Thursday, September 03, 2009

Mover & Shaker

I’ve been in Rio this month, sitting in on samba and chôros gigs with some great musicians: Gabriel Improta, Andrea Ernest Dias, Zé Paulo Becker, Sheila Zagury, Yamandú Costa, Daniela Spielmann, Tomás Improta, Itibere Zwarg, and many others… My first week it rained steadily, so I hibernated indoors and practiced. Between tunes, my mind drifted to thoughts of my friends up north in Salvador da Bahia – a rhythmic paradise and cultural crossroads of Brazil.


In 2003 I traveled to Salvador at the behest of Lucas and Pedro Robatto, who had invited me to teach composition and clarinet during seminários at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. While there I was determined to improve my caxixi playing, so each day after teaching I would trek to Julio Goés’ house to take lessons. It took about an hour to walk there from Pelourinho in the town center. I’d arrive in his front room, a starkly empty chamber save for a couple of chairs and a rug with percussion instruments laid out: caxixi, shekere, double-bells, berimbau, and small drums used in candomblé – a Yoruban ritual ceremony (overlaid with a Catholic veneer) that permeates the Northeast coast of Brazil.

Julio was a superb craftsman, and musicians from all over Brazil – Recife, São Paulo, Belem, Brazilia, Porto Alegre, Rio, Manaus, Belo Horizonte – placed orders on a regular basis. All except one of the instruments in the room had been hand-made by him; the oddball was a tabla drum from India, his preferred toy of the moment. Often, as we concluded a lesson, Julio would grab the tabla and we’d spend half an hour or more jamming. It was a study in innovation to witness a Brazilian traditional musician inventing rhythmic patterns on a watery, lush tabla. “I love the subtlety, the flavors…” he would kvell, coaxing bubbly tones from the drumheads.

Julio was perhaps best known for his sonorous caxixi, which he manufactured in an abundant variety of shapes, sizes, and sounds. Though hardly the most renowned of Brazilian instruments, caxixi occupy a central place in capoeira; during expositions of this dance/martial-art tradition, a berimbau stick is grasped in one hand, and the bow-shaped frame – along with one or more caxixi – is held in the other. In this role they serve an accompanimental function, akin to the West African rattle, from which they are descended.

More recently, virtuoso percussionists like Airto Moreira and Naná Vasconcelos began experimenting with caxixi as expressive instruments, featuring them in solos, designing and executing complex rhythms and backbeats, and dramatically raising standards of technique. It was this newer tradition – along with the caxixi’s handy portability (they can be played while sitting, standing, or walking) – that inspired me, at age 21, to purchase my first pair at Drummer’s World in New York.

My first teacher, Nadav Serling, demonstrated a series of exercises – accompanied by textural swishes, shakes, and swirls of sound – that allowed polyrhythms to flow between the two hands; he dissected complex beats into basic rhythmic cells of twos and threes. As I improved, I began to diverge from more traditional grooves. I enjoyed recreating typically American beats, in addition to the samba-inflected ones. I found that caxixi could provide a funky, gritty complement to singing or rapping, and I used them as teaching devices when working with kids, as well as in my band Peace by Piece.

In Brazil I also learned that playing two caxixi could be a full-body experience, in harmony with the natural rhythm of walking. In Salvador, I took lessons with Giba Conseção, who insisted that playing caxixi was a form of dancing. If one did not move vigorously while playing – he cautioned me – the inflections would be weak, the articulations insufficient, the accents unfocused. Watching Giba play was indeed like watching a dancer, and imitating him was an athletic undertaking. After an hour my arms were raw and sore, my shirt soaked in sweat.

Upon leaving Bahia, I bought six of Julio’s caxixi as parting gifts for my friends in the Robatto family: two large caxixi for Silvio and Lia, two medium-sized ones for Lucas and Pedro, and two for Pedro and Sandra’s kids, Paulo and Lara. The largest ones looked like skinny buckets and couldn’t be played using traditional wrist motion; instead the player had to hold the handles, allowing gravity to pull the weight of the dried beans earthward until they finally crashed on the gourd bottom.

At my last lesson, Julio brought out a pair of what he called caxixi rodas or ‘wheels’. They appeared glorious, colorful, and rather unwieldy. He grabbed them by the inner ‘spokes’ and swished them around rhythmically. The effect was hypnotizing, but I couldn’t fathom how their donut shape facilitated any technical mastery; their real purpose, it seemed, stemmed from a visual inspiration on his part.

“Has anyone bought a pair of rodas from you, Julio?” I inquired.

“Not yet, but they will,” he replied. “It is such a pleasure to make them,” he added, proudly admiring his creations. “I want a whole family of these, in three or four sizes! Can you imagine?” I wasn’t sure I could, but I enjoyed his fanciful detour; Julio was a dreamer.

