To soothe the savage beast

A moment in the brief but beautiful stage of Sam taking fiddle lessons.
A moment in the brief but beautiful stage of Sam taking fiddle lessons age 6.

Music soothes the savage beast. Which is another way of saying it goes right to the core of us.  This is why it is inserted into movies, advertisements and department stores to manipulate us. Music has the direct line to our emotional centers. When is the last time you slowed down to really savor some music?

When the boys were younger they both participated in a series of Occupational Therapy sessions. A big part of their experience was a therapeutic listening program – special headphones which did not block out environmental noise, while sending specific sounds to stimulate specific parts of the brain. It was fairly transformative for both of them. It highlighted the healing power of sound.

I find that I am much more selective about when I choose to listen to music than most folks. Sound is one of my weaknesses, and I am both easily overwhelmed and easily absorbed by noise. As a consequence our house is most often pretty quiet. I’m not usually one for putting on music as background noise. It takes up a portion of my brain that then becomes unavailable for many tasks.

Because I am selective about when I listen does not indicate that I don’t love it. One of the best things about being a volunteer programer at KMUN years ago was the experience of spending two hours deeply listening to music I truly loved. I find that I prefer particular music for various tasks.

While studying in college I had recordings I preferred for studying each subject. If there is music with English lyrics playing it is nearly impossible for me to focus on anything else. Chemistry homework? Time for the Song of the Humpback Whale CD. Writing papers was accomplished while listening to Maria Callas singing Bizet’s Opera, Carmen.

Musicians that are currently on my obsession list include; Yoga groove goddess, Wah!, western Hindi devotee, Krishna Das, Joe Purdy and Patty Smith.  Recently at work I have been listening to the Hindu kirtan music of Krishna Das and WAH! quietly in the background while I fill out forms. It is very soothing to me, and helps keep me in a good place for doing the work of empathic attention. An auditory  reminder to be present, and to be compassionate.  I like being able to manipulate my own mental state by choosing what I listen to.

I cook dinner to Joe Purdy. Who is new to me, his stories compelling.  I tend to listen to Patty Smith while cleaning, though sometimes the better choice might be the Us3 album Hand on the Torch, or the Nordic band Hedningarna’s wild pagan renderings. Cleaning music needs a beat.

Patty Smith has been a part of my soundtrack since my brother Tom hooked me up with a speaker in my room when I was about 5. It was connected to the stereo in his room, and even had a volume knob. I could listen as loudly or softly as I wanted to whatever he was listening to.  Mostly “brother radio” played the Rolling Stones with occasional interludes of Patty Smith. That speaker created a magical space for me.  (My “room” at the time was really more of landing at the end of the hallway, its only door led to the attic.)

Tom is the same brother who, after I had moved into an actual bedroom – which I shared with my brother Bob, rigged up a weighted pulley system to control the light switch from the bunk beds. All so I wouldn’t have to dash across our room every night at bed time in the scary dark. From the safety of my place as bottom bunk dweller, I could turn the light off or on simply by pulling on a cord.  A definite advantage of having a brother 12 years older. My “radio” unfortunately didn’t make the move with me.

Humpback whale breaching in the Columbia River in 2015.
Humpback whale breaching in the Columbia River in 2015.

” Old man river running wild and free
He found his lover between the devil
And the deep blue sea
Ain’t that a little like you and me
Just a little like you and me”
Darden Smith – Levee Song

When I got home last night Joe had music playing from our collection, most of it from the time, years ago, while I was a volunteer programer on KMUN.  Listening all evening to music that I haven’t heard in a long time really evoked times past, and was saturated with an an almost-longing. The Darden Smith song is the story of a man trying to entice his lover back, after she has moved on to a new love. Listening to it I thought about how when we recall times of sweetness our memories pick up little details, and then grow them until they represent an entire story, our version of some shared experience.  Music is such a portal to the past, though its mental time travel is unlikely to represent the only truth.

Do we choose the music we listen to, or does the music choose us? It certainly connects us. The feelings of the musicians pour out, calling a response. When music is live it is a full body experience, but even the shadow of recordings of authentic expression have great power.   When I listen to some old Delta blues it awakens the tie to our mutual humanity.  The songs weave us together through time and space.

Sometimes that connection is the bittersweetness that can bring us closer to our beloved dead. Revisiting some of the songs from different points of our life sound track with Joe, was like an instant connection to distant people, places and times.  The immediacy of certain songs made it seem like I could very easily be 22 again, and able to get on my bike to go over to see my friend Patty, who would be listening to Lucinda Williams too.

Sensory and emotional memories have no time attached to them, unlike intellectual memories. Which is why listening to a particular song can travel you to the past. A coworker usually chooses a classic rock station, and it is interesting to find both of us singing along together- while being transported to completely different past events with totally different casts.

Last night’s little time warp was from a separate realm from the sacred chants I’ve been listening to lately, but it really illustrated how there can be an equally powerful heart effect from many kinds of music. Listening to Graham Parsons the joy and sheer fun the musicians are having together is palatable. Joe said, “I don’t know if we will get there in this life, but lets spend the next one making music.” I am hoping we get to it in this life.

Joe's playing has created a soundtrack to much of our life together.
Joe’s playing has created a soundtrack to much of our life together. Here from around 2008.
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