I learned how to read and perform choral music a cappella in the damp, chilly basement of St. Martin in the Fields, a swank Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Without flogging an ailing nag let’s just say that St. Martins is adjacent to the grass tennis courts of The Philadelphia Cricket Club about which, the less said…Ironically, I returned to St. Martins decades later for an AA meeting, indeed, many of “the rooms” are located in the glamourless confines of church basements. But, as ever, I am ahead of myself.
The Choir Master was an intense, closeted homosexual who lived at home with his mother and brother, a countertenor. (His brother’s solos caused us discomfort and wonder.) Mr. Wilkinson was a driven, obsessive perfectionist; he whipped us into shape mercilessly, like a man whipping a rented mule. Because this was a boy’s choir, featuring the pristine, clear sound of male voices not yet cracked by the oncoming deluge of what is laughingly referred to as adulthood, we were all roughly the same age, in the 8-12 bracket. The congregation was accustomed to getting what it wanted and it wanted high-end music. Wilkinson delivered.
We practiced 3 evenings weekly and before service on Sunday. We were paid regularly, in pay envelopes, and got perks like presents and stints at summer camp. In other words, even though we were wisenheimer punks our approach to the music was dispassionately professional – we were not merely tight, we were kettledrum tight.
In that basement I learned music, performance, and Christmas. Ever since those days, really good authentic Christmas music has been my favorite part of the season, for many years it was the only part I could stomach.
The following excerpt from INVISIBLE DRIVING recounts my most memorable Christmas concert ever; I played 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. While in the midst of a manic flight, I “played” 30th Street Station – which is to say – I “played” 30th Street Station.
I felt like walking so I parked my car in the lot next to 30th Street Station. Thirtieth Street Station is an enormous Greek style train station that stands next to an elaborate yard handling freight trains, local trains, and long distance passenger trains. It’s a conduit for all North/South train travel. The station recalls a day when great power was based on rail transportation, before cars took over. But I’m not here to talk about what the station can recall, I’m talking about what I recall. It’s a massive building with a main hall as large as a football field and a ceiling that’s a hundred feet overhead. I remember as a child arriving in the station, climbing up the stairs from the train into the great hall, and feeling as though I was outside, the ceiling seemed that remote. On a whim I walked into the hall. There were early rising, upwardly mobile businesspeople swirling about, drinking coffee, reading the Wall Street Journal and licking boots just to keep in practice. Waiting for trains to New York and D.C. I looked up at the ceiling, puckered, and blew a note. It rang out in the hall, echoing off the marble, taking forever to decay.
Some things decay quite quickly, western civilization for example, but the note decayed slowly. I whistled the same note twice, two short blasts. Full bore, lots of volume, nicely amplified by the enormous hall. I drifted into a rousing rendition of “Ding, dong merrily on high.” Walked around the room and tested the acoustics from different angles. People were starting to eye me curiously but hey, was that going to bother me? I found that it actually took so long for the sound to die that I could use the echo as a base and whistle on top of it. Now I was doing the carol as a round, using the echo as a second voice. I found this highly amusing, simply droll, just too too funny, trés amusante, and tried it out with several carols. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Good King Wenceslas. Joy to the World. The music intoxicated me. People were eyeing me suspiciously, as if to say, it’s awfully early in the morning to be so cheerful, what’s wrong with this picture? I Saw Three Ships. I was wailing now.
I kept walking around the room as I performed, harder to hit a moving target. I knew that sooner or later some long-suffering lowly hod carrier, some factotum, some dolt, some running dog lackey of the petite bourgeoisie would tell me to put a lid on it. Away In A Manger. To amuse myself I tried different tones and different speeds. With turbocharged intensity I whistled as fast as I could. Then I hit on something that gassed me. Boparoopie. The speed made it possible to hang notes in the air long enough to lay another melody on top of them. So I started whistling discordant pairs of carols.
First a phrase from Joy To The World. Then, with those notes floating above the heads of my unsuspecting and defenseless audience like angels with erections, (I should point out that it was the notes that bore a resemblance to angels with erections, not my audience, my audience bore a resemblance to alien zombies just back from a shopping trip to John Wanamaker’s), a phrase from Good King Wenceslas. Back and forth. It took some puckering but I was getting such a jolt from it that I just kept going. An impromptu, improbable, Christmas happening in your face you whitebread corn pone brain dead blockhead. Something to tell your better half tonight. This guy, he was whistling two Christmas carols at the same time, it was weird. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, this is my Christmas present to you. A tribute to the immensity of your spirit. A little duty-free gift for the traveler. Roland Kirk, God rest his soul, should there be one, and if there is, fuck you pal, I’m tired of carrying water, do you hear me, was a wonderful jazz musician who, among other amazing feats too numerous to go into here, although I’m tempted, often played two saxophones at the same time.
When I hit the end of my number, lightheaded from the expenditure of breath, I headed for the door. I scanned the faces for responses. Some grins, mostly from the souls living closer to the cliffs. Some scowls. If they can’t take a joke, throw them the hell off the bus. Some good old-fashioned confusion, what does it mean? But I felt good. I knew I’d nailed it to the wall. Alistair’s extra-normal tribute to Christmas. Alistair, the man who plays flute, saxophone and train station. I hit the door without any slatch, no stationmaster’s condemnation. A perfectly executed piece of performance art. Out the door he goes.