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 and brilliant 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.