Archive for September, 2006

O Gladsome Sound

I’d meant to write a few posts earlier this summer, and still plan to write about a trip to Meteora. (I’ve been there several times, but this time I took a lot of pictures, and had a conversation with a nun.) But I’ve been going through one of those periods where you simply lose interest in your blog. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself back into it.

So here goes.

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Last year I was listening to the radio and I heard part of a piece of music that struck me as excruciatingly beautiful. There was, perhaps, a cello or two, or perhaps some violins, and then a very slowly played piano. Sometimes the notes were between five and ten seconds apart. I stopped whatever I was doing and sat listening to it, waiting for each crystal-clear note from the piano. It had a strange physical effect. I imagined that my body — my heart, the blood in my veins — that everything in it was slowing down peacefully.

I remember once, when I was a teenager, lying on the couch on a cool summer day, listening to a dog barking somewhere outside. I had closed my eyes and every time the dog barked, I thought I could see a faint burst of light on the inside of my eyelids, like a small fireworks display. I never had this experience again, but listening to this music, I almost had it again.

When the music was over, I got a pen and some paper to write the composer’s name down, but I didn’t catch it. It sounded German, though. I did a search for minimalist music, hoping that I’d see a name that sounded familiar, but nothing came of it.

Another time in my teens I was listening to a radio station in Toronto that played Greek music for a few hours each day. One night they played a song with the most ethereal voice I’d ever heard. I was struck motionless. I had chills. When it was over, they played something else or went to a commercial, and the spell was broken. They never announced who had sung it.

For years, though, it haunted me. I wanted to know so much who had sung it. They actually never played that kind of music on that radio station, so I knew it was very unlikely that I’d hear it again. I thought about it from time to time and resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably never hear it again, that it would remain forever an experience that could never be repeated.

Years later, in university, I was attending a bi-monthly poetry seminar held by Derek Walcott. (One day I should blog about that. It was a great experience.) One of the poets he introduced us to was Edward Thomas. It was, for me, a real discovery. This poem had a particular resonance for me.

The Unknown Bird

Three lovely notes he whistled, too soft to be heard
If others sang; but others never sang
In the great beech-wood all that May and June.
No one saw him: I alone could hear him
Though many listened. Was it but four years
Ago? or five? He never came again.

Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,
Nor could I ever make another hear.
La-la-la! he called, seeming far-off —
As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,
As if a bird or I were in a dream.
Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes
Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still
He sounded. All the proof is — I told men
What I had heard.

I never knew a voice,
Man, beast, or bird, better than this. I told
The naturalists; but neither had they heard
Anything like the notes that did so haunt me,
I had them clear by heart and have them still.
Four years, or five, have made no difference. Then
As now that La-la-la! was bodiless sweet:
Sad more than joyful it was, if I must say
That it was one or other, but if sad
‘Twas sad only with joy too, too far off
For me to taste it. But I cannot tell
If truly never anything but fair
The days were when he sang, as now they seem.
This surely I know, that I who listened then,
Happy sometimes, sometimes suffering
A heavy body and a heavy heart,
Now straightway, if I think of it, become
Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore.

* * * * *

Then, when I turned 35, and I was twice as old as I had been when I heard the song, N. gave me a CD for my birthday. It was simply called Karyotakis, the surname of the poet whose lyrics had been used for the songs. The music was by Lena Platonos, and the songs were sung by Savina Yannatou. The first track was the song I’d heard and had never forgotten. Often when you revisit an experience many years later, you are disappointed and wish you had stayed away, with your memory intact and unsullied by age. This, however, was not one of them. It was just as beautiful as it had been seventeen years earlier. And it still is now.

Listen to the song.

* * * * *

Last week I was listening to the radio and I heard the music again, with strings and the very slow piano. But this time I caught the composer’s name. It’s Alexander Knaifel. The piece is called Svete Tikhiy, which means “O Gladsome Light”. I’ve found the piece, as well as another one called The Eighth Chapter. I wish I could play it for you. I wish you could hear it.

Here is part of it on YouTube.

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