Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Muscle Memory

The first time you recall hearing the concept of muscle memory, you were in the study of a musician who'd used the activity inherent in the term to achieve legendary status as a performer. You'd grown up listening to his music, your subsequent tastes in all aspects of composition influenced by him.

Here you were, years, many years later, sitting in his Newbury Park, CA study, not only on a first-name basis, but because he'd just hired you to edit an enormous autobiography. He sought your edits for one quirky reason and one more professional one.

The thing in his mind that caused you to be more than a lingering fan came one evening when he, as a principal speaker at a writers' conference in which you participated, he spoke of an aspect of his career and a pianist who used to play in his orchestra.

Shaw could not recall the pianist's name, which, in its way is the reason for these vagrant lines.  Michael Marmarosa, nicknamed "Dodo," because of his eccentricities, worked for Shaw at the height of the dance band swing era, one already slowing down toward the smaller combo and the investigation of melodic and chord changes known as be-bop or the more simple bop.

Before an audience of about three hundred persons, Shaw told the story of the popularity of one particular song, "Frenisi," which happened to be the first of Shaw's music you recall hearing. On some traveling tour in the midwest, Marmarosa said, in Shaw's account, "If we get one more request to play 'Frenisi,' I'm out of here for good."

Sure enough, someone requested "Frenisi," in a voice too loud for Shaw to ignore. Marmarosa stood, said "That tears  it," walked off the bandstand and out the door, never to be seen by Shaw again. "Gifted musician," Shaw told his audience, "but undisciplined. I can't remember his name."

You, on the other hand, could.  "Dodo Marmarosa," you said, in reality more to yourself than any desire to be heard. But Shaw did hear it. "Jesus Christ," he said from the podium, "that's got to be Lowenkopf. I heard you have a weird memory."

And thus you entered a tumultuous relationship with Shaw, culminating with his disagreement with a large deletion from his autobiography and his demands to know why, of all the unnecessary matter in the 1250+-page manuscript, you chose that particular one. This was not the first time he'd objected to your suggested cuts. But this time, he was emphatic, pounded the manuscript with heavy emphasis.

"Because," you said, "leaving it in makes you seem like an asshole."

You both understood at that moment how the relationship between you was over.  In many ways, your levels of patience were at the same intensity.  "Crescendo," you said. He said, "Yes, but no Da capo."

You came away from the relationship with an awareness and understanding of muscle memory, a parting gift from a notional, egotistical, cranky genius of an artist to add to the gifts you've had from him since the age of eight or nine.

Whether in mere practice or actual performance, the artist relies on muscle memory, being able to do a particular thing or series of things without thinking about it.  For instance, "How," Shaw once asked me, "do you think I was able to get notes and tones from a clarinet that were well beyond its capacity?"

"Muscle memory?"

"Fucking well told."

The performer practices to bring the movements and reach beyond thought, into muscle memory, where the result comes forth from the more internal and intuitive depths of the performer.

From Shaw you also learned that Dodo Marmarosa liked to practice sixteen or eighteen hours a day. "He had that simple style, you know. He didn't;t want to cover it up with unnecessary trills or fake harmonics."

Alas, your own interior still clings to the fake harmonics of unnecessary details. You are aware of it each time you sit to compose narrative. You hope someday to have it under control. Then you can tell Arthur Arshawsky you see what he's talking about.

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