Friday, April 29, 2011

Of Sinister Restrooms

One of the gritty realities of life on the road is the ongoing game of Russian roulette the traveling performer plays every time he stops to use a public restroom. You simply have no idea what to expect when nature, whose whims and timing are both capricious and malicious, calls, and the stories I could tell you of what I've found festering across the thresholds of some of those sewers would boggle your mind.

I think the time has come to lift the veil of silence that has long masked this aspect of the performer's life, and that I am the man best qualified to perform this unmasking.

A thing I learned early in my performing career is you don't drive to a show in your work clothes. The seat of your pants wrinkle and the knees sag. One time I had a show in Johnson City, a three hour drive. It was August, a blistering month, so I dressed for a long drive in humid weather: shorts, tank top, sandals. My tux was in a suit bag. I planned to stop near the country club, change into the tux and stride into the venue in glorious sartorial splendor. I found a place to make my change, MAMAW'S QUIK STOP, a small filth-encrusted store and gas station. I got the key to the restroom (connected to a hockey puck by a bicycle chain) and walked around back.

Three disreputable homeless chaps loafed near the restroom; passing a bottle of what was clearly homemade lightning. They nodded and offered southern pleasantries; "Huh;" "Hey buddy;” "Howdy thar;" I nodded back. One toothless fellow, custodian of the communal jug, offered me a drink. I waved it away. "No thanks."

I entered the tiny building wearing cutoff denim shorts and a tank top. Ignoring the mingled odors of ancient urine, stale tobacco, staler beer, and the yeasty byproducts of various erotic adventures, five minutes later I emerged in a tuxedo, freshly shaved, hair slicked with gel. The old parties stopped their boozing in mid-swig, frozen in tableau like the three magi from
a Christmas display. They gazed in goggle-eyed wonderment at this splendid vision of elegance that had so casually appeared amidst their squalid lot, as though conjured from the very bottle they passed between them.

One of them found his voice. He asked, "Are yew James Bond?"

Of all the dank, fetid, putrescent, cankerous, foul pestholes in which I've been forced to seek refuge on my various travels, one in particular festers with awful virulence in my mind. I'll share it with you.

My son and I were en route from Tennessee to Indiana when sheer hydraulic pressure forced us off the road. We stopped in Jellico in search of a restroom. We pulled into a gas station and my son braved the unknown frontier first. He almost immediately burst forth, gasping for air, face a pale green. “Don’t go in there,” he wheezed. “It’s appalling.”

Shrugging, I entered the cinderblock enclosure. After all, biological imperatives cannot be ignored, and I was the battle-scarred veteran of far worse hellholes than this. Or so I thought.

It was bad. At first I thought a possum had exploded. Then I speculated perhaps some local had curbed his mule. The floor, rear wall, and yes—even the ceiling were spattered with stinking liquid, solids and some other writhing, seemingly semi-sentient material the constitution of which is still under debate by scientists from Oak Ridge. I didn't succumb to the venomous fumes because I was veteran of the road long enough to have mastered the yogic skill of holding my breath for the twelve and a half minutes necessary to complete my business, wash my hands and check my grooming in the mirror.

It occurred to me that if a person—a human being—had been responsible for this anomaly, then the following scenario must have played out. The hapless participant would have had to begin the procedure in the usual position. Then the inexorable reaction of Newtonian Law would have forced him first into a horizontal attitude and then, as the Vesuvius-like eruption continued, pressed his head to the floor until his, ah nether parts pointed straight toward the ceiling! I calculated the necessary vector equations in the grime-smeared mirror, and it was at this point I realized no natural process could have generated sufficient force, and supernatural agencies had to be at work. As calmly as I could I backed from the mausoleum and shut the door before I fell victim to a similar fate at the hands of demonic assailants.

I found my son wandering around outside, apparently still in shock. I helped him to the car, where he recovered slowly from his toxic experience with the harsher realities of life on the road. In his own words, "I lost feeling in my extremities. I grew cold all over, like I was dying. My legs shook. I almost didn't make it out the door. I saw spots before my eyes and I was trembling all over, like I'd inhaled nerve gas."

