Music is well said to be the speech of angels. Thomas Carlyle
Twenty five years ago we were walking the neighborhood with our two youngest daughters, Angela and Meg, when three year old Meg took note of sewage back up. “Dad,” she said, “someone is having a yucky cookout!” I had been pondering the science that concluded that all smells consist of millions of tiny particles spewed from their point of origin; she was trying to make sense of a new experience as all children will do. At first I was confused, and then all became clear. Meg’s experience of outdoor smells was mostly of hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken on the grill. This was an outdoor smell, but made her queasy, therefore….
“Yucky cookout” wasn’t Meg’s mistake; it was someone else’s misfortune.
Without music, life would be a mistake. Friederich Nietzsche
Our first grandchild, Gianna, is now five, the daughter of Peter and our next to youngest daughter, Angela. They live a couple of blocks over, and we see them often. When a car passes with windows down presumably to assault the rest of us with make-believe gangsta toughness, she takes note of the pulsing onslaught at decibel levels which would require OSHA approved ear protection. Occasionally, she will mimic Peter’s response, “Thank you for sharing,” but she adds her own refinement to this auditory mugging, “Thank you for sharing the broken music.” Much young wisdom lies in this analogy.
Since well before she was born, as her mother had, Gianna listened to magnificent sounds that are sometimes elevating, sometimes spiritually stirring, sometimes peaceful. Mozart, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Chopin, but also an eclectic medley of Norah Jones, Doc Watson, bluegrass from Alison Krauss or old Nitty Gritty Dirt Band albums like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, Nat King Cole, Dave Brubeck and many others. She is in her second year of ballet lessons – her teacher, Jamie, danced as Sugar Plum Fairy for the same “Nutcracker” Christmas productions in which Angela and Meg danced. Our parish is lively – the whole congregation at Sunday Mass, including the children, sing uplifting songs. Her whole young life has been immersed in beautiful music. Gianna’s response to music often is to break into spontaneous dance; her two year old sister, Ellie, imitates her as she sweeps into the living room with kindergarten chassés, petit jetés and demi-pliés. This is so reminiscent to us of her mother and Aunt Meg at that age.
“Broken music” wasn’t Gianna’s mistake; it was someone else’s misfortune.
Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. Victor Hugo
Admittedly, hip-hop and rapping are estranged from me, and I remain ignorant of their nuance (if nuance isn’t a bridge too far for them); they evolved from and were a reaction to the dismal disco of the seventies. Disco also spawned the early sampling of rave techno and house music. These genres are contrived offshoots, but allegedly reflect an alienated culture: outraged anger or frenetic coupling — joyless, addictive, frequently drugged out, adrenaline fueled thrill and pleasure-seeking without succor or respite or ascent of the spirit. They seem to me to stink of stale sweat, testosterone, hostility and lust void of love. For your edification, here’s a small sampling:
Smoke any as***le that’s sweating me
Or any motherf**ker that threatens me
I’m a sniper with a hell of a scope
Takin out a cop or two they can’t cope with me
F**k the Police – NWA (Dre)
And I’m gunning for your spouse
Tryin to send the b***h back to her maker
And if you’ve got a daughter over 15
I’m gonna rape her!
X is Coming for you – DMX
So I f**ked your b***h you fat motherf**ker!
Hit ‘em up – 2pac and The Outlaws
Music is intended and designed for sentient beings that have hopes and purposes and emotions. Jacques Barzun
Angela posted a video on her Facebook page this week, which is well worth the four minutes it takes to watch, about the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra. Brimful of gratitude for the many blessings in my life, I marvel at the elegance brought up like precious stones from the refuse. The creators of the video tell of an enormous landfill in Cateura, Paraguay, on which thousands of people live and rely upon for sustenance, recycling trash and selling it. Some of the youth have been organized by volunteer musicians and teachers into an orchestra; they play instruments fashioned from other people’s junk. Bebi is a nineteen year old who plays a cello, he tells us, made from an oil drum and salvaged wood; the pegs are made out of an old tool used to tenderize beef. He plays a credible version of the J.S. Bach Prelude from Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, which you may recognize from the Galapagos Island scene in the Russell Crowe movie, “Master and Commander.” These children play Handel’s Water Music and many other pieces. From out of the most wretched conditions, they draw beauty.
The machine nature of hip-hop and techno music draws alienation from what was once meaningful: sampling and repeating and hammering away with no instruments made by hand out of real materials – wood, gut and steel string, reeds, brass and craftsmanship. The derivative nature of hip hop requires not as much musical ability as some sophisticated electronic gear – a DJ and a recurrently angry and misogynist MC. Where the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra recaptures harmony and beauty from deprivation; the rappers distort into depravity what was once harmonious.
Rita and I played guitar and banjo when our kids were small and sang a lot with them; Rita also plays an accordion, a legacy from her childhood. Angela and Meg played piano and flute; Gianna this morning told us she wants to play piano or violin. She has lovely hands with long, strong fingers that will help her to do that. She has expressed no interest in learning to “scratch” a turntable or to “play” an electronic beat maker or synthesizer.
For Gianna and for me, sadly, there is “broken music” without redemption or real meaning to draw us closer to one another or to lift our souls. Perhaps this brokenness exposes a broken culture; if so, it is a culture Gianna chooses not to embrace.
My life would be worthless without music….. People realize that we shouldn’t throw away trash carelessly; well we shouldn’t throw away people either. From two of the players in the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra
If music be the food of love, play on. William Shakespeare