Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I Hear a Bass Drum--Honest!

In my sophomore year in high school we took a class called Political Ideology. It was taught by a terrific teacher, Orin Holmes, who announced on the first day of class that if we “played school” with him we would flunk.

Sometime within the first month we walked into class and found that Mr. Holmes had projected on a screen an ancient Greek building with impressive columns. He explained that the Greeks were experts in perspective and had, with this building, bowed the columns (fat in the middle, tapered at the ends) to create the illusion that they were perfectly straight.

“See,” Mr. Holmes explained, “how they are tapered to look straight?”

We all shook our heads, yes, of course, brilliant.

He then came around to the side of the class. “See the bow? See how it makes them look perfectly straight?”

Again, a great bobbing of heads. Those Greeks were brilliant.

Finally, he turned off the projector, clearly perturbed. “Does anyone see the problem?”

We all looked stunned. Problem? The Greeks. Columns. Perspective. Bowed. Straight. What problem?

Then Mr. Holmes said, “If I don’t teach you anything else this year, I want to teach you to think for yourself--to take an independent point of view. If I tell you something is straight, and it looks bowed, you should say something like, ‘Mr. Holmes. The Greeks blew it. They didn’t understand perspective all that well, cause they bowed the columns to make them look straight--and they look bowed. I see it with my own eyes.’”

We all hung our heads. We’d been busted playing school.

Do You Hear a Bass Drum?

I’ve been listening to early New Orleans jazz and came across the (controversial) first jazz tunes ever recorded, “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step.” These two pieces were recorded at the Victor Talking Machine Company studios in New York City in 1917. The recording conditions were difficult—acoustic horns and a needle cutting into warm wax—and Victor technicians had to work hard positioning the five musicians to get the right volume and mix. 

In fact, in a number of books and articles, jazz historians say that the bass drum was removed from the session because it was either too loud, or caused too much vibration on the cutting needle.

I’m hardly a jazz aficionado, but I’ve listened to each song about ten times and, honestly, I hear a bass drum.  At first, I thought I was mistaken, or going crazy. Finally, I stumbled upon Samuel Charters (A Trumpet Around the Corner) who is a jazz aficionado and who says clearly that, during the recordings, the drummer was allowed to “thump on his large bass drum.”

Thank you, Mr. Charters. Thank you, Mr. Holmes.

Staying Appropriately Skeptical

Sometime soon, someone is going to tell you red is orange. Cool is lukewarm. You look good in those pants. You look like you did ten years ago. This volunteer project won't take much time. Some sports star who put on 30 lbs. of muscle in a year didn’t take steroids. Olympic judging is unbiased,and Olympic cities are picked purely on merit.

Someone will tell you that waterboarding isn’t torture.

Some entrepreneur will tell you they'll be cash-flow breakeven in two quarters and profitable in three.  Someone at work will tell you they’ve done everything they can and the project will be late, or they’ve gotten the price as low as it can possibly be, or that donor won't give any more money this year, or there’s no sense going back to that customer cause they’re not buying.

One of your kids will tell you their homework is done.

The people who tell you these things will most likely be talented and good-hearted and believe what they’re saying. And they might be right. But, if you’re like me, and you’ve got a stake in the conclusion, you’ll at least take a minute to see for yourself.

Because getting busted playing school is no fun.  And can even be expensive.

I learned long ago: If I see bowed columns, I’m calling mishegas on the Greeks.  And if I hear the bass drum, I’m tapping my foot to the beat.