Category Archives: music

Golden silence

silence is golden
Silence is indeed golden. And equally rare.

Took Ruby to her school this morning and, so, decided I’d just mosey down the road to do some headwork at the coffee house and work out at the gym.

Went to Mama Carmen’s, on College Ave, a hangout I like, for its good coffee, friendly ambiance, and ample work space. But this morning, I couldn’t get comfortable, either for reading or working on the computer. The first seat I took, a sofa before a coffee table, next to a lamp, was too wallowy and too shallow for working on my laptop. The second seat, at a counter hidden behind a brick wall, was fine for reading a book and marking it up, as I usually do. (Am reading colonial American captivity narratives for their relation to a novel I’m researching.) But in both places loud pop music was driving me mad.

Most Mama Carmen customers are young ‘uns, in their teens or twenties, including I think many U of A undergrads. If they mind the music, they give no indication, as they calmly go on chatting with others or listening to whatever they prefer via headsets. But I’ve never been able to do much headwork with music playing, however soothing or otherwise enticing it might be.

So I packed up and drove to the Pat Walker Center for Seniors, which includes a medical clinic, a meeting room, a lounge, administrative offices, and a gym. I sat, all by myself, in the lounge, which has several long tables with chairs, a few armchairs, and a sofa, plus vending machine and small library. Launching again into the captivity narratives, I was formulating some helpful ideas for my project, when I thought suddenly of the “Magna Silentia” enforced at the Catholic seminary I attended in the 9th grade. Talk about a long time and long space away! The Latin phrase occurred to me vividly: “Magna Silentia,” or the Great Silence.

This was sleep time, after the lights went out in our dormitory and before the alarm sounded to wake us, loud and shrill, for morning mass. No talking, no trivial noise was tolerated. We turned in, prayed, meditated, and conked out.

A lot of water over the dam since Catholic boyhood — personal water, I mean, and cultural. I’ve grown, and aged, and become both more thoughtful and more voluble, able to enter into or initiate conversations with just about anyone, often with a joke to break the ice. But our culture too has gotten louder if not more thoughtful. Just about everywhere we go these days we get Muzak or other pop music designed, I suspect, to fill the ever increasing emptiness in our heads. God forbid we should have to fill that space with something of our own. Let’s just turn on the noise!

So imagine my distress, then, when a troupe of white-hairs shuffled into the lounge and started setting up an event. (I saw tchotchkes on a table, doilied dollies and self-help brochures.) And not content to work in silence, these old folks began discussing, what else, their medical maladies. Their various gastrointestinal distresses, their prophylactics. Oh my god, save me from such twaddle.

Whether juvenile or geriatric, noise is not the natural, or welcome, accompaniment of thought. But then, it could be, thinking, like silence itself, is a rare bird these days. Inhabiting pop culture might be compared to birding: you go out, in camo, and look for hours and hours, patiently, meditatively, for that one rare bird we call thought.

There’s lyrics — and then there’s lyrics

james taylor metal of honor
James Taylor receiving Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

With the announcement of the awarding of the Medal of Freedom to James Taylor, among others, we think of the difference between song lyrics and, well, lyrics. The difference, that is, between pop song lyrics and lyrical poetry.

From “Something in the Way She Moves,” for example, we have:

It isn’t what she’s got to say but how she thinks and where she’s been.
To me, the words are nice, the way they sound.
I like to hear them best that way, it doesn’t much matter what they mean.
She says them mostly just to calm me down.

No, it doesn’t much matter what these words say, it’s Taylor’s mellifluous baritone that calms us down and that we appreciate. He could be humming diddly-piddly, and we’d still like the results.

It’s unfair, of course, to judge a pop singer mostly by the quality of his lyrics. And in truth, Taylor’s lyrics are not always piffle and not always bad. But what passes for poetry, or song, in the popular mind is not what poetry, and song, are capable of.

I was thinking of this theme the other day, humming a Gershwin love song (“How Long Has This Been Going On?”):

Oh, I feel that I could melt;
Into Heaven I’m hurled!
I know how Columbus felt,
Finding another world.

