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Cue Sheet – February 2006


    Being a classical radio announcer—a “Bach jock,” as astronomer Bill Hartmann calls me—is physically solitary, but it’s not exactly a lonely job. We get phone calls.
    Most calls come from listeners who half-caught the title of something they liked and want more information … a spelling of a tricky foreign name, or specifics on the CD and where to buy it.
    Some calls come from “regulars,” listeners who ring us up from time to time with a question or comment and want to chat for a couple of minutes. They become the telephone equivalent of pen pals, people we almost never meet but who become familiar to us through brief but repeated contact. Some “regulars” call all the announcers; others are more selective, avoiding announcers who’ve been curt if the call came at a bad time. (The worst time being during a short piece, or just before we’re about to go on the air.)
    A couple of our “regulars” are predictible. One guy calls, usually on the weekend, to gripe about the obscure music. There’s a woman who used to ring us up to correct the pronunciation of languages from an obscure corner of Europe; she doesn’t mess with me, but I gather that she became so pesky that she drove one of our weekend announcers to, shall we say, strong words.
    Speaking of “strong words,” we get surprisingly few obscene phone calls. I say “surprisingly few” not because I desperately wish there were more, but media people are easy targets for anonymous hostility and we seem not to get our fair share. The exceptions come as little shocks. One morning in the 1980s, announcer Nancy Fahringer shuffled into my office looking a little dazed, reporting that a man with a Southern accent had just growled into the phone, “F you, b*.” Except he didn’t speak in asterisks. Early one evening a few years earlier, a woman called me with some detailed physiological questions. I hope I answered to her satisfaction. Not obscene but still falling into the crank category was a call I got on my very first shift, Christmas Eve 1976. At about 10:45 that night, a young-sounding woman rang me up with great concern: “My father just lit a fire in the fireplace. Don’t you think that will keep Santa Claus from coming down the chimney?” I assured her, “Don’t worry. Santa wears an asbestos suit.”
    The advent of Caller ID has probably caused most ordinary cranks to think twice about making calls that can be traced back to them. Some people, though, are too unbalanced to care. A few are troublesome only insofar as they take up our time. Many years ago, there was a woman who would call and chat on and on about family gossip that wasn’t actually very interesting. She was obviously lonely, so most of us would listen to her patiently, at least for a few minutes. Others, though, are simply looney. Twenty to 25 years ago we’d hear periodically from a woman who ended every call with the plea, “If you see my son, please tell him to come home.” Rumor had it that the son, an adult, had simply broken off contact with his mother, but then someone heard that he’d committed suicide, which increased our sympathy for the woman, even when she called after a news report on solar energy and declared, “I want equal time—I am the moon!” For a while we were broadcasting concerts by the U.S. Coast Guard Band, and something about that set her off; we heard that Coast Guard Intelligence was investigating her for sending what was interpreted as a threatening telegram to the bandmaster.
    We try to be nice even to the lunatics, but there are limits. Yesterday, one person with a persecution complex called me four times in close succession, always within seconds of the end of a piece of music, and became incensed when I had to break away from her harangue to do my job on the air. At the end of her third call I suggested that she take her medication and call back when she felt better. She called back right away to declare that she didn’t take medication because it didn’t do any good and how dare I etc. Finally I told her not to call anymore and hung up on her. Whereupon she called our unfortunate station manager with an even longer harangue, after which said station manager came into the studio and gently suggested that I terminate such calls with more “values-neutral” language. He then returned to his office, muttering something about swallowing live frogs first thing in the morning.
    Ah, radio … if only it were a one-way communication medium.



