Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ghosts in the Music

I had another dream last night. Trillium and I went off to the upper mid-west to visit people that I had known almost fifty years ago. We stayed in a home where we were most welcome and as the morning passed there were more and more people who were directly related to the people I had known. They were cordial and seemed to know how I fit into their relatives’ lives. My friends were not there, however; I guess that they had all passed away. The next generation of family members was grateful for the role that I had played in their ancestors’ lives, but they were subdued. I was not uncomfortable; I simply was no longer an active part of what once was. I was like a ghost, even though I was still alive.

Nanci Griffith wrote a song years ago called “Ghost in the Music”. It’s a great title but the lyrics don’t live up to its promise. The reason that the title came to my mind in conjunction with my dream is almost obvious. There are songs that I have long since identified with certain individuals. I sing those songs partly because I have always liked the music and the sentiments, and partly because I have always liked the people I associated with them. Thus, Cat Stevens’ “I Wish I Wish” is inseparably connect to Jon Woodhead; I cannot think of the one without thinking of the other. The works of Maurice Ravel are inseparably connected to RaNae Merril; I cannot do anything about that. The performances of Johnny Murad and the Harmonicats are so engrained in my childhood that I cannot hear anything by them without immediately thinking of my own mother and father sitting in the front room of the Mariner’s Cabin in Carbon Canyon where I grew up. There are nine songs now that are inseparably connected with the Forest for the Trees, my two daughters and son-in-law with whom I have learned to sings those songs in a unique way. The odd thing about these associations that I have made is that they are “ghosts in the music”, save perhaps for the F2T2 songs. The people that I connected with the songs and the reasons that I did so have long since lost their life. The songs may not have changed, but my friends have and many are self-conscious about the fact.

Each of my children has songs associated with them, usually songs that I sang for them when they were young children. I have written songs for each of them at some point as they were growing up. As I look back on the music and lyrics I am not impressed; I don’t think that I was a very good songwriter; my children have become better than the songs were. In these cases, I am the “ghost in the music”; the person I was when I sat down to compose what I thought was something wonderful for my little children. I am fretful today that I wasn’t better at my craft at a time when I was trying to put into words and music how I actually felt. A hint, a “ghost”, is all that is there; the substance is gone. It makes me feel a little melancholy.

I have written pieces for Trillium over the years for much of the same reasons that I wrote songs for our children. I wanted to preserve something of our life together in music and lyrics. I have invariably liked the most recent song better than all the rest that I had written before. Thus, “A Cloud of Angels” is currently the piece that causes my emotions to come to the surface almost immediately. The guitar work is the best that I have ever composed; the words still deeply moving to my soul.

Several years ago, I was given the opportunity to make a presentation at a large conference on the effects of poetry, how sounds and words work together to touch the hearts and minds of others. I chose six bits of poetry. I read the Chaucer’s “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” in Middle English to help the people in the room realize how beautiful poetry can be even when one is not even consciously aware of what is being said. I next read the first ten quatrains of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to demonstrate how powerful language can become when it is purposefully structured. I followed up with Emily Dickinson’s “To Make a Prairie” which is the quintessence of brevity, worth repeating here:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

I resorted next to “The Tuft of Flowers” by Robert Frost, perhaps the greatest American poet to have ever lived. I cannot read this piece aloud without losing control of my voice at some point. Dickenson’s poem is whimsical; Frost’s is profoundly reflective of the human condition. I ended my portion of the presentation by singing Trillium's “A Cloud of Angels”. This was several years ago, the song freshly written; the power of the music, the lyrics, and the singer all very much alive; there were no ghosts. I am afraid that the audience was defenseless before me at that time. I had prepared them academically and emotionally to be connected with me at the very moment that I wished to share something profoundly intimate, something otherwise inexpressible.

Seven years have passed since I wrote “A Cloud of Angels”. It is probably about time to compose another piece for my wife. I hope that I am not over the hill (or under the hill for that matter), compositionally speaking.

Dreams are like ghosts coming to visit the place where they once lived. No matter how hard one tries, one can only just barely be there. There is no substance, only memory. Perhaps in the resurrection there is hope.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

If Trees Ring in the Forest and No One is There to Record Them, is There Still Music?

