Since February is the customary month of love, I want to focus on things each week that I love.
Notice that I said “things” and not “people.” Yes, I do love people, but rather than devoting each of my four columns to people I love, I will be taking a look at what MIT professor Sherry Turkle calls “evocative objects.” In one of my favorite books, edited by Turkle, EVOCATIVE OBJECTS: THE THINGS WE THINK WITH (2007), she observes that “We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with [because] evocative objects bring philosophy down to earth.” The argument can be made that the human world is nothing more than a collection of evocative objects, with each one reflecting the ideas of the person or persons who made it. In turn, we infuse these human-made objects with our own emotions and perspectives. The study of history, as I often tell my students, is a contemplation of evocative objects rather than the memorization of “facts and dates” lists.
This week’s evocative object is my new Yamaha Reface FM keyboard, which is my current “go-to” instrument when I want to play some music on the couch or in the bed (much easier than trying to do that with a grand piano!). The best evocative objects in my life have been keyboard instruments, and I agree with Tod Machover, who wrote the following passage in an essay in Turkle’s book about his love affair with his cello: “I play the cello to concentrate, to meditate, to relax. It remains for me the perfect gauge of complexity, of how much an individual human being can shape or master, follow or comprehend.” Substitute “keyboard” for “cello” in Machover’s passage and you have, in a nutshell, my perspective on why I love to play music on the various keyboards that have shaped my life.
My love affair with keyboards began in the 1960s when my parents rented a Hammond Organ in hopes that I would learn to play it. Music in the 1960s was greatly influenced by the sounds of the Hammond–which played prominent roles in songs like “Whiter Shade of Pale” (Procol Harum), “Green Onions” (Booker T and the MGs), “Gimme Some Lovin’” (Spencer Davis Group), anything and everything by Jimmy Smith, and “Green Eyed Lady” (Sugarloaf), which features a dazzling organ solo I have yet to figure out. Although my parents didn’t listen to the aforementioned songs, preferring instead the sleep-inducing tones produced by “Lawrence Welk Show” organist Jerry Burke, I learned to play the Hammond after giving up on the guitar, but not on my membership in The Ventures’ Fan Club.
It wasn’t too long before I began playing the organ for church, at weddings, funerals, and various get-togethers, including some rather embarrassing stints with local pop bands. In the 1980s, I was taken away for some time from the academic career I had planned when I became a keyboard department salesperson in a Knoxville music store. For several years I sold a wide array of pianos, organs, and keyboards, and witnessed the seismic shift to portable keyboards, digital pianos, and synthesizers that ushered in the 1980s. I continued that path by moving to Johnson City and working in keyboard sales until I resumed my academic career by becoming a faculty member at Northeast State Community College.
Keyboards have, in ways that I could have not foreseen when I first touched them, given shape to my life by providing meanings and perspectives I could have never acquired had I never learned to play them. In fact, I have often envisioned a movie called “Killer B” that would tell the story of post-World War II American though the eyes (and fingers) of a Hammond Organ player (the “B” in the title refers to the model B3 that catapulted The Hammond Organ Company to fame). Of course, I have diverted myself many times imagining what the soundtrack to such a movie would include. For starters, it would start by blasting Earl Grant’s “Swingin’ Gently” over the opening credits, then featuring end credits accompanied by Jon Lord’s incredible organ solo from Deep Purple’s rendition of “Hush.”
Although my plans for this movie will probably never materialize, I am happy to report that I am currently realizing my keyboard fantasies as keyboardist for my favorite rock and roll band, The PF Flyers, who would love to play for your next event. Be on the lookout for a profile article in the near future.
All this rambling brings me back to my neat little Yamaha Reface FM, an ultra portable synthesizer that fits comfortably in my lap. I am seldom far from it and often noodle around on it while writing this column, watching TV, or listening to music (I like to figure out the chord progressions). And, no, I don’t own stock in Yamaha, although I sold their instruments for many years. Of the seven other keyboards I currently own, this is my evocative object of choice, along with GarageBand, that wonderful iPad app that can be connected to my Reface keyboard, transforming it into a recording studio and rhythm machine. What will they think of next? There is indeed an app for that.
Stay tuned for more of my favorite evocative objects as this month unfolds. In the meantime, I encourage you to make a list of your favorite evocative objects and all the things that have done to influence your life. I suggest you read Sherry Turkle’s book for some good ideas.
See you next week.