"Propelled by a Stranger to Unexpected Delights"
by Jason Weiss
The particulars are hardly extraordinary on their own. Because Rene’s birthday is coming up soon, I wanted at least to get her the new Jackson Browne record, since she has remained a fan of his music throughout his long career. The great omnivore Amazon, with its sinful convenience, let me down for once: first, they said shipping would take a month somehow, then they were out of stock altogether. That wouldn’t do at all. But there are no record stores anymore! Online I found a small shop in San Diego that had it, then I hesitated, what with shipping cross-country. Surely there must be somewhere in Brooklyn that had it as well. At last, I found a place with the plainest name, Compact Disc Shoppe, way out on Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay, a four-mile drive straight along Bedford Avenue. Not wanting my prolonged effort to be drawn out further, I set off within the hour, heading across town on a Friday afternoon.
The store was small, and the stock seemed to be mostly used, though I saw no clear arrangement in the layout of the shelves. The owner, behind the counter, was talking up the new George Harrison reissue with another old-timer as they groused about kids these days. I wondered how any store like this manages to survive anymore. After the drive, of course, I had to look around a bit, but was glad not to find much that I had to have. Any moment I was going to ask for the title I requested by phone that he set aside, except then I started glancing through a set of shelves by the door. The bottom four or five racks were all classical, a fair amount twentieth century, and on some high-quality labels. He told me those records were all a dollar per disc, part of an estate sale he’d bought recently, a bargain, of some eight hundred classical titles. Before long, I was putting more money on the parking meter and looking through two of the four boxes in the back room, amassing a stack of possibilities that eventually got whittled down to fifteen. Along with the three items I’d found for the birthday gift (two of them new), pleased with my adventure, I had to get out of there.
Here is where the stranger enters. The entire ride home, I couldn’t believe my luck, what a trove. And at that ridiculous price! Each time I stopped at a traffic light, I would peek over to the sprawl of CDs in the seat next to me, looking to composers and titles to remind myself how many times a sort of lightning struck. Messiaen, Ligeti, Ives, Poulenc, Busoni, even my contemporary Kaija Saariaho, the Finnish composer. Who was this person, I began to wonder, to have amassed such a collection? Clearly someone with discerning taste and a substantial knowledge of the Western (and Northern) classical tradition. There were plenty of other titles among the several hundred I perused that either I had or had heard, besides the robust array of opera and vocal sets that didn’t interest me but would have made a maven weep from embarrassment at the riches. And who was the broker or friend who had engineered that sale of the deceased person’s impressive music library? Why to Randy the owner of the Compact Disc Shoppe? Was Sheepshead Bay the common ground for all of them? Pardon my assumptions but I had not imagined such a sophisticate in that neighborhood. Did the person have friends there too who shared these passions?
Through the weekend I listened to several of my new acquisitions and continued to marvel at the bounty I’d hauled in. I thought of the ones that got away, left behind, titles that caught my eye but I didn’t take time to investigate. And what of the two boxes I didn’t look through? Several hundred more, gathered by the same curator. I understood this was not the same as simply shopping by composer, say, among currently available releases. For three-plus decades, someone was carefully making those selections that I got to choose from. I realized I trusted that person’s eye. By Monday morning, I was thinking it might be worthwhile to drive back out there, take another look at what I’d missed. I owed that to my unknown friend. No doubt I would turn up things. They should just find a good home, said the broker to the shop owner.
In the back room of the shop, I pulled up a chair and moved the boxes around, the better to dig through them. Randy was working at his desk there on his secondary business, or maybe it was primary, insurance. I didn’t ask what kind of insurance. Slowly, from the boxes, I extracted another stack of CDs while the door announced just two visitors: a customer he knew, a woman in her sixties picking up DVDs, and an oldish man in awful shape who took two steps inside, declared he was sick, and requested an ambulance be called. Apparently, he had asked at other businesses on the block. Randy hastily said he would but implored him to wait outside, which the man did, sat on the sidewalk right next to the door. The ambulance arrived promptly, and eventually so did the tuna sandwich ordered for lunch an hour earlier. I went out and put a half-hour more on the meter, finished up in the back, and looked through the shelves by the door again. In the end, an even dozen was my tally this time—Elliott Carter, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Schoenberg in Hollywood (photo of the middle-aged Viennese composer in pink short-sleeve shirt and white khaki pants playing outdoor table tennis). Berio, Nono, Cowell, Varèse. Also, a curious anomaly: Jack Smith’s Les Evening Gowns Damnées, readings and performances from 1962-64. This person, whoever they were, what did their home look like, their furnishings? And if Jack Smith figured in the collection, did that suggest a touch of outrageousness in their personal style, something that set them apart from their neighbors?
Could be he was a longtime music teacher at one of the public high schools in the area. But that would be sad to think not just that he died alone, but none of his former students were close enough, or deserving or interested enough, to inherit such treasure from him. Maybe he wasn’t a music teacher, but rather a postman. I thought it likely this person was a man. Did he inherit his late mother’s house? The music was like his private garden. He must have listened often. In any case, he had flown the coop by the time I stumbled in there.
It’s not that I dislike vocal music. But sitting at my desk, I do not usually want to be listening to voices, nor words, especially in languages I understand. If it’s part of a predominantly non-vocal record, sure, fine, depending who’s involved; certain modern composers, I’ll even make exceptions. In those two dozen records I selected, there were so many moments of discovery as I listened over the following days and weeks—composers I knew, a little or a lot, but mostly not those specific works—I tried to parcel them out to last longer, the experience of first hearing each one. There was a double-disc release I was looking forward to, from my second visit, small ensemble pieces by Christian Wolff, (Re):Making Music, Works 1962-99, played by The Barton Workshop. He’s a composer I didn’t know well but I wanted to hear more. I was enjoying the delicately jeweled pieces, spare yet enormously expressive, and before I knew a woman was singing. Entering under cover of a cello and a clarinet and a wandering whistled melody, she sang a piece called “A woman invented fire.” I’m often wary of musical settings of poetic texts, but I rather liked this one, so that was a nice surprise. In too many instances, composers drown the poetry, the music in the words, but here they were given room to breathe. The woman’s voice was left to lift and float on its own, the instruments dropping out to let her go. Then I found that the poet was Grace Paley, the marvelous writer of short stories but whose poetry I had thought slight when I read some years ago. I saw, in the booklet, there were eight of her poems set to music, and as I read them and heard the voice that embodied them, I thought they are not slight at all, they are just right, full of love and compassion, humor and wisdom. I would not have had the chance to appreciate them, to be surprised by them, had I not made the journey to Avenue U.