As I grew older I came to appreciate the melancholy beauty of everyday phenomena that, like music, took place during the passage of time: the alternation of day and night, the passing of the seasons, the aging of a favorite article of clothing, and noises, such as the ticking of a clock, tires clicking along a highway’s slabs, the songs of birds and frogs. I even learned to find pleasure in ordinary things, like plates and spoons.
To this day, however, I am unable to appreciate music that sounds to me like deliberate noise. Although there is a niche in my interior zendo for John Cage, the sage, with a few exceptions, I just cannot take pleasure in the amorphous and arrhythmic noise of his and his followers’ indeterminate compositions – nor in the atonal music of the Second Viennese School. I just don’t get it. I simply take it as a matter of faith that it can give pleasure – to other people.
As for rules: by the time Uncle Aaron and Uncle Norman performed Chattanooga Choo-Choo at the top of the stairs to Grandma’s, I already had changed my mind about rules and today maintain what I regard as an exquisite little personal collection of rules. Just one, for example: Do not wear a corduroy shirt if you are wearing curduroy pants.
One day, when I was about eleven, in one of my extended ruminations as I rode my bicycle aimlessly through the quiet streets of the Eighth Ward, I had a long, hard think about rules and their variety. There were arbitrary rules, many of them silly and mean, like not putting your elbows on the table, sensible rules, like traffic lights, and inevitable rules, as in arithmetic. But there was also another class of rules, neither arbitrary, sensible or inevitable, but fitting and pleasurable rules. They could be artfully stretched, as E. B. White did at the end of Stuart Little, but not without tact and delicacy. They were the kind of rules which made the difference between music and noise.
I was taking piano lessons at the time and had been clumsily practicing Czerny’s boring exercises. When I tried to play them, they came out as noise, but when my piano teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, played them, even though they still were boring, they sounded like music. It occurred to me that the rules that governed a work of art could be a source of pleasure in themselves, outside of the content of the work. I would not have expressed it like that at eleven, of course but, for example, it enhanced my fascination with the four bare-breasted mahogany mermaids whose upturned tails supported the marble coffee-table in front of my grandmother’s purple velvet sofa.
My grandmother lived in the upstairs half of a two-family house, and when I was seven, eight, nine years old I spent many happy hours – a cliché, perhaps, but accurate – playing casino with her in the sun porch above Worrall Avenue, the afternoon sun filtering through the bamboo shades onto the green leatherette card table. Time may have tinted rose my memories of those hours with my grandmother, given my impression – and it couldn’t be true, could it? –that it even had been fun getting my arm stuck in the electric wringer of her washing machine.
It was there, at the top of Grandma’s stairs, that the form-content dialectic was deliciously reconciled by my uncles Aaron and Norman with their all singing! all dancing! Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
Capering and warbling in unison, in the striped sleeveless sweater over white shirt which was collegiate de rigueur – it was what was worn under raccoon coats – Norman, still in high school, and Aaron, a Freshman at Cornell, waved their neat little trilbies, which had just reached the apex of fashion – in those days, interestingly enough, that was the point at which a mature style was emulated by the young, instead of vice-versa – collapsed their knees in the most hilarious way and became robot-like pistons with every “choo-choo.” It was just like what people in movies did.
I was then and remain now grateful for the privilege and honor to have been, although just a little boy, chosen as the sole audience for my uncles’ magnificent synthesis of exuberant passion (content), and studied virtuosity (form).