Listening To What Is No Longer There

Sep 1, 2018

Recordings seem to offer us a double promise: they can bring us closer to the music we love, and music can be caught and made as durable and solid as any sculpture. But if a share of the power of music lives in its being transient and fleeting, or momentous, limited, and already disappearing, maybe those two promises work against one another. Recordings can bring us closer, but they can’t make music stay. Music lives in time as it passes and in sound softly falling away.

Part of the emotional power of music might be that even as we perceive it, it is disappearing, echoing in the acoustic and buzzing in our sensing, breathing bodies.

Recordings have brought me closer to the music and also to places I have never been- to the Old Metropolitan Opera house which is gone, or to listen in on Mahler conducting Verdi’s Otello back when it was “contemporary music”. Recordings offer the chance to fly far away from home and out into the world of music as it is elsewhere or once was. And that is as real as anything heard live because music lives in our experience- it lives where we are. Until the sounds are heard and felt, they are just sounds, not music. So maybe you can catch sounds, but not music. 

Whether live or on recording, to be really close to music, in my experience, is to be thrilled and terrified that it will not last, and to cling or grasp onto it with intense emotional response as it flies away into oblivion. As if I could engrave it into memory as a charm against grief at its disappearing. So in my own way, I am trying my best to make a recording of the music I hear, in the grooves of my brain instead of the grooves of a wax cylinder or a shellac gramophone disc, the magnetic whispers of tape or the delicate on-off of digital bits, bytes and bandwidths. 

Maybe we experience beauty most intensely and most personally as something slips away and is gone. Part of the emotional power of music might be that even as we perceive it, it is disappearing, echoing in the acoustic and buzzing in our sensing, breathing bodies. For decades I have tried to swim upstream, listening to the oldest recordings I could find, straining through scratchy, static-y old stuff, searching for the real(est) sounds and for hints on context and style. All that in order to make sound into music again by hearing it back into life. I have memorized miles of sheet-music and tried to catch every strain heard at concerts, hoping to get it to stick and keep blessing me forever. I have tried my best to make the music stay, and it has always slipped from my grasp. But in slipping away, it sings its own orison, and my impressions are like a wake, where each keening mourner cries music’s name as the sweet tones fade. 

But what’s all this moaning and wailing about? The music library at JPR towers solidly from floor to ceiling, filling a great room, stacked and compact in alphabetical and thematic order, definitely there, to be enjoyed for decades. We have the greatest players and orchestras and conductors in little magic containers. That should console me in my grief and longing for connection with music, and it does, but it’s just a collection of recordings, any one of which might become music the moment it glides past a listening human heart and mind. That’s where you come in. We provide the sounds, and you, dear listener, provide the music by lifting those sounds back up into gleaming meaning, just where the recording caught them and turned them to sounds.

From Caruso at the old Met in 1910 starring in the first live opera broadcast on American radio, up to the music you might be listening to right now, the airwaves of live broadcast promise to convey you into connection with music. And unlike having a million albums at home, when you listen to JPR, you hear music as it flies and you get a share in that excitement of being a part of something happening that might never happen just the same way again. Because it is in the air, on air, and passing by, some of the poignancy keeps us pinned. When I have a driveway moment with music on JPR, its not to find out what it was or who played it, but to do my best to hear it. It’s funny that after all these years in music, I still don’t “have” it, can’t hold it, and I only seem to need it and to long for it more and more deeply. May your thirst for music grow, even as you drink deep in listening to JPR.

Code Growe is a performing musician, teacher, and storyteller working on social renewal through art and imagination. Born in California, he studied music at Musikseminar in Hamburg, and at McGill University in Montreal before settling in Ashland. In addition to music and public radio, he enjoys gardening, hiking and folklore studies.