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Simon Silber

Excerpts from a musical novel

INTRODUCTION

This set presents the only authorized recordings of every piece that Simon Silber honored with an opus number. If we discount the daylong sonata left unfinished at his death and the chord-a-day diary begun when he was two, the four-CD set includes almost the whole of Silber’s oeuvre. At the start of his second career, the precociously retired virtuoso vowed to compose nothing but solo piano music because he didn’t trust anyone else to interpret his works. His last will and testament includes a clause forbidding pianists from recording his music or performing it in public, and another clause outlawing transcriptions and orchestrations. He didn’t even want to be whistled. As his adviser, I tried to dissuade him from these misguided provisos: to record a “definitive” version was, I argued, to embalm a living organism. But Silber wouldn’t listen. All performances, then, are by the composer.

Like every complete set, the one you’ve just bought is uneven. I resist the urge to specify outright the pieces worthy of attentive listening, but attentive readers won’t have too much trouble guessing. That, by the way, is one reason to read these liner notes before you “face the music”; an even better reason is that the notes do something I’ve been unable to make Silber’s oeuvre do, rearrange it as I may: compose a lifelike portrait, in mosaic, of a picturesque composer as he showed himself to his last best friend and handpicked biographer, me.

If the designer of this booklet has obeyed my instructions, the buyer is probably wondering about the photo on the front, or will wonder when informed that the handsome bearded man staring calmly at the camera is not Silber but the writer of these notes. Silber is the other guy, the hazy one appearing in three-quarters profile with his head tilted back and at least one of his eyes shut, holding in his raised right hand what might be but isn’t a conductor’s baton (or a sorcerer’s wand — the tip is just above my head, as if I were the sudden outcome of some reckless incantation) and standing a good yard farther back from the camera, at the fraying edge of its focal range, so that he appears both smaller and blurrier than his biographer. I chose this particular snapshot (snapped by the composer’s hated elder sister, though not, I think — as he insisted at the time — as evidence for a commitment hearing) because it comes closer than any other photograph to capturing the man I remember.

Simon Silber was a complicated person, a perverse chameleon forever changing colors the better to clash with his surroundings. When I try, though, like one of the blind men feeling the elephant, to fasten on a single image, I always see him as I saw him one summer morning a week before his death: coming up the sidewalk with his eyes shut and his head thrown back, raptly conducting an imaginary orchestra with the thermometer he carried everywhere.

(He had been morbidly afraid of overheating ever since the fever, the previous winter, that had cost him nine IQ points — almost the first thing he ever said to me was, “Believe it or not, I used to be even smarter” — and at the height of which he had forgotten overnight how to tie his shoes.) Silber lived in Forest City all his life and knew the town so well by the time I met him that — he claimed — he could “see” his surroundings even with his eyes shut. Sometimes he had to feel for his eyelids with his fingertips to make sure those eyes were open. He couldn’t just wave a hand in front of his face, he said, because if his eyes were shut, he’d involuntarily visualize that hand. He had once walked a block and a half down Tree Street, turning his head this way and that to admire the scenery, seeing houses, neighbors, cars, trees, flower beds, etc., that perfectly fit the sounds he heard, the smells he smelled, and the feel of the sidewalk underfoot, as well as everything he remembered of the road he was on ... until some glitch in the circuitry had caused him to veer and collide with a telephone pole, and his eyes had opened as wide as he’d been assuming they already were.

Or maybe he was making all that up, but he really did manage somehow to navigate with eyes shut. Maybe by sonar: as much as other people’s noises bothered him, he was forever emitting some kind of music. He was the most — maybe the only — musical person I have ever known. His cleaning lady, Edna, who claimed to be able to read minds, claimed that when she tuned in Silber’s, on the rare occasions when he let her within mindshot, music was all she could ever pick up — “a beautiful Beethoven symphony.” (Silber hated Beethoven and would not have allowed a bar of that composer’s oeuvre to run through his mind without shaking his head to skip to another groove.) One winter morning I stationed myself in his path as he strode up High Street singing “The March of the Davidsbündler Against the Philistines.” As always on those early-morning walks, his eyes were shut, but at the last possible moment, and without breaking his stride, Silber deftly sidestepped his biographer and continued on his way; and afterward he had no memory of the encounter. During the year I knew him, I took advantage of Silber’s abstraction to bootleg a few of his sunrise recitals for posterity — following him around at a less-than-respectful distance with a hand-held tape recorder — just in case posterity ever came to value Silber as highly as did Silber himself, who lately had taken to saving his Food Town receipts: “They’ll want to know what I ate.”

