Broken Music

Angela and Meg on Lake Webb, Weld, ME circa 1988

Angela and Meg on Lake Webb, Weld, ME circa 1988

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.

Gianna and Ellie on Lake Webb 2013

Gianna and Ellie on Lake Webb 2013

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


Filed under Culture views, Personal and family life

5 responses to “Broken Music

  1. Angela Marie

    Aw Dad, words can’t really capture a response to this. In deep gratitude to you and mom for giving us music; sweet, unbroken music. I think La Traviata and many others will always have the power to bring me to tears, not only due to the sheer beauty, but because they were introduced by you. Love, Ang


  2. Rita

    What really strikes me is the photos. They were taken twenty five years ago about 15 yards apart on the same lake we used to vacation on and now Ang and her kids vacation on. Life has a way of repeating itself. God is good.


  3. Kevin

    Well stated Jack. I never really dwelled on it much but always knew that music in this world was a gift from God. At the age of 26, my wife and I returned to a small town in Vermont that was my home until we moved to Maine when I was six years old. It was my first time back to that place in 20 years. I told my wife that it would be fun to park on main street across from what was once my dad’s JC Penny store which I recognized right away, and try to find my old house by walking up through the neighborhoods on foot. We did take one wrong turn but managed to get back on track and eventually found my house and also visited with my baby sitter who was still living on her farm now in her 80’s. While walking, we came to a small park with a sidewalk running diagonally from one corner to the other that I remembered as a very special place. I blurted out to my wife, “this is where music started” . She was taken aback by that rather irrational sounding statement but it has just come out, and now I had some explaining to do. As a child, I used to play story books on LP records. One story was about a world with no music. The birds did not sing but somehow knew where they might get the gift of music up high in the Heavens. No bird could last that long trying to fly that high until one day a small bird tucked itself under the wing of a larger, stronger bird and rode up to the point that the larger bird had to turn back. From there, the small bird took flight and made it to Heaven. After getting the gift of music, it returned to earth bringing music down to the world. As a five year old walking through that park with so many birds in the large maple and oak trees, I had deducted that this was the place where the birds had learned to sing and music had started.
    As with anything in this world, there always are the opposing forces between good and evil (hence rap music, broken music) and that seems to be part of the struggle we are built to endure.


    • What a wonderful story, Kev. I’ve thought for many years that music is one of the true distinctions for the human animal that differentiates us more fully than opposable thumbs or speech. That and a moral sense, rationality and creativity. Music expresses all of those things so beautifully and transcends biological evolution without direction. We make music to create purely gratuitous beauty. How can anyone listen to such as this and doubt the divine component of our souls?


  4. Rita

    Great story Kevin! I love a good story. My Dad used to tell “Army” stories after supper when we were kids. We used to beg him to tell us those wonderful stories. He was a medic and was with a unit that worked on those huge hospital ships and in hospitals in England and North Africa. Since he didn’t see front line action, he was able to share lots of stories with us unlike my uncle Ed, who was a Marine in the Pacific and involved in many of the worst battles there. I remember my father and my uncles on both sides of the family spending endless hours telling stories. They used to sit under the grape arbor at my Portuguese grandmothers house as well as each other’s back yards and talk and talk. I fear, with all the social media we have today the art of story telling may soon be lost. Anyway, keep sending in your stories.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.