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The Essay
Show #288
The Carruthers Curse
David Gunn

Eugene Spider Carruthers, a composer who enjoyed not one but three fifteen-minute periods of fame, died last week at his home in Beluga, Washington. He was 75 years old. Carruthers came to composition obliquely. He had trained as a theoretical magnetohydrodynamicist at Colby College in Maine, where he discovered that electrically-neutral plasma currents, when subjected to intense electromagnetic fields, produced pulses of asymmetric tone globules. He demonstrated the phenomenon to a colleague from the music department, who told him that the pulse-globules seemed to have modal centers, and recommended further research. So, during the late 1950s, Carruthers tabled his magnetoplasma investigations to focus on the more arcane field of, to him, experimental music. The result was "Eugene's Electroacoustic Dinner Theater Music," Everest Records' best selling album of 1960, which garnered him his first 15 minutes of worldwide celebrity. His second quarter hour of fame -- which some huffy critics claimed was sheer notoriety -- was for his coupling of two generally incompatible musical instruments, the banjo and the bandoneon. Carruthers' banjoneon, a small, fretted accordion with a stretched vellum diaphragm trimmed in red neon lights, enjoyed fleeting popularity when it was featured in a dream sequence in the 1976 film, "Taxi Driver." But its inherent impossibility to play -- squeezing the bellows invariably ruptured the diaphragm and broke the neon lights -- caused its manufacturer, Ionic Industries of Morristown, NJ, to declare bankruptcy shortly thereafter. Carruthers' third 15 minutes of fame, which extends to this day, is due to what has become known as the Carruthers Curse. With the exception of one track on the Dinner Theater album, everything he ever wrote had, in one form or another, been written before. But he was not a plagiarist. As his autobiography, "Je n'ai pas volé cet air," ruefully corroborated, he was simply cursed with being the culmination of implicitly derivative musical ideas.

It was painful to watch. When inspiration struck, Carruthers would lock himself in a small, thatched room on the Colby campus with only a piano, a banjoneon, a pad of manuscript paper, a handful of pencils and a tape recorder. Days later, he would reemerge, ravenous and fetid, with what he hoped would be an original piece of new music. But, without fail, it wasn't. Even the titles he assigned the tunes mirrored those of the unknown archetypes. During one particularly humiliating and bewildering twelve-month period, he re-wrote Density 21.5, Rodeo, Chichester Psalms, the theme from Shaft, Kindertotenlieder, A Rainbow in Curved Air, Minnesota Swale, Summertime, A Whiter Shade of Pale, Symphony #7 (as attributed to Dmitri Shostakovich), Nixon In China and Bomber. In his later years, Carruthers slowed his output to only two or three re-compositions a year, opting to instead reacquaint himself with the friendlier confines of plasmodynamic pulse-tones. Eventually, he was hailed for his work in the field, and even got to place his footprints in the Great Walk of Science at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. But he could never shake his association with involuntary plagiarism. Indeed, after the American Psychiatric Association had determined that Carruthers' condition was a legitimate pathology -- a consequence of long-term exposure to a powerful magnetic field changing some dendrites in the brain's neurons to magnetic ions -- it chose to let stand its popular designation as the Carruthers Curse, rather than the more eponymously correct carrutherosis.

While not so debilitatingly cursed by the music on today's show, this 288th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar nevertheless contains its share of tunes you'll probably recognize, and not just because we've played them before. Why, even parts of this essay suffer from a mild case of carrutherosis: just this morning I discovered that I'd already written that last sentence. And that one, too! And ... and before these words degenerate into a sequence of pathologically plagiarized phraseologies, I give you the product of his own eponym, Kalvos.