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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Music For The Beginning of the World

December 22nd, 2012

The world didn’t end.

And I am listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony- to the Ode To Joy, and I am feeling this moment the taste of eternity and therefore the world is ever ending and ever beginning. To live is to taste the layers of such candy, the sweet followed immediately by the bitter, and to look to the stars, and to laugh, and to look down into the violent heart of creation and to weep.

I actually don’t believe in world endings, per se, but a greater obliteration into the sands and stars of eternity, perhaps the end of the world as “we” know it but then, who are we, anyway?

Among the many things we are, we are makers of music as well as we are committers of violence (even if only in our thoughts and if only against ourselves [sic].)

Four things: (but I’m not actually going to talk about the first two, just putting them in here for context.)
  1. The Newtown Tragedy
  2. NRA and guns in every schools
  3. Music again in Afghanistan after the Taliban, as told by Andrew Solomon on THE MOTH
  4. Marin Alsop, of both the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, speaking on NPR about how in the US we are struggling to get any arts education but, in South America, both government and private funding sources are increasing classical music education in schools.

One week ago, I spent the weekend in Minnesota. I was at the Mall of America, comparing little pink dresses for my niece, as I looked up and saw Santa walk by. One moment later, my NY Times App on my phone reported the breaking news about the massacre in Newtown. Just as I snapped the photo of Santa getting on the escalator (I chased him to get a good shot, because I just knew my niece and nephew would love to see it), the notice popped up and I had to reshoot. “Dang!” I had said in the moment, frustrated that I had the “push notices” feature up and running on the App. But I got my pic of Santa, and I waved and shouted out “Thank you!” as he disappeared into the floors below me (it’s a VERY big mall) and he shouted back “You’re Welcome!” And then I read the App, and then I read it to my parents, and then I sat down and I wept.

I came home a few days later to Los Angeles, because I had a lovely opera-tunity (haha, you can tell I was hanging with my Dad because my jokes are corny) to sing an audition (ah, joy! Ah, terror! To sing, to risk the tension of my own laughing and my own crying held in suspense at the stakes of the character, to show you my own pain and my own hope and the feelings of this heart, too great for mere words, which must be SUNG.) And then I heard the proposal from the NRA about armed guards in every school.

Well, I have my own political opinions about it but this blog isn’t really about politics, or even about Jesus Christ (What WOULD he do at this time? Clearly, as the precedent in the Bible shows, it would be to gather up armed volunteers and…. Wait a minute….. wait a MINUTE! Which Book of the Gospel has the part about Jesus’ arsenal of weapons….. okay I’ll get back to you about that…..) No, this blog is not about that. It’s about the gifts of music….

I heard tonight, just now, while baking cookies for Christmas, Andrew Solomon’s wonderful story on the Moth about his time in Afghanistan. Please listen HERE:

You see, so much of it is about the continuance of something divine and immortal that we humans get to touch and to be part of… that is music, and that is life, and that is holy. And these are the holy days, and every day is an opportunity to remember something divine, and to touch it, and to be grateful for that opportunity. … but I know full well I am one of the lucky ones. I am an artist, and I am a poet. Vissi d’arte, and I really mean it!

It moved me to tears, Mr. Solomon’s story, because these artists were not allowed to share music. MUSIC! Under the rule of the Taliban….. and then finally when they had the opportunity, their hearts were so full of joy the played for 13 hours straight….

…and here in the States we allow ourselves to take music and art out of schools to become more pragmatic…. And increasingly, violent…. There are no separations between the warlords and the hegemonists when art and music and poetry are excluded from public discourse and more and more the people are led by means of fear, manipulation and violence. We are the terrorists, too, in another context. Terrorists of the heart, perhaps, but think long term for a moment and you, too shall weep, and then cradle your beloved in your arms, sweetly singing, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…”

But how to reach the heart? How to reach that place where the heart and mind commingle in an ecstasy of systemic comprehension, of thoughtfulness, of beauty, or math and art mixing as one, of the end of isolation (a COMMON THEME among those who commit these massacres!) because in order for this system of fun and beauty to work, we must all work together?

