Tuesday

Conversations with Dead Geniuses: Mozart, Part 3

Mozart - Part 3 - "What about music?"


Part 1 is HERE
Part 2 is HERE

 If you could play just one of your favorite songs... for Mozart... 
What would you choose?





"How can that be?"  Mozart asked after a pretty long pause.

How would you explain...
Mozart and I were standing on the front balcony of my home, a corner apartment overlooking the boats in Marina Del Rey.  Christie had fed us a lovely chicken dinner shortly after we got home.  She had already determined that this odd little man was one of the most committed actors I had ever brought home, and had long since gone to bed.  Across the water, the glow of the city warmed the sky from beneath, but Mozart was looking higher, almost straight up at the flashing navigation lights of a 737 headed East from LAX.  I had just told him there were about 150 souls aboard.
Tough question to answer for a man who died in 1790.  Where do you even start?   The combustion engine?  The Wright brothers?
...all of this...
I also had a more immediate concern.  The static tingle of a building plasma burst was raising the hair on my arms as it gathered force in the air just beyond this balcony.  If Mozart felt it, he probably just thought it was another bizarre aspect of everyday life in my world.  But I knew what it was.  I had seen it before.  Whatever had brought him to this time and place was coming back for him very soon.  Maybe in just minutes.
I decided the best way to answer any question from here on would be to just yank off the band-aid in one motion.
"You're in the future,  about 250 years after you were born."
Mozart looked down at the glass of Napa cabernet in his hand, then emptied it down his throat as I continued.
"It was some time around your era, Mozart... a discovery was made that changed everything."
...and this...
I reached for the bottle, the second one we had opened since dinner, and refilled his glass.  He took another overfull mouth of wine and held it in his mouth like a squirrel stocking up on wine for the winter.  He swallowed it in stages as he listened to me.
"There is an invisible force all around us, all the time, very powerful.  We can't see it, except when it flashes in the sky as lightning."
"Lightning?"  Finally, something he understood.
"Yes.  Electricity is only one of many invisible fields that move all around and through us, through everything, all the time.  Constantly flowing.  In the last 200 years or so... mankind has discovered that these forces exist, and we have learned to harness them and use them for purposes that must seem to you like..."
"Magic."  He watched the unnatural lights of Los Angeles.  "Is that how you brought me here?"
"I didn't bring you here.  The truth is, I don't know how you got here.  I'm afraid time travel is still beyond us."
...and this...
"That's comforting to know." He drained his glass again.  "It seems that this is happening to you as much as it is to me."  Then Mozart turned to look me in the eye.  "Why do you think I am here?  For your benefit?  Or mine?"
Now it was my turn to look at the boats.
"I think it's just a conversation."
"Conversation?"
 "It's a chance for you to see what's become of the world since your time.  And a chance for me to hear what you think of it."
"It has become crowded, loud, and frightening.  Can I go now?"
"I'm sorry.  I don't control when you come and go."
"What about music?" It seemed like a question he had been considering for a while now, but was afraid of what the answer might be.  "In your carriage, before, the music in the air?  Was that..." he sifted rapidly through all the bizarre things he had seen and heard.  "...harnessed lightning?"
...and anything else you can think of...
I nodded.
"Through the power of electricity," I explained, "it is possible to capture a performance and listen to it as many times as you like."
Mozart's brow crinkled at the impossible wizardry and the mind expanding possibilities of what I had just said.  "Capture?"
I regarded him for just a moment as the energy in the air continued to move the hairs on my arm like iron filings near a magnet.  Then, I dug into my pocket for my iPhone.
I explained the earbuds to him as I searched through a library of music far larger than the one I used to have in the pre-digital era, when collecting vinyl records was the prime motivator of my life.
I didn't say anything else, no further set up.  I just selected Serenade No. 13 for strings.  "Eine Klein Nachtmusik," a song I sometimes listen to as I'm falling asleep,  a gorgeous, delicate melody by W.A. Mozart.
I hit "play."  The song was recorded in the 1990's by the London Philharmonic, but he didn't know that.  All he knew was that I held his music in the palm of my hand.
After a few moments, as tears of wonder flowed down his peculiar angel's face, I gently removed the ear buds.
"You still know my music."  He was grateful, humbled, and awed.
"Anyone in the world can have this or any music with them, any time they want."
"What else?"  His fear vanished in the face of undreamt possibilities opening right in front of him.  "What more has electricity done for music?"
In my living room was a 50 inch plasma TV.   I knew we only had minutes left.  A half-hour at the most.
It was tuned to CNN.  Mayhem and death delivered in high definition by a stern man in the box.  I quickly changed the channel.
...to Mozart...
"What was that?"  Even five seconds of that was pretty frightening.  Not exactly the glimpse of the world I wanted him to see.
"Those people are not inside the box.  It is just like my phone only it brings captured images as well as sound.
"My God."
I could hear the static crackle of the impending event, the plasma flash that would take Mozart away.  I regretted the time I wasted letting him get more comfortable.  Of course, this conversation and this moment were why he was here. There was no time left.
I jammed the connecting cable into my phone and tapped the little icon for youtube.
Music.   What had electricity brought to music?
I talked quickly as I searched.
"Besides the ability to record sound, electricity also allowed for amplification."
"Amplification."  He repeated the word like a student at a lecture.