These are common symptoms experienced by novices when entering southern rest stops. The merest whiff of that air is more debilitating than serin. The trick to ensure survival is to take a deep breath before entering, hold it until you're finished, TOUCH NOTHING with your skin, and try not to look at anything, lest your psyche be scarred forever. Some things the mind of man was never meant to contemplate, and the feculent contents of southern public restrooms fall into that category along with the secrets of sausage factories and the inner workings of sunken R'lyeh.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Opera and other Ramblin's

Saturday I saw Richard Strauss's Opera Cappriccio, a lovely little send-up of the Intellegentsia of the 1940's music scene. The opera is essentially a long debate between a poet, a music composer, and a theater producer on which is the more important element in musical theater: the words, the music or the theatrical production. To add to the drama, both the poet and the composer are friends and partners, and --and this is the good part--friendly rivals for the affections of The Countess Madeleine.

This was Strauss's last opera, and it came at a time when contemporary composers, such as Stravinsky and Ravel, were dismissing Strauss as old-fashioned and irrelevant. Strauss had spent a very long time producing his earlier operas and hadn't composed a work of musical theater in some time. So to make a point in the face of these allegations, he composed three final operas in quick succession: Daphne, Die Liebe der Danae, and Cappriccio--using his "Old-fashioned" compositional techniques and thematic methods. And these operas were all hits.

Cappriccio synopsizes, through the three male lead characters, the arguments and pretentions of the social elite of Strauss's time. The opera builds to a climax when the Count (Madeleine's' brother) challenges the poet and the composer to create new masterworks, and the Countess commissions them to collaborate on an opera. The Count proposes that the opera depict the events of that afternoon. So Cappriccio turns out to be an opera about itself, not unlike Fellini's 7 1/2.

But the evening lacks a climax. Madeleine must provide one by deciding beteen the poet and the composer. In the fianl aria, which like most of Strauss's soprano arias is supernaturally beautiful, The Countess sings of her indecision. Not only is she torn between the two friends, but now she must make a decision, as she says, that won't provide a trivial ending to the opera. Then the butler announces, "Dinner is served;" and the opera ends.

Unsatisfying? Not at all. This cliffhanger ending is perfect. If Madeleine decides for us whether music or words is the more essential element, what's left for us? God, what a great ending. That she made a decision is made clear in the staging. What that decision was is left to us to decide. What a stroke of genius. It's the only way that opera could end.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Definitely Ooomph

Yes, definitely feeling better, although I just paid my taxes and so am traumatized by that epic horror, I am definitely detecting a lift in my spirits. I introduced the Cristofori upgrade to my teacher and she was excited to see the changes and embellishments to the simpler version we'd been practicing. So I've been re-learning this piece, and I've already overwritten the old version of some parts in what passes for my memory. Memory is a baffling phenomenon. It's kinda scary how easily I can forget some things when I don't want to, and how hard it is to forget other things when I desperately want to.

I'm not sure how long it will take to learn to play the new version proficiently. The parts that seemed intimidating on paper turned out to be easier than I thought, while sections that should flow smoothly continue to elude me. But if I keep practicing at some point I'll break through the wall.

Joplin continues to improve by small increments. I wonder when I tackle my next piece if my learning curve will improve with each new composition I learn? I hope so or it will take me the rest of my life to learn ten pieces.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Up, I Think

Last night I had a glimmer of "Ooomph." I thought it might be a whispy illusion but no; it lasted through today and in fact, awhirl with oomphy energy, I cleaned my office--at least I got a start on it. I even partially detrashed my car and tossed out the relics from my last road trip during a trip to Office Depot to replenish printer supplies.

I also started on a task I've been putting off. I began packing away my aquarium supplies in preparation to giving it all away to Goodwill. I dread this because it dredged up memories. I had these happy little aquatic frogs, all of which died one by one from various illnesses, brought about from being overbred. I nursed one frog through a lingering illness and fed him by hand with a set of long tweezers. I was with him when he gave one last spasm and died. I bought a frog from a breeder in Pittsburgh, and she shipped him all the way here, and he was a big, strong, happy frog, but he too eventually died. He became ill and I euthanized him. He was the first and only animal I ever euthanized by my own hand.

I had a Betta who liven in his own tank and he lived over two years before passing away of old age. He died while I was at a party. I came home and he was floating amongst the plants. This Betta, Firebolt, interacted with me and would eat raw fish slivers from my hand. I replaced him with a second Betta, Big Fish, who was a nervous, timid fellow, who ran from me whenever I fed him. He never recovered from childhood trauma. He died a week ago and I haven't had the heart to break the tank down yet. But I will tomorrow.

