To tape a masterpiece

THE operating manual for the portable radio/cassette player was open before me. Up to that time, the player had been used primarily for listening to the radio or to prerecorded tapes, and there was one function I hadn't yet tried -- that of recording directly from the radio. I inserted a blank tape with 30 minutes on a side, flicked on the radio, and depressed the ``play'' and ``record'' buttons simultaneously, as per instructions. A jingle from a restaurant commercial and part of a financial report were successfully committed to tape, and my curiosity as to how this function worked was satisfied.

But then I heard the disc jockey at this radio station -- a classical music station -- announce that it was Beethoven's birthday and that the composer's music would be played throughout the day. I had, at that time, a newly kindled interest in classical music, particularly Beethoven's, so I said, ``I could use what I just learned to tape a masterpiece!''

No sooner had that thought struck than the disc jockey said, ``And now we hear the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.'' I lunged for the player, depressed those two buttons, but was tardy. Of the famous ``Da-Da-Da DAAA'' opening notes, I suspected I had missed the first ``Da.'' The player rolled on, recording the rest of the first movement, but I felt there was really no point in having any of it if I didn't have the first ``Da.''

After the Fifth had concluded, when the next round of commercials was out of the way and the introduction of a new piece was imminent, I was geared up for another attempt. My alertness was comparable to that of the game-show panelist who is poised to reach for the buzzer if he knows the correct answer. I was hopping slightly on the balls of my feet -- something I'd seen a tennis player do in anticipation of a 90 m.p.h. serve -- and flexing my fingers to keep them agile, ready to punch those plastic buttons if I liked the offered title.

But I soon learned that a clean start was not all that was required to make a good recording, for there were factors that could affect the radio signal. The vacuum cleaner being used in the hallway, the airliner passing overhead -- these caused considerable interference and forced one to listen to this noble music as if straining to hear an overseas phone call. I succeeded in having all vacuuming postponed in honor of Beethoven's birthday, but I didn't think I could get the airport to shut down for the same reason.

By midafternoon there was a change of shifts at the radio station, and the next disc jockey, possibly a newcomer, was a bit unsure of some of the long names he had to pronounce. His deliberation over the name ``Rasumovsky'' gave me ample time to start taping Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9 (dedicated to Count Rasumovsky), but, ultimately, this recording didn't work out. There was no way the 31-minute performance would fit on my 30-minute side of tape.

``The only way to prevent running out of room the next time is to be ready to flip the tape over between movements,'' I said to myself. (I was talking to myself a lot by then.) ``I'll have maybe three seconds to pull the cassette out, flip it to the other side, and put it back in the machine. This is going to require some practice.''

I did practice, and when I left the recorder to get a glass of milk, I was seen repeating the following motions with an imaginary cassette: pull hand up, twist wrist, push hand down. It was a bit embarrassing, but as I began taping the next piece, I said, ``It'll be worth it when I can present, for our dinner-time enjoyment, this complete taped performance of Beethoven's `Emperor' Concerto.''

My muscles grew taut as the concerto's slow second movement neared its conclusion. Soon would come the pause, I thought. All the pieces presented that day had breaks between movements, so I knew what to expect: three or four silent seconds in which to execute my practiced moves. But, to my amazement, the pianist, in accordance with the composer's wishes, moved instantly into the next section. There was no pause.

I could only laugh at my being so effectively foiled by the composer. Clearly, it was time to throw in the towel, time to free myself from that portable player whose arrangement of speaker grills and knobs seemed almost to form a sly expression.

Although I did succeed in making a few good recordings that day, what I really derived from the experience was a lesson in how one's frame of mind can affect perception. You see, when I was fretting over recording details, I could not really enjoy Beethoven's music, despite its being played by the finest orchestras. But when I left this pursuit and walked leisurely through the park, whistling his ``Ode to Joy,'' even my ragged whistling ability could not prevent it from sounding magnificent.

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