Posted by mrhorrible on:
Good evening; my name is Mr Horrible, and I am a musician.
But not just any musician; I am a court musician, trained by the greatest musician and teacher I could find, and trained to be a court musician, someone who entertains emperors and kings. Trained to entertain some of the most jaded and blasé people in the world, people who are surrounded by the best and the most beautiful of everything that the world has to offer; not the easiest audience to keep entertained.
I’ll tell you a story.
Back in the 70’s, when my son Giuliano was about two years old, I was invited to play at an art gallery opening, a BIG art gallery opening in San Francisco. I had played a few of these affairs, and I knew that people considered me 'background music', basically live muzak, and respected my art accordingly; and I was not trained for that. A person who can hold the attention of an emperor doesn’t do background music for self-impressed commoners.
I was assured that this occasion would be different; people would listen respectfully, I was told, and there would be a tabla player to play with, as well as a person to watch my son while I played.
I consented to play, and went there. When I arrived, I found that:
-The person who was going to watch my son while I played would instead play Tibetan bells, without bothering to ascertain if they were in tune with my music or my instrument; and as this was the beginning of the ‘New Age’, one could not object without being considered ‘not politically correct’ , or even, God forbid, ‘unhip’.
-A cellist and a flautist that I had never met or played with would ‘jam’ with me, whether I liked it or not;
-The audience, a couple hundred ‘art lovers’ in white linen suits, would pay as much attention to the music as to a fly buzzing, and if we dared play they would talk louder, to drown out the annoying noise that interfered with their incredibly important (To them) remarks on their relationship to everything else in existence, including art in general and the art on exhibit in particular.
Having been trained as a court musician, a twelve-year training so intense and rarefied that it’s somewhere between being trained as a Rabbi and being trained as a navy SEAL, I was totally prepared. I knew that even in a crowd that size a moment comes when an angel flies overhead and all conversation stops for a few seconds, and that this moment happens every fifteen minutes or so. I waited, much as a tiger waits for its prey, quietly and with complete attention, and at last the magical moment of silence came.
All talk ceased, and into that silence I dropped the most poisonous note that anybody there had ever heard.
The effect was as if I had stabbed everybody there in the leg with a dull knife; all remained quiet, trying to forget the painful injury, hoping that it hadn’t really happened. Within a few seconds, everything would have been the same as it was before that awful note. The pretentious conversation would resume, and all would be ‘normal’ again.
I didn’t give it a chance to settle; I waited for just long enough, then played a series of five notes that were as poisonous and shocking as the previous note had been. The effect was like stabbing again, then wiggling the knife around. Again, everyone was paralyzed, except for my good and talented friend Shamas, the tabla player; she remarked, clearly:
"Far f*****g out!!!"
I then launched into a short piece that was in the same notes, style, and mood as the preceding notes, and Shamas joined me as I proceeded to pretend that I was an elephant-cobra, stepping on each head individually while biting poisonously. It was FUN! (At the time; Later on I learned more, but on with the story.)
Seven minutes later we came to an ending which resembled pouring out a bowl of vomit splashingly on the floor in front of everybody. I then put down my sarod, (A sarod, the instrument that I play, is sort of like a twentyfive-string fretless banjo on steroids) took my son by the hand, and walked out through the immobile and totally silent crowd, noticing as I went the fixed stares, stunned expressions, untouched drinks clutched in shaking hands, and the sweat which had beaded on people’s faces and made large moons under the arms of the pristine linen suits. Like I said, I am VERY well trained; and the music of India has every mood one can think of and then some, and knows exactly how to express it.
As my teacher Ustad Ali Akbar Khan remarked after the Bangla Desh concert that he played with his colleague and brother-in-law Ravi Shankar in Madison Square Garden, "Now they know what is sarod".
I was sick for three days after; and I realized that I had done something wrong, allowing some of the fallout to contaminate me. I found out some time later what had happened, when I saw my teacher do somewhat the same thing during a concert; some ten-year-old girls were under the impression that it’s ok to carry on a conversation right in front of the stage while a concert is going on. Ali Akbar Khan looked at them, then launched into a very rare raga called Puriya, which has been described as "A homoeopathic dose of poison". Less than a minute later the offenders were asleep, and all the advanced students sitting in the front row had been treated for the first time to the actual playing of that amazing raga, rather than the technical description of it in class.
What’s the secret? I have come to know that even when we have to correct errant or badly behaved people we have to do it with love, with a smile. It’s not so easy sometimes, especially when it’s in the heat of the moment, but it can be done, and done well. I did it just recently, at a party in Marin; my friend and I were playing a serious composition and some drunk proceeded to pretend that he could sing flamenco, braying in a bad imitation of gypsy singing and using my friend and me as involuntary accompanists, unfortunately without a trace of talent or skill. Now you can’t come right out and ask somebody like that to stop murdering the music, since we still live in a time when it’s considered ‘unhip’ to ‘chase the dog out of the flower bed’ as it were, so I pulled out some of my favorite twists of note, especially amusing with the guitar playing straight man. I would drift into sawtoothed strangeness, and emerge a moment later with a smile on my face, having blocked the ‘singer’ while keeping it light and seemingly innocent.
It was still fun. In fact, it was even more fun than before, because I had learned that whatever you play, it's got to be done with love and humor, not anger.
Oh, don’t worry; there’s plenty of music in my repertoire that will make even hardened stoics weep and run for the tissues and the teddy bear. We got it all, baby, including blues.
Just mind your manners, and if you ask me to play, which I will do gladly, in almost any circumstances, remember that we have ways to help you understand how important music is, and what level of respect we expect for music.
And frankly, I do prefer the romantic mood.