I am a hardcore Ancient Music freak. I avoid the term “Classical” because of the connotations that it’s somehow elevating and needs to be forced onto kids. Despite that, however, it’s always on in the car and I cajole my kids into learning some appreciation for it:
“Kids, what do you hear now?”
“A violin.” “The whole orchestra.”
“So what is it?”
“It’s a violin concerto?”
“Yes. What does it sound like?”
“It’s happy.” “It’s the romantic era?”
“Yes, it’s a happy romantic piece. Who wrote it?”
“I dunno.” “The Happy Beethoven?”
“Yes, what’s his name?”
“It’s Felix Mendelssohn. It’s his Violin Concerto in E minor.”
“You like it?”
“It’s OK.” “Yeah, OK.”
And that usually ends the torment for one day. It’s enough, as far as I’m concerned, but it doesn’t quite get me to the place where I developed this deep obsession that has colored inbetween the lines when my own brain processes Ancient Music.
It all started when I was about 12 years old. My Dad had a 2 cassette tape set of the Brandenburg Concerti lying around, something that can be almost as dangerous to kids as leaving drug paraphernalia out in the open. I was intrigued mostly because, as is typical of this kind of music, Johann Sebastian Bach had a label next to his name:
JS Bach (1685 – 1750)
The guy was born 300 years ago? What does this sound like? My curiosity simply got the better of me. I had to know what it sounded like. I popped the tape into the simple clock radio and gave it a listen.
I liked #2, the one with the high F trumpet. It was stirring, and far more complicated than I thought Ancient Music should be. I have to admit, however, that #3 made me doze off after a while; nothing but viols sawing away. I lay on the bed drifting into a different consciousness not following anything in particular when the third movement came on. Somehow, the 12/8 time signature grabbed me.
I found myself listening to all 5 (or so) of the parts simultaneously, from top to bottom. They were moving in counterpoint, away and towards each other, like a bubbling crowd going about its daily business in some extraordinary way. And I had them all, every bit of it, right there in my ears.
I sat up, awake in a way I have never been since. What was that? As soon as I realized that I was absorbing all of it at once, the ability to follow each line just left me. I could pick out the violin, the bass, but not all at once.
When I went into the softly moist backyard, I knew I had changed the way I looked at the world forever. Every frog, every bird, every rustling leaf was doing its own thing; they were doing it all together in some way. It occurred to me that this was how God must see everything, in counterpoint, and more importantly this was the feeling that Bach wanted his listeners to hear. It’s his gift across the centuries to those of us who take the moment to receive it.
After that first time, I struggled for weeks to get that feeling back. Each time I’d pop in the same cassette I’d lean back and try very hard to hear each line moving simultaneously and against each other. It failed every time, and I was frustrated. But one day, when I had nearly given up the whole episode as a dream or a delusion, I simply listened to it all. There it was again. It wasn’t in my head, it was in my guts.
Once this skill came to me, I lost the ability to appreciate most modern pop tunes. They simply bore me. That’s not to say that Ancient Music doesn’t sometimes do that as well, but there’s at least some hope. I don’t like Tchaikovsky, but I do like Brahms because of the depth old Johannes put into his work. My favorite of the Romantic period is still van Beethoven, for reasons I’ll have to get into later in addition to his being a great architect who builds his works brick by brick. I love Scott Joplin for this rolling and bouncing machinations, and I always loved Jaco Pastorius, Weather Report or no. To me, it’s all about the depth and reflection of that quality of life from what must be a higher place.
How do I pass it on to my kids? I’m not sure. I probably shouldn’t be so pushy with it, but they are getting a lot of it all the same. Like everything, they’ll have to find what works for them on their own. The wisdom of Ancient Music, that traverses from perspective on high deep into the guts might just work for them. They’ll get it on their own, when they’re ready.
I have my own reasons for being “into it”. That’s good enough for now.