Sunday, November 14, 2004

Back Issue 5 (10.15.2004)

Some very selective and incomplete thoughts about me and music
by Mel Schroeder

Music is so many things to me that I will settle here for two ends of a very large scale. On the upper end I put music that is so powerful that it is mysterious, and beyond complete explanation. Such music seems fitting for a statement from somewhere in Shakespeare: a character in one of the Bard's plays expresses his wonderment that "sheeps' guts" should have the power to lift men's souls out of their bodies. There is a line from Plato to the effect that music finds its way into the secret places of the soul. (I did not read that in the works of Plato: it is used in connection with a picture in that great photography collection entitled "The Family of Man.") I think of many works of music that are to me mysteriously powerful – that find their way into my soul – that move me beyond explanation. Beethoven's Symphony Nine and most of his string quartets qualify here – but there are many other examples I could give.

Some music has a very explainable effect on me. This sort of music evokes emotional and "rational" connections to my past life. Much of the music of the Beatles sends me back – I get a sense not of a particular time, place and happening – but instead a hazy sense of an era, a long period of time. Then there is music that does send me back to a particular time, place and happening. Often, these trips back are to unhappiness. For example, when I was seven years old, I had eye surgery on the muscles of both of my eyes, which was a very unhappy experience. A song that was in the air at that time was "You Are My Sunshine." Even now the memory of that tune brings me back to the hospital, the heavy homesickness, and lying on my back with both eyes bandaged and my hands tied down, to keep me from going after the bandages in my sleep.

Another such unhappy musical catalyst, but my fault. Just out of high school, I went one Saturday night to a "beer bar" – this was a place that served 3.2 beer, which one could legally consume at age eighteen. 3.2 beer is fairly weak stuff, but that night my friends and I consumed what the Saturday Night Live Coneheads would call "mass Quantities." The next morning, suffering my very first real hangover, I could not get out of my mind "The Tennessee Waltz," which had played endlessly on the jukebox in the bar the night before. I still prefer not to think of that tune, and it sort of gets to me now, even as I write about it.

Another hospital example, this time involving a pretty low grade of music: a musical advertising jingle on the radio. When I was twenty-five years old, I suffered third degree burns to my left arm and my right hand. My hospital bed of pain was one of four in a crowded, sweltering, room. A teenager in the next bed played his radio all day, and loud. Just as I was about to lose my cool and tell him to shut the damned thing off, he looked at me and asked with absolute sincerity: "Can you hear it OK?" No way could I yell at him, since he really thought he was doing me a favor by sharing his radio noise with me. And there was that advertising jingle that played again and again, and again. I can't do the melody here. I can't write in musical notation. But I remember the words – all too well.

If you're lookin' for a lumber store
To buy your building supplies,
Drive your car or truck right up to the door
Of Harris, Harris, Lumber
Harris – Harris
Harris, Harris, Lumber.

Even though I find the evoked thoughts and feelings unpleasant, I am willing to sing this for anyone, upon request. And I have it right. The melody is as solidly fixed in my brain as are the words. Solid and forever, I fear.

There is, of course, "program Music" – it refers to something very definable in the world outside the music. Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" has passages that are unquestionably evocative of rain, wind and thunder. In one of Richard Strauss's tone poems – "Till Eulenspiegels Merry Pranks," I think, there is a beheading. And the music then pretty clearly sounds like something, a head no doubt, rolling along the ground.

Somewhat related to music that evokes specific experiences, often unhappy in my case – there is my sense of how early exposure to music can color and complicate my later listening to that music. I remember being very young and playing with my building blocks while my mother did her weekly load of ironing. She played the radio – mostly soap operas. One such program had as its introductory music Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune." It was many years before I could listen to that music free from the earlier listening – even though the associations were not unpleasant. The same holds for the "William Tell Overture," which was the theme music for "The Lone Ranger" radio show. When the great music critic Pauline Kael reviewed the movie "A Clockwork Orange," she lamented the fact that many people would never hear Beethoven's Ninth for what it was, because they had heard the Beethoven for the first time as part of the mayhem, violence, and visual brutality of the Stanley Kubrick movie. I was fortunate, because I knew the Beethoven pretty much by heart long before I saw the movie.

Well, I see that I have wandered around some while discussing a scale that ranges from the great Beethoven all the way over to a lumberyard jingle. Music is so many things to me, that I don't control my thought about it as nicely as I would like to. So I'll close for now. But there's a lot more I could say.

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