Four years later I returned to Bahia, this time for a residency at the Fundação Sacatar in Itaparica. One weekend morning I took the ferry-boat across the bay and decided to stop by Julio’s house to visit. I had originally intended to take the bus, but I became worried that – in trying to negotiate the intricate public transit system of Salvador – I would wind up in some remote favela, so I decided to walk instead. I remembered that Julio lived on one of the narrow stairway/streets snaking up a hill overlooking the Dique de Tororó. From the main road I squinted to identify the recessed entrance, and began scaling the crumbling steps.

After several flights I arrived at his house, rapped on the door, and waited. I had taken a rather big gamble, not having the slightest idea whether he would be at home, or even in town. Standing on the threshold, I glanced behind me toward the street. Mangy stray cats prowled the alleys, flies circled, curious children peeked out from behind cracked doors, old women swept the sidewalk, eying me suspiciously as snatches of pagode and samba de roda crackled over transistor radios. I knocked again with greater urgency.

Salvador had changed; it was noisier, more crowded, more polluted, more rushed. Unfinished construction projects dotted the cityscape. During the past few years Brazil had been benefitting from an unprecedented economic boom. It was proudly boasting one of the fastest ’developing’ economies, ascending along with China, India, and – to some extent – Russia. But Julio’s neighborhood had not changed; the Brazilian economic miracle was passing it by.

I knocked again and waited in silence for a while, then I heard a faint stirring inside, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Footsteps reluctantly made their way toward the front of the house; the door creaked open, and a slight, wiry-framed man with long dreadlocks peered out.

“Julio!” I said. “Como vai?”

He blinked in unrecognition for a few moments, then a slow smile crept across his face and he emerged from the house to embrace me. “Deriki!” he proclaimed. “Faz muito tempo! Tudo bem?”

We exchanged greetings, and after a couple of minutes he grew visibly excited. “Deriki, venha comigo…eu gostaria te mostrar alguma coisa…” He motioned for me to come into the house. I stepped in and my eyes adjusted to the shadow. Julio had dragged an enormous caxixi across the floor and into the daylight. It was the size of a small child, about three feet in height. Other than that, it looked identical to the regular, handheld kind. I probably appeared stunned, gawking at this bizarre creature the way a guinea-pig-owner might stare at a capybara. It looked like a mutant percussive strain – absurd, yet quietly proclaiming its own territory on the floor nearby, justifying itself via its mere grandiose existence.

Julio was beaming. “Boa, não é?” he said, reddening slightly as he noticed the startled expression on my face. Yes, it was indeed beautiful, but this entity was far too large to imagine actually playing, and I posed the inevitable question – one which I felt sure he had been asked before – “Claro que sim… mas… como tocar?”

His countenance turned earnest and he replied – somewhat defensively – “Of course it can be played! I just have to lift it a little…” I watched, bemused, as Julio heaved the gargantuan caxixi into the air. It crashed back to the ground a second later with a percussive CRUNCH. Not the most elegant rhythmic device, but at least it made an impressive noise. “You see?” he boasted breathlessly. “A robust sound! And the scale is proportional in every way to the tiny ones.”

I cast a quick glance at the myriad small caxixi stacked on his shelf. The huge specimen was indeed a mirror replica of its miniature relative, but what of its utility? What musician would possibly want a shaker of such size, more akin to a piece of vintage furniture than a musical instrument?

“Dereki, what is beautiful to me is the form,” he said thoughtfully, as if in response to my unarticulated musings. “And this one is just a protótipo. The real one is in the back room. I need you to help me, because I can’t lift it alone.” I grinned, anticipating the next bizarre chapter, and followed him to the inner chamber. There it was, resting in the shadowy corner: the mother of all caxixi. Standing nearly six feet tall, the Amazon entity – fashioned from wicker, and filled with dried beans – sported a flattened gourd bottom, like the others.

Julio wore a broad smile. “Here, let’s bring her outside for some air.” The two of us dragged the giant caxixi onto the landing. Several curious children gathered cautiously near the doorstep, but were promptly shooed away by a watchful woman nearby. Before I could inquire, Julio remarked to me, “Now, I have no doubt that this can be played; I just need to figure out how…” We tried to lift it, first separately, then together, to no avail. I had a clear sense that this caxixi would never shake, except perhaps in an earthquake.

After several tries we gave up and Julio began fussing with a tiny crack in the gourd base. Somewhat guardedly, I said, “Julio, I think – perhaps – these should be in an gallery. They’re not really…exactly… musical instruments, you know?”

He stared at me, uncomprehending. “A gallery?” he echoed, seeming to contemplate the thought. I wasn’t actually sure if he knew what I meant by a gallery; maybe I had used the wrong word.

"Exposiçao?" I tried, tentatively.

He suddenly burst out laughing. “How can you think that? Dereki, Just imagine how this music will sound. It will be tremendous, awesome!” He stood back and savored his work. “I have always wanted to make caxixi this size, but I was…frightened. And for a long time, I didn’t feel sure enough in my technique. But now! Now that I have finally built one, I think that it is perhaps the most perfect thing I have created.”

