2003-09-02 - 12:41 p.m.
I started reading “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter this weekend. It’s an interactive book; as he expounds on the Systems Underlying the Universe, he presents little formulas and axioms and invites you to play around with them. So far I have produced a few pages and discarded envelopes covered in scribbled strings like this: MIUUIUU MII MIIII MIIIIIIII MUUIIUUIIUIUIUI. If you have read the book, this might make you giggle.
Anyway, Hofstadter talks, obviously, about Bach. I should know more about Bach than I do. He is my mother’s favorite composer. My mother teaches piano, has a master’s in performance piano, has been playing to me and around me since I was in the womb.
My mother is a classical musician. I am not.
She gave me piano lessons for a few years when I was a kid. She played classical music all the time, most of which I must have ignored – I have no early memories of any particular piece the way I do of the first rock song I ever recognized as a distinct song, a repeatable entity (that was Dylan’s ‘Shelter From the Storm’). Classical music never fascinated me; I just thought it was pleasant. My mom must have recognized early that I didn’t have the formal spark of a musician, and she left me alone about it: no more piano lessons once I tired of them, no music theory, no mocking my New Kids on the Block tapes. She respected that I wasn’t the same as she was.
I played the trombone for a few years in late elementary school, and again no passion took hold of me. I quit when I started junior high so I could take French classes, a subject for which I really did have a passion.
And then, when I was eighteen years old I bought a pawn shop electric guitar AND joined the choir. I was a solid but mediocre choral singer and a terrible guitarist. Six years later I am a mediocre rock singer, a passable bassist, and a terrible guitarist. And still, even though I love playing in bands, I have to force myself to practice.
Once I was practicing the guitar in my room, home from college for the summer, and my mom stuck her head in: “I didn’t know you knew how to play scales!” She was genuinely astonished, very pleased. Now, scales on the guitar are not very impressive. If you can memorize this: 24 124 134, you can play a major scale in any key. You don’t have to know what notes you’re playing, even. I explained this, hating to let her down.
There are a few very basic tenets of music theory I’ve learned from being a guitarist, stuff about relative minors and how to build a chord, plus a few things about harmony from singing alto, and I am simultaneously very proud of them and kind of cowed by my mother’s prowess. I want her to think of me as a musician, but I don’t think she does. I am…I mean, I sat down with my guitar yesterday because Hofstadter had written about rounds (you know, Three Blind Mice, Frere Jacques, Row Row Row Your Boat, etc.) as simplistic versions of things Bach did, and I wanted to see how they worked. Turns out those three songs are all within a one-octave major scale, and someone’s always singing the root note, someone’s always singing a third or fifth, and someone’s always singing a seventh or the root note, except when they’re not, and then someone’s singing the second and someone else is singing the fourth, so it’s okay. I can figure that out, even if I can’t explain it very nicely. I can stand in front of people and play things, can make up my own songs, can make up things to go along with other people’s songs. But I don’t really feel like a musician because I don’t know if my own mother thinks of me as one.
Oh my goodness. What I really meant to write about was how much I hate the harpsichord. I sat down to listen to the Goldberg Variations yesterday, thinking maybe I’d find something there after reading all about Bach and the way he composed. The problem was, the thrift store LP version I listened to was played on the harpsichord. As part of an orchestra, this instrument always sounds really cheesy to me, kind of synthesized, canned, unexpressive…just cheesy. And solo, playing this very technical Bach stuff, the harpsichord sounded like this: BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG. I tried in vain to pick out the formal genius of it, and I could not. I quit.
I hate the saxophone, too. It also sounds cheesy, no matter what it’s playing. Medium overrides message.
This has been a discombobulated entry. I attribute this to it being written on a foreign computer in a public area with the Writer’s Hotline phone ringing now and then: “Hello! I’m wondering if I should capitalize ‘ladies’ in ‘Attention, ladies!’”