Monday, September 5, 2011

Let the music play

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"Why am I doing such a thing as performing an improvisation on a piano? I have a quick answer. I need to know who I am, and this is my most complete way of knowing. And as for why you are listening? You need something as well, some connective beauty we all seem to be longing for.

Now the piece is over. In the moment before applause, the sense of community is palpable We've been connected, but not necessarily in the same ways to the same places. If there is anything we can hold onto in music it is perhaps this quiet, infinite instant when we inhabit our collective body."--W. A. Mathieu, from Bridge of Waves: What Music Is and How Listening to It Changes the World

My favorite record store when I was a teenager was a place called Vintage Vinyl. It was a stand-alone store on Rt. 35 in Oakhurst, NJ. Before I had a driver's license, I would walk from our sprawling condominium complex on sidewalks few ever used because the car is king in the suburbs, past the 7-Eleven and a shopping complex that can only exist in a overdeveloped New Jersey town--Cobblestone Village. I'd make a mad dash across the median of the highway and climb the hill over to the record store. I was maybe 15 years-old, babysitting money in my pocket, and the anticipation of buying a new album or cassette tape made me giddy.

When I had a car I'd drive to Red Bank, to Jack's Music Shoppe, where I'd spend an hour or more flipping through the CDs. Music--like books--were my solace and refuge from hurt and disappointment, but also a celebration of being young, knowing all the tidbits about a band's likes and dislikes, or at least what they claimed in Spin magazine. Music was an essential backdrop in my life in college--whether I was writing a paper (flamenco guitar or anything soft and lilting like 10,000 Maniacs), getting ready to go out on a Thursday night (updated disco from Deee-Lite or the jazz/hip-hop hybrid band Digable Planets), or letting fantasy and wistful song lyrics fill in the blanks of an otherwise unpromising crush (any young female at a piano.)

In my twenties it was live music in New York City, and my best friend's band Bionic Finger--a four-girl pop band who played in delightfully seedy venues in the East Village and Brooklyn. Live shows at these dark clubs not only made you feel young and in-the-know, but united you with all the other familiar music lovers inevitably in the crowd.

In my thirties I could sense the change in my musical proclivities. No longer was I searching out new bands or buying obscure foreign releases of a favorite artist. I still listened to music, but it was usually a rotating collection of discs released 2-5 years ago. I don't want to blame married life for dampening my musical enthusiasm, but so much of what I liked to listen to I associated with being young and single and free. Now the radio dial was locked on NPR News and stations that played that ultimately unhip musical category--Adult Contemporary.

Mike had also been a huge music fan--though his favorite bands were about a decade older than mine--but now he described music as unmoving. I thought that was incredibly sad, and wondered if I would feel the same in ten years. Already I was only seeing bands like REM and Prince live, and even those shows were less-than-thrilling because of the huge arena crowds and the grating, off-tune warbling of the guy next to me screaming out the lyrics, thereby wiping out the voices of the actual musicians I had come to hear.

So it was sweet relief when I saw Raul Malo (former lead singer of The Mavericks, a rockabilly-country band popular in the '90s) this past Friday night. It's true that the venue was a far cry from the dank, sticky clubs of my youth. This place had tables with linen tablecloths and served delicious food made with produce from local farms. The median age in the room was around 45.

But the acoustics were far superior to any I had experienced on Ludlow Street. The audience, clearly enjoying the show, refrained from screaming out the lyrics to every song just to prove THEY were the ultimate fans. The band was phenomenal and Raul's voice might as well have been Elvis's back in the day because every woman in the room was swooning. I was reminded why I still listen to music and how even if the bands I listened to have changed (or are the same as 20 years ago) they still have the ability to make me feel alive, in the moment, and connected to something bigger than me.

I remember a (partial) quote by John Keats that I once copied in my journal: "Give me books, fruit, French wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors." Art and music and books will always be essential. They are an integral part of my spiritual life.

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