Again, it’s not mainly the lyrics we are hooked by, though gods know Ira Gershwin could spin out some very clever words (the old classical New York jazz standards that Woody Allen loves). It’s George Gershwin’s music, as sung by greats like Ella Fitzgerald, that mesmerizes us and brings us back, again and again, to tunes that summarize and transcend their era.

And then, while I was humming the Gershwins, Keats’ song popped into my head — the corresponding and concluding lines about discovery in his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” And he’s talking here about discovering Homer through an English translation!

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Written in 1816, this poem is the first fully mature poem by Keats, who hoped to “be among the English poets when I die,” and who, by virtue of his astonishing achievement by age 25, when he died of tuberculosis, has in fact ascended into this pantheon.
Imagine writing about reading as if it were an act of heroic discovery, not pain, not drudgery, the way too many kids today, in the pop-music-saturated world, think about reading. To approach a text, for gods’ sakes, “with a wild surmise”! To look each other in the eyes, not like lovers in a pop song but like conquistadores, who before they arrived here, at the summit of discovery, had no idea in the world that such a world existed.

 

Jazz vs. football

anat cohen
Anat Cohen, of the Anat Cohen Quartet.

Last night my wife Jennifer and I went to a jazz concert at the Walton Arts Center. As host Robert Ginsburg pointed out, we could tell everyone afterwards that we had been onstage with the Anat Cohen Quartet: during the remodeling of the intimate Starr Theater, concerts are being held on the stage of the main auditorium. The band plays at the front of the stage, and the audience is seated behind them, stage rear, both on risers and at cabaret tables.

Jen and I had one of these tables, and were just a few feet in front of the band leader, Anat Cohen, an Israeli woman who played jazz clarinet with a verve and vivacity that drove away any blues we might’ve come with in our baggage. Pretty soon Jen and I, and most of the crowd, I think, were bopping in our seats as the group banged out — no, make that explored — one theme and then another. She was particularly impressive, swaying and hopping, calling out to her band, on a Brazilian number called “The Roses Do Not Speak,” about a lost or dead love, delving into dark notes and then essaying high and breaking wails as if, no, the clarinet could not speak, either, but Cohen would try, damn it, and then the trying burst into flame, as it were, and transcendence came, the joy and understanding beyond words.

Cohen’s pianist Jason Lindner was especially impressive, playing, often simultaneously, the hall’s Steinway grand piano and his Rhodes keyboard. This multi-tasking produced a delicious effect, the bass played on the piano and a drumming, insistent, repetitive melody, or rhythm, on the electronic keyboard. Lindner also reached into the Steinway, at times, and stopped the strings with one hand while he played a muted, or dulled, tune with the other.

Cohen played about 90 minutes, a good energetic first set, in front of this on-stage audience maybe 60% of capacity. Then she sold CDs and signed autographs, and readied herself for the second set.

After the first set Jen and I went across the street to the Cork & Keg, a wine / beer bar that also serves a few snacks. We enjoyed a few Naked Porters, by Bentonville Brewing, and watched the end of the Razorbacks’ game. When we came in, the Hogs were up 42-31, but they ended up losing, as you might know, by one lousy point, 51-50, when a last minute field goal, a chip shot really, was blocked.

The stadium was full to capacity, unlike the music hall — 80,000 fans screaming, moaning, and turning away, most of them, in depression and defeat. We had lost! We, who derive our identity from these athlete mercenaries awarded scholarships to play for us and represent us in our smallness, insignificance, anonymity. We, who have delegated the task of identity to these athletes, gifted athletes if not scholars, delegated the task of representing the body, anyway, never mind the intellect or soul.

The body, we know, in this sedentary society, this office-based economy, is alienated. It sits there, eight or ten hours a day, at a desk, at a computer, typing away — so much for exercise! Chained to the desk, shackled to necessity! And then, turned loose at the end of the day, it plops on the couch and watches TV! It parties on the weekends, drinking beer and wine, smoking dope! It twitches and feels its afferents and efferents trying to get it together!

(Some of us, it’s true, may use the weekends, even the weekdays if we’re retired as I am, to exercise, to bike, or hike, or swim, you name it, to go to the gym, to do push-ups and chin-ups, to run, to skate, to fly! And, oh sure, let’s not forget, to drink beer!)