    During this past weekend’s Arizona Cultural Forum, actress Lesley Abrams and I read excerpts from a haunting book I won’t name here because we didn’t bother to get permission from the publisher. (In the non-profit world, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.) I enjoy reading in public, which is perhaps hypocritical because I dislike being read to. Here’s what I wrote about that a few years ago in a now-defunct literary e-zine:

Logolingus Is A Private Pleasure
THESE ARE THE SOUNDS OF A BOOK: A gentle scrape as you remove the volume from the shelf. A minute creak as you open the cover and bend back the old binding. A scratch-rustle-plop as you riffle the pages. A remote breaking of miniature waves as you turn a single page. A sharp thop as you slam the book against a desktop mosquito.
A book does not speak. Though crammed with words, a book can be no more than vaguely susurrant. The words find their sounds only in the reader's head.
A "talking book" may be a valuable compromise for people with impaired vision, but for the rest of us it is a brain-rotting malignancy. It imposes the imagination of some other reader--often a poor reader--on our own. It cuts us off from the important clues and contexts of the printed page, leaving us to drift gently in a stream of poorly distinguished words.
Yet talking books assault readers at every turn. Most bookstores stock them in shelves near the entrance, so tape-zombies may find them without having to be distracted by any demanding printed matter. Talking books have infiltrated video stores. And the 18-branch library system in my city owns nearly 3,300 book-on-tape titles, fully half of which are in circulation at any given time. Librarians report that the average talking book circulates twice as much as the average print book.
What is the appeal? People making long automobile commutes, or taking cross-country trips, feel that they're making better use of what would otherwise be intellectual down time. But how well do they attend to the tapes while contending with traffic and gawking at scenery? And what about people who put on a spoken-word recording at home, then go about their household routines? Do they really stop scrubbing the toilet long enough to follow Ian McKellen through one of the serpentine similes in The Odyssey?
I admit that part of my antagonism toward talking books is my own dislike of being read to. Surely at some point in my slobbery toddlerhood somebody narrated to me the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. But I don't remember such a thing. My earliest literary memory is of reading Little Golden Books myself as a pre-schooler, being traumatized by the way the jungle animals mocked the Saggy Baggy Elephant, and thereby learning at a tender age never to put myself at the mercy of my peers. I could weep over these stories without embarrassment, because I was reading them myself, in privacy, forming my own understanding of the narrative, hearing the characters' voices in my head.
I never developed a tolerance for readers who brought less color to a sentence than I could without opening my mouth. And face it: most people are poor readers. They go too fast. They adopt a sing-song rhythm. They gloss over periods and get lost in dependent clauses. Or, most commonly, they simply drone. Consider the somewhat twangy but otherwise uninflected delivery of public radio's Dick Estell. Or the monotone of professional news readers, which is supposed to convey impartiality but really only implies that anchors never glance at a script before going on air.
People don't seem to care, and I think it's because these people themselves don't read aloud with any skill. In college, I once took a course in the oral interpretation of literature. I did so well that the instructor tried to recruit me as a major. Not because I was a budding Olivier, but because I instinctively knew how to read with the oral equivalent of a cocked eyebrow, and my classmates couldn't get beyond spluttering out phonemes.
Poets are no better. In 1996 Rhino Records issued a four-CD set titled In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. It gets off to a promising start, with Walt Whitman offering a measured, confident reading of America -- exactly the presentation you'd expect from Whitman, unless you feared he would indulge in 19th-century melodrama. But then comes the incantatory monotony of William Butler Yeats, the merely dull monotony of Robert Frost, the nerdy nasalism of Steven Vincent Benet, Ezra Pound menacingly intoning his own words with no concession to meaning. Things improve somewhat with the living poets, although they are still too often subject to affectation or indifference.
The brightest track in the set is Allen Ginsberg riffing his way carelessly through a bit of his own America. Somehow this reminded me of a book I once saw in the Charles Dickens House in London; it was one of the texts from which Dickens did his celebrated public readings, and it was full of underlinings, cross-outs, and such stage directions as "slap the table!" Today's readers must by comparison be bland, inoffensive, uninvolving.
Even good readers fail to engage me. I sampled a bit of the New Testament delivered by the late Alexander Scourby, my favorite narrator of TV documentaries; he was the bearded fellow who introduced art films on the Bravo channel in the 1980s. But on the Bible tape, Scourby's voice made gentle bedtime stories of everything -- parables and scenes of temptation alike.
Why should I listen to someone else read when my own sub-vocalization is so much richer? Yours may be, too, even if you speak with the finesse of a fan belt about to snap. For as you read silently, you absorb not only the author's words, but the punctuation and layout. Roddy McDowall does a fine job with Graham Greene's Stamboul Train, except that he loses us in passages of dialogue involving insufficiently differentiated minor characters -- passages we could sort out simply by looking at the arrangement of quotation marks. And there's no way McDowall can smoothly convey the paragraph breaks that guide us into and out of interior monologues or quick changes of scene. Without seeing the text, we cannot grasp its full substance or its nuance.
It's true that some passages insist on being read aloud. Whisper to yourself the following line from Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven: "And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain..." The early succession of four gently rocking sibilants -- the Ss -- perfectly conveys the very sound Poe describes. But then intrudes the affricate ch in each, followed ballistically by the four rapid aspirated stops in purple curtain. Poe jerks us awake with these little explosions, setting us up neatly for the mood of the following line: "Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before..."
Yet we've seen that neither poets nor actors can be relied upon to linger over such sounds to produce their full effect. Perhaps wrapping one's lips and tongue with sufficient decadence around a word seems too sexual an act, a sort of logolingus, inappropriate for public display. So we are best off practicing this ourselves in private moments, alone with a book we love, a book representing an author with whom we develop understandings that remain unspoken.