I grew all the plants from tiny growths into magnificent healthy flora. The critters loved the lush foliage. I maintained as natural an environment as possible for them. Though genetically damaged through overbreeding, the frogs were happy until they died.

But die they did, and they died young. Those frogs used to live for years; sometimes ten years or more. Even clumsy keepers used to keep them for two years. I had one frog years ago who lived for four years. But the ones I was getting were undersized, would develop tumors, waste away, have seizures. A hobby I took up to provide a corner of happiness in my life became a constant source of grief.

My wife, sweet as she is, doesn't understand my grief. When my best friend died, she looked at me, puzzled, then bought me some ice cream. My son commented "maybe she thinks you're a woman." I think that I grieved over a frog completely baffled her.

I perused the aquarium items one by one as I packed them away. There was a little piece of African hardwood the frogs loved to burrow beneath; an artificial cave they enjoyed peeking out of.

I hate this world. It's a crappy deal. We're dropped in it, hardwired to care for each other, then the people and things we care for go away and we'll never see them again. No wonder so many people flee to the fantasy of religion.

I'm at the age where I hear more of death and funerals than births and weddings. I'm tired of it. I would love to hear some good news once in a while.

I guess it's good news that there will be more space where the aquarium used to be. There is that.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Middle Age Blues

I'm cranking away on the Cristofori upgrade. Actually the new version isn't that much harder than the older version. And having some Joplin under my belt is a leg upon the new fingerings. I'm not quite sure of the composer's intent yet--it seems he's simplified some of the parts (perhaps in the interest of speed? I don't know) while embellishing other parts in lovely ways. I'll discuss this with my teacher and see what she thinks.

I still seem to be in a slump. I have no real enthusiasm for anything. I love playing my piano but have no oomph for anything else. I just do the things that have to get done, and with no real enthusiasm at that. This may be an artifact of having to force myself to do everything through an extended period of illness, but i don't know. I think I'll start taking walks and see if I can get my head straight.

People quick to perform armchair diagnoses would label this a "depression," but what exactly does that mean? I've been depressed before--the clinical kind, and this ain't it. This is more of a lack of interest in anything; suspension; a feeling of waiting to see if anything is going to happen. I can't explain it. Like someone waiting to get out of jail, or for something outside of oneself to occur to break the monotony. Nah, that's too dramatic: more like waiting for the next bus to come along and take me somewhere interesting.

Usually I'm fairly self-sufficient and imune to what goes on"out there." I have this self-created bubble I live in that sustains me. But for a while now I think my bubble has faltered and let the outside world come in and taint my happy place.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Cristofori Gets an Upgrade

For the past few months I've been diligently working on this lovely piece of music called Cristofori's Dream by the composer/pianist David Lanz. I can play it beginning to end--all nine pages--from memory, and have been filing in the rough patches and potholes.

But for some reason, I couldn't make it sound as good as when Mr. Lanz plays it. I know this is to be expected--after all I'm still pretty much a beginner-- but it seemed to me many of his chords were throatier, and some of the musical passages had a lot more going on in them than the version I was playing.

So I made an investigation. I went to his website where I discovered there were TWO versions of Cristofori's Dream: and one is called the CD Version. I whipped out my credit card, a minor purchase of $3.50 and I downloaded the nine-page epic. And sure enough, it is a whole 'nother ball game.

Large sections of the piece remain unchanged, but the passages which caught my ear's attention were, indeed, augmented with extra notes and embellishments. Furthermore, the long runs of octaves had an added third note --just like Joplin's The Entertainer--which added that "Throat" I kept hearing; a more emphatic voice in spots I couldn't reproduce no matter how I accented the notes. Furthermore, there's more direction, pedal notation, additional dynamics and other embellishments to help express the composer's intention.

It is a more difficult play, but I have most of the piece already learned. I just have to work on the embellishments and learn a couple of extra passages. But how cool. I thought I was almost finished, and was a little disappointed at how it sounded, when i discover added depths to a piece I thought I already knew.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fondling One's Idols

Most of my heroes--Emperor Joshua Norton, J.S. Bach, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Bucky Fuller, Wagner, Robert Heinlein, a few others even more obscure, are dead. If I meet them at all, it will be beyond this mortal coil, in the Aether Plain.

