Monday, February 29, 2016

The Big Stereo

On Saturday morning, my wife and I were talking about music. The boys were away on a school ski trip, so I figured I would fire up the "big stereo" in the living room. It has surround sound and a big, fat bass cabinet. 

After some Ravel, I thought I would give my own classical piano CD a listen on that system; I'd only listened in the car. How a CD sounds on various stereos is, in deed, partly a result of the composition, recording and mixing of the music, but it mostly has to do with the "mastering," which is done in a by a person who specializes in that step. Without it, any recording will sound unprofessional. 

I played a piano piece and then I wanted to try our the lone track with a full orchestration and a vocal. It's my arrangement of the traditional folk song, "Oh, Shenandoah." I loved the way it sounded; the basses (four pizzicato basses in the orchestral section and one jazz-style upright bass layered in for some more sustain) shook the neighborhood and my wife commented that she was blown away -- she'd never heard them like that before. 

She mentioned that because she hears me working on my music all of the time, upstairs, that she sometimes thinks she has really heard the pieces. This listening made her realize that she really hasn't -- not in their most powerfully sonic form. 

And there it is. How we see life depends on the "speakers" we "hear" it on, doesn't it? Dynamic range is everything. We may think we know a thing, but if we don't see it with all of its colors or hear it with its complete sonic qualities, our evaluations and decisions are, unavoidably, ill-informed. Our reactions may be the wrong ones; our impressions incomplete.

Some people, by nature, simply don't possess the proper equipment, either because of deficiency or circumstance. Others won't put the metaphoric CD into a different player and hear is on different speakers. Too much work. 

It can all lead to a lifetime of incomplete impact and half-fueled judgements. 

On a literal level, my musical intentions are made clear on the big stereo. I'm glad to have given Karen the full picture. Her excellent ear deserves the best sound. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Reaching High for Heroes

Loosely-related anecdote: I was watching the Kennedy Center honors performances in honor of Sting on You Tube the other day and Lady Gaga performed one of my favorite tunes from the man: "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You." The only way I can sum up her performance is to say that it was embarrassing. Talk about a performance with absolutely no sense of restraint or style. This was all capped with her ridiculous idea to keep screaming, all through the chorus, "It stings..." (oh, that's clever) while reaching so hard with her eyes and upper body toward Sting in the upper balcony that I thought she was going to fall into the tuxedoed laps in the front row. Deperate and chaotically loud is no way to go through life.

Be that as it may, Sting has always been one of my musical, lyrical and artistic role models since my teenaged years. (I think, i ntime, his lyrics, at least, will survive.) It all got me to thinking about the role models we pick and it got me wondering why some people reach high and some reach low for their role models.

In my case, I have always picked "great" people to look up to. My father was my biggest role model, but it can also be argued that he was an exceptional person, not just from my point of view as a son, but from an objective point of view. But we can leave parents out of the discussion...

...because, beyond my dad, it was always people who were the best at what they did that I looked up to. It was never coaches or teachers; it was always artists, poets, musicians of the highest caliber. As a kid, I had posters of both Ted Williams and Shakespeare on my wall (I still have a framed poster of the first folio frontispiece in my living room). The impetus was never to show off or to be pretentious, but to remind myself of how great a person can become at what he does; maybe there was a hope that I could climb three rungs on Shakespeare's ten-thousand rung ladder... However it is read by those on the outside, the sentiment was sincere.

My heroes have always been the standouts in world history.

I am curious as to how that happens; whether it was an accident; how I can encourage my kids to reach toward the greats and not toward the flavor of the day.

One thing I know is that to watch that Lady Gaga's performance of one of the most delicately balanced, lyrically compelling pop songs of all time; watching her turn it into a literal, three minute vomiting of desperate pleas for acceptance sure give us a good scale for separating the wheat from the chaff.

I hope my sons reach as high as I always did. (Which means higher than they are likely to reach.) That's all.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Wind for a Dead Calm: Ravel's "Adagio assai," from the Concerto in G

People make a lot of melodramatic statements about music; they will even be heard to say that a piece of music "saved their life..."

I can't go that far, as sappy and emotional as I am. My life has never been in danger that way; that way that implies a death of the soul that leads to the ultimate end...

But I have been a ship in a dead calm, sitting still in waters of various emotional hues: sadness, fear, depression, anxiety...

What is needed in those cases is a breath of wind. So, while I cannot claim this piece has ever "saved my life" I can say that, time and again, it has been that wind to push me out of the dead calm; the thing that showed me that there is more in life than death, taxes, conflict and the mundane clockworks of the daily routine; that hope is somewhere, even when it seems to be hiding from us...