Posterity has yet to return a verdict. Silber lived and worked in obscurity; the bizarre and tabloid-selling circumstances of his death have provoked more interest in his life than in his work. It was decided that a boxed edition would do better if the box included a fat booklet of “liner” notes heavy on the anecdotes and light on technical discussion of the works in question. I have done my best to oblige. Silber’s sister and — alas — executor, a woman I’ve never seen reading anything other than stock quotations, wanted editorial control of these notes, but there I stood my ground, and got my way for once: when I send my manuscript off to the printer this afternoon, no one but I will have laid eyes on the text. The picture of a highminded but clay-footed composer that emerges, pixel by pixel, in the words that follow, is one unretouched by his possibly well-meaning but uncomprehending sibling. There may even be one or two warts the subject himself would have wanted painted out, since in the treacherous course of our acquaintance — a long and increasingly lightheaded climb with as many switchbacks as the path up Mount Parnassus — I couldn’t help seeing sides of my employer which he never meant to show posterity; but his days of always getting what he wanted are no more.

That Silber and I were no longer friends at the time of his death — that the news of his demise was neither unexpected, when it reached me, nor entirely unwelcome — might seem to raise a doubt as to my fitness for the job of commentator, but (as anyone who really knew him will attest) never to have hated Silber would mean never to have known him.

—    Norman Fayrewether, Jr., February 28, 2000

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DISC ONE
Variations in a Minor
    15:51

Little League             2:01
Monopoly                 2:39
The New Puppy          1:58
Popping Wheelies      2:20
BB Gun                     0:55
Piano Lesson            3:06
Fun with Firecrackers  1:43
Theme                     1:13

This charming suite of miniatures composed in ‘97* is Silber’s witty answer to Schumann’s Kinderscenen. The range of moods and textures encompassed by the work is all the more impressive given that all seven variations are set, for the sake of a pun, in the same key as the theme (performed for no good reason at the end). The piece is a perfect gallery of inspired tone paintings — the puppy variation with its scampering-feet figure punctuated by yapping staccato chords, the sudden sforzando detonations of the BB gun, the little fugue (in “Little League”) on “Take Me out to the Ball Game.” My favorite variation, though, is “Piano Lesson,” technically the most demanding of the seven, though it depicts a very rudimentary musician. Silber — himself a prodigiously gifted pianist — liked the idea of forcing virtuosi to bring all their skills to bear on the task of sounding comically inept. (Variations in a Minor was, significantly, the last work composed before the change in Silber’s will forbidding the recording of his music.)

[*It will be noted that, in sequencing the pieces in this set, I have eschewed the tedium of chronological order in favor of a subtler, more intuitive approach.]

The only possible objection to the Variations is an extramusical one: the all-American boyhood evoked by the subtitles is a lie. Our composer lived in the same house all his life. After his death I helped his sister break into his sealed boyhood bedroom (one of several rooms that over the decades, for various reasons, Silber had “retired”), and among the dusty clutter we did in fact discover a red and white Little League uniform and an ancient Monopoly set with wooden houses and hotels; so presumably these objects played a part in Silber’s boyhood, unless he’d bought them later on at flea markets in order to bamboozle his biographer, or in order to compose music about them, as a photographer might buy such things to take their pictures. Well and good, but he had always hated firecrackers (“even in the womb”), and of course there was never a puppy. Silber’s life was a losing crusade against all noises but his own, and he never thought of dogs as anything but an especially noxious source of noise pollution. And then there is the matter of all the ugly secrets buried — like beloved pets in a suburban yard — in Silber’s real boyhood, secrets deleted from the idealized past he set to music, secrets that I will exhume in due course. For the point of this note is not to decry the disparity here between life and art, but just to emphasize the necessity of my annotations to anyone even pretending to listen intelligently to Silber’s profound but also profoundly personal oeuvre. Listening to his music without first reading my notes would be like trying to watch a pay-per-view movie on cable without first agreeing to pay for the privilege: any titillating glimpses of the truth you may obtain despite the badly scrambled signal will be few and far between.

