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Peeks and Piques!



ART TIMES May, 2005

ALTHOUGH ART AND literature have occupied my thoughts for at least the past sixty years, I find that music, in all its varied and nuanced manifestations, still escapes my critical ken. I confess to a predilection for listening to “classical” music — I usually have it playing softly in the background as I write or paint — but can claim no wide knowledge of it. I prefer it as “background noise” in my study because it contains no lyrics to distract me — and, truth be told, I do not know the names of pieces and cannot discern Mozart from Beethoven, or Chopin from Liszt. Oh, I know a few pieces — like Für Elise by Beethoven — but only because it is particularly moving to me, and I took the time to look it up. Mostly, I simply let music “wash” over me, allowing it to drain away my tensions and “heal” my frazzled nerves. Why this occurs is as much a mystery to me as music is itself. Probably because I look forward to this “healing”, I tend to dislike atonal works (note that I even refrain from calling it “music” — so limited is my insights into the mystery of the subject). The late Robert Starer once invited me to a premiere of one of his compositions, and I held my peace until some months later when we met on the train going to New York City. When he asked my how I liked the concert, I told him that I found it mostly unsettling — after readily admitting that I really didn’t understand such stuff. His response unsettled me even more than did his “music.” He said that only another composer could really understand it since, in his words, “it must be read to be appreciated.” Now that floored me. It sounded so much like Mark Twain’s old chestnut that Wagner’s music was probably a lot better than it sounded, that I almost laughed. I didn’t. Starer was not a man you easily laughed at. I might have pointed out that his argument would be like my saying that you had to read about a painter’s work rather than to look at it to really appreciate it. But I didn’t do that either, and chalked it up to a definite lack in my own appreciation of music and its many ranges This narrow-mindedness on my part generally carries over the whole gamut of sounds that are grouped under the general heading of “music.” I recall that in my younger years I could listen to the “crooners” and their ballads without squirming in my seat and, for a time during my Army years, that I enjoyed listening to some jazz. And, even before that, when I was still in my teens, I played the guitar — sometimes even the banjo and mandolin — as part of a square dance band. But that was only for a few years and I could only play “by ear”. Nowadays, jazz can set my nerves a-jangling as much as Schonberg’s “music” does, and ballads appear to be an old-timey thing of the past. If you really want to see me squirm, make me sit through a musical where I have to watch two performers sing at each other with straight faces. As for most of the ‘60s singers, I was simply constitutionally unable to enjoy the plaintive nasal caterwauling that they all felt more effectively carried their “weighty” social messages. Both their whiny sounds and their political posturing quickly wore thin for me. And today? From heavy metal, hard rock and on into rap and hip-hop — fuhgeddaboutit! I have enough trouble trying to distinguish heart irregularities from the usual wear and tear of aging without adding to my worries by exposing myself to what seems like a never-ending and never-varying drumbeat resonating inside my chest cavity. Anyway, just thought I’d let you in on my secret of being musically-challenged. My own theory is that it has something to do with math. If numbers really do lie at the heart of music, then I’m sunk. I barely squeaked through arithmetic back in grade school.

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