Variations on Non Nobis Domine for Grandchildren

Nicholas Poussin, Bacchus Entrusted


YouTube pulled Sandy Bull’s beautiful 1962 variations for banjo on Non Nobis Domine so on the occasion of the birth of my grand-daughters I have returned to improvising my little tunes on the piano. It also seems to help my illness in a spiritual way.

The next to last time I did so was on the piano in the student union at Stanford after running ten miles in 1981. The last time was in 1986 when I and the kids were staying at the home of a friend in Seattle, and she had a piano. I played for the kids and later discovered Peter (jungly Peter), who is now a musician, picking out tunes. He was good.

My music is based on modal and pentatonic scales. I incorporate mistakes so I don’t make mistakes, a dissonance merely suggests a new way to go.

I studied Johan Jacob Fux’s manual on fugueing and various books on harmony in high school when I was evading the bullshit they were trying to teach me by self-education in precisely only the things I was interested in.

Warning to young readers, don’t do that in today’s world and especially in Asia. I had a rich Daddy but odds are you won’t get away with this. Study and earn the grades in order to get some freedom to travel and learn in your 20s.

When I was a little kid Aunt Dot and Uncle George had a piano. I figured out simple scales and fifths and created a little improv. So my parents bought a piano in hopes I would be Mozart. But I was bored and creeped out by the music teacher and the insanely infantile exercises.

To me, music was all about the secret evening world that Adorno writes about, of the bourgeois lady preparing with perfumes and unguents to go to the opera. I wanted to wear a monkey suit and play Beethoven, music that my Dad liked, and I found myself stuck in a world of boring monophonic ditties and graded piano exercises.

A good piano teacher would have allowed me to create and shown me how to write music, and assigned simple things from Anna Magdalena and the Prelude #1 in C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier. But only the massively wealthy get tutors per se for their kids, for the rest of us, our skills have to be commensurable so we can be replaced, therefore musical proficiency is a matter of passing grade level books, especially here in China.

The key is to have, or to develop at a very early age, the facility to sight read straight to playing but of course I don’t have this. If I am motivated I can laboriously work out a prelude or two.

Parents: note that Mozart’s father was an accomplished musician in his own right, nearly the equal of the leading musicians of his time and place, Gluck and Haydn: Leopold Mozart’s compositions including his Toy Symphony are still played: but like Papa Haydn, Leopold had a family to support and so, like Haydn, wound up in a harsh feudal relationship with the Prince-Bishop (yuck!) of Salzburg even as Haydn had to kiss Esterhaz ass.

This means that Mozart grew up from babyhood in a home resounding with music being actually made. Few modern kids will have this privilege and for this reason, don’t buy a piano and lessons in hopes that your child will be “Mozart”. Glenn Gould was “Glenn Gould” because his Mom was a serious and professional church musician.

My Dad listened to music but with a curious lack of pleasure more as part of his life-long insistence in not being either a white American or, horrors, a black man: he was ethnically German (with the usual Middle Europe admix of genes from Poles, Mongols and the odd Ethiopian in the woodpile, like Beethoven). It seemed that my Dad had a horror of the whole greasy American scene as well he might but one needs to come to terms with Elvis: even Nixon did, Pop.

We heard recorded music, then, and occasionally my Mom would strum on the piano the one or two pieces she may have learned in the brief years of the 1920s when her own father could afford piano lessons. As it happened my musical career fizzled and my older brother, being less enchanted by mythos and family than I, bought himself an acoustic guitar with earnings from a real job and wound up playing the Byrds’ hits rather well.

By this time, of course, our motives were cherchez les femmes because then as now the girls were putty in your hands if you could play music. I kept up painfully learning a few Bach things and developing improvisations using practice rooms at “The Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University” and by 1973, when I had a piano of my own in my grotty flat in the “jungle” (the neighborhood of the Howard Street El and Cavalry Cemetery) I was doing proto-New Age things…which of course Michael Hedges and Liz Story did much better in the 1980s.


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