...in only a few minutes.
"When you had your largest audience, how did you make sure everyone could hear?"
His answers came quickly.  "More instruments, compositions that might feature bass notes and percussion that could shake the room.  Hundreds could watch and listen."
"Yes."  I scrolled as fast as I could.  "Now imagine all the bass you would need, but  played by one person.  All the percussion, played by one person.  All the strings, by one person.  And a vocalist of any style could project his voice to audiences of... how big would you guess?"

He was right with me.  His mind no doubt clawing at the cage of his past experience to witness what these new truths could possibly mean.  "Hundreds?"  He asked.  Then thought better.  " a thousand?"
Of all the music in the little box I held in my hand... virtually every song ever recorded...  I had time for maybe just one song to play, one song to show him.  To show Mozart, for God's sake.  If I had more time I would start with Ken Burn's 10 hour documentary on "Jazz."  I would play Elvis records.  We'd go through the rise and fall of the Beatles... Everything.  "Thriller." "Purple Rain."  If it were my favorite bands it would be U2 or... what about Rush?  Mozart would love Rush.  
But what song?  What had electricity brought?  
No.   It was not one song.  As I frantically typed in the search, I knew.  One song is not what electricity had brought.  Electricity had brought intimacy through raw power.   Electricity had brought the composers and the musicians to the people in a way Mozart would understand right away.  A way he would love.  In the way he would use if this were his time.  
Mozart had composed for kings and popes, but he had also composed vaudevilles for the people.  Electricity had made the sheer joy of music accessible to everyone.  All at once.  If he could only see one thing that electricity had brought to music, he should see great musicians ride that harnessed lighting before not just thousands, but everyone.  
The world.  All together watching one thing.  One performance that answered Mozart's question as best as I could.
What had electricity done for music?  Here's what I showed him.


