I’m on my way back from town. My satellite radio is tuned to a news station. It is six days after the election, and the news is crackling with noise from a strife-filled transition. Words of anger and animosity bounce off each other, beneath which attempting to surface are those of a relief that cannot yet find full expression.
Although admittedly a news junkie, I have heard enough. I switch my audio source to my MP3 player to see what will come up. I often let the player choose, as I did the last time I listened to it. Given that freedom, it works through my recordings alphabetically,
The music starts. It is a solo cello. I look at the display and see that the player has resumed offering Bach’s cello suites. It would be simplistic to say the switch from the noise of discordant politics to 18th century music is calming. It is more than that.
It reassures me.
Reassures me that temporary passions are just that. They come, and they go. True, these passions often produce horrendous results. Bach died in 1750. Two years earlier, the War of the Austrian succession ended. Its death toll is estimated at close to 400,000. War is only the most graphic indicator of our tendency to let destructive passions rip us apart. The angry emotions of our contemporary politics are but a less bloody manifestation of the same process leading to less spectacular violence, but violence, nonetheless.
Music is the antidote I regularly administer to myself. I lack the technical vocabulary to explain how this works, but I know music reminds me that there is another side to human proclivities, and one of those is a need to impose order on the swirling chaos of emotionally spurred human activity.
Erroll Garner could “write” such songs as “Misty” even though he could not “read” music and Beethoven could still “hear” music after he had become deaf. Music reaches directly into our brains. It amplifies. It soothes. It rouses. All of these on an emotional level. That is why filmmakers add a musical score to the words and images of their scenes.
What I hear in Bach’s music is how it constrains emotions into a structure that tames them, so that they are both calming and yet exciting at the same time. This structure, common to other forms of music, offers a pattern of repetition, then variation, and then closing repetition, providing a sense of a journey with a beginning, middle, and end.
Basic song structure, as I learned years ago from a jazz musician friend who asked me to write lyrics for a tune he had composed, illustrates this pattern. That simple structure is outlined as AABA, in which the melody and lyrics in the A sections establish themselves only to be contrasted in the B section, and reprised in the A. You can check this out by listening to Garner’s “Misty.” On a much larger scale, classical symphonies are organized into movements that in a similar way repeat and vary musical qualities.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking of any of this as I listened to the Bach suites on my way home from the mundane chore of grocery shopping. Looking out of my car window at the remaining fall colors against the background of the blue waters of the bays, and feeling in my car’s movement the constrained energy of the curves and hills of the Peninsula, Bach’s music reinforced a sense that despite the angry chatter of the contentious politics I had turned off, we might be alright after all.