Little Boy Blues and the Busy Box

It is 1995.

It is a warm Spring evening in Louisville. Outside, the fireflies dance in the heavenly Scratchingscent of magnolia blossoms. My brother, Scott, my young nephew, Charles, and I are in the living room of a 150-year-old Greek Revival-style mansion. The room is filled with antiques, the perimeter of the ceiling marked by dental block molding. Cardinal Hill was once the manor house of a vast plantation. Now it’s ‘just’ an amazing house.

We listen to NPR, which is playing blues music. Scott and I are talking. Charles sits in a high chair with his ‘Busy Box’, an updated version that uses computer chips containing prerecorded sounds of fire engines, animals and even a generic ‘Mommy’ saying “It’s time to go home now”.

Charles happily works the buttons, making different sounds. Scott and I listen to the music. It’s real blues, black blues from the soul of the South. It’s hypnotic. I nibble a little Blanton’s. We are, after all, in Bourbon County.

Gradually I become aware something’s happening with the music. Not the music on the radio. I’m listening to an old black blues singer turning his soul inside-out, when it dawns on me that Charles isn’t randomly hitting the buttons on his ‘toy’.

‘Scratching’ is using a recording to create a rhythm by playing just part of it, over and over. Charles is ‘playing’ the sound samples, but cutting them off in such a way that he is scratching with his Busy Box. He alternates the fire engine with the police siren in perfect time with the music as the singer tells us about his hard life.

Then Charles switches it up and Mommy takes over. As the blues riff starts again, she begins to chant.

“Time- “

He hits the button again, cutting off the sample. Then he hits it again.

“Time- “

The guitar completes its phrase and Mommy comes back around.

“Time – “

And then Charles lets it go.

“Time to go home now.”

He looks up at me, grinning. This is no accident.

He knows exactly what he is doing.

He is three.

The Space Between

MusicIt is 2002.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is playing its final season at the Music Center. Conductor Esa Pekka Salonen pulls out all the stops, as it were. The full orchestra, augmented with a full choir, performs Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘The Survivor of Warsaw’ and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The program requests that the audience not applaud until the conclusion of the program. There is no intermission.

‘Survivor’ is a gut-wrenching cacophony. There is a vocal part, called ‘The Narrator’, but very much a performance. He is a survivor of the camps. He is struck on the head by a soldier and falls down. They mistake him for dead and ignore him as they order the Jews to count out so they can know how many to send to the gas chambers.
These are his memories now. ‘The Narrator’ tells us he found himself living in a sewer beneath the Warsaw Ghetto and doesn’t know how he got there.

‘The Narrator’ is performed by Leonard Nimoy.

It is a heartfelt performance. Nimoy was the son of orthodox Jews from the former Soviet Union who emigrated to Boston. He grew up experiencing persecution, living in a community where Yiddish was spoken as often as English. He was exposed to the faith in every way.

It is an experience he shared with the world. The Vulcan culture drew heavily from Nimoy’s upbringing. Perhaps most famously, the Vulcan salute was contributed to ‘Star Trekby Nimoy, who drew from Birkat Kohanim, the Hebrew Priestly Blessing. It is a sign for the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet that spells God.

The Schoenberg piece ends abruptly. I am falling through some inner space, spent. And then, without pause, Salonen’s baton rises and the opening strings of Beethoven’s ‘Chorale’ lift me on wings of angels.
I am saved. My hope is restored.

But that moment between the two pieces where I was hanging in space – I shall never forget that moment as long as I live. It was the most profound music I have ever heard.