They Play Solitaire


4) Nina has a thing about toy keyboards

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Nina and I had a visit at the “camp” today. They’re expecting to see Michael soon. I didn’t get to know him very well, originally. Nina figures that when I meet him again I’ll have a better idea of what the music is about.

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Nina: “I have a thing about toy keyboards… The electronic toy synths you see in big drugstores or in a department store… Sometimes they have Melodicas. You know… Maybe two octaves and you blow into it…? Anyway, I was in an all-night drugstore and I saw this toy that looked really elaborate. You never get to play them, even though they usually have a built-in amp and speakers. …no batteries or dead ones or no power supply to plug in or no place to plug it in. But this time there was a power supply in the box under the keyboard. I felt like a shoplifter. I was looking around for an outlet — trying to plug it in and hear it before some store person came along. I got it plugged in under a shelf and stood up right before this old guy came down the aisle. I had it turned on before he got to me and gave me the ‘Can I help you?’ Before he said anything, I hit a big TA DA! on ten keys, which came out really comical, because it was set on ‘caliope.’ This thing had sixty-four keys and lots of voices and rhythms.

“It’s 1:00 in the morning and I know this guy is going to stop me, so I started playing some Scott Joplin and then some Bach. People can be so predictable. When you think about it, you hardly ever get to see real human fingers making music. You hear music everywhere, constantly, but when was the last time you saw fingers making the notes happen? But then again, he would have been equally impressed with a robot pressing the keys. I saw a guy doing a demo in a piano/organ store once who had this trick where he’s playing along on a baby grand and he hits a switch so that it sounds like a B3 — the classic rock/jazz organ — and he countinues playing, but after a few bars, he lifts his hands off the keys, but they’re still going up and down. The tune just goes on without him — a learn-to-play thing.

“And you know there’s software that will do a random auto blues or jazz solo, right?

“I was at a sound check once — big arena and all the lights are on, people setting up chairs, roadies — and up on the stage they’re setting up a synthesizer and this guy starts playing some circus orchestra music and all the roadies actually stop to listen — applaud when he’s done. That’s still show biz…

“I have a theory that every band needs an amatuer… and every band is full of them, if you put everybody on the instrument that they know the least.

“A couple of weeks last summer, nobody had a car and everybody else lives in a different ‘compound.’ I spent about five days alone. And I didn’t want Jack or Bobby to know, because they see enough of me.”

“Compound,” is what they call any place in the burbs with a wall around it, gated or not. I didn’t want to just say, “Yeah, I’ve been in exactly that situation,” so I said there had been times when I’ve had a hard time finding a ride. (This anticipates Bobby’s designs for a scalable transportation system.)

Nina went right on: “First of all, the nearest thing that isn’t a house, a school or a park is a forty five minute walk. The bus is a fifteen minute walk and then a forty minute ride. Spend a whole day driving around these neighborhoods and you won’t see anybody on foot.

“I can’t play guitar. So one night I’m really lonesome and I’m loooking around for chords — hitting strings for what ever feeling they have… And I’m thinking, like all the time, that I just want to do every jam like that: where nobody cares who is a virtuoso and who isn’t. No audience to beg for applause…

“Thing is, I can improvise way more on the guitar than on keyboards. No fast runs or anything. Just going from one weird chord to another, strumming some rhythms and fingering around the chords to see what happens. The best is when you think, ‘I didn’t know I was going to do that.’ No. ‘I didn’t know I could do that.’ And when you’re fooling around like that, it keeps the virtuosos from bogging down in something comfortable and slick. They don’t know where you’re gonna go, so they don’t know where they’re gonna go. And the virtuosos can’t watch the sloppy guys to closely, because they’re still trying to top each other. Sometimes they get out on the end of this ‘thrilling’ solo and just fall apart in the most wonderful ways. Like, ‘Uh… Wait a second, where’d everybody go?’ because we might have paused to give him a chance and then come in with a chord he wasn’t expecting.

“That’s what I need most from music: Play — with all your energy — what most people might call “wrong,” make every note count and have all your friends make it sound really right.

“The typical jam you might think of turns into a drone of noodling. The right mix of sloppy musicians and virtuosos can make better music than either of those kind of people can improvise, separately.

She went back to one last thing about the toy keyboard: “I bought the big toy keyboard, but that meant that I would have to do an apartment cleaning for my cousin after one of his tenants moves out, to get the cash back in the bank. But that’s a whole other story.”

“Jack and Bobby and I have this friend, who isn’t really a musician, that used to hang out with us, like when you met us. I think you may have met him, briefly. We all like to do stuff with rhythms and noises out of samples strung together as audio files on our computers now, but that’s all Michael did. He could play a little guitar and keys and drums, like really awkward, but that worked out a lot of the time… When they were setting this place up, he’d be looking over here and say, ‘We’re gonna wind up in that place,” only, he found a career in refrigeration maintenance and we never see him.”

Nina has always imagined a time when all kinds of creative people could get together on some amorphous thing: a production in the Hollywood sense — sounds and visuals on “sets” — but without the actual movie to force any deadlines or story lines, even if the whole thing was recorded and then had the sounds and visuals played back at another jam, later. An event that could happen over and over again, because there was a place to do it. For now, she was just hoping they had a place that was a little more dedicated to the purpose than somebody’s garage or living room. A place that was just always there when it was needed.

I suggested that sometimes when a band has a party… “No. At a party you have to be somebody before you get there and then show everybody what a wonderful life you’re having, just by the force of your personality. Or you just have to watch all that. At a jam like I’m suggesting, you get to do something. You get to be somebody who is doing something right then and there.”

“You might see a big-name band produce something with that kind of theatricality on the road, every night, all in one song. I will too, if I have to. I’ll bet those bands wish they could just stay in one place, work everything a different way every night, and have the audience come to them. You kind of get that when a band makes a concert movie. When a great band comes to town, you always see them turn some tune into a jam, and it’s not just to stretch the material.”


Written by Kenny Mann

04/24/2006 at 2:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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