Arkansas

The Magic of Kumar

Image © 2017 Gregory Briggler

Around the Christmas of 1996, I went to the Cosmic Cup in Dallas to see the local band Little Jack Melody and his Young Turks. It was an intimate concert in a place that had the feel and dimensions of a living room. Little Jack sang and played tenor banjo. On stage there was quite the menagerie of instruments: harmonium, tuba, cornet, drums, and saxophone. The crowd sat on cushions on the floor, and we were occasionally asked to sing Salvation Army arrangements of Christmas Carols. That was a crowd favorite except for a white-haired atheist who chose to try and ruin the fun for everyone else instead of voting with his feet. It was a benchmark concert of my five years in Texas.

Mixed in with the proto-hipster crowd were promed-up Indian teens who were there to support the Amazing Kumar. Short, white haired and wearing a sweater vest, he performed magic tricks, spun plates and entertained as part of the evening. I only discovered he was the owner of the place while researching this post.

The next time I saw Kumar Pallana was in 1998 on the big screen.  I often drove from Denton to the Inwood Theater in Dallas to watch independent films. There was Kumar on screen in Rushmore, a film by Wes Anderson exploring the life of an overachieving, under-performing private school boy. Anderson is from Houston and so had a special place in the hearts of arty Texans. The film was witty and awkward and charming and silly. I felt like I was at the genesis of something great. And then, there was the Amazing Kumar on screen! I had before seen him in the flesh. He wasn’t just another film person, but a magician I had first seen in a tiny restaurant in Dallas. My adventure – the move from Arkansas to Texas, the seeking out of art and music and films – had brought me close to people who were making movies. Through slight of hand, Kumar connected my real life to the movie on screen- an Amazing trick!

Of course, I still watch Wes Anderson’s movies. He is one of the most interesting filmmakers, forgive me, of my generation. Everything on screen is polished and just-so. We haven’t met yet, but we will eventually. I want to share a Pimm’s Cup with him and talk about that Texas to New York shift he made. That we made. We’ll toast together someday and talk about music, the big D and the big Apple.

“Ode to Joy” Part 2

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Photo Credit: © Gregory Briggler

(This is the end of a two-part story. The beginning can be found by clicking here.)

The performance was over. I was in a daze afterward of heightened aesthetic awareness. I remember the shabby blue and green carpet in the house where musicians mixed with the crowd accepting compliments and making plans for the evening. The evening was cool as Laura and I walked arm and arm out of the well-worn concert hall. The patterns of the architecture outside the venue were revealed to me for the first time. Windows, identical and repeating, pulled my gaze up the office building wall across the street. I was so enraptured, as I drove along the interstate, my speed slowed to a crawl. I only came back to speed, apologizing with a smile, after Laura asked me if everything was alright.

The after-concert party was held in a lousy chain restaurant. And yet, as we walked inside, I was aware of the interior design, the deliberate choices made by that anonymous design team. The open walls with plants hanging just-so seemed to frame my friends as we walked in. The food was forgettable, yet the company pleasant. I remember my choir friends, including my quirky, long-time friend Rachel, chattering around the table relieved and excited after the concert.

I was changed by the performance, and now the evening was over. After dinner and goodbyes, I drove Laura through the dark countryside separating Little Rock and Conway, our university town about half an hour away. By the back door of the girl’s dorm, we talked quickly and kissed a passionate kiss. I watched her walk up the stairwell of the dorm to her bed. How I wanted to follow!

I walked back to my room a changed man. Music matured me; performing affected a change that was permanent and profound. And a brief, intense love affair was the catalyst.

 

 

“Ode to Joy” Part 1

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Photo Credit: © Gregory Briggler

I was a boy of nineteen when I first sang in the chorus for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We performed in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, my home state. Each year select university choirs from around the state, including mine, joined forces with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Brahm’s Requiem was the showpiece the year before, and Verdi’s Requiem followed the next year. I was excited to sing again in this grand concert to the crowd sitting in darkness and hidden by the glare of the stage lights. The people who came to see me perform were my parents and my girlfriend Laura.

Laura was petite and very smart. She had sparkling honey colored eyes and wavy dark brown hair. I had met her in concert band; she played clarinet but she was studying chemistry. Many of the other boys were interested in her, but through luck and skill I was the only one who had managed to date her. The affair was new and precarious. The feelings I had for Laura that night were intensified by my experience singing beautiful, powerful music. And the performance was intensified by the affection.

For those of you unfamiliar with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it begins like all previous symphonies, but something wonderful happens during the final movement. Through snippets of melodies, that movement itself seems to ask many questions, comes to dead ends, and then settles on the main theme which bursts to greater life in song. We had studied the piece through bleary eyes in early morning music theory for the entire spring semester. Inside and out, I knew it better than any music at that point in my life. The symphony is masterful – Fugues! A Turkish March! Soloists! Full Choir! The intimate connection between learning and performing was the highlight of my undergraduate education.

But something happened that night that went beyond study and performance. When the house lights came up, I was changed. It was as pure an aesthetic experience as I have ever had. That performance changed my inner life.