Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ernesto’s Rain & the Way of True Art

It was a long, gray day, waiting for Ernesto’s rain to stop. I couldn’t get much composing done this morning, distracted by the rain dripping from the broken gutters of the neighbor’s house, especially when it would overflow and hit the trash-can lid tossed along the back of the building. My upstairs neighbors and some friends sat out on their balcony (right over my studio window) telling stories much of the morning: she has a distinctive flurry of a laugh that sounds like a violinist playing a descending scale with down-bow staccato (badly at that). Curiously, she laughed at almost every line and even though I couldn’t make out the words that were spoken, I knew they had reached the punch-line when her laugh reached its highest point and had the longest downward range. Then someone else would tell a story and the process would repeat. I rather missed the houndentenor...

Ironically, I was trying to work out a chord progression with an increase in harmonic tension, creating chords that opened up in range and density, followed certain patterns and fit the outline of the melody I’d worked out for the opening of this first variation (now that I’m finally done with the theme itself). When I found the chord these resolved to, I realized I had essentially mimicked my neighbor’s progressive laughter in the way it rose in register, expanded in range and increased in tension till it too resolved in a cascade of giggles. Not that I want to make this variation the equivalent of “Adele’s Laughing Song,” but still, it amused me to realize we were both going for the same thing: a progression of increasing emotional involvement that reached a logical resolution with its release of tension. That is what “harmonic motion” is all about.

On my own for dinner tonight and forced to go out into the unending drilge – worth it, though, to fill up Darth 4Door with gas at $2.09/gallon (courtesy of the Giant, redeeming their bonus points) – I decided to try the Thai restaurant on the Carlisle Pike (Market Street in Camp Hill). I hadn’t been there since it reopened some time ago under new management as the Thai Palace (I can still remember when it was a Roy Rogers) and it had been years since I’d had Thai food, anyway. I ordered the Chicken with Peanut Curry which I highly recommend: if you’re cautious about spicy Asian cuisine, they can adjust the heat on a scale from 1 to 10 and my waitress recommended starting at 4: it was very tasty but still easy to manage. (The very first time I had Thai food was in New York eons ago, at the suggestion of a friend who claimed to be fully conversant with Southeast Asian cuisines. I ordered something called Chicken pa nang which I loved though it was way too hot for my virgin flight. My friend held up a little round shiny red object as if to demonstrate, popped it in his mouth but as it apparently turned out to be a tiny bombshell, he quickly ripped his glasses off as tears streamed down his face and, I was sure, steam poured out of his ears, just like it would in the cartoons.)

It was a very multicultural way to spend part of the Labor Day Weekend, eating Thai food, listening to something reminiscent of Rachmaninoff on the sound system that then gave way to a guitarist playing a very Spanish tango, while I read a few more pages from Naguib Mahfouz’ “The Beginning and the End” (which I thought I’d read before but perhaps had not), the Egyptian author who’d just died last week at the age of 94.

The story, set in 1933 Cairo, begins with three young brothers facing life after the sudden death of their father. The eldest son, Hassan, a school drop-out, is lazy and is not prepared for the idea of actually having to earn a living to pay his own way. Apparently he sings and plays in a “back-up” band for a largely out-of-work popular singer in Cairo named Ali Sabri. He meets the singer at the coffeehouse one morning and the “master” is bemoaning the fact that all the little independent radio stations have been replaced by a single national station which has basically squeezed him out of the competition.

— — — — —
“But what do we hear on the wireless nowadays? Nothing of value. Just yelling, not singing. If the station were really aware of art, I should stand next to Um Kalthum and Abdul Wahab [two of the leading singers in Cairo at the time]. Even Abdul Wahab himself is often afraid that his voice might fail him. So he avoids the kind of singing that requires long breath and, under the guise of innovation, divides up what he is singing into short parts. Then he uses musical instruments to camouflage the weaknesses of his voice. Here is how he sang ‘Ya Lil’ in his last performance.”

He coughed before he started to imitate Abdul Wahab’s singing of ‘Ya Lil.’ When the waiter came with the nargileh [water pipe] and coffee, he was busy singing...

When he finished, Hassan’s companions cheered. He inhaled a puff of smoke without paying attention to them. Then he whispered to Hassan, “They admire my voice and not my art. Now, listen to the same [song] as it should be sung.”

His singing filled the small café. The proprietor raised his head from the till, half smiling, half objecting. Master Ali Sabri finished singing and returned to his nargileh. This time he intended to thank the company for admiring his singing. But silence prevailed, interrupted only by the gurgling water in the phial of the nargileh. The master frowned.

“That,” he said contemptuously, “is the way of true art.” ***
— — — — —

Next to my table, there was an ornate hand-carved wooden boat, perhaps a replica of a royal Thai barge, large enough to form the base of small xylophone-like instrument. There must have been something similar near the front door because someone who’d just come in was trying to play “Chopsticks.” How droll. Not realizing the pentatonic scale of most Asian cultures does not include some of the pitches needed to play this simple Western tune, there were a number of stumbles before the person finally – finally! – gave up. Fortunately, no one applauded.

*** Quoted from Chapter 11 of “The Beginning and the End” by Naguib Mahfouz and translated by Ramses Awad (originally published in 1949, the English translation published by Doubleday in 1989).

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