Tuesday, September 4, 2012

An Unusual Musician

When I was an undergraduate in music, just coming to grips with the whole culture, not only of classical music, which was new to me, but the whole culture of learning generally, one of the most interesting people I met was a psych major who was also a musician--recorder, principally, but he could play almost anything. I'm not sure his name is really important as he did not have a big career and passed away some years ago. But just to be complete, his name was James Kennedy. He was very much in that eccentric Canadian musical genius mode of whom Glenn Gould was the exemplar. James even looked a bit like Glenn Gould.

I don't recall our meeting exactly, but I remember one conversation early in our friendship. He was standing in the door of the apartment I shared with a student trumpet player explaining to me the difference between cylindrical bore recorders (from the Renaissance) and conical bore recorders (from the Baroque era). He was doing it in an interesting way, though. At this stage in my life, I was just a couple of years away from being purely a rock guitarist who knew about humbucking pickups and 12-bar blues and not much else. I was in first year music and learning fast. But James was talking to me as a peer, as if I were very knowledgeable about everything, and he were just updating me a bit on some of the recent controversies surrounding historical recorder bores. It was really quite a compliment, in retrospect. James was like that, he would launch into the most esoteric discussion, just assuming you were able to follow. I learned an amazing amount about music, especially French Baroque music, from him. He once said that he thought music has been in continuous decline since 1733, the death of François Couperin.

A lot of people didn't 'get' James. He had a spiky side that got worse as he got older. Once he left a party by pausing at the door and saying "if I have failed to insult anyone here, please consider it done." He was the one who organized an annual "Bad Music Concert" that featured performances of bad music by great composers (such as Beethoven's variations on "God Save the Queen" or one of the more indigestible pieces by Liszt), or bizarre performances of pieces such as a six-part Renaissance motet played by an ensemble consisting of kazoo, banjo, electric bass (that was me), little electric keyboard, soprano and, I think, saxophone. The keyboard was played by the dean and James was conducting. The most hilarious part was James' introduction of each instrument: "and on banjo, ----." For one concert he tied a soprano up in a chair and had her carried onstage singing the "Queen of the Night" aria from The Magic Flute by Mozart.

James was a prodigious recorder player. I was visiting him once and we went down to his basement studio. Looking around at the recorders everywhere I asked, "how many recorders do you have, anyway?" His reply, "I'm not sure exactly, but I have twelve working altos." He also learned to play baroque lute and rackett. A rackett is a double-reed instrument a bit similar to the bassoon that was played in the late Renaissance and early Baroque. He also played classical guitar and was as good a sight-reader on guitar as I have ever known. I can recall reading through all of Bach's two-part inventions with him once. As a recorder player he was much sought-after as he could play anything. He was very knowledgeable in Early Music performance. James was capable of playing so many ornamental variations that I think that he thought he had failed if the listener was able to recognize a repeat. He could also play pretty much any contemporary music for recorder.

He always seemed a bit pressed for time and it was rumoured that he practiced singing through the parts he was to play in one concert by propping up the music on the steering wheel while he was driving over from having just played in a different concert. Speaking of driving, he lost his license and took up riding a bike instead. Of course, being James, he rode a fixed-gear bike: no brakes and no gears. How did he lose his license, you ask? Well, yes, he had a drinking problem that none of his friends knew about for years. He would spend a whole evening sipping one glass of wine, but when you weren't looking, down half a bottle of brandy.

After graduating with a degree in psychology (I can remember a heated discussion about behaviouralism once), he ended up owning a record store. Anyone who asked a question would get a very complete answer. Being knowledgeable can be a curse, of course. When he went to see Amadeus, he discomforted his fellow cinema-goers by bursting out laughing in the scene where Mozart's body is being conveyed to the pauper's grave. The reason, as he explained it to me, was that the soundtrack at that point was the part of Mozart's Requiem that his student Süssmayr 'borrowed' from a piece by W. F. E. Bach and he just thought it was hilarious that they chose that for the funeral scene. I don't know what scholarship he based that on, as I can't find any discussion of it online. He also played some gigs. I remember he asked me to play a wedding gig with him in which we were asked to play an arrangement of the "Love-Death" scene from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner for recorder and guitar. Thankfully, that did not come to pass.

Like John Lennon, James Kennedy did not live past his fortieth year. He was not shot to death by a deranged fan. Instead, he died of cirrhosis of the liver. Many musicians played at his funeral.

UPDATE: I just recalled a whole other side of James. For a number of years he was music critic for a local weekly newspaper and delivered quite a number of incisive critiques of local concerts. Of an orchestral program (I believe it was a Mahler symphony) he said that the oboe "cut through the orchestral texture like a chain-saw through the Mona Lisa." I'm not sure if that was positive or negative. Of a baroque performance at the university he said that "the players were demonstrating all three of the current theories of over-dotting in the French overture." That I'm sure was negative! His reviews of my concerts were always quite kind.


RG said...

Dear Bryan,
What a finely felt and feelingly formed homage! Do you think James' high aesthetic standards have set the bar for your own critical writing?

Bryan Townsend said...

I have never thought of it that way, but it is quite likely. I do know that, whereas the professors in the music school, while well-educated I suppose, were rather dull and not very creative people--apart from a voice teacher I had. James stood out for his knowledge and incisive opinions. I really cannot imagine him sitting in a first year theory class, passively absorbing material meant for people with almost no background. Which answers the question of why he did a degree in psychology instead of music.

James could certainly be scathing, but I never got the sense that he was smug, entitled or arrogant.

Thanks very much for the compliment... I was just recounting what I recalled of a very memorable person without decorating it in any rhetorical way.