The music I’ll die to

I made the mistake a couple of weeks ago of signing up for iTunes Match. I’m not going to go into the details – I don’t have the patience – but it has been a tedious, confusing, and occasionally frustrating process. The concept is fine, it’s the execution that lacks finesse.

Anyway, as part of this, I somehow lost all the ratings on my music. Everything else remained – my groupings, my genres, my playlists – but unfortunately all but a random few hundred of my songs lost the rating I had attributed to them. Over the last couple of days, I’ve been slowly re-applying ratings, which has necessitated often listening to some of the more obscure or less frequently played tunes to give an accurate reading. Along the way, I’ve played some for the sheer pleasure of it.

It would be a lot quicker if I didn’t pause so often to listen to this song or that tune – but then, isn’t that the pleasure of it? I’m only up to the B’s, so have a fair way to go. I’d be further along if I hadn’t been waylaid when I came to Bach. For mine, Bach is the composer of some of the most exquisite music ever written. I wonder sometimes how such beauty and insight flowed from a man who looked, according to his portraits, like a gruff burgher who might happily have chowed down on a bucket of chicken from KFC. Then those thoughts slip by as I am transported by his music, which so often seems to speak directly to my spirit. I am uplifted every time.

There are about a dozen of his compositions that are near to being perfectly sublime. They’re all rated 4 stars or above in my iTunes. My two favourite pieces are St Matthews Passion and the Glenn Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations.

I listened again today and the strange thought occurred to me that this is the music I would like played when the day comes that I’m laid to rest. St Matthews Passion is a soaring piece of work that sets the soul a tremble. It is beauty made music, transcendent spirituality given voice. It calls to mind great cathedrals of old stone and spires that reach to heaven. There is something timeless and eternal about the music that suggests that we are all on a journey, and with death simply pass from one state to another.

The Gould piece is different. The Goldberg Variations is a masterwork, but every other version pales besides Goulds. I imagine it being played as people enter the church (imagining that my funeral service might actually be in a church – I’m atheist, after all) and finding their seats. They sit contemplatively looking ahead and wait for the formal proceedings to begin. Gradually they notice the music. It is lovely they think, a gentle unfolding of a simple melody. The piano tinkles, slowly, sometimes teasingly, leading whence they don’t know. And as they listen they notice another element. They strain to listen. What is that? Is it…? Yes, it is. Accompanying the piano is the pianist, Gould, gently humming with the music. You imagine him playing, his eyes softly closed, utterly absorbed in the music, in the piano keys his fingers slide across. For the listener, it is shockingly intimate, wonderfully human. And that nails it.

Perfect incompletion

Usually, as I drive to work I have my iPod plugged in playing all manner of contemporary music randomly. For some reason today I programmed the iPod to play classical music instead. School has finished and the week before Christmas many people are on holidays, so the roads were reasonably light-on for traffic. As I drove I listened as the first piece of music came on, the 1st movement of Gorecki’s Symphony no 3 (Song for the Sorrowful?). This is slow, mournful music almost, which builds into something achingly beautiful as first the strings join in, and then a chorale section.

As I listened it brought back memories – this is what so much of music does, more than anything else. In this case,       the memories were of an actual concert maybe 7 years ago where the performance of this music was the headline act.

It’s one of those vivid memories but of something I have not really thought about since then, but once. It was a Friday night heading towards Christmas. The weather was mild, and after a beer after work, I wandered to the other side of town to St Patrick’s Cathedral, where I met a friend. Along with the crowd we shuffled inside the cathedral and sat at the hard wooden benches. The ceiling of the cathedral soared high above us, supported by great marble columns like a forest within. At the front of the church, where the pew might be, the orchestra had set up in the open space. While the crowd continued to enter the orchestra set themselves up, shifting chairs and opening sheet music, little squeaks coming from the string section as they set up. Then the crowd was all still, and hushed, and with the gentle flick of the baton the first gentle notes wafted up into the darkened corners of the cathedral.

There is nothing as poignant or moving as the best of classical music. I pretty well love all music with a passion, from hard rock to jazz. It inspires me to many different and alluring states of being, but nothing, nothing, transports me to such spiritual bliss as does Bach or Beethoven or Mozart. There is something in music of that kind that is a direct testament to the genius of man. Somehow these great composers have tapped into some universal yearning and made music of it. When I listen to St Matthew’s Passion say, I am inspired by the genius of Bach in creating this, and moved in ways I cannot completely understand by the utter beauty of the music and voices combined. It is as if I have been plugged in directly to the music. Music like this is emotion and feeling made audible. It is the transcendence of something prehistorically visceral into something we can all listen to and feel – even if we don’t understand what it is exactly we feel, and why.

I didn’t think this as I sat on the uncomfortable bench, but I felt it in some way. The feeling was heightened by the setting. This was pure music, without artifice, within the walls of a church that somehow lent to the occasion, and the music, an air of the sublime. I listened to the music and watched the orchestra play until my eyes began to wander.

I lit on the slender neck of the girl sitting on the bench in front of me. She was slim and blonde, her hair fashionably tied up to reveal her tanned neck. At first, she looked familiar: did I know her? But then I knew I didn’t. I continued to look all the same. Somehow I came to feel a strange affection for that girl. Maybe it was the music or the setting. Maybe it was the mystery of that pretty neck and the face I had yet to see. As I sat I began to shift and crane my head, to catch a glimpse of her profile at least. But I couldn’t. As the music began to wind down I thought: when it’s finished, when everyone is standing to leave, I’ll see her then. But then the music ended and everyone stood, and in the hubbub I missed her. As my friend spoke to me I looked around wildly, between the columns as the crowd filtered out, to catch sight of a face I had never seen. She was gone though.

Outside it was mild still and I shared a drink with my mate at a nearby bar. I considered the girl and thought it was better not to have seen her. It might seem strange but had I caught sight of her face I’m sure that odd little bond I felt would have been broken, no matter how beautiful she might be. I had not seen her and so she lived on in my imagination, somehow perfect though incomplete. And so I remember that to this day.

Strangely enough, a couple of years ago I met another woman who had been at the same concert – and of her, I have no recollection at all.