Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Con Vivo: Purity of Melody

Autumn seemed to arrive with unmistakable determination on the last Friday in September. The first Fall nips in the breeze reminded you to button your jacket. Gruelingly hectic week at the day job, capped off by a stress saturated Friday. Oh, did I mention the Economy sucks? Exhausted, frustrated. I felt sad and had no one to drink with. I ascended to Grove Street, remembering that it is indeed Friday and that means Art Market, which always has a nice vibe. Under a canopy, musicians were playing. That’s a new thing—usually just a DJ spinning tehno grooves on Friday. This music was acoustic. In fact, it was classical, the genre known as Chamber Music, which is played by a small group of instruments, not an orchestra. A violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet and a bassut (yes, I too thought it was an oboe at first). There was no amplification. Between the near deafening wheeze of the buses and trucks and the clatter of what appeared to be a more crowded than usual Art Market, I couldn’t make out what they were playing. A sudden wind knocked down one of the stands in front of the musicians, a flurry of sheet music scattered towards the sidewalk. The musicians picked up the sheets. I lingered, half-expecting a comedy. This could get funny. I sat down on one of these cement planters. I had to lean forward and make an effort to hear. This music, and the musicians, had to struggle against the din. I was not alone. A dozen or so folks seemed likewise enticed, including a couple of teenagers. Suddenly, I wasn’t rubber-necking at some debacle, I was compelled to listen, even though it required a strain to be attentive. Melody pulled me in. Drifting, lilting, accentuated by the natural sound of the instruments. The bassut had such a spooky tone, a compelling counter-point to the more jaunty tone of the clarinet. Subtlety and texture came to mind and I gradually realized, I am hearing beauty. I’m not sure what I recognized—I don’t know Schubert from sherbet—but alongside what I guess is called classic classical chamber music, were some Spanish numbers, from Mexico and Cuba, and from what I could make out of the announcements, they were from both composers and songs the cats picked up during their travels south of the border. Some melody lines were familiar—did I hear that in a Sam Pekinpah western, or Copeland or the familiar riffs of the variety of Spanish dance music one hears around the hood? Was that a touch of klezmar? I don’t know, I shut off that part of that brain that seeks recognition and identification. Our compulsive need to understand and analyze has to be obliterated sometimes in order to experience the moment. I suppressed the surrounding noise of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. I listened to the sound, the melody and the notes that make up that melody—melody is obviously the basic foundational unit of all music, but it is not the only component of a performance of a song. Sometimes, what touches you the most is the playing, or the individual performances within a context, or the harmonics, or the arrangement. What struck me from these cats was the melody. The melody was paramount, the melody dictated everything else. Like all art, music is a form of expression and music will often express the emotions that escape words or images. It is not like I had a life changing experience. You can still fit everything I know about classical music into a thimble and still have room for your thumb. I’m not about to burn my Bob Dylan and Elvis collection and begin to follow chamber quintets playing the tri-state area. But music is not a mutually exclusive love affair. I was down in the dumps and then uplifted by talented musicians. My heart was gladdened by the purity of melody. Never know what you’ll experience once you get off that PATH train.


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