Diary of an Orchestrator, April 4: San Ber’dino

3:38 p.m. One thing a composer or writer should never be without is a notepad or sketchbook, or in the 21st century, a laptop. Thus my time sitting in the San Bernardino County Recorder’s Office isn’t wasted.

The drive out here was uneventful. My borrowed car, a very up-to-date BMW with a nav system, is smarter than I am, like the sure old mare who will get the confused rider back home along trails familiar to her hooves. And though the business names and minimalls lining Highway 10 are different from what I remember, the exits are all the same: Ontario Airport; Covina; Santa Ana; and finally, San Bernardino. 

“Different,” I was careful to distinguish above; new to my eyes, but still slowly eroding into comfortable desert-scrubbed shabbiness. The 210 is just the same, anchoring my point from yesterday: civilization with well-laid roads and watered greenery to the right, gravelly hills with scrub and chaparral to the left.

I actually only lived in San Bernardino proper for about 4-5 years of a very mobile childhood (ages 5-10), but it still cuts to the front of the line when the words “home town” come up in conversation. It’s the place where I first figured out who, and more important, what I was: a musician, full stop. Or rather, all stops out. I played my first piano, harpsichord, and organ here, took my first lessons, played my first performance, learned to use a record player, and read my first orchestral score.

There’s one moment that really stands out in my memory of this place. At age 5, my grandmother gave our family her piano, a lovely little Wurlitzer spinet from the 1930’s. It was extremely small and lightweight, with a lightning-fast action and a wonderfully proportioned tone for the size of its strings. Considering that it was built, bought, and paid for during the height of the Depression, it’s lucky to have existed at all. From my perspective, one day the hall was empty, and the next day there was a piano sitting in it, right off the living room.

The funny thing is that I didn’t play the keys at first. I noticed the pedals instead (probably because I wasn’t very tall). So I immediately tried them out. The one on the left didn’t do anything. But pressing down on the right pedal was a different story – I heard a swish like a door opening, and a sudden feeling of acoustic space. I called out to my big sister, and heard my voice magnified and reflected back at me from the undamped strings. Suddenly, the little hallway and the summer heat faded away, and I felt like I was somewhere cool, spacious, and dark. Holding down the right pedal and working the left pedal made a sound like a rock dropping in a cave. I whispered, and the ghosts in the darkness whispered back with a trembly, singing sheen. I popped my voice, and the popping shot back like a sizzling bullet. Then I started playing the keys, doing little tricks holding the pedal down, bashing some notes, silently depressing higher keys, and then letting go to hear the overtones.

In some ways, that moment has never left me. I’m still that boy, with an ear, a foot, and a finger, poking away at some cavernous, resonant space inside my imagination to see what echoes back. When my sister started piano lessons at 7 years old, I pestered and pleaded until I was also allowed to take them, though my parents made me wait until after my 6th birthday. Truth to tell, I was not a good match with my first teacher. She had more empathy and talent at bringing out the best in sharp, eager girls like my sister, and not much more than barely-checked impatience to offer dreamy little boys. 

I dropped and picked up and dropped her lessons, like trying bring a piping hot plate to the table with no oven mitt. But during that time I played my father’s complete Beethoven and Brahms symphonies by Toscanini, as well as many other recordings from his massive collecting of LPs: Villa-Lobos, Tchaikovsky, Walton, Stravinsky, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Copland, Gershwin, de Falla, and many others (but strangely, no Ravel, not until I was 11). We had a massive home entertainment console, a box-on-legs with a turntable and radio built into it. It was the first piece of electronic equipment I learned to operate, tall enough to crawl under as a baby, short enough to reach into as an anklebiter. It was always the orchestral music that moved me the most, and got me going. Sometimes I’d dance around to the music, or pretend to conduct, or use the music as a scenario for play-acting. Music was like food. I’d put it on, and listen, and shut everything else out. Or I’d read along to it, trying to match the drama of a text to the development and mood of the music. By around age 8, I was score-reading, starting with Beethoven’s 9th, and then going through all of my father’s Penguin Scores one by one: Beethoven’s 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th symphonies; Coriolanus, Egmont, and Fidelio overtures; then some (Richard) Strauss and Franck, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Fingall’s Cave, and the Tchaik Romeo & Juliet Overture. Some Mozart too, as I recall.

