Bach, Beethoven, and Tavares
Maybe it’s the premature death of Donna Summer from cancer or maybe it’s an abbreviated phone call from a friend from a musical group that’s inspiring this article, but I do know it’s a topic I’ve been avoiding for a long time, because I’ve been hoping the Almighty Sprite will give it back: music.
Donna Summer I’ll get to, but the phone call had to be cut short because I was at one of my son’s many baseball games, surrounded by dozens of fans and players, none of whom would shut up long enough for me to hear a word my friend was saying, which I thought was rather rude, since our team was winning by a huge margin anyway. Sheesh. And I have yet to call her back.
Why? I don’t want to talk about music, that’s why.
This friend and I played in an over-achieving handbell group together, Bells of the Sound. This is not your local church handbell group. This is a bunch of fire-breathing lunatics who would have the bells implanted in their arms if the doctors would let them. This is a group that thinks nothing of practicing for three hours in a sweltering hot room without a break, all just to count to the 17th beat of the 32 subbeats of the third quarter-note of the 55th measure so someone can ring the E-flat bell of the fourth octave on time. That, my non-musical friends, is nuts. Musical, but nuts. CF calls it aerobic bell-ringing.
Music became an important part of my life in high school. I was member of a remarkable high school band, an exceptional group of musicians led by a talented director who inspired several of the best of us to pursue musical careers. That experience set my taste for music ever since: classical, as classic as possible. None of this Mantovani stuff. Although I did get sidetracked by Arthur Fiedler for a bit.
I was so disconnected from the popular music of the time that I once disparagingly referred to Iron Butterfly (“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”) as Iron Buttercup to my sister, which sent her into uncontrollable laughter and gave her fodder for endless jokes and gag gifts and why am I reminding her of this? Brain @$#@%$ damage.
I played French horn through high school and college, played a senior recital in college, joined several community orchestras and bands when I lived in the Boston area, wondered what my life would have been like if I too had pursued a career in music.
Music was a constant in my life. I was always humming or singing (badly) something.
I was always humming or singing what was in my head. Sometimes it was composed music, sometimes it was something I was making up as I went along. Sometimes it was ridiculous variations on composed music. Sometimes it was annoying and my son would beg me to stop. That’s why there are earplugs. For him.
I banged out whatever beat was in my brain, tapping out rhythms going on around me, ones real or imagined, or playing what is known as “air bells” in the car at a red light. Picture someone holding three or four bells in their hands a la air guitar and you get the idea, but in air bells, you don’t play on every note, so it’s a staggered, drunken effect that usually ends when another driver notices and the driver/air bell player sheepishly drops the bells and smiles wanly as he/she guns it.
“You must always have music playing in your house,” someone said to me once. I had to tell them that I didn’t, that in fact I own very few CDs.
I used to wonder if this was true of others who were around a lot of music. One time years ago when I was visiting the music director of my church in Maine, a man who is an incredible organist and harpsichordist, I asked him if he played music at home. He rolled his eyes at me and said no, he had too much music inside his head. I felt relieved.
All of which brings me to Donna Summer.
One day, twisting the radio dial in my car, choosing between Bach and Beethoven, I heard something different, some other kind of beat, something mesmerizing, something hypnotizing….
Love to love you baby….oooh….love to love you baby….
I didn’t change radio stations for years. I was hooked. Hooked on Donna. Hooked on disco. I never learned to dance the ridiculous dances, and I’ve never even seen the ridiculous movies, and I cannot stand John Travolta, but I am an unreconstructed disco hound.
But only of the good, early stuff. See, I have this theory that the good, early disco, before it got all teen-cultured, before it got beegeed (sorry, whoever it was who just died), actually drew very heavily on traditions found in Baroque music, stuff that Bach used. The structure of the pieces, the basso continuo, the flowing treble, the repetition—I could go on and on. I could give a lecture.
So while most everyone was hustlin’, I was looking around for anyone else who might be waiting for the chord structure to resolve itself.
It took me a while to notice it once I was home from the hospital, what with not being able to make sense of anything at all. But one day I had this horrible thought: I realized that there was nothing humming inside of my mind.
Nothing. No Bach variations or Beethoven French horn solos or sighs from Donna or angels missing from Tavares. My music world was silent.
This from someone who used to have a music room in her house. This from someone who used to own her own set of handbells, who still owns her own French horn, her own little xylophone, her own little collection of bells from around the world, who wants more than anything to someday visit China to see this unbelievable collection of 2,400 year-old two-tone history-changing diatonically tuned bells.
It’s been nine months since The Blitz. When I see my neurologist next month, I’ll ask her again, and I’m sure her answer will be the same: things take time, things can still come back. Does that just mean the brain can be retrained to do physical things, like tying shoelaces and buttoning coats, or does it mean more?
I’m willing to give the Almighty Sprite computer programming and long division, but I’m still clinging onto music. I want it back. I’d better call my friend and talk about it.