Songs In The Wood
Our introduction to each other could not have begun in more unlikely circumstances. It was the very early days of Ultra Fidelis, twenty-plus years ago, and we were working hard every day, out of my home, to get the business over the hump. I got a call one day from a co-worker from the defunct business I had previously been involved with. He told me his wife, an attorney, had a client whose neighbor was challenging the relocation of some building on her client’s property in Cedarburg due to noise concerns. I’m thinking, where does this come around to, “and so they need a nice music system with some serious floor-standing speakers and a couple subwoofers.” Instead, he says, “Could you go out there and make some sound measurements?”
I tried everything. Starting with a simple, “No!” (Easily overcome with begging.). Then, I don’t have time. (Oh, come on, man! More begging.). Followed by, why don’t YOU just do it? (My WIFE is his attorney. What would THAT look like?). New angle: I am not a professional at this; my work won’t hold up in court. (This isn’t COURT! It’s the Cedarburg Planning Commission, for goodness sakes! Just bring your Radio Shack meter and make some measurements.). Then it dawned on me! I KNOW someone. Bob Dizack will do this, I’m sure. Turns out Bob had sold his chart recorder and was even less interested in a small gig he was even less connected to than I was.
I called the co-worker back to deliver the bad news. By the end of the call, somehow, I had directions to the client’s location, and a date and time to meet there. I pulled into the driveway next to a house I would later find out was built in 1848 (“Wisconsin became a state in 1848”), parked and walked back to the building in question. Out to meet me came Charley Radtke, and I could see, for the first time, that the “noise” in question must come from making furniture. But not what you are thinking. I was about the be introduced to the category I would come to know is called “studio furniture” or furniture that is, first and foremost, art. Hand-created pieces at the rate of 10 or fewer a year.
We greet each other and I say, “Is THIS what you do?” Charley says it is and asks me the same question. Based on my clipboard with legal pad and $49 Radio Shack SPL meter, I must have looked quite the forensic audio professional. Quickly, I say, “NO! I have a high end audio business. I’m doing a favor for a former co-worker.” He says, “Do you sell turntables?” Yes. “Like Linn Sondek turntables?” Yes! Hey, this may work out after all.
I ask Charley to turn on all his machines at once, something that would never happen in real life, but will absolutely give us worst-case conditions, and I proceed to go out behind his building, nearer his upset neighbor’s property, and make my measurements. Only I can’t. The sound is so close to inaudible that I have to set my meter to a sensitivity that makes a blue jay cawing from the next yard send the meter pegging into the red.
I spend about a half hour, scribble some numbers on my legal pad, more for appearances than anything, tell Charley I will get my report to his attorney shortly, and bid him goodbye, but not before we agree to get together again. I have become, in this very brief time, completely smitten with his work, the most exquisite shaping of wood I have ever encountered, and it has struck my soul. And Charley is fascinated to have met a purveyor of fine audio equipment, something I would come to learn is essential in his life, in such a serendipitous way.
Briefly stated, in stead of graphs and numbers, I wrote a piece of prose for Charley’s attorney to present to the Cedarburg Planning Commission saying how absurd it was that anyone would be concerned by a threat of noise from Charley moving his building farther back on his properly zoned property. I seized my moment in the sun of “the legal system.” I may have used terms like “national treasure” and “outrageous affront.” In any event, I got a nice email from Charley saying that my piece had made his wife cry at the meeting and they had “won” thanks, at least in a small part, to what I did, and thanking me.
So began a great friendship. Although we express it in different ways, we see the world very similarly it seems; we both do what we love for a living; and we share many common interests, chief among them the enjoyment of, in fact the outright need for music in our lives. I am extremely lucky to have two of Charley’s creations in my home, and he has lots of great audio equipment in his, some of which is in his studio, and all of which I know he considers essential to his creative process. And all of this is as a result of me being unable to turn down a small gig over 20 years ago I was certain I didn’t want to do.
There are many great tales in those intervening two decades, but I want you to be aware of a very special opportunity you have right now. There is a one-man exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum called Charles Radtke: Contained. I have been twice. The first time, I reunited with the woman I unknowingly made cry those years ago, now Charley’s ex-wife, and the two of us couldn’t help ourselves in the presence of all these beautiful objects gathered together, the work of one man. We cried.
I hope you go. And if you happen to be free next Tuesday, June 4 at 1:30 PM, Charley will be there talking about the works in the exhibit with Margaret Andera, the wonderful interim chief curator and curator of contemporary art at MAM. I attended the last one of these talks and it was fantastic, enlightening even for me, and I have been present during the creation of well over half of the objects in the exhibit. If you do go, in addition to beholding these wonderful pieces, you will also note the emphasis on music as inspiration in everything Charley does. I am beyond honored that, for the last 20 years, that music has flowed from equipment I provided, set up and maintained.
The whole thing wraps up August 25th, and then these pieces all disperse to their origins- the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian, the Boston Museum of Fine Art, and the homes of some very fortunate folks. I certainly consider myself one.