Music Collecting – Classical

I have been an avid, some might say obsessive, music fan for as long as I can remember.  As a result, I have a much bigger collection of music than anyone with as little money as I have had should have.  Recently, I decided to start cataloging my collection.  It’s in pretty rough shape after a couple of moves.  It’s partly still in boxes and partly on shelves in three different spots in the house.  Not only is it not alphabetized, it isn’t in any order whatsoever.

So, I’m using to catalogue the collection.  I started with my classical collection.  I went through and pulled out every classical release I could find (this includes orchestral soundtracks), entered them into Discogs and put them together on a couple of shelves in the basement.  There were 166 classical releases.  I know that’s not all of them.  I know I own Patrick Stewart narrating “Peter and the Wolf”, but I couldn’t find it.  And I know I own a 2 disc Phillips set of the complete Brahms symphonies, but I couldn’t find that either.  I wouldn’t be surprised if my classical collection tops out around 200, but 166 was what I could find in my first pass.

It’s been a nice trip down memory lane doing this project.  It’s amazing how many pieces have distinct memories associated with them.  In fact, I don’t think there was a single piece, as I’m sure there will be when I get to some of the bigger parts of my collection, where I didn’t know that I own it or didn’t know why I own it.  I thought it might be nice for me, since I’m sure no one else is interested, to share some of those stories.

Like most every American my age and younger, my first exposure to classical music was through cartoons.  I knew “Kill the Wabbit” long before I knew what a Wagner was.  I would also hear it through my parents, occasionally on the radio (NPR) and some other random places.  I certainly didn’t know much of anything about it until fourth grade.  That was the year when we got to pick an instrument in school.  I picked the French Horn (although I never call it that now, it’s just the Horn).  I had no idea what a Horn sounded like or what it was used for.  I thought it looked really neat.  It was all shiny and gold with tons of twists and turns.  My parents, as always, were very supportive and encouraged me by buying me my first piece of Horn music.  It was a vinyl copy of “The Art of Dennis Brain” on the Seraphim label.  I still have it and still love it.  If you know any aspiring Horn players, it’s a great place to start.

Since I was a Horn player, a lot of my collection is Horn-centric.  I am partial to Dennis Brain, Hermann Baumann and Lowell Greer.  And then there’s Mason Jones.  The one and only prerecorded cassette I ever owned was Mason Jones performing the four Mozart Horn Concertos with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It was given to me by my high school band director.  I’ve long since lost track of the cassette, but a few years ago, I found and purchased the same recording on vinyl.  It is wonderful.  But the thing I always think of when I pull that album out is my third private teacher.  He was the one that started me playing the Mozart concertos.  When we started, he told me I should get a copy, either Brain or Baumann.  I told him that I already had a copy, but it was Mason Jones playing.  He was surprised and made me bring in my copy to show him.  It turns out that Mason Jones had been his Horn teacher.  He decided that that recording was acceptable.  I’ve felt a connection to Mason Jones ever since.  He’s almost my Horn grandfather.

Another big chunk of my collection comes from band, chamber and orchestral pieces that I’ve performed.  This is how I came to have Smetana’s Mouldau.  I didn’t enjoy playing the piece, and I don’t particularly like listening to the piece.  But, I had to learn it, and in the days before the internet, that often meant picking up a copy for reference.  I also discovered some things that I love through the same process.  I first encountered Shostakovich because we were performing his Festive Overture.  I still listen to that CD quite a bit and Shostakovich, if he isn’t my favorite, is certainly in my top five composers.  His String Quartets are wonderful.  And I first discovered Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture when my college orchestra performed it and it is one of my favorite pieces of music in any genre.

One disc that I have a real personal connection to is “Portraits of Freedom: Music of Aaron Copland and Roy Harris”.  When I was in college, my third year I think, our orchestra played a fundraiser for a local school in Kingston, NY.  We performed Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Lincoln Portrait”.  “Peter and the Wolf” and “Lincoln Portrait” are both narrated, and we had James Earl Jones do the narration.  I’m about the biggest Star Wars fan you’d ever want to meet and I got to perform live, on stage with the voice of Darth Vader.  It was even more awesome than it sounds.  A couple years later, I ran across “Portraits of Freedom” and it has a recording of “Lincoln Portrait” featuring James Earl Jones.  The only way it could be better is if it were a recording of my orchestra.

Looking over my whole collection, my preferences clearly run modern, as in early to mid-twentieth century.  I also seem partial to Russian, British and American composers.  Not that I have anything against the Germans and Italians, I just like the Allies better.  I do seem to have an aversion to French composers.  I have one collection of “French favorites.”  I got that because my high school orchestra was performing Ravel’s “Pavanne For a Dead Princess”.  It’s not one of my favorite pieces, but it does feature the Horn prominently.  I also have a CD of Bernstein conducting Bizet.  I’m pretty sure that’s the extent of my French music.  For whatever reason, I respect the French composers, but I can’t seem to enjoy them.

I also seem to be partial to the low end of the orchestra.  Give me anything with a Double Bass, Bassoon or Tuba and I’m pretty happy.  Even as a player, I liked the low end.  First Horn is where the famous bits are, but I loved playing the second Horn parts.  The Horn has a broad range, but I always felt more comfortable with the Trombones and Cellos than the Violins and Trumpets.  It definitely shows in my collection.  I have more Bassoon concertos than Trumpet concertos and I have more Tuba music than Flute music.

