Oct/Nov 2006 Nonfiction

Talk Show Minus-One: A Musing

by David Cates

Photo by Jim Gourley

An amateur flutist, I'm hooked on "Music Minus-One," that venerable collection of classical concerti, quartets, etc. My own shelf of MMOs are all 78s from the 1970s. I like stumbling through favorites like the Bach Suite in B Minor, his two Brandenburgs featuring flute, a collection of woodwind quintets—you get the idea. It's hard to imagine a professional bothering with these, other than suggesting them to students. I picture the backup musicians as retired Europeans playing for small change, joking disdainfully about amateurs. (Even Frederick the Great can't escape the judgment of history; a recent teacher told me, "Among flautists [i.e., working flutists], he's always been known as Frederick the Mediocre.")

How do I know which of these hidden elders are Europeans? They take all the repeats.

You play as well as your skill permits. There is no mentor. If you get lost, just reset the stylus, as in "take it from the top!"

But what if there were a mentor? Such a record might open with the conductor, ideally European (or good mimic thereof, heavy Russian the best) introducing his/herself, with a hint of hauteur. Then tapping the baton to indicate vivace, we're off! If your entrance is at bar16, he'll call out your cue two bars prior. Note a slight condescension.

Suddenly he whacks the baton and stops the music, calling out a second violin for a wrong note. This is disconcerting, less because your spiritual applecart is upset, than because you may be next.

Sure enough! Again he stops the orchestra in the midst of one of your faster passages, shouting "Off-pitch!" With the typical MMO amateur, this is an easy call, one to which we always feel vulnerable. He even asks you, a bit abruptly, if you want to continue! Perspiring with anxiety, you stutter "Yes" to the record. He then calls out "two bars before the fermata!" without giving you time to find the place. After the first movement, he quits, pleading a prior appointment, handing the baton to a late-teens novice with a Midwest accent. Though it's now smooth sailing, you're a wreck.

Now imagine a series of Talk Shows Minus-One. Your collection of titles includes "Foreign Policy" next to "Global Warming" and "Tomorrow's Fashions" and "The Iowa State Fair: What's Next for Populism?" The co-discussants are journalists, technical experts, office-holders, and older hands who've seen it all. You are fulsomely welcomed, asked your name, your professional field, and current interests. Lie all you want!

After some give-and-take to warm up, Rodriguez, the syndicated Hispanic columnist, asks, "What's your feeling about the partisan divide on price control? Your background tells me you'll surprise us all!" After several off-point answers on early rounds with this record, you now say, "Price control? Rod, there are so many kinds! But let me weigh in on Manhattan rent control as an especially egregious example!" Murmurs of admiration follow. Then Svetlana, the Brookings Slavic specialist, hits you with, "I thought you might have broadened out your answer as we do, to give the others here a more interesting hook to bite on when you're finished." From there on it's downhill.

Recovering, you introduce another topic you happen to know a lot about: the downside of global warming, starting with a specific, then broadening out. "What with storms and heat, honeybee demographics in Texas are turning negative, ultimately with implications for agriculture throughout the Midwest and Northeast."

You chose Texas because the program notes identify one discussant as a Texan, who now says, "You sound like the kind of fake Texan who uses ‘summer' as a verb!" The others all laugh, but you know it's aimed at you.

It gets so tense you finally leave, with two "open" spots still remaining, leaving the other discussants laughing throughout.

The TSMO format is useful training for high-end door-to-door salespersons and low-end political candidates. I have two programs for sale. They've become too easy. "Cuba After Castro" and "No Flutist Left Behind." Any takers?


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