Boom BoxBy Don Mitchell
May 07, 2011
This piece is in memory of my mother, Neva Mitchell, who died on May 4th, 2003, just days short of what would have been the 98th Mother’s Day of her life. If you’re not familiar with the Saint-Saens Third (“Organ”) Symphony, you might want to play this short audio clip before reading on.
When this woman and I moved into the new place and we each started unpacking our things I was surprised to see a pink boombox, not decorator pink but little-girl pink and I said, What the hell is that?
She said, What does it look like? It’s a boombox. I got it at a garage sale and it works.
I said, Well I have audiophile grade equipment for us to play music with.
She said, Do you have a boombox?
Well no I don’t.
Well now you do. You can use it if you want.
And I thought, Well what’s next here? Maybe a Hello Kitty television?
I was wanting to make a video and thinking about the boombox. I was thinking about how back in the sixties the composer and performance artist Nam June Paik had this woman named Charlotte Moorman play one of his cello pieces topless and another time she played with small televisions attached to her breasts but I don’t remember what they were showing.
I wanted to take the pink boombox to a church where this big woman I knew was the organist and put it next to her on the organ console. She would be naked. I had in mind some muscular music well-suited to a collaboration between a large breasted woman and a pink boom box. I knew she wouldn’t take off her clothes for me but this was a conceptual video so it didn’t matter.
The pink boombox would be playing a tape of the Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony. This is the one where at the exact beginning of the last movement the organ enters suddenly with a hugely loud chord which appears out of nowhere if you don’t know it’s coming. It repeats twice and then after some piano four hands work there’s a massive stride through nine chords that to my ear have to be played more slowly than they often are, because they are stately and commanding.
In my video the pink boombox plays the end of the third movement just before the organ’s entrance and it’s turned up and the sound is distorted because it’s a pink boombox not an audiophile grade system. The naked organist listens and shifts around so we can see those large breasts and viewers who don’t know the symphony will be going What the hell? and those who do will be going Oh my God and then after the silence she enters with her real organ. The boombox plays the parts in between the great strides.
In my video dream this would go on for a while and I could not decide how to end it. I imagined that I could convince some of my friends in the Philharmonic to help me out. The camera would be in the organ loft and it would pan over the players filtering into the pews below with their instruments and slowly taking over from the boom box. I thought it really didn’t matter that I couldn’t end it, because my chances of making that video were no better than the chances that the pink boombox woman and I would last as a couple.
When I was little we did not hide our bodies so I was used to seeing my mother naked but I had not been living with her for many years before she started dying. She was driedup as ancient people are but when I went to the hospital I walked into her room while the nurse was bathing her and I was stunned to see that although every other part of her was wrinkled and slack her breasts were smooth and full and I thought This must be a sign she can still nourish me even though she cannot speak from her stroke and is dying. And I carried that thought with me when I had to leave her in the hospital and go far away.
I was driving to Pittsburgh a few days after my mother died and I was dealing with it in my own way which was to wear her drivers license around my neck on a chain because I had taken her license away from her when she was 92 and it was no longer safe for her to drive.
I was driving to Pittsburgh and had not yet let out my grief and I was driving along and flipped the radio in my van to the Pittsburgh public radio station QED 89.3 and when I hit the frequency there was silence so I turned it way up in case I had turned it down by accident.
But it was the silence between movements and out of nowhere came the monster organ chord of the Saint-Saens Third, right there, no lead-in. It was like a hammer blow like somebody punched me in the chest and I bellowed out a giant sob even before the first chord died away and started to cry louder than I ever cried in my life. And when the orchestra played and the organ was silent I stopped too but I knew what was coming: two more times that massive chord and then four times the nine great strides.
Two great blows they sounded to me, then the orchestra gave me time to gather myself and when the first nine strides came I yelled Your mo-ther is dead her breasts and all and I cannot say why I did not yell My mo-ther is dead her breasts and all except maybe I needed to be told because I was not there when she died.
