Monday, February 25, 2008

The Adventures of Wunelleberry Finn

Twice in my life now I've had this same experience.

I'm walking or driving in a city not my home and I dimly become aware that there is music wafting through the air, though exactly what it is, and where it comes from, I cannot say. Waking up to it, I try to walk toward the source of the sound--which always involves a bit of trial and error--and I realize the source is a long ways away, blocks away.

The sound, it turns out, was coming from a steam calliope atop a riverboat.

The first time, Susan and I were driving, windows down, through downtown Louisville during a free day while I was sitting reserve. The sound was, of course, like an organ; it grabbed my attention immediately, and I just had to pull over and track the source down. I expected an outdoor organ in a plaza or something, but eventually found myself at the pier where the Belle of Louisville was docked. That outing resulted in a great river cruise and a lengthy talk with the ship's captain (and a hush-hush tour of the facilities).

I caught on quicker the second time. I was further away this time, and the sound was not immediately identifiable, especially amid the music-heavy sonic backdrop of New Orleans. But as I started toward the river, and the Natchez which was docked there, my experience in Lousiville came back to me. Because the sound waves must come around and over the buildings, everything one hears from five blocks away is indirect and weakened and altered. Surreal, even. It's only when you get up close that you realize how much power is behind the sound--no pipe organ would be audible outdoors five windy blocks distant.

This scenario seems to uncover a particular emotional maladjustment in me. When I first made it to the scene yesterday, I found myself so choked up that I could not speak. In fact, it was all I could do not to blubber and have tears streaming down my face. Why? I'm really not sure. In this case, I think it has something to do with what New Orleans has been through in the past two-plus years (that post to follow shortly). There is a sense of the city putting on its best face for visitors even in its handicapped condition, and here is the Natchez loudly proclaiming that the city is not down and out. Or maybe it's just the very powerful nostalgic pull of this setup. A steam-powered, sternwheel riverboat calling patrons in exactly the same way as it did a hundred and fifty years ago--visions of Huck Finn and Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. There are few things in our modern world that connect back to what used to be as directly and powerfully as this. (The steam railroads seem the same way to me; I think these machines, so expensive at the time, carried the banner of the society's technological capabilities, and advertised the leading edge of advancement that characterized the times in an age of change.)

Today I found some lunch in a little bar across the street from the Natchez, and about midway through my meal the calliope began again to play. Same scenario all over again. I quickly finished up and walked across the street to stand in the shade of a tree and watch as patrons lined up with their tickets. The keyboard is in a little cabinet up on the roof next to the steam whistles, and it's wired so that colored lights activate for each key, illuminating the plume of steam that escapes from each whistle as it's played. I can't tell quite the scope of the keyboard--maybe 40 notes or so--and either by custom or because it's what the instrument can do, there are lots of band pieces and operatic transcripts, all played with an oom-pah left hand. (Is there a "standard" calliope repertoire?) The whole sound is quite quirky with some notes being slow to come on speech and then sliding up to pitch, and the instrument overall being only marginally in tune (same as the Belle of Louisville). Some notes and chords are rather painful, and the highest notes of the keyboard can be reluctant to speak and are piercing and shrill; you could hear some of those notes for a couple miles, I think. The overall effect is absolutely characteristic: unmistakably musical, but part brutal violence and part humor, like an old, fat heavyweight boxer dancing in a tutu.

The similarity with the organ is unavoidable. I wonder how the whistles are activated, mechanically or with electric valves? Does the instrument ever get tuned? (Is there a point when its "environment" is so radically changeable?) Or are the whistles just built to "close enough" standards? What was the genesis of the calliope? Have there ever been "serious" ones? (Steam whistles to play the equivalent notes of large organ bass pipes would take a huge amount of steam).

I'm sure Wikipedia has a section. But for now I'm happy just to relay the experience, another of those travel perks my job affords me that make a lasting impression, like a happy scar. [Later: of course, I found information online, including many sound files of both these calliopes plus others at]

(Due to a business-as-usual snafu at Sprint, I'm unable to bring any of my own photos to the party. I expect to be free of this situation--and to begin bitching about AT&T's business-as-usual snafus--quite shortly.)

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