Thursday, March 31, 2005

Music to my ears

As anyone who's been in my office lately can attest, I like classical music--a lot. My parents didn't exactly listen to classical, they being more old time Country & Western/Big Band types themselves, but I got hooked when I had to take piano lessons. We had an old upright piano that had been purchased for my older brother to use, but when he went the trombone route the piano became mine, taking up a big part of my room until I left for college in 1973.

My piano teacher was Mrs. Lamont. She was pretty strict as a teacher; if I was practicing a study on her Steinway and hitting the wrong notes consistently, she'd jab at my fingers with a pencil and I'd leave the hour-long session with black dots all over my hands. Not much escaped her observation, however; she noticed that I was having problems seeing the music and told my mother that I needed glasses. She was right and I've had corrective lenses ever since.

I wasn't really that great a pianist, however much I tried. I did learn from the experience to love classical music, particularly anything with the piano from the Romantic period. Some pieces just really stuck with me. I watched the rather wretched movie "A Song to Remember" one night (it was Cornell Wilde in the role of Chopin and, as usual, the history was all wrong) and came away with Chopin's "Heroic Polonaise" melody in my head. I was humming it while portaging a canoe through a Canadian Provincial Park in 1972 with the Boy Scouts. I'd listen at night to WUSF (sometimes called Radio Free Tampa during the non-classical music hours) and to a station in Sarasota that played classical when I was driving to and from my job as a doorman at a movie theatre at the Gulf Gate Mall.

In college I'd go to the Music School Library and check out records (yes, good old vinyl!) to listen to while doing homework. I'd save what little money I had and bought classical records at something called the Co-op Bookstore, an experiment in Marxist collective purchasing back in the mid-'70s. There was a guy, a terminal stoner and nutcase, whom my roommate and I called "Happy Harry", who'd hang around the Bookstore, surrounded by silkscreened portraits of Stalin, Mao and other Marxist heroes. He'd sit in a ratty old chair, smoking a cigarette, laughing to himself and someone else we couldn't see without having a Third Eye; the last time I saw Harry, he had obviously bought a bunch of over-the-counter stuff at the college store and some little wisp of a girl was trying to talk him out of overdosing on Mydol and Pepto-Bismol. Later, Happy Harry was running over a hill with a campus cop on a Harley in full pursuit. I hope that Harry is somewhere on some modern pharmaceuticals, able to laugh with someone real.

CDs came into vogue after my wife and I got married, putting all my cassettes and records into the outdated-but-not-thrown-away-technology section of our home ("But honey, you just never know when we're going to get a turntable and an amplifier with vacuum tubes so we can listen to those scratchy Neil Diamond albums again!"). After being employed for a while I invested in a Sharp combination CD/Receiver/Amplifier/Cassette unit; it was nice for a time, but because the five-CD slots were on TOP of the unit, dust kept getting into the player and the CDs would skip like my old 45 rpm album of the "Teddy Bears' Picnic" I'd worn out as a kid. I've spent a lot of money over the years buying CDs and enjoy them greatly, but I can already see the writing on the wall--Blu-Ray DVDs, double-sided DVDs and the like will probably wipe out CDs in the near future. You'll be able to buy Chopin's entire output of music from his short life on one big, honkin' DVD. It'll sure save a lot of space.

We've got a subscription to an on-line music service now; it lets you call up a particular artist, piece of music or a specific album and listen to it. You can create your own "playlist" of music you like. Nice idea, but whenever I'm on it at my office, one of my daughters will log on at home and kick me off, so I don't even bother anymore unless I know they aren't home.

My latest craze is Louis-Moreau Gottschalk. He was an American composer/pianist who was most famous in the 1850s-1860s. Some professor wrote a biography of Gottschalk a few years ago called "Bamboola!", just about everything you ever wanted to know about the guy and more. Not a real scintillating read, but it wiped out a beach vacation for me this last summer. Gottschalk was a great pianist and a pretty good composer (he was compared to Chopin) but wasn't really good about writing down his compositions on the road. A South American friend helped him write out things and completed some of his notes after his death in Brazil shortly after the end of the Civil War. I buy Gottschalk CDs from time to time when they have something on there I haven't heard before.

I have probably driven more than a few of my secretaries and co-workers over the years batty with the music coming out of my office. The local public radio station and NPR's music hosts tend to play some stuff that even I cannot stand, so I keep a big supply of CDs with more acceptable stuff to play when the radio is blaring out something that would scare my cat out of its nine lives. It wouldn't surprise me if I'm looked at as the eccentric uncle of the office, the guy people compare to the little old lady down the street who had fifteen cats and whose house smelled like Ben-Gay. It's OK; I'm used to it.

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