Monday, February 22, 2010

A few random musical experiences

This past week fed my musical brain a bit.


On Thursday, my husband called me at work and asked if I'd like to see a Jean Arthur movie at the AFI that evening. It sounded like fun, so I said okay. But then I left work a few minutes later than I'd planned to, and the train was a little slower than usual, so I didn't get there until a few minutes after the movie started. I hate missing the beginnings of movies. My husband was all for seeing it anyway. While we were standing in the lobby arguing about discussing it, a woman came up to us and said, "Come and see this movie a friend of mine made!" It was a free screening of a documentary called "The Music Lesson," about a group of high school students from the Boston Youth Orchestra who went to Africa to meet and play music with children there. So we decided to go to that instead.

My impression was that the subject was certainly interesting, but the compare-and-contrast exercise didn't quite hold together. The Boston students were the typical highly schooled classical musicians who had never tried to improvise and probably had never played any folk music. Their playing, even at its best, was a bit stilted and wobbly. The African students were trained in music only to the extent of learning songs in school, in church, and in group ceremonial experiences. The music they performed in the film was vibrant, rhythmic, spontaneous, and primitive.

There was a Q&A afterward with the director, producer, and a few others involved with the film. The cinematographer had an amusing story about something that had happened early on. One day, an elephant appeared near the place where they were all staying (accommodations were basically like camping, though in a spacious wooden structure open to the air), and the cinematographer asked one of the kids, a particularly gregarious flute player, to play something while he filmed. The kid said, "Oh, I can't; I don't have anything prepared." The guy urged him quite a bit, but the boy refused to play. By the end of their time there, this boy was jamming along with everyone else. One of the violinists commented that they were all getting much better at improvising because they were doing it every day.

One important point about all this was made by an African musician who had appeared in the film. Someone in the audience commented that the Boston kids got this vivid musical experience, but what did the African kids get? The musician said that the gift to them was recognition that they indeed had something to offer these sophisticated, rich Americans.


On Saturday, we had a gathering at our house in honor of my mother-in-law. Because there isn't going to be a funeral, my husband wanted to do something and decided to arrange this. It was a busy day for me, cleaning, shopping, and baking (though my husband did order in some food). I got in a little piano practice before everyone arrived, but didn't touch the cello.

After everyone had had something to eat, and we had all conversed for a while, my husband came up to me and asked if I would mind playing something on the cello. I think the film we saw was in the back of both of our minds, because normally he wouldn't have even asked me, and normally I probably would have demurred. But this time, he did ask, and I said sure.

So I brought my cello upstairs. My husband read a poem by Wendell Berry, who is a native of Kentucky, where my mother-in-law was born.

The Silence
Though the air is full of singing
my head is loud
with the labor of words.

Though the season is rich
with fruit, my tongue
hungers for the sweet of speech.

Though the beech is golden
I cannot stand beside it
mute, but must say

"It is golden," while the leaves
stir and fall with a sound
that is not a name.

It is in the silence
that my hope is, and my aim.
A song whose lines

I cannot make or sing
sounds men's silence
like a root. Let me say

and not mourn: the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there. *

Then I played the prelude from the first Bach suite. I played from memory, and I just walked myself through it. Those notes are so familiar to me; I've been playing that piece for 40 years. It would have been so silly to be nervous that I barely had to tell myself not to be nervous.


This afternoon, I had a rehearsal with a fiddle player and a recorder player for an English country dance ball in a couple of weeks. They both are much more experienced at playing this kind of music than I am, and I felt a little intimidated, but they were very nice and the rehearsal went well. We played through a list of about 20 songs. It was actually fun, and though I felt very creaky at first, started to warm up as we went along.

This evening, we went to my brother- and sister-in-law's house to celebrate her 50th birthday. She called me last night and asked me to bring my cello and play a little bit, so after dinner, I set up and played some Bach and some Scottish folk tunes, and then we all had cake. After the cake, my brother-in-law cranked up his Hammond organ to jam some blues with his brother-in-law, who plays harmonica. I got the cello out again and totally surprised everyone by jamming along with them.

*From Wendell Berry, Collected Poems 1957-1982. San Francisco: North Point Press.

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