Harp gigging survival rule #1: Bring a book.
I tend to take novels along with me when I play gigs. There’s always spare time on the job. Arriving at the venue, I never know what physical obstacles will prevent me from getting my harp onto a stage – it’s a large instrument, after all. Nine times out of ten, there usually isn’t the need to hoist/drag/crane the harp into its necessary location, so I’m usually early. That’s a spare 30 minutes. When it comes time to come to play, there are a lot of rests to ignore between glissandos (“tacet” is my middle name). Add 20 minutes or so. Union mandated breaks between sound check and the performance are always a bit too long (usually 2+ hours) to just sit and play on your iPhone. Usually there’s no good coffee around and there are no cute stagehands to chat up, etc. You get the idea.
With so much free time, the practical harpist has to be prepared to keep oneself occupied (at least in my opinion), for the alternatives to self-entertainment are potentially dire. The break before the performance in particular raises my anxiety levels. It’s not that I’m worried about sitting in silence with nobody to talk to. I tend to worry about the opposite. I hate, hate, HATE chitchat. But on gigs, if you’re not careful you end up getting stuck in an hour the most insufferable, breeze-shooting, small talky chitchat with one or two other musicians, the likes of which could easily fill BBC daytime special. There is no direction. There is no point. But most importantly, there is no way out. “Where did you study?” “Do you know John?” “OMG I love him! We went to Aspen together when I was 4.” “OMG, gigs are such a bore.” “Is there food? Last time there was food.” “Ugh, pizza. I’m gluten free.”
Every. Single. Time.
I’ve found that books are a pretty good shield from stupidity. Reading a book is usually a good way to get people to leave you alone, right? Everyone knows that if you read books in public you don’t have friends and you don’t want any. Did high school teach us nothing? But from time to time, someone will ask you the inevitably paradoxical questions, “what are you reading?” or “what’s your book about?” (somehow missing the idea that in asking the question, they interrupt my reading, so when I answer their question I’m not in fact reading anything… except for maybe the stupid inquisitive look on their face).
Harp gigging survival rule #2: Bring a book that NOBODY wants to hear about.
Again, preparation is key. A few weeks ago, I brought Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada to the gig. A flutist (of course) with an irritatingly crooked smile casually asked me what it was about, clearly bored with her installment of Vanity Fair and her Tupperware full of kimchi. In all honesty, this would have been fine if I had any inkling that she was genuinely interested. Unfortunately, it was clear that she was attempting to use me as a tool to assuage her own boredom and poor taste in disposable literature. I mean really, how selfish could you get? “Incest,” I answered, with a grin (take that, flute girl!) The blood all but drained from her face and she immediately became slightly flustered. “Oh…” she replied, quickly returning to her magazine with unnatural determination. Crisis averted.
But when more and more people came into the green room, the noise level became such that it was impossible to concentrate on my book. At first, I was annoyed, but after a while, the inanity of the group discussion became fascinating. They were literally talking about nothing. The opportunity to interject and play along was strong, but more forceful was the instinct to gear the conversation towards the bizarre and entertaining before forcing it to come to a crashing end. If they were going to disturb my reading, there would be a price to pay. I soon joined in.
These motley musicians soon started to discuss films they had seen recently. Ghostbusters (“OMG it’s so funny cuz they’re women LOL”). Finding Dory (how has a zoologically inclined film not considered that natural selection would have bumped Dory off about 30 minutes into Finding Nemo? There is no recourse for a sequel, I’m sorry to say.) Secret Life of Pets. Hold the phone. This was my golden opportunity. I proceeded to tell them that I too saw a pet flick called Wiener-Dog, about a dachshund and his six different consecutive owners. The general initial reaction was “Aw!” or “OMG that sounds so cute! I have to see it!” That was until I started to actually tell them what the film was about and what music was used to heighten the dramatic tension.
So, a bit of background: this film is utterly terrible. It’s one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen. The climax of the film entails watching a Dachshund (named Cancer, because its owner has cancer) get run over by a truck. And then by a car. And another car. And again and again and again as passing traffic rolls over the splattered circle of flattened, crepe-like doggy guts. I probably could have told you this in advance, as it was recommended in the New Yorker (strike one) and was playing at Angelika Film Center (strike two), a theater in SoHo that plays high-budget independent films (including every one of Woody Allen’s cinematic travesties produced over the last 20 years). It was my own fault I suppose, but I have a certain sense of self-righteousness about the fact that I will head to the movie theaters on West Houston Street as recommended by the New Yorker to support mediums of art other than my own. Also, the films make for great conversation starters. Or conversation stoppers.
I told the other musicians about this fantastic scene in the film in which the Dachshund has explosive diarrhea after his nine-year old owner named Remi gives him a granola bar to eat. The issue of this dog’s bowels takes up nearly 10 minutes of a 93-minute film, in which time there is a rather amazing use of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune:” the camera pans over a fantasia of fecal liquidity, a trail of watery dog excrement along the neighborhood pavement.
Nervous laughter spread sporadically among my colleagues. But I wanted to get through to them just how incredible the scene was. So I naturally pulled up Richard Brody’s recent New Yorker review on my iPhone (yes, I have the New Yorker app – and so should you):
Wiener-Dog gets diarrhea and it’s Remi’s fault, for feeding him with love but without knowledge. What results is shit, watery shit, and Solondz [the director] makes it the core of an ingenious sequence of paradoxical pathos. The trail of loose and smelly feces in the house is seen at first only as disgusting, but when Solondz, in a long and stately tracking shot, follows another trail of excrement in the driveway along the curb, set to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” it’s a lofty cinematic mark of pain—of Wiener-Dog’s illness and suffering, and of Remi’s anguished remorse and self-reproach. It sounds funny and it sounds disgusting, but Solondz’s discovery, through pure empathy and pure cinema, of the dignity in the repellent is among the treasures of his art.