Hey, I was rooting with the rest of the Hog fans. A damn shame they lost. There was just no stopping Mississippi State, it appears, which ran up and down the field at will behind a strong-armed and strong-running quarterback. There was, however, stopping Arkansas’s last-minute field goal attempt, as one of our offensive linemen was turned inside out by a State defender, who leaped and blocked the field goal.

Alas, we lost. They say we lost.

I say, rather, we all enjoyed a good tight game, and if footballs don’t talk any more than roses, can you blame them? You might want to try, instead, a jazz clarinet, an inspired piano, crashing drums, twanging bass. Man, Ms. Cohen’s group was humming last night, and she wasn’t playing anyone but her audience. We were all in the same lineup, and we won just as much as she did.

 

The glance

In Mexico, where my wife and I were vacationing, the girls and young women know how to pack it in and wrap it around.

mannequins
Mannequins at store in Guadalajara

You can see the fashion cues in the mannequins at the stores, out on the sidewalk, stuffed into tight jeans, the zippers sometimes not zipped up all the way. What the hell, it’s a semi-tropical if Catholic country, and the girls aren’t walking like virgins or saints down church aisles. They are strutting their stuff, if they got it, and not shy about it either.

One consequence of this strutting, of course, is early pregnancy and poverty. You see many young girls either pregnant or with babes in arms or tow, or both. Combine this sad fact with the begging vendors on all sides, people without much education out on the streets hawking wares of all kinds — food, clothes, phones, flashlights, bird whistles, glass stirring sticks, bootleg CDs and movies, you name it — and you’ll get some inkling of how quickly things ripen and then rot in Mexico, how rapidly possibility runs into impassivity.

One day, about a week ago, in Guadalajara, the second biggest city in Mexico — terribly crowded and polluted too — Jen and I visited a couple of museums and then, about noon, sat down in an outside restaurant on a square.

When I entered the restaurant — there are metal rails all around, defining the space — I noticed, directly in my path, a gorgeous young girl, who couldn’t have been more than 18 or 20, sitting with a couple of old folks, that is, about my age and Jen’s. I looked at the girl with obvious interest, and she looked straight back, unblinking.

We took a table next to that where the girl and her party were sitting, and had a beer and snack.

When we left, I looked at her again, helplessly, with obvious interest, and she stared at me as boldly and unwaveringly as any woman has ever looked at me. (Back in the day, women would look at me, you see. But we needn’t go into that at this time. ) The girl swiveled her head and stared at me as if, well, I don’t know. As if I were the second coming of Christ? Or Satan on a stick? Or her last chance at getting out of that life of limited education and income?

As if to say, Hey, old gringo, get me out of here?

As it to say, What the hell you staring at me like that for?

As if to say, Now where if anywhere does it go from here?

I think of a song by Rupert Holmes, sung beautifully by the late Susannah McCorkle, “The People That You Never Get to Meet,” with wistful lyrics like these:

You’re browsing through a second hand bookstore,
And you see her in non-fiction V through Y.
She looks up from World War II,
And then you catch her catching you catching her eye …

Of course, there are a thousand other possibilities that lie behind that glance. What do I know? I’m just an old gringo with all the usual old boys’ habits and longings. I know, as you do, that life is short, and sweet, and fleeting. I know that in a tropical, or subtropical, clime, you do as the Romans, or the Tapatios, do (as Guadalajarans call themselves). You relax, expand, look around, and sigh. You go on with your life, and it takes you where it will.

And you think about
The people that you never get to love,
The poem you intended to begin.
The saddest words that anyone has ever said are
“Lord, what might have been.”
But no one said you get to win.

Now my dear wife Jennifer, who’s been my bride for 90 years, I joked to people in Mexico, says that the girl was obviously mentally defective, perhaps one of those Down’s Syndrome people who don’t look like Down’s Syndrome people. Why else, she reasoned, would a beautiful young girl look at a geezer like me?

No one said you get to win, all right — except what you’ve already won, like your spouse, who, if she’s like mine, is fine, and took some doing. Or the poem you not only intended to write, but did.