Towards the end of the DVD Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, Dowd is sitting in front of a huge digital mixing board that contains all the separate tracks from Layla featuring the guitar work of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. Despite the fact that he had mixed the song himself back in November of 1970, Dowd is entranced. He slowly removes everything except the guitar tracks; they wail on, hovering just this side of pain. "Listen to that," he murmurs, "those notes aren't on the instrument. Those notes are off the top of the instrument."
It is his surprise that surprises me. Perhaps because I never mastered a musical instrument [unless you allow me the kazoo] it seems to me quite natural that gifted artists find a way to cheat the limitations of a physical instrument and and produce notes that "aren't there." Think about it for a moment in terms of basic string theory — the universe is made of tiny vibrating strings, of music; and in terms of super-symmetry — that the music that is the universe, permeates harmonically and symmetrically through space and time and other dimensions yet undreamed of. So any instrument – piano, guitar, synthesizer, whatever — simply grants us access to a tiny artificially restricted portion of an unlimited, universal harmonic realm which we will call the U2HR.
Consider the saxophone, an instrument I briefly tormented. But it is not really "an" instrument. Adolphe Sax actually invented 14 instruments in 1846, from tiny to humongous, each designed to capture its own particular chunk of the U2HR. I cannot help but believe that a gifted sax player — or the guitarists in Layla — cannot "cheat" a few notes above or below the "intended range" of each version of the instrument. However, to most, each version of the instrument is a barrier, a machine with a finite musical limit.
If we think about the 88 keys on a piano — another instrument that has suffered at my hands — those keys reduce the U2HR to 88 notes, from the 4th A below middle C to the 4th C above middle C. Now obviously, folks have done some pretty awesome things with those 88 notes, but at the same time the instrument teaches plodders, like my 9- or 10 year-old self, that "music" occurs within those 88 sounds. Surely nothing can lie beyond the challenge of the Tarantella!
There was, however, one instrument that did come naturally to me — my voice. I was just able to sing, I don't know why. We rarely question our innate gifts – until they begin to fade. I have a friend who is a wonderfully talented artist. When I ask him how he does it, he simply responds, "I dunno. I just could always draw." I want to hit him. But I digress. I could just always sing. For most of my life I could sing across a wide variety of discretely defined voices: so-so bass, solid baritone, tolerable tenor. In falsetto, alto was a bit rough but a better than average soprano. Point is, that when I sang I was never aware of barriers to the U2HR. I knew there were points above and below "my range" denied to me by the physical structure of my vocal cords. But I could hear those "unsingable" notes quite clearly in my head and I would continue to run the appropriate amount of air across my vocal cords so that — had they been physically able — they would have produced notes "off the instrument."
Sadly, things have changed. Remember that scene at the end of White Christmas when Bing Crosby says to one of the children in the chorus, "Give me a nice high C." The kid complies and Crosby says, "Ah, those were the days." Remember that? I'm sort of there now. The voice has gotten older, I have no route to an audience, and a particular necessary medication compromises both my speaking and singing voice. But here is the interesting part. While my actual physical vocal range has diminished, my perception of the U2HR remains quite clear. So I can still "sing" wide swaths of the U2HR — albeit silently.
OK, follow along, because here is the leap. Just as we are conditioned to believe that music/harmony stops at the end of the keyboard, we similarly are conditioned to truncate harmony — universal harmony — in other areas of our lives. We are taught that certain chords, certain perceptions and relationship are acceptable because they are "built into the instrument." Others are not. I beg to differ. The reality is that resonance is infinite: U2HR. The potential for harmonic manifestations — relational, expressive, physical, creative, intellectual — is infinite; spinning out symmetrically and harmonically all around us. You would think we would stumble across them daily. But in reality those deeply harmonic instances are rare, precious, unique, and sadly, often transitory.
The often transitory nature of deeply harmonic manifestations springs from the fact that tuning our own chord is a lifelong process, one that inevitably changes us. Perhaps the clearest evidence of that, for me anyhow, springs from memories of things I have done in my life that still make me shudder. In those often youthful indiscretions, I do recognize myself. Still, I wish I could tear that page from the notebook of my life. The point is that over the decades, my chord has evolved to the point where it would find earlier moments of itself discordant. Strange, not? Those self-discordant moments are, however, more the exception than the norm.
More disconcerting is the fact that throughout my life I have encountered people who will forever be precious to me, but who — oddly — will remain forever isolated from each other because of physical or cultural barriers. My wife will never know my mother or my brother who died before she and I had even met, let alone married. So time truncates certain harmonies. Jealousy precludes other potentially harmonic interactions. As adults, sexual, possessive jealousy naturally springs to mind. I find it hard to imagine King Henry's wives being able to all kiss and make up, even if we ignore the various missing heads. But if we are really honest, jealousy can precede, and often trumps, hormones. The idea of a "best friend" probably comes with preschool, and getting "jilted" for another of the same or another gender is no less painful than the later, more passion laden, fractures of adult life. When it comes to "best friends forever," the end of forever is always painful.
But again, for me, more pleasant resolutions seem more often the norm — well, if you don't count the divorce. My oldest and closest friend and I were born seven days apart to parents who shared a duplex. We spent most of the first two decades of our lives in almost constant companionship. I was always much closer to him than to my brother – who was five years my senior. My friend's first wife, who had shared many of those growing years with us, confessed to me, when we were all in our forties, that she had long been jealous of her husband's obvious pleasure in my company. Thankfully she and I were able to smooth that bump in the road — of which I was blissfully unaware — and build a sincere and caring friendship before she died several years later. He and I remain "BFFs" despite frequent and varied gaps in our interactions.
Let me struggle to again regain focus here — I'm rusty. I've been away for awhile doing various "medical and professional necessities of the real world." Also, I need to practice "distill complexity" more. Perhaps the reason it took me so many years to articulate the 4th pillar, is because I'm not very good at it!
Anyhow, the blend of string theory and super-symmetry demands that there is only one all encompassing U2HR, and the senses through which we currently perceive it are, like the 88 notes of the piano, artificial limitations — barriers if you will — to fully sensing the U2HR. But we need to keep trying. Our primary objective in life should be to play, and hear, notes that are off the top, and below the bottom of the instrument. To approach the U2HR in as many ways as possible.
Do you write your way there? Play, sing, dance, think, cook, love, or code your way there — to that higher perceptive and communicative state? Damned if I know. I suspect that we follow the expressive route, milieu, palette that we simply cannot leave alone, and the one that, initially at least, comes easily. We love that modality, and we push it as far as we can, picking up new skills and harmonic inclinations along the journey. And while we realize that each and every palette is legitimate, we remember that they still yield only incomplete windows to the total U2HR; which, at least this time around, we will never fully grasp. Yup, it is beyond the ken of one mere mortal lifetime. Sorry, but the deck is stacked against us. Our cultures, religions, politics, philosophy and art are all too "rule and norm centric" to allow us to venture too far "off the top of the instrument."
But we keep trying. We keep listening for what we cannot hear. We keep looking for what we cannot see. We keep singing silently past our vocal chords. We keep missing the recreation of the image in our head. Depressing? Not at all. Actually, I see in our optimistic striving to surpass the capabilities of our instrument strong evidence of our own immortality. Consider Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto, line 98:
"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"