There was one violist who found this all very amusing, but the violinist and the pianist were unsurprisingly a little weirded out. The flutist was having none of this and quickly changed the subject back to Finding Dory.
I know I’m painting a picture of myself as a conversational sadist. Exploration of vast realm of “T.M.I.” has rarely been a problem for me (I mean duh! You’ve read my blog, right?). That said, the use of “Claire de Lune” may have sincerely been one of the most incredible uses of classical music in a film I’d seen since my first encounter with the Goldberg Variations at the age of 12.
While it is unlikely that Wiener-Dog will even come even close to achieving the same stature as Silence of the Lambs, it gave me a lot to think about with regards to Debussy. The glistening trail of dog-doodie seemed to mirror the seamless shift from the placid quartet of voices, to the almost static repeated chords, to the incredible series of tertiary relations in the flowing middle section, used in film after film, time and again.
For you non musicians out there, the tertiary relations (that is, choosing three harmonies a somewhat equal distance from each other) is what gives Clair de Lune that inspiring, feel-good Hollywood glow. The end of Ocean’s Eleven is a classic example. The heist is a success. The hero takes the hit for the team. George Clooney gets Julia Roberts. Dramatic Las Vegas camera shot please.
Each of the chords that the composer chooses has one or two notes in common with chord preceding and following, creating the kaleidoscopic effect. One knows one is hearing almost identical sounds in sequence, but their positioning and slight alteration makes the brain go haywire. The kaleidoscope is a good metaphor, but another is at a set of three staircases by M.C. Escher. One can go along these staircases, constantly ascending and eventually wind up back where you started, literally having travelled nowhere if you get picky about the laws of physics and motion. That’s the point of tertiary relations – they are seemingly emotive and purposeful, and yet lead you right back to where you started, to your own reflection, even perhaps an inner light.
But there’s a particular imagery in the original poem by Paul Verlaine, the inspiration for the piece’s title. calme clair de lune is really exquisite.
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau, / The still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres / Sets the birds softly dreaming in the trees,
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau, / And makes the marbled fountains, gushing, streaming–
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres. / Slender jet-fountains—sob their ecstasies.
The end of Ocean’s Eleven is a classic case where the Debussy is used to make you feel as if something has been done right, or that a justice has been accomplished. But for me, that’s not what Clair de Lune is about. It’s the eternal stasis of returning back to the same chords in that sequence that keeps me in the moment and focused on what’s around me, and not thinking on something grand or eternal. It’s all very Buddha/Ram Dass/spiritual-somethingy, reminding of the instruction to “be here now. be now here. be nowhere.” So much of Verlaine’s poetry deals with this essence of quietude and meandering through nothingness that I can’t help but see such in Debussy’s remarkable gem. What shines through is not the moon, but its light, its reflection glistening sheen of… well, fresh poo.
I’m maybe getting really too erudite here, but there’s a brilliant essay by Susan Sontag on how music lines up with depictions of water and reflection. The essay’s title is rather unfortunate – “Wagner’s fluids.” Fortunately, she doesn’t delve into Richard Wagner’s actual bodily fluids (of which there were many due to the composer’s insistence on twice daily enemas and masturbation in women’s lingerie – purchased for him, by none other than Friedrich Nietzsche, in order to spare Wagner any professional embarrassment as a result of buying an inordinate number of panties in public. Talk about true friendship, eh?) The Nietzschean exploration is confined to the depictions of water and blood in Wagner’s operas arguing that that the very act of musically imitating liquidity and reflection lends itself to an emotional elasticity that makes music “cease to be music any longer,” according to conductor Bruno Walther. The effect is not so much heart-wrenching, but almost nihilistic, as the emotional flexibility requires a mode of ambivalence (as diametrically opposed to indifference) as a means of taking it all in. Wagner, like Debussy was another master of the tertiary relation, creating the essence of no beginnings and no endings, like a body of water moving and yet not travelling.
I’m not sure this is exactly the sensation I get when I see all variety of canine excretions on W. 69 Street every morning, but it is the sensation I got when I saw this scene in Wiener-Dog: that for a brief moment what I saw and what I heard, no matter how bizarre, seemingly aligned into something poetic. Indeed, there was a sense that I was no longer listening to Debussy, but rather pleasantly experiencing this poor dachshund’s Dantean bowel catastrophe. Despite my insistence on shocking the poor flutist last week, maybe there was a subconscious need to talk about it, to use her as the sounding board for my own ruminations on how music might have affected me. I suppose I am no better than her, wanting to share some experience of communication with someone who is a fellow musician. Even if Clair de Lune is the static reflective piece I think it is, or if Susan Sontag is right about nebulousness of Wagner, Susan Sontag still feels the need to talk about it in the same way I feel the need to talk about Wiener-Dog. It’s natural for humans to talk, even if it is about meaningless things or about meanlinglessness itself. Did I miss out on chances to reflect in the meaningless conversations, or do I just prefer to do it with authors and distant creators than with those immediately around me?
Then again, maybe it’s the flutist’s fault – she was WAY more weirded out about incest and dog feces than I was annoyed with Finding Dory. If I ever see this flutist again, I might reconsider the opportunity to make small talk, and learn to revel in something transient and meaningless.
That, or I’ll just ask her if she saw Wiener-Dog yet.