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MY HOUSE    2:38

This ingenious piece lasts two minutes and thirty-eight seconds because that is how long it took Silber, one rainy day in 1988 when he had nothing better to do, to race through his house from attic to basement, entering each room, touching the far wall, running back out into the hallway and on to the next room and the next, all the while panting the particulars of his progress into a tiny tape recorder. The year before he’d painted every room a different color, and this project seems to have given him a conceptual grasp of his house that he hadn’t formerly enjoyed: though he’d lived there all his life, till then there’d still been rooms he didn’t know the names of, and that he tended for that reason to avoid, almost as if the power were out in those rooms, as if they were too dark to use. Now, though, he could call them by their colors, as he did the day of his ‘88 stunt. The following day, he composed a musical tour of his house corresponding moment by moment to that panted transcript, finding the perfect chord for each color and sustaining it just as long as he had spent in the corresponding room, composing a “hallway” theme almost criminally reminiscent of the “Promenade” from Pictures at an Exhibition, and using for the stairways a descending whole-tone scale. Though the uncanny accuracy of his musical portraits, the magic by which he evokes not just the color but the whole mood of each room, can of course be gauged only by those of us who have been inside the house in question, those who haven’t can still form surprisingly high-resolution images by listening to the music and letting it conjure up that dwelling room by room.

I want to say that Silber’s house and Silber’s music were so inextricable that he could discuss the former only by means of the latter, but that would be untrue: our composer was all too able to put his thoughts into words. “Well,” he’d said, after disposing of that crow, “I guess if you’re going to write my biography you’ll want to see inside my house.” He sighed. “I guess I could give you a quick tour.”

The house was big, but not as big as readers will assume on hearing that the tour lasted three hours: Silber always liked to mess with the tempo, and the day I met him, as if to atone for the disrespectful speed of his ‘88 sprint, he must’ve decided to see how slowly he could show someone his house without once ceasing to babble about whatever happened to have happened in whatever room we stood in. I regret to say I didn’t listen to his monologue. Indeed, it took me two hours to understand that we would be on our feet for the rest of the evening, that the tour wasn’t just an inane, insanely protracted, about-to-be-concluded formality before the real business of the evening, our sitting down to talk. In the year I knew him I never did see Silber sitting down except in his car. There wasn’t a single chair in his house — or for that matter a piano bench, though I saw three pianos. I didn’t get to hear him play that evening, but I got to watch: one of the first stops on our tour was a yellow room enshrining a magnificent piano, a Bösendorfer ninety-seven-key Imperial. Standing at the keyboard, Silber raised his powerful hands overhead like birds of prey about to swoop, then launched into a tempestuous performance of what he afterward identified as a Scriabin étude, but even if I’d known the piece, I wouldn’t have recognized Silber’s rendition, which was absolutely silent, like a televised recital with the sound turned off. I did hear the clicking of his fingernails on the keys and the muted thumping of the hammers on some nonreverberating surface, but not a single note. When he finished, Silber explained that he suffered from periodic “episodes” of greater-than-usual (“even for me, I mean”) sensitivity to noise, and that back in ‘94, at the height of one such episode, he’d replaced the Bösendorfer’s strings with rubber pads. Otherwise, he said, the action was intact, and better than that of his other pianos: this was still his favorite (not counting the Steinway in his recording studio), and the one he practiced on, though once a month he’d play some scales on the concert grand — still strung — in the blue piano room, just to remind himself, he said, of “what pianos sound like.”

As for Silber’s policy of never sitting down, it was central to his whole aesthetic. He liked to classify the arts according to the position in which they are characteristically enjoyed — Sedentary (concerts, movies), Recumbent (novels), Erect (paintings) — and he hated the ones intended for sedentary consumption. That in fact was his official reason for having abandoned the concert stage: he believed that people should listen to music lying down (which was how he claimed to eat his meals, on a specially built sofa) or better yet walking around, since there were Ambulatory arts (sculpture, architecture) too, and these, according to Silber, were the best of all. He disapproved even more vigorously of the sedentary production of art, his official reason for composing on walks and urging me, too, to compose on walks, with the microcassette recorder he gave me the day we met (since he wanted my book about him to be itself a work of art). Even in bad weather he spent several hours a day out walking around, and continued to walk around even after he went back indoors. Especially at times of inner turmoil, he would pace all night — along the hallways, up and down the stairways — so that by dawn he’d often covered the entire house. Back in ‘89, he’d even had his house remodeled to create a special pacing lane, lengthening the long third-story hallway by encroaching on the red guest bedroom at its west end. He claimed that several years ago, at the height of some unspecified “crisis,” he’d worn a pedometer for a week and found that he was walking an average of eleven miles a night inside his house.

But back to the quick tour. Because, as I say, I didn’t understand at first that it was the business of the evening and that I’d already been given the job and that therefore (or furthermore, or nonetheless) I would not set foot in his house again so long as he lived, I was too impatient, waiting for my “interview,” really to pay attention to Silber’s patter, which sounded rehearsed if not till now recited. Halfway up the stairway to the third floor, Silber noticed my distraction, wheeled around, and demanded: “You getting all this?” Though I nodded that I was, I so manifestly wasn’t that he said, “Wait here,” ran back down to the first floor, and returned with a cassette recorder no bigger than a bar of soap. “Here,” he said. “You can even keep it — I just bought a better one. All you have to do now is walk around behind me.” And I did as I was told. (Later, I’m ashamed to say, I taped over Silber’s chat without replaying or transcribing it.)