Now that classical is (mostly) done, I’ll start the next section.  I’m not sure what that will be.  I’ll just open a box and see what jumps out at me.





An Old Woman, a Rubber Band, and a Nuclear Bomb

As they shuffled slowly into the cafeteria/common room, she was already sitting, hunched over, at her usual table in the corner by the window. She didn’t even look as the others sat in groups. Some were bragging about their grandkids while others complained of the cold. A middle aged bald man followed them in and walked to the front of the room. He waited a few moments for the chatter to stop.

“We have a special surprise for you today. Instead of our weekly sing along, some students from the community college are going to spend the day with us.”

The chattering started up again as half a dozen community college students walked into the room. Six tables were occupied, including the old woman in the corner. The administrator paused momentarily and then started showing the students to different tables. He came to the old woman’s table last with a twenty year old boy. He had studiously shaggy hair, glasses and a scarf.

The old woman glanced at the pair before turning to look out the window. The administrator said, “Agnes, this is Matthew. He’s going to visit with you for a while.” As he turned to leave, he mouthed, “Good luck,” to Matthew and scurried off to another table.

Matthew looked at Agnes while Agnes looked out the window. “So. . .,” Matthew started, “What is it like here?”

Agnes didn’t answer or even look at Matthew. Matthew sat down in her line of sight. Agnes shifted to look at the table with the utensils. “Do you like sports?” Matthew asked. “I used to watch the Sox with my grandmother.”

Agnes didn’t answer. Matthew started again, “It’s hot in here.”

“I’m cold,” Agnes mumbled. “Take off your scarf.”

Matthew fingered his scarf, but didn’t remove it.  “I’m in my third year,” Matthew tried again.  “I’m a poli sci major.  Most of the people here are sociology majors.  I want to go into politics, but I think it’s important to understand the issues.  A lot of poli sci majors never take any other classes.  But, really, how can you talk about disarmament without taking history classes or social security without talking to retirees?

“I mean there’s just tons of important issues out there and I need to do something about them. Look at Iraq and Ukraine. We can’t just let this stuff continue.”

Agnes kept looking at the utensils. “I’m sorry,” Matthew said. “You can’t be interested in that.”

Agnes glanced briefly at Matthew. “May I have a rubber band?” she mumbled.

“I’m sorry?”

“Please, may I have a rubber band,” she said, at the same volume as before.

“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.”

“A RUBBER BAND!  GET ME A RUBBER BAND!” she screamed.  Matthew stood up nervously and walked over to the administrator.  The two argued briefly and the administrator gestured to the door.  Matthew went out.

Agnes stood slowly and walked towards the utensils.  The administrator approached and said, “Now, Agnes, you can’t yell at people and it’s not time to eat.”  Agnes didn’t acknowledge the administrator.  She picked up a paper bowl and a pair of chop sticks before returning to her seat by the window.

Matthew returned with a red rubber band.  He handed it to Agnes as the administrator walked over to their table.  “Agnes,” he started, but Matthew interrupted with, “We’re fine.”

Agnes looked Matthew in the eye and mumbled, “Thank you.”  Then she looked at the administrator and said, “Ssss.”

The administrator shook his head and walked away.  Matthew sat down as Agnes pulled a bobby pin out of her hair.  She used the bobby pin to poke a hole in the bottom of the paper bowl.  She picked up the rubber band and put it between her teeth.  She pulled on it until it snapped.  She tied one end of the broken rubber band to the bobby pin.  Agnes lifted the bowl in her right hand and the loose end of the rubber band in her left.  She poked the rubber band through the hole on the concave side of the bowl, switched hands and pulled until the bobby pin was flat against the inside of the bowl.  She put the bowl upside down on the table and picked up the chopsticks.  She separated the two and put one down.  She tied the loose end of the rubber band to the thin end of the chopstick.

“What is that?” Matthew asked.  Agnes ignored him again.  She lifted the chopstick with the rubber band end up and placed the other end on the rim of the overturned bowl.  She rested her left hand on the bowl and pressed the rubber band against the chopstick with her right index finger.  She plucked the rubber band with her left middle finger while rocking the chopstick forwards and back.  She started humming a note a little lower than what the instrument was making.  She relaxed the rubber band until they matched.  She hummed a note a fifth above the first note and pulled back on the chopstick until those two notes matched.

Matthew’s mouth was open slightly as he watched Agnes. Agnes continued rocking the chopstick between the root and fifth while humming softly. Her voice was both low and high. The notes were true, with an edge, a bit of rasp.

She paused. Matthew leaned forward, but closed his mouth. After a moment, Agnes started a simple baseline: root, root, fifth, root, root, fifth, two eighths – slightly swung – and a quarter. Matthew looked around. He was the only person paying attention to Agnes. He grinned.

Then, Agnes started singing. Her voice was soft, but clear, “Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout the nuc’ler bomb/but nobody’s talkin’ ’bout when Jesus comes/When Jesus comes/he’s gonna hit ya, he’s gonna hit ya/like that nuclear bomb.”