Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Con te partiro.....

This is a post from last month....I thought it was long and boring. Sorry.

So….a couple of times in my life I have been awestruck by music.

Awe struck….as in gap-mouthed, dumb and drooling…..“struck by lightning”…..full on, melt down….Like the apes in “2001”. Uhhh….that was a movie back in the day, before the whole plane-crashing thing.

I was an electrical engineer once… The last class I failed at Cornell in the EE school was taught by Robert Moog….he of the synthesizer, and brake/alignment fame. I learned that Middle E is 400 cycles per second. A square wave sounds like a clarinet. Turn it up loud enough and it will move you……even if you are a rock.

Hence my early music movements: the Allman Brothers live at the Fillmore East… the Airplane, same venue. Jeff Beck. Drugs may have been involved. Crazy decibels certainly were.

I grew up as the son of a crazy, violent, abusive, schizophrenic, drunken banker who loved classical music. Pops would come home from the train….grab a bottle of Boodles, retire to the den and blast Mozart and opera until he passed out under his New Yorker magazine.

Classical music, banking……and gin…. have never been my favorites……..

After my various and many failures in engineering…..I found myself adrift in the kitchens and cellars of Europe after graduation. Burgundy. Switzerland. Greece. Turkey. Croatia. Kosovo, even. And….Austria. Separated from my childhood sweetheart, Jane….recovering from a broken heart or a broken head. Hard to tell the difference.

I used to work in Vienna at Demel’s….the place that claims to have the real Sacher Torte recipe. (Ggg-grandpa Demel worked at the Hotel Sacher, created the cake….. and they didn’t pay him or whatever. He bailed with the recipe 150 years ago, and the battle over Sacher authenticity continues to this day.

This is how crazy I was/am: I was working in Kitzbuhel in a fancy restaurant from 4pm till 4am....then skiing all day on the mountain. I had no money so I could only afford about eight bucks a day. Eight bucks on the mountain got you a slice of Sacher Torte and a viertel of gluwein……a quarter liter of hot, spiced wine with a good shot of Inlander rum in it. Nutrition according to a 23 year old.

I fell into Sachertorte and gluhwein when I was accidentally in a bar on the mountain when Princess Caroline of Monaco swept in with her entourage. Caroline was the most beautiful, radiant human I had ever beheld….plus, she was a dead ringer for Jane. Princess ordered Sachertorte and a viertel gluhwein…….I was hooked.

I was also crazy. I worked all night, skied all day….and in the wee hours of the night conducted a contest in my mind for “Greatest Novel of the 20th Century” between “Sometimes A Great Notion” and “Gravity’s Rainbow”. I read them both cover to cover twice in a row in my spare time that winter. And played on a local hockey team.

No wonder I was single and depressed.

I was so hooked by the Caroline/Jane/Sachertorte/gluhwein thing that I finally quit my job in Kitzbuhel and moved to Vienna to work at Demel’s. Did I think Caroline or Jane would show up? Did I think I would master Sachertorte’s and win the love of Caroline/Jane? Who knows.

Anyway, Vienna was brutal in the winter, especially after a 16 hour shift that netted eight bucks……I hauled bags of flour in from the street, up and down stairs…and did all manner of menial jobs just short of the vile Jugoslavian dish dogs.

After work I would always go two blocks to the Augustiner Keller….. if they were still open. (6.5 days a week, two shifts we worked)….a 500 year old bar next to the palace in Old Vienna. I would hang with old ladies like we have in Cachagua….hardworking, classy, bitter, vicious….only these old ladies had worked for the Kaiser….before WWI.

Next to the Augustiner Keller was the Augstiner Kirche…..an old church, part of the Hofberg (Palace) complex of the old Kaisers.

I grew up a hard-core Catholic…the bishop’s altar boy…..so I have had all of Roman Catholic orthodoxy beaten into me. I can still run the entire Latin Mass out loud, or in my sleep….both the priest’s part and the altar boy’s part: “Introibo ad altare Dei.” “ Ad deum qui laetificat, juventutem meum.”

I will go to the altar of God…..to God, the joy of my youth.


