A well not dug by human hands. A well dreamed; a well created by longing. From Wikipedia: “If water reaches the ground surface under the natural pressure of the aquifer, the well is called a flowing artesian well.” For me, and for some people I know, playing music is exactly this. There is an opening in the heart, and there is a pressure in the heart’s aquifer, and this creates a natural flow out of the heart that results in the form of music. This is not a creation formed from any kind of mining, as in trying to get at something, but more like the sprouting of a seed that creates pressure and expansion in such a way as to bring about a kind of birth.
Over the last 2 days I was part of an amazing event that happens every year at my daughter’s school, The Holiday Fair, at Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School. It is always a great, grand gift to behold. This year, among the forest of beauty seen at every turn there was a bounty of music from a broad swath of players. In one conversation that is still lit for me, some friends and fellow musicians and I were discussing Christmas Carols, and our complex relationship with them. How shopping malls had ruined them in some ways, although here I had to say that I don’t go to shopping malls, and that growing up in my family, my mother and father made a great effort to hold the sacred in the face of the outer world’s constant effort at the co-opting of celebration for profit. My mother was a music teacher before I was born, and a choir director for a time after, and I have many memories of walking to our church in Pennsauken and playing among the pews while the choir rehearsed, people singing in an old Baptist church with all their hearts for the love of god. I believe I was given a small but potent gift by osmosis during this time. My father was an English major who played the violin when he was young, and although he never played in my memory, he always had a great love of music, and he sang in this same choir, and he had a strong beautiful voice. His father dealt in violins on the side, although I don’t know if he played or not but I imagine he did some in order to know what he knew about the instruments. My grandfather on my mother’s side once told me that he was glad that when I played the flute that I held it up, parallel to the earth, and not hanging down, as this was not the way to play the flute. That was a very long time ago, but I still remember. Both of my grandmothers died when I was very young and what their relationship was to music I do not know at this time. This writing tells me that I need to ask them and see if in some way they might still tell me.
Further on in the conversation with my musician friends we also talked about how the old Carols have such strong melodies, and how many of them had been penned by very gifted and often famous composers. This led to a general talk about melody, and why certain melodies had such appeal, and that somehow this certain collection of seemingly simple notes arranged in a certain way, like Beethoven’s 9th, had such power, or were so moving somehow, and that so many students were so drawn to these pieces, to this music. I suggested that the reason for this was that these melodies are very, very old; much older than the time periods in which they were composed. People have been singing for a long time. Many composers as we know drew (and draw) from folk melodies that are alive in the culture. These melodies are like ancient fairytales or myths that are as water passing through 50 feet of soil that arrives clean and clear and nourishing, and we can trust them. They are some of the crucial maps to find your way on the long arduous journey to becoming a human being, insofar as they have been carried to us in an intact form. (For this one needs a well tuned spiritual barometer, but I digress.) We are tuned to things like horses, like cooking fresh food grown and harvested by us over a wood fire. Things that are old, that humans have done and known for a long, long time. We are not tuned to cars, to computers (where I write this!) or to tall buildings made of glass. We are tuned to these melodies, these old, very old collections of notes in a simple order that sing out of the artesian well of the heart, and sing to this well. We learned them from cranes, from crickets, from wolves, and from our own stillness. They quicken the spiritual rivers and they literally cause a change in the air. We feel it and we come home. For most of us, it doesn’t happen very often. It’s normal, and it should be happening all the time.
Christmas Carols. They are some of the gems that have been stolen and resold several times. Like the mule that Cundrie rides in the story of Parcival, they have many brands on them. They have been re-cut, reset, newly polished, and the for-sale quality has found some, many I think, turned off and tuning out. Who could blame anyone. And yet, there is something there that defies the for sale auction block of the perpetual slavery of so very much in this world that is all too alive everywhere. Martín Prechtel says that the soul of the indigenous survives at the heart of the culture that killed it, and I have learned at his school that the two places where this survival is the strongest are in music and food. It is hard for me to say whether or not the culture at large that I live in can even be defined as culture, and yet those vestiges are still here. They live and they wait for someone to give them breath, for someone to bow to the mystery of:
“Why am I so taken with this simple music?”
to pick up their instrument, and play.