May I humbly propose: music.

Earlier I had listened to an interview with Marin Alsop, a conductor both in Baltimore as well as in Sao Paolo, talking about music programs for children in South America and then here in the US…. It seemed to me that we have let ourselves become so needy to be “right” and so “afraid of being wrong” that we leave little room for places of experimentation and exploration. And yet this isn’t making us smarter or safer or better! We can see quite clearly that it is leading us toward more violence and more death…. Not to mention…. DULL.

Ms. Alsop was talking about a program in Baltimore called ORCHKids, which is giving inner city school kids an opportunity to learn about music, and to see opportunities outside of anything they ever dreamed was possible. … 

And you see, we all mean well, really. I truly believe, like Anne Frank, that deep down, people are still good at heart. I just also pray for us to be led back toward love, and I ask for blessings upon music and love and peace and these values that we all DO hold dear but forget from time to time require practice.

Just like music. Music requires practice. I started at age 5, sitting at the piano every day for 20 minutes. And I’d like to pretend I was a prodigy but it wasn’t until I was 11, really, and actually focused my time every day, that I really began to play. It wasn’t that I couldn’t have earlier but that I just did not practice. But something in me clicked around the time of puberty, and although it is more systemic than what I am about to present, I will simply say that something in me sought an outlet for all these feelings that were just, well, too BIG to be dealt with in a “normal” manner. And that’s why there was John Lennon’s Imagine, and Debussy’s Deux Arabesques (or Portrait of Jenny, as we called it, because it was heavily featured in the film from the 1940s starring Jennifer Jones, which my grandmother loved.) That’s why there was Ani Di Franco ( well, I am a product of the 90s) and R.E.M., and anyone’s list can go on and on. Insert your favorite songs here: Moon River. Fields of Gold. Dance me to the Ends of Love. Songs My Mother Taught Me. Zippity Doo Dah.

Believe it or not, violence and anger and hatred also require practice. Oh sure, in the moment, it seems like a flash. But it is a groove in the nervous system, a highway laid down on a bed of myelin (fat!) and imprinted deeper and faster every time that particular road is taken.

American Poets Frost and Emerson talked about this, and who knew whether they knew a wit about the nervous system… the both wrote very famous poems about taking the road less traveled by…. To go where there is no path and leave a trail….

And what can this mean to us? Little old us? For anyone who is not a great poet nor an infamous murderer? Not a movie star nor a statesman or women nor a leader but merely a school teacher…. A movie theater ticket taker…. A butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker?

And what does music have to do with this again?


When we can see an opportunity outside of something we already know how to know, we can follow that opportunity toward something- and that something is the key to our own heart. Maybe it is changing a pattern so we don’t develop a disease. Maybe it is to learn a language and to therefore be inspired to travel to a place we never thought we could get to. Maybe it is to help us have more joy in our own lives, and maybe it is to inspire us to build an orphanage and donate a dollar. Maybe it is to try something we always wanted to but never dared before…

And music, well, this is what music is like. We set out to learn a new song, one we may or may not have heard before, but which we fumble through the first few times…. Which we soon get into a groove to, having learned, and then discover perhaps we have learned something wrong and get to relearn the piece…. If we are lucky and are playing in a band or an orchestra or in concert with others somehow, we learn to listen to one another with an open mind, and respond in kind. We rely upon one another for rhythm and timing and pitch. We open a doorway through our hearts and minds and bodies and through that doorway, a spirit of something greater than ourselves flows through from one to another.

Perhaps this, music, this can be the “escape” that becomes a new way of salvation for us. I mean, it has existed for so long for a reason, regardless of man’s own inhumanity. Birds, whales, the wind…. Humans. We all have this in common. We all have this gift to quench our desire for communion and to calm the fires of terror and violence. You may say that I’m a dreamer….. but…. You know how the song goes…. I bet you’re already singing it, right now…….