Monday, November 19, 2007

Forward, March! into the Labyrinth

Play an instrument long enough, and you learn to start thinking like a true artist: how can I make some money off of something—anything?

I noticed, at the Masonic Lodge concert, that the Scottish Rite Band played out of two small books of marches—small, so they will fit on the lyres of musicians when they are actually (God forbid!) marching.

One book was called “Marching to Victory.” The other was called “Marching to Fame.”

Now, with all due respect to the writers of marches, and the amount of time it takes to write anything at all, these were pretty insipid.

Yet, I discovered a possible niche. One can write a book of marches with martial titles and an inspiring cover title, and take the world of high school students, community bands, nay, even the whole military establishment by storm. The world could know me. I smell power.

I begin at the hard part: a title for the collection. Here is where imagination, savoir-vivre, je ne sais pas, are required.

Just the collection titles below constitute a life's work of march-writing:

Marching to Triumph
Marching to Empire
Marching to Disaster
Marching to Doom
Marching to a Different Drummer
(Editorial note: this is for bands whose rhythm sections are lured away from the conductor’s tempo by their own inner metronomes—by the way, it is part of the drummer’s job description that he/she must always criticize the conductor for wavering and unsteady tempi, especially during accelerandos and ritardandos. Italian drummers have no difficulty with this sort of thing—drummers with a Teutonic background should be playing horns—since they are, ahem, “teutonic.”)

Marching to Oblivion
Marching to Hegemony (could be combined with the preceeding)
Marching to Armageddon
Marches for the End Times
The Twelve Marches of the Apocalypse
Cataclysms of Jericho—Seven Marches Guaranteed to Destroy
Lucky Marches for the Acacacademy of Anthropopopopopometry
Dada Marches (all music must be played with the eyes closed on an instrument for which the player has no training)
Effete Marches for Literati
Manly Marches for the Ineducati
XXX-Rated Marches for the Orgiati
Political Marches in Ineffective Meters
Marches without Melodies
Arrhythmic Marches
Harmonica Band Reed Marches
Guessing Marches
Marches on One Note (easy to get 11 marches out of this theme)
Marches based on Themes from Bad Movies
Ironic Marches on Saracstic Motifs
Marches in Polymetric Polytones
Rhetorical Marches for Speeches on Occasional Topics on Topical Occasions
Painful Marches for the Marchise de Sade
Fiddling While Cities Burn: Marching Forward Through History Backwards to Rome
Marching to Destiny: Deterministic Marches for Free People
High Colonic Marches
A Treasury of Monetary Marches
A Wine Cellar of Marches that may turn to Vinegar
A Sweet Evening of Acerbic Marches
Odd-Metered Marches for Acrobatic Musicians
Aerobic Marches for the Under-Exercized
Abrasive Marches for the Weak of Heart
Marches for Cat-Scans and Birdbrains
Bellicose Marches for Boxers and other Belligerents
Serpentine Marches with Sinuous Melodies

Somewhere, there is a computer program that will, on a simple command, generate marches in a variety of acceptable keys. With a second computer, marches can be written while I practice, or nap. Or both. With several computers running the program simultaneously, the life's work could be finished in a week. Then it will be time for a computer that generates more titles.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Story of Someone Else's Labyrinth

This is about a Patty I knew, whose last name is lost to me, but I do remember the day she was standing in my office door, hanging around, chatting me up about the possibility of us getting together outside of school, getting it on, and she checked the hallway quickly and exposed her breasts. "What do you think?" she asked, holding her bra up. Caught by surprise, I could only agree, "Those are breasts, all right."

She was trouble. She was danger. She was a bottomless pit. She was an aspiring actress and stand-up comic, involved in theater at PCC, and apparently not bad, since the faculty directors both wanted her in their plays. She was attractive enough, but had to be slenderer, she thought, so she had liposuction and got infected. She showed me the bandaged staples in her sides.

She was very bright in class, but a labyrinth inside. I lost track of her until a year or so later, when she called me at school, not in Pasadena, but in Detroit, when I was still teaching at the Center for Creative Studies (now called the College for Creative Studies). She wanted to meet for lunch. We met at a restaurant somewhere near where the Mexican restaurants were located. We ate, she said she was pregnant, living with a man--an ex-con--who abused her, and related that she needed $700 for an abortion. I told her I'd be glad to help, but there was no way I could put my hands on that kind of money, to which she replied that she had a lawyer friend who could help. She also revealed that this was not the first time she had been in an abusive relationship. Her life was a mess and heading downhill.

She called me because she needed money, certainly, but also because she must have been lonely and needed a sane person to confide in.

I had to get back for afternoon classes, so I dropped her off near where she was living. She could not be seen getting out of another man's car, I guess, so we were several blocks away from the actual apartment. It was a chilly day in November. She wore a long dark coat. She was still attractive, but she seemed to have lost the high and hopeful spirit of her Pasadena existence--it takes some crazy, bizarre energy to bare your breasts in public, even if it also reveals a troubled mind.

