A Little Night Music

(Photo by Jörg Schreier via Flickr)

The night was muggy, a storm grumbling as it approached, and I was rushing the dog through a boring walk around the block. Then I heard it.

A warm strum of guitar chords, intricate and lilting. Not a recording. Live.

Funny, how quickly you know that. Audio has attained exquisite fidelity, and I have what used to be called a tin ear, yet I knew. And the minute I heard it, instead of turning back toward my air-conditioned home as planned, I kept walking, block after block, then turning and backtracking, dripping with sweat, the dog panting, until I found that music. And then I stood and listened, and something inside me settled.

The surprise of live music has a way of cutting through the quotidian, lifting my spirits, writing itself into memory. Often the moments are fleeting—jazz saxophone sliding through a cracked window on a rainy day in Soho. Or serendipitous, like the guy who happened to be playing the violin at the top of Art Hill, coins in the open case at his feet, when we showed up dragging a Unitarian minister because I was determined that my mother not remarry in a cold, perfunctory courthouse.

One summer evening, I decided to walk through the seminary grounds in DeMun, because they are watered faithfully and kept hopeful and green and free of life’s chaos. Suddenly church bells began pealing like crazy, cascades of sound, like a diva singing scales in heaven, and I noticed a crowd on the other side of the slope. I had happened upon a bell concert—I knew nothing of them, had never even heard the word “carillon.” I dropped to the ground, ignored the chiggers, stayed till the resonant end.

I loved every minute of that concert, but I did not rush to buy a bell-concert recording. It was stumbling into that glorious music that made it extraordinary. Monks may no longer swing from the bell ropes, but people were literally pulling strings as we listened, orchestrating din into harmony.

Granted, the neighbor kid practicing trombone does not elicit the same joy. Our brains are primed to distinguish music from noise: We respond instinctively to a strong drumbeat, a repeated motif, a lyrical melody. When the tone screeches or the timing is off, our pain more than equals the pleasure we feel when it is right. Still, I feel a little happier about the world when that kid blows his horn.

The other day I read a beautiful piece about a man who collects—before it is too late—a different kind of music. An electronic composer, Bernie Krause archives the howls of wolves and the cracking groan of melting glaciers. “The exhilaration I felt the first time I heard the amplified sound of the forest through my stereo headphones was extraordinary,” he told the writer. “Overhead, a pair of ravens, feathers resonating with each stroke, carved out a sonic arc in the sky with their calls and wingbeats.” Live music.

Maybe our human attempts at melody began with imitations of birdsong? Even if they did, I suspect music is written into our own nature. At concerts, we move our bodies more, nod our heads, tap our fingers, reinforce the communal experience. We are in the moment together; responding with the same emotions; marching, for once, to the same drummer.

Often we listen breathlessly, because we cannot predict where the musician will go next; live music is not a canned and repeatable experience. With jazz, surprise is written into the genre, freedom and spontaneity essential. But even if we are listening for the thousandth time to Beethoven’s Fifth, we are listening to this version’s only take. Nothing has been fixed in post-production, edited out, supplanted, mechanically perfected. What we hear is fully human.

Unless you hired a really bad band, live music is not background music. We cannot move in and out of attention. Even if we drift to sleep at the symphony (one of life’s sweetest guilty pleasures; I have always longed to buy a private box with a curtain-draped bed)—we are still together. That night on the sidewalk, I thought instantly of all the other people who were listening through open windows or stopping, caught by a few notes, as they walked to their car.

I suppose I could have listened from where I first heard the music; it floated easily above the heavy night air. But I wanted to get closer. Live music is mesmerizing, like watching a plein-air painter evoke a lake’s mirrored surface or an artisan blow air into molten glass. The art takes shape in your presence, and you can feel the concentration, the passion, the eagerness to share it.

We listen, and the rest of the world drops away. The music fills us and soothes us, lowers blood pressure, and distracts us from pain. The harmony’s inner logic clarifies the mind (hence all those pregnant women relentlessly playing Mozart).

But more than anything, music opens the heart.

This is hard to acknowledge, because my eye is nearly always trained on words, but music has no need of them. Its power begins before language, and it is understood without translation. Lullabies are sung for a reason, and their lyrics are incidental—otherwise we would all be permanently scarred by that bough breaking. Waldorf School teachers sing their preschoolers into calm compliance. People hum their way through boring tasks or bellow songs to keep them marching or swinging a sledgehammer. My mother-in-law lost her ability to speak after a stroke—but she can still sing.

I quiver with envy when I watch big, musical families do the Von Trapp thing—no edelweiss, but singing around a piano, or banging away in a garage band, or making a video parody of Les Mis to get us through quarantine. They always seem so happy, so present. I was fired by my guitar teacher when I was 11: “Honey, you can’t sing on key and you have no rhythm, are you sure you want to keep going?” I did, but I politely agreed to quit. I have missed those doomed attempts to make a pleasing sound ever since.

Even though music requires grueling discipline, it seems freeing. And even though it is intimately connected to math, it sweeps past (or sweeps away) rational inhibitions. Plato warned of new music’s revolutionary power to change an entrenched political status quo. Marilyn Manson called music “the strongest form of magic.”

If someone quizzed me about my feelings during quarantine, I would muster a bright, resolute response. But when I hear the soft strains of a guitar ballad, the loneliness wells up, and my eagerness for other people’s company, and the spoiled-brat fury that so much of life has been put on hold. Or canceled for good? We cannot even know yet what to grieve. But I will stand there until the music stops.