Posts Tagged ‘What Comes Around’

What Comes Around

Monday, September 11th, 2017

What Comes Around

What Comes Around photo by Todd

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

So the other day Max wrote to say he loved my piano tune “What Comes Around”.

When I created the piece fifteen years ago, I played it several times a day as a form of meditation, and the playing became so automatic I assumed I would never forget how to play that particular progression of chords. “What Comes Around,” is entirely composed, unlike most of my tunes, which are designed to be at least partially improvised each time I play them.

After I recorded “What Comes Around” for my album Incongroovity in 2013, I ceased to play the tune. But when Max said he loved “What Comes Around”, I really wanted to play it again. I sat down at the piano and hunted and hunted for the first chord, but the notes eluded me. Then I listened to the beginning of the recording, and after a long hunt found the opening chord. I hoped the rest of the chords would be easy to remember, but they would not stay remembered when I managed to find them, so I resorted to writing down the notes, though not as notes on a staff but as stacks of letters (with flat signs when needed) denoting the notes.

Since then, I have been playing the pattern of chords several times a day. After a week, I can almost get through the whole piece without having to refer to the stacks of letters denoting notes. I am humbled by how hard it has been to re-learn this piece, and I think about how easy this process would have been had I learned to read music and simply wrote down my compositions as sheet music.

Why didn’t I learn to read music? When I was six-years-old I took piano lessons from a sad angry man who yelled at me when I played wrong notes, and one day he struck my knuckles with a heavy metal pen and called me an idiot when I played a wrong note. I ran from the piano, screaming in pain and fear, and I never took another lesson. When I re-engaged with the piano ten years later, I did so as an explorer without a guide or map, and have continued to explore through trial and error and repetition and improvisation for fifty years.

In the midst of re-learning “What Comes Around” I got an email from my friend Rico about Keith Jarrett and his famous Koln Concert recording. Rico had recently heard a Ted Talk about the concert and wondered if he remembered correctly that I loved that Koln Concert recording as much as he did. I wrote him back and said I had tried to listen to that album, but found the music and the performance uninteresting.

Despite my feelings about the Koln Concert, I will always love Keith Jarrett because of his part in one of the most ecstatic musical experiences of my life, courtesy of the Charles Lloyd Quartet circa 1968. That quartet was Lloyd on tenor sax, Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Cecil McBee on bass. I heard them perform a few times in 1966 and 1967 at the Fillmore along with Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane.

Then in 1968 the Charles Lloyd Quartet came to Santa Cruz to play at Stevenson College where I was living in a dorm and sometimes going to classes. They performed on the stage in the dining hall for an audience of two hundred jazz buffs. The quartet was in fine form and I was enjoying the show, though I wasn’t wild about the music. I was by then deep into exploring the piano in my own unconventional way that had little to do with classical jazz, of which Lloyd and Jarrett were masters.

So midway through the second set, Keith Jarrett stands by the piano and begins playing random notes on a soprano saxophone. He is not keeping time, just playing random notes with no consistent rhythm. And I’m thinking, ‘This is going to morph into some sort of recognizable tune,’ but Jarrett just keeps playing random notes, not in any particular key, for a couple of minutes. The crowd is getting restless, and I feel restless, too.

Now Charles Lloyd starts playing random notes on his tenor sax, though not in time with Jarrett’s non-rhythmic random notes. I can feel my brain trying to make some sort of sense out of what I’m hearing, but with little success.

Now the bass player starts playing random notes, too, but all his notes are very low, which creates a kind of drone bottom, and this sort of gives form to what I’m hearing. Sort of.

And now the drummer begins to play a conga drum (I think he had a single conga, but he might have had two) and though he begins to play with random untimed hits, he settles into, or seems to settle into, a definable rhythm, and suddenly the separate parts cohere and the totality is incredibly beautiful. I focus on Jarrett and he is still playing random notes, as is Lloyd, as is the bass player, but the sum of their sounds feels impeccably composed, the combinations of notes incredible. People begin shouting and singing and crying and dancing, and none of us ever want this astounding music to end.

After telling Marcia about that miraculous musical experience from fifty years ago, I’m doing yoga by the fire when it occurs to me that the drummer played conga (or congas) rather than his trap set because congas make notes, percussive notes, and those notes, played rhythmically, supplied an essential bonding agent for that fabulous musical gumbo.

And this is why, though I have never been a big Keith Jarrett fan, I love Keith Jarrett.