I still have all the hymns in Latin: “Tantum ergo, sacramentum……”, etc. running through my head....

Which is only coincidentally the tune to the Nazi Germans’ national anthem.

So.....on a given night in 1972 in Vienna on my half day off on Sunday…..with no money in my pocket and snow pouring down and my crappy room a two mile hike away.........I turned into the Augustiner Kirche after a visit to the Keller.

“The preacher likes the cold…..he knows I’m goin’ to stay....”

Introibo ad altare dei.......Indeed.

They were doing a Mozart Mass. The place was packed and I was late and a little drunk….so I sneaked up onto the altar and sat out of the way in a spot where I knew no one would notice me. I grabbed a program......which turned out to be the entire score of the Mass.

Mozart wrote the Mass in the Augustiner Kirche….using the Augustiner Kirche’s organ to diddle about and create the piece.

There was a big choir, an orchaestra......and the same damn organ Mozart had originally used to write the Mass.

I had the score….so I could watch everything unfold as it was written out centuries past:: each voice, each instrument......everything.

Sitting on the altar I watched the notes crawl across the printed page as the choir and the band set up a sonic and emotional resonance in the old church that gave me glimpses of things I had never before imagined or felt.

The engineer in me responded to the organization…..the incredibly detailed aspect of one man writing things down on paper that could transmit crazy emotion and knowledge across centuries….instructions for fifty people to follow 200 years after his death to essentially bring him back to life.

It brought everything together for me……the music, the math, the architecture, my dad, the insane work level, the crushing weather…..the refuge of the church. The little frozen, desiccated nugget that was my soul warmed, expanded…..and flew.

I wept quietly and secretly there in my shadow on the altar.....

I got it.

I remember walking home that night and laughing to myself about how cold it must have been to have tears actually freeze on my face.....

So….on to tonight.

We are at the bitter end of a long season. By Friday, we will have done 20 parties in a week. This week alone we have had 15 in four days. We are staggering, fucked and done…..We maintain our sense of professionalism at the expense of our bodies and our souls. Everyone tells us that we are lucky to be busy….and we are too tired to realize that they are dummies and this is all random chance and we will be fucked and broke next month.

Tonight….on our fourth party of the day... we did a fundraiser for Big Sur Land Trust in a house in Carmel. It was sketchy even to have power in Carmel today….and even sketchier to have a Cachagua caterer come 25 miles to town over a winding mountain pass to work after the biggest storm in 40 years.

Big Sur Land Trust event: some piano guy with a concert and board members and major donors. 30pp for apps for an hour, followed by the music. 5:30pm start....with luck we can be gone by 7pm. Please, Jesus….

Upon arrival there is some turmoil in the house. The hot water heater is out. A nice older man is trying to light it and failing. Lee tries to help him.....and fails. The guy just wants a shower, but we come from Cachagua where the storm has taken all of our plumbing out….no water, hot or cold….and no drainage, no sewage, no toilets…..and 36 consecutive 16 hour days without a break. We maintain a barely professional recognition of the gentleman’s lack of hot shower.....We call a plumber.

The household starts to arrive…..BSLT people, the host…who is not the shower guy it turns out....and a beautiful woman who comes in to check out the food. She is from Seattle and loves oysters and champagne. She is a Virgo....August 24….and each year she and her brother buy a bushel of oysters and drink themselves silly and cut their hands up celebrating. She is the cello accompanist for the piano guy….who is the shower guy, it turns out.

I am smitten: Virgo....hot....cellist who is from Seattle, loves champagne, loves oysters and can and does shuck her own in the hundreds range.

Her name is Wendy. Instantly trying to forget the Seattle band, The Odds, song about a Wendy...

So.....”Who is the piano guy with the shower problem?” I ask….

“Phillip Glass.”

Should I know him?

Wendy laughs hysterically and goes off to her room……

Well.....Wendy is Wendy Sutter, and Phillip is Phillip Glass. Wendy started with the Seattle Philharmonic at 16 and now teaches at Columbia after studying at Julliard, etc, etc, etc.

Philip Glass is Phillip Glass.

