Reader Poll: Electronic Debussy versus Original–Syrinx, Sunken Cathedral, & Snowflakes are Dancing

See poll at bottom to vote.

Today I’d like to present three pieces by Debussy that I heard for the first time after moving into the French House, at Indiana University, in 1975. The inhabitants of the French house included several language majors, a number of musicians, some journalism students, and a number of other interesting characters of various ethnic, sexual, national and racial groups. Our two story dorm shared a common area with the Spanish House, who for the most part seemed more interested in Latin culture than, us francophiles. However, I enjoyed the mix of people, being exposed for the first time in my life to such diversity. This is where I learned the value not just of simple demographic mix, but rather the value of including different perspectives, ideas, experiences into the dialogue of human interaction. It made for a rich environment.

Music in the 1970 ranged all over the place from the psychedelia of the Grateful Dead, the Disco of Donna Summers, the satiric almost Weil and Brecht-like political and social satire of Frank Zappa to the burgeoning nihilism of Punk Rock. There was also a lot of cross pollination and breaking down of genre-barriers. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Weather Report were fusing Jazz and Rock and Funk and World Music. Rock bands like Kansas and Yes were considered classically inspired since they used violins and had classically trained musicians (Rick Wakemen, for example.) With the advent of cheaper and cheaper synthesizers, even Classical Music was pushing the envelope with artists like Tomita doing covers of Debussy. Tomita, a Japanese went almost even further than Walter/Wendy Carlos (of Switched on Bach), not only doing note for note covers of Debussy, but also creating soundscapes with these new instruments.

Tomita came out with an album entitled, Snowflakes are Dancing, in 1974 that contained Sunken Cathedral, Claire de Lune and Dancing Snowflakes. I wanted to do a side by side comparison of the original version with Tomita’s version and ask you which you preferred.

For some reason I had it in my mind that Tomita also did a cover of the piece for flute entitled Syrinx, but I cannot find it online.

After listening to the original and the Tomita Cover of these pieces, please answer a poll question on which you prefer. Thanks.

Sunken Cathedral (original)

Sunken Cathedral (Tomita)

Snowflakes are Dancing (original)

Snowflakes are Dancing (Tomita)

Here’s the original Syrinx. If someone can find an electronic version of it, please let me know.

Syrinx

Heres’s the poll:

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major, Op.58

The summer of 1975 saw me returning to my home town of Mishawaka, Indiana to find work to pay for the upcoming year of college. The factory where I had worked the year before announced they would not hire any college students that summer. So I spent a few weeks looking through want ads and driving around the industrial parks of Elkhart, Indiana.

Elkhart had about a million factories, which had sprung up during the 1960s around the mobile home industry. Back in the late 50s, some guy had the bright idea of building motor and mobile homes outside that town. This was perfect timing–the Eisenhower administration had started funding and building the interstate road system. In the post war boom period, people had a renewed “westward-ho!” spirit and the recreational vehicle (RV) business boomed. Brands like Holiday Rambler, Airstream, and Skyline sprang up and put thousands to work in northern Indiana. The timing and location was right for several other reasons as well. The biggest industrial plant–Studebaker’s auto–went bust in 1963 and put a large chunk of the population out of work. Many of these workers migrated twenty miles eastward to Elkhart.

Choosing Elkhart was a stroke of genius for one final reason–it lay on the northern edge of Amish territory. The Amish had a strong work ethic and would toil away for long hours without organizing into trade unions. They were faithful employees and the minimum wage they earned gave a needed shot of capital into their otherwise barter economy. It allowed them to trade with the outside world. Since they weren’t heavy consumers, they didn’t drive up the prices for the rest of us heathens, so life was pretty cheap.

By the summer of 1975, however, after the OPEC oil embargo, the RV industry hit a slump. The price of gasoline soared–doubling, then tripling–and people started buying smaller cars and cross country travel became more expensive. So there was no work to be had with the big mobile home manufacturers. That is why I felt lucky when one of the place where I had filled out a job application–a lamp assembly plant–called me back and offered me a job.

