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Composer Bingo

August 23, 2009

From time to time I get it into my head that I should be listening to classical music. This started in the early days of my grad student career and was basically a dumbassed idea. I had a vague sense that I ought to try to become more cultured and at least occasionally act less like the small-town booze-guzzling profanity-spewer I am no longer uncomfortable being, so I started to make a point of turning on CBC Radio Two now and then as I wrote my thesis. I still listen to it sometimes. This morning, for example. It’s a pleasant enough soundtrack for the composition of cover letters, and I respect the talent of the composers and musicians (mad props all around, for realsies), but I’ve never developed much knowledge of or passion for the genre.

That’s not my idea of a great tragedy (Oedipus Rex is a great tragedy—and I mean the Sophocles version, not the fucking terrible Seneca version with the protagonist slipping ‘n’ sliding around the stage on his own eyeballs [if you want to see a genuinely brilliant eyeball-plucking scene, put Seneca back on the red side of the Loeb shelf where he belongs and go rent Kill Bill Volume 2]), but whenever one of the program hosts says the name of a famous composer I get a mental image of Mrs. McClary, my grade six music teacher, glaring at me with uncontainable disappointment. This was a person who was so cantankerous that she had the power to get through the process of tuning the ukuleles of a classroom’s worth of hyperactive eleven-year-olds upwards of three times a week by sheer force of wrath. The process took about twenty minutes, which left us ten to slog through a few verses of “I Like Onions” (we had to sing as we played, and just to give you a better sense of how ridiculous this performance would have sounded, here are, honest to god, some of the lyrics: I don’t like dancing with Crazy Ted / He’s always jumping on my head) before the bell rang. She tuned the ukes at the piano so that if when we got out of hand she could reclaim our attention by suddenly slamming both hands down on the keyboard five times, beginning at the low end and working her way up. You could tell she was in total control as both a teacher and a pianist because no matter how insane she claimed you were driving her, she always banged the exact same note combinations. If you were fortunate enough to have joined the choir, you also got to be in her presence for two lunch hours per week, during which time she would verbally abuse the choristers into busting out an enthusiastic rendition of, e.g., a prohibition-era number about speakeasies and rum-runners. Every year the choir performed at the local telethon. She would stand facing us, flapping about with insane passion like a chicken trying to fly. “Smile, or I’ll break your face,” she hissed at me during one of these performances. (If it’s of interest, the easiest and fastest way to make me love you is to inadvertently scare the shit out of me on a regular basis. It also doesn’t hurt if you like cats.)

Mrs. McClary refused to dumb anything down, and the thing she was second-most determined to drill into her students’ prepubescent heads was classical music. (Her first priority – for which if there’s any post-mortem justice in the world the gods will grant her a lakeside penthouse and an afterlifelong subscription to Harper’s – was English grammar.) “Here’s Beethoven,” she would announce, passing out photocopies of a hand-drawn bust of him with wild hair and a madman’s expression. “In the late eighteenth century he began composing. Now he’s in the ground decomposing.”  The assignment was to colour the picture as creatively as possible while listening to Beethoven’s music. And soon enough there were twenty-five blue, pink, green, polka-dotted, fluorescent, plaid, flowered, rainbowed busts of Beethoven displayed above the chalkboard at the front of the room.

The best was when we had a few free minutes at the end of class and she pulled out Composer Bingo. It was like regular bingo except terrifying. Each square on the card featured the image of a famous composer. In her efficient way she distributed a reasonable handful of dry pinto beans to each of us to be used as markers, and then it was on like Donkey Kong, as the kids say these days even though it makes just about zero sense. “Bela Bartok!” she would yell. You had only a few seconds to figure out whether the guy was on your card and, if so, which mug shot was his. All of the composers looked like serial killers and psychiatric inpatients who had long since lost their shaving privileges. Not a smile in the bunch. Pre-industrial Europe was a tough place. Beethoven was a giveaway, but the rest of the card was a mosaic of stranger danger. “Anton Dvorak!” (When I heard that name I always became irritated; I couldn’t figure out why the eff McClary pronounced it like there was a “j” in it even though there wasn’t, but this wasn’t the time or the place for a question about Czech linguistics and/or whether there was maybe a typo somewhere on her end of things. I did the research a couple years ago—turns out the “rj” sound is an alveolar trill unique to the Czech language, represented by “r” with a divot on top of it. Sweeeeet.) Before you were able to frantically tentatively identify Mr. Dvorak, you were on to the next Unabomber. “Serge Prokofiev!”

I have met way too many people over the years who say “Oh cool, who’s your favourite composer?” when I tell them I study classics. It’s entirely thanks to my grade six music teacher that, despite my essentially rock ‘n’ roll soul, I feel a spark of nostalgic panic when the smooth-voiced host of CBC Two’s morning lineup utters the name of Dmitri Shostakovich or Johannes Brahms, or that I tell that “decomposing” joke at every opportunity (it also works for deceased writers), or that I still have a fairly accurate mental image of Beethoven—neon green hair notwithstanding…

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