Friday, June 15, 2007

Inca Roads: Bassoon And Marimba have roads which start and end nowhere. Figures in the middle of nothing. Patterns with no context. And I believe that is the point. I believe the builders were expressing the belief—held either explicitly or implicitly—that real and meaningful ‘locations’ and ‘connections’ occur in the mind, in consciousness, and not in the three dimensional world around us.

Inca Roads (Introduction)

A couple of weeks back, a young woman I know acquired a bassoon. You can see it here.

Now, a bassoon is a pretty cool instrument. But these keyboard and guitar days a bassoon is an unusual instrument. A young woman who plays bassoon got me thinking of other women who played unusual instruments. And that got me thinking immediately of Ruth Underwood.

Ruth Underwood was Frank Zappa’s marimba player.

The legend as I remember it is that Ian Underwood auditioned for Frank Zappa and Frank was impressed with his musicianship. Ian said, “Heck, you should see my wife play the marimba!” Frank had always loved percussion and had his own vibraphone. Frank said, “Well bring her on! Let’s hear what she can do!” So Ruth went in, auditioned and quickly became not just part of Frank’s studio band but also part of his touring ensemble. Ruth not only played Frank’s music, but became something of his percussion muse. Frank wrote specific pieces to showcase Ruth’s incredible skill, most notably, “Inca Roads,” off “One Size Fits All.”

So Angie got a bassoon and that made me think of Ruth Underwood.

I hadn’t thought of Frank Zappa or Ruth Underwood in many years but now I found myself wondering what Ruth was up to. I knew Frank passed away in 1993, but I hadn’t heard anything about what Ruth was doing. When I moved from the near north side of Chicago to a south suburb about ten years ago I’d sold almost all my CD’s to a used record store. Looking through what remained, I found I still owned only one Zappa CD, the double album, single CD, “Apostrophe/Over-nite Sensation.” I got fresh batteries for my Walkman and listened again to Ruth Underwood’s great marimba work.

And I wondered what Ruth Underwood was up to.

This wasn’t a strong imperative to me. The question wasn’t in the forefront of my consciousness. I didn’t write myself a note to search the web for her. I didn’t Google her or look up her Wikipedia entry. But I was curious. And for a few days I kept the Zappa CD in my Walkman and listened to the songs.

A few days in to this, listening to Zappa after many years, wondering about Ruth, I walked to our local library and checked out the new arrival shelf in the audiovisual section. There among the newly arrived slasher movies and full-season collections of old TV shows was a new arrival documentary. It was Matthew Longfellow’s documentary about the making of Frank Zappa’s double album, “Apostrophe/Over-night Sensation.”


So I took it out.

The main program featured Zappa’s family, friends and former musicians reminiscing about Frank in general and that double album in particular. And there, featured prominently among all the interview excerpts were long and interesting interview excerpts of Ruth Underwood!


Not only was Ruth featured throughout the main program but the DVD’s bonus features include an extended interview with Ruth where she recounts how Frank talked her into getting her marimba electrified.

So. Angie gets a bassoon. That makes me think of Ruth Underwood. I’m listening to a CD of Ruth playing and wondering what’s up with Ruth. Then a documentary about the album I’m listening to and featuring interviews with Ruth appears at my local library. (I was very tempted to write in that preceding sentence, “... magically appears at my local library” but I restrained myself.)

I’m not sure what to make of something like this. I’m not sure there is anything to make of something like this. It’s a coincidence. It’s a road which starts and ends nowhere. It’s a figure in the middle of nothing. It’s a pattern with no context.

(Reviewing things, I am struck by how I took no direct, active part in the sequence of events. I didn’t try to find out anything. I didn’t look for anything. I just indulged my curiosity by listening to some songs and letting my curiosity persist of its own accord. And somehow it resolved itself of its own accord, too. I wonder if there’s a gambling lesson here: Perhaps a key might be to acknowledge a desire for a jackpot and allow that imperative to persist of its own accord without attempting to create direct action, complex math solutions to the imperative myself. Hmmm.)

At the very least, however, something like this strikes me as a reminder that whatever the universe is—causal, associative, something different—there is something at work which presents all the appearances of magic. If we keep our eyes and ears open and let our conscious sense-of-wonder keep wondering.

Ruth Underwood’s Wiki Page

Angie’s Blog: Sentimental Small Talk


Angeline said...

Haha! Mark, I just read this post today. I've had a busy past couple weeks, and haven't been religiously reading your blogs, though I have been sporadically. *pinches self*
Congratulations on knowing what a bassoon is. You seem like the kind of person who would have known before I mentioned it. At band concerts and other events, completely astonished people would query about it. Don't denigrate the piano! :) I'm a pianist.

Unfortunately, I have never heard of these musicians. I just searched for a little about them and listened to some of Frank Zappa's music. Interesting, but not my type.

I don't think your coincidence is something like a block long path that got hurled at your interstate highway in a tornado. It coincided with yours for ambiguous reasons. Because we are not in control of these events, it's easy for most to dismiss them. Reading your blog, I appreciate its impact on you. Surely, I've had at least a few similar occurrences, but unfortunately I cannot remember to tell you. I somewhat wish I did remember something. It's just that unfortunate that great coincidences can be easily forgotten.

I definitely agree with you that something interferes to make "magic" happen. It's interesting that you categorize something like this as magic. It isn't the word that comes to my mind, but it is indeed the correct word. Magic is usually something bizarre and material to people--like your landscaping turning into cash. I have respect for your view that magic is broad, and I never really thought about the magic in daily life and coincidences until now. The two were completely different in my mind prior.

Life is magical at times and that's the beauty of it. Magic surrounds us to answer the unasked questions, bring people together, initiate ideas, or to assist with anything that brings some sort of progress--especially the strange and small.

Anonymous said...

ruth was not married to ian when she auditioned for frank. that's where ruth and ian met.

it was ruth's brother charles that saw frank on the streets of nyc and told him that his sister was a great marimba player. frank invited her to audition and the rest is our collective gain.

she is either not human or the next phase of human evolution. i don't know which. but she was simply outstanding every time she played.