Tuesday, September 1, 2015

You are the music

The longer I live, the more I realize how indispensable music is in my life. I can't imagine a day without at least thirty minutes of something classical or popular, whether on Youtube or the radio or the CD player in the car or the usually enjoyable TV station, Classic Arts Showcase (produced free of charge and free of commercials!).

Music can take me out of myself, help me become centered in the present, detached from the usual anxieties and realities. This week it was a bit of Dixieland jazz, songs of Lerner and Lowe, Puccini in the brilliant tenor voice of Jonas Kaufmann, Gilbert and Sullivan with their comic rhymes, Chopin's nocturnes, and so much more.

The effect of music on the brain was rarely so well expressed as by a noted scientist and gifted writer who just died: Oliver Sacks.

This week, in reading about Sacks I found (thanks to Maria Popova's "Brain Pickings") excerpts from his 1984 memoir, A Leg to Stand On. There Sacks describes in often lyrical detail how he was terrified on a mountain in Norway in 1974, threatened by a bull and an injured leg, feeling totally alone and abandoned, facing death.

What came to his aid?  Rhythm, melody, music: he began to chant over and over as he hobbled along in the middle of nowhere until "the musical beat was generated within me, and all my muscles responded deliberately." 

After chanting the song for some time, he began to feel, deep within, that he had no room for fear because he was filled with music, including the "silent music of the body."  Sacks quotes T. S. Eliot: "you are the music, while the music lasts." And he becomes a creature of motion, muscle and music, all inseparable and in union with one another.

The result: a feeling of gratitude, what I would call a prayerful experience.  As in his later book, Musicophilia, Sacks reflects on how amazing it was that a remembered melody should have such a profound effect on him, that music would be so passionately alive for him, conveying to him "a sweet feeling of life. .  .As if the animating and creative principle of the whole world was revealed, that life itself was music, or consubstantial with music, that our living moving flesh, itself, was 'solid' music. . .  ."

Facing his own death in recent years, Sacks kept writing up to the very end, brim full of life.  Now I am inspired to want to read more by this brilliant writer who found what many others have felt but seldom expressed: the power of music at the cellular level, something that is part of our being and that connects us to the cosmos.

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