So my recollections of the tour are few and vague. I do recall that the vaultlike door at the top of the basement stairs was locked and that my guide didn’t offer to unlock it (just as well: another level would have meant another hour); that every room was a different color, and generally the loudest available shade of the color in question; and that the light fixtures all had rheostats: whenever Silber turned on a light, he would dial the dimmer switch up to its brightest setting with a slight but unmistakable gradualness that seemed to reflect some private theory, no doubt evolutionary, about the maximum rate at which the human iris should be asked to constrict. I also remember thinking that as many rooms as Silber showed me, and as big as some of them were, there weren’t enough rooms to account for all the space occupied by the house, or indeed for the long doorless stretches along certain hallways. Finally I asked my guide where all the rooms had gone, and he explained that over the years he had “retired” the rooms where something bad had happened by plastering over their doorways and painting or papering over the plaster so that a visitor walking down the hallway would never guess a room had once been there.** In one case — what had been his practice room — he’d gone even further, not only plastering over its doors (with yet another grand piano still inside), but removing the windows and bricking up their sockets so meticulously that no trace of the room was visible from outside the house either. Silber said that there were other rooms he stayed out of due to bad associations, but that he no longer resorted to plaster because lately he’d been having so many nightmares about the rooms he’d erased: by sealing them off, he’d succeeded only in making his house even eerier.

[**These rooms — five in all — are omitted from My House, though Silber adds a special unspeakably spooky shudder to the “hallway” theme each time we pass one.]

“But I am tempted to seal off this one sometimes,” he said as he led me into a Day-Glo orange room on the third floor. In the center of the room, an old-fashioned safe — the boxy kind that still falls out of windows in cartoons — sat on the floor below a ceiling-mounted smoke detector. Silber said the safe contained the manuscript of Day, and that the room — otherwise bare except for a little red fire extinguisher just inside the door — was called the dayroom.

It was almost midnight when the tour ended, and my house was at least five hours away. Silber would have turned me out anyhow, no doubt, if he hadn’t just made the mistake of identifying the last room on our tour as “one of the guest bedrooms.” I slept surprisingly well — till six a.m., when I was awakened by piano music. I found my host downstairs, standing with his back to me in a purple dressing gown at the concert grand in the blue piano room. He ignored my greeting and, a little later, my goodbye, utterly engrossed in transcribing with his left hand the rapid nervous tune he was performing with his right. When we got around to talking terms by telephone that evening, Silber repeated that I would have to move to Forest City. And since, according to him, the housing market was tight, he thoughtfully offered to find me a suitable place. What he found, and committed me to for a year (September 1998 through August 1999) by forging my signature on the lease, was a furnished room in a shabby clapboard house belonging to his sister and zoned (as far as I could tell) for single men, a much smaller house than Silber’s, though it had to shelter half a dozen hapless bachelors and not just a solitary genius too selfish to spare a few square yards for his biographer. Admittedly, my room was big and sunny and even came with a kitchenette; it might almost have counted as a studio apartment, except that due to some fluke in the local plumbing code, there was no bathroom; I had to use the communal one at the far end of the hallway, assuming it wasn’t already occupied by one of the other lodgers. The man in the room above mine also liked classical music, or at least he liked, and played ad nauseam, the only classical recording he appeared to own: three favorite Beethoven piano sonatas — the Moonlight, the Pathétique, and the Appassionata.

On September 1, 1998, I loaded my few belongings into my car and moved to Forest City. (It took only one trip: just as certain anorexics make a point of staying slim enough to squeeze into a favorite pair of pants, I made a point of owning no more stuff than I could stuff into my car.) From then on, Silber and I met only outdoors or — when he wanted to play a new piece for me — at the Bean, the busy coffeehouse with the bad piano: my employer, who hated his sister, refused to set foot in my dwelling (even though he’d deemed it good enough for me) and never again invited me into his.

