Thursday, May 15, 2008

The other side of silence

The setting sun, and music at the close,

As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,

Writ in remembrance more than things long past.

– William Shakespeare

All the way there and back music of some sort played. Some we could hear, some we couldn’t. The car stereo played something electronic and soothing by Deepspace, though in my head a tune by Max Richter looped endlessly and I longed to sit back with headphones tucked deep in my ears and listen hard to its every nuance, sure that somewhere within those melodies my life began and played out and everything could be easily explained, or at least understood in its context. And maybe forgiven. 

No rain during the night but a deluge, fields flooded and laced with muddied rivulets winding down to the sea. Could we hear that music in its entirety it would render us motionless, melt our hearts in a fiery forge of tonality. “If we had the keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” George Eliot wrote, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” But I think rather we’d die of joy, given the proper location. 

Lately I’ve been thinking of time and timelessness and things that matter. Trimming my beard and watching snowy bristles cascade to the ground certainly brings to mind our intractable momentum toward the grave and what lies beyond. Nowhere in that contemplation was there any morbidity, only a placid acceptance of its inevitability and perhaps even a touch of curiosity. Partly this was fueled by something I read on the Internet where survivors of the Greensburg tornado offered wisdom gleaned from the wholesale destruction of their town, tidbits which ran the gamut from common sense (stay dressed when under tornado warning) to the practical (keep bottled water and supplies in the basement). A handful of nights after reading it a storm flared up in the southwest and rumbled on the peripheries of consciousness, out there past the horizon but just past. Nexrad radar indicated a scarlet crescent extending from Nebraska to Concordia and moving my direction, so that when I headed to bed an unease settled in my bones and I managed a minimal preparation at best, setting on the table beside the stairway to the basement a flashlight, a bottle of water and, almost as an afterthought, my iPod and earphones. Losing everything would indeed be cataclysmic but certain amenities remain necessary, one being music. 

Why music would play such a prominent role in the autumn of my life remains a mystery. I suspect that on some primordial level it’s an implement to plumb the depths of my soul, to discover who I am and  where I’m going and in that going to snag as much contentment and peace as possible in a tormented world. Also, to connect with whatever lies on the other side of silence. We’re not talking Garth Brooks here nor any other mainstream artist. They have their place, I suppose, though I can’t say where, a statement sure to grate on the ears of their fans but one which illustrates the subjective, indeed, essential nature of music. My taste lies in the ambient fields of electronica and classical instrumentation, such as Hammock’s Maybe they will sing for us tomorrow, or Johann Johannsson’s magnificent IBM 1401 – A user’s manual. And then of course there’s Max Richter and his Blue Notebooks and Songs From Before, portals to alternate universes.

The parishioners who raised St. Bridget’s Catholic Church north of Axtell were looking for the timeless as well. Before driving and occasionally sliding down the mile-long gravel road to the Box Lazy A Ranch where we were to spent the night, we stopped at the church to snap a few photos. We had been here before but never with a good camera and this time I brought a tripod. The church, now unused, is one of four in the state with Gothic-style pointed arched vaults and half vaults buttressing the roof rather than support columns, something of an architectural wonder. Those shadowed geometric confluences were merely the outward manifestations of a universal yearning for songs that resonate far deeper than any sanctus, requiem or cantata. They called it God or the Holy Spirit and I something else entirely but it’s the same thing.

We parked at the main house and transferred to a golf cart and wended our way down a narrow lane another half-mile or so to a small lake, beside which sat three small cabins. The sky remained leaden but breaking though with agonizing lethargy, and Lori, temporarily giving up on relief, opted for a short nap.

For a while I sat outside and watched the world go by, finishing Virgil’s The Aeneid (itself timeless) while keeping an eye on the encroaching forest and the unruffled waters of the pond. Birds were everywhere and my list grew by a few zooties such as American redstart, ovenbird and yellow-throated vireo. Frogs currricked, waaaaaed and rummmed, their unmelodious cacophonies echoing through the clearing. A rose-breasted grosbeak singing lustily made up for any lack of musicality on their part. Realizing as I do the emotional underpinning music generates, I tried to hear in those discordant chanteys something approaching holiness, and almost did before giving up in favor of a tune in my head. Music touches something within the soul that cannot be explained, reverberates to a primal chord ingrained in our DNA, but it’s our songs only that we hear. It’s no different, I’m certain, for frogs.


Unknown said...

Tom, you never cease to amaze me.

Jack Casner

Anonymous said...

Ahhh...the music card. Another sign of the truely creative. I can't write a lick when it's quiet. Seems that I don't want to be alone with my words! The photos of the church are spectacular! One of these days we're going to have to do a face-to-face.


Tom Parker said...

Beth -- Soon.