Diary of an Orchestrator, April 10: Orchestral Treasure in the Desert Sands

There’s no other way to write this entry other than narratively. So here goes. Forgive the human drama, and rest assured that there’ll be orchestration in there eventually.

About 100 years ago, in a little town in Arkansas, there was a rich but infertile housewife, and a 15-year-old, secretly pregnant teenage girl. The mother of the girl approached the rich woman with a plan to protect her daughter’s reputation, and solve the woman’s childless condition. The girl and the woman went off together to Missouri where no one knew either of them, and traded names. Thus the birth was registered legally to the rich woman, with the girl’s name completely unmentioned.

The two returned home with beautiful baby boy, and life returned to normal. But after a few months had gone by, the rich woman was seen about town more and more with the boy. Every time the girl became aware of this, it filled her with an enormous sense of sadness and loss, especially as the child became more active, crawling on the grass at the park, and eventually scampering along the boards of the little town’s dusty roadsides.

Meanwhile, the girl had met a complicated young man who’d already packed a lot of living into his two decades. They married after a very quick and heady courtship, and her life was suddenly brighter. But the pain of the lost child would not go away. Desperate, she confided in her husband, and with a very steely will he swore he’d go to the wall with her on this one – if she wanted to sue to get the boy back, he’d back her all the way. But she said, “No, let’s go away from here and start our own family.

And so they left the tiny town with the rich widow and her borrowed child, also escaping the lingering judgements and petty scorn of the girl’s family. They made their way to the big city – Little Rock, Arkansas. Across the river was the monumental edifice of Big Rock, of which the husband immediately found solid work in blasting to bits as a quarryman. The girl grew up very quickly, and was now a young woman. Her great talent was music – she could out-trash Liberace, with an Art Tatum/Jelly Roll Morton/Fats Waller approach mixed in with a huge amount of classical technique and pop sensibility. Soon she was playing for good money at the upscale house of ill repute in town, and created a bit of a sensation around herself. It wasn’t long until she had a regular weekly radio show, during which she tickled the ivories with scandalous sensuosity, or slammed down some hot-stepping stride and blues.

The Depression came and went. The couple moved to California, but not as dumb Arkies fresh out of the Dustbowl with a jalopy piled high with furniture. Rather, they relocated methodically, set up a new life for themselves, and made the best of those unsettled times. The husband started his own service station where he could be his own boss, and also built fighter planes during World War II. The wife did piecework, applying superb handstitching work to assembling furs and garments, and also managed a boarding house. Children came – a son first, then two daughters. The woman had to give up her piano career, with no way to make it work as a mother in those times. But she planted the seed of music in her children as they grew up, with the radio station always set to the classiest jazz, the juiciest concert music, and the hottest R&B. She did extra hours of work for several years during the worst of the Depression to purchase a piano for the home, and taught her children the basics.

Then those kids grew up. Her son went off to Europe in the early 1950‘s as part of the Defense Language Corps, and came back a decade later with a German bride, the daughter of dissident intellectuals who’d somehow escaped extermination. They had an adorable little baby daughter, who called the new grandparents a proper German “Oma” and “Opa” as her first words.

Those words stuck. The couple refused to be called by any other names after that, and settled comfortably, even somewhat uproariously into their roles as the Old Folks At Home (even though their youngest daughter was still in her early teens). Suddenly, a lot of their purpose in life and mastery of their situation started to crystallize. Opa became positively patriarchal in making the most out of his burgeoning auto shop. Oma laid the ground quite carefully for their retirement, buying and clearing property in the nearby Mojave Desert, building a small cottage on it, then supervising the construction of a lovely cabin up on a hill overlooking a wide stretch of endless landscape.

It wasn’t long until a baby grandson came along, brother to the little name-giving girl. There must have been something deep within Oma that stirred, more than just the typical adoration of a grandparent. Was it a resonance that filled a hole in her she’d tried to cover over for five decades, that empty spot in her soul that was shaped like the little golden-haired child she’d been unable to touch or even acknowledge? She showered her son’s son with indulgence, affection, understanding, and encouragement. When he visited, she played a little musical game with him. Putting Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” on the turntable, she’d tell him the story within the music, which the boy would then act out while crawling around the living room furniture. He’d wake and stretch to the Sunrise movement, wander through the Painted Desert, shuffle along atop an imaginary donkey On The Trail, and cower under a blanket during the Cloudburst. The music was exotic, highly spiced, and just plain corny, but it reached the little boy directly, without apology or pretension. As he acted out the scenarios, to the delight of his grandmother, it was the texture of the music, the character of the instruments, and the impact of the music’s interactions and energy that drove his imagination. It was one of the boy’s first experiences of orchestration, bonding the concept of program to music indelibly.

