rhythm nation, under god – part I

it was my freshman year in college when i first heard a cut from ben folds.  after years of wallowing through the seemingly endless sludge of faux-grunge and overly-earnest-gin-blossom-toad-the-wet-sprocket-pop of early 90’s radio, the sonic revelation of mr. folds’ quirky *underground single instantly changed my life in a not-too-small, rather indescribable way.  within 24 hours of hearing that song, a mound of crinkly plastic jewel case wrapping lay on the bedroom floor as ben folds five’s debut album repeatedly bowled me over with wonderfully eccentric lyrics and harmonically fresh voices, all floating above this roughly stripped-down piano/bass/drum combo throwing down the occasional gershwin riff.  i was in love.  and by some minor miracle [in an age when the internet’s magic was largely untapped], i noticed in cleveland’s free weekly that ben folds and his bros were opening up (!) for this terrible local rusted-roots-knock-off band in a couple weeks.  my best friend janine and i excitedly traveled to peabody’s down under for the show, eager to hear these newly discovered musical heroes in person.  after reveling in their all-too-brief opening set, we alone followed the trio outside and gawked as they packed their equipment into a jankety yellow van.  before hitting the road for their next gig (columbus? toledo?), ben, robert, and darren came over to shake our hands and i screwed up enough courage to request a photo with them.  happy to oblige, and probably thrilled to be asked, the boys threw their arms around my beaming friend and mugged for the camera.  while i would have given anything to be in the shot, absolutely no one else was there to hand off the minolta point-and-shoot.  nevertheless, the photograph remains a prized possession and guarantees a smile… ben’s nerdy glasses… the glimmering lights reflected off the cuyahoga river at night… the priceless smile on janine’s face.  i’m not sure what i love most about it, but i suspect in fifty-some years my trembling fingers will be grasping the creased edges of that glossy 3×5 as i ramble on in my nursing home bed, to anyone who will listen: “i knew him when.”

last night, the consistently masterful oregon symphony kicked off their program with a rarely performed gem from aaron copland’s canon ~ his early second symphony, a work barely held together by a web of intricate rhythms and angular complexity.  way before he was crowned america’s quintessential composer, copland wrote this symphony as a fanfare for the uncommon man, its inaccessible musical hooks distancing itself from any hoedowns or outlaws still over the musical horizon.  the orchestras of both philadephia and boston found the work too difficult to execute, and so the world premiere was outsourced in 1934, giving maestro carlos chávez and the musicians of the orquesta sinfónica de méxico lifetime opportunities to gloat about the composer, to anyone who would listen: “i knew him when.”


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