The other day at work my friend Eric and I were discussing musical moments that had a significant effect on us. The magic of a first hearing was the conversational staple. A pleasant few minutes, and then back to work. Later in the day I realized that I had (inadvertently) lied to him. About pretty much all of it. The references were all true, as well as my reactions to them, but virtually none of the instances in question actually occurred as a result of hearing the given piece for the first time. As I started to think about my list I remembered that I had actually heard all the songs I had talked about dozens, if not hundreds of times before. They felt fresh to me, in the circumstances I had related to him because hearing them in the given context of the anecdotes had made a lasting impact on me. I thought about that on my drive home. As I worked my way through it I began to recall more detail about each “first time”.
Working from the beginning of the above mentioned chat, my first thoughts had been of “Layla”. Written by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, recorded by Derek and the Dominos (Clapton’s band) the song dropped in 1971. I remember walking past Marine Park, in Brooklyn, and hearing it coming from what must have been a comically large boom box, late in the afternoon on an early spring day in 1979. On my left was Janice Ishakawa, a friend from school. On my right was Kerry Chrystal, to whom I was sincerely hoping to end up as more than a friend. The sun was just beginning to settle, if not set. That amazing opening riff, courtesy of Duane Allman, blasted out from somewhere past the field house, and I stopped moving. I listened to the radio as much as most kids I knew, so there was no possibility that I was hearing an eight year old song for the first time. But in that moment it was brand new for me. I had never before noticed the weight of the intro; the feelings of anticipation it aroused in me. I was drawn in to the song in a way I never had been before. I don’t think any one stimulus was enough on its own to create the odd mix of excitement and anxiety I was feeling. Acting in combination, the distinct elements of movement, environment and the vague (but not hopeless as it turned out) promise of teen romance made every note substantial in a different way. I haven’t thought of Kerry in years but those first seven notes have had a hold on me for the better part of four decades now.
Having a fifty five mile commute afforded me ample time to continue ruminating on my list. I followed “Layla” with ” In the Mood”, the big band standard recorded by Glen Miller in 1939. Emblematic of it’s time “In the Mood” has been used as part of the song scores for movies such as “Radio Days”, “Hope and Glory” and “The Way We Were” just to name a few. Not really part of the usual sixteen year olds play list I knew the piece from watching old movies, and listening to “The Make Believe Ballroom” on the radio whenever I accompanied my father in his work van. I learned a lot of swing era music on those interminable trips to my grandparents house on Saturday afternoons. As odious as those visits may have been I genuinely enjoyed the musical education. Not coincidentally I took up the trumpet in fourth grade and was still playing, in 1980, as a senior in high school. As luck would have it our band leader, Mr. (not making this up) Musicker, had selected the signature Miller song as part of the spring program for the school dance band. Playing a reasonably faithful arrangement in the original key, we had been working on the thing for over a month, and were finally going to give an open air, lunch time performance at Brooklyn Borough Hall. The day of the concert arrived and we were in good form. We drew a nice crowd. They might have come for the ticket price (free) but we played well enough to keep them there. It was the first time in my life that I had ever done anything that demonstrably caught the interest of unobligated third parties. Little league games, swim meets, and school assemblies were for friends and relatives. This was just about people hearing us and deciding it was worth their time.”In the Mood” was our finale and we nailed it. The demography of the impromptu gathering in front of us made it something more than just a well executed performance of a well rehearsed composition. Looking out at the faces in the crowd the majority of them seemed old enough to remember hearing the original recording as kids. From the starting arpeggio of the sax section through various mid way solos the mood had elevated from one of pleasant diversion to an obvious recall of better days. By the time we ascended to the unison climax note the older members of the audience had gone from thinking we were doing a pretty good job to not thinking about us at all. They were too busy being teenagers themselves. Watching them as I played I could appreciate the song in a whole new way. It wasn’t just great music, it was the soundtrack of a life.
The last thing I thought of during my drive was the aria “Nessun Dorma”, Puccini’s extraordinary amalgam of beauty and power from Turandot. Recorded by Pavorotti in 1972 I had heard bits of it over the years as it occasionally aired on PBS. Full disclosure: my interest in educational television was limited but I was always willing to role the dice on turning on channel 13 just in case there was nude ballet in progress. We couldn’t afford cable. At any rate with all the passages that I had listened to I certainly recognized the melody, even though I had never learned the name. My first full exposure to it was at least as much a viewing as a hearing. It was 1986 and I had just purchased my first VCR. One of the top films on my must see list was “The Killing Fields”. The story of the friendship between NY Times journalist, Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian guide and interpreter Dith Pran, the film had been released in 1984, and I missed it. Without retelling the entire history of the misery of southeast Asia suffice it to say that Dith (family name first in Cambodia) ends up imprisoned under utterly horrific conditions by the Khmer Rouge and Schanberg has to face the fact that his need for Dith’s help while covering the war played a role in the man’s predicament. Sitting in his apartment looking at a news footage of Pol Pot’s terrorizing of a nation he turns the sound on his T.V. off and plays a recording of “Nessun Dorma”. The clash between the heavenly sound and the hell-on-earth images is (as was clearly intended) jarring. More than three decades later I still struggle to understand why this conflict of sensory input left such an indelible stamp on me. But the impact was, and is, undeniable. The film struck me as earnest attempt that didn’t quite work. The aria has had a hold on me in ways that no other piece of music ever has. There is no other composition so fully guaranteed to render me a sobbing mess. I turn into a four year old girl who lost her puppy. Every time. For years I didn’t even know what the words meant. Didn’t matter. My blubbering was Pavlovian. Which, for me, is something of a blessing. I have a tendency to live in my head a little more than I should and to have something that simply moves me in a powerful way without any attendant intellectual component is a gift.
If my agnosticism turns out to have been a mis-step and I find myself in front of God on judgement day with the task of arguing for mercy on behalf of the human race, this particular moment of genius from Giacomo Puccini will be the bulk of my evidence. With a clear conscience I could face my maker and say “… of course you’re right. We are small and mean and do so much that is wrong. But one of us also wrote “Nessun Dorma”. How about another chance.” I think that would do it. Vincero (look it up).
Above image from: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/music-in-my-world