Tender Fearless

Monday, June 19th, 2017

Tender fearless

Rose In Morning Light photo by Todd

The following is a revamped version of Falling Behind, an article I first published in 2011. I was moved to revisit this article while listening to a piano tune of mine on YouTube called What Comes Around.

In 1983, as the trajectory of my writing success was turning steeply downward, my humorless Hollywood agent gave me an ultimatum. “Get an answering machine or find another agent.” Thus I became one of the last people in America to discover the joys of screening my calls.

In the early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages. Most of the people who called me seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change them lest they go mad. Thus I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every couple days, which habit caused my regular callers to complain I was erasing good messages before their friends got to hear them.

Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of something going viral existed. I’m speaking about a time before the ascendancy of the interweb, which was not very long ago, but now seems prehistoric. And I tell you, if by some miracle I could remember that message and put it on YouTube today accompanied by a movie of a woman walking on the beach with her dog, or a movie of three cute kids making cookies from scratch, or a movie of a man reading a book with a cat on his lap (with my piano music as soundtrack)—I have no doubt the message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from hundreds of millions of hits and links and apps and downloads and streams and billions of pennies such prodigious sharing and streaming would bring me.

Sadly or ironically or luckily, I only remember the feeling of that once-in-a-lifetime message, not the words. The feeling was one of deep contentment—of thoroughly enjoying the moment. I recall the day was sunny and warm, my office flooded with light, and I remember being massaged from head to toe by the feeling—the knowing—that simply being alive was a profoundly fulfilling adventure.

Within a few days of recording my message, the phone was ringing off the hook. Many of my friends called multiple times so their friends could have a listen, and then I started getting calls from people I did not know, people who had heard about the message from friends of my friends. And over the next few weeks I got hundreds of calls from all over America and around the world—people calling to hear my outgoing message and leave responses.

A poet called from Germany, and after hearing my message, he recited a poem by Rilke, first in German, then in English—something about the coming of spring.

People partying somewhere in England called, and when the beep sounded, those Brits applauded and shouted “Bravo!”

An elderly woman called from Seattle and said, “I see why my daughter wanted me to hear your message. I can’t stop smiling. I’m going to call again and then tell my friends to call you.”

A man from Scotland left a long friendly-sounding message ostensibly in English, but no matter how many times I listened to his enchanting spiel, I could not understand him.

A bunch of children called, and when the beep sounded, they laughed and giggled—one kid shouting, “You a silly poo poo!”

A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated for me: “I adore what you say and want to have your child.”

I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.

That message made people happy. Those words made people laugh and cry and rejoice; and many callers responded with impromptu continuations of the message—addenda full of love and humor and gratitude. That message was an elixir, a soothing salve, and some sort of answer to the question: why are we here?

I kept that globetrotting zinger on my answering machine for a month until one day I got a call from a friend who had heard the message one too many times and asked me to please make a new one. So without a thought for posterity, I hit the Record button, improvised a new greeting, and thereby erased the greatest outgoing answering-machine message I’ve ever made.

I only heard the message one time, and that was immediately after I recorded it and checked to make sure it sounded okay.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

Fast-forward thirty-four years. My wife Marcia and I both have web sites where we display our wares and talents to entice people to give us money for what we do. Marcia is a cellist, cello teacher, composer, and she runs a chamber music camp for beginning adult string players. Her web site is NavarroRiverMusic.com on which she promotes her camp and sells her CDs and gives away sheet music of her compositions. Her most successful creation, commercially speaking, is Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation, a CD downloaded and streamed by thousands of people every month. Music teachers and musicians and meditation practitioners rave about her cello drones, and there seems no end to her customers.

My web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com on which I sell handsome coil-bound copies of my many books that publishers, so far, are indifferent to. Thankfully, several dozen people love my self-published books, so I persevere. I also sell my five CDs of original piano music, two CDs of original songs I recorded with Marcia, story CDs, birthday cards, postcards, and notecards of my zany drawings. Visitors to my web site can listen to stories and chunks of my novels (read by yours truly) and read articles on my blog. In contrast to Marcia’s ongoing deluge of listeners, I am not so besieged—my creations purchased, on average, by three people a month—three insightful unique magnificent people.

And, yes, my experience with the aforementioned miraculous outgoing answering-machine message, as well as a few other game-changing incidents of cosmic largesse that have befallen me over the course of my life, keep me believing that one day such transcendental beneficence might befall me again.

Oh I wish I could remember those remarkable words that inspired so many people to call and leave such lovely messages. I remember the tone, a tender fearlessness—but the words elude me.