This position turned out to be a sine cure, that is a cushy job. The plant assembled cheap table and swag lamps from molded glass and brass-plated tin parts that came from Mexico. The plant had three main areas–a loading dock, an assembly line and a storage area. They offered me a job as a jack of all trades, and my duties were to sweep, keep the assembly line stocked with parts, and help load and unload trucks as needed.

I spent most of my time with “the girls.” The girls worked the assembly line. Most of them were high school drop-outs, poor and from the wrong side of the tracks. Some were cute; some were single; some were my age and were married and had a brood of kids; some were older, married and had quiet, sullen husbands. All of them were very nice to me. Their boss was a small dark lady, with long black hair, a squat, wide torso, and a deeply lined rugged face. Doris. She was a kind boss who never yelled. In the morning, she would get the day’s quota from the president and send me to round up the parts and stock the bins for each person on the line with swags, shades, chains, harps, bases and cords. Someone would tune the radio to the local “Light Rock” channel and production would begin.

For the women, the assembly line served as a kind of sewing circle for them. They kept up a running conversation for almost the whole day. They discussed their kids, their husbands or boyfriends, their sex life, recipes, their joys and sorrows. The only time they ever stopped was when a popular song came on that they all liked.  Doris once floored me by singing along to James Taylor’s cover of “How Sweet it Is to Be Loved By You.”

The women didn’t censor their conversation because I was around, and they sometimes talked louder when they wanted to see how I would react. Every so often someone would make a risque remark and everyone would look up to see my reaction. Let’s face it: I was an airhead back then. The job held little that you could call intellectually taxing, and so I spent most of my time lost in day dreams about the wonderful semester I had passed in the French House.

One of my jobs was to assemble cardboard packing boxes. I would fold these into shape and then take them over to an upright stapling machine to reinforce them. One day while stapling, I went into a little reverie and stood motionless for several minutes before the machine. The voice of the foreman brought me around followed by the laughter of the women. “Kurt! What the hell are you doing?” the foreman yelled. “Looks like he’s gone into one of his trances again!” one of the women shouted. But no one punished me for that.

The foreman was generally pretty nice to me. Technically he was in charge of the loading dock but he really knew how everything worked–he understood the flow of goods in and out of the place and how to keep it running smoothly. He would schmooze with the truckers and then come over to the assembly line and joke with the girls to keep them happy. He was maybe 5 or 10 years older than me and was about my size but was a little more muscular. When we weren’t too busy he’d have me sweep or sometimes ask me to help him and his Mexican assistant load or unload a truck.

The loading dock was where the “Men’s Sewing Circle” met. Sometimes the president would come over and swap dirty stories with the foreman and the truckers. My friend Eric Tollar told me that he had read a study about the language of truck drivers. He cited a statistic that said that over 40 percent of a trucker’s speech is made up of swear words. I did a considerable amount of field work that summer and I’m happy to report that my statistics corroborate that earlier study.

Now my father swore a lot. But he rarely used any sexual imprecations. Of course, he swore a lot in Hungarian, which I didn’t speak and which I am told contains the filthiest swear words of any language on the face of the earth. So maybe he was as foul-mouthed as the truckers, but I never knew it, and the truckers’ language would sometimes make me blush. And since I was still a virgin–at 20–their description of their sexual exploits made me feel woefully inadequate.

That is another reason I spend most of my time on the girls’ side. The most sexually charged conversation there happened one day when one of the girls–let’s call her Jenny–described “doing it” in cars and how she had once “done it” in a Volkswagen Beetle. Being around my age, Jenny was the prettiest of the girls and the most extroverted. Given the right background, she might have gone to college. Instead, she had probably been labeled as “wild” or from the “wrong side of the tracks” and ended up here, doing unskilled labor in this factory. I think she might have been an unwed mother. The other girls liked her, perhaps finding in her stories of her exploits and boyfriends the fantasy life they longed for.

