Deserted Cities of the Heart…

On a short (er) note;

This is the title of a favorite old “Cream” song, produced by Felix Papallardi. Felix was a phenomenal producer; he really knew how to infuse a recording with a sense of atmosphere. He was also the bassist in Mountain, using an old Gibson EB-1 bass when most of the world used Fender. Gibson was always a bit late to the party, and especially so where electric bass was concerned. At any rate, poor Felix was accidently… shot to death by his wife Gail in 1983.

 Hmm…not that short of a note after all. Sorry. How thoroughly pompous, to start writing a piece without mentioning what it’s actually about; and how delusional, to presume that readers will see how it ties in later on.

And now, on to the actual topic. Relax, this is only semi- delusional.

There are certain specific places, my ” deserted cities”, that I visit in dreams.
I attempted to describe one such place in a previous post, and even though the description was lacking, I still felt much better for the attempt. This is important stuff, and it is has apparently become imperative that I get this across to someone somewhere somehow. I haven’t a clue as to why. ( See? Only semi-delusional. If I were completely delusional, I couldn’t have written that at all.)

I was very pleased to re-visit this particular spot; it was only for the second time, and was very gratified to be back. It had been several years since.
An actual description of it might make more sense with a few details provided beforehand, so please allow me to back-fill a little back-story.

On a few different occasions over the years, I attended the local community college ( CCRI ); and partook of most of the music department’s offerings. The music department there is small and of course underfunded, and yet they manage great things at the hands of some truly inspired teaching.
One of my courses was Chamber Ensemble; we had piano, three violins, three guitars, two cellos, three flutes, and a trumpet. The instructor ( Cherie Markward ) managed to find suitable music for everyone, and a few pieces that utilized all of us.
One particular day ( when the guitars didn’t have anything to do), she asked me if I could play bass. Of course I answered in the affirmative. She then instructed me to venture into the instrument storage area and get one out.
Being the pompous delusional fool that I was, I got the keys, opened the door, flipped on the lights, and located the back closet where they were kept. I opened the door supposing an old Fender Precision or Jazz bass would greet me, with an old Bassman amp to supplement.
No, no, no.
There were two full-scale standup basses in there.
I was shocked, aghast; this had not occurred to me. Pompous fools always expect electric basses at such times. Why wouldn’t a chamber orchestra have an electric bass, said fool thought to himself. Could it be because all the other instruments were acoustic, and it had been thus for hundreds of years with chamber music?
I had never seen one of these things in close proximity before. I could only play electric bass, and therefore I should have been gaping at an electric bass just then; such is the tragic chain of logic of the pompously delusional.
And after the gasping, and the panicked short breathing, and the cold fear racing through my intestinal tract; I got one out. I figured; it has four strings, and they’re sideways, and there aren’t any frets, but so what? I can handle this. A bass is a bass.
Poor delusional ass. An ass is an ass.

Minutes later, Ms. Markward raised her conductor’s baton, and we began to play. Four bars in, and she stopped. And stared. At me. She lowered the baton.
Were there pizzicato marks on my score, she asked, or was I just in a ” jazz frame of mind”? I craftily decided not to answer, not having the vaguest notion of what pizzicato was, or what a pizzicato mark was, or what one actually looked like. Or what it would have meant anyway.
She craftily asked me to go back into storage and get a bow. Because there weren’t any pizzicato marks in this piece. Now, please…
A what?? A Bow???

A few minutes later…she stops again, to ask me if I could play just a little louder. Because I couldn’t produce anything at all. Absolute silence.

 I declared confidently that something was wrong or must be broken, because I was sawing away as hard as I could…

I then learned about bow rosin, at the assist of an adorable eighteen-year-old violinist, who led a hearty round of laughter at my expense.

And once again…eight bars in, Ms. Markward stops…and stares. Again.
What’s left, I thought to myself… really…

Is my score in E-flat? she asks. Yes, I reply…
Do I have issues with E-flat? Because the John Cage bass line is not working for Haydn.
Honestly, I said,… E-flat is tough for guitar players. ( Truth be told, we’d rather open up a vein and bleed out than play in E-flat.)
But it’s a walk in the park for string players…and you said you could play bass…
She asked me to check my tuning…which I did…
And discovered ( again with the smirky violinist’s help ) that string instruments( violin/viola/cello/bass ) are all tuned in fifths, not fourths…like an electric bass…
So, for me, the notes were all in the wrong places.
The class thankfully ended right about then, and I and my intestinal tract barely got out of the room alive.
A very tough day at the community college.