I marveled at the huge shaker, speechless. At what point, I wondered, had Julio’s work morphed from instrument-making into sculpture? Had the transition occurred at the juncture when form became detached from function? The tricky issue was that Julio himself did not distinguish between these two aspects of his craft. From his perspective, he remained foremost a maker of musical instruments. Defining his creation primarily as an art-object was unthinkable – an utter diminishment that would rob it of its raison d’être.

Then again, perhaps it was a bona fide hybrid. Julio had smashed a functional boundary and was ushering a traditional, utilitarian practice into fresh and unknown territory. I applauded that bravery and felt elated for him, but I also sensed that his blissful undertaking would be an isolated journey that peers would likely ridicule and – at best – deem incomprehensible. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed kids gaping and snickering in the street. I looked back at Julio, cleaning cobwebs off his monster caxixi. On a dusty, boiling day, on a dingy streetcorner near the Dique de Tororó, I felt that I was witnessing the mysterious, lonely rebirth of art.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A mighty wind: My first commission

I received my first paid commission in the Spring of 1990, when I was 22 years old. My friend Jane had invited me up to Martha's Vineyard for the weekend, where she was visiting some acquaintances. Our host was a gregarious, retired businessman named William Barron. We sat down for lunch on Sunday and upon hearing that I was a composer, Mr. Barron confessed a long-held wish.

“I’ve always wanted to commission a talented young composer,” he announced, chewing voraciously. “Like a young Leonard Bernstein, you know?”

“Yup!” I said. Actually I knew almost nothing about Bernstein’s life, but I had played a some of his music – the clarinet sonata, the overture to Candide, the 'Cool' dance from West Side Story (on the piano) – and I’d seen a couple of his Young People’s Concerts broadcast on TV; he seemed like a pretty impressive figure.

“…A spanking new march,” he continued. “It’d be called the Barron March.” He paused momentarily to frame the imaginary title, then resumed munching. “Either for my daughter’s wedding or my funeral,” he chuckled, between mouthfuls. “Whichever comes first. You know?” I nodded profusely, not exactly sure how to respond. “You could do a march, right?” he asked earnestly. “Jane says you’re a very talented guy.”

Of course I could do that, I thought confidently. The medium was utterly familiar to me. In fact I had already composed a piece for my high school band, a short variation on the Hebrew hymn Ani Ma Amin. In any case, I had played dozens of marches over the years and knew the form inside and out: first strain, second strain, trio….

“Sure,” I said. “You mean like a Sousa march?”

“No, heavens no, not a Sousa march!” He waved away the thought in mid-bite. “Something classier. You know, a serious piece. Tell you what, I’ll pay you five hundred bucks – a hundred up front and the rest when you deliver the piece. Whaddaya say?”

Five hundred bucks! I was speechless. My heart pounded with excitement. After twelve years of toiling for the love of the art, I was actually going to be paid to write music! I had finally made it. I had a patron, just like the composers of yore; Bach had Prince Leopold, Tchaikovsky had Madame von Meck, and now I had Mr. Barron! For the first time in my life I felt like the real thing, not an imitation. I was confident that I could write not just a march, but a great march.

During the drive home to Boston with Jane, I recounted to Mr. Barron’s generous proposition. She raised an eyebrow, keeping her gaze on the road. “Bill can be whimsical,” she said, smiling enigmatically. Jane looked at me. “Is that something you want to write?” she asked pointedly.

I was puzzled by her oddly cynical reaction. To me, his offer had seemed practical, not capricious. After all, he was a businessman who had always wanted to commission a composer; he merely spotted a good opportunity and took it. “Of course!” I replied enthusiastically. “It’s my first real commission! He even wrote up a contract!” I pulled it out to show Jane; it was a short paragraph outlining the terms of the agreement, detailing the $100 payment and $400 balance, signed with a flourish by William Barron.

She glanced at it and nodded. “The Barron March; very impressive!” She grinned. “So do you have any tunes in mind yet?”

“Jeez, gimme a couple of days!” I laughed.

The following day I was back in New York, still on a high and relishing my new life as a professional composer. A month earlier I had returned from Jerusalem, where I had studied orchestration with André Hajdu. It was a grueling experience; every two weeks I would travel to his house for an afternoon-long lesson, and at each meeting he’d send me home with an orchestral score – plus one or two new piano pieces – by a different composer: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Debussy, Grieg, Ives, Ravel, Bartók, Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Copland, Messiaen, Hindemith, Milhaud, Kurtag, Ligeti. I was expected to study the score, then bring back my own manuscript of the piano pieces, orchestrated in the said composer’s style; the following lesson Hajdu would dissect my work, indicating where I had succeeded and where I had erred. It was my first experience delving deeply into the orchestral literature, and I loved it.

Now, bolstered by my commission, I felt the imperative to similarly investigate the band repertoire from a conductor’s vantagepoint, studying specific aspects of instrumentational invention and innovation. It was music I knew ad nuseum from a clarinetist’s perspective, but suddenly those old warhorses seemed fresh and bursting with vitality. I delighted in Holst’s command of form and variation in the Chaconne of the First Suite, the odd harmonies and quirky orchestrational choices in Grainger’s Hill Songs, the raw power and emotional arc of Husa’s Music for Prague. I pored over Mark Hindsley’s ingenious arrangements of orchestral chestnuts like Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite and Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. In the process I tackled principles of wind instrumentation, discovering myriad ways in which band writing differed from orchestral: the instruments commonly doubled each other’s melodic lines; the clarinets and flutes effectively replaced the orchestra’s violins; the brass were a more present and malleable force throughout, their role distinct and separate from that of the percussion.

