Saturday, October 4, 2008

Why I Love Elaine Fine; and then, some ramblings...

[Photo: shofar photographed by Olve Utne]

Just check out this beautiful passage by Elaine Fine from a recent post on Musical Assumptions:

"Blowing the shofar this Rosh Hashana somehow allowed me to think about the potential sacredness of every single note that I play. And it also helped me to realize the deep difference between a note that is sounded and a note that is sung, and it helped me to have a glimpse at the infinite musical possibilities available to me on the instrument(s) that I love to play. It also helped me to understand how much responsibility I have as a musician, and, in a population that otherwise does not seem to think of the music that I play as something beyond background sound, pleasant entertainment, or a way to get all the bridesmaids in for a wedding, how what I do can actually be, note-by-note, important and meaningful simply for its own sake."


Most of what I do in my daily work is "important and meaningful" only for the sake of another, but most of what I really love to do has this blessing of being meaningful in and of itself. And maybe that's what makes any act sacred: the fact that it is "important and meaningful simply for its own sake." Thanks, Elaine, for that thought.


Sacred music has always had a special place in my life and is a living, breathing part of our family's spiritual experience. I think this must be true for many who enjoy an active practice of their faith. Psalms, chants, Shaker hymns, Negro spirituals...there's something about music, more than any other form of expression, that makes it particularly well-suited to our sense of the sacred.

Perhaps the reason is neurobiological: the temporal lobe is where we process musical and religious experience. But I think it's more than that. I think part of the reason is that music demands a response, full engagement, in the moment. Sculptures and paintings can continue to exist without their creators, as can written passages. But music...the actual experience of music calls the player and listener both to enter in, fully, right then and there, then it's gone. Even recordings can't recapture all of that precious moment, that transient bond between player and listener. Yet of all the senses, sound is the one which, if recorded and replayed, can almost conjure up the speaker or player's presence right beside the listener. Photos, and even videos, can't do that.

There's something about that call to enter fully into a moment, and the way sound almost mimics presence, that makes music the perfect way to invite people to attend to the sacred - be it with the sacred sound of the shofar, the opening chant of a cantor in a cathedral, or an imam calling the faithful to prayer. Ryan Fennerty in his evocative essay for the American Foreign Service Association writes, "Whether a practicing Muslim or a foreigner, the Imam's call to prayer stirs something universal in people. It is a calling to pause and reflect - and in this way awaken to a new level of understanding." Sacred music can grant us fruitful silence and mindfulness, making us more aware and thus able to perceive meaning - and sacredness - in a given moment.


One of the things that's sacred to me is writing. There's something so fascinating and mysterious about being able to lay down your thoughts so that they exist in time and space for other people, in an accessible way they can return to if they want to. I look at pictures of cuneiform tablets sometimes and think to myself, Boy, am I glad you guys invented this - look, I can still see your thoughts 5000 years later! Where music connects human beings in a moment, writing can connect people across vast stretches of time and space. I think there's definitely something sacred about that. Our smallest acts might still be reverberating ages from now.

I've been thinking about the traces of ourselves we leave behind - especially today, when I read about the survival of an astronaut's diary from the conflagration that took the lives of the astronauts on space shuttle Columbia. (Ever since I started reading Orange Crate Art, the blog of Michael Leddy, Elaine's husband, I've had my eye out for notebook sightings.) Then I start to wonder if the little traces we leave in our wake are the ones we expect. Sometimes my kids will bring up things I've said that I never thought about again, and I think, "It's all in there somewhere, the good with the bad...and some stuff I've forgotten, they'll remember forever!" Sometimes I get discouraged thinking that I'm not making the difference for others that I believe we're all supposed to be trying to make...but then I think of It's a Wonderful Life and hope that in my own small way the traces add up to a net of "better" for this corner of the world rather than "worse." If my profession and my non-professional interests have taught me anything, it's that small moments matter, more than we usually think.


Elaine Fine said...

I am so touched, T. Thank you.

Dragonfly said...

What an awesome post. Thanks for sticking it up!

~M~ said...

Your writing touches me more...more deeply and in a more personal way...than any other blog I read. And I read quite a few. Thanks for writing.

T. said...

Elaine, Dragonfly, M - Thank you for receiving what I write, even the ramblings, with such warm and open hearts and minds!

rlbates said...

Very nice post, T. I'm glad you share your writing with us.

Emily said...

Great post. I wrote a teeny one myself about my experience (which is ongoing until late Thursday night) at my high holy days gigs. Professional musicians are notoriously cynical; and why shouldn't they be? We get paid to play tunes: poor us! I was sitting next to a particularly eye-rolling violist who scoffed at the sound of the shofar. The rabbi was talking about how it is a call, an awakening, a reminder to make renewed promises and to live in accordance with our ideals. The violist rolls his eyes and says, "A ram's horn. How stupid." If that's all he hears it as, if the viola is only something he gets paid to play, if life is just marking time steeped in distain, my promise is to live as far away from that mindset as possible. And I'll start by trying to care for the guy, anyway. The kindness of others, when it is rarely encountered, can be as exhilarating as a shofar. Thanks for reminding me.

T. said...

Ramona - your support has always been one of the things that keeps me going!

Emily - thank you for sharing that story and reflection here. I know there are probably moments when I've found myself doing some eye-rolling of my own - not over music or faith but perhaps other stuff like education, politics, etc. - and I, too, appreciate the reminders writers like Elaine offer us, to re-learn our own reverence and try to be good to ourselves, our work, and others.