Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Bruckner Cowboy

(A story I wrote some years ago about my brief stint in a sheet music store...)

The only perk to working in a sheet music store was the occasional discount, but this one was pretty incredible.

It was 1999, and my wife and I were trying to figure out where we were going to go to escape the apocalyptic behavior that we were sure would engulf San Francisco streets on New Years eve. We were having one of our periodic sales at BH Sheet Music Services, a company that would disappear under the grey waves of e-commerce within the next few years, only to be visited periodically by a research submarine. We all knew this on some level, but the things that were floating around the store were just too amazing to imagine being thrown out.

So maybe a complete orchestral set (score and parts) to Peter and the Wolf might seem a commonplace thing, but if you knew as we did that the newly ascendant Russian Republic was in payback mode for all the Russian music that had been played without royalties or licensing during the cold war, you would know that you were looking at snow in the spring sunshine. Soon there would be no American editions of such things except in libraries or museums with a protective hand on your shoulder as you leaf through the artifacts.

What I had my eye on was a complete edition of the works of John Dunstaple in the Musica Brittanica edition, the only published source. A large book, about as big as St Jacome's Grand Method for Trumpet, which should have cost $200 but instead through some fluke had been marked down to $20.

I was all over that. Dunstaple's harmonies and counterpoint are freaking beautiful and I wanted to have this book, even if it was just going to end up sitting in my garage. While I was getting ready to go to the front counter and invoke my discount to get a further $2 off the already marked down price I saw a youngish man come in.

He wore a faded flannel shirt and jeans. His cowboy hat had grease stains on it. He looked straight out of the central valley, and just to be sure I looked as he walked by and saw the telltale circular chewing tobacco canister wear-spot on his back pocket. This guy was definitely the real deal, not someone who would normally come into a sheet music store. He walked up to the customer service counter and asked to be directed to study scores.

And then he began to plow through the letter B and scoop up an armload of scores of symphonies my Bruckner, orchestral sacred music by Bruckner, choral masses by Bruckner. The section was completely purged of Bruckner by the time he was done. I had picked up my Dunstaple book and was standing behind him in line to make my purchase when he turned around to me and looked at my treasured piece of English Medieval Polyphony.

"Whazzat?" He asked.

I Told him that it was the complete works of a Medieval English composer about whom we know nothing except that he probably single-handedly invented modern harmony, had a thing for astrology and wrote some of the most awesomest vocal music of the time.

He looked at my book, looked at me and turned his head away. I heard him say under his breath,

"'T'ain't Bruckner..."