It felt as though I had entered a time machine that transported me back to elementary school band, our austere and exacting director Steve Tupac ambitiously programming transcriptions of Corelli and Handel. My junior high school band director Pat Chodi’s abominable jokes rang in my ears – “You made a mistake? That’s OK, don’t worry about it; I made a mistake too – once!” I flashed back to the days when my high-school band director – Mick Dayo, an idealistic entrepreneur and hopeless lush – arrived like a whirlwind direct from Florida State (not exactly an upward, or even a lateral, career move…). He launched countless impressive and high-budget projects – for example, convincing the superintendent to dispense a small fortune on fundraisers, tours, and spanking new marching band uniforms – even as our school instruments fell apart.

Mr. Dayo’s star burned brightly and quickly; by the end of his second (and final) year, he had become a pale apparition of his former self, depressed and prone to flying into tantrums during rehearsals, after which he would dramatically flee the podium, sequester himself in his office, and drink heavily. These outbursts unfortunately failed to instill the desired spirit of guilt and concentration in the musicians; on the contrary they sparked our more mischievous instincts; armed with a copious reservoir of chutzpah, I would mount the podium, grab the baton, and conduct the remainder of the rehearsal. At last I was standing before the true authority – the full score! No longer was I hopelessly trapped behind a music stand, poking out the 1st clarinet part; it was an enormously liberating, and life-changing, experience.

Finally, in my senior year of high school, arrived the kinder gentler Rob Freeberg, a fine jazz trumpeter who couldn’t have been older than 28. Early on we terrorized and tested him mercilessly, recognizing that he was young and ‘green’, but he swiftly won our respect. Since that time he has greatly elevated the band program – which he still directs to this day – and has become a potent and positive force in Westchester music education.

It was via this colorful crew of band directors that I first encountered the banal but indestructible marches of Clifton Williams, the sweeping works of Alfred Reed, the Russian Christmas Music of Vaclav Nelhybel, the simple and delightful Folk Song Suite of Ralph Vaughan-Williams. During my sophomore year I performed in the New York All-State Band, and I became familiar with experimental works like David Bedford’s impressionistic Sun Paints Rainbows on the Vast Waves, the quintessentially American Chester by William Schuman, and Aaron Copland’s bold Emblems. Many great orchestral works were likewise revealed to me first through band arrangements. Even today I can close my eyes and hear the swelling of euphoniums in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the sonorous saxophones in Bach’s D Minor Toccata. I feel as though I’ve played all the virtuosic violin runs in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, when in fact those quicksilver scales – cascading and burbling towards a climax – were realized by a gaggle of clarinetists, dutifully reaping the rewards of years spent endlessly practicing scale passages from Klosé and Baermann étude books. My extensive and visceral knowledge of the great band literature was ready to be mined and tested; an inevitable and potent force had led me towards a noble purpose – engendering the Barron March!

However, I still needed to wrestle with the thorny task of composing a piece appropriate for either a wedding or a funeral. I occupied myself for several days with this tricky problem. My eventual solution was to write an unusual march – one capable of expressing both pathos and grandeur, at once rousing and heartfelt. Suppose, I reasoned, that the piece opened with a plaintive, wistful theme in minor key, then morphed into a brighter melody in major mode in its second strain. As long as that duality of mood was maintained, the piece could move through a plethora of variations and the opposing poles would likely reinforce each other, endowing the march with balance, proportion, and a deeper, more nuanced psychological breadth. In this way, I surmised, the Barron March could be uniquely, gloriously, atypical, remaining true to my artistic intentions while honoring my signed agreement.

I worked on the march steadily through the summer, adding finishing touches in August. I sold my beat-up spinet and bought a Yamaha Clavinova, a state-of-the-art, 24-note polyphonic keyboard with weighted keys. This instrument would allow me to utilize a revolutionary new technological tool – MIDI sequencing – to create a real-time piano reduction of the piece. I input pitch, volume, and rhythmic information into the sequencing program Master Tracks Pro, and I used the Clavinova as a playback device; all this meant that I would be able to let Mr. Barron hear the march. I felt certain he’d be grateful for the chance to listen to a recorded version of his commissioned work, and that he’d admire how I’d deftly wedded both melancholy and triumphant sounds into a unified work.

