Sunday, July 30, 2006

The levels of musical hell

Regarding 7/20-7/22

...cont. from the last post... I was slated to meet a man who had emailed me several times over the years with questions about Dominican music, only to then act like he already knew all the answers. Needless to say, I had an odd impression of him and was curious to meet him in person, as well as to see the project he was working on with the Musical Instruments Collection. He’d indicated we should meet in the reception area just to the left of the information desk in the Met’s main entrance hall, so I figured I would stand around there looking lost, until he would recognize me from my lostness and rescue me. But after a half an hour of that, my feet were tired and he was late. I went to the desk to see what they could do, and they got me on the phone with musical instruments, and a nice man said he’d come down and get me. He did, recognizing me by my yellow umbrella, and just a few minutes later the man himself showed up, replete in a white seersucker suit, white shirt with cufflinks, and white shoes. Whoa. (Later he told us all that all of his clothes and shoes are custom made by an Ecuadorian tailor.)

The following hours were decidedly odd. First, I stood in one place for about an hour and a half without sitting or moving, feeling my knee stiffen up as I was told over and over, “I’m the only one qualified to do this job. No one else knows anything about salsa. Some of the salsa musicians disagree with me. But I say, screw you! I’m the one who got this job and I get paid a lot of money to do it. Nobody hired those guys. I’m the one who decides. No one else can do my job. Nobody.” I’d never encountered an ego quite this size before, even in all my travels among self-centered musicians or star-complexed academics. A couple times I tried to inject an opinion or a carefully-worded disagreement. But I could never get more than about 4 or 5 words out before he was off again. Not once was I asked about my research, what I’d been doing or what I thought about all this. After a few edgewise attempts, I realized there was no use to speaking anyway: smiling absently and nodding was all that was called for here. Although it became increasingly difficult to comply with this behavior as he traveled into the realm of Dominican music, about which he knew little but thought he knew a lot. My heart sank as he told me about his plans for a Dominican program at the museum, as I realized it would likely take a similar one to a program about Afro-Cuban music he told me he’d put on recently. “Cuban music is great, but you know you can’t work with Cubans. They’re impossible! Anyway, the Puerto Ricans can play everything the Cubans can, and salsa, and merengue, and everything else. Why should I hire 16 guys when 8 Puerto Ricans can do the job? Puerto Ricans can play batá too.” So much for tradition, representation, and insiders’ cultural knowledge.

That said, the instruments he acquired for the museum were undeniably beautiful.

After a while, I was rescued through the intercession of the head curator of musical instruments. He was an ethnomusicologist too, surprisingly enough, and a lovely person. I got the insiders’ tour of the collection, which was closed that day for new carpeting to get put in. The insiders’ tour includes not only the priceless antique instruments but also a pointing-out of the flaws in walls and ceilings and poor display case design. One, I believe, was described as “the bane of my existence” and slated for dismantling as soon as possible. My favorite part, naturally enough, was the new free reed exhibit. I hadn’t even known that this recently went up, and it included a plethora of weird and wacky accordions, along with a tiny metal box on legs that was a sort of Chinese sheng, thought it looked more like a TV cartoon alien.

At that point, another curator came in with a couple of enormous, carved wooden African drums on a cart and asked for assistance in opening doors and steadying instruments as he brought them down to the storage rooms. We decided to all go along for the ride, the more the merrier, descending into the hidden bowels of the Met inhabited only by workers in white coveralls. I didn’t know this was included in the admission price!

The musical insturments storage room was full of wonders. I first noticed a pile of balafons, African marimbas with gourd resonators, on top of a shelving unit. Next to this was a keyboard instrument wrapped in a blanket: Franz Liszt’s piano, I was told. On another set of metal shelves, the curator pulled off a small harp mounted on a humanoid skull sporting antelope horns. This was the infamous, controversial skull lyre. It used to hang in a display case right at the entrance, adding a sensational touch to the otherwise respectable gallery, until this curator came in a few years ago and removed it. (They don’t believe it was ever a “real” instrument, more likely some ridiculous thing made for European tourists in Africa in the 19th century.)

