catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 7 :: 2009.03.27 — 2009.04.10


Counterpoint and companionship

In our very constitution we are music, as is the world itself.

- Thomas Moore, Jungian therapist and musicologist

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

- From “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen

Since I was a child, music has baffled me in a way that the written and visual arts do not.  In a written story, nearly every word is a direct link with something I can touch or feel or see.  In visual art, the pictures are of something I can name:  landscapes and people and bowls of fruit – or at least colors and dots and swishes.

But music – where does it come from?  The sounds are resonant then fleeting, the tunes often impossible to bring back to memory when one wants them, the variety of instruments and key signatures – how did it all come about? my child self wondered.

As a teen, I played French horn in our school band, which, far from clearing up my bafflement about music, increased it.  In the classical music I played, there was an emphasis on the harmony of carefully designed chords rather than any equivalence with sounds in the real world.  That is, Symphony No. 3 by Camille Saint-Saëns seems vastly different than any sounds he could have found in the world, such as geese honking or insects chirping or the ringing of hammers. 

The learning curve to read music and time signatures, to learn notes and codas and pianissimo, also made music seem out of reach.  There seemed enormous differences between the classical I played on my horn and the rock and pop that I listened to in my room or with my friends.  For me, all of this gave music a rarified, removed feel to it.

Yet there were moments when I would find myself relaxing into certain pieces.  During one of my horrible high-school break-ups, at the same time that the pain and rumors and gossip had dragged on for well over a month, our band director decided that we would warm up with low, slow Bach etudes.  I started the exercise just as he instructed, trying to warm up my embouchure and my breathing.  But soon I felt the release of being surrounded by those long sustained and sustaining chords, those wise notes of one who had seen the world, who had taken the painful beauty of it into his heart and come out with these slow, full, majestic groans.  I began to look forward to those etudes, a time in my school day that gave me space to grieve.

As an adult, I still do not have the key to crack the code of music.  What I do have is a greater sense of the mystery that will never be cracked by the likes of me.

In the sixth century the Roman philosopher Boethius discerned different symbolic levels of music.  There was the music of the cosmos, and the music we hear with our ears, and both were different from the “music humana, the harmony that unites the spiritual with the physical in the human person; the parts of the soul, such as the rational and irrational; and the parts of the body.”

Thomas Moore, the Jungian therapist, uses Boethius’ music humana as a basis for his practice:

In therapy, I often listen to the stories of my clients with a musical ear….  When someone is trying to resolve two or more pressing themes in life, like the need to be a serious student in school and at the same time a playful and free individual, I might see the situation as a problem in counterpoint, the aspect of music composition where two or more melodies play independently and yet harmonize with each other.  Often we approach life as a logical problem and try to decide which alternative is correct and makes sense.  A musical approach looks for ways to combine many different themes, without logical solutions and without allowing any one theme to dominate.

A wise woman friend of mine used a variation on this musical view of life:  “In everything we do, there is a rhythm,” she said.  “Find the rhythm and you can do what you need to.”  I have often taken her words to heart, imagining a busy scattered day as a particularly wild jazz composition, but with a snare backbeat all the same, giving me a rhythm to keep me from getting lost.

I once saw a performance of the Urban Bush Women Dance Troupe.  During one piece, a “booty dance,” their only accompaniment was two men drumming, and the dance was wild, native.  I was in the front row, and what I saw and felt in my bones and chest was the rhythm, faster and faster.  The women dancers let free, their big beautiful booties moving, shaking, swaying in a rhythm that was from the core, uncalculated, and completely accessible.  There is in our ancestry this way of relating to the mystery, the ecstatic, with only the rhythm keeping us grounded, only the pounding drums keeping us from flying off into the vast unknown.

The very word rhythm seems to speak of an evolving history.  The Greek root “rheîn” means to flow – it is a root shared with “stream” and “rheum.”  As the word evolved into “rhuthmos,” it came to mean “measured motion, measure, proportion.”  Proportion – one thinks of Aristotle.  It seems a quintessentially Greek concept: restrained, finding the balance, the moderation, the center of the rhythmic experience.  Far from the wild aboriginal rhythms that live in our past, learned music has been used by civilization in a way that sublimates these native roots.  By showing our restraint, our ability to build chords, progressions, time signatures, key signatures, symphonies, we pay attention to the nuances of the unknown, as opposed to giving in to the wild ecstatic dance.  And then, as if in counterpoint, we progress all the way to heavy metal bands and their driving beats that allow concert-goers to lose themselves in ecstasy all over again.

Music seems to be a meeting place of our limited, linear minds with something unknown and unknowable.  Maybe at its base, music lets us meet the mystery without being blown apart by it, the rhythm keeping the flow of power measured and contained.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
- From “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen

Maybe, for all that we think we’re being clever and literate and scientific, there’s really nothing on our tongues but Hallelujah.  In the end, it may be the unknowable nature of music that gives our especially literal age more than the written or visual arts could.  The mystery that we encounter in music is a sort of companion, something unknown yet unmistakably by our side, willing to meet us in rhythm and melody and counterpoint, in dreams and surprises and revelations.  Perhaps as Cohen sings, it is the Lord of Song. 

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