It was a Friday night and Pauline Oliveros of the Deep Listening Institute was giving a concert in a converted warehouse in downtown Boston. It was a large space with girders; everything painted brightly and divided into many rooms and studios. I followed the signs to the concert and found a room with large pillows spread around the floor and fold-out chairs lined-up in rows along one side. People lounged about on the pillows, middle-aged men looking like late-60s Allen Ginsburg in long salt and pepper beards lying with one elbow on a pillow, talking while flipping beads. I found myself a chair and watched the crowd lying about my feet.
A woman maybe 35 years old with long black curly hair and a colorful broomstick skirt rose and called the event to order. She stood before us and introduced Ms. Oliveros. She told us that Pauline had become a close friend over the years and that she would forever be grateful to Pauline for having taught her that she didn’t need all that technique to express herself when she played the violin. People nodded in agreement but my eyebrows crossed. I wasn’t so sure whether or not that was an endorsement. Ms. Oliveros then rose and took a seat centrally placed within the room and laid her accordion at her side. She looked a stern woman, with short white hair and a bulky sweater.
“Before I play,” she said, “I would like to recite a poem that I just wrote.” She unfolded several sheets of paper from her coat pocket and told us the poem was entitled Homage to the Earthworm. “I want to preface this poem by saying that I recently learned that the earthworm, this most lowly of creatures, sings. I learned that the earthworm, as it digs its way through the earth each day, intones a single note.” I don’t remember much about the poem except that it was four pages long and the last line was something like: “Albert Einstein could not speak until he was four, but what did he hear?” And then she looked up at us as she folded the pages and placed them back into her pocket. The audience applauded loudly, people turning to their neighbors nodding, murmuring their approval.
Ms. Oliveros then picked up her accordion and breathing deeply, she opened the instrument and let its bellows fill with air. The audience grew silent, as though everyone breathed in together with Ms. Oliveros and her accordion. I was very curious, just what did experimental accordion sound like? Accordion to me was the sound of countless folk musics, countless songs and traditions passed-down from generation to generation and sung with great volume by the people. It was Buckwheat Zydeco and Flaco Jiménez, music played as people danced. It was Lili Marlene, foreign, distant, and exotic, the memory of an old and vanished Europe destroyed in two world wars. Ms. Oliveros closed her eyes and she raised her head, her chin held up.
Then she began to play.
I was seated in one of the fold-out chairs to her right, so I saw the hand that played the keys. She began with her right hand placed at the top of the instrument, all five of her fingers scrunched together as though she was trying to pick something up. The fist of her fingers on the keys produced a great dissonance and with the sustain of the accordion, the dissonance filled the room and stayed there, as though hanging in the air. The notes she played sounded like the fingers looked, dense clusters of seemingly random sound bunched together. I couldn’t tell one thing from the other or what to listen to but it appeared that she held down all the contiguous keys, the black and the white keys, each a half step apart. It was as though she was mixing all the colors of the palette, all the notes smudged together and stirred into a single grayish soup. But I’d never seen someone’s hand play a keyboard like that, all scrunched up, as though the fingers hit the keys in a pile, striking whatever key they so happened to land on.
Then her pinky began to probe down the keyboard, something like the antenna on an insect, slowly moving about, sensing the terrain before crawling forward. The pinky then settled on a fresh key and held its position as the other four fingers inched down to follow the pinky’s lead, though with seemingly greater assurance since the pinky had blazed the path. Each finger found a key next or near to its neighbor and rested there, producing a fresh cluster of discord to hang throughout the room. The process continued as her right hand slowly made its way down the keyboard, as though I was watching a sloth climb down a tree, carefully moving, ever so methodical and measured. The pinky got to the bottom of the keyboard. Now it reached out with its antenna-like movements but instead of finding more keys, there was open space, great vacuous open space, as though it was the pinky and not Ms. Oliveros who was discovering the dimensions of the keyboard. With nothing below to land on, the pinky returned to its last key and now the thumb took up the role of pathfinder. Now the thumb probed the route back up the keyboard, forging ahead with slow and careful movements as each of the four fingers followed behind. Before long the thumb was at the top of the keyboard, probing the empty air. And so the pattern of movement continued, up and down the length of the instrument.
Sometimes the right hand would jump, leaping across the keys, all five fingers landing, sprawled, like Spiderman landing on a wall of some vast building, as though I could see tension in those fingers, clinging but ready to spring again. And all the while Ms. Oliveros kept her eyes closed. Sometimes she’d dip her head down into the instrument and then other times, she’d cock her head back, her chin pointing out.
