“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”
In 1998, the author of the quote above was given a task from the creator of the television series The X-Files.
I have a writing exercise for you. I’d like you to produce a short story using the premise “The 102-year-old pregnant corpse.” It’s currently 1 p.m., and I’d like a completed story by close of business today, please. Oh, there’s one more thing. You’ll be writing it in the front window of a bookstore.
This request might seem strange to those of you who do not know of Harlan Ellison. But it was quite the norm for the incredibly gifted and outrageous writer. He had been doing this on a regular basis beginning in the 1970s. You may well ask, “Why?”
I do it because I think particularly in this country people are so distanced from literature, the way it’s taught in schools, that they think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere. And I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much illiteracy in this country. So by doing it in public, I show people it’s a job of work like being a plumber or an electrician.
In the 1960s, I had the great pleasure of meeting him a couple times. My mother had become good friends with Ray Bradbury, and there were the occasional gatherings of people connected with the arts that took place all around Los Angeles. During my high school years, and for a couple after that, I had tried my hand at sci-fi. None of my works were ever published, and the speculative fiction world was spared another voice with nothing to say.
Harlan was outspoken in virtually every genre he touched, whether It was his more than 1,700 short stories, scripts for television, or speaking appearances. You could count on him to enliven any medium that reached a public forum. His mind never stopped, as if a button was pressed and the battery never died.
I was reminded of Ellison’s bookstore window stunts while watching a documentary about his life. In it, you can see that actual event, with the author busily typing away while people on the street try to figure out what is going on. Can the creative process really be reduced to a job that is not so different from others? Was it possible for some of the great composers and songwriters who turned out piece after piece to do it under this kind of scrutiny?
There is good old Johann Sebastian, shuttered away from the kids and churning out cantata after fugue. Papa Haydn is writing 104 symphonies, 19 mostly forgotten operas and more than 85 string quartets. Poor Schubert has only 31 years of living on the planet to spin all those notes in the sonatas and song cycles. We do not even need to mention the Tin Pan Alley song pluggers.
Never mind the writing process. Does the public ever think about musicians in terms of just doing their job? What each of you hears and sees is the result of hours of laborious study and preparation. With orchestras it is accomplished individually, at home, as well as collectively, in rehearsal. For the writer, the finished product is in the hands of the reader, but for the orchestra, we are the middlemen between the composer and the listener.
How many of you have watched an entire practice session? If you are not in the profession, it is unlikely that you have had that opportunity. Several years ago, I tried to get a full rehearsal streamed from Detroit. The idea was to let the audience in on the work process. Union regulations stipulated that we could only present fifteen minutes of this to the public, otherwise the orchestra would have to be paid, and this excerpt was hardly enough time for viewers to truly understand what it is that we do.
The argument against livestreaming a rehearsal was that musicians were worried about the technical mistakes that might be made. Perhaps an exchange between the conductor and a single player might strike the wrong tone. Repeating a passage a few times might be construed as a criticism directed at an individual or section. But if we paid everyone extra compensation, all those concerns would be alleviated.
I remember being outraged that this rule existed. It is not as if we have secret plans that would endanger national security. Why can’t we show people how we get to the point of excellence in performance? As a learning tool for aspiring conductors and potential members of orchestras, a demonstration of what really occurs in our musical workplace might be valuable. There is no unspoken code, such as that which magicians follow regarding the perils of revealing how a trick is done.
With almost every orchestra in the States facing an uncertain future, wouldn’t you like to find out what it will be like on that first day back to work? Sadly, for some, there will be no rehearsals for quite some time. Seasons are being cancelled or postponed on a daily basis. But for those that are expecting to be up and running, albeit in a reduced capacity, that first day back on the job will be like none we have ever experienced.
How do we get our collective chops back? What will social distancing feel like for the musicians? Will the conductors be able to accurately detect the precision needed with everyone several feet away? There is an opportunity right in front of us. Hopefully we will not undergo another pandemic in our lifetimes. Having documented footage of how we came back could be of valuable historic interest. Remember that most of our orchestras have not played together for five months.
I hope you are curious about why I put the time 10:20 a.m. into the title of this piece. That is because the original offering for this post was thought to be too humorous for these difficult times. After thinking about that for one minute, as the time above was when I received the no-go for the initial attempt, I was pulled back into Ellison Wonderland.
Hardly trying to compare myself, I decided to try the same thing. His medium in the window was the short story. Mine is the blog. Could I think up and write something before lunch at noon? It had to be relevant to the recovery aspect of this series. At the same time, I enjoy writing about things I see that relate to my younger years. After all, I will be seventy-six in a couple weeks.
It is now 11:51. I have written around 1,200 words. This new masterpiece will go to the powers of the Net for approval. I will go have a salami and cheese lettuce wrap. Harlan, thank you for all the years of ignorant—and at the same time inspirational—guidance. Your voice still comes through loud and clear, even though you have no mouth.
If any of you had trouble with a couple of phrases, just go get any collection of Ellison stories. He will be happy to reply rudely to you over the celestial internet.