Entry 90: Where Henry Lawson Can Be Found– An invitation to make some music- either literally or figuratively- is a lot more pleasant than having to face it, don’t you agree? I have had the pleasure with reference to the former- both literally and figuratively- and have had to endure the pain of the latter, too.
The power of music transcends death, if one is to believe the Orpheus myth. You know the one, where the uber-musician charms the Lord and Lady of the Netherworld to release his wife Eurydice from the grip of death. All is well until, anxious to check that she is following him upwards to life and light and love, he turns and breaks the injunction not to look back, thereby hurtling her back into darkness.
Was this why he turned from his patron-god Dionysus who is associated with things chthonic? Was this why he spurned all other gods but the sun-god Apollo? Was this why he forswore the company of women and transferred his affections to boys?
Wherever the truth may lie, he met a sticky end: Orpheus ascended Mount Pangaion to the oracle of Dionysus to greet the dawn and pay homage to the sun-god. A band of Maenads, enraged that he had abandoned their god, Dionysus, threw sticks and stones at him to break his bones and end his life.
However, so sweet was his playing, not only were animals tamed by his music-making but also the missiles deployed by the incensed women. In a frenzy now and possessed of preternatural strength, the Maenads lay hands on him and tear him limb from limb. His head and his lyre, still singing and playing, float away into legend.
His killers attempt to wash the blood off their dripping hands but the River Helicon, recoiling from the task of cleansing the murderers of their deed, sinks underground in horror. If you gaze at the stars above you will find his lyre set in the heavens; if you listen to the Infernal Galop from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, you will hear the exuberant strains of the can-can as you envisage the high-kicking invitation of the dancers from the Moulin Rouge.
And you are under the spell of Orpheus with the rest of Western civilisation from classical times onwards. Shakespeare’s recognition of the power of music is scattered throughout his plays: Oberon, King of the Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream recalls to Puck an instance where they,
sat upon a promontory And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back/ Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,/ That the rude sea grew civil at her song,/ And certain stars shot madly from their spheres/ To hear the sea-maid’s music.
Lorenzo in the Merchant of Venice, tells Jessica, daughter of the music-loathing Shylock,
The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,/Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;/The motions of his spirit are dull as night/And his affections dark as Erebus:/Let no such man be trusted.
In what is said to be his first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare writes:
Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews,/ Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,/Make tigers tame and huge leviathans/ Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.
The Orpheus myth lives on confidently in the literature of the 21st Century with the novel Orfeo by Richard Powers. One hears expressions of love for music in phrases such as, it’s in my DNA! Well, Powers audaciously has his protagonist, a 70-year-old composer, attempt to manipulate the genome of a human pathogen (the bacterium, Serratia marcescens, which causes hospital-acquired infections) by splicing musical patterns into its living cells.
Having reached his allotted span, Peter Els, the aged composer, has to flee from Homeland Security and in that fugue re-lives his encounters with significant others and music from Mozart to Messiaen. I was drawn to listen to the music described in this novel. To encounter such sonic revelations as The Quartet for the End of Time, written in a Nazi Concentration Camp or Harry Partch’s Barstow with its strange instrumentation and musical structure made the week I was reading the novel and listening to its music the richest period of my life since the half-a-decade playing with the group in pubs and clubs at the end of the 90s.
I also identified with the anguish Els felt upon learning that his diminished joy when listening to music was probably caused by micro-strokes in the area of the brain where sounds are processed. And here I was thinking that with me it was just the effect of listening to compressed formats. There is a magical fusion that, from time to time, arises between musicians and audience which makes me believe in the Orpheus myth and I can almost resurrect the joy sparked by such encounters when I remember such rare and beautiful times as that related in the song.