Friday, November 15, 2013

Ordinary Name Syndrome

Earlier today while trying to read (I say "trying" because our older, larger cat decided I'd make a good pillow about that same time) I had the radio turned on and was somewhat listening to the public-radio staple Performance Today.  My distraction was momentarily resolved when a piece for flute, oboe, bassoon and piano caught my attention and held it for the quartet's full twenty-minutes-or-less duration. I was particularly struck by the quartet's meltingly lovely second movement and rompingly fun third movement.  Having missed the name of the composer (clearly it was a relatively new piece, though not of the variety of "new" that demands harmonic thorniness or other sorts of unease), I was curious to hear who had created it.  At its end the host (a substitute for the regular, which for me made the show easier to listen to) identified the composer as one Bill Douglas.  A quick Wikipedia search and location of the composer's website fleshed the name out as a musician with fingers in a bunch of different musical activities, from jazz piano to some vaguely new-agey recordings to mixed-influence classical pieces like the quartet I heard, a not-all-that-atypical story for a modern composer.

At that point a silly random thought entered my head: how many people can accept a composer named "Bill Douglas"?

A jazz pianist named "Bill Douglas" probably presents little problem, but classical music (entirely through its own fault, I sometimes fear) makes it hard for folks who sound like ordinary women or men to get a real hearing in the ears of those, not part of the inside world of classical music, who might nonetheless enjoy hearing what those composers have to offer.

This isn't the first time I've had such silly thoughts before.  As I've blogged before, my main research interest back in my musicologist days was a composer named George Chadwick, active around the turn of the twentieth century.  In some of my down moments in research, despairing at the degree to which Chadwick was neglected in various eras, I would idly wonder if part of the problem was that "George Chadwick" could just as easily have been your accountant.  (For the record, other composers who became focal points in my study at other times were Frederick Converse, which just makes people think of athletic shoes -- I think he might have been distantly related to those Converses -- and Edgar Stillman Kelley, who I'm privately convinced used the "Stillman" to keep from sounding too ordinary -- he was eccentric enough to do that.)

Such wasn't necessarily always the case.  Chadwick was actually fairly successful in his lifetime for an American-born composer in a concert culture besotted with Germans.  Personally, I blame what sometimes gets called the "music appreciation racket" (a term possibly coined by Virgil Thomson, who might have suffered from "ordinary name syndrome" to some degree).  For so long concert patrons got drilled with the notion that one should only be bothered with Great Composers, and those Great Composers tended to have fairly exotic-sounding European names, the kind best rendered in capital letters -- BEETHOVEN, BRAHMS, CHOPIN, LISZT, WAGNER (pronounced with that German initial "V"), MOZART and so forth.  Obviously some American composers of the twentieth century did get over, but there was occasionally something just exotic enough about the name to set them apart, maybe more with italics than caps -- Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein; while Howard Hanson sounded more like a Nebraska dentist and so forth.

Anyway, my tangent-prone mind of course took off elsewhere.  Is Ordinary Name Syndrome a thing?  Does an ordinary, accountant-y sounding name have its own particular psychological weight?  Does having a mainstream name sometimes work to weigh down its bearer with mainstream expectations?

My name is Charles Freeman.  Nice enough name, but nothing particularly special about it.  That squares fairly well with my usual perception of myself.  Nice enough guy, some things I am good at doing or saying, but nothing particularly outstanding or noteworthy about me.  Fairly ordinary in many ways, not bad ways, but fairly ordinary.

I was a bit of an achiever in elementary and junior high and high school, the kind of thing that was really useful at getting into college and then faded into the background in the face of real life.  I am blessed/saddled with a wildly introverted personality that is fascinated with the world and sees so much in it, but lacks the outgoingness to strike forth and say what I see, outside the occasional confines of this blog and the other one, recently started.  I sometimes wonder, in my sillier moments, if I'd somehow be able to find a little more push in my life if my mother had come up with something different to call me -- "Alonzo," say, or "Jackson" (not merely "Jack"), or who knows what.  Probably not, but who knows?  I'd have been mercilessly tormented as a child, I suspect, but perhaps it would have led to a measure of cool and assurance I don't always have, if I'd survived it.

Or perhaps I should go the three-word name route.  Charles Spence Freeman.  As a kid I was mortified of that middle name.  Now I tend to think it's damn cool.  At one point in college I came close to adopting it as my call-by name.  Three-word names do seem to carry a little extra cool, whether through hyphenation or otherwise.  Of course, it helps to have three names that sound fairly cool together.

I am being silly, I do realize.  Still, as I get towards the end of this seminary time I suppose I'm wondering who the heck I am anymore, ordinary name or otherwise.  I don't particularly feel like a pastor at this point, which is just as well because I'm not one at this point.  I'm reasonably good at some of the tasks of the pastor, not so much at others.  I clearly am not free of certain academic habits or modes of thinking.  I could still teach in the higher-ed classroom, though I'm frankly grateful to be free of some of the other burdens of academia.  Still, I certainly don't feel like a musicologist anymore either.

I've had cancer, and for the moment I don't seem to have it, but I certainly don't feel like a cancer "survivor" (whatever that means).  Blessedly, at the moment I don't really feel like a cancer patient, either.

I certainly don't feel like a writer, though I'm now straddling two blogs, so clearly there is some itch to do something with the written word in there.  An itch, perhaps, but not a need?  There is a dribble of hymns with my name on them, but it certainly isn't a flood or a river or even a decent-sized creek.  Is it just a thing, a phase perhaps, or is there something more to it?

Standing at unknown places is more, typically, than our fragile souls can bear.  Even when the thing beyond the known border is good, or likely to be good -- even to be the thing we've been wishing or dreaming or praying or preparing for -- it is a tremulous moment, that one just before you can see it.  Ordinariness stares me in the face, in the absence of that yet-unknown next place.  It has its own taunts, not those that torment the ones given to wracking doubt and fearfulness.  It'll be okay, I guess.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  It may not be the first call, or the second, but you'll get to a decent point, and you'll do fine.   This is where the absence of tone of voice in a blog is so paralyzing; "fine" needs to be heard with descending pitch, the absence of encouragement without quite being its opposite.

I have skills and I have talents.  I know this much.  Getting from having them to using them, aye, there's the rub.  I don't particularly need to be famous, or rich (although a bit more financial sufficiency would be good, with the bucketloads of medical debt impending), or handsome or many of the other cheap goals that consume so many people.  If I have any fear at this point, I guess it is a fear of squandering something, and I'm not exactly sure what.  Such is the natural result of the kind of reckless transition I'm making, I suppose.

At any rate I can only guess that the thing to do is to step forward again, in the hope that light will shed itself upon that unknown thing.  Ordinary name or not.

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