Music Appreciation Class
He had just started a CD in the nondescript stereo. I recognized instantly the opening beat of Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" and my gut began to move in time with it. It was a slow day, and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road . . .
Al was middle aged, slender, with a neat black beard. I'd heard good things about him in other classes. Part of the course pack he had assigned us was a cassette tape of music from all over the world, snippets of chants, of quivering strings, exotic rhythms. We were supposed to make notes about the excerpts, how they affected us. On the first night of class he had played an assortment of Western music, much of it unknown to me, and asked for our reactions. I had admitted feeling impatient with some of the Bartok, and he explained a little about the origins of the music, about the dissonance of the time and place that had spawned such anguished sounds.
Tonight, to my gratitude, he was playing popular music. There was a bright light, a shattering of shop windows . . . The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio . . . The music was loud, which was just as well, for the students weren't exactly sitting in rapture. Some were moving to the music, some were whispering to their neighbors, others reading or writing in notebooks. A couple (like me?) were just sitting there, perhaps listening, perhaps lost in thought.
I remembered the first time I heard Simon and Garfunkle's "The Sound of Silence." I was moved gently by the music, but stunned by the lyrics. They gave voice to my angst of the time, and eventually led to my identifying with the kids half my age, sitting in the street, tuned in to the counterculture. I had begun to listen to popular music again (after years of avoiding the banalities of rock and roll). Again and again, Paul Simon touched me with his music, especially the sad, dark songs of loss and despair. His newer music, like the Graceland album we were now listening to, intrigued me with the complexity of his rhythms. These are the days of miracle and wonder . . . This is a long distance call . . .
It reminded me of a radio program from my childhood, in which they pretended to play a push-button radio, switching stations abruptly, so that fragments of songs and speech were strung together in a juxtaposition that was usually funny, sometimes poignant. Simon's lyrics were just such bits of familiarity, fragments of clichés from today's culture, "happy face" images: The way the camera follows us in slo-mo . . . The way we look to us all . . .
All the while, the catchy beat, the ordinary voice, the almost pleasant tone of the whole thing. Philip Wylie wrote a book once, in which the protagonist is going through a private art gallery. Each painting is arranged so that one approaches it from a distance, at first seeing something ordinary but colorful, such as an attractive woman posing in a red dress. As one gets closer, however, one feels uneasy. There's something wrong here, but what? The woman's eyes look strange. And then, a foot away from the painting, one sees the blood on the red dress, and then the wound. Back to the eyes--she's clearly dead. The other paintings in the gallery are all the same thing: Ordinary, familiar images, until one approaches closely to find the rot, the decay, the death. Metaphors for society.
Simon's lyrics are like that in this piece, as well as in others. Energetic, upbeat images--until one pays attention. These are the days of lasers in the jungle, lasers in the jungle somewhere . . . Staccato signals of constant information . . . A loose affiliation of millionaires, and billionaires, and baby . . . These are the days of miracle and wonder . . . And don't cry baby, don't cry, don't cry . . .
The boy in the bubble, indeed. The bubble we all live in, protected from the agony outside, bombarded on all sides by television images of unreal death, hearing the now-familiar staccato of automatic arms fire, seeing spectacular, fiery explosions in slow motion, with flying glass and bodies flung through space. None of it real to us. The more real it looks, the less reality we see.
Al stopped the CD at the end of the piece. "So, what did you hear?" he asked.
He nodded to someone sitting nearer to him, someone whose eye he managed to catch. "What did you hear?"
"Well," began the young man, whose long, slender fingers would easy span an octave on a full-size keyboard, "I guess . . . I don't know, I guess it's about, like, how there's a lot of stuff going on, but we should keep cool, I guess. Like, don't let it get to you. You know."
Several others were speaking, but I couldn't hear anything in particular. I was sitting (as I usually do) off to the side, inconspicuous, silent. In my head, however, I was shouting at the young man, Irony! For God's sake, it's irony! Listen! If the words actually came out, nobody heard them. Al didn't comment. Instead, he turned back to the stereo and cued up another song, another voice, another mood.
"Tell me what you hear."
Donald Skiff, January 14, 1999