Sunday, October 7, 2012

What to Expect from Music

It has been said often and more eloquently than I can manage: “Music washes away the dust of this world.” It brings us to a place where every tone gifts us with meaning and brings the chaos of the world into order. When well-rendered, music stops the clock and puts us into soul-time, where life and death are points on the same line that rise and fall and move inexorably to an at once regretful and welcomed cadence. For as long as the music is playing, we are lifted out of our small selves and brought into the grand circle of Creation. We each may have our private corner of the imagination where the rhythms and tones lead us to steal a secret kiss, but we also are connected to our neighbors in ways closed to us stuck in freeway traffic. All the tired words of love, peace, harmony shine brightly again as fresh as when they were first conceived on our tongues. The burdens we wearily shoulder each day are set down and for as long as the horn is blowing, the violin bowing and the music is flowing, we are free.

And then the music ends and the lights come up. We head toward the aisles in the afterglow of it all, the sounds echoing in our ears as we merge into the contented hum of the crowd, different people than when we walked in. Refreshed. Transformed. Ready to renew our vows to be better people, to be kinder to each other, to spend more time with beauty. But the maddening fact is that those echoes fade, the transformation doesn’t stick and by the time we’re in the parking garage, we’re already cursing at the guy who cut in front of us. Like other inspired moments when the borders of skin and self dissolve—a deep Zen meditation, good lovemaking, a sunset over the lake—we can only take a short dip in the pond of immortality. As much as we’d love to linger in the soothing waters, the world is set up to push us out onto land, out of the bliss of the womb into the messy, bloody world. Time and time again, expelled from the Garden and tasting anew the knowledge of good and evil, self and other, joy and grief, belonging and exile.

I just finished, for the second time, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, an extraordinary tale of music’s power to transform in the most trying of times. The entire book is the shifting conversation between beauty and terror and for most of the story, music and the love it awakens keeps gaining ground. As a music teacher, I of course love this and constantly speak my hope that music has the capacity to overcome our ignorance, violence and greed. But in the battle between our gods and our devils, the latter have the machinery and the guns. Ms. Patchett's story and the daily news suggest that I’ve been a trifle naïve, time and again overestimating music’s power. 

Or to re-phrase it. Why put all of the world’s woes on music’s shoulders, however large they may appear to be? Why expect it to reach into every corner of human possibility and weirdness and solve everything? Isn’t it enough that it speaks our joy when we’re happy and consoles us in our grief? Maybe I need to lower the bar a bit, be grateful for what we know music can do instead of be disappointed that it can’t do yet more. Years back, in the middle of a six-month grieving process for my dying father, I wrote a poem about this very theme. And so to end, I include it here.


Driving home from the Marin hospital.

Another day of coaxing my father back to life after heart surgery,

worrying about my too-young friend edging closer to her death.

My back in pain and a three-week sickness that won’t let go.

My mind is fixed on the great matters of birth and death when the city

comes into view, shining in full resplendence in the light of dusk.

On the car speakers, two repeated notes tentatively announce the beginning

of something worth attending to,

answered by the strings, who charge that little bird song with confidence.

Flutes and oboes and more strings join the chorus, swelling

and then settling for just a breath,

when the first voice enters,

rising over it all with the majesty of a lone eagle over a twilight sea.

my spine begins to tingle.

When the second voice joins,

I am lifted out of my mortal body, released from all the persistent pain, the gravity of

grief and the soul’s sorrow.

I am soaring over the Golden Gate Bridge,



The music  lasts for four minutes and one second.

And I think:

This is all the immortality we will ever get.

And all we will ever need.

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