As the minutes ticked on, 10, 20, a half hour, I found myself watching with great anticipation for that pinky to get to the bottom of the keyboard and then reach out into the open air to find nothing. It would hang over the edge of the accordion, like those films of an astronaut hanging off the Space Shuttle on a spacewalk, legs and arms dangling with the massiveness of Space all around. Like that pinky was standing on a ledge, held back in the nick of time by the rest of the hand but full of fear from looking out over vast empty space, the fear that can seize your legs and climb through your body and catch your breath.
All the while I listened for a pattern in the music that I could cling to, waiting for Oliveros to make some statement in the music, creating a context within which I could then hear everything else. But in all that discord and crowded dissonance, all I could I find was to watch that pinky climbing up and down the keyboard, this small and tentative finger, fearful and fragile, yet seemingly leading the way to the emptiness at the bottom of the instrument. It was almost poignant to watch that pinky.
I found myself turning my wrist slowly and with great care pulling up my shirt sleeve so that no one would see me check for the time. Finally after 45 minutes of hitting both the white and the black keys together, Ms. Oliveros began playing only the white ones. Now, since she was only playing white keys the sound was no longer discordant but consonant. I figured that this turn of events had to mean that she was nearing the end. She had moved from discord to concord and experimental or not, that movement had to be the structure she was conceiving of. I looked at my watch. I don’t know at what point I had begun to long for the end of the cacophony, for the end of whatever it was she was playing, but I was pleased to hear the consonance of the white keys and I thought that surely the performance would soon be over.
Within ten minutes she silenced the accordion and withdrew her right hand from the keys. The pinky retracted into the fist of her hand and was still. Slowly she opened her eyes, lowered her chin, and looked out over the audience. The audience was silent for a brief moment but then, as though waking from a deep trance, everyone applauded loudly, turning around and nodding with their neighbors, shaking their heads in utter astonishment.
I was baffled. What had I missed? What did I fail to get? What did I miss in almost an hour’s worth of seemingly random clumps of sounds that hung in the air like unresolved conflict? Did everyone else get it except for ignorant me? I hadn’t come with any expectations, only curiosity, but truth be told, I didn’t enjoy the music and nothing in the music made me want to. If I was going to applaud and cheer, it was because after almost an hour, the noise had finally ended. And I had this fear that if we applauded too much, she might open up the bellows of her accordion and give us an encore. But the applause did finally subside and I had this nagging voice inside my head telling me to stand up and say “the Empress has no clothes!” Or at the very least to ask Ms. Oliveros to play Lili Marlene, my point being, after an hour of this apparently random sound, I wasn’t so sure the woman knew how to play the instrument that each of us had paid twenty dollars to hear her play.
Everyone got up and began milling about, talking, the adulation and admiration for all things Oliveros rising with the volume of the conversation. We worked our way towards a table laid out with wine, crackers, and cheese. I didn’t understand. Did the Empress have no clothes or was there something that all these people were wise to and that I was not? Was I too closed and stubborn to cure myself of the ignorance that prevented me from understanding the reason that all these people were so taken with Ms. Oliveros and her accordion? Someone poured wine for me into a plastic cup.
“Wasn’t that just amazing!” A young woman asked me, though she wasn’t really asking of course.
I nodded in agreement as I sipped my wine and turned my head to look at Ms. Oliveros and her accordion, now surrounded by people clamoring for her attention.
What had the violin player meant when she thanked Ms. Oliveros for teaching her that she didn’t need all that technique to express what she had to express? Maybe she had misunderstood the lesson and Ms. Oliveros had been too polite to correct her there in front of all of us. But she talked about technique as though technique itself had been banished to a corner of the room, forlorn and rejected. As though we had all turned our backs to technique, a few of us now and then looking around at it as she spoke, giving it a little smile and shake of our heads. ‘Tsk, tsk, technique, who did you think you were?’ I never heard this woman play her violin, but she said she was free thanks to what she had learned from this music that we had just heard. It was as though technique somehow made you a slave to the system, a system that dictated a structure that boxed you in and held you back from the free expression of who you were. Lose the structure, shed the form, and you were revealed.
I must admit that when I heard the woman speak, I felt some resentment, and listening to Oliveros play for an hour hadn’t helped. And now the room was glowing with praise and admiration. I played the double bass and I had spent years trying to learn how to play my instrument. Like a monk in his cell, I had spent endless hours each day honing my skills. Hours spent playing my scales, learning from albums, listening to the greats, copying their every nuance. Like an athlete working his body, repeating the same motions over and over to memorize, shape, and discipline, I had trained my fingers. And like an athlete, I dealt with the frustration of always needing to reach further, to get farther than I could get, and then stumbling. To “fold” or failing to “make the gig” did not mean simply that you didn’t show up, it meant that you couldn’t cut it. It meant that you lacked the necessary skills to do your job, to do what you were hired to do. When you were up there playing with others, you were a part of a team, each playing a part to uphold and move the team forward, and if you failed, the whole team suffered. And that took technique and discipline. I played the bass, the only instrument named after its function. I was the bass, the bottom that held the structure, and I knew I was playing well when those I played with smiled because I made them feel good and feeling good, with the bass of the music secure under my fingers, they were free to play their best.
