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Music and My Soul

I almost always write about me. Sometimes I think it's too egocentric, that I should look around more, think about others, the condition of the world, what's beautiful and what's ugly, and write about that, at least some of the time. The problem I've found with that is that it always comes out stilted, or judgmental, or naive. All I know is what goes on inside my head. No matter what's happening out there, what filters into my awareness is mostly determined by the state of my mind. It's presumptuous to think that I can speak of what others do, or what they are.

And yet, of course, I am nothing without my experience of the outside world. I'd not even be human. I'd have no language, no perspective, no sense of myself even, without a relationship to what goes on outside my skin.

So mostly I write about me, in relation to the world I find myself in. For example, I understand that not everybody responds to music the way I do. Hearing the same piece played, I'm moved one way and you might be moved a different way. It would be pointless to tell you how to hear something. But perhaps if I tell you how I hear something, you'll know more about me, and possibly hear something else in the music. I'd like to think that I'm not invested in how you hear the music I love, but let's face it: I like company. And maybe what you hear will inform my own hearing, as well.

There was often music in my home when I was a child. None of my family played an instrument (although my sister took piano lessons for a while), but we sometimes sang together, especially when friends visited. I learned all the old songs, the Steven Foster and the Negro spirituals and others my mother learned herself the same way. We learned the scales in primary school, and some more old songs. (Later, my children learned their songs from television, but they did sing.) I grew up with radio, and there were many programs of music for us, from the Renfro Valley Barn Dance to the Telephone Hour. My mother had a phonograph, and I still remember from those days the melodies of Grieg and Schumann.

During my adolescence, something happened to me. My interest in classical music kept growing, while it seemed to have less and less importance in my family. Someone gave me a turntable, a little electric thing that was supposed to plug into a radio. Instead, I connected headphones, and played my few records over and over. An aunt gave me some albums of Ravel and Grofe. I didn't feel a need to learn to play an instrument myself, although I did "compose" a short piece on my sister's piano, writing down the notes as I found them (I had no concept of "key.") I discovered that one could play a great many popular songs using only the black keys on the piano, but I had no idea why. And I was curious why certain notes sounded good together, and how if you played a chord then changed one note, there was a different "feel" to it.

Naturally, my interest in classical music didn't do much for integrating me into my age group, either at school or in my neighborhood. It was one more thing that set me apart. I did learn the popular music as well, and spent a lot of my first part-time income on a portable radio that I carried with me walking down the street singing along with my music. (You thought boom-boxes began in the 1970s?) By that time, love songs dominated my repertoire. I found that the lyrics of songs helped me remember the melodies. I struggled hard to remember the more complex melodies in classical pieces, using mental tricks such as those people use to remember names. (What happens after the familiar opening bars of Tchaikovsky's Fourth? Make up some words to fit the notes.)

With adulthood I gradually built a library of records, and a repertoire of favorite pieces. The Romantics were tops on my list, and over the years I expanded the kinds of music I could listen to (it's interesting to me that I often either love a piece or hate it, almost from the first time I hear it). Beginning with Tschaikovsky and Brahms and Wagner, I learned to listen to Dvorak, and Mussorgsky and Ravel and Schubert. Beethoven's symphonies and concertos were easier than his chamber music. Mozart and Bach came later. I liked some Handel, but to this day have difficulty with Haydn. I couldn't deal with atonal music, and had difficulty with Stravinski, except his "Firebird." There was so much music available, I couldn't conceive of ever running out of something new to learn.

My early records were played so much (I didn't have many) I knew them by heart, and when I heard other performances I didn't like them--they weren't "right." After a while, sophistication creeps in, and one learns that there are different interpretations that can be equally valid.

So my ear developed, I suppose, like most people's. I began with pieces strong in melody and with simpler structures. Pieces I could hum along with. I was swept away by Tchaikovsky's ballets. I never stopped listening, every chance I got. It took many years before I could admit that I was tiring of certain pieces, but there were favorite records that I played less and less. (Eventually, of course, some of those early favorites, such as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, sprang into my consciousness again, "new" discoveries undiminished in their ability to hold me.)

I found that many pieces I remembered from my radio days, themes from favorite programs, took on new life when I rediscovered them in their concert versions. The Overture to Rossini's opera William Tell was only one of the themes used in "The Lone Ranger" series, as I discovered in hearing Lizst's "Les Preludes" years later. Sebelius not only composed "Finlandia" but "Valse Triste" as well, the theme from a favorite adventure series "I Love a Mystery."

During a time in the 1940s, musicians in the U.S. organized, and struck to protest the practice of radio networks and stations playing recorded music without paying royalties to the composers and artists. While the strike was on, classical themes from the public domain were hauled out and trimmed down, lyrics added and modern arrangements hurriedly created so that "air time" could be filled with something. Most of the resulting popular songs were unmemorable, but a lot of people learned a lot of themes from classical music, and to this day can recite the sometimes awful lyrics. Much as some people can't listen to "William Tell" as just music, I struggle to not hear "Tonight We Love" through the opening bars of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.

I suppose the part of the brain that in most men is filled with ball scores and batting averages is in my case crammed with composers and performers--and music. In my car, the radio is seldom turned off, and almost always is tuned to a classical music station. At home, I play music mainly when I'm alone. I don't like talking when I'm listening (although sometimes I'll put on something turned down low, just as background for conversation). I find it hard to work with words when music is playing, but I can do artwork without a problem, even with Rimsky-Korsakov turned up loud. Must be different parts of the brain at work.

Music is certainly a language (or more precisely, languages). And even though some of us cannot speak it, we understand its emotional meanings in differing degrees. Not all the meanings have verbal counterparts; the understanding is often purely experiential. Technical talk about music is like technical talk about philosophy; there is something left out, no matter how erudite the discourse. And just as wisdom depends only partly upon vocabulary and historical knowledge, musical appreciation depends only partially on knowledge of notation, scales and harmonic structure. (Now you know one of my biases--I have very little formal education in music, but a lifetime of loving it.)

I won't apologize for the gaps in my knowledge. I'm sure I make remarks about music that those with more formal background wince at. It's not quite on the par with the old quotation, "I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like." I'm envious of those who can play an instrument. I'm in awe of soloists who can perform very complex concertos without a score in front of them. I'm bowled over by the fact that a hundred people can gather on a stage and play a piece full of counterpoint and mixed rhythms without missing a beat. In my one guitar class, I could not for the life of me play along with others, even pieces I thought I had learned beforehand, if different people were playing different melody lines.

But there's something deep inside me that resonates with music, something at soul level, something that would certainly shrivel and die without it. Probably, however, there is enough music stored in my brain that if I were deprived of my hearing, I would never really lose that experience of the largo movement of Shastakovich's Fifth Symphony and feeling tears well up in my eyes. It is indelibly inscribed in my soul.

June 4, 1999

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