It’s late afternoon, a beautiful summer day, and all I long for is the most innocent of pleasures, sitting in a chaise on the deck, music resonating through the wide-open sliding doors. Any random selection from my shelves might do but today it’s Rachmaninoff I crave, “Piano Concerto No. 2.” If music has a way of evoking a specific time and space, this piece places me squarely in a Manhattan studio apartment, Upper West Side, late 70s, shelves stacked with books and weighted with an array of LPs that turned a 400 square-foot box into a chamber of sound. Something about this particular concerto had me listening over and over again, always brought to tears by the sheer beauty of it, somewhere between melancholy and transcendence. Minor keys have that hold. When I learned, from the liner notes, that Rachmaninoff composed the piece after coming out of a period of creative despair, I cried more. Sometimes you know something before you ‘know’ it.
Today my craving is to be outdoors listening in. I need to hear this piece of music – right now – and begin frantically searching for it, in the process recalling a recent conversation with a friend about the ways in which we organize our music. She’s alphabetical, through and through. I was once tempted to go that route, but the sheer thought of all those CDs reshuffled and reordered, was overwhelming. Besides, I tend to organize music by association and (loosely) by category. Rock (in all its manifestations) encompasses the bulk of my collection. Classical and jazz have their own shelves; within, it’s a less clear-cut affair. I need Keith Jarrett next to Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk, Renee Rosnes and Fred Hersch and Lynn Arriale (to name just some of my piano faves). If I were being alphabetical, Beethoven should be next to Chopin on my classical shelves, but music (in my collection) has a logic all its own. I need Springsteen near Dylan. I also need the Grateful Dead near Dylan. Neil Young’s rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” on Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration gets him pride of place next to that astounding compilation. Clapton is within finger distance of Jim Hendrix and the Stones. And the Beatles. Patti Smith is next to Janis Joplin, on a shelf just above Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the McGarrigle Sisters, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell. A sweet segue to my (loosely defined) divas, who get a section to themselves.
Old Blue Eyes did a CD of duets with some of those divas in 1993. Not a favorite of mine (duet suggests to me a musical dialogue, two singers side by side, not studios apart) but I’m a sucker for a torch song. Not to mention the Sinatra I know and love best, The Capitol Years (a three-CD set one shelf below), that honeyed crooning casting a sentimental spell, leftover tears spilling at the instant recall of my mother. In a heartbeat I see a matching pair of light-wood console stereo speakers dominating the living room of a small Brooklyn apartment, one fixed, one with a lid that opened to a hidden turntable and storage space for LPs: The debonair, winking Sinatra beckoning Come Dance with Me. The harlequin and shadowed Sinatra singing for Only the Lonely. Hardly a stretch to see Pagliacci in the cover design (which was exactly what Sinatra intended and for which he would win a Grammy). He once said of Mario Lanza, “If I could sing like that, I would put a bird cage around my head and wouldn’t let anyone near my voice.” Hard not to conjure the voices of Sinatra and Mario Lanza, Tony Bennett and the Andrew Sisters, without hearing the crackle of vinyl. I have no Mario Lanza CDs but I have plenty of Pavarotti; time stops when I listen to him sing “Nessun Dorma.” Billie Holiday’s voice translates to pure ache in my heart.
By the time I locate the Rachmaninoff CD (who could have put it on the very bottom shelf with miscellanous, nondescript New Age numbers?) it’s Happy Hour, EST. Not that I need an excuse for a glass of wine, late afternoon. My husband, home from golf, begins cleaning the barbecue grill. I sit back in the chaise, the top branches of the trees dancing, for me. Birds tweeting what I can only imagine to be approval of what they hear. Squirrels scampering (is there a better word for the way they move?). As the intensity of the piece builds, the emotions kick in, sounds issue forth from me. Breathy, deep sounds worthy of a wisecrack from my husband re: what neighbors might think we’re up to. Some things (sometimes) really are better than sex. Speaking of which, whatever titillation might be derived from words on a printed page (in every shade imaginable) is no measure (in my book) for the places I go when my husband hits the play button, Cowboy Junkies Trinity Revisited.