Monday, December 7, 2015


2015 has been a year with several anniversaries of a centenary sort. At the top of the pianonoise recording catalogue, for instance, sit several pieces that were composed in 1915. Two of these are sets of Christmas Carols composed (adapted, really) by Bela Bartok. Bartok captured thousands of songs sung by Romanian peasants by going out and recording them, and then fashioned some of them into suites for piano. He did the same for a set of dances, also in 1915.

Then there is "Nola," a little novelty piece I played for a New Year's Eve concert a couple of years ago. If you listen carefully you can hear the pedal squeak--the piano had just gotten back from the theater (we moved it for the concert) and was still getting over the shock. Although now I realize it was probably because the pianist's shoes were wet.

These pieces could not be farther apart--the songs of Romanian peasants and the song of American entertainment, but they were both born in 1915, when the piano on which I recorded them was already four years old.

But there is a more personal anniversary. October 20th of this year would have been my maternal grandmother's 100th birthday. This was the same day in which, 30 years ago, I played my first service in church, an anniversary I mentioned on this blog. I was not aware until my mother reminded me that my grandmother's birthday was the same day.

It is strange that, for some reason, I was not good at remembering my grandmothers' birthdays (did we not celebrate them?) the way I did and still do remember the birthdays of other members of my family. I have, however, always remembered the day she died. It was December 7th, 1987. Exactly 28 years ago today. From cancer.

I was only 16 at the time, and I remember mainly a feeling of sullen frustration as the news got worse and worse, knowing that things were not well, that there was nothing I could do about it, and that life just wasn't fair and too bad for you (and everyone else). Apparently it was a relapse, and not only wasn't I told about the first episode (too young?) I probably wasn't warned until things were already pretty bad. I don't remember the decline lasting very long.

Before all this, there was Grandma. I liked her. Given that most of my time with her was spent as a child, this makes sense. Simple pronouncements like this are natural. What I liked about her is perhaps more complicated.

Some of it had to be typical grandma stuff. When you went to Grandma's house, there was candy in the glass bowls on the end tables. She had pads of paper from the place she had worked that you could draw things on, and, when you flipped the pages, animate them. She had army men--lots and lots of them. There were at least a hundred, which made it more fun, and allowed for a full battalion of men as they attempted to take the couch. She had dominoes--a lot of them, too, and if you managed to get them all set up, you could get a pretty impressive run as they all tumbled over in intricate ways. What, did you think we used them to actually play the game dominoes? Who'd want to do that?

You got to play with things that weren't at your house when you went to Grandma's, and this came in handy when everybody was talking about adult stuff (booorrrinnngg!). But she was an interactive grandmother, too. Culturally she was of the same stuff as my mother (Middle American rural Presbyterian), so we went to church together, and she liked hymns. She also liked it when I played the piano.

Actually, she was pretty proud of her grandson. It is a nice touch that my organist debut happened to be on her birthday. I now have a vague recollection of my mother pointing this out in 1985.

Grandma came to visit our house too, fairly often.  She would sit in the living room and listen to me play, sometimes requesting songs. My parents did this, too, and I saved them a lot of money in sheet music by playing everything by ear. (Well, not everything. I was taking lessons, and we did have books of music, it's just that most of their favorites weren't in the books.)

She must have spent plenty of her time listening to me goofing around, or rather, improvising, at the piano as well, since I often got bored playing pieces for my lessons. Usually she didn't ask what I was playing and I didn't tell. It is perhaps appropriate that some of my early improvisations that have been preserved on cassette tape (which means I have no equipment left to play them on!) are a group of Christmas carols, arranged in my own unique manner as a 1987 Christmas album gift for my parents. While the eventually 45 minute album was still in progress, I rushed a tape off to the hospital, and this was the last music Grandma ever heard.

Before that occurred the incident that will lead us finally to this morning's recording. I was doing my usual job of screwing around at the piano, only this time when I finished, Grandma wanted to know what that lovely piece was. I had to admit sheepishly that it was a group of variations on the tune "Mary had a little lamb." My mother, out in the kitchen, found it pretty hysterical that my grandmother hadn't recognized the tune.

So, three decades later, I've improvised another set for you, in various and sundrie styles--whatever came into my head on a distracted Tuesday as I prepared to head off for the Thanksgiving holiday. That makes it no great musical edifice, but I hope you'll enjoy its quirky effulgences anyway.

improvisation:  Little Lamb Variations

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