Friday, April 28, 2006

The instead of song

In 1977 I met, in Australia, an American exchange high school teacher. Bob was a nice guy. He'd be in his early 60's today. Tall, thin and intellectual. If that's not your idea of Americans I'm not surprised. He was from California. I can already hear the yanks sighing in relief; he was from California! That explains it!

Bob's passion was classical music. I met him at a music camp at Harrietville in central Victoria. This was two years after I'd been there as composer in residence but they were still willing to play my compositions. That year, January 1977, it was a string quartet. Unlike my earlier compositions I remember that one without much shame; it's not Nyman quality to be sure but it wasn't all that bad.

It was also rather easier to persuade four string players to play my music than it was to get a whole orchestra to play along...

If I remembered Bob for nothing else I'd remember him for introducing me to Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht. I saw a performance of 'The resistible rise and rise of Arturo Ui' in Melbourne about 1978. I'd never have even have noticed it was on the calendar without Bob.

But the real eye opener was hearing him play 'The Threepenny Opera' as done by Weill/Brecht. I say play but it was via gramophone records. Remember those? A few months ago we went for a drive through the Tonto National park. I've written about that day[^] before. Along the way we stopped at one or two museums and in one of those was a really old gramophone player. I drew Andrews attention to it and he said 'oh I know what that is. You put the CD there!'. We laughed, my wife and I and Andrew looked a trifle sheepish. Then I asked him how many grooves there are on an LP. A trick question of course; the answer is two, one on either side. But honestly, it wasn't a bad stab at the answer was it? He was born in 1991 and has probably never seen a real LP. At least he was in the right problem domain.

Before Bob played 'Die Dreigroschenoper' all the German Opera I'd heard was Wagner. Good opera but somewhat, what's the word? Somewhat ethereal? No one in the real world speaks or sings in those terms. But there it was, a narrator speaking, rather than singing, German. German slang (according to the cover notes) and a certain guttural enthusiasm. I'm not explaining it well. It has, to my ears, an almost gustatorial enthusiasm about it. I can picture those people sitting in their gaslit cellars making the best of poverty.

Love at first hearing. I have two recordings of 'The Threepenny Opera', the 1955 or thereabouts recording featuring Lotte Lenya (wife of the composer). The other is from about 1988. I also have two recordings of the 'Threepenny Opera Suite', orchestral only music; no singing, no Sprechgesang.

By chance my introduction to Weill/Brecht happened at about the time I was living from one week to the next, unsure of where I was going to sleep tomorrow night. It also happened to be winter in Melbourne. Not terribly cold by the standards of some parts of the world but cold enough to someone who faced the prospect of sleeping out rough. I know I exaggerate; I very much doubt Marg[^] would have chucked me out onto the street but at the time it felt like a distinct possiblity if I couldn't pay the rent. So I spent weeks living from day to day with the words of the opera circling in my head and, if I must confess it, a certain Romantic view of myself as the starving artist.

Strange times. I remember eating at the Pancake Parlour in Melbourne in mid-winter 1978; stretching a cup of coffee over three or more hours in the warmth before emerging to catch a tram to South Melbourne. Cold wet early evening as I passed a fish and chip shop and ducked in to buy steamed Dim Sims soused in Soy sauce. I remember the calculation of so many cents per dimmo and knowing that I could afford four of the buggers. Dimmos eaten (one of the most satisfying meals I can remember) I recall turning my key in Margs front door and retiring to bed, to listen to Scriabin.

Well I wasn't going to let it rest there; what else had Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht written? I became more prosperous and could investigate. 'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny' for one. I can't help liking an opera that features a scene of three people, drunk, sailing a billiard table in their imagination through a storm and singing about seasickness! 'Three of us two have 'die seekrankheit!' Throw in a scene with a voice through a loudhailer reporting the progress of a Hurricane along the US gulf coast followed by a hymn of praise to God that said Hurricane misses the City of Mahagonny and, for me, you have a winner!

Remember the Doors 'Alabama Song'? I bet you never knew it's word for word and tune for tune straight out of that opera! My wife didn't when I played both versions to her a couple of weeks ago.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that I also have two recording of that opera. Again, the first is the 1955 or thereabouts recording featuring Lotte Lenya. The other again dates from around 1988 and it's pretty good; it includes a couple of scenes that were omitted from the 1955 recording.

The following January, monetary woes solved, I was once again at the music camp at Harrietville. A convert to Brecht/Weill with all the enthusiasm of the convert! I remember meeting someone from the better side of town; I don't remember anything about him apart from his being about a decade my senior. He sneered at my enthusiasm. 'Why should I be interested in music from the age of Fascism?' was approximately his meaning.

Those who forget their history are doomed to relive it.

I last saw Bob in 1981; he'd returned to the US so as not to lose teaching seniority in 1979 but he came back in 1981 just to be sure he could see the Royal Wedding on Australian TV. Well that was the story he spun. He watched it at our house. We cooked bacon sandwiches and one of our cats siezed her chance. Quite the sight; a cat, teeth firmly clamped in a piece of bacon on one side of the sandwich; Bob, teeth firmly clamped into a piece of bacon on the other side of the sandwich! The cat won!

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