Matisyahu’s “Happy Hanukkah,” the book of Proverbs, and Me

What I think I’m doing here: Another Song Notes post. The first one, which provides a little bit of explanation, is here (the tag provides other examples).

In December of 2012 I listened to this song approximately 87 times. Some of you are backing away slowly, trying to avoid eye contact, and others are nodding sagely as you remember strange song binges from your own past.

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Light Years

While delivering a glazed eye stare to my phone one evening, questioning my various life choices, and chewing over my worries about the future, I stumbled across a video from last year, of the day my son learned how to ride a bike.* It’s me, running behind him, calling out encouragement as his initial wobbles turn into confident pedaling. The National’s Easy to Find was released around the same time and I distinctly remember mentally soundtracking my jog down the sidewalk to Berninger’s melancholy “and I would always be light years, light years away from you” as my son gained speed and started to pull away. This is the sort of sappy thing that happens to you when you become a father.

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Whatever Makes You Mine

Should a man rapidly approaching middle age, a father of two, with the responsibilities and pressures of our current moment, be listening to a song that is such good fun while driving with the windows down? Should he be letting the pleasant slack of a few vacation days dull his usual worries and anxieties, with a paper bag of fish tacos for his family’s dinner on the passenger seat, the waves rolling onto the beach one after another in their perpetual cycle? Should he be listening to music with quite this much yelling when he has a chance to go for a drive by himself? Should he be listening to it at such a high volume?

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All Good Things

It isn’t all bad, you know. I say this for myself, doom-scrolling the news, earning simultaneous internet PhDs in epidemiology, economics, and political science. I mean, the other blog post currently in my drafts is all about our collective failure to confront death and how it might be driving us crazy, so maybe I just need to lighten up a little (or a lot). Maybe sometimes we just need a little reminder that there is still beauty in the world.

Lately, I’ve been loving this album from Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (no, I don’t know how to pronounce his name – his website offers this: “Kwee-veen Oh Rye Alla”) and Thomas Bartlett, a new discovery for me. Ó Raghallaigh’s “hardanger d’amore” (a ten-string fiddle) and Bartlett’s piano swirl around one another, often repeating and building themes, and then breaking back down again. It’s music that opens up space. And, in a world constrained by the width of my smartphone screen, by the feed scrolling by, infinite in length but so narrow in scope, I need that push towards opening up. I need reminders that there is still beauty and loveliness in the world. And, maybe you do too.

You

One of the things that has become most apparent over recent months is the luxury of the ordinary. I, at least, have a renewed appreciation for the everyday and routine amid all the instability and uncertainty. When I say “ordinary” I’m not trying to say “normal” – I’m not sure what exactly counts as normal in the best of times, and these aren’t the best of times. The phrase the “new normal” points to the slipperiness of normality, the way it shapeshifts over time. Human beings are adaptable creatures, often more than we realize, and any “return” to normality is always just an establishment and acceptance of some new set of norms.

The ordinary is entwined with the normal, as over time the extraordinary can become accepted as ordinary. But, the ordinary still stands usefully on its own – the “new ordinary” doesn’t have the same ring as the “new normal” and not just because it lacks alliteration. The ordinary is more enduring, more connected to our lives as embodied and relational creatures, more often shared across time and culture.

In 2012, Nils Frahm fell and broke his thumb, and, “as you can imagine, it is really bad news for a pianist when he gets diagnosed with a broken thumb.” He lost his ordinary for a while and was unable to play with his typical virtuosity (his ordinary would be most people’s extraordinary). While his thumb healed, he wrote and recorded the songs that became the album Screws (a reference to the screws that held his broken thumb in place). It’s a spare and quiet album, simple without being simplistic. There are stretches of silence, melodic phrases that circle and repeat, leaving space for reflection. Frahm’s injury slowed him down, and something beautiful resulted.

For me, it’s been an album that has strong associations with the luxurious boredom of ordinary life. Over the past year or two, I’ve often listened to it while doing the dishes at the sink, from time to time glancing out at our strip of backyard through the window. Sometimes I spot a gang of three or four sparrows, making their way in an uneven line across the grass with flutters and twitchy hops in the twilight. Or, in the winter, I catch the reflection of a soapy dish in the darkened glass, the thrum of stories and pajamas and bath-time disputes swirling in the house around me, with no thought but how to best scrub the bowl clean.

We Will Feast in the House of Zion

Sometimes we sing the words without thinking. The lyrics scroll past as our minds wander vacantly along their usual pathways of mundane concerns. It’s not even that we are in the grip of some dark night of the soul and seriously doubt that “We will feast in the house of Zion / We will sing with hearts restored” – more that we don’t even rise to the level of engagement active doubt would require. We are distracted and bored and stifle a yawn. But there are other times too, times like the current moment, when “In the dark of night, before the dawn / My soul be not afraid” resonates with our own fears and aspirations. Times when singing of our hope of a promised reunion, the marriage supper of the Lamb, gives a glimpse of what a restored heart might actually feel like.

It’s a strange Holy Week, and while Sandra McCracken’s albums have been in heavy rotation in the Cairns household over the past few years, I’ve been enjoying “We Will Feast” from Psalms especially this week. Many of the songs on the album are straightforward adaptations of specific psalms or scripture passages, but “We Will Feast” is a more wide-ranging mix of biblical imagery from the Psalms, Isaiah, Revelation – all centered on the idea of the promised feast in the place where God dwells, a celebration where the old order of suffering and tears has been overcome. We are all feeling the pain of separation right now, of our limits in the face of pain and death, and I find myself holding on to the hope of being “upheld, protected, gathered up” more than I usually do. I am typically more complacent, more confident in my own independence and self-sufficiency. But, complacent self-sufficiency isn’t an option right now, and so I sing along, not with bored disengagement, or smug independence, but in genuine hope of the promised feast that is to come.

Infra 1

What I think I’m doing here: I’m tagging these little pieces as “Song Notes.” I pick a song I like and use it as a writing prompt. The results may often be tangential to the song itself, so this will be less reviews/analysis (I have no musical expertise) and more a series of little experiments. If nothing else, it will give you some songs to listen to that weren’t recommended by an algorithm.

It sounds a little like waking up from sleep. Static, fragments of sound, feedback. Slowly, notes start to coalesce, providing orientation, stepping stones out of nighttime confusion towards coherence and wakefulness. And then, around the two-minute mark, there is the lift of the strings and a build towards a moment of resonant beauty before the song fades again into static.

“Infra” is, as Richter’s website points out, Latin for “below” and there is a sense of emergence in the piece, of a climb out of darkness into a moment of light (you can read more about the album and its origins at the link). I’m a big fan of the entire album, but I’m not quite sure why I like this particular song so much. I think it is that climb of the strings, that moment where I can hear the unity pushing through the confusion of static, even if it is only a glimpse, a hint of something more than an established fact. It is the hope of the moment before dawn, of a sun that will rise and dissolve the shadows.

Or, maybe it is an image of the self. We are a mess of inputs – a mix of history, genetics, environment – and most of the time we wander around in a haze of static and blips of electronic noise. But, every once in a while we manage to hear a melody that makes sense of it all. We become awake to who we are, what the world is, and our place in it. We are permitted to hear a hint of the melody that resonates, get a glimpse of the narrative we hope makes sense of the mess of our everyday life (Psalm 139). Sometimes it is external, a vocation that draws out our response; sometimes it is an internal alignment that comes into focus. Sometimes it is just unexpected beauty. It doesn’t last, we are human, and we drift back into static, to sleep. Confusion returns and the melody fades out. But, we keep listening, and the willingness to listen is what makes the difference – the difference between noise and music.