One day, at quitting time, I happened to find myself driving out the parking lot behind Jenny. She was driving a Volkswagen Beetle. It just so happened that she took the same route as me. She turned off before reaching the main road, and I saw her pull into the yard of a ramshackle, tar paper-covered shack. I knew the type of place. My neighborhood had a number of places like this. Poverty breeds ignorance and the children who came from these kind of homes–often with step parents and step-brothers and sisters–usually did poorly academically and rarely had a bright future ahead of them.

Poor people, however, sometimes have bigger hearts than the rich. The women on the assembly line often cut me slack. If they sometimes ran out of parts because I hadn’t kept up stocking the parts, they’d tell me, but never in an angry way. And when the summer came to an end and I announced that I was returning to college, they took up a collection, which they enclosed in a huge, sappy farewell card on which they all signed their names. It was one of the nicest gifts I have ever received.

After that reminiscense, I don’t know what to say about Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number 4. I find a lot to like in all of Beethoven’s piano concertos. The first sounds like it could almost have been written my Mozart. The last had Beethoven’s unmistakable profundity of emotion. The fourth starts out with a nice quite reverie-producing set of chords played by the piano before the orchestra takes them and swells up into a passage that sounds straight out of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The piano solo that fill the middle section starts out with a lovely lilting melody before Beethoven starts showing off his extreme fluidity by weaving the instrument up and down and in and out and around the other instruments. He pits this against a semi-serious melody that the orchestra brings back several times. Each time he acknowledges the serious concerns that melody, but he then always mulls it around and resolves it on an uplifting note. The second movement by contrast is much more serious and reflective. It starts with a very serious statement by the strings before the piano comes in with all quiet, meditative and spiritual. This is someone with a deeply religious sense. The movement ends with a kind of musical question–“is life worth all the pain and struggle?” The last movement answers that question, however, with a resounding “yes!”

No matter how miserable you circumstances and what crap life deals you, it is also full of possibilities. Some people born in squalor or from broken homes or subject to horrible setbacks have emerged triumphant.   However, I wonder how those women in that lamp factory turned out.

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Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 ‘Emperor’

After the most wonderful semester of my college career, in the summer of 1975, I returned to my home town of Mishawaka, Indiana. On weekends I would accompany my friends, Eric Tollar and Gary Endicott, over the border to Michigan where the legal drinking age was 18. Often we’d start out at Tollar’s house. Tollar’s dad was a taciturn engineer and I can’t remember him ever addressing more than a sentence or two in my direction.

Maybe he thought I was a bad influence on Eric. Eric had been the valedictorian the class ahead of mine in high school and he went to Purdue University to major in math. That was a good guy thing to study. Here I came bringing over most of the new records I had discovered the semester before at Indiana University, exposing his son to all that sissy music. Eric you see, coming from a more affluent family than mine, had a stereo that his parents had bought him for the exorbitant price (for 1975) of $900.

Eric’s room was in the attic, which his father had converted into a nice living space. We’d go up there before one of our drinking binges and listen to Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Montiverdi. His father sat in the living room below smoking camels, drinking Scotch and watching Lawrence Welk. What a terrible disappointment that must have been for him.

Eric’s dad had also bought him a used Ford Mustang fastback, which we used to take on our excursions to Michigan. It never got us any girls, however. The reason was that we spent all of our time in the bar trying to get as drunk as possible while discussing philosophy, literature and music. At that time, Eric was a sneering and atheistic cynic. Having a huge IQ also gave him the right, in his own mind, to make fun of most people of lesser intelligence. I enjoyed sitting and asking naïve questions or provoking him by gainsaying his opinions. It was almost like having a private tutor, in the old-fashioned sense, and I learned so much from him as well as honed my own wits in our outings.

