Without music life would be a mistake.
How did my love of music get started? I have an early memory of Mama rocking in her chair, baby on her lap, singing, “Ole Mista Frog … out for a ride … sword and pistol by his side, uh huh.” But Daddy wouldn’t know a note if it bit him. Mama’s uncle Manuel played music in New Orleans around the time jazz was born, I’m told, and her three youngest brothers liked showing off their good voices. Ted, the youngest, immortalized his sweet tenor on a self- produced 45 rpm, “Father Faustina Sings,” and when the spirit moves me I can reproduce uncle James’s belting rendition of the Negro work-song, “Water Boy! Where is you hidin’?”
I played clarinet in elementary and high school. In my senior year (1944–45) in New Orleans I taught myself alto sax, joined the Musicians Union and played at dances with The Rhythm Playboys led by Dookey Chase for $10 a gig. We opened with the stock arrangement of Glen Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” and closed with “Sweet Lorraine” because Dookey’s girlfriend was named Lorraine. In between, Warren Bell did mesmerizing riffs on his amplified guitar. Three gigs on Mardi Gras earned me enough money to buy my first suit, with dollars to spare.
This was not l’art pour l’art; it was music for a reason, it was music I liked but not the music I came to love. The music I love is music that in my time was wrongly referred to as serious or classical to distinguish it from properly named popular music.
The music I love, not the music I grew up with, has charms “to soften Rocks and bend a knotted Oak” (Congreve, 1697).
How deep was my love? A few evenings back I was watching a football game on TV, and during a timeout, I surfed the channels, as is my wont, and happened upon a PBS broadcast of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, visually and audibly enhanced, with Leonard Bernstein conducting. I was enraptured, carried away and never clicked back to the game.
Now, I’ve heard Beethoven’s great Choral Symphony a million times and each time I am enthralled. Hearing and seeing Bernstein, his wrinkled face, eyes closed, ecstatically reflecting moment by moment the majestic, sweet sounds, crashing sounds, soaring melodies of Beethoven’s masterwork is transcendent. Indeed, the pleasure I get from such music takes me out of myself, shuts down sensations and replaces them with something like religious joy; it is a pleasure second only to sex (and being now in the second year of my ninth decade I’ve found music more enduring and its pleasure increases, as sex’s does not, with repetition and age).
The rapture induced by music, unlike painting and sculpture, needs memory to work its ineffable magic. Sounds flow continuously like water in a stream. The sound I hear at each instant has no meaning unless memory blends it with preceding sounds and imagination conjures sounds yet to come.
New technology digitizes music and thus creates the illusion of continuity the way cinema creates the illusion of motion – a single frame (or digit) is incomprehensible without the ones before and after. Thus, music is time dependent, actualized in the mind of the listener. This is the reason, I believe, that composers repeat musical phrases. Music by the French composer Poulenc (1899–1963), for example, is a parody of de capo; each figure is followed by its duplicate, a carbon copy, like an echo. Once, at a performance by the San Francisco Symphony I tried to count the number of times the first bars of The Hymn to Joy were repeated; I got up to eight before I lost track.
Music is all too often referred to as a universal language, an analogy that is misleading because it is only half right. Music communicates but not to the cognitive aspects of our being; it speaks to our emotions and while it arouses feelings it does not communicate knowledge nor does it encourage or precipitate violence. I can think of few sounds more militaristic than the Grand March from Aida, Act two; it awakens bellicosity but carries such stirring triumphal beauty as to sooth the savage breast.
In summary, music is a source of almost visceral pleasure needing the mind’s attention powers to unite its precious ephemeral sounds.
Return now to the question I started with. As best I can remember my real love of music (love of real music?) started when, together with my older and younger brothers, I listened to Bell Telephone Hour Monday night radio broadcasts and got swept away by the wonderful voices of Jan Pierce, Robert Merrill, Licia Albanese, Lily Pons and others. This was different from music at home and also from music I could play. I had no idea what those clear and powerful voices were singing about and it didn’t matter, not in the least. Had I inherited a capacity to love this stuff?
Finally, I must mourn briefly on the status of music in our brave new world. We have universal public education traceable, mutatis mutandis and with effort, to the trivium and quadrivium of the Middle Ages. Today’s curriculum in particular has kept pace with knowledge and although three subject from the quadrivium—Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy/Cosmology—survive in one form or another, Music has been pushed to the sidelines; music is now extra-curricular.
If you want to pursue your love of music in school you must submit to voluntary detention—stay after school as if you’re being punished for bad behavior. And of course every time there is budget shortfall music programs are sacrificed.
The place of music outside of school explains, in part, its scholastic neglect. Society at large treats music as an enhancement, a decoration, an embellishment, something you can do without but may enjoy if you have enough money and leisure. This is not only wrong-headed, it is a calamity!
Music is not unessential, a fringe, an extra; it is the food of love, coincident with life; without it the soul starves, humanity is crippled. Although not as necessary as food, music (not just my kind but all kinds—spirituals, jazz, swing, folk ballads, rap and reggae, etc.) is nevertheless as integral a part of life as speech.
Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.