Over the next few weeks, I persisted, and could finally play a few simple parts. My bow technique was atrocious; apparently, they’re all supposed to move forward and back at the same rate. And, I had to make little chalk marks on the fingerboard where the frets should have been… The cool rock-and-roll guy was getting mangled daily by sarcastic children and a woman with a pointy stick. But I didn’t run.
And then…at the Christmas break…
Ms. Pointystick asked me if I would want to take the bass home over the break. Get some practice time in. Couldn’t hurt.
I was very surprised that she would allow that, and gratefully agreed.
I practiced a lot, and by the end of the two weeks…
I discovered that the double bass was the coolest instrument ever. Even though I was terrible, I still came to realize that the sound of a bowed upright bass was just the most sonorous, strident, and purely musical instrument of all.

I went back after the break, worked even harder, played the recitals, played the end-of-semester concerts, and aced the course. I played in a really neat Vivaldi trio reworked for three guitars, played my bass parts, and even got to play tympani a little. A great experience overall, and I took several more courses there. All wonderful; and there are certainly a few more entertaining stories buried in that bone lot. The tympani thing was fun all of itself; the monkey-with-a-screwdriver syndrome at its absolute worst. Seems that you can’t just pound away at will; they expect you to exhibit a sense of decorum.

And that’s all the backwash we need. On to the dream.

Not too much of anything happens in this dream. It’s where it takes place that holds significance.
The setting is a gigantic cathedral. Not so much of the old medieval stone variety, but more of a Westminster Abbey kind of place. It’s circular in shape, with acres of wooden partition seating arranged around a central open area, with a large ornate stairway that leads up to an enclosed platform with a dais. The outer walls are very high and very dark; the windows comprise the roof, which are of stained glass in a circular pattern. There are no doors, but the outer walls have heavy black drapery where the doors might otherwise be. Everything slants downward towards the central open area.
In the dream, I find myself walking down an aisle towards the lower central part; I stop about halfway down, and realize that there are many people in the seats all around. The partitions are all actually closed off from each other, each with just a  small door that opens onto the aisle. There are students in the partitions, each with an instrument, a music stand, and a small bright light to illuminate the stand. They are all practicing to prepare for some very important event. They are working very intently. Some of them get up and leave the cathedral through the black draperies, and as many others enter the same way. Bright sunlight shines through when the drapes are opened.
Not far from where I stop to look around and observe, I see a partition with a bass in it. I’m not sure if it’s mine or not. I walk towards it slowly, and stand just outside the partition door. A girl with a violin in the next partition says hello, and reaches over to open the door for me. I want to play the bass, to sit in the partition and quietly work in preparation, as all the others are. But I cannot.
The overwhelming feeling in this dream is that I do not belong. Everything about this environment reflects order, quiet, a silent joyous knowledge of belonging, and of sharing an appreciation of the entire environment. I cannot partake; my life has been too tumultuous, too painful and erratic; I am not qualified, or ready.
I can visit as long as I want, I can play the bass for a while. I notice that they are working on a Bach piece; even the sheet music moves in long, graceful flowing lines. Pastoral; civilized.
But ultimately, I have to leave. I walk upwards to the outer wall, and open one of the black draperies and step outside into the blazing sunlight.

There are trees of varying heights all around; and from each branch, there are three pieces of rope, attached to a triangular cloth seat. There is a student in each seat, lying backwards as if in freefall. This is what they are coming outside for, and going back in again when they are rested.
I stand there amazed at the sight of such a large structure surrounded by sleeping musicians in freefall; and while I stand there, I quietly dissipate in the sunlight.

I first dreamed this many years ago; but went back just the other night. I played the bass again, and played a little better than the first time.  I didn’t remember leaving, but I seemed to sense that I’ll be allowed another visit…maybe when I’m a bit less pompous and delusional.

Or know what the hell pizzicato marks are for…

Published in: on October 23, 2011 at 3:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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