nthposition online magazine

Bad art


[ opinion - january 08 ]

there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.
- Robert Frost


I Segovia

Andreas Segovia played the classical guitar better than anyone. In fact, he rescued the guitar from oblivion as a serious instrument for the making of lone music, for playing solo, as on the piano. The guitar had become merely an accompaniment to singing, as in the manner of, say, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Any fool can strum a guitar, but finger picking is hard to do.

Imagine a concert hall, the devotees are hushed, respectful. The master approaches his chair center down stage, carrying his precious guitar. He is a Buddha dressed in black. He sits, placing his left foot on a low stool, balancing the guitar on his left knee. He touches the strings ever so lightly, listening to the overtones to verify the tuning. He waits. Quiet. He begins to play a little study by Fernando Sor. He stops playing suddenly, and looks out at the audience. One person out of the hundreds present had spoken after he had begun playing. Only he heard the voice of the irreverent one.

He begins again.

Reverence for music, the highest of the arts, is lost in the reversion to its primitive roots in story telling, dancing, and drumming. Rap and hip-hop 'music' is merely elaboration of the old jungle drums with social commentary, a crude art form not different from country music and the bardic folk-song-story of Woody Guthrie. Popular music too is slightly novel yet repetitious trivia out of which melody may emerge, as it does from all forms of music, however debased and common they may be.

Yet I do not wish to be plugged into the grid, for electric power is the work of the Devil, bringing absolute moral and spiritual dependence on the modern world. And the modern electric world is Hell. We become dependent on alternating current, like oxygen. I am an Old-Order Amishman as far as music is concerned.

While we are sitting with friends on a dock on an Adirondack lake, just before supper, a chicken in the oven, sipping toasts to the setting sun, suddenly the lights around the lake go out. Alarmed, afraid of fear, that is, terrified, I go up the path through the woods to the car and listen to the news: there is no electricity from Toronto to Cleveland to New York City, and the outage is spreading. People are stuck in elevators. Traffic signals do not work. Chaos. Fire. Armageddon. Al-Qa'ida? We split, and drive like hell out of the mountains, hoping at least to die at home.

False alarm, someone was asleep at the switch. The trains did not collide.

Electric music has a Wal-Mart charm, like Satan's beguiling smile. It is beckoning and full, callous, cheap, and repetitious to the vanishing point. Reproduced music, as on a player piano or a Compact Disk of High Definition Digitally broadcast on Frequency Modulated radio is forgettable too after the first hearing. When I have watched, seen, and heard, the same recorded Boston Pops concert on Public TV a few times I want to retreat to a haven where any natural sound is true music - the bark of a dog, the wind, a crow sounding off across the valley, a cough.

In the days before the invention of that monstrous artifact, the electric guitar, the dynamite of the art world, Les Paul and Leo Fender's inadvertent curse on music like Alfred Nobel's explosive mixture of sawdust and nitroglycerine, we had a garage band without a single electric cord or plug. Music was novelty to us then, created afresh at every performance. There were no tapes, compact discs, televisions, or compressed audio devices, except poor-quality wire recorders and homemade vinyl disks hardly better than Edison's wax cylinders. We were free.

However, it is not the accuracy of reproduction that makes canned music a poor relative of live music. It is the lack of immediacy. What lies between the maker and the listener, the ambiance of the situation, is more important than the music. Music is fellowship and sharing, dancing together to the beat of our hearts. For example, the Woodstock Festival in 1969 was a revival of community spirit as important in American history as the Cane Ridge, Kentucky, evangelical revival of 1801, which set off the American Religion in the heart of the New World.

Woodstock was a revival of hope and love, and the celebration of faith in each other. Every live performance of music before an audience is a religious service too.

A live performance entails the same behavior by the audience as the command, 'Let us pray.' A live performance means for you to pay attention to this and to nothing else that may be roaring inside your head. It commands you to stop being yourself, to join the innumerable caravan, to be a part of, if perhaps only half of, mankind at that moment, if you are the only listener.


II Glenn Gould

The pianist Glenn Gould liked to pretend there was no audience at his live performances. He asked them not to make a sound, not to applaud, in order to pretend they were not there together. Eventually he stopped performing in public, only recording his performances in a studio, as if the physical music was all that mattered. Posterity and his fans would have to analyze and dissect and thereby kill his music. By 'his music' I mean, of course, the music he made, not the music he composed. So one could say, and I have heard this comment, that his earlier Goldberg Variations are superior to his later ones. In what sense are they better? In an analytical, abstract sense gained from listening to two recordings of the same composition until a comparison is formed in the mind of the listener based on criteria similar to the thrills of live performance. But it is not the same, even though Gould's recordings come closer to the experience of live performance than any others, not because of technical superiority, but because Glenn Gould could not stop humming while he played. He was so transported to that other realm of sensory delight I am writing about that he loudly hummed while he was playing, not the melody but the signals of some analog circuit his mind was feeding his fingers.


III School music

The musicians of our high school band entered the State Music Competition in 1952. I won a first pize in the State Solo Competition, accompanied by Joseph Flummerfelt's mother on the piano, playing on the B-Flat Cornet 'Petite Pièce Concertante' by Guillaume Balay, so I was feeling pretty good about our musical prowess. I would wear that medal to a tuition scholarship at Indiana State Teachers College to study school music. We also had a brass choir, with Maynard 'Fuzzy' Kopf on the tuba, playing Wagner's Prelude to the First Act of Parsifal. As first chair I was the leader, and Fuzzy seemed unable to wait the two beats between phrases. Wagner stuck these unnatural pauses in the Prelude no doubt to heighten the drama of the fanfare. But Fuzzy would come in one beat too soon. So I got in the habit of counting under my breath, sotto voce as it were, with eye contact to tell him when to blow. When we finished what I thought was a perfect rendition of the Prelude, the judge disqualified us because of my whispered counting to Fuzzy during the performance. We won not a first, second, or third, but nothing.

