Sunday, February 24, 2008

Why I spend most of my disposable income on music.

Twice recently, I have, through music, found myself facing a confrontation between a younger me and the present me.

The first happened at a recent performance here by the National Symphony Orchestra, who were just completing a residency in South Carolina, which included concerts here and in several other cities in the Upstate. Among other pieces on their program was Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Had you been there for my childhood, you would know that this was a piece I loved, listening to it over and over again, studying descriptions of the paintings on which it was based, learning to place many parts of the original piano score, incorporating parts of it into the "soundtrack" for a slideshow, about Lucien Stryk's poem "Crow," that I made as a school project in middle school. My favorites were always the big bossy parts and the minor-key spooky parts--the little gnome, the big peasant cart, the section about Baba Yaga. My family had an LP recording of the orchestral version and at some point I bought an LP of the piano version.

(Apparently I was less interested in Mussorgsky by the time I was buying CDs, because I realized after the concert that I had neither version.)

As far as I can recall, this was the first time I have ever watched a performance of this piece, and I have little training in orchestral music. The result was that I knew what the piece was supposed to sound like, but I had not ever considered what instruments were making those sounds, which left me wholly unprepared for the giant bell during the Great Gates at Kiev--which the percussionist had to climb a stepladder to even reach.

More than anything, though, I was unprepared for the emotional encounter I would have with the piece, because there, sitting next to me in the balcony, or perhaps in my lap, was a much younger me, whose enthusiasm for this over the top intensity had not been tempered by years of sarcasm and irony. Instead, this person still delighted in the music--still remembering the progressions of the piece just before they happened, reveling in the wobbly rhythms of the ballet of the little unhatched chicks, feeling chills in her scalp when the percussion section went to work in final section.

When I was in high school, I fell in love with Shostakovich's 5th Sympony, and especially its enormous final movement. Or maybe just as much, with the anticipation in the third movement of what is to come in that final movement. So much of music is about time passing and time to come, and for music that you know well, the pleasure of anticipation is as powerful as the pleasure of the sounds themselves. In a symphonic performance, this anticipation can be even greater, as you watch the middle strings ready their bows, or the tuba player place the world's biggest mute in the bell of his horn, or you watch a percussionist raise the big clapper.

But I digress from my digression: One time during my first year of college I was riding with a classmate to an off-campus gathering. His car was convertible, it was a beautiful day, and he was blasting Shostakovich from his super-duper stereo. "I absolutely love this piece!" I said, thinking to myself how different college was from high school and how here there were people who thought like me. "I know," he said, "It is such magnificent kitsch!"

I was crest-fallen. I knew what kitsch was from reading the novels of Milan Kundera, who associated kitsch with everything that was aesthetically, intellectually, and ethically wrong with Soviet Russia. How could something that I loved so much, that I took so seriously, be kitsch?

The person who sat in my lap during the NSO concert had never heard of kitsch, and if this piece was on the program because it was so well known as to be unoffensive, well, that had never occurred to her either. And what an unadulterated thrill it was to hear that music through her ears!

The second such confrontation happened last night, when I went to see U2 3D. Had you lived in my house when I was in high school, you would remember that numerous large photographs of the members of this band adorned my walls, that I had all their albums (well, technically, their tapes...), and that, well, maybe I will not today confess to my fierce crush on Bono. That was about 20 years ago (oy), but did you know that even after 20 years' time, those feelings do not go away either?

Rock music is unbelievable that way, because there I was in the Hollywood 20 last night, wearing my 3D-glasses, reduced to the powerful feelings of a teenager. But not exactly: because I was still partly my present self, but also that earlier self, as I imagined myself in what seemed to be the world's largest soccer arena, watching this band that can still kick some serious ass with all the power that they did back in the day. Granted, Bono wasn't talking about the Troubles directly (and I wonder if most of the folks in the crowd in Buenos Aires, like my students, have no memory of that), or about Apartheid, but the songs were still there, now applicable to other horrors, and he still performs an unabashed disgust at these recent incarnations. The Edge and Adam Clayton and the only drummer I can think of who uses the appelation ", Jr." as a part of his name were still unbelievably excellent to watch. It took me back to the Hampton Coliseum and the Joshua Tree tour, when I was having my eardrums blasted away and straining to get as close to a band as a person could from the upper ring of seating. It reminded me of playing Rattle and Hum over and over and over, listening to a tape of it in the car with a friend who could never get the lyrics to "Desire" right. And of listening to "Hallelujah, Here She Comes" on my walkman as I walked to the music building in college.

So today I went out and bought a new CD recording of Pictures at an Exhibition, and the remastered Joshua Tree, and Zooropa, all of which I used to have, in some non-digital format. I am thrilled to hear them again, even though I know that in playing them again and again now, I am inadvertently exorcising the spirits that inhabit them.


Scott said...

I started thinking about writing about my thoughts on Ravel and how inwardly surprised I was when I heard his version of Mussorgsky's famous work. I was absolutely enthralled by it. But this is your blog, not mine. A very enjoyable post to read and one which brought back many wonderful memories of my own.

Isis said...

I'd love to read your thoughts about this version of this piece.

mateen said...

Well, Isis, baby, I still--and probably always will--delight in watching the members do all sorts of off-camera things while a piece is under way. I wish I could _remember_ them all the next time I play the CD.

Scott said...

Unfortunately I don't even have the time to write all the posts I'd like to on my own blog. But sometime when things slow down ...

Anonymous said...

Do you remember going to the Gaines Theater to hear the piece played on two pianos? That was the first for all of us.

We went out for Chinese before hand. Our first visit to Ming Gate.

Ah, memory.


Isis said...

Dear Anonymous, aka Funes the Memorious:

I do not remember that at all.

At all.

MartyTheFool said...


Very eclectic tastes in music. I must confess to having only a rudimentary understanding of the complexities of Orchestra music.

I do however know the power of LIVE vs listening to a recording. The 'live' swells of the instruments vibrates through you, in a way a a recording can't. And yes, it is enlightening to see which instruments create which sounds. You aren't listening in mono or stereo, the sounds emanate from all over the stage.

I like your description of the 'other' you along for the ride.

As for Bono and the U2 cats, a nice juxtaposition.

As for interweaving your memories in there too: Nicely done.


Tony said...

Hey lady, are you my long-lost separated-at-birth-twin sister? Sometimes I wonder when I read your blog.

Good taste in music there with the U2 stuff. Also is the Pictures CD the orchestral version or the ELP version?