Schroeder Gets The Last Word

May 21, 2020
I grew up in a house with basically three kinds of music: Tin Pan Alley tunes, folk revival records, and an assortment of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin piano pieces. The first and the third were generally courtesy of my dad, who played all of it first on a small upright in the living room and then on my grandfather's baby grand Steinway in the music room my parents added on some time in the late 1970s. That was, coincidentally, around the same time I began playing amplified music, so I've always suspected the idea was to put me someplace where my attempts to learn to use a wah-wah would be at least ten percent less unbelievably annoying than they might otherwise have been.

Beethoven was my father's favorite composer, but while we had a handful of classical LPs in the house, I don't remember ever listening to them, with my dad or on my own. A few days ago, I was having yet another installment of a decades-long conversation about music with my pal Bret. Over the past two or three weeks, I've written some short piano pieces – longer than the usual exercises, but no more than a minute or two long each. My hypothesis is that piano pieces make sense to me because I heard so many of them growing up, but that it's significantly harder to figure out how to make a string quartet sound good because I just haven't listened to that much string music, whether chamber music, symphonies or anything else in between. And this despite having sat in orchestras and chamber groups "playing" violin from fourth grade through the end of high school.

"Well, what is it about classical music that you like?" asked Bret. Now there's a particularly good question. I listened to – and read about – jazz all the time before I got so annoyed with not understanding bebop improvisation that I made up my mind to do something about it. And when that happened, I knew whatever I did was going to involve going straight to the source: transcribing the solos of the musicians I liked the most, playing on the kinds of grooves and chord progressions I loved the best. Anyone studying classical music has an advantage, of sorts: the music's already written out, if you want to see it on a page. But in some ways, that makes it harder: you still have to find some way to develop as visceral a relationship to the music as actually transcribing it almost inevitably foments. And the fact remains, you can't listen to all the classical music there is, any more than you can listen to all of jazz in the world. You've got to pick some point to zero in on, start there, and slowly work your way back out. For jazz, I picked hard bop musicians of the 1950s and the way they played on the blues. So what, in response to Bret's question, might my classical equivalent be?

Somehow, I came across a movement from one of the late Beethoven string quartets. The opening sixteen-odd measures sound like something Arvo Part might have cribbed from; their stately, moody, quality would be more at home in a wordy indie drama than the ballroom scene from a Jane Austen flick. So, ok, I like that, and it's a pretty tiny window so far, but those sixteen bars might be the beginning of a way in. I'm not sure if "quartets" or even "quartets on the cusp of the Classical and Romantic eras" is narrow enough – it's certainly not as narrow as "how Stanley Turrentine plays altered into the 5th bar of the blues in F" – but it's a start.

Meanwhile, I just discovered that for the past six months, no mail to [email protected] has been landing in Gmail like it's supposed to. Which means if you wrote me at any point from the end of last November until now, I never heard from you. Now I'm going through all of it – it's not lost, at least – and there are literally hundreds of unanswered messages, everything from responses to past newsletters to questions about the membership and all points in between. Which means if you wrote with a question about how to unsubscribe to something, I didn't get it. Or if you wrote to tell me how much you liked a recent newsletter – I didn't get that either.

So I'm just here to say, if you tried to get in touch about something that wasn't working out for you here, or even something that was – I haven't been ignoring you. I've just been chasing my own tail too busily to wonder why I was getting less Fretboard-related email over the past six months than usual. I will now be going back through it all, to see if it's even possible to get caught up, but in the meantime, please accept my apology for inadvertently leaving your thoughts in the dust, and if it was especially important, do write again, and I'll now be able to reply in a more timely manner.

More soon,