A Little Mood Music
MARY AUGUSTA RODGERS is a notice of Louisville, Kentucky, now living in Detroit. She is the author of many short stories.
The mood is murderous, and music is to blame. If you will turn down the volume on that FM radio, I will be glad to explain. A little lower, do you mind? I don’t believe there is any federal law requiring that everybody listen to “Dancing in the Dark” twenty times a day, is there? Ah. Thank you. I’m not a fanatic, you see; I don’t ask that you turn the radio completely off, because then we wouldn’t have any background music, and we would hardly know how to behave, would we?
I t’s only that I’ve had such a long, hard day, with orchestrated melody at every step. At 7 A.M. I was awakened by my fourteen-year-old son, playing a record called “Shimmy, Shimmy, Cocoa Pop.”
Well, pop is right. “I thought I told you never, ever, under any circumstances to play those blasted records until after breakfast.”
My son gave me a look of limpid innocence.
“ I’ve had breakfast,” he explained.
But back to my theme. You must understand that once I, too, was a music lover. It’s true. I liked all kinds of music, excluding only hillbilly and Hawaiian, and the range and catholicity of my taste can best be illustrated by naming two of my favorite arias — “ Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, and that nameless American classic, sung to the theme of “Humoresque,” which begins: “Passengers will please refrain.” I not only had enthusiasm in those days, I had endurance. I recall once playing a record of Ravel’s Bolero twenty-five times, nonstop, and driving a visiting aunt into tears and near-hysteria. How well I understand her reaction today. But those were the days of youth, and life was but a merry song.
Not a continual song, though. That’s what made it so delightful. In the early days of our marriage, my husband and I had a radio and a phonograph, but there was no FM musicto-breathe-by station on the radio, and the phonograph was a primitive model which took only 78-rpm records. This not only cut down the playing time, but gave the listener healthful exercise, such as getting up out of a chair, walking over to the phonograph, and changing the record, every three minutes or so. In between times, there was peace and quiet, or the reassuring sounds of the regular world. It was possible to hear noises unarranged by Mitch Miller or Percy Faith — steps on the stairs, a dripping faucet, the Kawalski couple in the downstairs apartment getting drunk and throwing the baby at each other. Life had not yet become a movie sound track in stereo.
Music began to get out of hand when the children were small. They were given a great number of kiddy records, and they loved them. They also played them. Relentlessly. Certain lines became stuck in my mind. There was a trying week when I was haunted by an operatic tenor’s rendition of“ Woof, woof, woof, went the big Dalmatian dog!” And there was another favorite ditty, which began as follows:
Her name is Alice.
We keep her cage just so
And it looks like a palace.
Mummy broke that record one day, while dusting. Oh, what an unfortunate accident! Shall we hear Peter and the Wolf ten or twelve times to cheer us up?
Just about the time that the children lost interest in the kiddy records and took up more rewarding hobbies, like building tree forts and forming secret clubs, the era of high fidelity began. My husband was an early victim. There was a lot of insane conversation about tweeters and woofers, considerable expense, many evenings when he and a dedicated friend lay prone on the living room floor, studying the innards of the speaker. Finally the set was assembled, and we were able to hear Thus Spake Zarathustra just as though we were sitting in the lap of the man with the cymbals.
The hi-fi set was all that was needed to bring out my husband’s missionary zeal. He was unswayed by evidence that guests did not care for his selection of music; he felt that they simply had not heard enough, played loud enough. For an unhappy period, no party at our house was complete without a brief but brisk scuffle in a corner between host and hostess about the hi-fi set.
“Nobody wants to hear that song — will you turn it off?”
“I said, please turn off that record.”
“Why are you whispering?”
“I am not whispering. THE MUSIC IS TOO LOUD.”
“What do you mean, too loud? I can hardly hear it.”
My husband played The Threepenny Opera for people whose favorite composer was Irving Berlin, Vivaldi for addicts of Dixieland, progressive jazz for Liberace lovers. There was a memorable evening when a business friend had the misfortune to come for dinner the very night we acquired the complete recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It was midnight when the last note died away. The business friend cleared his throat and straightened his spine. “Lovely,” he said; and then, “Do you happen to have anything by the Four Lads?”
When the hi-fi set finally lost its novelty, we entered the period of homemade music. The boys started taking lessons. The piano, clarinet, and baritone horn. The piano wasn’t so bad — no matter what novel techniques Pete employed, it sounded more or less like a piano; but Billy showed an uncanny ability to make the clarinet sound like a pneumatic drill, and Mark achieved stunning effects on the baritone horn. My sister nearly jumped out of her skin at the first bleat. “Lord!” she cried. “What have you got upstairs — a dying camel?”
Unfortunately the boys improved, and so the lessons have continued. We have no idea of raising our children to be professional musicians; the theory was that the ability to play an instrument would enrich their lives and develop their musical taste and appreciation. Well, it may still turn out that way, but at the moment the enrichment is all going to Elvis Presley, Chubby Checkers, Ricky Nelson, Fabian, and similar vocal artists, who sing those haunting refrains like “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah,” or “uh-huh, huh, huh,” or “gonna rock, rock, ROCK.” I suppose that civilization will survive, but sometimes it’s hard to feel the old, firm faith, particularly when I find my six-year-old daughter playing with her blocks and warbling, with appalling clarity, “You cheated, you lied, you said that you loved me. . . .”
Even away from home, there is no escape. Recorded music has become as much a part of the air as oxygen. Cole Porter was playing this morning at the dentist’s office (“So taunt me, and hurt me,” the dentist hummed thoughtfully as he adjusted the drill), and selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the bank (“I got plenty of nuttin’ ”). At the supermarket, I was still strolling down melody lane. Rumbas rattled the air. leading to daydreams about how splendid it would be if all the customers were suddenly to throw themselves into the spirit of things and rumba right out past the checking counters, shouting “Olé!” and “Arriba!” as they headed through the door with the free groceries.
No sanctuary remains. I rent a small, dusty room in a ramshackle office building nearby, where I spend the afternoon hours yawning at the typewriter, tearing up first drafts, reading magazines, and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere so indispensable to creative effort. Of course, the building is not exactly silent. Sirens scream toward the police station and receiving hospital across the street, the janitor hammers on things, the landlord and his twenty-seven cousins debate mysterious matters in high-pitched, furious Armenian. But no music. That’s the chief attraction. Or was, until this afternoon.
The record was something called “Problems, Problems, Problems All Day Long.” and it was being played at maximum volume, and on repeat. I stomped downstairs to investigate and found that the store directly under my little office had been rented, A piano was being moved in, and there were two young men sitting on the floor amusing themselves with a guitar and a set of bongo drums. Meanwhile, the record roared on.
“We’re setting up a RECORDING STUDIO,” someone explained in a proud shout.
Well, if you can’t join ‘em, lick ‘em. The recording-studio impresario tells me that he never refuses an audition, so I am now working on the lyrics to a rock-and-roll number myself. The chorus goes something like this;
Cease that vocal violence or
I’ll use a gun with a silence-or.