This piece packs a punch as great as the organ chord.
It’s so full of emotion. Raw and beautiful and full of sadness and guilt and love.
The pictures of your mum are just lovely. I love the parasol one.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mrs. Mitchell. I’m blowing a kiss to the sky for you.
Thanks, Z. Isn’t that parasol one cool? I didn’t take it, but I managed to get a printed copy and scan it.
My grandmother’s name was Neva. Punch to the gut, sir. Whew. She was a lovely woman.
When my father was dying, I saw his withered legs. I remember thinking that they could no longer carry me. Same but different.
Beautiful piece of art, this.
This piece is full.
I never asked my mother about the origin of her name. Her siblings had common names. I do know it wasn’t a name that had been used in her family. What about your grandmother? Do you know? My mother’s people were French-German mostly, and moved PA – IA – MI over the years.
Your father’s withered legs are “same but different,” as you say. It’s interesting how a body part can take on significance whether it’s something that’s normally covered up or not. When my father was dying, I remember noticing his hands, which were larger than mine even though I was, overall, larger than he was. In the hospital I put a hand up against his and said to myself, “Still larger, always will be.”
I’m glad you liked my piece.
Oh, Don. You have this way of telling a story… This is at once sad and heartbreakingly lovely.
I’m tremendously bummed out that video never got made. I would totally have watched that.
That video would have been fun even with the organist clothed. Maybe I can find a cooperative organist in Hilo. I can get a pink boombox on eBay.
Saint-Saens is one of my favourite composers, which, to be fair, isn’t saying much.
God, this piece packed a punch, Don. As much as that crashing organ ever will.
Wait, isn’t saying much about you, or about him?
It doesn’t say much about my conferring of the status, which, I guess also extends to me. I’ve always meant to widen my knowledge of classical music, but it seems like I never have the time. So I stick to the most well-known and most-frequently-used-in-advertising.
Although Danse Macabre?
That joint rocks.
Don, this really shines. Beautiful piece that showcases both your style and the gorgeous emotions that run beneath it.
My dad just gave his license up last weekend. He’s 94. I think I might bogart your idea, if you don’t mind.
Thanks, Joe. I rarely use the “run-on” style but I like it.
Is your Dad urban? That helps. Our Hilo house is about 3 miles out town, so for her to get around on foot was impossible. That meant taxis and the kindness of the neighbors, who indeed were very kind and helpful.
Which idea are you going to bogart? Not my video! I’ll sue, or maybe just insist on coming to SD and working on it with you. Damn. I never should have let that gem loose on the net.
Ruth says you must have been referring to the license-around-neck bit. I’m sure she’s right.
A wonderful tribute, Don. I love Saint-Saens — they use the aquarium music in a lot of kids videos, is how I became acquainted with it — but I’m hardly an expert…I think it’s especially powerful that you were instantly able to recognize the song on the radio, a song most people would not know.
I’m glad you liked it, Greg.
I was familiar with the piece (in my drinking days it was the one to turn up as loud as possible) but it’s also true that that mighty chord is like nothing else I know of in symphonic music.
It seems to me only music and music alone can pack the kind of emotional wallop you describe so well here. And from the audio, that organ really is monumental.
Thanks for sharing this powerful, personal piece, Don.
Thank you, Nate. I know it’s true for me — the emotional wallop — and it’s often true that the wallop is a mighty sound. But it needn’t be, as I’m sure you know.
Of course I associate my mother’s death with the Saint-Saens. But then there’s Marin Marais, Pieces de viole, Suite en do mineur du Trosieme livre, Prelude. It does the same for me.
Have you ever seen the film Tous les Matins du Monde? It’s exquisite — Maris and St Colombe.
Thanks for reading.
Yes, I did once happen to catch Tous les Matins du Monde on cable here. I figured it’s worth linking to those opening minutes with Depardieu as Marais and more walloping music…
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