Gnomicon 211

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  211
Sunday 9 December 2012
Read gnomica 1-200 here!

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I’m beginning to understand myself.
But it would have been great to be able to understand myself
when I was 20 rather than when I was 82.
Dave Brubeck (6 Dec 1920 – 5 Dec 2012)

This American jazz giant died last Wednesday (5 December) just one day short of his ninety-second birthday.

Alas, I am not musical, as has been pointed out to me repeatedly ever since the unforgettable first time when a nasty third-grade teacher gave me a viciously humiliating dressing-down in front of nasty classmates still snickering at my inability to carry a tune in a song I had just been forced to sing solo.  But even before that day I had fallen in love with some 78s (some few of you will remember those!) that belonged to my uncle and contained the music he (and my mother) loved – I much later figured out it was Cole Porter, still a deep favorite of mine!  A lifetime later, after retirement, I made a serious effort to fulfill an ancient dream of learning to play jazz piano … I really tried, and lasted about a year, until I had to admit that, quite simply, I “got no rhythm”.  My teacher was kind, patient, indulgent, but I imagined seeing him sigh with silent thanks to himself in relief when I decided to do what he no doubt had long wished to advise me to do: some people just don’t have it, friend!  Nice try, but no cigar, and all that. Truly, alas!

I mean, how in the world could you ever learn to play the complex Brazilian bossa rhythm of ‘Girl from Ipanema’ the way Astrud Gilberto sings it if you got no rhythm – never mind play like Billy Taylor, Diana Krall, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Rachel Z, Bobby Short, Billy Charlap … et al., et al., et al., et … David Brubeck.  But that never has prevented me over the years from loving just being a listener.  It is a kind of refuge when you feel down and a fillip when you feel up.

My auditory deficit or whatever it was is a sad thing, but there it is.  I accept it.  What I especially wanted to do was learn to improvise … and you can imagine how far I got with that!  It interested me especially because I saw (and see) a definite relationship between going off an improvised riff in music and doing so in a lecture – and at lecturing about literature, by contrast, I was pretty good (I think).  Thus, ten jazz musicians will play ‘Autumn Leaves’ in ten different ways but it will still be the same tune.  Or just one jazz musician will probably never play it exactly the same way.

Let’s say today I am lecturing in a Homer course on Books 21-22 of the Odyssey (where Odysseus takes his revenge on the suitors).  And let’s suppose you record my lecture one year, transcribe it, then record and transcribe it when I do the ‘same’ lecture three years later.  Compare the lectures. I can guarantee you that the two same lectures will not be the same lecture.  For me, lecturing was always a kind of improvisation (I did not use lecture notes!): I always had a very clear topical outline in my head about the lecture, but the details, while back there in my head somewhere, were rarely pinned down.  It’s as though I had a score whose basic outline I would follow so as to leave the ‘tune’ recognizable, but the riffs, the details, the elaborations, the final output was, even if largely predictable, somewhat serendipitous in its working out.  The more years you lecture, the better you get (at least I thought I did) because you’ve had more experiences, read more, thought more, have different views of things.  When I first started teaching, the thought of doing a lecture was terrifying – you carry the class all by yourself, two or three times a week, for fifteen weeks! Will I have enough material to fill up the hour? the semester?  Towards the end of my teaching it was always a question of not by any means having enough time to say everything I wanted to say … I had so much more material that ‘needed’ attention!

After I’d been teaching about ten years I once tape-recorded the semester’s lectures I did in a class on Greek tragedy, put the tapes away somewhere and forgot about them, and then about ten years later came across them in a drawer.  And listened to myself … and kept thinking, “But why didn’t you get into that point or make this obvious observation or …” and so forth.

I wonder if the jazz pianists do the same thing when listening to recordings of themselves.

At any rate, quite in general, I do believe I do understand the point Brubeck was driving at in the epigraph.

Well, lectures on Greek tragedy are a long way from ‘Take Five’, Brubeck’s signature tune written by his inimitable saxophonist, Paul Desmond, but the distance is not entirely a matter of parsecs – I’d like to think.

In any event, thanks, Mr. Brubeck, thanks so much!

Requiescas In Pace!
terra sit tibi levis
(may the earth be light on you)

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