“Hey, you know that piece,”—[singing]—“what is it?” my friend asked.
“Hmm. Schubert, I think.”
She sang some more, and I knew I was toast. The melody would haunt me until I found out for sure what it was and who wrote it.
So much of the information we want is available online and from books: pictures, quotes, diagrams, the population of Canada. But a musical snippet can be as elusive and maddening as a scent or a familiar face. If you want to identify such things—i.e., be able to return to them later—asking someone is often still the most direct way.
I’ve become blissfully accustomed to poking around on my computer to fill in my knowledge gaps in private. No one ever has to find out I’d forgotten, or never quite knew, what Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle actually states. Picking someone’s musical brain is by definition a social act; it also takes a certain bold confidence that the itch is worth scratching. Did I really want to plow through the discomfort, the exposure, of cornering innocent victims until I got the answer?
I started with my husband, but no luck, so I phoned our son Reuben. He didn’t know, either. “Dude, you’re a music major,” I pointed out helpfully. College tuition—grrr.
“Mom, I don’t know all of Schubert.”
“But this is famous. It’s a fugue, only not from the baroque period. Or maybe it’s a canon. And it’s symphonic.” I kept singing.
“I gotta go, Mom.”
“Dat shong! Dat shong!” I wailed at Reuben—a joke between us. One time when he was barely verbal, he had stamped in frustration and shrieked, “That song! That song!,” angry that I wasn’t playing for him the CD he was thinking of. He had yet to grasp that we were two separate beings, that I couldn’t read his mind.
I thought of calling KDFC and singing the theme to someone there. But I’m offended by the station’s mind-bogglingly bland offerings, the announcers’ kindergarten-teacher condescension. I winced at the idea of engaging with anyone there in the kind of bantering fraternization that’s required to sing something into a telephone.
Over the course of a few days, I found myself asking half a dozen people. Everyone joined me in singing, but no one had the answer.
Finally I thought of something: calling my friend back. “Hey, did you ever find out what that piece was?”
“Oh. It’s Bizet.”
“I wrote it down somewhere—Arles something, maybe? Girl from Arles? Yeah, my husband has this cousin who just knows everything, and so we called him…”
I remember a children’s record about a mother who forgets the melody to a special lullaby, and is unable to comfort her baby to sleep until she hears the tune blowing in the trees. As a child, I found the story unsettling even in its resolution. What if the mother forgot again? Would the trees still remember?
I know I’ll remember L’Arlesienne. The thing has been stuck in my head for days.
Published in The Piedmont Post, March 10, 2010