Wednesday, March 7, 2012


She doesn't really like fizzy water. When she sees Daddy drinking it she politely extends her arm, indicating that she would like some, please, and Daddy pours a bit into her mouth. She doesn't spit it out; but neither does she make much attempt to swallow it. With the oddest expression on her face -- not quite distaste but moving in that direction -- she allows most of it to roll forward onto her chin. But she keeps trying. Perhaps the fizzy water experience is intriguing, if not fully enjoyable. She may have a nonverbal concept that if Daddy likes this stuff there must be something about it that she's missing.

Herb Caen, in a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, described a small boy in Chinatown setting off firecrackers at Chinese New Year. The boy would light the fuse and then hide behind a car waiting for the cracker to go off. He obviously hated the noise and the suspense. Why, Caen asked, did he continue to do it? The only possible answer is that everyone he knew loved fireworks. He wanted to do what everyone else in his social sphere did, and learn to like it if he could.

I knew one person who claimed to have enjoyed his first cigarette. Most don't -- or beer, or wine, or anything of that kind either. The world is full of foods that it's hard to imagine that anybody could enjoy. I have heard that the Scots don't eat haggis because anybody likes it much, but for reasons of Tradition (as the song says).

Intriguing if not fully enjoyable describes my experience so far with Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. We singers do our best with the angular lines and huge intervals, bristling with accidentals -- not really twelve-tone rows, but they look like it. We mutter or scream through a few sustained notes while the pianist does battle with the orchestra reduction. We listen to Stravinsky's trademark percussive rhythms, discovering that the strong beats don't always come at the barline. We struggle with dissonances and puzzle over entrance notes that are nowhere in the preceding couple of measures and have to be plucked out of the ether (or belatedly from the orchestra or, humiliatingly, from someone else in the chorus).

But some of the atonal-looking passages are beginning to resolve into not unattractive melodies. The orchestral romps are fun to listen to as some of the where's-my-note panic subsides. The long concluding passage, low in everybody's range over a couple of trombones playing in octaves and a dead march in the tympani, is coming to make sense, although it still makes me think of Cthulhu tromping in from the outer reaches of the solar system. (That's a story by Lovecraft; if you don't know it you don't need to; you don't need to know about twelve-tone rows either, for that matter.) Performing the piece with the orchestra may yet prove to be the magnificent and rewarding experience that the choir director insists it will be. For now, I will hang in there, musing that from fizzy water to Stravinsky, it's amazing what people will put themselves through because something rewarding may come of it.