Union College has played host to great music
How annoying is the Princeton Review for naming Schenectady number 10 among the worst college towns?
The story has a photo of the (quite splendid!) Nott Memorial. And while there may be places around town that might earn various “worst” designations — and I’ve lived in some of them — Union College certainly isn’t one of them. Intellectually, culturally, even scenically, Union helps make Schenectady far from the worst.
After rediscovering Union in the early 1970s, my eyes were opened to lectures by many amazing minds, including Ian McHarg talking about reinventing urban planning, and uncountable films.
Once while riding my motorcycle across campus to see some film, I saw a hand-crayoned sign announcing that the Don Ellis Orchestra would play the Memorial Chapel. Forget the movie! This was the 21-piece ensemble that recorded the music for “The French Connection,” and they played it that night with explosive flair for a few dozen of us. When the horns sneaked out and back into the doors behind us, stood on the pews and blasted a fanfare, it made your hair stand up, all of it.
The Chapel and other places on campus all resonate like crazy for music lovers.
Once after I’d helped the late, great and very eccentric Milton Zapolski set up to tape a concert by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra for WMHT, the conductor approached us, the only people in the house, and asked permission to practice their program. We considered the request for two nanoseconds and eagerly assented. It was 20-below outside and sunlight kaleidoscoped through the stained-glass windows into the place as that great little orchestra played, for just the two of us.
Holy place of sound
The Chapel was and is a holy place of sound. Bruce Springsteen played one of the best shows I ever saw there on Oct. 19, 1974, with a band almost as big as the Don Ellis Orchestra. It was my second show that night — the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever had played Albany’s Palace Theatre earlier — and the Chapel was just about levitating with joyful sound when I got there and ran inside.
The original Mahavishnu Orchestra (way better than the later version at the Palace on Springsteen night) played the loudest show I ever heard at the Chapel at the dawn of fusion, and that foursquare old white church also rocked to blues by Matt Guitar Murphy and Jorma Kaukonen, rock by Orleans, Dave Mason, Wilco, Joe Jackson and Patti Smith.
Across campus in the Messa Rink, Billy Joel goofed on himself, at one point playing pretty great piano with just one hand, the other in his pocket, his legs crossed. Green Day rocked that rink and kicked two-liter water bottles into the crowd. The Ramones rocked it even harder, and the Indigo Girls charmed everybody with folk sweetness.
In the Fieldhouse, George Clinton — half his huge band in diapers — brought the funk in a big way. And on the lawn behind West College, James Brown inspired hundreds of kids dancing in unison on a stone wall, directed like a cheerleading squad by revved guys down front. When NRBQ played there, Terry Adams’ grand piano arrived in a horse trailer, and gave everybody a ride.
So, OK, Princeton: Get reality, and fix that list.
What's music for?
After way too long between dental visits, I had to fortify myself for a recent checkup. What music to headphone in the chair?
“Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis was obvious: It seems to have strong healing powers. I had that music played in the Ellis Hospital cardiac catheter lab during my angioplasty last year and that worked out OK. I chose some noisy Wilco rock and some Sonny Rollins hard-bop for maximum distraction. And I chose some music for its courage: “Living With the Law” by Chris Whitley, who went deeper into demon-land in his songs than almost any other songwriter. Whitley braved the opening slot at the Knickerbocker Arena (Pepsi Arena, Times Union Center) for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers — all by himself — and made music until he died of lung cancer.
Later, my “using” music in this way bothered me. Was this like choosing a painting because it fit and color-matched the sofa? Was I installing music like wallpaper?
What is music for, and is it actually for anything but itself?
For musicians — artists who are musicians, I mean — music is the thing itself; its purpose is simply to be heard. And yet, we listeners do use it in many ways: to set the mood for dinner or a party, to dance, to soothe a stressful time — ease a visit to the dentist, for example.
Some music may, in fact, be made for these purposeful activities. There may be nothing wrong with any of these purposes, even to the most attention-demanding musical artist. But I think artists make the best of it to challenge the mind, to lift or deepen the spirit, or to bond with others by creating a unifying social adhesive in a concert.
Maybe we owe musical artists the undivided attention of listening, and nothing else. Maybe we should treat music as they do: as the thing itself, and not to accompany or amplify anything else. The purity of the experience in listening for its own sake may be its most rewarding “use,” the recognition of the importance of the music itself, to ourselves.
And maybe my qualms about “using” music and re-emphasizing the act of listening, and only listening, come from the recognition that winter is coming, and bringing, some cold time down the road, a meeting of the Mountain Music Club to listen once more in the snowy Adirondacks.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.