Building a Musical Life
Music takes us places we never expected — or even wanted — to go. It can take us to the heights of ecstasy or the depths of despair. It appeals to us and sometimes repels us, too.
Our earliest memories, even pre-memories, may have to do with our mothers singing as they carry us in their womb. Many of us are ushered off into the beyond — to wherever we go when we go — with music designed to ease our leaving and the hearts of those who are left behind.
My earliest musical memories include Willy the Whale, Christmas carols in an Upper West Side apartment building in New York, Chris Connor, The Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic, sitting on the floor with 78 rpm recordings on 12-inch discs of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, and on Compo Beach in Westport, CT, first hearing Bill Haley singing “Rock around the Clock” when I was in eighth or ninth grade. They all evoke memories — stirrings of inchoate feelings that even now, as I approach three quarters of a century, have the power to move me and make me think.
Science and math writer James Gleick in The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood takes readers through the history of information and how it’s passed on, stored, communicated, and understood. Perhaps the premier writer in science and technology today, Gleick presents ideas that are difficult to grasp yet somehow invite me to glimpse both the ends of the universe and the deepest inner workings of the cell. He does all of this while never allowing his mathematical musings to deter me from reading on. As he takes the thoughtful reader from African drum beats to Wikipedia and Google, I’m struck repeatedly by the impossibility for any individual to grasp it all, to synthesize the ideas that surround us every day. Music — because it reaches most deeply into us — may have the deepest effect of all.
Daniel Levitin, in his groundbreaking book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession tells us that the music we hear earliest is the music that stays with us longest. He explores the way that music affects our neurology at the deepest levels, creating powerful feelings and responses that last us a lifetime. He argues that music has been with us since the beginning of human history and has been crucial to the evolutionary development of our humanity. He particularly emphasizes that the music each of us listened to during adolescence, during the time we were going through puberty, affects us most deeply and persistently. No wonder our love lives are so entwined with our musical experience!
Music never loses the power to draw us in, to transport us to another world, to tap into our emotions and our thoughts at the same time. My mother often spoke of attending symphony concerts as a young woman in New York, during the 1930s. She described Toscanini’s elegance and his passion, conducting without a baton — almost a dance to direct and control his instrument: an entire symphony orchestra. Truly, I must say that my experience of his conducting, perhaps once at Carnegie Hall sometime during the ’50s, had little effect on me. But later, when I rediscovered his recorded version of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, they entered my soul, and have stayed.
Music on the Kingston Trio’s 1958 debut album (Capitol) had special appeal on college campuses and among folk-oriented students of all ages. It reached the Billboard charts in the fall of 1958 and remained there for four years. Imagine such longevity today!
The music on that album ranged from a smoky lounge ditty called “Scotch and Soda” to their interpretation of the classic mountain song, “Little Maggie.” Contrast how the Kingston Trio sang this song with the way Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys delivered it with a more traditional performance.
As this column is published, we’re in the Hoover-Y Park just south of Columbus, Ohio, for Musicians Against Childhood Cancer — an all-star festival that benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Promoter Darrel Adkins often takes the stage to remind those attending that they may not find every band to their taste. Sometimes there will be the forbidden drum kit on the stage, or a band that might sound too progressive or too country for some. At other times, a performer may represent too close a kinship to the founders for the audience. Adkins suggests that when that time arrives, listeners so affected should take a break, go to the vendors for something to eat or retire to their trailers for a nap. He guarantees that when they return, there will be something they like.
So, how then does the music that’s available in all that kaleidoscope of sound cascading down to us through the ether, the stages, the recordings, the books — the ages — fit together? I’ve found, for instance, that a weekly service of Spotify’s Discover button comes each Monday morning, when the streaming service provides a two- or three-hour playlist constructed for me, based on my previous listening. I can, if I wish, select a song the service highlights, click on it, and listen to the entire album … or I can ignore what I hear.
Unsurprsingly, selecting an album or listening to more from an artist’s highlights will generate more similar performers. Sometimes there’s a delightful surprise for me. Other times — blah. Does this tend to broaden or narrow my taste? Do I want to broaden it or narrow it? Is there enough time, energy, and the desire to understand, to add more?
Irene and I found our way to a musical corner known as bluegrass. For us, it’s a version with some of the edges worn off and others added. It has a contemporary version that purists might suggest doesn’t retain the authenticity of the original sound born in the 1940s. But somehow, music helps us to connect with others in ways more intimate than we ever expected to find, and to satisfy parts of ourselves we never knew about before, while it’s an area where we agree more than we knew we would. Perhaps that’s enough.