Saturday, October 29, 2011
Tonight at Ipsento - the best coffee house in Chicago, hands down - I took a break from the jazz in my headphones to listen to the music chosen by the baristas and was struck by the thought that it's been a very long time since I experienced music - as in, experienced music on someone's terms other than my own.
I'll never forget sitting with my dad in the upper balcony, gazing, dumbfounded, over the rail as I watched the musicians of the local symphony orchestra perform on a bleary fall day. I couldn't make sense of how, with such minute movements, the musicians released such beautiful sound. It was as if the music were coaxed out of non-existence, briefly blossoming and then receding. No wonder Lewis placed a song in the mouth of Aslan, and Tolkien's Silmarillion begins with pure music as the embodiment of the creator's glory. There is magic in sound.
The Lord God spoke, releasing concepts into space and time, creating all that is. The Maker of heaven and earth took thought and made it deed through sound, transforming the immaterial into material with such power that that which was said, became.
Where did the sound come from? How did it manage to support and contain and reveal such complex and terrifying purpose? When you and I speak our voice disappears into nothingness. When he speaks the universe is thrown into upheaval. Where did it go after passing me by? Surely, something so weighty and significant couldn't simply be... transitory, could it? My words, because I have no power, recede. His words are life.
Yet each note fell into silence, revealing the next, and the next, together weaving narratives of hope, despair, of cruelty, of deliverance. And after each piece the final note remained only long enough to remind us listeners that what we had experienced would never be, again. It had been a moment, unique to all other moments. Not greater or less, simply un-reproducible.
The half sun-light, weakly breaking through the gloom outside. The expansive ceiling of the theater and the crimson curtains adorning the broad windows. The harsh stage lights, dramatically showcasing the austerely dressed musicians. The way my lunch had remained unsettled, distracting me from the first movement and then stabbing me in the back by seducing me into near sleep during the third. The presence of my father, making time for his son.
All these elements as platform for the performance of a piece that can be played again, but never reproduced the way it was received that day.
All that to say, live music, or at least music chosen for you by someone else, is an opportunity to experience what they intend for you, rather than demanding to have your mood matched by the perfect soundtrack of your own design.
I think of my swelling music collection. Who am I to own sound? And at what cost have I purchased such luxury?
I no longer carry any responsibility to be the creator, I can own, I can hit repeat, I can build playlists. Nor am I subject to any will beside my own. I have the right to claim injustice if an establishment plays a song that doesn't fit my mood. How pathetic. I think I am a control freak.
I create perfect playlists, but am I really listening? Does it even matter who the artists are, what they say, or represent, as long as I feel like I'm put in the right mood? Does everything become subjective as long as I get my feeling fix? Have I made a cheap bargain: as long as the music doesn't make any demands of me I can consume it thoughtlessly?
I don't want to degrade the beauty of silence by casually (read: lazily) filling the air. And I want to restore the experience of being the grateful and thoughtful receiver, who would rather form a memory of a song heard once than scramble to figure out what the song was, missing the song entirely, but feeling triumphant as I hit purchase on iTunes.
I want to memorize and sing more songs, becoming an agent of beauty as opposed to it's critic. The world is overburdened by critics.
Enough rambling - the end.