Before bringing the handwritten manuscript down to the copy shop, I signed the final page, adding the date for posterity. The score was ledger size – 11 by 17 inches – and therefore required a special double-binding: two large black plastic combs, overlapping in the middle, framing the majestic manuscript. I enclosed a cassette tape of my MIDI realization and labeled the box neatly, with proper credentials. With a palpable sense of thrill, relief, and accomplishment, I sealed and posted the oversized, self-addressed, bubble-wrapped envelope to Mr. Barron – registered mail, return receipt requested – along with a cover letter recapping our original agreement (not mentioning the balance due, of course; that would have been ‘gauche’), and detailing my struggle to conceive of and produce a march that embodied such an extended emotional gamut, thanking him for the fascinating assignment and for his faith in my abilities, and looking forward to hearing from him.


Throughout that whole, hot summer, I had been working in a music store in Manhattan, selling keyboards on commission. I was learning the ropes from a guy who the staff had nicknamed ‘Slick Rick’. Rick could sell anything to anyone, and he took me under his wing, sharing his tried-and-true techniques of convincing customers to purchase musical equipment they didn’t need. Slick Rick trained me to scrutinize and rapidly identify the various types of customer (‘breeds’, he called them): there were timehogs – the dispossessed, lonely people who came in simply to gab all day and never bought anything; gawkers – gullible customers who could be talked up in price; fatcats – rich folks purchasing expensive equipment in order to stoke their egos or appease their spoiled kids; geekteases – gearheads who used our showroom to try out stuff they would subsequently buy cheaper elsewhere, and so on. Each required a specific regimen of treatment, but the key to success – he impressed upon me – was steering customers towards items with a higher ‘spiff’, or commission paid to the salesman, even if it was an inferior product.

“See this keyboard?” he would rap on a sparkling new Casio VZ-10M synthesizer. “Fantastic machine, truth be told. 16-voice polyphony! Beats the DW-8000 hands down,” he would insist, gesturing dismissively towards the inferior Korg. “But the markup? Forget it, dude!” He would lean towards me, intoning gravely, “Spiff on Casio is D,” as if ‘D’ signified death or devastation. Then he would make an about-face, turning to the hapless Korg with mock reverence, stroking the gaudy and unwieldy digital display, and like a whirlwind he would launch into stunning demos of the DW-8000’s most attractive and flashy features.

Rick liked me, but frequently referred to me a ‘lost cause’, rolling his eyes conspicuously as he spied me enumerating to customers the virtues of such spiff-less items as Roland R-8 drum machines, Ensoniq ESQ-1 synths, and Akai S-1000 samplers. I was mortified at the prospect of selling merchandise under misleading premises, and with this warped view I was doomed in the world of quick sales.

“What if they realize it sucks and return it?” I would posit, guiltily.

“They won’t!” he would fire back, exasperated. “Believe me, dude, they learn to like what they buy! All those questions they ask are just stalling tactics, or are based on irrelevant shit some nerdy friend told them. These folks don’t know their heads from their asses, equipment-wise; they NE-VER return stuff! And if they DO bring it back, you know what?” A sly smile would creep across his face and his voice would hush slightly. “It doesn’t matter…the thing is, you still don’t lose the spiff; once that box is out the door, the cut is yours!”

“But what if they get customer feels cheated and gets mad?” I would whisper back anxiously. I mean, it’s kind of like tricking them…”

“Oh my god. Go back to music school, dude!” He would throw his hands into the air despairingly and stomp away. “That’s where you belong!”


Two weeks or so had passed since sending the march, and I still hadn’t heard back from Mr. Barron. It seemed likely that he would be away; I’d probably have to be patient. But with my abysmal sales record at the store I was looking forward to receiving my $400 balance. I called Jane, thinking she might know details about the Barrons’ schedule.

“Hm,” she said, “I’m fairly sure they’re in town. Maybe they haven’t gotten around to listening yet…”

“I think he’s going to dig the march, once he’s checked it out,” I ventured, smugly.

“Well, you've certainly put in a great deal of work,” she said. “I’ll try and prompt them to get in touch,” she promised.

August turned into September; cooler winds were prevailing. I had realized that Slick Rick was probably correct about my future, so I’d begun applying to graduate schools. I had also started a new job, teaching music to emotionally disturbed kids. This new employment paid even less than my old job at the music store, and I was therefore more eager than ever to claim my 400 bucks. There was still no word from the Barrons, so I phoned Jane again. We talked for a few minutes, and then somewhat awkwardly I remarked, “I suppose you haven’t heard anything yet about my march…”

“No,” she said apologetically. “I spoke with Amy and…well, come to think of it, she didn’t bring it up. Wait a second…” she broke off, and returned to the phone a half-minute later. “Here’s their number.” She read the digits to me. “Why not contact them yourself?”

The next day was Saturday. Thinking that the weekend might be a more ideal time to reach the Barrons, I called that afternoon. The phone rang and rang; no answer. I tried later in the day; still nothing. That night, I sat awake in bed, perturbed, wondering why they hadn’t even mentioned the piece to Jane. I knew that the package had been delivered; three days after sending it I had received a return receipt. A terrible thought occurred to me; what if the cassette had been poor quality? Perhaps the tape had unspooled and was unlistenable (it had happened to me once before). That potentiality and many others troubled me. I tossed and turned and fretted over various drastically negative possibilities, and after a several obsessive hours I fell asleep, exhausted.