So as I stood there after the concert, I needed to know if Ms. Oliveros could play Lili Marlene. Otherwise, to me, she was a naked Empress and all these admirers had been faked. But I knew she couldn’t play Lili Marlene and that she probably had no interest in playing it anyway. Maybe she was the charlatan I was beginning to think she was, or maybe there really was something to what she played and it was I, alone in that crowded room, who was too closed and stubborn to hear it. I remember the story of the great Charles Ives, almost a hundred years ago, composing his music each day on his commute from New Haven to New York to work in an insurance office. He was never recognized in his lifetime but he’d arrange for performances of his own music, hire musicians, and then stand in the back, listening and watching. The story goes that once he saw a man seated in the back row wince and Ives leaned over and in a low whisper said “Take your dissonance like a man.” But I needed to know that she could function as a musician, that she could play the role of an accordion player. And I wasn’t convinced that she could. Technique is about function and the violinist that introduced Oliveros felt liberated because Oliveros had told her that she didn’t need to function as a musician.
There was a long table laid out with the many books and CDs Oliveros and her Deep Listening Institute had produced. I watched a young woman walk over to the table. She was petite with long strawberry blond hair that fell in curls about her shoulders and she wore loose-fitting pants cinched tight above her waist. I watched her as she picked up the books one by one, flipping through them as though each page held a frame from a cartoon. Or maybe by flipping through each book she was able to quickly absorb their entire contents. I wondered how one could fill all those books with writing about this music. The young woman made herself a pile of books and CDs and I thought I might move over to the table and talk to her but an older man stood a few feet behind her. He was maybe twice her age, forties, and looked tired holding his plastic cup of wine. He wore a suit that no doubt had been pressed crisp and clean that morning, but now, some sixteen hours later, was tired and crumpled, the white shirt unbuttoned and the tie pulled down. His eyes sagged with the need for sleep and he looked as though he’d long since been free of any doubt about this event, doubts that I was still struggling with. I couldn’t hear the words exchanged between the two, but the young woman turned to the man and spoke to him. He took a last swig of his wine and tossing the plastic cup into a trash can to the side of the long table, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of cash held together with a bright gold clip. He handed the young woman several twenty-dollar bills and she in turn gave the money to someone seated behind the table. The two of them then walked out of the room, the young woman carrying her heavy load of books and CDs. For a second I laughed at the thought of the man having to listen to those CDs, his young girlfriend insisting they listen to them on the car ride home.
But then again, he got to go home with her.
I had another glass of wine, some more cheese and grapes, and left, finding my way back to Cambridge on the T. I got out at Central Square and walked quickly to the Cellar to meet my friends.
Listening to Charlie Parker Practice
Many years ago my friend Mike Hope from Birmingham, England told me a great story. Mike was a tenor saxophone player and we went to music school together in Texas. He was frequently ecstatic about one thing or another, but this night he seemed particularly thrilled.. We were playing with several other guys at the Flying Tomato in Denton and after our first set we sat down for drinks. Mike said he had to tell us about what happened to him the night before when he was out listening to music in Dallas.
“You’ll never believe who I ran into at this hotel bar,” he said in his thick Brummie accent.
“Well?” We were quiet and waiting.
He named a name that everyone else knew and all the eyes around the table grew wide. I’d never heard of the man but I kept quiet and leaned-in closer around the table with the others to hear Mike’s story. Mike had met a well-known alto player who had just moved back to Texas from New York. The man had moved home to get married and in fact, had gotten married that day. He and his new wife were staying in the hotel where Mike was just then drinking.
“What was he doing at the bar alone in his tux on the night of his wedding?” we asked.
But Mike brushed aside our questions as irrelevant and shifted in his chair. He was eager to get to the point of his story. Mike explained that while living in New York, the alto player had come to know an old musician who in his youth had lived in an apartment next door to Charlie Parker. Everyday this old man would hear Parker practicing in his apartment. We all looked at each other and moved in closer still. This we had to hear. This old musician had long ago heard important stuff, like someone listening to Jesus warm-up before the Sermon on the Mount, testing out different Beatitudes to see which ones would make the final cut.
