2.Music A

2. Music A
(Respondiing to Jason Kuo's question: what part has music played in your life? Why do you use musical analogies so often in writing about painting

End of a long, jetlagged day, and I'm too tired and tipsy to write anything serious, so will ramble a while in response to a question I remember you asked, about my involvement with music.

It didn't begin auspiciosly--piano lessons with two teachers, one in Fort Bragg (my birthplace, where I spent my first thirteen or so years) and another in Oakland, after I had moved to Berkeley--who were nice enough but never communicated the idea that music is to be enjoyed. (This in contrast to a great teacher, Sharon Mann, who within a few weeks had launched my daughter Sarah like a rocket into the upper levels forever.) My first experience of being excited by music was when three new teachers arrived from the outside world in the Fort Bragg junior high, and one of them, Gertrude Berg by name, played records and piano pieces for us and talked about them in a way that did it. Much later, in the occupation in Korea (1946-48) in Seoul, I had lots of time to work on piano and, with a good teacher (the older sister of my then girlfriend), reached the highest level I was ever to reach--playing reasonably well such things as a Brahms rhapsody and a hard Mozart Fantasia (D Minor). It was all downhill afterwards; for a time, when we had two grand pianos in our living room in Berkeley (you may remember them there), Sarah and I would play two-piano things, she by then having become really good, able to cover my mistakes so that together we sounded not bad, and I got an undeserved reputation for being a serious pianist. But before long I was fumble-fingered father and she a rising star, and it was no fun any more.

But my ineptitude as a player was compensated for by my passion as a record collector. That began already in Berkeley High in the early 1940s, when two close friends were Gordon Cyr (later a serious composer and teacher at Towson State College in Baltimore) and Bill Purcell, a very good composer and jazz improvisor etc. We spent a lot of time together, among other things plotting great operatic projects for which I, with my literary flair, would be librettist and one or both of them the composer. (A Wagner-like cycle of operas based on the Arthurian legends--needless to say, never even begun.) I still have a few libretto-drafts around, never used. We also were poor but enthusiastic record collectors. Gordon would arrive at one's door carrying a new and exciting record album and insisting that one stop whatever one was doing and listen to it with him (he would sit with a stern, appreciative expression). Korea, as it turned out, was a paradise for the record collector--these were the days of old 78 RPM disks, you understand, and in the old-record stores of Seoul--i knew two of them--one could find all sorts of rare European recordings put out by the Japanese branches of Columbia, Polydor, Telefunken, His Master's Voice etc. When I came home in 1946 I was able to pack all my acquisitions in footlockers and ship them more or less free to the Bay Area, to be delivered in Berkeley. It was a time when record collecting was still exciting--lots of rare things, small issues--and the serious collectors in Berkeley knew each other--Creed's Bookstore just outside Sather Gate, the entrance to the U.C. campus, where I had worked before and began working again, had begun selling old records as well as books, and was a center for collectors--and came together sometimes to listen to unusual recordings, of which I had many from my Korean acquisitions. I won't start listing them, it would go on forever, but will only say that with me, it was often the performance more than the music that made them treasures for me. Apart from instrumentalists--Edwin Fischer's Bach, Gieseking's Debussy and Ravel, Joseph Szigeti's anything at all--I was passionately fond of French song, and of particular singers--Charles Panzera, Maggie Teyte, others. Things of the kind that now are being reissued remastered on CDs, with glowing accounts in the accompanying booklets--being able to buy and play these makes up for my having given up the old collection--it now belongs to Sarah, and resides in the big living room of our old house in Berkeley, now owned and occupied by my former wife Dorothy.

In 1948, I think it was, radio station KPFA began broadcasting in Berkeley, the first (I believe) listener-sponsored, non-commercial station in the country. (Later it became famous or notorious for leftist political stances.) There were only a few employees, with most of the programs produced by volunteers--Anthony Boucher (writer of mystery novels) with a weekly program of great old opera recordings, an old part-Indian amateur ethnologist and Berkeley character named Jaime something who could tell Indian folk stories endlessly, and myself with a weekly program of French music, based on my own record collection and those of others, including Gordon Cyr, who were living with me in a house we rented together. I announced or narrated the program, in spite of my bad French. (This was at the same time that I was working on a BA in Oriental Languages with Boodberg, Schafer, and others--god knows how i kept it all going.) The full-time announcer was Bill Trieste, who became a Bay Area celebrity, and the timing of programs was very loose: if we ran overtime, it didn't matter; if we finished too soon, Bill would pick up a book--Walden, or Through the Looking Glass--and read until the hour was over and the next program ready to begin.

It was during this period that Gordon Cyr and I, he as composer and I as librettist, finally realized our long-planned creation of an opera--a chamber opera about Creed's Bookstore and the interesting characters who worked there or hung out there, in effect a comic portrayal of Berkeley musical-literary culture of the time. Four of us (Walt McKibben, a singer, and Don Aird, conductor of the Brkeley Chamber Singers, who together with Gordon and myself were living together in this big house) took all 13 parts, when we weren't on stage quickly replacing the pianist, who wore a bathrobe with "Orchestra" painted across the back, and accompanied until it was time to appear on stage again. We performed this opera several times in the large living room of our house--it was a great Berkeley event--for the first performance several people came in tuxedos or tails, and someone was in the hall renting out opera glasses so you could look through them the wrong way and think you were at the Met. There was a ballet in the middle, also performed by the four of us. Then we did it once on campus, sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa, and once on radio station KPFA. A tape of that performance, with narrative commentary added by myself, survives, and there are still people in Berkeley who remember it fondly and come together to listen to it again--one such gathering took place only a few years ago.

I think I should send this--it's getting too long. More later?

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