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From Day:
4:55—5 P.M.
   5:00

( . . . )

“Tell me how it feels, Norm,” he implored me more than once in the year I knew him, “tell me how it feels when the whistle blows at quitting time.” And I did my best to tell him, though I wasn’t sure that even factories still used whistles, and in any case I’d never had a factory job. In fact, I’d never had a nine-to-five of any kind. As I say, I’d majored in philosophy in college, and still called myself a Philosopher, though the U.S. Department of Labor’s great Dictionary of Occupational Titles — an otherwise exhaustive list that recognizes such improbable professions as “Sock Examiner,” “Animal Impersonator,” “Worm Sorter,” “Bedspread Folder,” and “Mirror Inspector” — jumps unaccountably from “Philologist” to “Phlebotomist.” No wonder, then, that I’d never succeeded in getting the world at large to acknowledge my vocation, much less to remunerate me for it.

It didn’t help that I’d decided in my early twenties to walk away from academia — that haven for the elsewhere unemployable — despite a fast start as a scholar. My father was an eminent professor of aesthetics, and for a while there I planned to follow in his footsteps. But then I suddenly grew up (a trauma I’ll recount in another note), and after twenty-two years of wanting to be just like him, I wanted more than anything not to be like him, even if that meant forgoing all the good things he had beaten me to: an adoring wife and son, an academic sinecure, and — as far as the arts were concerned — a complacent taste for the tried-and-true.

So I’d stormed out of the classroom and into the workforce. During the next year, I held a dozen different part-time jobs, from telephone solicitor to busboy in an all-night pancake house to stockboy in a house-and-garden store. None of the jobs lasted more than a month. Though as I say I made a point of seeking work that was beneath me, I was unable to hide my contempt for my duties, my coworkers, my employers, or the public. I’d probably have ended up sleeping under bridges and eating out of dumpsters if not for nepotism: in 1983, eager for a change of scene, I moved to Tacoma to work as an aide in a suburban public library run by my aunt Lucy, who took me on — and kept me on, year after year, even when patrons complained about me — as a favor to her favorite sister. I worked at that library, part-time, for fifteen years, first at the circulation desk, then at the reference desk, and finally (when I was deemed too “abrasive” to deal with callers too stupid or lazy to look up the capital of Portugal themselves) behind a door marked authorized personnel only, sorting just-returned bestsellers prior to reshelving, flipping through picture books looking for crayon marks, rewinding videos whose viewers hadn’t bothered to. Though the money wasn’t much, I managed to scrape by. For years I told myself I was only biding my time until my ship came in. Not that I ever hoped to get rich with my aphorisms, but I really had believed, year after year, that it wouldn’t be long before the world at large recognized me as a thinker to reckon with, one who also happened to sort books for a living, as Spinoza happened to grind lenses. In December ‘96, I borrowed money from my mother to subsidize the publication of a book of aphorisms, since it hadn’t interested the other kind of publishers, the kind that pay you. Naive, I’d expected deafening applause. The silence that ensued instead was still resounding in my ears when, in August ‘97, I read Silber’s ad while waiting for my dermatologist. By that point, I had lost my conviction of imminent glory, the delusion that had allowed me to live for so long on so little.

In December ‘97, my aunt died and was replaced by a hardliner named Martha. In April ‘98, Martha fired me for being “arrogant, contemptuous, grumpy, haughty, pompous, rude, self-deluded, surly, touchy, unreliable, and vain” (as she put it in her parting comments). I started reading want ads instead of aphorisms — though for all their brevity the ads had more in common with a fortune-teller’s auguries: “Successful candidate will be hardworking go-getter with three years experience in retail . . .” But I am not a go-getter, and was still unemployed when Silber called a few months later. He entered my life at a juncture when I badly needed something, and though he wasn’t really what I needed, my need itself was so urgent that — like a starving child eating dirt — I seized on him. But enough about me. I mention my own sorrows only because Silber, at the time I met him, was undergoing something similar, or as similar as a rich man could. (Part of my sorrow was the stigma of my poverty, the scorn of philistines who’d never deluded themselves that they were destined to do more than get and spend, and who’d always hated me for thinking I was. If all the gold I’d thought I was amassing in my notebooks was only fool’s gold, then all the dolts who’d spent their youths amassing real gold instead — and who now of course had much more gold than I did — were only right to consider me a fool.) When I started working for him, Silber hadn’t added a second to Day in four years. In general, those had been barren years for him: aside from the daily chord in his chord-a-day diary, he’d managed only Variations in a Minor. For a while there he’d been convinced he’d lost his talent and would never write another note, but his dry spell ended the very day we met (see Crows), and ended with a vengeance: it was my good luck to know him during the last and most prolific year of his life, though maybe it wasn’t just luck. Or maybe I was his good luck, since I can’t help thinking that I was to thank for that creative burst, if only as a sort of talent scout from a posterity whose interest the composer had perhaps begun to doubt.