Monday, December 7, 2009

Reasons To Be Left Behind: This Sweet Old World

How many of us have soundtracks revolving in our heads throughout the day? Growing up in a family that sang together -- in church, on cross-continent treks, in the garden, and at any gathering -- we just naturally assumed that singing was another form of communication. Sometimes it was our most genuine and generous dialogue. We tuned into each other’s voices with an attention span and curiosity that we might not exchange at the dinner table.

In order to harmonize, singers must truly listen to the Other. Our gifted chorale director, John, calls it “blend” -- that intimate weaving of voices that brings the listeners close, as well. Every week, John leads us in warm-up voice exercises; he asks us to stand next to someone with a different part than our own. So a first soprano might stand next to an second alto, a first alto next to a second soprano, and so on around the circle. John builds major and minor chords and we each sing our part. But the trick is not to overpower another’s voice. We must listen and match our voices with one another’s until there is that perfect equipoise of sound -- a song-tapestry that vibrates together. Blend.

In the dictionary, one definition of “blend” is “to pass gradually into each other, as colors.” Sometimes singing in my chorale when the pitch is just right and the parts are mingled in complex harmonies that are yet so very simple in their pure mix, I almost see prismatic sound. Like synethesia. Musical notes have colors. A middle C might sound like purple; an ultrasonic high A might look electric, like turquoise.

In his wonderful book Musicophilia, the neuroscientist Oliver Saks says the human brain, like many other species, is hard-wired for sound. “We are a musical species,” Saks writes, “no less than a language species.”

Perhaps that’s why every holiday season I make my traditional New Year’s CD as my gift to friends and family. I ponder the playlist for months before I burn the CD. I take requests and try to find a theme for coming year. For 2010, my theme is “This Sweet Old World.”

The terrific songwriter/artist Lucinda Williams wrote this haunting, tender song for her 1992 album, “Sweet Old World.” Apparently, the song was a Williams elegy for a family friend who had committed suicide -- someone who chose not to be left behind. The mighty Emmylou Harris picked up this song for her 1995 album “Wrecking Ball.” I prefer Emmylou’s version for the longing and dark warmth of her voice; but the lyrics are pure Lucinda.

Without judgment or even pity, the song is a love letter, an elegy:

“See what you lost when you left this world
 This sweet, old world

Williams then goes on to name the simple radiance of what is left behind:
The sound of a midnight train
wearing someone’s ring
someone calling your name

The song ends with what in this world we can still cherish:
Millions of us in love
Promises made good
Your own flesh and blood
Looking for some truth
Dancing with no shoes
Being the rhythm of blues
The pound of your heart’s drum
Together with another one . . .

Listen to the song.

I will continue to post my playlist for 2010 each week until we reach the New Year!

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