I purchased an iPod four years ago. It was the first model with a 5-gigabyte hard drive. It is the size of a pack of cigarettes. Its pearl-like plastic finish is no longer shiny smooth. The stainless steel back has scratches and nicks as well. Now, of course, the iPod product line has evolved into the nanoPod, which is about the size of a pack of chewing gum.
I bought my iPod because I loved the idea that I could store all of the music I’ve composed over the years in it, and then play it for anyone at any time. Four hours of music by Clovice, and it still has gigabytes of memory left. I like to play it during times when I want to listen to music without thinking too much, like when I am cleaning, exercising, or working on rather rote tasks on the computer.
I discovered iTunes a little while ago. You can go up to the Apple website and download practically any song that has ever been recorded. I still have not found music by Nina and Fredrick, the singing duo phenoms from Denmark made famous by their recordings in the mid 1950’s. They took Harry Belafonte songs and twisted them around Scandinavian accents and... tah da, instant success. Nina went on to marry Howard Hughes for a short while. Frederick seemed to fall off the face of the earth.
Anyway, I’ve always been impressed by the fact that most of us can always remember what order music is arranged on our CDs and albums. Have you ever noticed that? People who can’t tell the time of day can tell you the order of songs. We may not be able to remember the lyrics or list them for you if asked, but once a song is finished, subconciously we know exactly what the next song will be. It has been shown that most of us, even tone deaf people, actually can pick out the note the next song will start on!
When I was a professor of music at UC Santa Barbara I taught courses in advanced computer music. I asked my students to design computer music systems to assist in the composing and notation of music. I was always surprised to find out the primary impulse behind music for them was the emotional component — how it makes them feel. There I was, a kind of musical clinician; a person who wanted to dissect music into its constituent parts so it could digitized. I wanted to teach my students how that was done. Instead, they always insisted on designing machines to enhance the emotional enjoyment of music.
Most of us listen to music we already know. We listen to new artists and their music because we might happen to hear something we like on the radio or because someone recommends music new to us. Have you given much thought as to why we listen to music in the first place? Or even, what it does to us, and how it connects us to big and small events of the past?
“I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road, searching in the sun for another overload… and if it snows that stretch down south will never stand the strain, and I need you more than want you and I want you for all time, and the Witchita lineman is still on the line”. Wow, what did that just do to you? Took you back, huh? Some of you might remember that song, “Wichita Lineman”, sung and made famous by Glenn Campbell. The song was written by Jimmy Webb, who also wrote Campbell's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Galveston." He was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma border when he saw a lonesome telephone lineman working atop a telephone pole. This gave him the idea for the song. Isn’t it interesting how Webb captured the essence of an anonymous man no one will ever know? We experience his life in a few lines of a song. Campbell recorded the song in 1968. When I hear that song I am immediately was transported to 126 Mississippi street on Dyess Air Force Base, where I spent the most formative years of my childhood. Forgive me, please about the Wichita Lineman. I just wanted to take a few moments to celebrate the fact that I am now 50 years old and can remember that song.
There is a strange quality about music you purposely listen to because it brings back memories. In fact, it’s not just memories that are stirred. Listening to old music can bring back emotions and feelings you’ve previously experienced like nothing else can. Synapses are triggered and you can actually re-experience events as if they were immediately present. Stumbling on an old song is like finding a long-lost friend.
I have created a playlist of favorite music from my past I purchased from iTunes. The music ranges from Sammy Davis Jr. from my childhood to the band Toto I listened a lot to during my divorce era. I sometimes like to stir things up by invoking the random feature for playback, where the iPod will play songs in the playlist out of order. It is so disorienting. I don’t know what song is next and I don’t know which part of my emotional landscape I’ll be thrown into.