A recording engineer could have removed my mutterings from a record of our stellar playing, our magnificent reproduction of Richard Wagner's mind, because my whispers came during the caesuras, the stops. In Glenn Gould's recordings of his masterful pianism, the listener continuously hears his voice humming away, communing with himself in a mysterious, edgeless moan. It is part of the charm of his music.


IV Jackie Vaught

In those pre-electric days we had a dance band that played in all the venues of the era, that is, we played for high school convocations, dances, Saturday nights at the social clubs, the Moose, Eagles, Kiwanis, sweet sixteen parties, weddings, and once even after a funeral when Johnny Baldwin hit the back of a truck on his motorbike.

Jimmy Camp played the alto sax, and I played cornet, while Joseph Flummerfelt did piano, and Jackie Vaught, the leader of the band, played drums. Jackie's dad Johnny booked all our gigs, and drove us and Jackie's drums around in his big Buick. Once in a while he hired a bass player, but that was always an adult, like Bayard Thayer, who had his own car and bass fiddle.

Johnny was a hairdresser who made more money from The Jackie Vaught Band than from spraying the hair at Jack Fischer's Salon. When the Gene Krupa Band came to play at the Old Moon Theater in Vincennes, Mr Krupa had heard about Jackie's drumming show, and so he had Jackie and his dad go along on tour one summer. The last I heard of Jackie, he and his band were entertaining the troops in Vietnam. I saw him on the TV news. Joseph Flummerfelt is now director of the New York Gay Men's Chorus. You see them from time to time on TV. Jimmy Camp's mom, who had one leg, was a piano player down at Boogie Pommel's Saloon on Second Street. Last I heard of Jimmy, he was playing with his band in a bar in Evansville.


V George Schwarz

Even to my numb ears when I was a boy George Schwarz and his Concertina on WAOV Vincennes, 1450 on your dial, was unbearable. George's relatives and friends were sure that the world deserved to hear George's playing. They always had him play at gatherings in those old pre-electric days when every single person had a party piece that he had to perform on demand. Some told new or old jokes, others stories. Her mother would insist that Susie play her violin, and we had to listen politely to all outward appearances while our thought were on getting Cousin Susie out in the barn. We all sang more or less well. But the gift without the giver is bare, as Emerson said, and George's repertoire of chords did not necessarily match the melodies of the fingers of his right hand. George even had a sponsor, Meadow Gold Milk. He worked at the dairy.


VI The piano player

"I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death, and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was,"Oscar Wilde wrote, about his visit to Leadville, Colorado.

It was in Leadville that Wilde saw the sign, 'Please do not shoot the piano player. He's doing the best he can.' It was in Bangkok that I wanted to shoot the piano player.

We had traveled to Bangkok decades ago in the days when people actually traveled by air while maintaining the old drawing- room rules of travel by ship. The ships' stewards greeted us, who were dressed as if for Sunday Service, personally before each flight. The stewardesses called us by our titles as they ushered us aboard without prodding. We were greeted on arrival, not turned loose. We took our time, flying from Ann Arbor to Paris, then to Barcelona where we stayed at a hotel on the beach at Sitges, then to Athens and Heraklion, where we watched the sun set over Mount Ida. On to Tehran to climb the El Burz Mountains on the backs of donkeys, and then we went to Siam where our new home awaited.

The Rockefeller Foundation put us up in the fanciest hotel, the Erawan, a retro-fitted, mouldy, air-conditioned mausoleum, whose shrine with its statue of the Hindu elephant god Airavata attracted hundreds of seekers daily. The Erawan had once been a stately colonial palace, whose central garden was converted to a swimming pool. We took our meals beside the pool on the terrace, the six of us, my wife and I with our four little boys, gasping in the relatively fresh air outdoors in Bangkok under umbrellas at café tables. The dining room at the Erawan was a funeral parlor we avoided after our first dinner in Siam, for the boys a British-inspired collation of fried fish and cornflakes. Surrounded with cut flowers, gasping for breath, we all came down with Bangkok Belly, la turista à la siamoise. Then every meal was rice and chicken soup on the terrace where waiters in white coats saw to our desires while a small man in a black tuxedo suit played popular and standard songs by ear at the piano, an out-of-tune baby grand gasping for breath like us in the steamy air.

In the novelty of being waited on hand and foot at poolside, we paid no attention to the piano music, but then when conversation lagged we heard the Stones' 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction' attempted with only two chords. You must admit that the Dominant is a fine chord, an essential chord in any key, one of my favorites too. However, like a duck in a swimming pool, in the Four Chord's place it is off putting. In fact, it is unbearable.

In my discomfort, I summoned the headwaiter. I told him that we were very appreciative of the elegance of the service and the attention to detail on the part of his devoted staff, but the piano music was so terrible that we would rather not have to listen to it while we were having our lunch. "Please tell him to stop playing."

The headwaiter went to the piano player and spoke earnestly into his right ear for several moments. Then he returned to me and said, "Chen say thank you very much."