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Selected Podpieces


A friend of mine recently said of a certain radio essayist that if she were dying she’d want to hear his voice reading to her as she slipped away.
That very same day, I heard a woman at a party say that she disliked that man’s voice so much that when he came on she turned off the radio.
Such are the likes and dislikes of the radio audience. I hope you don’t mind my saying that.

I have read that E.B. White on his deathbed wanted only to hear his own work read aloud to him. I guess that’s egotistical; but if you can’t be egotistical on your deathbed, what can you be? But I also understand his desire: for one thing, he was a superb writer. For another, one’s writings are old friends, deeply experienced and carefully shaped. It would be like hearing your life unfold again, a last good-bye to yourself.

But what do I want to hear? Not my own words; nobody would be able to read them right. Music? One friend’s father died as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was playing. I imagine him lying in bed, in white sheets, white muslin curtains billowing in the breeze. My own father lay dying as I sped sobbing down I-95 toward the Cape, Handel’s Water Music soaring from my rental car radio. What he was hearing, I don’t know; it was a hot summer day, and he lay in the breeze from electric fans; I like to imagine that he felt the wind in his face and heard the engines of his cargo transport plane, taking off from Ascension Island toward the stars.

Would I want to hear Handel, or the wind? The wind, I think; or thunder; or rain on a metal roof. Or the sound of snow geese passing high overhead, their sort of whippling call; or the sound of old Holey Wing the Raven, the wind flowing through the hole in his left wing as he flies above me up the trail to Wood Rat Mountain.

The summer call of the loons on Hodgdon Pond; in winter, the coyotes beyond them on Bernard Mountain. The voice of an old lover on the phone. Or the spring peepers in the marsh behind my mailbox, that on cold April evenings were so loud they made my ears ring.

The peepers in the marsh, the high school band marching down Water Street on an October night; the Carolina wren protecting his nest in my outdoor shower, Richard Tucker singing Vesti la giubba; my mother calling me home as the streetlights go on; Billy Joe’s cattle lowing from down the valley; the Brant on the bay, the rumble of the elevated train as it passes my apartment on the way to Diversey Avenue. The infectious laughter of my old best friend; the rumbling of the coal my father shoveled into the furnace on cold Indiana nights.

Not long ago George Martin died, the man who produced so much of the Beatles’ music. Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times that for A Day in the Life, Martin hired 40 symphonic musicians; when they turned up, they found on their stands a 24-bar score that had the lowest notes on their instruments in the first bar, and an E major chord in the last. They were instructed to slide slowly from the lowest to highest notes, taking care not to move at the same pace as the musicians around them. The sound was magnificently was a brilliant solution: as Lennon’s voice faded...the orchestra began its buildup, ending sharply on that E major chord.

Maybe that’s the way to go out: all the sounds of my life, from the Brown Creeper nattering up a pine to Derek and the Dominos screaming Layla down a dark desert highway, all of them one by one coming together in a symphonic crescendo to the highest, wildest, most gorgeous cacophony; and then silence.
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