Just as my lessons were picked up and dropped, so was the notion of living in San Berdoo. We shuffled around a bit as I turned 9, but somehow made it back after many different moves (a startling half-dozen) to the same area of SB by the time I hit 10 and 1/2. But it was a losing proposition as a place to live. Both my parent started to have extreme reactions to the smog. San Bernardino has an inversion layer over it that holds down particulates, and as the area hit a population boom, and steel processing went into high gear in nearby Fontana, the atmosphere became steadily more and more poisonous. Returning from school, I could hear my parents coughing from half a block away. I’d go out for a bike ride and come home literally unable to take a deep breath, my lungs hurt so bad.

It was right around this time that I met my first great mentor, Vicki. She was a no-nonsense, practical, go-getting type of graduate student, who was building a career that would eventually take her to teaching in some top schools in the Midwest. She’d reached that point in her studies where she teetered on the edge of being official faculty – as proof, she had her own office at the University, with her harpsichord in it.

I can’t say that she ever sat me down and taught me a formal lesson. But she agreed to look after me for my parents a few afternoons a week. That was some of the best instruction I’ve ever had – a series of life lessons clicking over one by one like they were being rotated in a ViewFinder. Here’s how I got “taught.” She’d sit in her office and chat with me while she graded papers, then sit at the harpsichord and practice. Fascinated, I’d reach out to touch the keys. “Nope, sorry,” she’d say, waving my hands away. “You can’t touch my baby until you know some Bach. Here, take this piece home, and when you learn it, I’ll let you try it out here.” The phone would ring and she’d pick it up. “Vicki K____. Umhmm… Umhmm… Well, I completely understand how you feel about that – but we did agree on fifty dollars for the wedding. I’m sure if you call around you can find someone else by this weekend. No trouble at all.” Then she’d hang up, and smile at the telephone. “One….two…three…four… let’s see if he gets to five…” The phone would ring again. “Vicky K____. Oh, hello. Yes, I can still play this weekend. I appreciate you getting my fee together…”

Vicki took no prisoners in her charm assault, but she always put her music first. Eventually, she was the in-demand organist in town, playing for the Adventists on Saturdays (and sometimes for temple as well), the Methodists on Wednesday nights, and on Sundays the Lutherans early morning and the Catholics mid-morning. When the Catholics told her to stop playing Bach because he was a Lutheran, she dug out some music he’d composed for a Catholic patron, and played that. I would get taken along to her church practice sessions, with the one rule – I had to play something while she went outside for a smoke (she was a chain-smoker). And it had to be something good enough to fool anyone passing by that she was still playing, because a.) she didn’t want to get me in trouble and b.) she wasn’t supposed to smoke in the courtyard. I learned about organ legato, drawbars, stops, and pedals (my feet were just getting big enough to reach them). But most importantly, I learned just how orchestrally an organist thinks, with flute stops and trumpet stops, diapason and “strings.” I learned how overtones support and augment one another, or contrast each other in counterpoint. And once again, I was in a cave, but a very big on this time, with pipe tooting here or ringing there as I held my foot down and poked at the keys.

It was supercharged information, with a huge impact on me, even though I think it only lasted about 3 months. But by the end of it, I knew what a life in music looked like. Taking lessons and playing the occasional recital was just the tiniest tip of a huge iceberg. Music wasn’t just a study – it was a lifestyle, a soundtrack, and a passion.

Back to the present. My name gets called, and I shuffle over to the recorder clerk’s window. And, of course, my paperwork is the wrong type, nobody’s sure how to solve my problem, and I’m back to square one, or rather square minus one as the missing documents (if they still exist) are back in New Zealand. An hour of visits to the Assessor and so on only confirms that there’s nothing to be done. And yet I don’t consider the trip to be a waste – it got me thinking again about my roots, which play heavily into the work to be premiered next week.

 

Later this evening, I come home and take care of that other piece of business, something I definitely can take care of now. I purchase a new Sony HD Handycam for my orchestration series. So very much cheaper to get it off Amazon while I’m stateside, and have it delivered in a couple of days. Hmm, I might even use it to record the concert next week as a second camera or something.

Tomorrow, back to work on the concerto – the ending needs rescuing!

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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