Sunday, May 25, 2014

Let's Talk about (Recorder) Love, part 2

Nested within the week leading up to the performance of Noye’s Fludde, unforeseen by fortune cookie or horoscope or Nostradamus, was a massively random second recorder event also involving a ship.

First of all, really, I don’t do that much recorder playing. And secondly, I never ever play recorder about ships. So when it happens twice in the space of seven days, you’d better believe I’m either the Most Interesting Man in the World, or I’m God, resting.

Anyway, the second event—which, temporally, was the first event (nesting! nesting!)—was this: I performed on the soprano recorder, epically, the epic 8-bar pennywhistle solo from the epic Celine Dion song My Heart Must Go On from the soundtrack of the epic movie Titanic. This was done in an epic concert by an epic middle school choir conducted by my epic wife.

But what really made it all seem like an epic voyage to the epicenter of the earth is that I was in the middle of a book written by a music critic, Carl Wilson, about his efforts to come to terms with Celine Dion; or more accurately, to come to terms with the fact that, while he can’t stand her music, millions of people around the world adore it. So, I was getting to play the epic music at the same time as I was reading about an epic effort to not hate it that, along the way, said some things that led me to ponder why Titanic is so epic and (nesting! nesting!) Noye’s Fludde is so not.

Odysseus, do you hear sirens? What? They’re singing Nearer My God to Thee? My God! (resting! resting!)

Given all this epicness—which I’d love to spice up if only I had an épicerie—I must first admit that using the soprano recorder for the pennywhistle was a massively uncool thing to do. Also, “massively” is the adverb of choice for qualifying descriptors connected with such epicity.

But, about the uncoolness. Carl Wilson believes in cool, or, rather in the power of cool. In his book Let’s Talk about Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, Wilson has this to say: “In early 21st century terms, for most people under fifty, distinction boils down to cool.[Wilson’s italics] Cool confers status—symbolic power. It incorporates both cultural capital and social capital, and it’s a clear potential route to economic capital. Corporations and culture-makers pursue it as much as individuals do. … As much as we avow otherwise, few of us are truly indifferent to cool, not a little anxious about whether we have enough, and Bourdieu’s theory may illustrate why that’s not merely shallow: being uncool has material consequences. Sexual opportunity, career advancement and respect, even elementary security can ride on it. To ignore cool may mean risking downward mobility at a time when many people are falling out of the middle class.”

Bourdieu is Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist whose ideas of the derivation and dependence of taste upon social position are what’s left after Wilson boils down a brew of argumentation about aesthetics that also includes Kant and Hume as ingredients until they get vaporized. Gotta boil down to something.

If it seems like I’m boiling this down to dismissiveness (in massively epic fashion), it’s a shame, because I really did enjoy the book. I read it twice, and I re-read books as much as I play recorder about ships. I will give it four stars on Goodreads. Wilson’s dogged pursuit of “an experiment in taste, in stepping deliberately outside one’s own aesthetics” in order to answer the question “What is the real substance of the dislike I … have for Celine Dion” is indeed exemplary. The world could use more such exercises in empathy.

But, “distinction boils down to cool”? I can only register that with a wince.

Regardless of what people think about Dion, when it comes to “her” music, she is just the voice. She does not write the lyrics or the music. She doesn’t do the arrangements. So—making distinctions here, which I know is probably a different sense of “distinction” than the one Wilson uses, but it is the original, essential one—there are many aspects of a song like My Heart Will Go On that people may or may not like, and when it comes to the first 8-bar instrumental introduction, which sets the tone for the rest of the song, to use a recorder instead of a pennywhistle is massively uncool.

If you think like Wilson, you might assume I mean that the soprano recorder—due no doubt to its association with classrooms full of children using it to butcher Hot Cross Buns with such fervidness that John Wayne Gacy starts to look like Francis of Assisi—possesses some kind of downward mobility unpossessed by the pennywhistle, and that, as a result of using it, I’m going to fall out of the middle class. Outraged purists of epic pennywhistle solos, players of Cards Against Humanity, blue-faced Wallaceites, Celtomanes, fans of the Pogues and the Dropkick Murphys: all will rise up and prevent me from pursuing a career as a performer at epic middle school choir concerts, and I will be left to play for pennies on interstate off-ramps.

[A class of recorders in a gym. My ears bleed at the very idea.]

While I’m prepared to face that (more in a bit), that isn’t what I meant. I meant it is musically uncool because, well, it boils down to fingering.

It's not easy to explain if you're not familiar with how woodwind instruments work, but it's sort of like the difference between a fitted wrench and an adjustable one: the fitted wrench only works on one size of nut, but it works perfectly on that nut. The adjustable wrench, on the other hand, can be made to work on all sizes of nuts, but imperfectly so (slipping, etc.).

In musical terms, while both instruments are basically just whistles on a tube perforated with holes, an F pennywhistle matches the song key with a simple fingering pattern well suited to accomplish the slides and finger vibrato that a truly distinctive (meaning excellent) rendering of the music demands. The soprano recorder, on the other hand, can play the notes, but has to use harder, more awkward finger patterns and combinations to do so. These so-called "forked" fingerings can't provide as many of the characteristic stylings, so it doesn't sound quite the same.

It meant I'd basically be faking it. And fake it I did. Epically, of course.

But what you must know—and here’s the “more in a bit,” all you Cropdick Celtomanes—I tried to buy an F pennywhistle the weekend before the concert, but the local music store only had the usual selection of D’s, which works for 95% of Celtic music, so why stock an F? For all those people who make a living playing the first 8 bars of My Heart Will Go On with middle school choirs?

So, now you know: if I fall out of the middle class as a result of faking an epic pennywhistle solo on the soprano recorder, I fall advisedly.

It all boils down to massive épiceries.

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