A Letter from the Provinces: In the Dentist’s Chair

Ethelbert Nevin

[October 2002.]

A recent (and overdue) session in the dentist’s chair began with the most unusual accompaniment: an excerpt from Górecki’s Third Symphony. I don’t think Górecki had a routine cleaning in mind when he was working on A Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Regardless of Górecki’s intentions, I hope that royalties are being collected and that they’re going to the right place.

Within the classical category, Górecki is decidedly the most modern background music I have ever heard. I had ample time to dwell on this while staring at the ceiling as bright steel tools did their work. I suppose an enterprising agent could create a whole lineup featuring Nyman, Torke, Tavener and Pärt. Come to think of it, Nyman’s score for The Piano could decrease the worldwide consumption of Novocain.

Done just right, a minimalist Muzak-like channel of Riley, Reich, Glass and Adams could compete head-on with the harmless streams of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven we hear in elevators and waiting rooms. (Muzak is a copyrighted term, by the way, and don’t you forget it!) Adventurous locales that can handle a political edge could put some early Andriessen into the mix. And Satie’s Vexations, with its 840 repetitions, would be great for “Your call is important to us,… please hold….”

It would probably be quite easy to find a cadre of willing composers who would gladly write music to waft over supermarket aisles or to soothe the anxious vertical traveler, ascending or descending, until the next elevator arrives. Let me grab a napkin to draft a business plan for unemployable college grads. But let’s not argue over whether Brian Eno or Satie pioneered this genre.

After the Górecki (and many rinse-and-spits), rather more standard music came over the air. Nimrod was plucked from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and so was that favorite variation from Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations. (It’s the 18th and a good textbook example of inversion technique.) Extracted from their containers, these morceaux still please. But do they please because they’re already familiar? Do they charm because when we hear the full set of variations we anticipate them from the very first bar and must wait expectantly? Come to think of it, would they become favorites the very first time an innocent hears them, or is it our culture’s insistence that makes them popular?

I wonder if anyone has studied the economic or aesthetic effects of excerpts. Ones that are really abridgements of long works, such as a concert that constrains Wagner’s Ring to a single evening, make sense. But I suspect that a release like The Greatest Hits of 1720 (which came out in 1977 and not in the 18th century) reinforces the popularity of a handful of tunes as much as it fragments their sources. This particular collection included the Sarabande from Handel’s 11th Harpsichord Suite because it was used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon, but I doubt that folks went out to buy complete sets of Handel’s keyboard works. I also doubt that Thackeray climbed the bestseller list around the same time. Then again, judging from bursting remainder bins, that movie about Marin Marais disappointed lots of folks.

Excerpts dilute our ability to tolerate longer, more demanding music. We are an audience of limited attention spans, and discs that collect snippets of favorite works satisfy a conditioned and immediate need for pleasurable musical moments. Altruistically, I’m sure recording executives hope that The Best of Ludwig will “upsell” recordings of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, piano sonatas and string quartets. We’re probably talking about a trickle of revenue, though once a boxed set is in the can, it’s probably a minimal or break-even cost to splice out and repackage a few selections.

Of course, extracting individual variations from a set is different from pulling complete movements out of a multi-movement work. Most of the time I prefer to hear complete works unadulterated with all the pacing and timing the composer intended. Although, in the case of Barber’s Adagio, if I do have to hear it, then please spare me the other movements of that string quartet. As for what I heard in the dentist’s chair, Elgar’s Nimrod does quite well on its own, but Rachmaninoff’s 18th variation is rather lonesome. Other than Nimrod, I can’t think of any other single variation that can stand alone. But how about a medley of favorite Goldberg Variations? The odd-numbered items from Brahms’ Handel Variations? It would be quite scandalous if someone recorded a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Variations that stopped immediately after the 18th.

Back in college, someone had hit upon a surefire idea for creating a masterpiece by stringing together the highlights of famous works. As I recall, this entrepreneur was going to mine Schubert and glom together bits from the String Quintet, the late quartets, and some tender moments from the song cycles. This hack didn’t realize that anticipation and context were part of the beauty of these Schubert moments. I also don’t think he considered the technical difficulty of blending quartet with voice and piano, and all the key changes and transpositions that would have to be resolved.

I am guilty of stringing together the final chords of all the Beethoven symphonies in a tape piece, but I was just having fun with the bang. The toughest part was determining how much or how little to take from the end of the Seventh Symphony. I don’t think fashioning a complete piece out of the endings of many pieces is a particularly original idea, but I don’t recall if it’s already been done. Kagel perhaps? Do send word c/o the editor if you’ve heard it done well. Any dentists, service-station managers or changing-room attendants who think a potpourri of closing chords would complement their offerings are encouraged to send inquiries, too.