I am reminded of an essay I wrote in 1993, the divorce era, about the nature of existence. At that time I pondered on the experience we have of being connected to all things. I wrote about that connection as regards to how literature and writing transcends time, and is the glue that binds civilizations together. In the essay I wrote:
“When I take a walk in my neighborhood on a rainy night the rain hits the street, which directs the resultant streams of water into drains through curbs and cement built into the asphalt. The rain hits my face as cold wetness, accumulates, and trickles down my neck. As I walk, the clouds above release differing amounts of rain. It is not constant. The wind regulates the intensity of the water as it falls. Snails move along the grass and cement sidewalks. If I'm not careful, I crush them under foot. Smoke curls out of my neighbor's chimneys, as the roofs of their houses glisten in the rain. The automobiles parked on the street are wet outside. The air is sweet and fresh. Light from lampposts is released in all directions … into the infinity of possibilities.
As I walk, the existence of everything around me has intelligence about itself, has its own purpose, transmits itself to everything else, and is aware of everything. My body, through the act of walking, periodically inhabits a different relative place within the matrix of all things that transmit themselves to my senses. However, I am in essence only changing the scene I choose to experience (All the world is a stage…) by drawing to me those other things which, through their own intelligence, and by their own purpose cooperate with me in creating the reality of the moment that has meaning to me. I left the warm comfort of my home to participate in what I expected to experience as a walk in the rain. The reality of what may actually be happening on other levels of existence presents far too much information for my conscious awareness to understand or process. Yet, in very sublime ways, I contributed to, and co-created everything around me. I created the experience of the walk for myself (my brain cells, nose, eyes, ears, toes, et al must have also voted for it), but without the cooperation of my neighbors, without the cooperation of life forms such as grass and trees, and without the purpose I served by ending the lives of several snails; it all existed only in the realm of possibility and potential as far as I am concerned.
Even in not-so-sublime ways everything was created for exactly the rain walking experience I have. An automotive engineer in Frankfurt, Germany many years prior gets an idea about how to design the front grill of an automobile. Through a long political and design process, his idea is approved for manufacture. Elements that combined eons ago into matter are formed into steel by other workers and their machines to manufacture the one front grill that happens to be on the front of the wet automobile I pass on my walk. I am instantly connected to the automotive engineer, all the people who were involved with the process of bringing his design to paper, all the people who forged the steel, then were involved in the process of assembling the automobile that I see. All the miles put on the car, and experiences of its owners during that time are connected to me when they parked it in such a manner that I could experience it. Consider now the people who built the apartment buildings, and laid the pavement, and drew up the plans for the complex I live in. All these people co-created the experience that I willed into existence for myself (and the snails I assisted).
What is the difference between the experience of a walk I had transmitted to myself through the act of willing it into existence, and a videotaped facsimile of the same experience which could have been broadcasted over the air? Is one more real than the other because the amount of information that can be sent to my brain about an experience is greater, or of better quality than the other? Then what is the difference between imagining a walk in the rain, watching it on the TV, and using my body to walk in the rain? The difference is only in the quality of information available about the experience — not in the intention of that experience. Is it the performance of an act or the conceiving of an act that brings it into existence?
Consider this: the words on this page transmit my thoughts directly to you, the reader. How is this possible with all that is between us; the paper, ink, time between the writing and your reading, and even the clumsy instrument of language — how is it possible for me to reach into your consciousness and talk directly to you, in your own voice if you and I did not create this interaction by our will? There is some magic, huh? There is interaction between us as long as your eyes are open. By merely shutting your eyes can you destroy what I have created for you? Long after I have ceased to exist as a human being you and I will communicate in this singular moment … you from within the momentary confines of your body, and I from the infinite expanse of consciousness. Yet we both, at this time cooperate in the creation of a joint experience because we think it can be done. We both agree that it is possible, so it is. The twin act of writing and reading binds us as profoundly, and as fundamentally as twin light photons who react to one another, even though separated by vast distances.
How are any of us separated from our God, or from one another, or from anything that has ever been thought, is being thought of, or ever will be thought of? All creation is born from thought. Everything that can be conceived of by a human being is instantly created for us because God beholds us every moment we exist.”
