Writers On Music
This is a series of short essays about music from the perspectives of young writers. Several members of The Corresponding Society have been asked to address the subject. The participants have academic backgrounds in fields such as literature, poetics, and history; they are enthusiasts, but claim no formal musical qualifications whatever.
Placing Rhapsody in Blue
by Adrian Shirk
Once, in Albuquerque, I stopped at a record shop called Natural Sound, a squat building on the dusty corner of Central Avenue known formerly as Route 66. The shop was going out of business and everything was on sale. The shelves, not unlike those of small businesses in Brooklyn, were already thinning; the recession had been officially announced the night before during our layover in Houston. Announcing it did as much as the diagnosis of a quiet form of cancer which has already taken a scoop out of your liver. Presenting the dime-store map to the young man at the counter, I asked him which canyons were the good ones, but he only blinked at me through the morning sun, saying nothing. So my companion and I bought four CDs, including a Gershwin compilation featuring Rhapsody in Blue, and started up I-25.
I was not entirely sure why we’d come to New Mexico. There had been free airline miles to use, a limited expenditure period --- I knew this --- but the destination had been picked out over coffee two weeks before, and now we were here. I-25 is a barren stretch of road that cuts through the state vertically. The San Andreas Mountains stand erect to one side, with the sheer, bald face of southwest erosion, jutting from dirt plains that undulate like water. It is not unlike the vision Warner Bros. once painted for Merry Melodies, and when we put on Gershwin, the likeness grew: Rhapsody is commonly associated with New York, but what struck me as the first cartoonish crescendo seared from the rental car’s speakers --- the sweet shrieking rise of the clarinet, the way it flowers at the end --- was how it matched the playful, grandiose landscape of cowboy country just as well. Reflexively, I could see Roadrunner and Coyote darting from behind the yucca, mimicking the frantic, innocent pace of Gershwin’s piece. Wasn’t Bugs Bunny always on his way to Albuquerque?
My relationship to music is not a sophisticated one. My parents met at a jazz program in college during the early 70s, where my mother played flute and my father, bass trombone. Without finishing his bachelor’s, my father took a job at the American Federation of Musicians, Local 99, and climbed his way to a position that hovered around Secretary Treasurer for twenty years. And when my parents split up, he married another flutist, and all of these people raised me, and at no point coerced me into a music education of my own. They didn’t even push piano lessons, or elementary school band. We lived across the street from a large Mormon family, the children of which played five instruments each. We listened from our front steps. I still can’t read notes. Each parent took me to countless concerts, their own and others, and on our home stereos played Classical 89.9. My dad fought on the side of tinny-voiced musicians until I moved out. Music was an atmosphere more than anything, a godlike presence I couldn’t name. I remember sitting in the backseat on the ride home from seeing my stepmother play The Rite of Spring for the Oregon Symphony, and suddenly being old enough (probably fifteen) where I felt awkward realizing I had no idea what to say.
Everything flattened and browned as we moved south. I-25 converged with Route 3, and in a town called Truth and Consequences, the second movement of Rhapsody commenced and we stopped for coffee. The song slowed, becoming dramatic, breathy --- a ladies scarf, billowing goodbye from a passenger train’s window. The brass section picked up, punctuating the melody with pile-driving bars that sounded (and looked) like the gears of a steam engine. Like all the other western New Mexico towns, Truth and Consequences had once been the home of coal miners, but all the remained were closed-up civic buildings, a bank and a muddy trickle of the Rio Grande that ran along the highway. Even the name, once Hot Springs, had been coughed up for a popular 1950s television show running a national contest. On Gershwin’s album jacket was a 1913 Colin Campbell Cooper painting called “Fifth Avenue, New York,” of the intersection in front of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and almost a century old, the painting depicted the same city I live in now, whereas most of New Mexico would be unrecognizable to its citizens of yore. I assumed Rhapsody to be about an unchanging American face --- something that united the bodies of freights and subway cars, hurtling over their respective rails. But how, when all I could see was the businessman and the buggy on the corner of 81st? And where in this forsaken state did they keep it?
And what did Gershwin know of place: reared in Brooklyn by a pair of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who pushed all their children into music training, it was only expected he and Ira rise to national greatness, and who better to reflect industrial America than a culturally bastardized foreigner who could see every piece of it, whole and raw. There was nothing godlike about it. Gershwin was a man’s man, surrounded by fancy women, tripping fans, and great noise. Though a close friend of Gershwin’s, composer Kay Smith once said, “under the vibrant and gregarious exterior was a sad Russian.” Perhaps Gershwin was writing about New York, but perhaps New York contained shards of every united state, and perhaps he could isolate the smaller pieces from the mess. The myth is that he conceived of Rhapsody on a commuter train to Boston, that he finished it in a month’s time, and improvised parts at its first concert. It is this act of improvisation that suggests to me he drew his material from what was around him, responding to the energy or enthusiasm at hand; and that the nature of Rhapsody is not a representation, but rather a perfect mirror, conjured in the moment of its opus. Maybe America liked him so much because listening to his music was like watching ourselves dance. In my most earnest attempts, this is to what end I write. “I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise,” Gershwin said.
We drove through tiny towns dotting the edge of the White Sands Missile Range, past the Trinity Site. It was a warm, September afternoon. We stopped at lava beds and saw antelope and the terrain began to rise, still vast and tan, but rising now in dikes that the road snaked through, gently releasing us back into the plains. I played Rhapsody on repeat. These were the sounds I wanted to write, the movements, this dance. I did not want to write fiction or poetry or journalism or travel guides or songs or manuals or plays; these were not the right ways or words. I wanted to record, to reverberate, to sound the rhythms of everything around me; to terrify and move people with their own bare reflection; to rove the highways like the guy who drove the night soil cart in medieval Europe, picking up the national excrement flung out the windows of American homes.
We pitched a tent in the backcountry of White Sands National Park, just outside of Las Cruces. Our site roosted amongst miles of gypsum white dunes and the deepest silence was known to me --- settled, penetrated by only the sonic booms of fighter jets launched from a nearby military base. We wedged our propane stove into the sand and shared a dinner of Dinty Moore stew and dried fruit as the sky grew impossibly dark. I had dreams that night of driving through the West at the turn of the century: I, gripping my Gibson hat, and my companion crushing a cigar under his heavy mustache.
Even now I don’t know the lexicon of music, but I know that it does the work I wish to do. It has an agility I can’t summon with words; writing is the beginning of a thing, the framework and casing, and music occupies the space of what must be a pure and present form. In his 1979 film Manhattan, Woody Allen pairs the clumsy short-comings of language as his character, Issac Davis, recites the working-preamble of his new book over a montage of turn-of-the-century film clips set to Rhapsody in Blue. “‘Chapter One,’” Isaac begins. “‘He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.’ Uh, no, make that: ‘He --- he... romanticized it all out of proportion. Now... to him... no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black-and-white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.’ Uh, now let me start this over...” The Super-8 clips continue, showing the roaring bustle of a classier era, rugged docksmen hauling nets of fish, first-rate girls and a climbing skyline, but Isaac keeps trying: “‘He was as... tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat’ --- I love this! --- ‘New York was his town. And it always would be.’” But at this point we have stopped listening to him.