Ascending again through the various levels of musical hell, from skull instruments on upwards, we returned to the galleries and said our goodbyes. As the curator opened the cordoned-off entrance for us to leave, we found two people standing there as if to come in. “Sydney?!” they said. “What are you doing here??” “Lauren and Dan?!” I replied. “What are YOU doing here??” My friend Lauren, a fellow ethnomusicologist, was hoping to check out the collection with the idea of creating a related assignment for her students; unfortunately, it was still closed until tomorrow. Instead, the two of them joined me for a look at the Mayan exhibit (fabulous) and a trip to the roof sculpture garden. While there I realized I’d been on my feet for four hours straight and was feeling rather swollen; I also hadn’t eaten or drank anything all day except for that cup of coffee and half a cheese danish. Water and the other half were clearly in order, and I consumed these in the shadow of two giant crocodile punctured all over by knives, files, scissors and knitting needles confiscated at airport security checkpoints, and an enormous glass panel decorated with dead birds at its base (I THINK this was part of the artwork, though it was hard to be sure.) Meanwhile, Lauren and Dan gave me the exciting news that they got engaged a week ago, and the equally exciting news that they’re probably going to Ireland for two years. If this means I get to visit, I say, Score!!

It was a long day already, but it wasn’t over yet. More excitement was to come. I barely had time to go home, change, and consume some leftover Indian food (my only actual meal of the day) before I was slated to meet up with Arlene, a professor of anthropology and American Studies who is on my dissertation committee. We needed to talk business, but we also wanted to have fun, so we decided to combine the two and have our meeting at a salsa club, after a quick bowl of gelato at her place. We found we were both in little black dresses, how very stylish of us. Anyway, it was a good strategy: business out of the way we could enjoy ourselves and just dance. She slated me to teach her a dance lesson or two before heading back to Tucson, and I ran into two of my former Razz M’Tazz students! They didn’t even recognize me at first with glasses, and were surprised to hear about my new activities. It’s funny to think that four years ago they could know me only as a dancer, and that my life has changed so much in the meantime. But it was also heartening to hear after dancing with each of them once that I “still had it.”

I didn’t actually get any work per se done during the next few days. Preparing to leave for two weeks in Washington, DC on Sunday, I needed to meet with people, pack, do laundry and all that. So on Friday I had a lovely lunch with Vera, my adopted grandmother, at a Colombian/Cuban restaurant near her place on Chambers Street, then coffee during a downpour at Café Reggio with Angelina, who is doing a dissertation on Dominican palos music at CUNY and soon to leave for Santiago again. I hadn’t realized that we had another thing in common besides Dominican music, which was that she too is a classical pianist. So we had plenty to discuss and I urged her to publish something soon, at least on the web, so that there will be _something_ available for those curious about palos as opposed to the next to nothing of the current moment.

That evening I’d planned on a tipico night with a friend, Ben, of Iaso Records. But in the end he couldn’t swing it and I didn’t feel like making the journey on my own, so I prepared for a quiet evening at home. But then Tianna came in looking for her cello: she was about to play a little, informal gig only a few blocks from home. It was too convenient to pass up, so I went along to her friend’s apartment, where down in the basement in a pleasantly empty but rather stuffy room, an array of electronic equipment and musical instruments were laid out on a rug. Tianna played cello, accompanied by a friend on guitar and voice and a guy on the rug pushing buttons and pulling levers. Everyone had different foot pedals and touch pads to play with, as well, manipulating the sounds into eerie echoes and mournful loops that combined into something that sounded to me like the cosmos. Back to the music of the spheres again.

I was slated to go to Fire Island with Lauren, Dan, and friend the next day. But when I woke up, it definitely looked like rain. It was disappointng - in all the time I worked in Long Island, I’d actually never been there, or even to any Long Island beach other than Quogue - but, it also provided me with a much-needed opportunity for laundry. Walking from the laundromat to our local record & coffee shop, I noticed a sign for a dance studio offering ballroom dance as well as “disco lessons.” It must be for the Poles, but I was kind of tempted to sign up and find out what kind of moves they were teaching.

1 comment:

Mike K. said...

I was once abducted by aliens. They took me beyond the stars to musical hell. There my senses were assaulted by Neil Young, who was singing and accompanying himself on a kazoo. The aliens told me that it was a free reed kazoo, but that would have been silly.