As the video played, I saw Mozart's face go blank with pure wonder, his eyes darting between the instruments creating the sound, the unfathomable audience, and Freddie Mercury holding them all so lovingly in the palm of his hand.  
With the song nearly over, I rushed from the living room back into my office.  There was no time to waste, and I knew he would want to try just once.  I grabbed my stratocaster and my practice amp, nearly pulling the plate from the wall as I yanked out the plug.
The video stopped.  Mozart stared at the frozen image of the audience.  Tears of awe at the sights and sounds of beauty as only he could truly appreciate.  Then he looked over to me at last and saw what I had brought.
I held the black Strat out to him.  He took it in his hands, recognizing how it would work right away.  Essentially it was an oversized violin.  He touched the fret board and the strings rang muted and nearly silent as I feverishly jabbed the plug at the wall socket behind the couch.
Suddenly, power.  Sound.  Mozart had seen Brian May playing this instrument in the video.  There was no hesitation.  Within seconds he was playing Queen's "Hammer to Fall" from memory after one hearing.  Instinctively he was aware of the ingredient I was withholding out of respect for the neighbors and my sleeping wife.
"Louder."  He said.
I reached for the master volume and gave him a little.  He saw which button it was and reached for it himself.
"Louder!"  He yelled and he really cranked it.
The sound was sublime.  He took the major A of that Queen song and seamlessly broke the components of the chords into stunning runs and arpeggios, all blasting through the distorted amp. 
Eyes closed, head tilted back, Mozart held harnessed lightning in his hands and he knew it.  He felt it.  
It was my turn to stand transfixed in awe.  What he did to that simple song was more Randy Rhodes classical than Jimi Hendrix blues.  Soon he moved his right hand onto the fret board and began pulling new sounds with both hands as if playing a piano.  If there was time, I could show him Van Halen too.  And Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald....
But there was no time left.  
The plasma flash lit up my living room for a split second. The black Strat, played just the moment before as it never had been and never wound be again, fell to the floor with a loud clatter and screech of feedback.
I picked it up, just as Christie sprinted into the room in her pajamas and a state of shock.
"It's one o'clock in the morning!  Have you lost your mind?!"
She noticed the sad look on my face as I turned down the volume on the screeching amplifier.
"Hey...?  Where's Mozart?"

Friday

Conversations with Dead Geniuses: Mozart, Part 2

Part 1 is Here


Mozart Part 2 - "Los Angeles"


By the time we got to Victorville, Mozart had stopped cowering behind his wig. Probably because the sun had gone down. Thank God for that, because I didn't know how I was going to explain L.A. in daylight to him. "It's more or less like a giant suburban strip mall that goes on forever" only makes sense if you know what a strip mall is.

Still, the sights along the edge of the desert highway, the intermittent Taco Bells and Chevrons scrolling past his window at speeds no man or bird could imagine in 1790, were having a profound effect on Mozart. He stayed silent and his mouth hung a little open.  His face already had a distinctly angelic quality, now he looked kind of like an infant staring at the mobile above his crib.

The Japanese have a special word for Los Angeles, which they, like a lot of people, prefer to see at night. I don't remember how to say it, but I remember what it means.  It describes a handful of diamonds tossed by a jeweler onto a swath of black velvet.

We went right through downtown on the 10. A million white lights passing by us on the left, a million red lights blinking on and off in front of us, stretching all the way to the black horizon. Outside Mozart's window, the skyscrapers were all lit up and the klieg lights from a Lakers game swept the cloudless Southern California Sky.

You try explaining this...
Pygmy warriors often range far from their village. I've heard that when one of these warriors - someone who has spent his entire life beneath the deepest jungle canopy - accidentally comes to the edge of the trees for the very first time and sees the plains stretching out for miles and miles, he doesn't know what's happening. Pygmies have no concept of a "Horizon." Their field of vision is bordered by trees and dense foliage in every direction.  Their world is measured in feet. There is no concept of "miles." So stepping out of the jungle might as well be stepping through a wormhole. They'll reach out to a giraffe a thousand yards away like they're going to pick him up and hold him in the palm of their hand.

For the first time, Mozart looked like he was starting to enjoy himself. Something like a smile, a big bewildered grin had appeared on his face and stayed there. After thinking the desert North of Baker was Hell, he might have thought we were pulling into Heaven.  

"Hey, Mozart?"

He turned from the window and looked at me.

"I need to call my wife to let her know I'm bringing you home for dinner."

"Call?"  

See what I mean about talking to pre-electricty people?  Such a pain.

"Yeah.  Listen, I'm going to have to turn off... I mean stop the music for a minute to talk to her. Don't freak out, okay?"

