CXXXI. Music: Part 1 — Syncopating Jackhammers

September 2, 2014  — I’m up! I am awakened on a Saturday morning in August just past eight to the sound of two syncopating jackhammers directly below my second floor bedroom bay window. My bed is situated within the cove of the windows. Ensconced lazily beneath my counterpane I can view activities outdoors on all sides of my house, from the bay window and the window on the wall opposite. Outside the bay window I can watch the squirrel eating the green berries on the dogwood before the berries ripen to red, ricocheting the remains off the chain link fence and onto the ground – crackle, ting, thack, thack-thack, tick, thack. These are the sounds that recently have awakened me. Good morning, Squirrel. My bay window reaches out, gathers, and cups the sounds from the street below.

From my bedroom I can see and hear the world; the room is like a wheelhouse. Yet, as I am ensconced within, under dulcet intervals, my bedroom becomes the acoustically ideal music room, the hexagonal space embracing the sound as within a conch shell. Truth be told, within my being is mostly music (preferably a waltz). It’s odd I don’t play an instrument beyond a little guitar, and piano extra-lite. I did compose music, rudimentary, at one time, but no more – maybe one day, given passionate inspiration.

The windows are closed this Saturday morning, thankfully. Still I cough from the rising dust penetrating the windowpanes. My next-door neighbors are having the cement walk that runs alongside their house dug up to be replaced with fresh cement. Incredibly for this day and age, the guys with their cement mixer arrive so suddenly, my neighbors don’t have time to warn me. And I had dusted Friday.

I am not pleased.

I get up. The sound of the jackhammers transporting me to times in August 1966 in Washington, D.C., when at the end of my workday, I, pregnant, would emerge from the Congressman’s office on Capitol Hill and squeeze into the red bucket seat behind the steering wheel of our sleek, black Austin-Healy 3000 where on the dashboard the water temperature gauge read 120 F. They had just begun constructing the D.C. subway that summer, so the sound of jackhammers pervaded the town, ever present. The popular song then was John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”: “Hot town, summer in the city; back of my neck getting dirty and gritty.”

Only a couple years earlier, before I had gotten married, my roommate said to me, “You have to go to the Cellar Door [in Georgetown] and see this group, The Mugwumps. They are really, really good.” I wanted to but never got there. The Mugwumps were formed in 1964 with (Mama) Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty (both later to become two of The Mamas & The Papas), Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian (both later forming The Lovin’ Spoonful) and a Jim Hendricks. Barry McGuire and Roger McGuinn as well as John and Michelle Phillips were also connected. The Mamas & The Papas’ song “Creeque Alley” tells this story:

Barry McGuire wrote “California Dreamin’.” Here is his recording with The Mamas & The Papas singing backup:

Jackhammer-Saturday night, our local PBS station holds a fundraiser and I just happen to tune in to “John Sebastian Presents Folk Rewind.” There, in a 1960s black and white film, is Judy Collins singing “Turn, Turn, Turn” to Pete Seeger, the composer, who is singing harmony. For an hour or so I watch all the great ‘60s folk artists performing, either in archival film or currently, as with Roger McGuinn and Barry McGuire. Barry McGuire sings “Eve of Destruction” with updated lyrics, although they don’t need much updating; in fact, the message of most of the folk songs from that era remains relevant today: the times, they haven’t changed. And, yes, included are The Lovin’ Spoonful performing “Summer in the City,” replete with jackhammer.

So, what is music? Is the jackhammer in “Summer in the City” employed as a musical instrument? An ongoing debate endeavors to define what can be categorized as legitimate music. The late composer John Cage (1912-1992) believed that any sound, or lack thereof, could be considered music. For, what is music without silence? The sound of silence is an integral component of music. In John Cage’s composition “4’33”” (1952) silence is the music: Cage instructs the musicians to remain silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds: on the recording, here a musician shifts in his seat and there, towards the end, one coughs, verifying the presence of someone following the score. (I’d upload this piece to my sidebar playlist, but, well … you know….) Others of John Cage’s many compositions include pieces for prepared piano, “Child of Tree” (1975) for percussionist and amplified plants, and “Inlets” (1977) for four conch shells and the sound of fire. I especially like this latter. It is meditative. I am considering making a John Cage playlist for my iPod. Really. I could: John Cage’s compositions require deep listening, compelling the listener to focus, and contrary to what some might think, many are pleasing to the ear and psyche. Possibly so because he was a follower of Zen Buddhism.

The jazzy syncopated sounds of the squirrel crackling dogwood berries and thwacking them onto the chain link fence and ground below: is this then not music, too?

— Samantha Mozart