I tried calling again the next morning, then once again late that afternoon. The phone rang ten or more times; I was about to hang up, but suddenly there was a soft click. “Hello, who is this?” inquired a tiny soprano voice.

“Mrs. Barron?” I inquired eagerly.


“Oh, I’m so glad to speak with you. This is Derek Bermel.”

There was a short, baffled silence. The connection was not very good. “I’m sorry, who?”

“Derek Ber-MEL,” I said a little slower, accenting the last syllable of my surname. I was used to this; most people who read my name pronounced it BUR-mul or BRE-mul.

“I think you must have dialed the wrong number,” she replied edgily. How did you get this number?”

“Oh, Jane gave it to me. I’m Jane’s friend, the one you met last summer, the…musician.” I paused and thought that I could detect the faint sound of Cape Cod crickets chirping. “The composer,” I continued. “I wrote a march…”

“Oh yes,” she said, with distant recognition. “Nice to hear from you.”

Another crackling silence ensued, which I gladly filled. “Yes, I, uh, I sent a score – I mean…the sheet music…with a tape. Did you receive it, by any chance? I mean, I think you received it; I mailed it to your husband…”

“Yes,” she said quietly. “Thank you, he did get it. But he’s not available right now. He’s a bit busy…”

Another awkward silence. I began to feel queasy. A thought occurred to me; perhaps he was ill. That would explain things. But wouldn’t Jane have told me? Maybe they didn’t want anyone to know.

“I’m sure he is,” I said. “Um...can I call back some time?”

“Yes…or, well…” she stammered, haltingly. Barely able to hear her voice, I jammed the phone up against my ear. A slightly longer, more agonizing silence ensued. The static was deafening. I suddenly thought of another possibility; suppose their marriage was problematic, and they were estranged. What if he was having an affair, and she received my package and threw it away in disgust? But Mrs. Barron broke in, dispelling that fleeting notion. “Hold the line a second. He’s inside; let me see if I can find him.”

An interminable silence followed, seemingly lasting for weeks. Something seemed very wrong. I began to regret sending the Barrons a MIDI version of the piece. Perhaps the recording was too stiff-sounding, or the cassette quality had been rotten. In my mind, I heard Slick Rick's voice, admonishing me, “MIDI sucks! Use your chops to demonstrate; it’s way more impressive and distracting for the customers.” Naturally, I was confident that Mr. Barron possessed a more sophisticated and discriminating musical aptitude than my keyboard customers, yet even so, perhaps I ought to have played him the piece live, at the piano; it might have appeared more personal. As I cycled through the potential pitfalls of MIDI realizations, a gruff voice emerged from the crackles. “Hello? Hello? Derek?”

“Oh, hello Mr. Barron!” I said in the most cheerful tone I could muster.

“Derek! Now listen, what the dickens is this monstrous thing you sent me? This is awful, God-awful stuff! It’s – I don’t know the technical term – dissonant?...ugly-sounding? How could you possibly think this might be played at a wedding? Or even a funeral, for that matter? It’s…cacophonous! And it doesn’t sound anything like a march.” He laughed out loud, presumably at the thought of the unintentionally cacophonous wedding/funeral event. “What I wanted was something grand-sounding. We talked about that, don’t you remember? Anyway, what am I supposed to do with this chintzy piano recording?” He snickered a bit more while the line crackled.

During this soliloquy I experienced such a wild rush of emotions – shame, indignation, incredulity, despair – that I could hardly summon any breath to respond. My voice shook with an audible tremor as I attempted to solidify my thoughts. “Mr. Barron-” I began, half-choking back a sob of wounded pride, “I worked very hard, I mean, I wrote this… you wanted… it was difficult to write something that could be… you asked for either a funeral or a wedding piece…”

“ME-LO-DY,” he interrupted, emphasizing each syllable. “I wanted a march with a melody that a person can identify and sing.” He continued, a bit patronizingly, but with more empathy, “Don’t get me wrong, you’re obviously very talented, but for God’s sake, couldn't you take out some of those ear-splitting sounds and add some real honest-to-God tunes? Your piece doesn’t contain a shred of melody. Didn’t they teach you how to write one at Yale?”

I searched frantically for an appropriate answer. What was he talking about? Had I sent the wrong cassette tape? My march had a very clear melody, several in fact. It was the most tuneful composition I had written since high school. But in this piece I had attempted – and, I felt, accomplished – something much more sophisticated and subtle; through a slow process of variation, two main themes seamlessly converged – one in minor key, one in major – how could I explain this to him? “Mr. Barron… I mean…there are melodies are in there… Maybe they’re not quite as perceptible as–”

“Well I can’t hear them,” he snapped. “Look, Derek, I wanted a real rousing march. Do you know Battle Hymn of the Republic? Like that one! Now that’s a real march, with a fantastic melody.”

