September 29, 2004
Vol. IV, No. 25
"Bach Turns Over In His Heaven"
Kurt Vonnegut has long been one of my favorite authors. He can be a bit bracing to the uninitiated but I've really come to appreciate his honesty and insight into the human condition. His twisted view of reality makes me laugh.
I recently went digging around for his book "Timequake." I'd read it years ago but wanted to check something out. I found the book and then I found the passage and then I got sucked into rereading the entire book. Anyway, here's what I was looking for: "The African-American jazz pianist Fats Waller had a sentence he used to shout when his playing was absolutely brilliant and hilarious. This was it: 'Somebody shoot me while I'm happy!'"
I'm glad I looked it up because I hadn't been quoting it quite right. Afterward, I got to wondering whether Fats Waller actually said that or if it was just something that Vonnegut made up. That's the problem with Vonnegut, he blends fact, fiction, and utter fantasy so well that it can be hard to tell the difference. So I researched the Fats Waller quote on the Internet. I found web pages where people were perpetuating the quote but it seemed more like they were quoting Vonnegut rather than Waller.
What I did find out was that Fats Waller was more than a pianist. He started out as a church organist and played and recorded on both piano and organ during his career. If you're interested, the link below is to the CD "Fats Waller at the Organ, Vol. 3: 1926-1929." You can listen to excerpts from the entire CD. He's wonderful. Don't miss "Red Hot Dan"!
Interestingly, references to the organ pop up frequently in Vonnegut's books. I guess it's a result of the organ being a bigger part of everyday life in his younger years. Here's an example from his most popular book "Slaughterhouse-Five," parts of which take place during World War II. I just reread it for the first time in many years.
"While on maneuvers in South Carolina, Billy played hymns he knew from childhood, played them on a little black organ which was waterproof. It had thirty-nine keys and two stops -- vox humana and vox celeste. Billy also had charge of a portable altar, an olive-drab attache case with telescoping legs. It was lined with crimson plush, and nestled in that passionate plush were an anodized aluminum cross and a bible. The altar and the organ were made by a vacuum-cleaner company in Camden, New Jersey -- and said so."
I tried researching the above information and, once again, came up empty. It rang a bell though and then I remembered BACHorgan.com community member Ted Hollingsworth.
In Ted's stories about his WWII days, he mentions an Estey portable organ. Perhaps that was it but I thought Estey was in Vermont, not New Jersey. Maybe it was just another Vonnegut story after all. If it is true, though, where did he get this stuff?
My mom told stories and she told them like they were true and I always assumed they were true but maybe she just read them in magazines. She used to tell one about a waiting room at a telegraph office that was full of applicants for a telegraph operator job. Suddenly one of the men stood up and went through the door into the office. When he came out, he had the job. It turned out that one of the Morse code messages that could be heard from the waiting room was: "If you can understand this message, please come into the office." Anyway, after I moved to New York, I heard a priest use that same story in a homily. Where did he hear it? I'm pretty sure he didn't hear it from my mom although she did live in New York for a time. I think that's why I ended up here, listening to her stories of living in the Big Apple.
Vonnegut was a New Yorker. As far as I know he no longer lives in Manhattan but he used to and, for a while, I worked in the same neighborhood where he lived. Looking back, I can't believe how often I saw him, either going about his life or just plain hanging out around the neighborhood.
Up the street from his brownstone, there was an enormous chess game mounted on the side of a building as part of an art installation. One day I watched as Vonnegut leaned against the column of a nearby building for a good long time staring at that chess game. I've often wondered what he was thinking. God only knows what sorts of fantastic visions were playing out in his head. Then again, maybe he was just playing out the game, as it was "in progress."
Near the chess game, there's a long line of benches on Third Avenue. Once I saw Vonnegut squeezed onto one of those benches with a bunch of other New Yorkers who were soaking up the sunshine and having their after-lunch cigarette. There he was, Kurt Vonnegut, blending right in, that is, if you didn't know who he was. If you did, it was the most absurd sight in the world, him sticking out like a sore thumb.
He always kept to himself, didn't call any attention to himself, and it appeared that no one ever bothered him. Maybe like me they were too freaked out to approach him or talk to him. I mean, having Kurt Vonnegut suddenly popping in and out of your day was almost as surreal as something out of one of his books.
As a matter of fact, while I was watching Vonnegut, he may have been watching me. In "Timequake" he writes about the people in his neighborhood as he goes about his routine tasks. He talks about what he overhears at the Postal Convenience Station while waiting in line. I used to wait in line there, too. He mentions going to the News store where I used to go. He talks about seeing Katharine Hepburn and I saw her, too, because I worked two doors down from her brownstone. However, he actually had the nerve to speak to her.
I recently had cause to walk through that neighborhood again and the funny thing is, it's all still there. The chess game, the benches, the Postal Convenience Station, the news store. So there I was, reading "Timequake" at the same time that I was walking through the neighborhood that's in the book, seeing the things that Vonnegut saw, that I also saw perhaps at the same time that Vonnegut saw them and wrote them into his story. It brings to mind the Eastern image of the snake swallowing its own tail. Sadly, the one thing missing that day that made all the difference was Vonnegut. I'm fairly sure he has moved out of the city.
