Steve Allen had a routine in which he invited members of the audience on stage and asked each to strike a key on his piano. Allen would take the cluster of random notes, make it a theme and improvise a song around it. As a kid I thought this was magic, and I still do, though I know a thousand jazz musicians around the world are doing the same thing as I write.
There’s no human ability I so envy as musical composition and performance, and I suspect the same is true for many writers. We settle for second-best, mere words. Music, for this unmusical non-musician, suggests supernatural gifts.
In Monrovia Mon Amour, his account of a visit to Liberia in 1991, in the wake of that country’s civil war, Anthony Daniels (Theodore Dalrymple) describes a visit to Centennial Hall in Monrovia, where the nation’s presidents were inaugurated. In the wreckage, he writes,
“I came across something that took me aback more powerfully than almost anything I had yet seen. Lying on the ground, casually as it were, was a Steinway grand piano (the only one in the country, as I correctly guessed), its legs sawn off. The body of the piano, still gleaming black and in perfect condition, was in direct contact with the floor, while the three sawn legs were strewn about.”
Daniels finds himself uncharacteristically speechless, as is the photographer who accompanies him. He continues:
“This was not mere vandalism, in the commonly accepted sense. I imagined how, if I were a vandal, I should go about my business with a piano: I should lay into it (perhaps impotently, for pianos are tough) with a heavy instrument, a mallet for example, and I should go for the keyboard and the mechanism with as much force as I could muster: never for an instant should I think of calmly sawing off the legs. But here the legs were, sawn off with the precision and neatness of a surgeon amputating the hand of a thief in a land of Islamic punishments: he had done his work well, the carpenter of destruction, with skill and devotion.”
The analogy with the Muslim surgeon is amusing, precise and suggestive. Vandals, of musical instruments or human beings, are transgressors against civilized existence. Daniels and the photographer speculate about the vandals’ motives but give up in frustration. He then proposes the thought that occurred to me as I first read the passage:
“How long, I thought, before some post-modernist composer has a pianist not play the instrument but, in front of the audience, saw off its legs, to the craven applause of critics afraid to be thought stupid or reactionary?”
I thought of Duchamp and Cage and a century of imitators trying to spoil the fun of others who just want, as Frost writes, to “get some color and music out of life.” Their adolescent intent is to garner attention with pretentious pranks and deny others the pleasures they deem bourgeois. Allen’s piano routine was at least as old as vaudeville and it still makes me happy. So do Art Tatum, Bill Evans and Glenn Gould. Vandals hate that kind of magic.
ADDENDUM: Thanks to Dave Lull for passing this along: "...the musician refused to make any kind of plan until the very last minute; he cooked elaborate dishes without the aid of a recipe book by simply throwing different ingredients together and tasting."