The title to this entry is so precious, so radically funny, that I am quite certain that no one will get it until the end. The word play is outrageous, the puns are painful, and, on the whole, the sentiment is an inside joke of enormous proportions. I will end up killing a dozen birds with one stone.

At first blush, there is the obvious nod at the old philosophical conundrum: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?” The whole of the argument regarding the answer to this question has to do with definitions. Believe it or not, grown adults have spent vast amounts of time and resources attempting to answer the question. Is “sound” something that can only exist when there are humans about, or animals, or other sentient beings? Is there a difference between “sound” and “noise”? Whole nations and kingdoms have risen and fallen while attempting to resolve the issue. What if the sentient being is deaf? What if he “feels” the vibrations with his feet? Is that still “sound”, even though he did not hear it with his auditory nerves? What if, instead of a tree, the thing making the “sound” was a dog whistle? You would not hear the pitch, but the dog would. Was there a “sound”?

Now we find ourselves at an international crossroads. The inhabitants of the British Isles would be inclined, at this point, to say, “This is the stupidest thing I have ever been forced to contemplate!” and they would walk off and never give the chestnut another thought. If they were from Wales or Cornwall and you raised the question again, they would hit you with a cudgel. It is hard to say what a Canadian would do. An American, at this juncture, would immediately want to turn to the dictionary to resolve the problem. As it turns out, the definition of the word “sound” in Webster’s New International Dictionary stipulates that in order for there to be a “sound” an auditory processing organ has to be involved. With that definition in hand, I would ask the philosopher five more questions: “What if, instead of a human being, there were an operating tape recorder in the forest when the tree fell? Would there be no sound at all at that moment, if there were no one to hear it at the time? Would there be a retroactive “sound” if someone chose to listen to the tape? And what if no one ever listened to the tape? Would that mean that there is no sound on the tape? At this point, your brain should be responding to this issue the same way that Tim Burton’s Martians responded to the music of Slim Whitman.

Tree rings are fascinating. Trillium and I went to Fisherman’s Wharf for our fortieth wedding anniversary. We rode over and back on Amtrak (Trillium’s little gift to me) and we did anything and everything that Trillium wanted to do while we were in San Francisco (my little gift to her). We drove up to Muir Woods in Marin County for one of our day hikes. Some of the Sequoias are more than 250 feet high. The redwoods in Cathedral Grove are more than 1200 years old. The park has a cross-section of a giant redwood, showing the tree rings for many hundreds of years, labeled with various historical events. One wonders if that particular tree heard any of the goings on that have been since pinned to its innards. Each ring represents a year and it is possible, with an extremely good magnifying glass, to determine the particular ring that represents the year that you were born. If a ring is thick, the rainfall and weather were favorable for tree growth that year. If a ring is thin, then the circumstances were less favorable. The ring for year of my birth is notable for the tremendous stresses that the environment suffered, particularly toward the middle of July and even more pronounced the closer the tree grew to Pomona, California.

On the night of October 7th, 2007, eight months after we walked by the thing, a 180-foot tall redwood, seven feet in diameter, fell during the night. I assume that someone noted the descent, since they sent me a bill. I wrote back that I hadn’t heard a thing so it must not have happened.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of two of my daughters, Jen and Shy. They were born twelve years apart and they have the rings to prove it. Trillium and I went over to Shy’s house in the afternoon to take a card to her and to wish her plenty of subterranean water supplies and root nutrients. In the evening we went to Jen’s house for chocolate cake and Oreos. The cake was three years old. I counted the rings. They are both doing pretty well, considering how old they are.

How much do I have to say about The Forest for the Trees before the joke finally dawns? We have chosen our music for our next performance. We will begin with Cat Steven’s “Trouble”, followed by “The River is Wide”. The middle will be graced with Shy and Not-Quite-So-Shy singing “Gulf Coast Highway”. Jen and I will render “Long Black Rifle” in order to give the audience time to realize that hardly anything more exiting is going to transpire during our set. We will finish with our best piece, “Bright Eyes”. If no one comes to the party, will there be “Still Music”?