Thursday, April 03, 2008

Vinyl “78” Records, Part Two: Trauma.

My oldest cousin was going away to Israel for a long time, and he decided to give me all of his classical recordings, albums of 78's. He did not live close to us, but the next time we drove from Long Island to the Catskills to visit my Grandma, we detoured to his home in New Jersey to pick up two big boxes of sets of 78's. We placed them on the floor of the car's back seat, and off we went. When we got home two weeks later, many of the records had broken in two or otherwise shattered. They had not been protected from the minor bumps from a moving car. I knew we could have done better. I offered many recriminations, to both my father and myself, but every one of them was unspoken. I sadly chucked about half of the albums. My cousin's taste in music differed greatly from mine, and I was painfully curious about all the music we threw away. You might say that my taste in Romantic music was shaped by the composers whose music survived that journey, Shostakovitch among them. What if the other records had survived instead?

On to my next traumatic experience with 78's:

Three years later, I was studying bassoon. My lessons took place at my teacher's home. I was playing in an orchestra, and I had to learn one of the striking solos in the orchestral bassoon repertoire. In those days (the late 1950's), the classical repertoire was fairly fixed. A professional orchestral musician could expect to spend almost all his time playing 200 or fewer pieces, and as a teenager, one learned all the solos in the standard repertoire to be ready to face them. One could buy books for this purpose: All the orchestral bassoon solos, All the orchestral oboe solos; All the orchestral french horn solos (for up to four horns at once).

My teacher wanted me to know the exactly perfect way to play this solo. He was the first bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic, but that did not mean that he felt he played all solos in the very best way. He explained to me that he had collected recordings of all the great bassoon solos played by other bassoonists. Whenever he found a performance of a solo he thought was just right, he would save the 78 record containing that solo, and throw away the rest of the album! (In this, he was like Charles Darwin, who, when he found a passage in a book that he wanted to keep, would tear out those pages and chuck the rest of the book.)

My teacher led me across the room to a rectangular storage unit that also served as a low bench. He opened the cover and stood there in shock. It was obvious from the ripped up papers and the shards, that his four year old son had crawled into this bench, played in it, and destroyed every single 78. My teacher was so upset that he was not even angry. He was just sick. At my age – an empathetic sixteen – it was almost unbearable to stand next to such an unhappy man. Ah, those 78s.
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