I dedicate this Before Shabbat to our Cantorial Leader, Susan Glickman, on the eve of her retirement. Her love of music and ability to convey that love with authentic joy and kindness is a gift to the hearts and souls of us all. Thank you always, Susan.
This weekend, Taylor Swift is performing at Gillette. You might think the Messiah was in town. It’s all over social media, news, even weather reports. There are apocalyptic traffic warnings and suggestions on what to wear to the show. I don’t know what it is about Taylor Swift that accounts for her extraordinary popularity and the desperation of her fans to see her. I could climb on my high horse and strongly critique her pouty, post-adolescent, coming-of-age music, but I was taught a long time ago never to judge someone else’s music if it came from a sincere place, and I think Taylor Swift seems sincere. There is something in Swift’s music that touches particular hearts, and that’s beautiful.
Like my siblings, I have a deep, abiding love of music. We grew up with a high-end stereo system (McIntosh preamp and amp), and music played often. There was a limited selection of lps: some classical, some show tunes, and a couple of Richard Tucker albums, one featuring opera and the other Jewish greatest hits.
My mother’s singing was more important than the music playing in the living room. She sang all the time: at home, in the car, and while she shopped. Much to my chagrin, she sang along to the muzak at the Food Fair supermarket on Route 66. I was convinced that she would be arrested. Or worse – someone would see me with her and then shame me at school. “Oh – you’re the dope with the singing mother!”
I realize now that no one cared that my diminutive mother sang as she shopped. If anyone had anything to say about it, they’d probably mention that she had a great voice – and she did! If you were to ask her why she sang all the time, she would shrug her shoulders and say that it made her feel good – she couldn’t help it!
My sibs and I have music in our DNA. We can’t help it. Listening to music, performing it, going to concerts, turning up the volume, and needing to hear it are all manifestations of the centrality of music in my life. I need music around me always. Sometimes it’s about comfort. As the William Congreve quote goes, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend the knotted oak.” Sometimes it’s about the peculiar pleasure I get in listening to a sad song, which apparently has a chemical origin. “It is conjectured that high prolactin concentrations are associated with pleasurable music-induced sadness.”
I want music in happy or sad times, celebrations, or break-ups. I have soundtracks in my head for various occasions, accompanying me on my way. I’ve told my children that if, God forbid, I become extremely ill in my old age and no longer want to listen to music, that’s the time to pull the plug. I identify music that closely with my life force.
Music floats through many souls and twists around lots of DNA strands. The message over and over is that music defines and enhances the human experience. It is fundamental to human consciousness. The oldest musical instrument ever found comes from a cave in Slovenia. It’s a flute made from a baby bear femur by a Neanderthal over 50,000 years ago. That’s older than the cave drawings in France!
But long before the femur flute was tooled, ancient homo sapiens and Neanderthals undoubtedly banged on tree trunks and stalagmites with sticks, clapped their hands, and vocally emitted sounds of joy and ecstasy and pain. Because, like us, they sought to express themselves when there were no words. They knew that words would never be enough even if they had a vocabulary. Like us, they sang and swayed as they laughed and cried because they understood the briefness of life, its bliss, and its sorrows. They loved music and sang because they couldn’t help it.