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Warming up to Arnold Shoenberg


It was a still August night in 1966, I think. I was living on West Symmes Street in Norman, Oklahoma, renting a room from the mother of my old roommate Leroy.

Mrs Starr had moved to Norman because her oldest son Leroy was a pre-med student at the University of Oklahoma. Her husband Captain Starr was in the air force while she held down two jobs and rented rooms to college students like myself. That’s the simple story.

The more complex version goes something like this. Leroy’s dad “Uncle Ray” was divorced from his mom. In fact, Uncle Ray had been married five times to three women, in this order: A-B-C-B-B. There were three boys from the first marriage, Leroy, a middle son (I forget his name) who was in the Marines, and David, still in high school. David lived with us on West Symmes, as did the daughter of Uncle Ray’s second, fourth and fifth wife, Aunt Verna, though she had been fathered by someone other than Ray.

Leroy had flunked out of his sophomore year, not so much a party animal as someone in heat. It was the Vietnam War and a lot of guys from college got called up, which meant there was an equivalent number of lonely War Brides on Leroy’s radar. The semester before Mrs Starr came to town, he and I rented a shotgun house on Eufala but that was the semester he took Microbiology and Elementary Russian while simultaneously hosing three women, claiming to be engaged to two of them. I’d be drafting away on the dining room table when Lee (as he preferred to be called) came in from one “date,” shit-showered-shaved and went out on the second one. I hoped he was using protection. In fact, I imagined waking in the middle of the night with a shotgun up my nose, held by some Army sharpshooter looking for revenge. “You want the guy at the other end of the hall” was my rehearsed response.

Then Mrs Starr came to town, rented this big ol’ house and allowed me to rent the “granny” bedroom in the back left corner of the ground floor; I can’t have paid more than $25 a month. It was a big foursquare Okie house with no insulation and windows that refused to seal out the state’s endemic red dust. That August night I was the only person home and had decided to do some vacuuming. Windows open to welcome the scant moving air; vacuum sucking dust bunnies from under my bed; stereo blaring Arnold Schoenberg’s “Piano Concerto,” I was suddenly freaked to hear what I assumed was someone humming along with Schoenberg outside the bedroom window. I turned off the vacuum and the humming stopped. Carrying on with my housekeeping, the humming started again and I was shocked to realize two things. First, it was me doing the humming. And, second, the Schoenberg concerto actually has a melody! I could hum it for you right now.


Those of you familiar with Schoenberg will know that he invented serial music, a reaction to the romanticism of the age; his serial music seemed cool and dispassionate in contrast with the syrupy emoting of his near-contemporary Rachmaninoff. Shoenberg began each new work by arranging the twelve tones in an octave (all the white and black keys between C and C, for example) in a “tone row,” using each tone only once. That “row” was manipulated by 1) raising it a fifth; 2) inverting it; 3) inverting the fifth; and sometimes playing it backwards. All the work’s melodic and harmonic development came from these somewhat arbitrary rows. Yet there I was, humming along as though it were a title song by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Later that week I checked the conductor’s score for the concerto from the music library and began to understand intellectually what had been an intuitive response to the recording. This summary of Schoenberg’s method is pretty lame, so look for a copy of Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey by Allen Shawn (brother of Wallace Shawn of “My dinner with Andre” fame). Shawn does an exemplary job.

“What the crap does this have to do with anything,” you may wonder. Actually, I write it today apropos of nothing, except that I’m reading Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, in an effort to make sense of the 20th century’s most controversial author–during her lifetime and since–and think that Schoenberg is going to help.

If I can warm up to Schoenberg, can Ayn Rand be far behind? My gut reaction is No.

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