One night we got tired of the bar where we started and moved to another one right on the state line, which had the reputation of being a good pick-up joint. By the time we got there it was around one in the morning and the place was nearly empty. We had a few beers and left. When we got into Eric’s car, we discovered he had left the lights on and the battery had gone dead. The parking lot was empty so we couldn’t get a jump. After wringing his hands for a while, Eric finally decided to call his dad. Goddamn if the old man didn’t hop in his car and drive on up.

We waited in silence for the next half hour until he arrived. Gary and I knew how our dads would have reacted if we had woken them up at such an ungodly hour to tell them we were out drinking and had left the lights on. We would have been dead meat, but we didn’t know how Tollar’s dad would react. Tollar was silent on the matter.

When Eric’s dad arrived he jumped out of his car and strode over to his son’s car, barely acknowledging us. He tried starting the car. Then he popped the hood and poked around for a while. “It’s not the battery. Starter’s bad. Let’s go.” We hopped into his car and he sped off. It was one of the spookiest rides of my life–drunk or sober. No one said a word and the old man drove like a bat out of hell. He looked straight ahead the whole way home and passed people on the right who were slow getting off the mark at stop lights. Back at Eric’s Gary and I got our cars and no one said anything as Eric’s dad strode into the house with Eric following behind.

Eric’s basement had an old piano and a television that could pick up channels from Chicago. Sometimes after a night of drinking, we’d come back and watch old movies. Eric had taken a few years of piano lessons and sometimes spent his spare time working on a classical piece. I had loaned him my sheet music to Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp Minor. He said it was incredibly difficult, but he did manage to get through the opening, which I think is one of the greatest ominous statements in all of music.

What I really liked about visiting Eric’s, of course, was his fancy stereo. It had huge speakers that brought a whole new dimension to the music I had only heard on my tinny old stereo. Eric especially liked piano music and we spent a good deal of time trying to find the perfect recording of a piece. Eric, being a math major, wanted to find the most precise, elegant and technically perfect performance. He liked the German performers–Kempff and Richter–who recorded on Deutsche Gramophon. I preferred the more Romantic interpreters–Rubenstein, Entrement, and Van Cliburn.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 was one of the pieces we became fascinated with that summer. My memory fails me as to the precise semester, but I saw this concerto performed at Indiana University by a doctoral student. Now all music is fun to watch performed live, and this is especially true of concertos in which a soloist plays against the orchestra. And of all the concertos, those for piano to be the most exciting to watch, because the performer can bang on the keys and release so much passion and energy.

I haven’t listened to the Piano Concerto No.5 for a number of years-maybe 10. But as I sit here now, writing today’s entry on a subway car hurtling along underground, I hear the last joyous movement playing in my head and can still picture that female piano major tackling the piece and her sense of triumph as she finished the last movement and stood up to face the cheers of the audience.

I can hear from its orchestration that it lies close to Beethoven’s 6th and 7th symphonies, though predating the latter. The third movement has a galloping cadence which, despite a mournful second theme, carries you along the entire way in a state of bliss.

Listening to this piece again makes me think that composing music must be the ultimate in artistic experiences. Music is unique among the arts because it deals primarily in the fourth dimension. For some reason, it also has a synaesthetic effect. That is, you perceive it aurally, but it has the ability to make your neurons fire in the same cadence of the rhythm and you end up tapping your foot. A composer, taking the sounds he hears in his head, can recreate those sounds in a way so that you hear them as well, and so, there is also a sympathetic effect as well: musically actually takes you into the head of the composer so you can experience the reality of another human being.

So that is how I know, from listening to the last movement of his Piano Concerto No.5 that Beethoven was, deep down, a joyful and happy person. Of course, he wrote passionate and heart-rending music that-because of his deafness-makes all of us think of him as a tragic figure. But how life-affirming and altruistic to take one’s profoundly moving emotions, both sad and happy, and bring them out for others to hear. If my mind spun out such wonderful music, I’d be a very happy person indeed.

Buy CD or download MP3s of Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”

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