    In public radio, we’re not allowed to give prices for events—too commercial. We can’t even say that something is free, because “free” is, essentially, a price. Our code term for “free” is “open to the public.” So now I would like to invite you to an “open to the public” event I’m helping to run during these next three days.
    It’s the Arizona Cultural Forum, an annual gathering of thinkers, talkers and doers who take under consideration the works of leading figures in different fields. Last year our subjects were Ives and Thoreau; this time, we’re putting our minds to Mozart and Einstein. We have a few panel discussions about music and physics and time, and several performances, too. Joel Revzen, the boss at Arizona Opera, will bring a singer down from Phoenix to present some Mozart songs and arias. Cellist-writer Harry Clark, my co-conspirator in this endeavor and its true mastermind, has penned a little play in which Albert Einstein (portrayed by William Killian) tries to get a violin lesson from Mozart’s father (Paul Fisher).
    Actress Lesley Abrams and I will read selections from Alan Lightman's bestseller, Einstein's Dreams, imagining what the world would be like if time worked in strange, different ways. Between readings, pianist Sanda Schuldmann will play music by Mozart, and afterward UA physics professor William Bickel will explain what it all means. We’ll also have some Mozart organ music played by UA prof Pamela Decker, and pieces for glass harmonica performed by Lynn Drye.
    You can read a little more about it in the Tucson Weekly, and in the Arizona Daily Star, but note that the Star gets the Saturday location wrong. Today (Friday) and Sunday we’re holding forth at Academy Village, at 13701 E. Spanish Trail, out near Colossal Cave, but if you prefer to stay closer to home, come to the Saturday shindig at St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church, 4440 N. Campbell Ave.
    And remember, it’s “open to the public.”



    A couple of times, people have read my review of some play or concert and asked me, “So, did you like it or not?” If critical response were that simple, all I’d need to do is plop some thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon on the page and be done with it. But I’ve rarely encountered a performance that is either a completely wonderful, stunning, orgasmic experience or complete, abdominal-cramping crap. Even the best presentations usually have one or two elements that don’t quite come off, and when I point that out, readers wanting an all-or-nothing response ask, “Doesn’t he like anything?” Well, of course, but I hardly ever like anything completely. By the same token, I can usually find some glimmer of hope in even the least successful productions.
    So, look at my two reviews in the latest Tucson Weekly; did I like the plays or not? The answer in each case is a strongly qualified yes:

