In a lifetime of living in this body, I have known no more powerful a homecoming than music — nothing roots us more firmly into the house of being, nothing levitates us more buoyantly to that transcendent place beyond marrow and mind. Stripped of its nihilistic drama, there is an elemental cry of truth, for me at least, in Nietzsche’s pronouncement: “Without music life would be a mistake.” Even Edna St. Vincent Millay, for all her lyrical love of life, echoed the sentiment: “Without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”
Every writer unblinded by ego will concede this.
No writer has conceded it more beautifully or with more rapturous reverence for the life of the body in the life of music than Richard Powers in his exquisite 2003 novel The Time of Our Singing (public library).
One of the novel’s protagonists — a young black woman in 1930s Philadelphia — becomes an emissary of the power of music as an instrument of self-discovery and self-possession, a living testament to song as the pulse-beat of the soul:
Delia fell in love with singing. Singing was something that might make sense of a person. Singing might make more sense of life than living had to start with.
Delia sang fearlessly. She threw back her head and nailed free-flying notes like a marksman nails skeet. She sang with such unfurling of self that the congregation couldn’t help but turn and look at the teenager, even when they should have been looking skyward.
Delia could feel them as she sang, the hearts of the flushed congregation flying up with her as she savored the song’s arc. She sheltered those souls in her sound and held them as motionless as the notes themselves, in that safe spot up next to grace. The audience breathed with her, beating to her measure. Her breath expanded sufficiently to take her across even the longest phrase. Her listeners were in her, and she in them, so long as the notes lasted.
When Delia marries a German-Jewish physicist who plays the piano and consider music “the language of time,” music takes on a richer meaning — or, rather, it is stripped down to its elemental raw material — for without the arrow of time, without being able to tell one moment from the next, there could be no melody and no rhythm. This is what makes music our supreme laboratory for feeling and time.
Eventually, the couple’s sons discover music on their own terms, in their own time. One of them — the novel’s first-person narrator — encounters its power and tenderness harmonized in a soul-stilling performance of ancient music by a choir at The Cloisters — the medieval monastery turned museum in the uppermost reaches of Manhattan, just past Harlem. The small boy, untainted with concepts, experiences music in its purest form, pouring out of the singers like daybreak, like something of another world, yet saturated with pure translucent presence, in that peculiar way transcendent experiences have of taking us both beyond and deeper into ourselves:
Silence falls, erasing all separateness. Then the silence gives way to its only answer. This is the first public concert I will remember ever hearing. Nothing I’ve already lived through prepares me for it. It runs through and rearranges me. I sit at the center of a globe of sound pointing me toward myself.
It doesn’t occur to me, at the age of seven, that a person might luck upon such a song only once a lifetime, if ever. I know how to tell sharp from flat, right singing from wrong. But I haven’t yet heard enough to tell ordinary beauty from once-only visits.
There is a sound like the burning sun. A sound like the surf of blood pumping through my ears. The women start by themselves, their note as spreading and dimensionless as my father says the present is. Keee, the letter-box slots of their mouths release — just the syllable of glee little Ruth made before we persuaded her to learn to talk. The sound of a simple creature, startling itself with praise before settling in for the night. They sing together, bound at the core for one last moment before everything breaks open and is born.
Then reee. The note splits into its own accompaniment. The taller woman seems to descend, just by holding her pitch while the smaller woman next to her rises. Rises a major third, that first interval any child any color anywhere learns to sing. Four lips curve upon the vowel, a pocket of air older than the author who set it there.
I know in my body what notes come next, even though I have nothing, yet, to call them. The high voice rises a perfect fifth, lifting off from the lower note’s bed. The lines move like my chest, soft cartilage, my ribs straying away from one another, on aaay, into a higher brightness, then collapsing back to fuse in unison.
I hear these two lines bending space as they speed away from each other, hurling outward, each standing still while the other moves. Long, short-short, long, long: They circle and return, like a blowing branch submitting again to its shadow. They near their starting pitch from opposite sides, the shared spot where they must impossibly meet back up. But just before they synchronize to see where they’ve been, just as they touch their lips to this recovered home, the men’s lines come from nowhere, pair off, and repeat the splitting game, a perfect fourth below.
More lines splinter, copy, and set off on their own. Aaay-laay Aaay-laay-eee! Six voices now, repeating and reworking, each peeling off on its own agenda, syncopated, staggered, yet each with an eye on the other, midair acrobats, not one of them wavering, no one crashing against the host of moving targets. This stripped-down simple singsong blooms like a firework peony. Everywhere in the awakened air, in a shower of staggered entrances, I hear the first phrase, keyed up, melted down, and rebuilt. Harmonies pile up, disintegrate, and reassemble elsewhere, each melody praising God in its own fashion, and everywhere combining to something that sounds to me like freedom.
Toward the end of the novel, decades and disillusionments later, Powers returns to music as the supreme instrument of our self-knowledge:
The use of music is to remind us how short a time we have a body.
Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music and the universe and violinist Natalie Hodges on the scientific poetics of sound and feeling, then revisit the remarkable story behind Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”