I find myself lately immersed in music.
Not just listening to it, not just playing it and singing it, but also reading about and thinking about what a potent force music is in our lives, whether we’re conscious of that or not.
Over just the past week or so, playing percussion, singing loudly around a dinner table, taking in a jazz concert, joining in singing gospel and folk music in large venues and rehearsing and accompanying with my chorus, I’ve felt the deep power of music welling up inside me, connecting me with my emotions and with the emotional expression of the composer, but also connecting me with the people singing around me and the other musicians I’m collaborating with.
Where does that power come from? What’s going on?
A friend recently sent me a post reminding me of music’s ability to inspire deeper love, compassion ... and humanity itself. That's crucial, at a time when there's so much noise and discord in our world, that special quality of music -- whether timeless compositions Bach or Beethoven and others or songs of the people ourselves.
Yo-Yo Ma, who began performing on cello at age 4, who's used his talent to connect with musicians from around the world in creating the Silk Road Ensemble and most recently playing the unaccompanied Bach Cello Suites in intimate public settings in dozens of intimate settings around the planet, said recently, "Over the years, I have come to see that this music has a different force. It can heal, it can inspire, it can create wonder. And it was written 300 years ago by a man who never traveled more than a few hundred miles from the place where he was born.
But whenever I play it for an audience, I see that it still speaks to us, no matter what year we're living in, where we are, and what language we speak. This isn't just Bach. Food, art, science, storytelling, they all help us to understand ourselves, each other, and our environment, through head and heart. This is culture.
“By calling on the imagination and the powers of observation we all have, culture helps us to tell our story,” Yo-Yo Ma added. “Culture tells a story that's about us, about our neighbors, about our country, our planet, our universe, a story that brings all of us together as a species.
"I believe that culture is essential to our survival. It is how we invent, how we bring the new and the old together, how we can all imagine a better future. ...It is the ground on which everything else is built. It is where the global and local, rural and urban, present and future confront one another.
Culture turns the other into us, and it does this through trust, imagination, and empathy.”
The intrinsic power of music -- especially the non-commercial music we make together -- seems at times almost magically woven into its chord structure, its rhythmic patterns and its modality – invisible to most of us. Following that weave, whether you’re intensely playing the progressions on an instrument like the piano or clarinet, or feeling them course through you or even intently listening to them being performed, can be an emotional journey – especially if you’re sharing that experience.
Words attached to those chordal progressions can add to their power, as I found when I was singing a song taught by gospel director Kathy Bullock:
“"You might be hurting, you might be crying,
You might be worrying and frustrated too.
Let me encourage you. Let me speak life to you.
You can depend on God to see you through.
I pray for you, you pray for me.
And watch God change things."
“Words have power,” Kathy Bullock teaches, explaining that that the songs that come out of the African-American tradition inherently inspire hope for a better world. "I can speak life to you."
"People needed to make sense of a confusing and terrifying environment," she’s said of singing together. "They needed a way to find a sense of hope in a place where the law said they weren't even human. They needed to find a way to be. They sang their hope, their joy, their sorrow, their pain, their lives.
"Music changes your condition," she’s quoted Sweet Honey in the Rock's Bernice Reagon as teaching.
"Immediately by singing, I'm no longer alone. I become part of a collective. There's a sense of belonging. So all the spirituals are filled with hope.”
After listening last week to singer-songwriter Pat Humphries, I began reflecting on the power of songs like her “Swimming to the Other Side:”
"We are living 'neath the great big dipper
We are washed by the very same rain
We are swimming in the stream together
Some in power and some in pain
We can worship this ground we walk on
Cherishing the beings that we live beside
Loving spirits will live together
We're all swimming to the other side."
The poetry of the lines, together with the empowering anthem-like melody, the repetition of the imagery and the rhythmic drive of the song, especially when sung with a group, makes its power very real.
“This is one of my hopes for the world,” legendary folksinger Pete Seeger told NPR in 2002 in an interview about the power of that song. “The powers-that-be control the media: the print media, the airwaves. But it’s hard for them to stop a good song. So I feel encouraged. I think the human race has a good chance of succeeding, in spite of the basic foolishness of most of the people who control the world. It’s hard for them to control what people say or sing to each other.”
In an interview on PBS, Pete said, “Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life, as much as talking, physical exercise and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And while one person taps out a beat while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”
I consider myself lucky enough to have made music with lots of people. But much more importantly, I’m fortunate to have grown up with music and shared music-making in a way that’s enriched my life beyond measure.
At a time when the connections that make us human seem to be unraveling, the essential qualities of music become ever so obvious to help us understand one another, to care about one another, to listen to one another.
As Yo-Yo Ma says in the outstanding 2016 Silk Road documentary, "The Music of Strangers," "The clearest reason for music, for culture, is that it gives us meaning. ... Art prevents people from shutting down. It keeps the windows open … that’s the humanity.”
For me, at least, that's the magical power of music.
Check out my books, Inner Landscapes and Good Will & Ice Cream
Posted: to Poor Richie's Almanac on Tue, Apr 30, 2019
Updated: Sun, May 29, 2022