I wouldn't have re-read "Timequake" if I hadn't re-read "Slaughterhouse-Five," and I wouldn't have re-read that if I hadn't read "God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian." "Timequake," published in 1997, was supposed to be Vonnegut's last book but he got roped into publishing "God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian" as a fund-raiser for WNYC. The title is a take-off on the title of one his older books and the premise is that Vonnegut's job is to interview dead people for WNYC. He does this with the help of Dr. Kevorkian, who uses a machine on Vonnegut to induce a near-death experience. Vonnegut goes toward the light, interviews someone in Heaven and then comes back. The result is a bizarre little collection of brief interviews with mostly famous dead people. Twisted, for sure.
Vonnegut didn't interview Bach in Heaven but if he would, this is how I imagine it:
Mr. Bach, you're the poster boy for innovation. How do you feel about that?
"It's true, I did endorse innovation. I admit that I was in favor of equal temperament but I understood and accepted what I would be losing as a player. I had to weigh that against what I gained as a composer. Sure, I was the greatest organist who ever lived but I was a composer first and foremost. Just look at my output! Yes, I gave up hearing the pure intervals but it was better than playing in the same old keys all the time. More keys led to more elaborate compositions which led to the development of my great fugues which are to this day unparalleled in compositional achievement."
So equal temperament was a compromise. How do you feel about electric action?
"Electric action! Why not just wear gloves and boots when you play? The only benefit I can see is for the builders and weak players! Means of expression traded away for a combination action? It's not worth it! Pull your own! Why do you think I had so many kids? I needed a constant supply of stop pullers!"
So I'm guessing you're not too happy with synthesizers?
"Actually, I can see putting them in an ensemble or writing solo works for them. Sure, why not?
Well, then it sounds like you might also be OK with digital organs?
"Digital organs!?! Puh-lease! This is what really keeps me up at night. Pipes are all the organists have left. After that, they've got nothing. Technology is such a slippery slope. So many surrenders. So much lost in the name of "progress." That organists still make music with these instruments is a testament to the organists' humanity, not to these 'modern' instruments."
"Look, people assume that because I was a great innovator I would be in favor of any and all innovations. That's true but only to a certain extent. Like with synthesizers, I would use them in limited ways but I would never, ever attempt to replace the King of Instruments with one. I may be old but I'm not crazy!
"I'd like just one of them to look me in the eye and try to tell me that a digital instrument is just as good as a pipe organ. Bah! And for them to think that I couldn't tell the difference. Imagine!"
Sorry, looks like I touched a nerve. I guess now is as good a time as any to bring up all this talk about pipe organists being snobs.
"Snobs are snobs whether you're talking organs or beer. Just because someone is a snob doesn't automatically discount what they have to say. In the end, a good beer is a good beer regardless of who likes it and why and you just have to learn to deal with people. Don't forget, some people considered me a snob in my day. So choose your organ, choose your beer, stick with your choices and get on with your life."
Mr. Bach, just one last question. Do you have an organ here?
"Sure, we have an organ here but for a long time we didn't. No one could agree on what to build! The entire Guild chapter here was up in arms and I could hardly stand to hear Old Man Buxtehude going on about it anymore. Finally, Dirk Flentrop showed up and now everyone's happy. I wasn't at first because I always thought we'd get a German organ. When they said 'Let's go Dutch!' I thought they were being frugal!
Click this link to read comments and offer your own:
Pipes Hall of Fame:
Newly inducted are St. George's Episcopal Church, Clarksdale, Mississippi, and The St. Mary's Cathedral Pipe Organ Fund, Fall River, Massachusetts. Amazing things are happening! Click the following link for details:
Still blogging! Read the new entries of Susan Burkhalter and Victor Frost. The link below leads to the main BLOG page and the links below that lead to the individual BLOGs. If you are interested in contributing by writing your own BLOG, please email me.
"Organists' News" - September 26th, 2004
Here are two questions to ponder: (1) How do we as professional organists, music directors, performing musicians, or music teachers (if we are married and/or have families) balance....
Click here to proceed to http://www.BACHorgan.com/SusanBurkhalter/
"IX 04" - The school where I teach is a half block from what is now blithely called the World Trade Center site. On September 11, 2003 I had the privilege, and the emotional burden, of standing in the honor guard at Ground Zero during the commemorative ceremonies.....
Click here to proceed to http://www.BACHorgan.com/VictorFrost/
WHAT I'M READING..."
"God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian"
all by Kurt Vonnegut. It's been a while since I've been through a Vonnegut-inspired delirium. This one was rather short, thank goodness. Out of his twenty books, I only read three. Click this link to see all selections in Dan's Book Club:
WHAT I'M LISTENING TO..."
"At Folsom Prison [LIVE]" by Johnny Cash. This is a dark and yet uplifting CD. It speaks to the resilience of the human spirit. The songs are all good, many humorous, some sad. Production-wise, it is a raw, unedited, un-redubbed, live recording. It's about as close as you want to come to being there, considering where the concert was recorded. Click the links below for more information on this CD:
Click this link to see all selections in Dan's CD Club:
Have a great week!
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