That was heavy duty for a thirty three year old, eh? That’s what happens when you go through a divorce. Life gets tossed out of a huge bowl and we wax eloquent about the nature of existence. And we listen to a lot of music.
iPods have much to teach us about life. Spin the control wheel and you can go on an emotional carousel for hours. Change the order of your playlist and you can lose your certainty of what’s next. Take an unconscious tour of your past and you must question the nature of time itself.
I am a composer. It might surprise most of you to know that we composers do not consider music an emotional language. For us, the best way to describe it is as an exquisite mathematical formula created in real time, using variables that come directly from the mouth of God herself. We are too busy just capturing the contours of the music, using our clumsy intellect to record its shape and form, to consider its import.
When I compose I don’t give a second’s thought to how people will react to the music or feel about it. I’m like a person who drives a car from one place to another, not remembering the details of each inch between, or like an architect who designs a building, and is not concerned about who occupies it 50 years later. My job, as a composer, is to pass on whatever God, or the Universe, or my Higher Power happens to be singing in my ear.
I believe on a metaphysical level we are all the composer of any music we hear. A songwriter or composer is not the first person to hear a song. An artist is not the first person to feel the strong tug of intuition. However, we are often the first to answer the request to bring that art into the world.
How many people have seen a telephone working atop a telephone pole? How many saw the very same man Jimmy Webb did? How many of us participated in the life and travails of that man from the window of common experience, or from the doorway of shared awareness about him, or someone like him. Turn the iPod control dial and shift your awareness to all human beings who have ever listened to music.
I often think of people who heard music 200 years ago. A Beethoven symphony was something they might have listened a very few times in their lives. You can be sure the experience was more profound than it is for us. They heard things we don’t hear now. Their sensitivity to key changes, melodic motifs, dynamic changes, and rhythmic variations was much keener than it is for us now. Going to the symphony, opera, or ballet were the artistic, and I dare say, emotional highlights of their lives.
From my perspective, as a composer, I have told people I know what Beethoven had for breakfast the day he penned a particular passage. How can I make such a claim? Because we both go to the same cathedral of creation. We both hear God singing as she smiles upon us. In that place of pure intuition there is no time or distance that can separate me from my friend Beethoven, or us from you.
I am in contact with a former student of mine from my professorial days at Santa Barbara. Since I knew her then, nearly 30 years ago, Elaine Nakashima has picked up the cello as her chosen instrument. She used to be a pianist, but has come from the dark side to embracing the best musical instrument a human being can play. Last Saturday evening we had a long conversation about music, and about playing the cello in particular. She told me she is learning to play the Bach unaccompanied suites for solo cello because she wants to master them before she leaves this planet. We both agree the suites are God’s purest form of music, and an eternal gift to humanity. I told her that Bach always signed the phrase “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God alone be glory) at the bottom right corner of all his manuscripts.
Bach was intensely aware of the spiritual source of his artistic gifts. Most composers will agree his are the shoulders we all stand on. Elaine and I are certain only the rare few can scale the heights Bach has set for us. The Suites can never be mastered. They are a Zen-like exercise for all cellists. She told me she saw Yo-Yo Ma performing all the Suites in Campbell Hall at UCSB last month. The newspaper reviewer used religious terms to describe the performance. She says that from the chest up you couldn’t tell Ma was playing the cello. To him he seemed like a person totally immersed in joy. She told me that people cried when she simply described his performance to them.
Imagine all that love is transmitted when we listen to music and experience it and dance with it. Imagine the precious gifts from God that are available to us all because we speak this exquisite language called life. I have often described music as a religion. Perhaps it is the most primary, elemental art of all. Music lifts us out of the normal. It is hard to imagine people doing violence to each other while listening to beautiful music. You don’t need an iPod to take a metaphysical musical trip. Just open your ears to God singing to each of us.
All creation is born from thought. Everything that can be conceived of by a human being is instantly created for us because God beholds us every moment we exist.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!