Eventually, Oma moved with Opa out to their cabin in the desert, selling their L.A. home and shop. Oma made sure that the hard-earned piano went to her son’s family, so her grandchildren could share that one gift she knew was precious beyond any material possessions. She was well rewarded, as those children blossomed, then grew into creative adults. And sure enough, her grandson did grow up to be a professional musician, far past any level that she might have hoped.

But she didn’t live to fully enjoy that fruition. Both Oma and Opa eventually succumbed to the effects of smoking two packs a day, every day of their adult lives. By the early 1980’s, they were both gone, dying barely into their 70’s, quite young for both their long-lived families. The cabin got used on weekends by their children and grandchildren, but less and less as the years went by.

Suddenly one morning on June 28, 1992, a massive earthquake struck the high desert community of Landers, 7.3 on the Richter scale. Oma’s deserted cabin collapsed, its walls smashing outwards and its roof crashing down. Her collections of rocks, cacti, bits of old glass, and desert knick-knack salvage was riven and scattered. Memories and mementos, the orchestration of a life spent mixing the whimsical with the profoundly beautiful, all were torn apart and given up to the wind and sand.

The sleepy desert was shocked to alertness, as was the rest of the state of California. The media swooped down on Landers, and took special notice of the most obviously wrecked of houses, that little cabin on the hill. Briefly, Oma’s retirement home became worldwide news, its picture shown on CNN and carried by its affiliates. Sadly, this attracted the type of human carrion-eaters that traveled for miles, sometimes even from out of state, just to see the wrecked house and take away some token. What they didn’t get and the family didn’t protect eventually got taken away for salvage. And so the hill sits there to this day, the shell of a garage on it and a cracked slab, both slowly returning to the desert in which they sit.

The little grandson showed up there today, now a 50-year-old man who can still call forth the memories of what it was like to play in this place so many years ago – to wake up to the morning chill, then go outside to a strengthening sun, just starting to scorch the creosote bushes. To crawl with his sister over the crumbly granite boulders that lay in piles around the property, making up stories, and going on adventures. To lay on the couch in the cool of the lounge as the desert started to cook outside, and watch the waves of heat twist the majestic landscape that pulled at the eye from every direction. And to play with Oma, helping her work on her jigsaw puzzles, or find interesting-looking rocks for her garden, or to “liberate” cacti that were growing out of cracks or falling over (to take them home to her hill). To hear her stories about the moods of the desert, the animals that occupied it, and the offbeat characters that bounced across the landscape. To marvel at her cyclopedic knowledge of desert plants, and cartographic memory of every inch of the surrounding landscape for miles. And every once in a long long while, to hear her play a beatup old piano she’d rescued, her fingers fluttering a bit uncertainly over the cracked keys, her eyes closed as she reached deep into her past for a really shocking purple pop version of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto.

Caught in the present, that grandson looked around at the abandoned property. All was just as it was when he was a boy – the Mojave reclaims everything, its windblown granite dust covering and eroding everything in its path. Even the memories seemed covered by a fine layer, taking some effort to unearth. But there, under the shade of a creosote bush, the composer found one of the keys to his very existence. Slowly melting in the sun for over twenty years was an old LP record, its label whitened out of readability. Turning it over revealed the obverse label:

GROFÉ

GRAND CANYON SUITE

ANDRE KOSTELANETZ and his ORCHESTRA

Gently flapping in the breeze nearby was a page ripped out of an old book – about concertos. Here in the desert, it only rains a couple times a year. The desert can destroy, but also preserve if the conditions are right. In the shelter of the bushes, the page and the record waited patiently for the composer, to give him one last message from his past. Circumstance lifted its baton, and gave a preparation to the final days’ downbeat for the start of a new life with an unexpected gift putting all the notes and bars and lost hours into perspective. Now, the composer’s ready for whatever may come, to help yank the leg of that kicking, squalling child of a concerto as it’s born day after tomorrow.

Thanks so much for reading. I appreciate it, especially with this bit of personal history.

Tomorrow: the last rehearsal…

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