He had no idea what I was talking about. But he nodded his consent.

I thumbed the bluetooth button on the wheel. The radio went suddenly quiet as that rather stiff sounding female voice interrupted.  "Speak a command."

Mozart's eyes darted between me and the speaker on the dashboard. I started laughing but tried to hide it.

"Call home." I said through a clenched smile.  

The phone rang a couple of times and then Christie answered.

"Where are you?" She asked in a happy-it-was-me voice.

"Here!" Mozart answered like he was playing Marco Polo with all the different people in the dashboard.

I couldn't help it any more and just started laughing hard.  

"Honey, I've got someone with me. I'm bringing him home, probably just for tonight."

There was a brief pause, then "Again?" The disappointment in her voice was not lost on me.

Christie is an excellent hostess and can really roll with surprises like this better than most, but this is not a new problem for us. She's never been with me for the plasma flashes in the desert. All of the evidence she has that these people I keep bringing home are actually long dead geniuses who have apparently travelled through time is purely anecdotal, based on what they're wearing and my telling of the tale. It's all pretty hard to believe.

In fact, it's much worse than that. It's impossible to believe. So from her point of view, it seems like her husband is not only lying, but also going to really elaborate lengths to hire actors to show up for dinner in costume strictly for her benefit, to perpetuate an outrageous story which seems designed for no other purpose than to make her look foolish. You can see how this would be frustrating to both of us.

We've had the conversation a few times and I always end up feeling like a dick. Although one time Thomas Edison fixed a ton of stuff around the house that I was supposed to do but had no clue about.  Anyway, bottom line, she knew right away that I would be bringing home a very strange person and that she was about to have another evening of this really complicated joke with no punchline. Like being on "Candid Camera" but no one ever jumps out to tell you.

"Yeah.  It's..."  I suddenly became sheepish about it.  "...Mozart."

"Mozart?"  

"Mozart!"  Mozart shouted.  "Where are you?"

Christie sighed audibly into the phone. Then she pressed gamely ahead, planning out an evening for us.

"Mozart liked wine a lot, right?" That ability to roll with stuff can be really great sometimes.

"Yes, I believe that's true." I smiled.

"I do!" Mozart chimed in. "I adore wine."

Christie knew that these nights were always at least pretty entertaining. "I'll pick out a good bottle."

We were about 30 minutes from home if the traffic thinned a little.  Mozart was feeling more himself and I knew from experience that he was about to start asking a lot of questions.  I was starting to look forward to the rest of the night.


To be Continued...

Part 3, the stunning conclusion, is HERE

Wednesday

Conversations with Dead Geniuses

Mozart - Part 1

I first met Mozart in the same place I meet most dead geniuses, just off Interstate 15 barely inside California on the way home from Las Vegas.

I saw the tell tale plasma flash about a quarter mile off the road and into the desert on the south side of the highway.  I knew from experience that there would be a disoriented genius stumbling around out there, and unless it was a military genius or an explorer or something like that, he wouldn't last too long. When they first show up they are really confused, liable to wander into the road or drink out of someone's swimming pool.

There were no exits coming for miles, so I pulled over to the side of the highway and just left my car half in the emergency lane and half in the dirt.  I dodged my way across two lanes, the ditch in between and then the next two lanes to reach the south side of the road.

I found him just about exactly where I had seen the flash. After only a second or two of looking at him, my first guess was this guy had to be Mozart. Turns out I was right. He must have just come from a big party or maybe an audience with the emperor because he was dressed like one of the Beatles on the Sergeant Pepper album. He had taken his powdered wig off in the heat, and was clutching it in one hand while he held his knees to his chest, just sitting in the sand, like a scared little kid - except he wasn't a kid. I think he was 26 when he died.  His eyes were closed and he rocked back and forth like a fresh lunatic.

"Hey," I called in a friendly voice.

His head flicked toward my voice like a squirrel.  He was small and pale.  This sun was going to tear him apart soon.

