Good summer vacation reading (Part 1)

I just returned from my vacation in Hawaii. I had a grand time with my two boys exploring the Big Island–from waterfalls to ziplining to beautiful beaches to vast prairies of long-ago cooled lava fields. I will soon put together images and video from the trip to create a visual compliment to my recent piece of music Hawaiian Dreams. It’ll be good YouTube material for Altobone.com.

I brought two books with me: a piece of fiction from Being There author Jerzy Kosinski called Pinball that I’ve enjoyed for over twenty years, and a new book by physicist and jazz tenor sax player Stephon Alexander called The Jazz of Physics.

Both books are very much about music. The title from Alexander’s book makes that obvious, but not so much for Pinball until you start reading. Let me begin with Pinball.

I have a fascination with Pinball. Written for his friend, The Beatle’s George Harrison, the main character is a pop musician named simply Goddard. Even though he is the biggest selling and most popular musician in the world, no one knows Goddard’s true identity–not his parents, his agent nor his girl friends. Goddard came to the realization that the top pop stars live a very public life, and the extent of their popularity determines the extent of their vulnerability and the corresponding threat to their very existence. The murder of John Lenon sealed Goddard’s commitment to hide his identity through an elaborate system of anonymity so that he could live a life free of public exposure while creating his music and earning millions.

The conflict of the novel arises when a beautiful woman enlists the help of a washed up classical composer to cook up an elaborate trap to find and expose Goddard. In typical Kosinski fashion, his plots are often laced with autobiographical experiences. Mary Weir, the thirty-one year old widow of steel magnate Ernest Weir wrote Kosinski in the early 60’s after reading The Future Is Ours, Comrade to arrange a meeting. Knowing that Kosinski believed her to be a frail elderly widow, she disguised herself in character for the meeting. Being a master of disguise himself, Kosinski was charmed by the trick, and eventually married Mary in 1962. His marriage to the wealthy woman allowed Kosinski to lead a life of writing unencumbered by the need to ever again earn a living.

I won’t write any spoilers so feel free to read on.

The book is filled with gems of musical insight. To my knowledge Kosinski was not a musician so I can only attribute his musical acuity to studious research. Keep in mind that the novel was published in 1982. Here are a few gems:

Talking to someone unaware of his true identity, “defended the synthesizer as being not just another specialized musical instrument, but a creative multi-use musical erector set, and he quoted Stravinsky, who had once said that the most nearly perfect musical machine was a Stradivarius or an electronic synthesizer.”

The woman to whom he was speaking (a classical pianist) replied, “For all of its presets, custom voice ensembles, special effects, and computerized rhythm and sequence programmers, a synthesizer is nothing but a hybrid of a jukebox and a pinball machine.”

One of the main characters was a Chopin specialist and pianist. She was a stunningly beautiful African-American woman whose father was a well-known jazz pianist. Reconciling his love for this gifted musician with his opinion of Chopin, “did not like Chopin, who seemed to him a gifted amateur, a musical polyglot and a capricious, pampered wunderkind who had never developed into a classical composer. Chopin’s evanescent, donnish and fragile music simply was not universal, could never inspire the masses; it belonged in velvet chambers, in elitist concert halls, in music schools. There was also an ephemeral, almost ragtime quality in Chopin that didn’t care for–the very quality that had made Chopin, an uprooted Pole transplanted to France, so popular a century later with black ragtime pianists of New Orleans–who probably learned about him through the city’s Francophile coterie.

The rhythm of Kosinski’s writing is infectious. His was known for the meticulous attention he paid to the efficiency of his writing, taking years to finish each novel and often condensing the original text by as much as one third. In an interview with Daniel J. Cahill, he admitted, “When I face the galley-proofs I feel as though my whole life was at stake on every page and that a messy paragraph could mess up my whole life from now on. As I have no children, no family, no relatives, no business or estate to speak of, my books are my only spiritual accomplishment, my life’s most private frame of reference, and I would gladly pay all I earn to make it my best.”

Goddard later runs into another woman who, not knowing she is speaking to her favorite artist, describes his music and her intense love of it. “He is original because he makes one feel original too. Such a feeling is the greatest gift an artist can give–and only a great artist gives it.”

I believe that speaks accurately and eloquently of how I feel reading Pinball.

The story is filled with insights and observations that seem to arise from candid conversations with characters feeling as real as they are knowledgeable. I always finish the book with a deeper connection with the mechanics and process of musical creation. I’ve read several of Kosinski’s books and they all deeply immerse the reader in the rich experience of the characters. After all, he is known for his intense research and the autobiographical nature of his stories.

His life was anything but dull. Were it not for a delay due to lost luggage, he would have been with Sharon Tate along with his pal Roman Polanski the night of the Manson murders at Tate’s Los Angeles home. Plagued with illness and stressed by numerous accusations of plagiarism, Kosinski committed suicide in 1991. His suicide note read simply, “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity.”

In the next post, I’ll share my thoughts on The Jazz of Physics.

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