Bruce Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy - XXVII


Part One - Adagio-allegro

I was born and grew up in The Age of the Vinyl LP (Long Playing, it could play ten times longer than the disk of the previous technology). It was the suburbia of my youth. Perhaps every home had the ubiquitous phonograph. It was built into a large item of furniture that was honoured with a place in the living room. This wood cabinet usually included a radio and television set, and a shelf to store albums. On that shelf were to be found Harry Belafonte, the original Broadway cast recordings of "Oklahoma" and "Fiddler on the Roof", the D'Oyly Carte's performances of the "Mikado" and "H.M.S. Pinafore", Allan Sherman's "My Son the Folk Singer", and the Kingston Trio. We children grew up learning every word of the lyrics on these albums and practiced performing perfect imitations. Perhaps these albums were not in every home and the choices I am indicating represent the subset of the suburban middle class to which I belonged.

Many of us found buried in the bottom of our parents' closet the old shellac 78s which came from the age immediately before ours. These were hard and brittle records that often disintegrated from our youthful clumsiness or wanton sport - they sailed like Frisbees before there were Frisbees, and disintegrated gloriously when colliding with the trunk of a tree, not unlike clay pigeons. I don't think the parents cared, as they looked upon the 78s as obsolete. And no properly fashion-minded youngster would abandon the creed to preserve the generation gap, but would scorn their parents' music. But I did not destroy them wantonly. I discovered Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and even Spike Jones and his City Slickers.

Part Two - Air (lento)

Music is a vital aspect of every human culture - there are no exceptions. Children exhibit musical behaviours spontaneously, so it is something embedded into the very wiring of normal brains. The synapses between neurons are strengthened by activity and throughout life we are able to build new ones. But inactivity causes the weakened synapses to fade and expire. I believe music to be an essential exercise to make minds healthier, not to forget music's function for cultural continuity. Music, with the rest of the arts, makes us human. Budget cuts have curtailed the teaching of music in our schools. This further cripples the intellectual ability and depth of humanity in our young students. The learning of music transcends the music and develops our abilities to learn other things. I shall always be possessed of this degree of inadequacy, of unfulfilled longing, because I do not play a musical instrument.

Part Three - Minuet & trio

Piano lessons were once indicative of middle-class status. My sister, six years older than myself, played piano. She had a passion for sliding through Chopin. My first marriage was to Matsui-san, who was the product of a middle class upbringing in Japan. She played the same pieces as did my sister, although Matsui-san attacked the keyboard, dashing through Chopin with explosive force.

I came too late to my piano lessons. The little compositions I had to learn were farcical, unsophisticated pieces. I wanted to start with more difficult pieces, but my teacher refused. My ears were not sufficiently rewarded for the labour of my hands. Then, at the end of two frustrating years of avoiding practice, I was made to perform before an audience, each of the teacher's students taking a turn. When younger students were fingering off fully matured pieces, I was made to perform a child's exercise. It was too humiliating and I quit piano lessons immediately after the forced recital.

A dozen years later, I had dug out of the piano bench sheet music for Beethoven's "Fur Elise". I spend the summer crawling through it, slowly memorizing it, until, by the end of summer, I could play it half decently. If only my music teacher had taught me this piece, I might still be playing piano. But then having just one piece to play over and over again, tested the limits of my friends and family. I have abandoned all further performances.

Part Four - Gavotte

Many a summer night, when there was no school for months, I might wander over to Scott's house. Scott and I both had older sisters. They were friends just as we were friends. His parents often went away overnight, leaving Scott at home with his dog, Pepper, a standard-size black poodle. Blessedly, they chose to leave Pepper unclipped and not contrived into some Daliesque topiary art. Perhaps Pepper was unclipped, and Scott was left alone overnight when we were fourteen, because his parents were neglectful, as were my own. Our parents were the exceptions. They trusted us. Scott and I flourished in this freedom of our parents' neglect. What could happen?  This was Levittown, Pennsylvania. On all sides were like houses with like neighbours. Bad people didn't fit into these standardized homes.

Scott and I spent many wonderful nights discussing the philosophy of Hugh Hefner and debating aesthetics while paging through his father's Playboys. We drank ginger ale on ice from his parents' old-fashioned and highball glasses. We listened to the Dave Brubeck Quartet's album "Time Out". [Even as I compose these words, I am listening to it again on CD.]  Scott could play the piano. He was beyond competent. He was already accomplished at fourteen and could improvise jazz rides. He had already collected a number of professional fake books.  These were unauthorized reproductions of lead sheets for popular pieces.  They did not contain the left-hand piano part, but had only the melody and lyrics.  The musician was expected to improvise.

At least twenty-five years have slipped by since I last spoke with Scott. I lost track of his professional career as a musician when he went to Hong Kong. I counted him among my best friends, from the time we were twelve until we were sixteen. That's when I fell in love with the girl he was dating. I worked very hard and finally succeeded in stealing her away - or maybe she settled for me when she learned Scott's family was moving to Massachusetts. Scott was more mature, wittier, more stylish than me. Whereas Scott might have sat down and played the piano for his lover, I worked hard to seduce Miss C using my record albums. My success came with the mellifluous vocalizations of Donovan, or the romantic melodies of Spain as performed on Rey de la Torre's guitar. Those few occasions I would meet Scott again, I would always be saddled with guilt, at the same time feeling clumsy around his talent and sang-froid. We were in our early twenties when we last met and he seemed to be the archetypal jazz musician. He was cool, confident, impregnable to assault at a time when I had low self-esteem and felt vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.

I shall always be jealous of those who can seduce with music. Music is the universal language requiring no translation. And neuroscience has demonstrated that music elicits emotions directly from the limbic system. What magic is this and how will mere words ever compete?

Of all the arts, music is the most sublime. Words have their music. Somewhere between expressive music and informative speech falls all of literature, that is literature in terms of belles-lettres. It was through written words that Ms Keogh and I first met, that I first charmed her. Her greatest complaint about now being married to me is that I no longer write to her. But tonight, when we lie down beside each other to sleep, I will not lull Ms Keogh with reciting poetry. Instead we will be listening together to "John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman".

Part Five - Gigue

And this too must be said, I adore the lush voice and dulcet tones of Teresa Berganza. Her singing intoxicates me. She was the best Carmen. This afternoon I listened again to her singing Monteverdi's "Lamento D'Arianna". Reader, if I am to recommend one CD for your collection, may it be the 1967 recording, digitally remastered in 1972, of Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater" with Mirella Freni and Teresa Berganza. The full, rich outpouring of Berganza's velvet voice has lured me out of my torpid, suburban existence, has rescued me from this anesthetized life. And at other times, without understanding the foreign words, I have been mollified by the soothing, reflective character of her songs. I wish I had some adequate way of thanking her.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the twenty-seventh in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.