J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Notes From Underground - #21
A Halloween Ode


I talk a lot about the formative experiences I've had in music. Like anything you become immersed in, there are key events that get you there. Sometimes, like a band whose style has become the status-quo long after they broke ground, it's far too nebulous to really discern where the influence begins and ends; but you never forget your inroads. You never forget your portals, the things that opened doors and made things possible. You never forget your teachers.

It's nearly Halloween again and for me that means one thing: Ms. Bracey, my elementary school music teacher. Aside from my family itself, Ms. Bracey was my first introduction to music, and the specific things I learned in that class are generally gone from my memory. Not because they have disappeared, but because they have been absorbed into my larger understanding of music and how it works. How and when I learned those small bits of information is no longer important enough to recall. However, I can remember one thing very clearly.

Every Halloween Ms. Bracey would teach us about a French composer named Charles Camille Saint-Saëns. She would give us details from his life, talk to us about his music, and then we would listen to one specific piece: "Danse Macabre." (click here to listen*)

"Danse Macabre" is essentially a musical story about the dead, in spirit form, rising from their graves on Halloween night, allowed for one eve to cross back from the void and into the living world. They run, they scamper, they hide, they even view and pine for their loved ones and family. All of this is contained within the movements and instruments of the piece.

So what exactly did Ms. Bracey teach me in sharing this with us every Halloween?

She taught me that a great story can be told without words.

She taught me that I don't need my mouth to speak another language and speak volumes when I do.

She taught me that my imagination held keys to visualizing worlds and universes more vast than my own day-to-day world. She taught me to close my eyes and see with my mind. She taught me that my vision is mine alone - that every one of us sitting in that classroom, while hearing the same music, would see something entirely different and unique and beautiful from one another.

She taught me that my 'unique vision' united me, not divided me, with everyone else in the room. While we all would see our own version of the story, our shared experience of the way in which it was told could bring us together. Ask anyone around my age who went to Winecoff Elementary School and see if they can share this same story with you.

She taught me that there is more to art than just sound and fury. By looking into the music, I could see a visual world. Consequently, now, when I read books, watch plays or even witness events in the real world, there is a soundtrack that infiltrates every bit of it. Once you can see into music, music sees back into you and, thankfully, it never stops.

She taught me, more than any education class I ever took, that learning is about scaffolding - about building a bridge of information and ideas. Now, whenever I hear "Danse Macabre," I recognize it instantly and make connections to more and more things. When I explored Saint-Saens' oeuvre in more detail, I found other pieces that I could connect, and in reaching out to grab them, I brought more back. (Discovering that Saint-Saëns was the composer of "Aquarium" (click to listen^) was just as revelatory.)

She taught me more in those brief periods, though it would take me years to truly understand what was happening, than I have learned in entire classes. In some cases, the whole foundation of why a topic interested me would lay somewhere back in the cognitive hollows of those elementary music classes.

This year my radio show falls, for the first time, on Halloween. I'm excited for so many reasons, but the largest of these is simply that in my mind there is no better night of the year to share the gift of music. Because of Halloween my musical imagination came to life in the gifted, teaching hands of Ms. Bracey, and I only hope that I am able to pass on even a fraction of that favor.

Shall we danse?

* - "Danse Macabre" is performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the conduction of Bernard Haitink. Herman Krebbers is the violin soloist.

^ - "Aquarium" is performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the conduction of André Previn.

Both performances are available on the Philips Classics release The Best of Saint-Saëns.

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