Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Cool mornings of sixty degrees send us outdoors for an early morning walk on the campus of the University of the South. The Sewanee Music Festival has begun, and at 8 a.m., we pass students sitting under a white oak tree, tuning their violins, and, further on, a boy on a bench practicing deep quacking noises on his bassoon. The Sewanee Music Festival will last five weeks and is internationally acclaimed for its program for advanced music students and opportunities for professional concerts. The Festival has been going on 50 years and draws more than 200 students from throughout the US and other countries who participate in workshops and play in concerts with 50 teachers, performers, and great artists. It’s a plum experience for musicians and students, and you can hear music scales vibrating in the air on the campus throughout June and July.

This morning’s encounter with the bassoon player took me back to an old Cherchez la femme column I wrote called “An Indescribable Plastic Wind Instrument… and I did tell readers “Cherchez” would appear from time to time…so here’s my commentary on music and a wind instrument I wrote about in Cherchez:

“I used to turn off the vacuum cleaner when I received a letter from a British woman I befriended in Iran, as her news often lifted any bad disposition I might have developed because of housekeeping chores. This friend possessed a wry sense of humor straight out of an old “Punch” magazine. Anne once wrote a hilarious letter to me about her children dabbling in the world of music. “Sarah was given an indescribable plastic wind instrument for her birthday,” she wrote. “So we spend our afternoons following the score of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ (and, yes, God save the Queen from this indescribable plastic wind instrument!). Wouldn’t you like for her to cross the pond and bring IT for a long visit?” I think Anne was alluding to a recorder, a small plastic or wooden instrument that should be familiar to most Britishers.

Actually, I own two recorders. Although I studied and played clarinet in my youth, in old age music has come from me in the form of a recorder played “by ear.” I’m sure my deceased parents are sighing in relief. They agonized over the hours I spent hiding in the garage composing mournful dirges on the clarinet, playing out my adolescent angst. “It’s only Great-Grandma Runnels’ melancholia,’” they diagnosed my wailings in the garage.

While they were growing up, my daughters often returned from school to hear the sound of the “indescribable plastic wind instrument” drifting from my study. They’d shake their heads and declare it a “washing machine day” (that’s the day the washer broke down, and the laundry towered in height comparable to Mt. McKinley…and I had just returned from giving a book review called “I’ve Only Got Two Hands and I’m Busy Wringing Them”).

The writer of an article in a music periodical recently wrote that poets are seldom musical – that words seem to be enough music for them. But, the author pointed out, cigar-smoking Amy Lowell, the American poetess, loved music and translated two short, French light operas. “If Amy Lowell could translate operas and Mama is a poet,” I asked my daughters, “why can’t Mama wail on this historical instrument? Henry VIII had 76 recorders (one for each wife).” Shakespeare not only mentions the recorder in Hamlet, he brought it on stage for the audience to see and made the characters talk about its construction. I was in good company, indeed, when I wailed.

My recorder came home with me from Iran, but it was manufactured in Great Britain. The mouthpiece is chipped from sometimes-flings against the floor when I couldn’t get the proper wail from it, but, nevertheless, it was good for sending the children and Roya, our Persian cat, out-of-doors on an afternoon when all else failed to get them out of my hair.

Handel used the flute for “See the Conquering Hero Come,” but he found the recorder more suitable for “Wise Men Flattering May Deceive You.” Somehow the flute has a more joyful sound than the recorder, and there is a distinct difference between a lilt and a wail.

Perhaps I should have invited Sarah to bring her indescribable plastic wind instrument for a visit, just to save the Queen. And as for my experiences making wailing sounds on my chipped recorder, I told my family that playing the recorder was less harmful than taking up the fiddle and traveling with a Cajun band Saturday nights, san family. “O.K., mama,” they said, “Play ‘See the Conquering Hero (-ine) Come,’ please.”
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