Power Music

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, and when you hear it, you feel you can do anything.

Like most mystical experiences, the cause and effect are not related. We may not remember the music. We may forget how it feels. But, when the music finds us and, without effort or intention, the power fills us, a hopeless world shines with possibility.

1. I hadn’t planned on sitting in Bath Abbey and hearing an organ concert when I was sixteen and backpacking through Great Britain. My friend and I had wandered through the Pump Room, a sacred site for Jane Austen readers, and I wasn’t impressed because I had been forced to read Emma in high school and didn’t “get” it the way I thrilled to stories about space ships zooming through the future. I sipped some of the water that was sacred to the Romans and earlier folk. I got a mouthful of more water when we swam in an indoor pool.

The organ recital was something else to do. For a tourist on a limited budget, the interiors of religious buildings were usually free to explore (we didn’t see Westminster Abbey in London because of the admission fee). They also offered a change in atmosphere from the busy, sensory stimulation of the street.

Until someone cranks up the organ. I did not know any of the music played that night, but I felt the low notes reverberating in my gut and I GOT it. The organ music was a metaphor for the unseen divine spirit.  The organist took a bow at the beginning and the end of the recital, but, because I couldn’t see him performing, this wasn’t so much a concert as it was a feeling of the presence of the sacred.

I never forgot it (and, yes, dear reader, I “got” Jane Austen eventually).

2. I came back from a college class to the seedy off-campus house I shared with several conservatory-of-music students and followed the sounds of a beeping and bouncing into the room of a composition major. I sat down on a broken chair and smiled. No one can stop themselves from grinning when you hear Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air” for the first time.

About two-thirds of the way into the piece you hear an electric snake rattling its tail from one speaker to the next. The piece builds to a climax but continues for several more merry minutes.

If the creative power is the most important manifestation of the divine, then this music was God laughing, playing (without making a mess!) and having fun.

3. Dexter Gordon stood tall in the club and played his horn with a calmly assured magnificence.  As a music critic, I had plugged Gordon’s club date. One of the perks of the job is free admission to the event you plug. I had been told Gordon was a legend but what you read about a performer leaves too much out, until you attend the performance. I had no doubt: I was in the presence of greatness. When Gordon finished a tune, he held the saxophone high overhead, as if to say, when I have this, I have everything.

4. I was angry at Frank Zappa again. I grew up appreciating his wonderfully hilarious blend of brilliant musical complexity, grotesque humor and witty satire until this recording, where it seemed that the humor and satire fused into a nasty desire to offend.  The intricate sense of beauty I heard in his earlier work had been set aside for what the music industry calls novelty songs with implicitly obscene lyrics.

And then I heard the live recording on Zappa in New York of the Black Page 1 & 2, a percussion piece Zappa wrote for his drummer Terry Bozzio that is then put to a disco beat with melodies for the band. The tune is hard to follow when you hear it on the drums, but when the band comes in, you feel immediately how uproariously ingenious–and joyous–it is. This piece did not justify the disgusting, offensive stuff on that record, and subsequent recordings (even if it Zappa’s intention was to lampoon social hypocrisy, pretension, racial and ethnic stereotypes and the barely hidden perversions of those who claim to be holier than us), but it gleamed with the exuberance of a composer who was absolutely free (pun intended, Zappa fans) to write what he precisely what he wanted, with the assurance that it would be performed by musicians who respected him, recorded to his standards, packaged in accord with his wishes, and thereby preserved so many, many more may “get” it, and even enjoy it.

5. Pete Seeger singing simple songs with an honesty, warmth and intensity that made you believe that music could change the world, for the better.

The world has changed though the idealism that enthralled my generation died years ago.

But we still have those moments when music finds us, or, in the words of guitarist Robert Fripp, “takes us into its confidence,” and we feel a great rush that of a power that, if it isn’t purely divine, should be.

In music things are possible that are actually impossible.  –Alfred Brendel, pianist



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