Archive for March, 2007

Music in the night and how it’s done

Further in this vein – was listening to Iris Dement singing along with her mother on the old standard “Higher Ground” last night. It brought back memories of my childhood: The Assembly of God where my grandmother and aunt attended – it seemed almost every day, for there was a revival or some kind of meeting going on there all the time. There was an inclusiveness and allowance for adaptation about the music there – anyone could do just about anything; bend the notes this way and that, plunk and slap on an old bass fiddle. My aunt played the piano like a barroom piano player would, with elaborate runs, arpeggios and rhythmic thumps, while the congregation wailed, swooped or shouted the songs anyway the spirit moved them.

Later, when I got into school and became fascinated with science, spending all my time reading biology, astronomy, electronics and physics books, I learned that there are rules about how things work and everything is not this loosey-goosey mess. And when I got into band, playing music, the rules there applied as well. You saw a dot on a piece of paper, it had a time value and a pitch value and you pressed this key or a combination of keys and it played that note. And in band and later in choir, we were taught a rather proper (snobbish, I might say now) way of looking at “authentic” music. The note swooping was out and was country or unsophisticated. We had to be right on pitch. Tempo was king – no deviation allowed. We (some of us anyway) became slaves to the sheet of music and the ink. We learned that we could not play anything unless it was written down. And guess what? I can’t.

Of course, this all runs counter to the whole root of music, which had its beginnings in experimentation, spontaneity and celebration.

Then I find myself listening in the same night to Mahler’s 4th symphony and luxuriating in it. He – and other great composers — were masters of control and of the sheet music, and yet, there is the improvisation that they were making in the music. The players weren’t allowed much, but like many of these composers he certainly shook up the musical world – sometimes scandalously so.
Where does that leave me now? Still wondering – about a lot.

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Spelling bee

A week or so ago, I found myself in a discussion with a couple of elementary school teachers and my wife — also a teacher — and of course, they were doing teacher talk, which is obviously unavoidable and uncontrollable – and, they are always quick to add — important.

One was talking about how there is such a focus on spelling in some teachers’ classes, and how unimportant he found it to be. Somehow I admitted to being a good speller and then started to wonder if the whole literalist mentality I have is related somehow to the focus on this type of thing when I was growing up. I started to express some rather incoherent thoughts on this, but then the other couple got distracted by my wife’s smile as I started to “confess” and the moment was lost.

But I do wonder if I was “doomed” to be a literalist because of such things. Spelling was fun to me and I did it and still do it well. But was it all just a waste of time, turning me into a spelling machine? Is this part and parcel of growing up in the boring, uptight fifties, steeped in a fundamentalist religious life and being so squeaky clean? Is that why I can’t play by ear?

And how does one change that? Must one abandon all the order and just let life roll on and not take thought to finances, household and day-to-day life matters? How can one re-learn that?

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