All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.
–from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”
The first time my (now) husband and I watched our (now) favorite band perform, he (Eric) was wasted: too many overly-anticipatory beers as he waited to witness one of his favorite musicians, John Medeski, play in a small basement venue with an unknown-to-us Cambridge band: Club d'Elf. For him, it was a boon, like getting away with—or in on—something inconceivable (which he was). I went along because I enjoyed Medeski’s music well enough and trusted Eric’s taste. I’d always been into music—knew enough about it, “for a girl,” as a (male) grad-school classmate aggressed—at least compared to others in my demographic: young Greek American women raised in the Connecticut suburbs of the 1990s, who danced to Greek music at family parties, played something like the clarinet in the middle school band, and could easily confine the rest of their taste to top-40 hits played on the radio or MTV loops. Eric remembers little, but I recall peering through a wall of sweaty t-shirts to a motley group of musicians playing sound. Sound that created music. Not because of notes written on the page, but because of each person evenly immersed in the endeavor.
The bass player formed the center, yet as the center, he held no greater role than conjuring the most earnest and honest sound possible from each human being, via their instrument, on the carpeted stage. He played his own with an understated ease that conveyed a deep knowing of his sound’s role as a type of wavy surface on which the art of this collaboration could elevate and dance, or sink beneath and mine, as needed. His apparent effort and attention fixed on listening: sensing and observing the rhythm and energy of each artist’s part, inviting them to enter or retreat from the collective sound as necessary to the actualization of the whole, always one half-note from chaos and cacophony, dipping in and out of it for sustenance, toward a brilliant flash of shared meaning and truth that the musicians—and much of the audience—could experience immediately, like a radiant shock they’d spend the span of each 45-minute song pursuing, tenaciously, again: the one impossible moment of blissful communion, ecstatic understanding that can only come from teetering together so close to the edge. Some in the band played barely a chord, sifting on a sax riff here and there as the oud or tabla roamed free; a trumpet player from the audience, paper wristband and all, sat in for a song while the existing configuration broadened its reach to annex, accommodate, and incorporate the new contribution.
Those of us who take up the challenge of loving “America” in the way that James Baldwin did—critically, with every eye wide—might consider this part of our fight: to resist the sinister insistence on a harmony that commands we temper ourselves, and each other, or stay out; to detect and reject the promoted ideal of us as cherubic children singing together with the semblance of one voice; to play in a cosmic band where we all know the instrument that is our voice, and when and how and where to wield it, even if it’s not always time for our timpani or bassoon.
What I’m talking about is not every voice entitled to its pulpit; I’m talking about music, the kind that rings like meaningless noise in the absence of imagination and the right kind of patience and love; that more than tolerates the untidy, that offers us a way of trying to live together in peace when we’re in pieces. Music that yields, demands, incites, provokes, pokes at the calcified pain of being alive and drains its compounds; music that lifts, unites, restores, that would heal the wounds of our intentions and failures and undo our erasure if only we could hear it forever. Music that brings us back into belonging with ourselves and each other. That awaits no foolish epiphany to begin but just plays and plays and plays in the basement bar while the city throbs above, unaware that the ground below has opened wide, inviting us all in, to triumph like “the very cup of trembling” atop Sonny’s piano.