Ravel's "Adagio assai" movement from his Piano Concerto in G, has been that piece for me, for more than twenty thirty years. It's always there when I need it, and I have needed it lately.

Here it is, in case you need some fresh air, too:

Monday, February 22, 2016

Of Marriage and Broken Beams

Good relationships can take some damage; this applies to friendships and romantic relationships as well. And it certainly can (and must) apply to marriages.

I see deep, time-grown relationships like this:

This bridge is made entirely of wooden beams, many of them redundant. If one cracks or rots, the structure will say intact. In fact, the functionality of the bridge will most likely not suffer at all. (I'm no engineer, but stick with my metaphoric physics, if you will.) And if, especially back when a bridge like this was built, the beam was unreachable, things would have to just go on as they were -- which they could safely do.

Too many relationships fail because of an event or a statement. Or even an action, Sure, one can simply set fire to the bridge (a spouse commits infidelity or becomes abusive, for instance) and it can all burn down. But disappointments -- even very big ones -- in the actions or words of our friend or lover or spouse, while they may permanently break one or two of the beams, need not necessarily compromise the whole structure.

I think it is okay to have unmendable breaks in a relationship. Just because there is something within that can never be fixed, it doesn't mean that the numerous other good components can't take the stress until death do we part. And it doesn't mean we can't walk life's walk happily, together.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Forgotten Offensiveness

You know what increasingly angers me? People who post disturbing images on social media. I find it funny that we're so worried about “offending” people with our opinions, but that we have no concern whatever about offending their sensibilities.

I just saw a picture (calling for the old like=prayer thing) of a small, naked child lying in its own blood as a result of some problem he or she has – it looked like a hideous skin condition, his skin thick and red as a hard candy.  It actually made me a little nauseous, just at a glance, and I had to scroll away from it.

At other times, people have posted articles about medical marvels and issues, accompanied by pictures of innards and organs laid bare in a stainless steel tray.

What’s the problem? Does no one get disgusted by graphic gore anymore? Or is it that people need to be shocked in order to care? Maybe it is a combination of both, but whatever it is, it seems to me to amount to a decline in the ascent of man to a higher form. We should be able to care about the stench of human suffering without having to have our noses shoved in it. We should be interested in the wonders of modern science, conceptually, without having to be elbow deep in dissection gore. (Thank goodness some people are able to be elbow-deep in dissection gore, or we would have no advances – but that is not the average person.)

Every night, I offer a prayer for the suffering, especially children. Seeing a scene of the graphic suffering of a child is not going to change me, except to disturb me. It might motivate me to weep, but nothing changes: I still care about children and I still want to help, whether with prayer or charity.
You know what? It is okay for us to avoid discomfort in the face of suffering, so long as we are doing the right things to alleviate that suffering. I don’t need someone, either purposefully or in total disregard for my sensibilities, to determine what I should be tricked into seeing. 

And, so, the waters of the social media age flood in, through the cracks in the fortress of privacy.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Childhood that Feels Like Home

I try to give my sons the most complete picture of the human experience I possibly can. Often, I try to give them a sense of how the world has changed since I was a kid -- not so much in terms of "how much better" it was back then (it wasn't) but simply in terms of how simply different it was. I think it might be impossible for them to fully understand having known only what they know, the same way it was impossible for me to fully understand my parents' youthful years.

Recently, I posted this meme (I rarely post memes) on Facebook: 

My comment was this:

Yeah. I am. I just am. No judgement or curmudgeonly argument about how much better things were. No "golden age thinking." I really just am grateful for it.

As with many topics I address, this is not about saying what should be or to point out how horrible things are now. (They really are not horrible and I'll bet my kids look back fondly on their childhood days, some day...) It's just that I am what I said I am: grateful. 

I am grateful I had to wait for an entire year to see The Wizard of Oz on TV. I'm glad I had to be in front of that TV at a certain time on a certain night to see the Charlie Brown Christmas special, each year. I am glad I had to buy a record album and that, since it was one of the few I could afford, I listened to it until I had squeezed every drop of juice out of it while I saved for another. 

I am glad that, on Saturday mornings, I had to sit and wait until ten o'clock (for some reason, I had decided that was a good, polite time to calla house phone) to call a friend to play (I still remember my good friend George's number, even though I haven't seen him in decades) and I am glad I had to do it on a rotary phone in the kitchen and that I could not be contacted twenty-four hours a day on a cell phone. And I am glad that I met George at the baseball field on summer days and that we just waited for people to show up for a game; I'm glad that sometimes not enough people showed up and that, if "closing right field" was not enough, we wound up making forts in the woods instead, gloves left on the pitcher's mound, unmolested until it was dark and time to go home. 

