This is the first entry of the traveling diary of a budding composer and musician. It will be, I hope, less an unreadably personal record of minutae, than a journal of my experiences put down in a way other thinking musicians and listeners might find edifying and, with any luck, fortifying.
Currently I am in two bands, both in the early stages of development, “No Love Songs” and “The Kissing Cousins Band”. Though I have been composing since I was a child, I did not begin to set the music to paper until I was seventeen years of age. Music has always been part of my life, and three years ago after clinical testing at the behest of an attentive and devoted friend, it was discovered that I am in fact quite deaf, a lifelong condition that has been obscured by my skills at reading lips, as well as people’s linguistic tendencies and their overall mannerisms. Hearing aids now assist me in observing the music of the universe around and within us all.
My musical education in elementary through high school was adequate for my general education and I have been fortunate to have learned more than the average American middle class student. I never learned to sight-read or read the bass clef with any proficiency, having studied the treble clef in choir and during childhood flute lessons. Now as a grown woman I continue my education mostly through reading books on music, on composers, and technique. I have had a handful of sessions with a few piano teachers, most recently Manling Kwok, a superior instructor from Hong Kong who holds a degree in Piano Pedagodgy from Oakland University. Learning any new language in one’s middle-thirties is a challenge and my slow progress is marked by frustration and hope equally.
In an early 19th Century book on piano study I found at a local book shop, I read words to the effect that performance is the bane of American musicianship. The author commented that many musicians are encouraged to perform before they are ready. While I see the point, I also wonder what America he was talking about, and how much experience he had had with cultures outside of the Western world even within the U.S. Border. In African-American or Latino households, for instance, cultures that explore rhythm extensively, early group performance is widely regarded as enhancing compositional abilities. In many European-American books on piano performance written in the 19th Century, I have found useful tidbits on how to increase technical skill and richness of tone, but increasingly come across warnings against novice performance. One book warns that no student of piano, however skilled, ought to perform until “he has make a careful study for at least eight years”. It is my personal preference not to perform or practice in public, but this may prove to be a weakness.
Keeping both approaches in mind, public improvisation and private study, I submit that knowing one’s self sufficient to maintaining a balance of breaking personal barriers and learning at one’s own pace is key. When drawing sketches abroad, for instance, or painting on a canvas in a tourist spot, I have felt pestered by the flock of no doubt well-meaning nosey parkers who inevitably wish to peek at what I am doing. After finding the courage to say “I am not comfortable showing my work at this stage,” I began to feel better about progressing at my own rate. This is to say that I think that my reaction to the crumbling 19th Century volume on piano study at Downtown Books in Rochester, Michigan, was a relief followed by skepticism.
As my 16-year-old godson, Nadim, also a composer of music, said to me recently, “I can get something out of every situation.” In his useful if precious book on the artistic life, The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield encourages artists to view the forces that keep them back as creative folk as a type of evil force that exists to squelch works that might please the benevolent gods. He calls it “Resistance” and I found this to be a useful term and concept. I prefer to think of those forces as not evil (as I do not believe they are) but as teaching forces that exist to forge us and all beings into stronger versions of ourselves. In truth, I suspect that either way of thinking is mildly sollipsistic, but I am all for the pragmatic uses of such concepts if they dispell the clouds of apathy and stagnation that so plague us, thus sparking our gumption.
As a recovering Catholic, I reject the idea of heaven, hell and eternal hellfire, and original sin, finding in my experiences and those of my fellow earthlings as sufficient evidence that Heaven and Hell are here and now. We needn’t seek them out. The Hindu view of life as being ruled by gods in the form of Creator, Destroyer and Maintainer is helpful here. At the risk of sounding the blasphemer, we can see the creative force as The Creator, the Resistant force as The Destroyer. We ourselves, then, are the Maintainer or, if you prefer, beings capable of all three incarnations, aligning with the universal religious concept that God is Within.
Why do we exist? To me, it rings true to say that we exist to become “moreso” versions of ourselves, however defined, toward some unseen purpose or else simply for the amusement of forces unknown, but at the end of the day I do not pretend to know. Pressfield writes that fear is an indicator of what we must do and having read his thoughtful expansion on this theme brought to my mind C.S. Lewis’s maxim that “we read to know we are not alone”. The mastery of fear and viewing setbacks as indicators of a need for a change of perspective is important in personal and artistic development. That is to say, life is hard enough. Use what you can and pass it on.
The house is now buzzing with life, and I must take my tea with my family.