Sometimes we're disillusioned once we learn the details of our Great Ones--Gods With Feet of Clay. We learn Leonardo and Michelangelo were fond of young boys; Mozart and Beethoven patronized prostitutes; Franz Liszt, who composed and played piano music of incredible complexity and beauty, today would be considered a New-Age flake. Reading about Liszt's Father-in-Law Wagner, magnificent as he was, brings the inescapable awareness he was quite insane. James Joyce consumed enough alcohol to pickle the County Cork, and G. Bernard Shaw was a Socialist who advocated Eugenics. H.G. Wells fathered a child out of wedlock whom he refused to support financially. Ah me, as Vonnegut, another Great, opined in an alcoholic haze, "So it goes." Yet as Voltaire, an advocate of Vivisection, remarked, "Nothing human offends me."

Another person I admire, G. Flaubert, once wrote, "It doesn't pay to fondle your idols; the gilt rubs off on your hands."

The poet Ogden Nash had the real dirt of the Greats:

Lines to be Embroidered on a Bib
The Child is Father of the Man, But Not For Quite A While

So Thomas Edison
Never drank his medicine;
So Blackstone and Hoyle
Refused cod-liver oil;
So Sir Thomas Malory
Never heard of a calory;
So the Earl of Lennox
Murdered Rizzio without the aid of vitamins or calisthenox;
So Socrates and Plato
Ate dessert without finishing their potato;
So spinach was too spinachy
For Leonardo da Vinaci;
Well, it's all immaterial,
So eat your nice cereal,
And if you want to name your ration,
First go get a reputation.

Which pretty much sums it up.
I don't make up history, I just report it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Cristofori, Joplin and Beethoven's Pajamas

In what has to be one of music history's more bizarre footnotes, a 200 year-old nightshirt recently found in a closet in Vienna has been confirmed--by DNA analysis-- to have indeed belonged to Beethoven. The historical significance is not in the cloth, but in the musical sketch inked on the sleeve. Apparently old Ludvig awoke in the night, seized by inspiration, and finding no paper at hand, sketched out the theme for a sonata on the sleeve of his nightshirt.

A faded note pinned to the nightshirt from the cleaner reads, "Sir, please, I cannot remove the ink stain." Fortunately, because this discovery apparently provided the musical key to performing an unpublished Sonata. The Sonata--christened the Nachtgewand Sonata (Nightshirt Sonata) recently debuted its first performance by pianist Stephen Hough. I couldn't make this up; this is fact. The world waited 200 years to hear a heretofore incomplete Masterpiece until the missing piece was discovered on the sleeve of the composer's pajamas.

On a more narcissistic note, I've completed Cristofori's Dream--and some might say about doggone time. Yes, I've memorized the entire nine-page epic and play it completely from beginning to end from memory. It's clunky in spots and needs polishing but it's in my brain.

And I've learned the 'B' section of The Entertainer and have commenced the arduous refining process on that sucker. It isn't quite as difficult as the 'A' section so it should come along. I'm playing the 'A' section quite well at this point--most of the time--so I should have the 'B' section rolling along in a couple of months.

Having completed the Major scales, I've begun work on the minor scales, and am learning C Minor and G Minor.

C Minor looks like this:

And this is G Minor:

Which are handy if you want to play Bach Preludes and Fugues. And I do. I'm currently dabbling with the Prelude and Fugue #2 in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier and a tough little nut it is indeed.

I've been in a funk for the past couple of months. I've only been doing the things that need doing. Shows, work, essential tasks. Been reading a lot. My mind has been in a bit of a fog and I lack oomph. But I've kept up with my piano practice, though not with my usual gusto. For example, while I've practiced my scales, I haven't been doing them daily; more like three times a week. I feel the oomph returning, but slowly. I think it was because I was ill for such an extended period last year and it's taking a while for me to get back in the groove. Or maybe it's a mid-life thing. Whatever it is I seem to have flatlined for a while. I'm not sad or depressed, I just have a lack of interest. I believe the word is ennui. I'm not overly concerned. I think it's passing. One sign is I'm doodling in this here blog again.

I have a show in WV this weekend and the months of April and May are insane for a performer of my genre, so I get to see how well I've recovered from the Great Health Collapse of 2010. I feel pretty good physically and am breathing better than I was this time last year (the allergy shots seem to be working) so let's see if 2011 is the year my body catches up with my spirit.