I'm glad that when a teacher talked of China or of Ancient Egypt in class that the images she showed us in a filmstrip were not something we had already seen on our phones after a millisecond search; I'm glad our eyes went wide as we learned of places and cultures too far to see and too expensive to visit. 

I'm not glad that discrimination of those in the minority (socially or ethnically) was far more prevalent, but I am glad that my young mind could explore wonders and dreams instead of having been constantly bombarded by arguments over the rapidly shifting parameters and mores of social boundaries. Yes, protests happened and marches occurred and debates turned ugly, but I saw them in a two minute news spot; I wasn't standing always in the middle of them like a tree being choked with ivy. 

I am glad that girls were mysterious to me and that a kiss was a big deal. I'm happy that "waiting until marriage," although it didn't apply to most people, hadn't yet become a punchline. 

Most of all, I am glad I had time -- time to do nothing but lie in the grass or to draw pictures or to see what happened when I hit combinations of notes on the piano. I'm glad no one scheduled me into constant activity and that my parents did not have all-day electronic access to my grades and that they were only slightly involved in my school activities. 

Overall, I am glad that my past is a memory, dotted only with a few films and a few wrinkled photos and that it lives, more vividly, in stories told by voices that were there. 

There was quiet of the mind and of the ears. There was "boredom" and there was space.

There are many great things, now, but I am glad those great things were not there when I was a boy and when I was a young man. 

I am grateful for these things and no one can "argue" that away from me. It's not a prescription for everyone else; it's how I feel and what I prefer. It is good to have a childhood that feels like home. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The World a Stage; Our Kids the Clowns?

Boy, do we put pressure on our kids. We do it in a million ways, in terms of serious stuff, but we also do it "for fun." I just saw a video of numerous people announcing to thier kids that the mother was pregnant again. The results were kids getting upset -- crying, slamming things down, etc. Ha. Ha.

Why do we feel the need to come up with clever ways to do everything? Why do we "announce" things to our kids and record them on video? Why, most importantly, do we put our kids in the position of feeling pressured to act a certain way, under the scrutiny of a camera and/or of a huge group of family? Why are we surprised when this "overloads" them? More frighteningly, why are we amused by it?

And I don't see it as cute or funny. I never have seen embarrassing kids or putting them in an unfair position as entertaining. Not once did I ever laugh at my sons when a crowd of loving relatives thought it was appropriate to break in to hysterics when one of them said something "cute" in complete seriousness.

Everything is a show. Everything from asking a girl to the prom to "graduating" fifth grade has become an event of grandiose proportions. It's stupid.

I don't even remember how we told our older son that he was going to have a brother or sister. That's cool with me.

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Footprint in Time

Last week, we attended the "Night of the Arts" program at my sons' school. My boys are in the choir
and in the band and their performances, under the new music teacher, who is excellent, were outstanding. At the end of the night, though, a slight problem: the handle on my son's trumpet case had broken.

Let me tell you about the case, and the trumpet it contains. When I was in middle school, my father, who made his living as an arranger and a trumpet player, decided to buy himself a new horn. He went with a Bach Stradivarius "'73 Lightweight." It was an very expensive instrument; today, to give you an idea, the trumpet lists for around $4,000 to $5000.

My dad played it for awhile, but decided, in the end, that he liked his Yamaha horn better and he went back to that one. So, when it came time for me to start playing trumpet in the school band, he handed me the Stradivarius and said, "Just be careful with it." I have to say, deserving of it or not, I played it for quite a few years, and not a dent.

My son received the treasured (and expensive) family heirloom with the same instructions, and he is also doing well with it.

When the case handles broke, I went to look online for a replacement case. The case my father had (a Bach case), in an updated form, costs $300, so I decided to simply look for replacement handles. I found them and ordered them, so, problem solved.

Before I ordered, though, I wanted to measure the broken handle. For this, I needed to take it off of the case. As I unbuckled the ends, I had to pause. That handle had also been a replacement for the original one. It struck me pretty hard: the last pair of hands to buckle that handle onto the case had been my dad's.

He's gone now, but, that small thing he did remained done until that moment. A moment, from the past, overlooked and, in the grand scheme, unimportant was preserved. That moment in which he simply fixed that case was preserved as long as that handle remained buckled. A silly thing, isn't it? But it always seems to be those things are the most profound evidence of a person's existence -- things from the everyday that endure like footprints in time.

It feels a little like I brushed my dad's hand when I took that handle off -- like we touched each other, if only in the most brief and ethereal way.