Cheers and chimes,
A newspaper headline caught my eye as I walked down the street toward my rented house.
“ENTERPRISE WILL CONQUER POVERTY AND WAYWARDNESS,” SAYS SENATE HOPEFUL MATT RIMROD.” I stepped up to the newspaper droid and peered at the opening lines of the front-page news. “We will realize the American Dream. It will unify America…”
It reminded me of something Gunther Wallace Phelps once said to me over a drink. We had been sitting at The Olde Tavern Pub on Main Street some summers ago, watching the Elm Harbor townies pay rapt attention to a lesser Vannah White revealing Michigan Lotto numbers on the bar t.v.
G.W. said to me, pointing his beer bottle toward the lottery junkies, “Working is not the American Dream. Not working is the American Dream.”
Walking back home, I realized it had been two or three months since I’d spoken with Gunther Wallace. When I reached my apartment, I pressed play on my answering machine.
G.W. telephoned while I was out, and this was the tail end of his voice message: “Get ‘em while they’re hot: binoculars, scissors, canvas, tape. Old sneakers, waffle irons and mail-order brides.” He was rooting through his stuff and invited me to cast my eyes over his kingdom of litter before he pitched it. During the last phone conversation we had, I had been debating about whether to get rid of all my belongings, or get a storage space.
“What do you think would be harder, G.W. Packing up all my stuff or leaving it all behind?”
“You know, you really aren’t a minimalist, Dolores,” he said by way of an answer. “You just amass more shit.”
When he wasn’t up North at Oberland, G.W. lived on the seventh floor of The Farwell, an abandoned building on the border of Elm Harbor and Detroit. It was just high enough to have a view, he’d said, and low enough to make it in good time down the fire escape in event of a high-speed chase. That day after G.W.’s message promising his treasures to me, I called him back agreed to make my way to his place at eleven o’clock the next morning.
In the 1920s the Farwell had been a hotel, and the chipped and dusty molding of the lobby’s twin fireplaces, the yellowed stain glass windows, the chipped and fading ceiling frescoes still radiated a shabby magnificence. Stony, twisted-tongued gargoyles glowered down from the rooftops and guarded the entryway.
What set The Farwell apart from many such buildings in many such towns was its original designer. The wealthy dowager architect, contrary to the advice of her fellows and quite against tradition, had included a button for Floor 13 in the passenger elevator. Most American hotels, apartment complexes and office buildings stuck to that superstitious cardinal order linking 12 to 14 for fear of dark and mysterious fates befalling their tenants and properties. Legends abounded of gruesome deaths, heated lovers’ quarrels, and so too came vague reports of rotten luck and abiding ill fortune…your basic life in the big city. The dowager’s famous response? “Scandal is great for business.”
When I arrived at his apartment building at the edge of 9 Mile Road, it looked as if the entire structure was in the process of being gutted. The Farwell had long been a favorite destination of mine and, well before G.W. moved in, I would often end my town strolls on its roof balcony, admiring the sweeping view it offered of both my home town of Elm Harbor and the great, lawless rusted ruin that was the Motor City.
Few cars were parked out on the little side street, the urban sign of exile. The entryway was strung with yellow plastic ribbons trumpeting: CAUTION! CAUTION! CAUTION! Inside, the industrial-carpeted floor was littered with rubble. Posted by the elevator were printed signs announcing the building’s demolition printed in bold type. It was dated six months ago.
The main elevator was not in service, and the lobby stairwell door was enthusiastically chained and padlocked. Undaunted, I cut to the rear of the building down a narrow hallway and located without trouble the service elevator. A stack of Yellow Pages phonebooks held open the door to the alley. I pressed the only button on the elevator’s exterior keypad and patiently awaited my chariot, thinking it had been perhaps ten years since I’d seen anyone consult phone directories. Doorstops were as good a use as any for them. The elevator wheezed to the ground and its stale iron door rattled open.
Once safely ferreted to the seventh floor, I realized I forgot G.W.’s room number. There in the hallway, I began to listen. A duet of chainsaw and hammer came from one direction, but the open door to the rickety fire escape meant that the activity perhaps sounded from any floor at all, even the rooftop. I tried again, this time catching two voices. A pedantic drone emanated from a nearby room, followed by a murmured sopranic response; a young woman and an old man were discussing The World in familiar, comic harmonies. I stepped past this door, and soon picked up the sound of my friend’s voice in laughter. Then an unfamiliar and lilting laugh set in a higher pitch came as an echo. With a few hairpins found in my mackintosh pockets, I set my tumbling curls in neat order in preparation of an unforeseen introduction.