Wendy is packing a 450 year old cello built by the guy who taught Stradivarius how to build cellos and violins. The cello has the bed in the guest room. The cello is worth 10 million dollars.

Trying to rally…..I ask Wendy about her bows for the cello. Old Jack from Pine Valley builds bows for Yo Yo Ma, and I wonder if she has heard of Jack.

“Well….there are a lot of bow-makers. Sorry. Bows are kind of dime a dozen compared to the instruments. I don’t mean to be disrespectful of your friend….”


“So….where did your bow come from, and……what do bows cost?”

Italy. This one I use for traveling and I got a great deal on it. It was only 17,000 euros. I think I can resell it for 25k eu.”

No wonder a couple of cello bows can keep Pine Valley Jack in beans and rice for a decade or two….

Sufficiently humiliated…we wait for the show to start. Guests arrive and are fed. We manage to get some crab and oysters into Wendy despite her normal pre-concert fasting routine. Phil is a vegetarian….but indulges as well.

Then they play……

A tape of the concert exists….we sat behind the camera. Phillip played an Etude #2, and something else #2. He ran circles and poems around our heads….toyed with us and dazzled us.

Then, Wendy played a solo something that reminded me of Greg Brown…. Or Tom Waits. Growly, grumpy, bassy…..and ultimately deeply moving…..like hearing your granpa talk about courting your granma on the race train to the Derby.

Anyone who thinks that modern technology has all the answers has not met Wendy and her 450 year old cello. Willow wood sides. I forget the wood in front. There is a stainless steel brace where the foot is installed….but everything else is 16th century. The sound that she brings from that old willow is beyond 16th century….it is preternatural.

I learned about resonance as an engineer…..and the music and the sound resonated in that room on levels unimaginable. I don’t have the words…..but once again I was reminded that I have a soul….and once again that dessicated little fucker flew……

Con te partirò.
Paesi che non ho mai
veduto e vissuto con te,
adesso si li vivrò,
Con te partirò
su navi per mari
che, io lo so,
no, no, non esistono più,
con te io li vivrò.

No shit….Paesi che non ho mai…..indeed. Su navi per mari che io lo so non esistono piu…..

Yup. Countries I never saw…..and seas which I know exist no more.

Thanks, Wendy…..

The best part?

When the recital was done, Wendy bee-lined it to the kitchen for some bubbly and some shellfish. I stuttered and babbled…..but she was just another pro, back in the kitchen with the other worker bees.

“God…..that was awful.”

WTF? It was supernatural......

“No….the music was OK….It is just having all those people so close to me. Normally there is a big stage, and I can work with my instrument by myself in my own bubble. But all these people were right on TOP of me…..It was weird.”

As the guy who inaugurated his 60th year on the planet by screaming at nice old lady to “get the fuck out of my kitchen”……

I could relate.

Princess Caroline and Mozart….move over.

I wonder what Wendy thinks about Sachertorte?


Blogger Brian said...

Michael Michael, no wonder you failed the late great Robert Moog's class (I almost did too the second semester until we took over the campus in the spring) ... clearly you read your Pynchon and and your Kesey but not your Hermann von Helmholtz or you would remember that A is 440Hz and within the Pythagorean system middle E must be 330Hz since the pitch ratio of the interval of a fourth is 4/3. I think in equal temperament E would be something like 220 times the twelfth root of 2 to the 7 power. And you thought the Germans were only good for V-2s and toilet ships.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Txacoli said...

Ooooh....hit a guy where it Hertz. A is 440. Fuck...as you said, no wonder.

My only other music training was with some random Chi Phi music/speed freak one lost weekend. Upperclassman....you may have been there. I think even Dintiman was....which fact alone would cause both Mozart and Moog to spin in their tombs. I remember music theory and sweaty, soggy powders....

Ignoring the fact of my poor dad driving me from Anaheim to Pasadena to the home of some disgraced relative for organ lessons. She had contracted divorce or lesbianism, you see. Dad sat in the car.

10:49 PM  
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Blogger Roy Jordan said...

I Hope You Keep A Daily Journal Of Your Time Capsul Adventures That Someday Will Be Transcribed & Published> Into> Book Form To Share With The Enlightened!

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