“But – Battle Hymn – that’s…” I broke off, completely flummoxed, took a deep breath, and began again. “I asked you if you wanted a Sousa march, and you insisted that you didn’t like – that you wanted something more interesting…a young Leonard Bernstein…”

“Interesting, yes! Like a good melody,” he added curtly. “Look, I’m not a music scholar or anything, but to me a strong, clear melody is at the foundation of music. Haven’t you heard West Side Story?”

“Sure,” I began. “But Bernstein also wrote–”

“Now, Derek,” he interrupted with annoyance, “I don’t have time to debate this all day. Here’s what we’ll do. You rewrite this for organ – take out some of those intolerable harmonies, and please add at least a couple of tunes that a regular person can recognize – and we’ll call it a deal. I really would have preferred a recording of a real band, but at this point I suppose organ would do.”

“…organ?” I echoed, weakly, at a loss for words.

“Right, a pipe organ!” he said, heartened. "You know, Derek, I’m actually glad you called to work things out. When I first heard your…thing... I must admit, I was a bit miffed. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! Not that I don’t appreciate your – uh – experimentation, but I don’t like being taken for a guinea pig. In any case, I think we’re clear on things now, right?”

“Yeah…uh…ok…Mr. Barron…if you don’t mind, let me just think about all this. I’ll…I’ll call you back soon.”

“Don’t think too long! Just get writing, like Lenny would’ve done! C’mon!” He laughed heartily. “I’m sure it’ll be great! Looking forward to it, Derek…bye!”

“Do you think the…” I began, but before I could finish the thought I heard a sharp click. I stood with the phone to my ear for another couple of seconds until the line went dead.

Battle Hymn of the Republic? I couldn’t fathom this in the least. What the hell? I had misunderstood the whole assignment, right from the start, and now the puzzle pieces were falling into place. All Barron had wanted was a pompous melody or two, backed up by a few banal chords, capped off with a cheesy flourish at the end. Meanwhile there I was, attempting to weave an intricate tapestry, agonizing over details. Now I was back at square one, with a new assignment to write an organ march, of all depressing things. But now the challenge and the ebullience I had felt before were absent; there was only a seething sizzle in my gut. My first ‘commission’. That had sure turned out great.

It suddenly occurred to me that I’d been so intimidated and surprised that I’d forgotten to ask for my four hundred dollars. During our conversation, money had been the farthest thing from my mind, but now my upcoming rent loomed like a vampiric presence. I felt simultaneously humiliated and ripped off. Why hadn’t I stood up for myself? What was I afraid of? I plunked down on my bed, dejected. Maybe I wasn’t really cut out for this composer thing. Maybe a freelance composer had to be a self-employed businessman with a killer, commercial instinct. A real composer might have anticipated what Mr. Barron would want, might have known how to ask the right questions initially, might have gauged his intentions more accurately.

The phone rang. I stared at it, ringing insistently. It was probably Mr. Barron calling back, I thought. Perhaps he realized that he had been overly harsh, even boorish, ignorant. Maybe this time he would offer payment – even a little extra cash as an incentive – to write the organ piece. Then, after some thought, I might agree to the new terms, explaining that it would require a great deal of effort but that I was willing to do my part to ensure his satisfaction. I summoned some courage and picked up the phone. “Hello?” I said, in a measured tone.

“D-rock!!” a familiar voice cried. It was my college roommate George.

“Hey G,” I said, ever-so-slightly disappointed, but relieved.

“What’s shakin’, Beethoven? How’s the great composer?”

“Uh, not so great, in either sense of the word. You?”

“Aw man, I have had a crazy day. Three clients with crises; I’m trying to manage everything at once. As Stevie would say, ‘Living Just Enough for the City.’ You know, Rock?” He heaved an audible, satisfied sigh. George was an entrepreneur, who – shortly after graduation – plunged into the record business and founded his own management company. A natural businessman with a keen musical ear and a flair for cutting a deal, he worked with both bands and producers, and at age 23 was already knee-deep in the mix of the New York indy music scene. “What’s going on with you, homes?”

“Well, I finished off a march. You remember that guy I told you about who commissioned it?”

“Yeah, Barron! The Barron March,” he intoned with mock grandeur. “I thought you finished that one a while ago. What else you been doing?”

“Well, yeah, I finished it, but…the thing is, I hadn’t heard back from him-”

“Why not? Did you deliver the goods?”

“Yeah, well, I guess I did, but they were the wrong goods. I wrote what I thought was a really good march; I mean, it WAS a really good march. But it was nuanced, you know? Not typical; it was layered. It was supposed to be either for his daughter’s wedding or-”

“Yeah, yeah, or his funeral, I remember. What a wacky assignment! I’m sure whatever you came up with was great. So, you sent it, and…?”

“Right away. I sent it registered mail, weeks ago.”

“And you never heard back from him?”

“No, so I finally called him. And he got the package.” I paused. “But he hated it,” I admitted, feeling oddly embarrassed. “Or maybe he doesn’t exactly hate it…but he doesn’t understand it. I dunno. He wants me to do something else.”

“Did you get paid?” he asked in a flat tone unfamiliar to me.

