There is a scene in the movie Amadeus where Antonio Salieri is reading scraps of original scores he has managed to con from Mozart’s wife while she visits to ask for his help with her husband’s career. He will go on to slowly poison Mozart out of jealousy, but as he reads and marvels, we watch the realization set in…that he understands he will never know what it’s like to make something so beautiful with such apparent ease.
The movie was bollocks, of course, but that scene seared itself into me when I saw the film some 35 years ago. It set the stage for declaring myself a “patron saint of mediocrities”, as F. Murray Abraham’s character Salieri does at the end of the film, and likely had a lot to do with driving me madly towards an impossible thing: I just want to make something inarguably beautiful. I know how insane that sounds.
But maybe something else was being tuned up in me, too, such as the ability to recognize and work in the shadow of something greater than me. To be able to walk along side something or someone that seems to be “taking dictation from God”, as the movie’s Salieri described Mozart, without being consumed by inadequacy and impotence. Dramatic stuff.
One night I was on a stool at the bar of a club, part of the night’s lineup and waiting my turn, sitting beside a woman I did not know, and we were watching a guy play guitar and sing on a stage far across the room. I marvelled to myself that the guitar seemed fused to his hip, that even when he wasn’t playing it, the thing seemed to be an extension of skeletal bone, muscle, and tissue. I couldn’t tell where it ended and he began. When he played, all I could do was shake my head and smile and I noticed the woman beside me smiling, too.
I think I said, “He’s something else.”
I think she said, “He’s my husband.”
And that’s pretty much how I met Kevin Breit.
We became friends, and for a while found ourselves living in the same town, and so we played a bit together, a few shows here and there. I interviewed him as part of a creative explorations grant I was working on.
“People will often ask me after a gig, ‘Hey, what was that chord in that thing…?” he told me. “Of course, it was just an A minor but—as you know—the whole day is in that chord.”
It was the “as you know” that got me. It was a kind hearted gesture of inclusion, giving me the benefit of the doubt that I understood what he was talking about. And I did.
Somewhere around that time I had begun to make a record in seclusion. It’s been all swirling ash and embers for most of us the music-making world for a while now, and my response to the dissolution of an established career path was to delve into the mechanics of engineering and mixing and reacquaint myself with the current digital recording technology. I forged ahead with a recording I called Vain + Alone, performing, engineering, and producing it on my own. On it were nine new songs, recorded in such a way that were meant to be sketches instead of pristine, full fledged tracks, though they became more full fledged than I had intended thanks to some slight OCD inherited from my mother. I played a lot of guitar on the record and I joyously discovered that, while I knew I could never play like Kevin, there was some kind of permission I had been granted to at least try and play beyond my own understanding of my capabilities on the instrument.
I decided to initiate a series of regular lessons with him. Being a self-taught guy who barely graduated high school, the notion of lessons at over 50 years old seemed unlikely as much as it seemed overdue. “We have to open up E minor for you,” he said in the first lesson. So we did, and it would be the only official lesson, because I decided that it would be more useful for him to reharmonize the new songs I was working on, to use them as living examples, instead of just theorizing about the various approaches to harmonic arrangement. He worked up a recording in his basement one day and had me over to listen. I think it was for a song called “Burden”— same key, same melody, same chord structure, same tempo…but a completely different setting. The song had leapt alive in a way I would never have been able to imagine it, in ways that would never occur to me, from a bank of possibilities I would never have access to.
I invited him to keep going. Within 6 months or so he had rearranged 8 of the 9 songs from Vain + Alone, played most of the instruments himself and what he couldn’t play himself, he convinced his talented friends to contribute. He mixed and mastered it. It was always the plan that I would sing the songs, but that was my only input and even with such limited involvement, I held up the process for a couple years, sometimes due to scheduling but probably more often because I didn’t want it to end. I feel like these versions of the songs are like illuminated versions of text that monks would produce. So many times I’d put the recordings on in the car as I drove alone and I would marvel at the second life the words had been granted, grateful for the attention to detail and genuine concern for the song that Kevin brought to each track, and sometimes all of that awe would lead me back to my V+A versions and I’d be able to see what was good about those, too. In comparison, in the timeframe we have been making this recording, Kevin has written, recorded, and released 2 of his own with another 2 in the can.
So, I didn’t want it to end, and putting a record out these days feels a lot like slipping it down the throat of some great beast then watching it take to the sky in lumbering wingbeats (it’s a dragon, I guess) and recede slowly towards the horizon, your disc in its’ belly, never to be heard of again. But it would be highly dishonourable to not even try make it possible for these versions to be heard, so here I am at the dragon’s mouth. I’ve been pretty clear with Kevin how I feel about what he has accomplished in these recordings, and he has been pretty clear that, despite his DNA everywhere on it, I should just give it an eponymous title—which I reluctantly have done—instead of trying to come up with a more esoteric and descriptive title.
In real life, Salieri did not poison Mozart. They lived in the same town for a while, were peers, and occasionally vied for the same gig. I’m going to guess Antonio was a wee bit jealous of Wolfgang, but was a true fan. Even though Kevin Breit and I swam through some of the same waters over the decades, it has only been the last 5 years that I’ve come to know him, and in that time I can absolutely without any hesitation say, “I am a fan.”
In his last surviving letter from 14 October 1791 (he would be dead in less than 2 months), Mozart tells his wife that he picked up Salieri and a singer in his carriage and drove them both to his opera, The Magic Flute. About Salieri’s attendance, Mozart writes: “He heard and saw with all his attention, and from the overture to the last choir there was not a piece that didn’t elicit a ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Bello!’ out of him…”
Bravo and bello, KB. And thank you.
Guelph, March 26, 2020