October 31, 2020
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.
The worms play pinochle on your snout.
Your stomach turns to an icy green
and pus shoots out like white whipped cream.
You wipe it up with a slice of bread,
and that’s what you eat when you are dead.
So, folks, have I gotten you into a nice, shivery Halloween mood with this creepy poem? Yes, we all have to die one day, but why weren’t we informed of this upon emerging from the birth canal? There should at least have been a sign as we entered the world congratulating us on being born, offering best wishes for a wonderful life, but advising us that our lives would inevitably have to end. On second thought, never mind. I totally forgot that babies can’t read.
So we must die, but then what? Some people believe in an afterlife, some don’t, but we musicians are blessed in this regard. Without a doubt, each and every one of us has the possibility of a life after death, and even without that unpleasant business of icky worms playing pinochle on our snouts.
That is, if we record.
I was thinking of this, when my wife, Dorothea, and I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, recently. Amongst all our belongings, the moving van brought my entire record collection. This included CDs, 33⅓ rpm long-playing records, which I cherish because of their warm sound, a couple of 45 rpm discs, and even ancient 78 rpm records that I hang onto for sentimental reasons even though I haven’t had the means to play them for years.
Young people may not even be aware of 33, 45, and 78 rpm records, which could for a time be played on record players equipped for all three versions. Hence the following joke: A lady goes into a record store and asks the sales person for a recording of the musical Hello, Dolly. “Certainly, Madam. What speed would you like,” he asks. The lady thinks for a moment, and then, while marking time slowly with her hands, she sings, “Hello, Dolly”.
But where was I? Ah yes, the record collection. There I was in my new den, organizing and shelving dozens of discs. The violinist Jascha Heifetz here, the singer Maria Callas over there, Billie Holiday on this side, Bruno Walter conducting Beethoven Symphonies up there on top, and the crooner Nat King Cole front and center. And as I dealt with all those recordings, they gradually began to assume another form entirely in my perhaps overactive mind. Yes, they were certainly recordings, but in a sense, were they not also miniature coffins with each artist interred for eternity? And now that the internet has taken over the world, musicians for the most part have decided to abandon their old burial plots. They’ve moved into no-fuss virtual caskets instead. But whatever the burial arrangements, at the touch of a button, any musician of your choice will miraculously emerge and perform for you before returning to his or her coffin. And unlike cryogenics, in which a body can be frozen in the hopes of future scientific breakthroughs that would successfully bring it back to life, the technology of recording has been available to us ever since the American Thomas Alva Edison invented in 1877 what became known as the phonograph.
Edison’s invention came about by sheer accident. He was experimenting with a device that would record telephone signals on a tinfoil and paper cylinder. Instead, he accidentally recorded his own voice—a discovery that soon led Edison to the breathtaking ability to record and produce sounds. It was an overnight worldwide sensation after being first exhibited publicly on November 29, 1877.
Thanks to the German-born Russian entrepreneur, musician, and scholar Julius Block, the phonograph made its way to Russia early on. Block, a personal friend of Edison, decided, on arrival in Russia in 1888, to make a series of recordings on wax cylinders of the country’s most celebrated people. At a gathering of distinguished musicians, Bloch played a cornet solo on the phonograph for them. The great pianist Anton Rubinstein was almost paralyzed with astonishment as he listened. But when Rubinstein’s friends tried to coax him to let Bloch record him playing the piano, he refused, saying that he “did not want to perpetuate his mistakes.”
This was a momentous decision on Anton Rubinstein’s part, for he was on that razor’s edge of history: BR, before recording, and AR, after recording. Think of it! If Edison had invented his phonograph a mere century earlier, we could have heard Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Paganini, and on and on.
As it is, I have the luxury of listening to an almost infinite number of recordings that have been made since Edison invented the phonograph, starting with such musicians as Sergey Taneyev and Anton Arensky playing various piano pieces in the 1890s, and the violinist Joseph Joachim playing Brahms Hungarian Dance #1 in 1903. Since then, innumerable musicians lie quietly and oh-so-patiently in their coffins waiting for you to beckon, then play their hearts out, and finally retreat without fuss to their abode of eternal rest.
I, myself, am one of those interred musicians. On command I will emerge from my coffin and play all kinds of things for you. How about Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita in D minor, which concludes with the monumental Chaconne? Or, if you like, ask for me and the other three colleagues of mine in the Guarneri String Quartet to leave our various burial places and play for you—say, a Haydn Quartet? Done. How about Schubert’s Death and the Maiden or any of the six Bartok Quartets? It’s a deal. And we won’t complain about iffy travel arrangements, bad hotel food, or paltry concert fees beforehand. Instead, the Guarneris will perform exactly as we always have, and then discretely slip back into our coffins without a single further word.
As for Anton Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of his era, we music lovers will not be able to hear him. What magic came from the piano keys when he played? Because Rubinstein refused to cross that momentous Rubicon between BR and AR, we will never know.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.
But then we hear old Rubinstein shout:
I have the temerity
to thumb my nose at posterity!
So I simply cannot afford,
Have a happy (shudder) Halloween.
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