Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I came to classical music through a perfume commercial.

Growing up we had some music in the house, a decent turntable my father has set up in the front room. He'd run wires through a hole in the wall into his study. We each had our own little record player in our rooms as well. I remember my Dad's record collection having Evita, Willie Nelson, a strange Janis Joplin album with a Robert Crumb cover, and a bunch of things I never listened to. Myself, my fondest albums were some Beatles late-period stuff, the soundtrack to Pete's Dragon, and a Saturday Night Live comedy album. I think the closest I got to listening to classical was Hooked on Classics. My musical idiom stayed pretty close to alt rock up through college-- They Might Giants, Adrian Belew, Laurie Anderson, Elvis Costello, Midnight Oil, Timbuk 3, etc. We ended up with a couple of classical albums I listened to on and off. However for a time we also had a German ND grad-student border who insisted on playing Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”. I don't think it was entirely a surprise when she joined a Christian Cult, accused my mother of being a CIA agent, and ran off with her guru who'd renamed himself “King David”. She also thought Americans made too much of the Holocaust.

In any case, I'd had some exposure to classical music by the time I got to grad school. I'd known a couple of musicians when I was in foreign study at American University Cairo. I'd gone to a couple of excellent performances there. I'd also seen Amadeus on stage and in the theaters. So...you know...the usual.

When I headed off to Baltimore, I arrived a few weeks before the semester began. My sister was already there, having finished her MA the previous year. While we were waiting for the rental we would live in to get finished up, I was trying to work through the stack of books they'd sent me in preparation for teaching Contemporary American Letters, the freshman required course through the Writing Seminars Program. This class was clearly a money-maker for the department-- a fixed class students had to take, a cheap labor pool of graduate students, and no real pedagogical approach. The mix of books we had to teach from at the time was a mess-- and I spent much of my time trying to figure out poetry, meta-fiction, and how to successful use the anthologies and stand-alone books (of course written by instructors in the department).

And I watched a lot of TV since I had little else to do. So I couldn't help but be slammed in the face by the advertising campaign for Egoiste by Chanel. You can see the commercial here. The music you can hear in the background is Sergei Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights" from his ballet Romeo and Juliet. I don't know what is was about that music, but it really stuck with me. The freaky imagery of the commercial probably helped. Phil, my ex-brother in law, knew quite a bit about music. He told me what the piece was and pointed me to an exclusively classical music record store at a nearby mall. I tracked an album of the music and was pretty well hooked. At first I picked up more pieces by Prokofiev, then I started to see other multi-disc cheap compilation sets of other composers. Somehow, in that I found Dmitri Shostakovich, my favorite. I listened to some of the Romantic masters-- Brahms, Dvorak, etc-- but I found myself preferring early to mid 20th Century pieces, like Hindemith, Martinu, and Mahler. I dated a violinist for a while who had some impact on my tastes as well, and I got to see a number of live performances.

I buried myself fairly deeply into this-- and into modern poetry. I'm a goober at heart and when I find a hobby or interest, I tend to overdo things. There's an acquisitions mentality I've been trying to break for years that I can't quite handle. It works for the good when it is a hobby that I stick with and get a good deal of enjoyment out of, but in many cases I end up wasting money. I steer away from CCGs and CMGs for that reason-- the need to be a completest. For things like a particular genre of film, a writer, a musician, that indulgence can get out of hand. In the end I have a bunch of things I either have looked at once or not at all. When I went to Johns Hopkins I think some of this indulgence was a reaction to my general unhappiness. I tore through various book series-- like all of Spenser for Hire and everything Roger Zelazny wrote. At least for classical music, my interest stuck. I raided the university library for books on music and tried to figure out what I liked and didn't like. We didn't have the internet as we do now, so tracking things down was hard-- a pleasure, but hard. I wonder if, in part, all of this ended up being a sublimation for the fact that I wasn't playing or running any rpgs.

When I moved back to South Bend I kept up my interest. I went to Chicago a couple of times to check out the Tower Records downtown. I chased down particular albums via mail order. When Best Buy first opened here it had an extensive classical music collection. I raided that more than I care to say, building up my collection. I drove down to Bloomingtom a couple of times for Opera performances there. Eventually through my mom I got the opportunity to write reviews for the South Bend Tribune. I covered the Lake Michigan Symphony, the South Bend main and chamber series, Indiana Opera North (during its short run), and some other bits and pieces here and there. I quit doing that when the paper changed to a fully morning edition. At that point they wanted reviews in by 10-11, the night of the performance. Given that most things I went to didn't end until at least 10 plus driving time, I couldn't manage that.

I still love classical music, and again, especially 20th Century stuff. Some more modern pieces I still don't like-- too much dissonance even for my ear. I've also come to appreciate good soundtrack music-- some for the real lyrical quality and some of it for its evocative nature. I'd say a good part of that comes from soundtrack music's utility at the game table, a topic I'll hit on in the future. All that being said, I should point out-- I can't read music, I couldn't easily identify a composition reliably, I can't put names of techniques to what I hear except for the most obvious, but I do know what I like and enjoy.