Musicking

I am reading John Hersey's A Single Pebble (1956), a short, but beautifully-crafted novel of the adventures of a young American engineer sent to China to inspect the Yangtze River.

In the first chapter 'The Junk,' Hersey writes:

I lived to sounds: the beat of the trackers' signaling drum forward of the mast, Old Pebble's faraway chanting and the painful rhythmic cry of the trackers, orders shouted from the junk, the chopping of vegetables, the loud sipping of tea--all the noises of upstream progress; and always along the flanks of our craft the murmuring of the urgent river (p. 18).

The sonic gestures that Hersey talks about are the stuff of everyday life. They are not necessarily life-altering events, but if we become absorbed and attentive in the present moment we too can discover, as Hersey did on the junk, the 'marvels and miracles of sight and sound and smell.'

When I listen to 'live' music in contrast to music we download on our MP3's, I'm always informed, inspired and ignited. It could be a Mozart piano concerto performed in a concert hall, the overture to Monteverdi's Orfeo performed in a botanical garden, the chanting of Buddhist monks in a temple, the song of a solitary herdsman returning home from the mountains with his flock before dusk, or the intricacies of love played out among young Dong (Kam) men and women in dialogue song.

Several years ago I was fortunate to hear some of these courtship songs in a Dong village in Guizhou province. I was later told that a man would often arrive outside his sweetheart’s home in the evening and ask in song for permission to enter. If he gained admission, he would sing throughout the night with his sweetheart and leave after the cock crows just before day break. They sing to each other alternately, feeding off the word play of the other.

I was never privy to this musical act, but I imagined that these young man and woman were musical charmers who melodies might make the streams and mountains dance and trees and rushes sway to their rhythms unlocking the very gates of love. I should add, that on such occasions, if the daughter is struggling to respond to a verse or at a loss to execute a song, it is not unheard of for the mother to chime in and assist her.

These musical acts remind us (to recall Christopher Small) that music is not a thing, but rather an activity. Small's term 'musicking' draws our focus to music as an activity that expresses 'action' and that encompasses all musical acts be they singing in the shower, composing, performing or listening to our MP3's. These days, however, we are more often than not mere spectators of the musical act rather than active participants.

Listening to music is great, playing it is better.

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