Are you alone?

. . . this is a common and inescapable encounter in life, with a beauty of its own: something you think you understand, governed by something you don’t.

~ Jeremy Denk, Every Good Boy Does Fine, Random House, 2022 ~

Jeremy Denk – musician, pianist, and writer – is talking about melody and harmony. About how we can learn, whistle, and sing a melody and enjoy that for itself, without thinking at all about harmony. But the catch is that melody is based on harmony.

The people who sang, played – and even those who composed – Il né le divin enfant, Quittez Pasteurs, and D’où viens-tu bergère?  probably did not know or care that those lively melodies (and many other French carols) are based on a triad in second inversion – AKA a 6/4 chord. But they had those notes in their heads, all right. They rang from church belfries in every village.

Perhaps you are on campus somewhere in America. You hear Mi Do Re Sol every quarter-hour. On the half hour it is followed by Sol Re Mi Do –  the same thing backwards. At a quarter-to the hour you might – depending on the clock and bells in question – get a slight variation in the repetition of the first phrase: Mi Re Do Sol. On the hour all four phrases play: down, up, down, up. Then low Sol bongs out the hour. You don’t need your phone or your watch to know what time it is. You are close to the natural world where the sun and stars speak the hour and count the days.

The very different, lovely, non-bell-like Amazing Grace is also built on a 6/4 chord.

Jeremy’s image spoke to me, and I’m not even sure exactly why.

something you think you understand, governed by something you don’t

Still, it has a beauty of its own. Something you have learned, or figured out for yourself. There is satisfaction and appreciation. But there is no certainty, no end, no perfection. This thing is governed by something you don’t understand. At least not yet.

More learning will bring more understanding. You will see beauty, and perhaps even have an epiphany, as when a musician grasping for the whole, leaves bits of silence that allow the music to be beheld out of time.

But isn’t music metronomic? Don’t you use a metronome? Isn’t there a conductor?

Sure. But there is rubato, for a start. Time moves, but some notes “rob” others of a bit of time so they can be longer and perhaps more important in some way. And conductors – they can make time as elastic as they please. A wonderful new (female) conductor recently made me laugh out loud with delight. The end of one of the movements of the Prokofiev Classical Symphony (the last, I think) is a rapid soft ascending scale. This performance got to the leading tone and –  silence! Absolute silence. You could feel the clock running. Elastic, and yearning for resolution. Then, with perfect comic timing, came the tonic. Sforzando. Hats off to her.

As I have said elsewhere, great performances and great lives have something in common. They exist in time and end in silence. But they don’t disappear. And today I would add that sometimes there are moments in those performances and lives where time stops. Where the music or the life somehow exist out of time.

We all have them. Simple, common people. All of us. Not geniuses. Moments when, out of a struggle, perhaps, something just is. It is beautiful. Its existence is enough. There is no need for further thought.

It comforts us. And it connects us.