasant but not obtrusive.
  Then there are real rehearsals—almost mini-concerts because by the time a group of musicians get to this point there is very little starting and stopping. Twice within the last ten days a relatively large group rehearsed here for a festival in Baja California: a string quartet plus double bass, Ellie and her clarinet and at the piano, gently in charge, Józef. Aside from the fact that he can play anything written for piano, Józef is an expert arranger and is so well connected to the world of music here that I was not surprised that he is responsible for that Baja gig.
   What the bunch played was mostly very familiar, starting with the overture to the Marriage of Figaro, but what made it real fun to listen to was the clarity achieved by the reduced instrumentation. (And I listened downstairs, discretely out of the way.)  There were a couple of baroque movements, some Haydn movements, more Mozart, including some of the variations of Ah vous dirai-je Maman—that is, Twinkle twinkle little star. The piano did not contribute to every selection and neither did the clarinet. But Ellie did play the slow movement of the clarinet quintet that helped put that instrument on the map—namely Mozart’s. She is terrific and can make that instrument sing. You can find out yourself by getting her latest recording of three 21st Century Lyrical Clarinet Concertos by clicking here:


Monday, October 13, 2014

Induced Schizophrenia – Mild

   On September 19 I posted a piece I called “Book to Come,” written just after I had decided to convert into a book the newly discovered letters I wrote during my year in the US Navy, from July 1945 to July 1946. I had then read only very few of the letters—just enough of them to persuade me that it would be worthwhile to pursue that project. I’ve now read many more, though far from all of them. Rather than do explanatory footnotes, as I say in that September post, I’ve joined my helper in transcribing those letters—handwritten and mostly on 6” x 9” Navy stationery—to get them into my computer. It’s a big job: 148 of them, the majority consisting of multiple pages, covered with prose on both sides of the page.
   It’s also an interesting job, as well as a bit scary. First: interesting (at least to me). There is a considerable range of topics. The main one, of course, is what’s going on in my life—in boot camp and beyond, but especially, from January 1946 on, aboard the LST 919, with its missions in the China Sea until decommissioning in the Puget Sound. My main duty was in the wheelhouse; I ended my Naval career as Quartermaster Third Class—that’s the specialty that wears a steering wheel on the sleeve. (What the army calls Quartermaster is called Storekeeper in the Navy—or at least that was the terminology seventy years ago.) What pertains to those letters is that the QM is somebody in the know—relatively speaking—being the recipient of information, in regular contact with officers, including with our alcoholic captain.
   Then there is the topic of liberty, off-duty activities in many different places, some more exotic than others. First Milwaukee and Chicago, then San Francisco (if not exotic, certainly new to me); overseas: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chinwangtao, Taku, and Tientsin; then Pearl Harbor and Honolulu, San Diego with a side trip to Tijuana, and finally Seattle. Besides talk about USOs and meals and sightseeing, my interest in music is a constant theme—from a brief conversation with Bruno Walter after a Lyric Opera performance of Parsifal to listening in Seattle to a budding concert pianist practicing for her next recital.
   Then there is a running preoccupation with my trying to apply to colleges from far away. Much ink spilled on that subject—in vain. I wound up going to Columbia who announced (after my return to New York) that they would admit 200 veterans in February, sparing me a full year’s waiting.
   While most of my letters were for my parents, quite a few of them include paragraphs or even pages addressed to my brother, Hans Martin—always called “Junior” in this correspondence—much of it concerned with his college applications.
   Of course a fair bit of space is devoted to answering questions asked by my parents; they appeared to write often. I say “appeared,” because I did not keep their letters, as my father kept mine. It is particularly when I turn to respond to them that I move into German—the language in which they wrote to me. One two-way topic was my mother’s hostility to girlfriends; nothing personal: any girlfriend.
   Finally—at least in this very incomplete survey of topics—I offer sporadic but not trivial advice to my father, concerning his business. That took nerve—though there is no sign of that in the letters—I was just out of high school and Brooklyn Tech’s Mechanical Course taught absolutely nothing about business.
   Now to the scary aspect. Sometimes when I read a letter or a portion of one, I think of myself writing it—way back then. More often than not, however, I read what after all I wrote and think of the writer as someone else and not at all as me—if way back then. A good part of this schizophrenic phenomenon stems from my lousy memory. While it has of course gotten worse with age, it was never any good. When Fannia (my late wife) and I had Northwestern faculty receptions in our house, to give a single example, she would greet both faculty member and spouse by name, while I had to use all kinds of gambits to get the faculty member to reveal his or her name; forget about the spouse. So, as I read those letters, I will remember some scenes and incidents, but many not at all. I cannot conjure up images of people that I mention, including those with whom I seem to have spent a fair bit of time. About certain events my brain records a single snapshot, but no ongoing activity. And I certainly don’t remember ever calling my brother “Junior” nor giving my father advice about his business.

   I read these letters from the Navy cold. Unlike Proust, I did not benefit from a taste of madeleine before setting out á la recherche du temps perdu, so that only a part of that lost time comes back, while another part of that past appears not as mine, but as that of some unknown other. A case of unsettling but harmless schizophrenia.