Sunday, August 24, 2014

Broken Drone


The centerpiece of Orff’s elemental orchestration is something called the drone. It can be described as Do and Sol or 1 and 5 or C and G (for starters) and provides the solid ground on which the rhythms walk and over which the melody flies. It is generally played in the basses and can be played in many variations— C and G alternating or played together or played low and then high in steady beats or patterned rhythms. Just as the floor of the house is generally not overly decorated (except St. Marks Cathedral in Venice), the drone is mostly utilitarian, saving the flights of fancy and leaps of the imagination for the melodies, ostinato and other textural elements in music. It is the reliable foundation of the musical edifice. I always warn the teachers I train: “Be careful who you put on the bass part. If that is not rock solid, the whole thing is coming down.”

These were my thoughts after leaping out of bed in the middle of the night with my house shaking. My wife and I ran to the back of the house, sat there for about five minutes and then went back to sleep. The next morning we read about the 6.0 earthquake, the largest since the 6.9 we experienced back in 1989. Described as a “rolling earthquake,” this one seems to have been mercifully benign, with no damage or injuries reported. But the whole thing called up my deep psychological response to the 1989 one, the sense of being betrayed by the illusion that the ground I walked on is always solid and dependable. What felt my whole life like a non-negotiable given turns out to be a tentative arrangement of plates that can slip and slide and literally take away the ground beneath our feet. That’s disturbing. Same feeling as an unstable drone in music, but with potentially much more disastrous consequences.

I have a theory that a series of little earthquakes helps relieve the accumulating tension and forestalls “the big one.” Don’t know if there’s any science behind it, but part of me doesn’t want to find out— it’s at least a mildly comforting thought. Appropriate that the psychological description of one’s emotion—“this really shook me up”— is the same as the physical description. In all sorts of ways, we live our lives built on shaky foundations and though we need the illusion of solidity to help us bear the terror of life and death, it indeed is an illusion. The Buddhist have been telling us that for well over 2,000 years.

So we’ll all huddle around the water cooler at school and talk about it a bit and then dive back into the comfort of preparing our classes for the kids, retreat into routine and hope that the gods are giving that drone in the basses to a solid, reliable player so we can keep the music rolling.

May it be so!

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