The neighborhood was the new Patty: one of those spiritless and desolate working-class areas where many of the buildings have been bulldozed, and the ones left aren't reassuring among the dry, weedy vacant lots. The cold and snow left cracks in the sidewalks, potholes in the street--everywhere in Detroit there seemed to be potholes in the streets. Trash stuck in the broken down fenceposts, and cans and bottles lay in the dirt.

She turned a corner and disappeared.

Trombone in the Wilderness

Being a musician takes you into a lot of out-of-the-way places. Tonight I played with a community band, the Scottish Rite Band, for a dinner at the Masonic Lodge in South Pasadena, California. My wife was playing flute, dinner was free, and so I went and joined in with the regular trombone section--they were glad to have reinforcements.

Community band playing, in general, is a blog for the future. This is about the Masonic Temple and the people I saw there. Very strange. My deepest information about the Masons, and their ancestors, the Knights Templar, comes from novels like Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 and Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code (I admit, shamefaced, I read it). From these books, I gather the real history of the organization is lost in the dim mists of myth, mysticism, folklore, and religion. It must also have connections with the military, since people seemed to focus on the war, veterans, commemorating soldiers of the past. A speaker at the end intoned the axioms that "Freedom is not free," and "All of us have given something; some have given all."

The building itself must have dated from the thirties. The lighting was dim, the stage right out of the proscenium tradition of old auditoriums. The dinner: some overcooked steak, scalloped potatoes, peas and carrots from one of those large cans you see on the shelves at Costco. They had wine, too: 2-buck Chuck.

I had expected a rousing affair, but the members of the band outnumbered the audience, which was mostly older people. The hall gave the band and its spouses dinner for free; others had to pay $8. The Masons must have lost money on that, because the Masonic membership seemed pathically low or indifferent to the occasion. (I have seen similar lack of enthusiasm at the American Legion Hall in Pasadena, where I rehearse weekly with another band. We play the occasional event there, and the audience is almost always the spouses of the bandmembers and American Legion stragglers.)

I can't help thinking at events like this, that these organizations seem to be on their way out, a relic of the forties, slowing dying, their traditions maintained by diehards with a need to attach themselves to some cause and no other cause in immediate sight. There were one or two families with children, but neither the food, the music, nor the ambience seemed such as to encourage the children to say, when they are free to make their own decisions, "Wow, let's check out the Masonic Lodge tonight--it's bound to be a happening place."

Both the Lodge and the American Legion hall are home to strays--guys who come down to drink cheap during the day, hang out with a few friends, watch game shows on tv without being heckled by their wives (or watch different game shows than their wives want to watch). You can start drinking the moment the doors open--around 8 am. For the men who have lives, the occasional events are barely appealing enough to spend a Sunday afternoon, judging from the attendance. There is a musty quality about it all, from the lifeless American flags, to the scuffed hardwood floors, to the darkened bar room with its dart board and pool table. Office-brown faux-leather chairs line the anteroom. In the hall, old theater seats, four or five rows deep, surround the center, where Events take place (or used to take place, when such Events could give meaning to a young man or young woman's life). It's a milieu that regards women skeptically, as bothersome appendages, who show up occasionally as guests but have a vaguely uncomfortable feeling that they're admitted as a courtesy, not because they are valuable to the institution.

However, the Masons do have their Women's Auxiliary: the Job's daughters.

I don't know why they're called Job's Daughters. Presumably not because they counsel the men to "Curse God, and die," as Job's wife famously did in the entertaining Biblical book about his unjustified suffering.

Once, in a world long ago, when I was in high school, I was invited to a Job's Daughters ceremony. My upbringing must have been terribly deficient--I had no idea what I was witnessing. I saw girls (some of whom I knew from school) dressed in these white semi-ball gowns; I think one was being crowned. I don't remember recognizing any of the guys. I don't know who invited me, or what I was expected to do. I was a peripheral onlooker. I can believe there is mysticism in those rituals: they were a complete mystery to me. At school in the days following, no one alluded to it. It was as though I had been kidnapped by aliens, taken to another world, watched their alien rituals, and then been deposited back on earth to resume a normal life.

At that time--the late fifties--the hall was packed with attendees.

On this night, at the South Pasadena chapter, it was virtually empty, except for the band, which number about thirty, and the audience, which numbered about twenty-five, including five or six children who could not possibly have been interested in anything except dessert.

The band played old marches, patriotic pieces, all at a tempo roughly one-third slower than they should have been, so it sounded sluggish, pervaded with the same sense as the hall: the time is running out, the energy has given way to the entropy of change. It's like the dead or dying limb on a tree that will eventually fall off as the tree takes new forms, as kids go on to new types of experiences, as even new veterans (we'll always be producing them--war is big business) find post-war bonding in other venues.

When the Knights Templar appear only in novels, it will be a sad day. There are few enough places anymore where a musician can get a free meal.