This piece is featured in this month’s issue of The BeZine. To go to the interactive table of contents, click HERE.
Addressing this topic is a tricky proposition for me. How do I write about “Music” after a lifetime of being in its company, serious collegiate study, professional and semi-professional music-making and now coming to an ever-changing place of informal interaction with it? It is as daunting as writing about “Being Female”.
My partner Steve, who has a more organic relationship to music than I, often asks me, “What is music? Is this Music?” My definitions are vague. John Cage hears music in the sound of traffic. Why not? Steve stands by a babbling brook or a wide lake shore, closes his eyes and begins to wave and conduct the irregular but compelling rhythms. Music is an experience. It is felt and lived, by humans, most certainly, and perhaps by oceans, birds and the cosmic spheres. We can pick it apart, measure it scientifically, codify and teach it and all but kill it while still trying to communicate something beyond all those characteristics. I taught Voice lessons for a few years, giving rudimentary information on practical aspects of sound production and score-reading, but when it came time for a student to prepare for performance, I said something like, “Feel your confidence; trust your instrument; let go and SING!”
The music of the soul, singing, is not without dukkha, the intrinsic suffering of human life. Aside from Art or Artifice, singing is a conduit for emotion as vulnerable and raw as any primal utterance. Those who have guessed this often try to manipulate it or manufacture it for their own uses. Or they try to lose their egos and get as close to being on the edge as they can. Who are the great “emotive” singers you can name? Judy Garland is our favorite. Her story and her relationship with her music is a painful one, but we love to hear her inimitable voice and styling. I used to play my Wizard of Oz record over and over again and try to sound just like her…before I was 10. Before I knew much about suffering at all. She was all of 16 on the recording. She kept singing that song throughout her career. She knew exactly how to wring all the pathos of her life from that melody by the time she died. She did it repeatedly, convincingly each time.
Just two days ago, I read a passage about Singing that struck me with an entirely new impact. It is from Frederick Douglass’ own autobiography about his life as an African-American slave. It will haunt me now whenever I hear Spirituals or make up my own bluesy tunes in passing. This is written in Chapter II, a memory from before he was 10 years old:
“The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. …The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. … To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery… If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,—and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because “there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.” I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.”
Song pouring forth like tears for the relief of an aching heart. Music is a channel for all the emotion that lives within us, be it deep sorrow, longing, suffering, yearning, passion, joy or triumph. Have you never brought an embryonic ache to maturity by playing the right music? Have you not fed a wild impulse by stomping out an insistent rhythm and letting your voice, your body move along with it? Music is my companion, my teacher, my soul mate. It accompanies me as I discover myself, like my breath, my heartbeat. It is biological and intellectual, a genius of Life like an inalienable right. I could not endure existence without it; I can not imagine Freedom without it.
My late husband was a singer, a gifted tenor. When he died, 300 people came to his memorial service to sing their good-byes – solos, congregational hymns and choir pieces. They sang as the living and imagined that there must be Music after death. They could not bear it to be otherwise. Though Death is entirely unknown and a very different (and luckier, as Walt Whitman would say) experience, I would not be surprised if there was music in it. Perhaps it is the very essence of all experience, conscious or not.
Yesterday, I lost the sun at 4 p.m. I arose this morning at 6:30 a.m. It is still dark. There is no snow on the ground, but the air hovers at the freezing point. I wish I were in New Mexico still, where the stars are so close. Steve read me a poem yesterday, and I’ve been trying to digest it ever since. There are so many heavy, rich ideas in it: angelic terror, love and death. And then there are sensual images I recognize immediately and viscerally, like this one: “…the night, when the wind full of outer space gnaws at our faces…” It made me think of exiting my tent in New Mexico, turning my face upward, and beholding the heavens. The translation I’m working with is by A. Poulin, Jr. It is quite long. Take it in doses. Meditate on parts that speak directly to you. Search for your own vibration in the Void.
Rainer Marie Rilke — The First Elegy from Duino Elegies:
And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic
orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me
to his heart, I’d vanish in his overwhelming
presence. Because beauty’s nothing
but the start of terror we can hardly bear,
and we adore it because of the serene scorn
it could kill us with. Every angel’s terrifying.
So I control myself and choke back the lure
of my dark cry. Ah, who can we turn to,
then? Neither angels nor men,
and the animals already know by instinct
we’re not comfortably at home
in our translated world. Maybe what’s left
for us is some tree on a hillside we can look at
day after day, one of yesterday’s streets,
and the perverse affection of a habit
that liked us so much it never let go.
And the night, oh the night when the wind
full of outer space gnaws at our faces; that wished for,
gentle, deceptive one waiting painfully for the lonely
heart — she’d stay on for anyone. Is she easier on lovers?
But they use each other to hide their fate.
You still don’t understand? Throw the emptiness in
your arms out into that space we breathe; maybe birds
will feel the air thinning as they fly deeper into themselves.
Yes. Springs needed you. Many stars
waited for you to see them. A wave
that had broken long ago swelled toward you,
or when you walked by an open window, a violin
gave itself. All that was your charge.
But could you live up to it? Weren’t you always
distracted by hope, as if all this promised
you a lover? (Where would you have hidden her,
with all those strange and heavy thoughts
flowing in and out of you, often staying overnight?)
When longing overcomes you, sing about great lovers;
their famous passions still aren’t immortal enough.
You found that the deserted, those you almost envied,
could love you so much more than those you loved.
Begin again. Try out your impotent praise again;
think about the hero who lives on: even his fall
was only an excuse for another life, a final birth.
