THE READING ROOM: Bassist Victor Wooten Offers Lessons for Repairing Our Relationship with Music
Bassist Victor L. Wooten, a founding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, has a dire message in his allegorical tale The Spirit of Music: The Lesson Continues (Vintage). Since he wrote the book before the pandemic, his message sounds prophetic and his writing prescient.
Like any good prophet, Wooten sees what needs to be reformed in society and calls on readers to enact those reforms. To be fair, Wooten is not strident, but he does gently prod, and his vision illumines the darkness of our world and shines a light toward a new place.
Riffing off his earlier book, 2008’s The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music, Wooten sets off on a journey to discover how he can save music and help others and himself feel connected to it once again. In that book, he recalls, “I told about a dream I’d had one night that contained a beautiful but disturbing conversation between Music and me. Her voice, like that of a wise and concerned mother, reverberated through my mind, telling me that she was sick and dying because she was losing touch with humans. According to her, we do not feel her as completely as we used to, and because of that, she currently has a more intimate relationship with computers than she does with people. That is a bit scary to me. In my book, I referred to it as a dream because I was afraid to tell the truth. But now, I am not afraid to tell you that it was not a dream at all.”
Now, in The Spirit of Music, Wooten tells that truth: “What we haven’t heard is that Mother Music is also dying. Yes! That is also important and true. You see, like Nature, who is aware of all her children, Music is a living consciousness who is aware of each musician. She chooses us in the same sense that we choose our instruments. In fact, we are her instruments. We might consider it an absurd thought if our instruments believed they were making music instead of us. It may be just as absurd for us to think that we are making music instead of Music herself. Understanding this truth not only makes our music better, it also enhances the musical experience. Without this understanding, Music and we (as a people) suffer.”
Dividing The Spirit of Music into 19 measures, Wooten describes his quest to recover the meaning of music and also offers reflections on the ways music shapes him and us and the ways that music is a part of us. Wooten sets off on a journey to discover how he can save music and help others and himself feel connected to it once again. He first drives from New York City to his parents’ house in Virginia, hopeful that they might be able to offer some advice and nurture his spirit. After a number of conversations, his mother sagely tells Wooten that real musicians don’t just play instruments, but they “listen to everything and listen to their hearts.” She suggests that Wooten start teaching music as a way of reconnecting with music.
In a dream-like narrative, “Victor” one day stumbles upon a young man named Jonathan who’s trying to learn to play bass, and Victor becomes Jonathan’s teacher until Jonathan disappears almost as mysteriously as he’s appeared. Victor sets off on a wild journey not only to find Jonathan but to save Music from the Phasers, a group of individuals wearing headphones whose goal is to change the way we listen to and experience music. Along the way, Victor meets up with four other musicians whose vision of music is “who we are, and playing Music is an attitude, an awareness, an experience. We live in that place continuously. It is time for you to understand that.” Throughout the story Wooten sprinkles little musical proverbs such as, “Pair with your audience. Pair with Music. Do it before you start a task. In other words: the best way to prepare is to pre-pair,” and “Put yo’ signature on the current time. Dat’s what we call a time signature.”
As with any other epic journey, the quest and the lessons we learn from it light our paths more than the homecoming at the end. Along the way, Wooten shares a number of reflections that can aid readers seeking to heal music. He acknowledges that “music is everywhere; you do not have to create it; you just have to feel her and become one with her. Then anything you touch will become your instrument.” In the end, he offers this encouragement: “With your eyes closed or open, I urge you to walk the path. Like a musician playing a song, your part does not increase or diminish who you truly are, but it does allow you to demonstrate who you are. Play every part with your whole being. In this way you will give others the awareness and the courage to do the same.”
The Spirit of Music, Wooten’s nimbly imaginative foray into the power of music, declares that playing every part with one’s entire being creates awareness in others and gives the courage to play music from the heart.