The keyhole to G.W.’s door was surrounded with an old digital compact disc, shining and silver. The door was unlocked and slightly ajar.
I stepped into the apartment, and at once my senses were assaulted with light and sound. G.W.’s windows were all six of them open, and the fire escape construction and city traffic blared in chaotic roars. The giant fish tank and numerous plants shone in their colorful varieties, daylight seemed to bleach the floorboards of the otherwise empty room. Two mangy cats were engaged in a fur-flying hissy-fit in the center of the living room where a round young woman with pillar-box red hair sat holding a peacock feather in one dirty hand. She did not look up until I closed the door behind me.
We exchanged anonymous greetings from opposite sides of the room and for a time regarded one another without stirring. A minute later, we heard the clump-clump of boots as G.W. trumped out from his bedroom.
He waved both hands sideways in a childlike hello, and we embraced. After introducing Sadie to me and me to Sadie, G.W. said, “Let’s eat.”
Sadie was not hungry, but she said she would feed the cats. She did this, and then took to cleaning the fish tank.
The studio kitchen was open to the apartment. I sat back in a rickety chair at the card table by the kitchen window and asked my friend with a teasing smile, “Is this your mail-order bride?” I jerked my head toward Sadie, who was singing loudly to the fish, and grinned.
He waited until Sadie went to fill two jugs of water in the bathtub before saying, mildly, “She just needed a place to stay.”
“Do you?” I asked, folding my hands over my empty bowl and giving him my best schoolmarm stare-down. “I saw the signs.”
G.W. did not answer, instead he fixed me with his sphinx-like gaze and held it long. When I did not drop my eyes, he laughed somewhat tenderly and my lips twisted in a pursed smile.
“What signs?” he asked. “Oh, you mean the DEMO.” He swatted his hand at this. “It costs millions to demolish a building like this. I got time yet.”
G.W. whipped up an omelette, which he called The Phelps Special. Another name for it might have been The Kitchen Sink. G.W.’s approach to cuisine his brother Marcus called, “Ready, steady cook”, making miracles from scraps and with only his nose and palette as guide. I thanked him for breakfast.
“Have more,” he said, rising from his broken chair. G.W. returned with the cast-iron skillet, setting it on a folded towel on the table. It satisfied me to see that, for whatever reason, the building’s electricity had not yet been shut off, and this fact relieved me for G.W.’s sake, and for Sadie’s, too, I reflected. The rest of the mystery belonged to G.W., G.W. who would certainly survive, G.W. who would always shelter those who couldn’t make it on their own.
For a time he had studied stone masonry, working what jobs there once were, and now how he lived I hardly knew. He hadn’t been to Monty’s Diner in some time. On a few occasions, I had sent him some money, which he never asked for and which I told him was a gift. Knowing G.W., it was divided among a handful of others sharing the sphere of his immediate life.
Where once we had taken long walks together, we now kept in touch through phone calls and letters. Ours was the bond that time did not alter; after months apart, the difference was little to us and we remained close, despite or perhaps because of the yaws of time between our meetings. The silence and distance if anything seemed to feed our friendship and secure our places deep in one another’s profoundest confidences.
After breakfast, we left Sadie napping with the cats on a beanbag in the sunshine. Gunther took his guitar over to my place where we played music together for hours. I improvised at the keyboard as Gunther strummed on his guitar. Then we moved to the patio, smoked, talk and sang some more as the day turned to night. Some time in the night, I fell asleep on the porch swing. When I awoke, I was covered in a blanket, and G.W. Phelps was gone. A note taped to the coffee pot said he was going with his brother up to Oberland.
His family property in the Upper Peninsula neighbored what had once been my family’s land. Nearly fifteen years before, my parents split up and my mother sold our twenty-acre country home. My sister, Catie, once grown, had moved to California, and had never visited Oberland even once since our parents’ divorce. The boys’ father, Simon, had passed, and Mrs. Clara Phelps and my mother kept in loose touch. The last time I had seen Clara was at my mother’s funeral two years ago.
Though a few times I had visited and stayed with his whole family since the move, G.W. and I mostly spent our time together in Elm Harbor. A handful of summers across a dozen years I made my way up to Oberland, and I knew it had been some time since I visited the Phelps.
“Come back home for a while, Dolores,” Gunther’s note read at the end.
After meeting Lenny Dean Schiff, I finally felt brave enough to hit the road again. The very day I planned to light out for the territory would be just when Oberland called me home.