"You Mozart?"  Until I asked, of course, I couldn't know for sure.  He looked like Mozart, but really could have been anybody from that era with the balls to walk out of the house in a pink silk suit and matching tri-cornered hat.  The hat was on the ground beside him, by the way.

"I..." he stuttered.  Thank God he spoke English.  Unless "I" means something else in German.

I found out later that Mozart spoke several languages.  German, French, English, and Italian.  Not that this should surprise.  He was a genius.

"I am Herr Mozart."  He finally spit it out.  "Who are you?"

"Steve."  We nodded a shaky hello and I pressed ahead.  "Do you know where you are?"

He thought about it before very sincerely asking,  "Hell?"  It was kind of touching and pathetic.  I really felt bad for the guy.

"No."  I glanced around at the hellscape.  "But it's an easy mistake to make.  We're a little north of Baker, California. "

He was shaking and already sweating through his pink outfit.

"Listen," I explained in the gentlest tone I could muster.  "You're gonna die out here in this sun if we don't get you..."  this is the problem with people from the distant past,  geniuses or not. They don't understand things like Air Conditioning.  Everything is a whole big conversation just to explain the littlest parts of what's going on now.  So I started over with something I already knew would work.  "I've got a horseless carriage waiting just over that rise there.  I'll take you to my home.  Out of the sun."

"A horseless carriage?"

"Yeah, yeah... It's just like it sounds," I moved things along.  It was hot as balls out there.

So after a quarter mile hike back toward the highway spent in relative silence, the sight and sound of cars and trucks whizzing along the horizon at 80 miles per hour were starting to freak Mozart out more and more the closer we got.

I tried at first to explain them to him, but then I remembered what happened with Galileo in the exact same situation.  I decided it would be best for Mozart to just cover his face with his wig and I would lead him like a nervous horse across the four lanes of traffic.

He trusted me, which was great, but three different drivers leaned on their horns as they had to slow down for us, and gunned their engines as they passed (all three had BMWs - go figure).  Mozart was white as a sheet by the time I got him into the car.

To see all this through his eyes, picture yourself in the typical alien abduction story.  Only you're wide awake for the tractor-beam, the big-eyed all-nude space men, the operating theatre and the orifice probing.

"Just take it easy, Mozart." I said as I jogged around the car and fell into the driver seat.  You don't usually think about things like this, but the modern world is really, really loud.  I mean, here's a guy who spent much of his life in orchestra pits at the opera, quite possible the loudest place in the world at the time, outside of the cannon ports on a ship, I suppose.  I think that highway was very likely the loudest and most obnoxious sound he'd ever heard.  When I closed the door behind me he recoiled from the "bang" like a house cat from a vacuum cleaner.  "This might all seem a little weird to you right now, but I promise you're better off here than out in that desert."

I turned on the ignition and cranked up the AC.  Ice cold breeze.  One little bit of comfort tipped the scales and calmed the little guy down just enough.

With some dead geniuses the trip home in the car can be pretty cool.  I knew that would not be the case with Mozart.  The man was soft and ill-prepared for surprises, let alone incomprehensible shocks of science and engineering.   He was shrieking like a banshee before we even got up to 40 miles an hour.

"Put the wig over your face and shut the hell up, will you?"  I had lost patience in record time with this guy.  I mean, once Galieo realized we were actually inside one of the monsters from the highway, and it was actually a machine under my control, he had a ball.  He was playing with dials, making the hazard lights flash, rolling down the window and sticking his head out.  When he finally found the radio...

Radio!  Duh.

I switched on the radio.  Metallica.  No.  And the volume was already way up too.   Mozart clenched up and covered his ears.  I turned it down, turned on the Sirius Satellite, and found "Classical."

Something familiar.  It was something written 200 years after he died, of course, but he knew all the sounds.  Music.  He calmed down.  Between that and the wig, we made it the last 4 hours back to L.A.

To Be Continued...

Part 2 is here