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.


Anonymous said...

"Cloud of Angels" is one of my most favorite songs! It sometimes pops into my head, and even though I can't remember all the words, the memory of what the song meant comes back to me.
And when did you write songs about all your kids?? What song did you write about me???

Zaphod said...

Don't start! I told you that you have all gotten better than what I wrote.

Anonymous said...

So, what you are saying is you DIDN'T write a song about just don't want to hurt my feelings. sniff...

Katscratchme said...

I think that the flattery of knowing that there is a song out there about us children is enough to shine us through the song. We may find something in it that is profound to us... so IF you have a song about me, I'd love to read it, or hear it if you feel up to conceding.