According to the old man, Parker spent his days playing arpeggios on his horn, which seemed sensible enough to us. But what was interesting, Mike explained, was that Parker played his arpeggios at mind-numbingly slow tempos, holding each note for several seconds. And after playing all those slow arpeggios for hours, Parker then played Bach’s Partitas and Violin Sonatas, but again, at painfully slow speeds. My first thought, though I didn’t say anything, was how can someone recognize a Bach Partita played at such slow speeds? Regardless, we were all mystified. Here was the great Parker, playing so slowly that it drove the neighbor nuts. And yet at night Parker would hit 52nd Street and spin-out solos at breakneck speeds that revolutionized music, changing our whole conception of rhythm and melody. The image of the great Bird, sitting there in his apartment all alone, almost Buddha-like, fascinated me. I could see him, holding his horn and playing a single note and holding it, holding it. All alone and quiet, maybe sitting on the edge of his bed. And then at night he’s in front of a band in a smoke-filled packed club, loud with people, blowing out great endless sheets of notes, people cheering him on, his fingers flying up and down his horn.
Mike said the hotel bar closed and so he and the alto player went up to the man’s hotel room. His new bride was passed out on the couch, Mike said, still in her wedding gown, her hands wrapped around an empty bottle of champagne. We had a good laugh at the thought of this man remembering his wedding night decades from now, thinking of his wife passed out on the couch, and him spending the night drinking with this white kid from Birmingham. They split a bottle and the alto player took out his horn and played for Mike, showed him what he was talking about, showed him how Bird was practicing. He said that you practice every day like that, with the metronome set at the slowest speed you can set it to, and before long your fingers will fly like never before. He said that it’s through the discipline of playing slowly that you will connect what you hear inside to your mind, your mind to your fingers, and your fingers to what you play on your horn. The connections will come in a way more immediate than you have ever known. And in so doing, you will hear more, and more will come out of you and your horn than you’ve ever known you had within you. The story stuck with me and the next day I found that my metronome went no slower than 45 beats per minute. I turned off the lights and played my arpeggios with whole notes at 45 beats per minute each day from then on. It’s not easy.
When Parker performed, his innovative genius spun out of him at whirlwind speeds. But this old man said he heard Bird practicing alone in his apartment playing slowly, every day the same things, over and over. The routine was careful, slow, and disciplined. It made no sense to someone like me, looking in from the outside, how does one find freedom and joy through discipline and structure?
Like the violin player at the Oliveros concert pointing to technique with such disdain, we think of discipline as the willful loss of the self and all that the self can enjoy. But maybe I reacted to Oliveros’ playing because I was afraid to leave the safety of the structure and the routine.
Or perhaps there is something to be learned from the seeming paradox of the quiet Buddha-like Bird alone in his apartment slowly repeating Bach’s Partitas and Violin Sonatas day after day. Parker, surrendering and obedient, repeating the same routine through the years. Perhaps one finds expression of the self through letting go and losing the self and that through repeating the well-worn paths of well-trained routines, one finds joy and freedom and creates something beautiful each day. I had my doubts that Oliveros could have played Lili Marlene. You peel everything away, all that technique, structure, and form, and what’s left is my sitting there waiting for an hour’s worth of noise to end.
The Irish Bartender
As I walked quickly from Central Square to the Cellar, I chuckled thinking about what I’d just seen. I was eager to tell the story to my friends. The Cellar was, as the name implies, a bar that you walked down into off of Massachusetts Avenue. Some nights the bartender was a young Irish woman with long curly red hair tied back in a braid and freckles across her cheeks. When she poured a Guinness, she always did it with a flourish off the tap that left the impression of a shamrock on the head of your pint. I remember my first time there, ordering a beer. She handed it to me and looking at me straight in the eyes she smiled and gave me a wink. As I took my beer, she raised her hand and tapped me on my cheek. The touch of her hand was slight but I felt the cool cup of her palm and the trace of her fingers lingering across my cheek as I walked away. It was then that I decided the Cellar would be my favorite bar in Cambridge.
When I walked in that night after the accordion concert, my friends were there and I waved to them and made my way to the bar. It was busy, full of cigarette smoke and loud laughter. I was prejudiced, no doubt; the bartender was beautiful. But there was more grace in her movements as she worked the bar, more joy in her knowledge of her trade, than I’d seen in a whole hour of Oliveros playing the accordion. I watched the bartender and I knew that she took pleasure in all that technique. She moved from one end to the other of her bar, carrying on conversations and laughter all the way around, closing a cabinet door with her foot while she lined-up half-pints of Guinness to settle. She mixed a drink with a dramatic flip while pouring two shots of whiskey and sweeping up a fist-full of tips, and then she rang it all up and closed the register with a great triumphant finish. It was a joy to watch and she made it a joy to be a part of. And I took note that no one else got a pat on the cheek.
I took my beer and walked over to my friends seated at a table along the back wall of the bar and I hung my coat off the edge of a chair.
“How was it?” they asked.
“Did you know that Einstein didn’t talk until he was four years old? What do you think he heard?” My question didn’t rouse much interest, but Cloherty said:
“I don’t know. What’s Yiddish for ‘Come on Albie, finish your vegetables. They’ll be no desert unless you eat your vegetables.’”