The Rake's Progress

Now we know why they claim classical music is 'elevating.'

Our editor is a delightful chap named James Reel. And, believe me, he answers only to "James." Not "Jim" or "Jimmy" or even "Big Poppa, The Love Machine." (Well, he might answer to that last one, but not to me or you.)

James is one of the most fastidious human beings I have ever met. He's got every hair on his head in its own perfect place. Heck, he's probably got them numbered. Of course, I could number mine, too, but for a different, much more pathetic reason.

His office is like something out of Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain. It belongs in a secret government facility, deep underground, with infrared beams criss-crossing the room to kill any stray bacterium. It's whatever the word is for "beyond obsessively clean and orderly." I sat on his couch once, and when I got up, it fixed itself, like Molecules With A Memory. You get the feeling that if any dust particles were unlucky enough to drift into his office, they'd be afraid to behave according to Brownian Motion.

Anyway, I'm in his office one day, eavesdropping on his phone conversation, when my eye catches a book in his perfectly arranged bookshelf. It is The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. I figured I'd check it out; maybe I could settle that bet I had with my friend Mel over what Bernie Worrell did between his gigs with Parliament/Funkadelic and Talking Heads.

Unfortunately, this book wasn't about music; it was about music. Classical. Opera. Chamber. Symphonic. Caucasian.

Since James knows a lot about this stuff, I figured I'd do what all good friends do whenever they get the opportunity--I'd embarrass him. So, while he finished up his phone conversation, I looked up obscure stuff with which to stump him. As soon as he hung up, I started in.

However, to my amazement (followed by anger, then fascination, then more anger), he knew everything! And when I say "everything," it is not an idle exercise in hyperbole; I mean he knew everything.

He knew that Wilhelm Furtwängler was a German conductor and composer. He knew that the Hawaiian guitar was introduced by the Portuguese. He even knew that Mignon Nevada was not a $5.99 buffet entrée at a Vegas casino, but rather a 19th-century soprano who worked mainly in Milan. I figured that, as weird as it might seem, the only way somebody could know all these things would be if they listened to classical music without even being forced to do so.

For nearly an hour I grilled him and he got them all right. I couldn't have done that well if the category had been "Stuff That's In Your Trunk."

How else to explain the fact that he knew there was an Andre Tchaikovsky to go along with the infinitely more famous Pyotr? Can you imagine being Andre Tchaikovsky? It's like being Fred Shakespeare. Speaking of whom, there's an entry for a 19th-century British pianist, tenor and composer named William Shakespeare. Who would do that to a kid?

I mentioned it to James and I said that even if this guy were the greatest composer of all time, he'd still be only the second-best William Shakespeare ever. James sniffed, "Well, he was British, so there's not much chance of his being the greatest composer of all time." Wow! Snobbery! Finally, a human trait!

I asked if I could take the book home with me for a couple days and he grudgingly gave his OK. I have no doubt that he got no work done during that period, what with the sudden chasm in the bookshelf screaming "Chaos!" at him. As I skimmed through it, a pattern began to emerge. I suddenly knew why he read it! This wasn't a book solely about music. There were shocking entries throughout.

There's "FAGO," which is an acronym for Fellow of the American Guild of Organists. There's also "quintfagott," which I don't even want to know what it means, but it sounds very negative to me.

After that, the real subtext began to emerge. It hit me around the Cs. On one page, there's a listing for a William Crotch, who, not surprisingly, was an English organist. Then there's a listing for some technique known as cross-fingering! By the time I got to the listing for the (ahem) vocal technique known as "coup de glotte" (which is French for "blow of the glotte"), I realized that this is a dirty book! The coup de glotte method uses throat contractions to produce either a note or a cough. I'll bet!

On that same page, there's a listing for a "crwth." (Why can't the Welsh take some of the money Tom Jones has generated and buy some damn vowels?) Anyway, the book claims that a crwth is a bowed lyre, but knowing this book (and the Welsh), "crwth" probably rhymes with "duck."

I kept flipping through the book and it was just page after page of smut. There was "Dichtung," which they claim is a poem, and "fuoco," a word that cannot be spoken aloud in mixed company. I asked James about "fuoco" and he said that it means a combination of speed and power. Well, of course it does.

I had to stop about halfway through, after I got to a listing that the book claimed was a term given by a music critic to a group of Russian composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Cui, Borodin and Mussorgsky. Their alleged collective title: The Mighty Handful.


When I gave the book back to James, he smiled serenely and asked, "Well, did you learn anything about music?"

"Very little," I answered.

He put it back in the bookshelf. I quickly noted the titles of the two adjoining books, 100 Great Spots in Southern Arizona and A Guide to Doing It Yourself.

What a perv!

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