But exhausted nature draws all lovers back
into herself, as if there weren’t the energy
to create them twice. Have you remembered
Gaspara Stampa well enough? From that greater love’s
example, any girl deserted by her lover
can believe: “If only I could be like her!”
Shouldn’t our ancient suffering be more
fruitful by now? Isn’t it time our loving freed
us from the one we love and we, trembling, endured:
as the arrow endures the string, and in that gathering momentum
becomes more than itself. Because to stay is to be nowhere.
saints have listened: until some colossal
sound lifted them right off the ground; yet,
they listened so intently that, impossible
creatures, they kept on kneeling. Not that you could
endure the voice of God! But listen to the breathing,
the endless news growing out of silence,
rustling toward you from those who died young.
Whenever you entered a church in Rome or Naples,
didn’t their fate always softly speak to you?
Or an inscription raised itself to reach you,
like that tablet in Santa Maria Formosa recently.
What do they want from me? That I gently wipe away
the look of suffered injustice sometimes
hindering the pure motion of spirits a little.
It’s true, it’s strange not living on earth
anymore, not using customs you hardly learned,
not giving the meaning of a human future
to roses and other things that promise so much;
no longer being what you used to be
in hands that were always anxious,
throwing out even your own name like a broken toy.
It’s strange not to wish your wishes anymore. Strange
to see the old relationships now loosely fluttering
in space. And it’s hard being dead and straining
to make up for it until you can begin to feel
a trace of eternity. But the living are wrong
to make distinctions that are too absolute.
Angels (they say) often can’t tell whether
they move among the living or the dead.
The eternal torrent hurls all ages through
both realms forever and drowns out their voices in both.
At last, those who left too soon don’t need us anymore;
we’re weaned from the things of this earth as gently
as we outgrow our mother’s breast. But we, who need
such great mysteries, whose source of blessed progress
so often is our sadness — could we exist without them?
Is the story meaningless, how once during the lament for Linos,
the first daring music pierced the barren numbness,
and in that stunned space, suddenly abandoned
by an almost godlike youth, the Void first felt
that vibration which charms and comforts and helps us now?
I haven’t forgotten what we shared and how much it meant: how meeting you for the first time made me feel…
…or the sweet music we made together.
I haven’t forgotten the caring; deep, yearning, hoping for all good things for you.
He whispered these things to my heart, and I responded, “Neither have we, my darling.”
To us: many happy returns of the day.
This week, in a post created specifically for this challenge, show us an image that says REFLECTION.
It could be a person who helps you see things clearly, a place you go to collect your thoughts, or an object that reminds you of your achievements. You could also go for something more literal, like a reflection in water. Or something that demonstrates both interpretations of the word.
“A person who helps you see things clearly…”
What would you say about someone who meets you in your greatest grief, who doesn’t turn away but faces the tough questions with you, offering presence, not answers? Someone who challenges you to pursue those questions and discover the emotions they evoke, the hopes, the fears, the identity that emerges from within…and who then asks you to decide who you want to be? Someone who promises simply to be aware and who asks simply for your awareness?
Steve met me 8 months after my husband of 24 years died. I was in a state of profound transition, the fabric and framework of my homespun in complete collapse. On our first date, we hiked around glacial terrain, enjoying the fall colors and talking. Beside Nippersink Creek, I stopped. I became silent. I no longer wanted to fill the space between us with words and thoughts. I was finally unafraid to be aware that I was with him, in a new place, with a new person, as a new life was beginning. He sat beside me, quiet and reflective as well. What I saw clearly was that Life is beautiful and that death does not diminish that one bit.
Possessing a human brain is no picnic. The cumbersome chunk of gray matter is quite the dictator. It wants to know: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? It shines the light in our eyes, makes us squint and squirm until we come up with an answer. And “I don’t know” won’t appease its inquisition. Somewhere in our distant evolutionary history, this dictatorship must have presented some advantage to survival. Possibly it pressed us to a more efficient way to find food or use tools or attract a desirable mate. When the interrogation continues after it has served its immediate purpose, it becomes rather annoying and can create anxiety, frustration, torment and suffering. Think of a 4-year-old asking “Why?” to every explanation offered. It never ends. When you shout back, “I DON’T KNOW!” do you feel you’ve failed and slink off to ponder your existence? (For a good example of this “insane deconstruction” peppered with ‘adult language’, check out comedian Louis C.K. in this clip.)
Humor aside, the suffering is universal. We have all lived the anguish of a mystery at some point. As I write this, I am thinking of all the people whose loved ones disappeared on the Malaysian jet that has been missing for 11 days. Unanswered and unanswerable questions must plague them. The few photos of their grief that I’ve seen are hard to bear. Add to that circle connected to those 239 people all of the families of military personnel MIA throughout history, all of the families of travelers to foreign countries in unstable political climates who never returned, all of the parents of children abducted and gone without a trace. The stories of devastation are heart-breaking and inevitable. The common denominator is The Great Mystery – Death. Ironically, it is the most mundane mystery as well. We will all be touched by it, every one. And we know it. The two deaths that I experienced first hand were not shrouded by any great cloud of darkness. My sister and my husband both died right beside me: my sister in the driver’s seat of a car, my husband in our bed. They were not ‘missing’ by any means. And yet, I will never have the answer to basic questions like, “What were they feeling?” “When exactly did they lose consciousness?” “Was I to blame?”
Mystery is the Truth. We do not know. We delude and comfort our demanding brains in a parade of ideas. When that effort is expended, can we accept and live with Mystery? What does that feel like? How do I do that?
You see, again the questions surface, the never-ending tide of the probing lobe of consciousness. Maybe some day that flow will be replaced by the still, mirrored surface of a quiet mind.
© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved