Saturday, October 15, 2011

Reflections @ 50: Sound and Silence

This blog has been quiet for a few weeks now—mostly because I have been caught in the “feast” part of the “feast or famine” cycle of busy-ness. Things have been so busy that I could hardly breathe (although I had to and, of course, did), let alone have time to sit down and write.

During this frenzy of activity, my 50th birthday came and went like a whirlwind, with little time for celebration other than a few glasses of Champagne during a break at a rehearsal. I was also involved in a recording project dedicated to sampling live voice for a database of actual vocal sound.

Paul Simon’s birthday was a few days ago, and probably because of this recording project, “The Sound of Silence” came to mind.

Silence is something I have not savored much of, particularly lately. In a materialistic world that seems increasingly more dedicated to machines than to people, there is so much mechanical noise generated. During this recording project, we struggled to keep moving forward with the work, dodging exterior noises that included 18-wheeler trucks, Blue Angel jets and other aircraft, the beeping of the backing delivery vans, motor cycles with tweaked mufflers, car alarms, lawn mowers and accompanying leaf/dirt/pollution blowers and a barking dog. Of all those sounds that challenged our progress, the barking dog was the only one that made my colleagues smile.

I am a musician, but as much as I love music, I have discovered over time that I crave more quiet. But perhaps I am only acknowledging now what has been true for me all along. I do generate a joyful noise, and I can bellow pretty loudly when I need to, but I have always thought of music as an antidote to noise, as an emotive and healing salve for the soul. Because of that, it tends to hold a sacred place in my life—I hold myself to be a sacred vessel that contains music—and I have found that I listen to music less frequently, or perhaps less frivolously.

The Sound Of Silence” is a song that touches the start my life and the current of it—like bookends. Paul Simon wrote that song to commemorate the assassination of John F. Kennedy. My earliest memory as a tiny tot was sitting on the floor in our Derby Street home in Berkeley, watching those white horses slowly draw the caisson, on which the flag draped coffin lay, to Arlington on our twelve inch black-and-white television. There was very little talk while the cameras rolled on this spectacle. I really understood that this was a somber event, one that could only be marked with reverent silence. The sight of a mother with small children, one just as small as I was, standing in the cold, made a nation and the world understand a sadness for which there could be no propitiation. Simon’s song came along a little later, and it was on the charts and the AM stations for a long time, and it informed nation’s musical history while it commented on our sociopolitical history.

This past September 11th, Simon performed this signature song to at a memorial ceremony to that dread day when we were once again, as a nation, brought to an awe that could only inspire silence. Yes, so fitting, this song, to be related not only to the turbulent mid-century before, but to the turbulence of the 21st Century, as well.

I remember where I was, on September 11th, 2001. The memory that stays with me is the silence of the skies, due to the grounding of all flights following that horrible day. The skies were silent, but for birds on the wing. I could not remember when it had been so quiet! And We the People were so subdued with shock that for once, we too were quiet; we did not know what to say.

We are, each individual, a music that continues to be born from the silence of creation. I think that we were meant to revere the sacred awesomeness of silence. Instead, we pile noise upon noise, hiding from what is truly profound within a tangled decibel jungle. Garbage trucks weekly shake our homes like an earthquake. Machines rock our world and impair our ears. To a certain extent, we have come to fetishize and worship the machines we have made, and we have done so at the expense of basic human compassion or regard. Witness this week’s frenzy of purchasing the very latest iPhone and tell me I am wrong. Apple couldn’t even stop retail marketing and promotion on the day Steve Jobs died, and he was the music that sang the song that brought Apple into being. What does this say about our society?

Qol d’mamah daqqah. These are old words from the first book of Kings, the story of Elijah eluding the anger of Jezebel. God wasn’t in the wind, s/he wasn’t in the earthquake, and s/he wasn’t in the fire: God was in the qol d’mamah daqqah: the still small voice, the soft murmuring sound, the whisper, the sound of silence. This truly awed Elijah and he covered his head. But it what God said next that is the point of the story:

What are you doing here?

What, indeed?

As I continue in my musical life, I am learning to observe the musical rest with a new reverence. The musical rest is where God will sing a response to our music.

May we all listen carefully, that the holy sound of silence may speak to us.

What wonders might we hear if we truly listen?

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