    A man completely out of touch with his own parents becomes obsessed with the skull of what he believes to be a 9,000-year-old ancestor. A woman completely out of touch with her culture and anyone else's defends the skull from the man's reclamation efforts; she's a scientist determined to use the skull to learn about dead people, without having to interact with living people any more than necessary.
    These competing agendas propel the action of Cherylene Lee's Mixed Messages, currently presented by Borderlands Theater. The title is perhaps more apt than Lee intends. Her play dabbles with issues of mixed-race and mixed-heritage populations in contemporary California, personal identity, ownership of culture and the legal rights to the remains of long-dead people. Lee presents the competing arguments even-handedly, but by the end of the play, she abandons those arguments to let the antagonists unite against a common enemy. The big legal issues not only go unresolved; they go missing.
    The full review lies here. Then there’s micro-Shakespeare, an abridgement a friend of mine calls an “abomination”; I think it’s OK, if you’re the right kind of theatergoer:
    Please, Shakespeare purists, don't be put off by Live Theatre Workshop's description of its late-night version of Romeo and Juliet.
    The company's Etcetera series promises "a fast-paced interpretation adapted from the original to make it accessible yet still vital ... (an) adaptation that carefully balances a modern approach while remaining faithful to the original style of this classic tragedy." Well, that could mean almost anything, including dumbing down the Bard. Not so in this case. I'm not sure about fidelity to the "original style," but LTW's highly condensed Ro and Ju tells the core story swiftly, flashing some illuminating moments along the way.
    Read the rest here.



    Composer and sometime critic Ken LaFave has passed along some music definitions you won't find in Grove's. You never know the origins of these things that circulate in cyberspace, but this list has the name Al Heller attached to it:

    Obbligato - being forced to practice
    Con Moto - yeah baby, I have a car
    Allegro - a little car
    Metronome - short, city musician who can fit into a Honda Civic
    Lento - the days leading up to Easto
    Largo - beer brewed in Germany for the Florida Keys
    Piu Animato - clean out the cat's litter box
    Con Spirito - drunk again
    Colla Voce - this shirt is so tight I can't sing
    Improvisation - what you do when the music falls down
    Prelude - warm-up before the clever stuff
    Flats - English apartments
    Chords - things organists play with one finger
    Discords - thing that organists play with two fingers
    Suspended Chords - useful for lynching the vocalist
    Time Signatures - things for drummers to ignore
    Melody - an ancient, now almost extinct art in songwriting
    Klavierstuck - A term used by German furniture movers attempting to get a piano through a narrow doorway
    Music Stand - An intricate device used to hold music. Comes in two sizes - too high or too low - always broken.
    Tonic - A medicinal drink consumed in great quantity before a performance, and in greater quantity afterwards.
    Dominant - What parents must be if they expect their children to practice.
    Concert Hall - A place where large audiences gather, for the sole purpose of removing paper wrappings from candy and gum.
     Soto Voce - singing while drunk
     Agogic - playing high enough on an oboe to make the eyes bulge.
     Cadenza - slapping noise on office furniture
     Fandango - grabbing the pull chain on the ceiling fan
     Prima Volta - jump start with a battery
     Refrain - proper technique for playing bagpipes
     Smorzando - with melted chocolate and marshmallow

    This list lacks one of my favorites, which I will append:
    Minor Second - two oboists playing concert A



    KUAT relief announcer and busy pianist Michael Dauphinais sent this response to my screed about opus numbers on the radio:

    Your blog entry about opus numbers is spot on. I recently caught myself almost blurting out a "forbidden" opus number when back announcing a Chopin etude. As you know, you can't just say "Chopin's etude in z-flat minor" since both sets, opus 10 and 25, each contain a full round of 24 keys. I did the same thing that the C-24 announcer did, and awkwardly said something about it being from Chopin's first set of etudes for piano.
    I have had listeners call and ask about opus numbers, even Köchel numbers occasionally. I agree with our management that in many cases the listener simply does not need that much information. I do think that, in certain cases, the catalog reference is useful, at least to the cognoscenti and musicians among our listeners. Beethoven's opus 18 and 53 spring to mind, as do Brahms' opus 116, 117, 118, 119. I'm sure there are others, but I won't belabor the point.


About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.