On the train

[Digressions away from music, But there’s a musical payoff at the end.]

I had a meeting in Boston. When it ended, I had some time before my train back to NY. The ride is dead time — restful if I want to rest, but dead if I need to work. So much of my work takes me online (this blog, for instance). I can hack away at my computer, at writing I can do offline, but that takes concentration, and my normal rhythm keeps my online all the time while I work.

And now for the geek paragraph. I’d decided to get a broadband modem for my laptop, so I could go online anywhere, anytime. Why not get it now, and use it on the train? I was walking on Mass Ave in Boston, in Back Bay. The modem I wanted worked on Verizon’s network. Back Bay is an upscale neighborhood; there had to be a Verizon Wireless store.

I took out my iPhone, went to Google Maps. One touch on the screen, and the software found me, displayed exactly where I was. I asked it to search for Verizon Wireless. Stores popped up on the map, one just three blocks away. Half an hour later, I had my modem and my data contract. On the train, the software hiccuped before it settled down, but soon I was online. I caught up on e-mail, posted blog comments. Life seemed normal, and relaxed (and I wouldn’t have to do the e-mail or the comments later on, when I’d be home, and would want to wind down).

Now for music. When I got tired of working, I looked at the books I’d taken on my trip. Liszt: My Traveling Circus Life is a revealing, funny book about Liszt’s tours of England in the 1840s. When he bragged that he’d made more money than Thalberg, endorsed a brand of piano to make still more (but in fact lost money on the tour). But that felt too much like work. I had an absorbing novel, A Journey to the End of the Millennium (that’s the first one, in 1000 AD) by A. B. Yehoshua, a novelist I’m reading my way through. But that seemed too serious.

So I took out my iPhone again, and watched some of Martin Scorcese’s knockout film — brilliant, vivid, even profound — about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. I’ve been watching it in odd moments, on planes, or in bed before I go to sleep (when I’m alone because I’m in NY, and Anne’s in Washington). I’d gotten up to the time when Dylan went electric, and blasted folkies into frightened opposition because he’d injected shots of rock & roll into his sound. In retrospect, he couldn’t not have done it. His music was too big to be contained in the acoustic folk world — he couldn’t have been the spokesman for the time, as the film shows he was — while rock burst out at the crest of the cultural wave, while the people he was speaking for were expressed and energized by the sound of rock.

This was the second musical turning point in the film. The first is when Dylan sang “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and emerged as a spokesman (unplanned) for his generation. But this one was bigger. The emblamatic song is “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the sound just explodes. When Dylan himself, reminiscing now, says he’d never heard a song like this before he wrote it, of course he’s right, and I’m not sure there’s ever been another one like it.

So the jump from his previous songs to this one is a huge jump. And that reminded me of something. Years ago, living alone, obsessively digging into music, I listened to all of Verdi’s operas in chronological order, over the course of what must have been just short of a month (unless I listened to two on some days, which I don’t think I’d have done even then).

And the revelation was how good — how explosively good — Rigoletto is compared to anything that went before. That really amazed me, because I was (and still am) an affectionate fan of Verdi’s early works, Il Corsaro, I Due Foscari and the rest, to say nothing of Ernani, Luisa Miller, and Macbeth, which are strong operas even for people who can’t quite swallow La Battaglia di Lengano. But Rigoletto (officially, for scholars, the start of Verdi’s middle period) is a fiery leap ahead — just as “Like a Rolling Stone” was for Dylan. The parallel hit me right between the eyes. This isn’t Greg the scholar talking. It’s Greg the gobsmacked, completely carried away by something he’d never thought about, which completely delighted him.

A day in my life, or part of one…

[Footnote: Technology. Consumerism. I couldn’t have my life — my work life — without them. The sea is much more wonderful than scuba gear, but you use scuba gear to immerse yourself in the sea. Verdi, of course, I listened to on LP records.

[Footnote for Verdi geeks: In my Verdi binge, I didn’t do the correct, scholarly thing. I didn’t listen to the original versions of Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra, and La Forza del Destino, and then slot the revisions (aka the versions of these operas we normally hear today) in later on, when they appeared. So technically I didn’t hear the music completely in chronological order. And I left out the revision of I Lombardi (an opera whose first version is the one that survives), and honestly can’t remember if I listened to both Stiffelio and Aroldo (the second being a revision of the first, but completely reshaped, with a different plot). Nor did I listen separately to the five-act French Don Carlos and the four-act Italian Don Carlo. So sue me. And there may be other scholarly niceties I ignored then, and am forgetting now.

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  1. says

    A complete aside to the main points you’re making, but the first version of Simon Boccanegra is extremely interesting and well worth hearing. There’s a commercial release and I think at least one bootleg of a live performance floating around, from the 70s or early 80s.

    Well, since the entire post was an aside, why not an aside to an aside?
    I’ve heard one of those recordings, back in my Verdi binge days. I’d still have it (on LP), if it hadn’t burned in our country house fire a few years ago. I can’t remember much about it, but all Verdi’s first and second thoughts are worth hearing. Except maybe the ballet in Otello. That really seems intrusive, and I wish Karajan hadn’t included it in his recording with Del Monaco and Tebaldi.