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Ways of Seeing, Kate Gridley: Music without words speaks loudly

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Posted on August 10, 2017 |
By Kate Gridley



I have been thinking a lot lately about music, especially music without words.

As a young child, the sound of a violin seemed so sad it made me cry. It hurt so much that I could barely listen to it. The sound of a group of violins was unbearable.

Yet, music with a deep pulse was comforting.

Trombones were somehow humorous; French horns the most beautiful mellow sound in the world; flutes were birds; and cello sounds comforting. And there was Tubby the tuba.

Piano sounds were both reassuring and uplifting. And playing the piano every day after school was a refuge, a place in which to unwind and then come back.

The feel of organ music, deep and vibrating, was indescribably delicious.

Early childhood, I was raised on the sounds of Bach, Charles Ives and the Modern Jazz Quartet — which is to say that when my father wanted to rouse us in the morning, he chose a recording of one of the above, dropped the needle and turned up the volume.

Way up.

I used to croon to my boys when they were babies to help them settle.

Bundled in their soft blankets, while I rocked and sang, they would drift off.

The same thing happened when I found myself singing to my father-in-law in his final moments of life. That clear fall day, as my son played his final sixth-grade soccer game of the season over at Mary Hogan, my father-in-law, who had been actively dying for a couple of days, wouldn’t calm. He had ripped away his oxygen tube, his breathing had slowed and he was very close to death, but he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, relax.

I found myself singing into his ear. First the humming of a couple hymns that I thought he would be familiar with; perhaps he would drift back in his mind to singing in the white clapboard church on the green. Other songs emerged, threads from the universe, while I imagined the flight of a bird and riffed off the familiar sounds of more hymns, lullabies, even songs he might have danced to when he was a young married doctor with beautiful wife, and five little children. A tapestry of notes. I held his hand. No words, just soaring, dipping melodies.

He settled. He floated away.

What is it that music does?

So many things. It provokes, it inspires, it brings us to tears, it calms, it agitates, it celebrates, it causes us to move, it makes our hearts beat faster.

Driving down a road in Scotland 35 years ago in an old van, listening to a classical station on BBC, a piece of music came on that I found so exciting I couldn’t handle the force of the music and drive at the same time. I pulled over to the side of the road to finish the listening — and experiencing — of an exhilarating trumpet and organ piece. Emergency lights blinking (the road was narrow, hedgerows either side), I scrabbled for a pencil and a piece of paper while the trumpet continued to soar, so that when the announcer came on, I could write down the composer and the recording. Charpentier.

Was it the sun, the day, the fields outside the van dotted with sheep and old stone buildings, the fact that I was in my early 20s, independent, painting and exploring in a beautiful place? Or was it the energy of the music? What pierced my heart?

There’s a wonderful book, “Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination” by Robert Jourdain, that explores how music affects us, through neuroscience, acoustics, psychoacoustics, history, culture, philosophy, perception, musical perception and performance.

He describes the etymology of the word “ecstasy.” “Ex” is the Latin prefix for outside, and “stasis” is the Latin word for “standing.” Music can literally take you out of yourself. As Jourdain writes: “(Ecstasy) … Sounds that leave you standing outside yourself. Sounds like those that called Ulysses to the Sirens’ rocks. Sounds whose potency lies beyond pleasure and even beyond beauty. Sounds that reveal to us truths we have always known yet won’t be able to recount when the last echo has subsided.”

I love the fact that live music evaporates. We hear it — it embraces us — it affects us — and it’s gone. We cannot reread what we have just heard, as we might a passage in a book. We cannot run our hands over it, as we might a piece of sculpture. We cannot gaze on it again, as we might a passage in a painting.

While we make music, we are inside it, and then when the pulses fade, the waves of sound ripple away, it floats away. What is left? Feelings, memories, something indescribable. I sometimes find intimations of mortality and glimpses of infinity.

Kate Gridley is an artist residing in Middlebury. She is currently working on a new series of paintings, “An Iconography of Memory.”

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