Paragraphernalia, Vol 3: Music

Welcome to Paragraphernalia Volume 3. The intent of this series is to write and practice writing through recalling and sharing short vignettes from my life — most of which I’ve never written about. Here are Volume 1 and Volume 2.

In the summer of 1982, when I was 10, the thirty-minute ride to and from day camp was rockin’. The counselor who lived nearby would scoop me, and sometimes my younger brother, in her red 70s VW Beetle convertible. There was only radio in the car, which meant there was only Van Halen, Van Morrison, Foreigner, Styx, Chicago, and whatever else was on her favorite rock station. When you’re 10, those sounds can feel big and overwhelming. Besides the glory of being in a convertible, one other respite from this aural isolation was watching her shift the car’s gears—everyone in my family drove automatics—and eventually learning how to shift the stick from the passenger seat with my left hand.

At Camp Hillcroft, there were counselors from all over the world. One in particular, Andy, from the UK, was tall and gangly and awkward like me. A bit shy and introverted like me. I could tell we were friends when he let me borrow one of the cassettes he was listening to, a collection of tracks from Jean-Michel Jarre. It may have been my first introduction to atmospheric electronica. Since I grew up playing the piano, I was accustomed to hearing instrumental music with a strong keyboard melody. But this was new since it was digital, generated from a keyboard and not a piano, and painted a bigger picture about what electronic music could be like. Like, literally a picture—with textures and depth and color. It also contrasted the more garish soundtrack of my camp commute, and felt more internal. I found solace in the more emotive and nuanced expression.

At some point he asked for the mix tape back, since it was always in my walkman when he wasn’t listening to it.

Summer day camp ended and Andy and I kept up a correspondence for a year or so. I was shocked to one day receive the cassette in the mail — his original copy! I still have it to this day, though I will need, at some point, to purchase something to play it on. Thank you, Andy, for your generosity.

My very first piano lesson, at six years old, was an aural test. The woman who would be my piano teacher for ten years, Muriel Brooks, played a note on the keyboard and asked me to hum it back. Then she played a phrase; I hummed those few notes back. It seemed like an easy test; I’m not sure what it indicated. Thus began weekly lessons in her home.

Her home smelled of old cats and older books. She had two grand pianos that nested each other; one black and one brown. She also had a harpsichord.

Mrs. Brooks introduced me to each new piece by telling me a bit of history about the composer and the context in which the piece was written, and then played the piece in its entirety, while I read the music. What she didn’t know was that my ears were recording the whole thing. I’ve always had a great ear — not quite perfect pitch but pretty close. What I couldn’t read, I could feel and hear.

With each new piece, mastering the left hand came first—typically the accompaniment. Once that was ready, we’d move on to the right—typically the melody. After all the fingering was resolved, we’d put the two together. Along the way, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get my fingers to do what my ear experienced. And she was frustrated with me that my sight reading was terrible. Don’t guess! she would say, repeatedly—not the most encouraging maxim. In classical piano, my eyes were always last.

I studied and learned traditional composers, like Mozart and Beethoven, and more romantic composers, like Chopin, who remains one of my favorites. My memory of the orientation to Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 № 4 was that he wrote it in Paris, when it was very rainy, and the repeated cords and tempo evoked the drip-drip-drip of rain. There were dozens more pieces and composers and orientation.

When I think back on ten years of practice, the word structure comes to mind. Not just of the composition and the music itself, but of the time devoted to practice: at home 2–3 days a week, early in the morning before school. And weekly Tuesday lessons at Mrs. Brooks’s home, along with bi-annual get-togethers with other students. I made it pretty far in my early childhood performances — winning a few awards, and performing once at Cami Hall in New York City.

One day, as a junior in high school, our band teacher, coincidentally named Mr. Brooks (no relation—not even the same generation), wheeled in the VCR cart and popped in the VHS tape of John Cage’s A Music Circus.

My musical confines exploded. I was set free from the cage of structure.

Musical notation from John Cage’s A Music Circus

The film functions on multiple levels. On one level, it’s a masterpiece—a work that contains other pieces. On another level, it’s a documentary of a performance that takes place in a hollowed-out church. There are shorter pieces called Indeterminacy, each given a number and duration. There are interstitial mini-pieces about sounds made with the human body, or in a kitchen. Cage is interviewed about making music and making food—Yoko Ono and John Lennon introduced him to a macrobiotic diet. He also tells the story of visiting an anechoic chamber, where the only sounds he heard were of his heart beating and his nervous system functioning. Sometimes, the deconstruction of the church overwhelms the musical performance. Multiple performances are happening simultaneously, like a circus. Lines are blurred; a new language is sung with a new musical notation (see inset). Things happen at random. It was all Cage’s intention, and it was all right with me.

One moment in particular changed my life. A woman carrying a stopwatch and a large libretto runs, heels clacking, to a piano. She prepares the score to the proper page and watches the clock. At the right time, she plays one staccato chord, then gathers the stopwatch and score, and scurries off. I had never previously experienced such mastery of orchestration.

Years later, I continue to reference this inspirational moment. I think about the staccato cord woman when considering varying levels of contributions on creative teams—what if someone’s contribution was as brief and as critical?

Cage remains inspirational not only for his experimentation, innovation, and collaboration with his partner, the modern dancer Merce Cunningham, but also for the freedom his work provided me when I needed it.

See also: my post about 4'33", one of Cage’s most (in)famous pieces.

Being raised in the Jewish tradition, becoming a bar mitzvah is a right of passage—from boy to young man. As a 13-year-old, the stakes are high; you want it to be successful.

There are two parts to the event. First, the serious business of reading and singing a portion of the Torah, in Hebrew. Your birthday determines the portion you sing; mine was from Deuteronomy, and the passage was all a big tzimmes about goats, if memory serves. It was a long passage, and I studied a lot—weekly Sunday school lessons for years, and one-on-one time with the Rabbi leading up to the event. Once I stopped considering it a long passage in Hebrew I needed to be completely accurate about even though I don’t speak Hebrew, and started thinking about it as a long song with a superscript taxonomy indicating repeated melodic elements, it became easier for me to get it right. And I aced it.

The second part is the party—food, dancing, gifts, and music (some of which still in Hebrew). As this volume of Paragraphernalia will doubtless indicate, music has always been a huge part of my life, and so, the theme of my bar mitzvah party was music. There was a live cover band. There were piano-themed table toppers my Mom and I made. And lots of black and white decorations, with splashes of red for sanity. I believe there may have been black spray-painted flowers?

One of the most significant moments of the party is the first song. You’ve just done all the hard work and it’s party time!!! Set the stage for a fun evening! Well, I was clear with my Mom that any song would be fine, but I specifically did not want the first song to be Celebration by Kool & The Gang, because it was overplayed and trite, and very cheesy. It didn’t feel like me.

It was the first song that was played. She missed (or ignored) the memo. Decades later, I have embraced the song’s cheez-factor and I enjoy it. Celebrate good times, come on!

Designer, entrepreneur, educator, advisor, optimist.