I shuddered. “Well, I got paid the first hundred bucks. Before I wrote it. But I didn’t really ask about money this time, because he was… because it was so… awkward. You know?” I realized that I was blushing slightly and my head felt hot. “I guess I’m stupid, but I never figured he wouldn’t LIKE the piece. I mean, on some level I don’t really care; he obviously doesn’t know the first thing about music. He said he wanted a march like Battle Hymn of the Republic –”

“D-rock, you can’t go out like that. Do you have a contract?”

“Yeah, but he –”

“What’s the balance? What does he owe you?”

“Uh, let’s see…about four hundred bucks.”

“About, or exactly?” I could hear George scribbling something on a pad. “Look homes, he can request anything he wants, but first you gotta get paid.”

“Well, it’s true…you’re right. I should get paid. But…shit! It feels weird to ask him for the rest when he hates the piece.”

“Come on, this guy is a multi-millionaire who lived down the block from Teddy Kennedy, and you’re a starving artist!”

“Well… I dunno… maybe I should just write him a new march – this new organ piece he wants or whatever – and then he’ll feel happier about the whole thing.”

“D-rock, it’s not about happiness; we’re gonna get you paid. What’s this guy’s address? I’m drafting a letter right now…”

“G-- I mean… he’s a friend of a friend…”

In the earpiece I could hear another phone ringing incessantly at George’s office. “I gotta pick this up, D. Wait a sec.” He slammed down the phone.

“Hello?” I heard him ask into the other phone. “Nope, I can’t guarantee that. Sorry, can you hold on? Thanks.”

He picked up my phone again. “Find that contract from Barron and fax it to me today, all right?”

“It’s just a letter, like it just outlines–”

“Is it signed? By both parties?”

“Yeah, but-”

“Fax it to me today. Dude, I gotta take this call. See you later. Don’t forget!”

“OK.” I hung up the phone and took a deep breath. Right, the contract. I dug into my filing cabinet and pulled it out. There it was: the signed paper, written in Mr. Barron’s eloquent hand, acknowledging receipt of $100 and requesting delivery – before the end of the summer – of a ‘march for band, entitled the Barron March, suitable for performance at either a wedding or a funeral’. I shoved it in my backpack, shut the front door, and began unlocking my bike from the ‘no parking’ sign on the street outside my apartment.

So here was the end of my triumphant story, I thought; my manager buddy ekes my paltry commission money out of a rich guy who hates my music. Is this what it’s all about, I wondered? How pathetic that this incident would mark the onset of my career as a freelance composer! The thought of Jane momentarily flashed through my head, and I considered how embarrassing the whole scenario might turn become. I stopped fiddling with the bike lock, feeling conflicted and uncomfortable. I should just let this go, I realized. Let it all go. No amount of money was worth alienating my friend. I turned around and headed back to the stoop and climbed the steps up to my apartment, picked up the phone again, and called George.

“Management!” his voice boomed.

“Hey G-"

“’Sup D-rock?”

“Look, I really, really appreciate all your help. But… I mean the guy hates my music. And he’s a friend of a friend. I just – I don’t want to take his money. Really, it’s OK.” I paused. “I didn’t write it for the money anyway. Seriously, G.”

George sighed. There was a short silence. “Why did you write it, then?” he asked gently.

I thought for a few seconds. “I don’t know. Because – it was exciting to get the commission; I liked the idea that someone would pay me to do what I love to do anyway. It made me feel – important, I guess. But once I started writing that march, it became more than a random, goofy assignment; it was a challenge. And boy was I glad that he DIDN'T request a Sousa march!” The situation seemed suddenly funny, and I chuckled. “You know, maybe Barron is right; maybe my piece is bizarre-sounding. I mean, to a traditional ear. But it’s beautiful - to my weird ears anyway. You know, it really doesn’t sound like any other march I've heard.” I felt a twinge of pride, but realized I was babbling a bit, and stopped talking. I could detect the sound of the printer whirring in George’s office.

“OK, D, I get it,” George said quietly. But fax me that contract anyway, all right? Just so I have a copy on file here.”

“Sure, man. Hey, thanks again, G, for listening, and everything. I hope you understand. You’re a good friend.”

“No prob. Speak to you soon, D-rock.”

I felt immediately relieved, as if a great weight had been lifted from my mind. I shook my head. Then I climbed onto my bike, headed over to the copy shop, faxed the letter to George, and stopped on the way back for a slice of pizza.


Two weeks later, autumn was in full swing; the air was crisp and dry and leaves were beginning to fall from the trees. I returned home from work to find an embossed envelope in the mailbox; there was no return address. I ripped it open without paying much attention, assuming it was junk mail. Inside was a check for $400, signed by Amy Barron. I looked inside the torn envelope again. No letter was enclosed, but at the bottom of the check was scrawled, ‘balance of payment for march.’


I fingered the weighty envelope; it was the same richly textured, tactile paper on which the contract had been written. Glancing down at my hand, I realized that I was holding very expensive stationery. I stared at the check absent-mindedly for a few seconds, put it hastily in my pocket, hopped on my bike, and began riding towards the bank.