(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. But in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break it up into tidy, digestible chunks, toss in a few new chunks and then spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )
I GOT MUSIC: CONFESSIONS OF AN AMATEUR
PART V: music = sex
When it came to her violin, Mama made one request. “Promise me you’ll play it when I’m gone,” she’d said. “That’s all I ask. It needs to be played to stay alive.” I promised, but I thought: I’ll never play it like you did, Mama. My mother was a concert violinist. The instrument was her other voice. She spoke with it, beautifully and profoundly, in a language I could never master.
After losing my childhood family in the early 90s, I felt at first that they had taken their music with them: Daddy’s Tin Pan Alley, Mama’s Bach, Lucy’s Brahms at the piano. I was wrong. They gave me the music I hold within, my love for it, my need for it, the way I wake in the night and then rise the next day thinking of it. It fills my whole self. In a sense, the music inside me is my family, a way to carry them with me. Whatever music comes from within, expressed with my hands and my voice, is an utterance of love and gratitude for all they gave me.
And yet, as a kid, I didn’t get it. My mother and sister seemed otherworldly, chasing musical perfection with a fixedness that awed and baffled me. I couldn’t comprehend practicing four hours a day; if someone had suggested I give it a try, I might have responded HA HA HA WHY DON’T I PUSH BOULDERS AROUND FOUR HOURS A DAY TOO. As much as I loved music, I’d never understood this dogged pursuit, and I never felt compelled to undertake it myself. Musicians always struck me as more than a little nutball in their assiduity and devotion. What happens to these people? What drugs are they on? How does this idée fixe take hold, and why is it eating their brains?
Then it ate mine.
On a walk after class one day at Django in June, I found myself thinking about sex. Yes, sex. Sex and music, those twin bastards, both of them insistent to the point of bossy. Certain activities command our undivided attention, shoving out room for anything and anyone else. Sex is one such pushy tyrant. Music is another.
Making music requires such intense concentration on so many different actions and details, firing off so many pistons in so many parts of the brain, that there isn’t enough real estate left for anything else. Like sex, music consumes the moment. Like sex, it’s a rapture. But unlike sex, it’s a sustained moment, a tantric rapture defined not by one decisive climax but by a long, rhythmic, lunging tango among enraptured people. It doesn’t matter who they are or what sort of music they’re playing: “Minor Swing,” a Dylan tune, Beethoven. They’re in a mutual state of bliss.
Being inside the music means being surrounded by something greater than myself, being a part of it. It’s not a glimpse into another world; it’s a communion with it. To play the second violin part on Dvořák’s “American” quartet or a sneaky harmony on “Swing Gitan” means conversing with your fellow musicians and the music itself. It means burrowing into something unspoken but true, ideal but unrealized, something that aims for the acme but still brings joy when it inevitably misses. We are human and flawed. The music is beyond us, residing in an unattainable plane. But still, we grasp for it — and in the grasping, we find our own kind of heaven.
Anything that takes me out of my noisy head is a gift. Anything that introduces me to new people in new places – that’s a gift, too. The beauty of music lies in its non-verbal conviction that we can mean something to each other, that we can rely on each other, that we can do so without ever uttering a word. However many wrong notes I hit, I can matter to someone else. They can matter to me, lifting me, prodding me, answering me and inspiring me to better. But the mattering doesn’t require us to talk.
It only requires us to play, and to listen.
Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION
Click here to read PART II: GYPSY JAZZ AND HOLY TERRORS
Click here to read PART III: I LIKE MY HANDS (AND WILL NOT CUT THEM OFF)
Click here to read PART IV: IN PRAISE OF SECOND FIDDLE