Music and the Body: Richard Powers on the Power of Song

“The usage of music is to remind us how brief a time we have now a physique.”

Music and the Body: Richard Powers on the Power of Song

In a lifetime of dwelling on this physique, I’ve identified no extra highly effective a homecoming than music — nothing roots us extra firmly into the home of being, nothing levitates us extra buoyantly to that transcendent place past marrow and thoughts. Stripped of its nihilistic drama, there may be an elemental cry of fact, for me a minimum of, in Nietzsche’s pronouncement: “With out music life could be a mistake.” Even Edna St. Vincent Millay, for all her lyrical love of life, echoed the sentiment: “With out music I ought to want to die. Even poetry, Candy Patron Muse forgive me the phrases, will not be what music is.”

Each author unblinded by ego will concede this.

No author has conceded it extra superbly or with extra rapturous reverence for the lifetime of the physique within the lifetime of music than Richard Powers in his beautiful 2003 novel The Time of Our Singing (public library).

Artwork by Kay Nielsen from East of the Solar and West of the Moon, 1914. (Obtainable as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

One of many novel’s protagonists — a younger black girl in Thirties Philadelphia — turns into an emissary of the facility of music as an instrument of self-discovery and self-possession, a dwelling testomony to music because the pulse-beat of the soul:

Delia fell in love with singing. Singing was one thing that may make sense of an individual. Singing may make extra sense of life than dwelling needed to begin with.

Delia sang fearlessly. She threw again her head and nailed free-flying notes like a marksman nails skeet. She sang with such unfurling of self that the congregation couldn’t assist however flip and take a look at {the teenager}, even when they need to have been trying skyward.


Delia may really feel them as she sang, the hearts of the flushed congregation flying up together with her as she savored the music’s arc. She sheltered these souls in her sound and held them as immobile because the notes themselves, in that secure spot up subsequent to grace. The viewers breathed together with her, beating to her measure. Her breath expanded sufficiently to take her throughout even the longest phrase. Her listeners have been in her, and she or he in them, as long as the notes lasted.

Artwork from German opera singer Lilli Lehmann’s 1902 discipline information to singing

When Delia marries a German-Jewish physicist who performs the piano and contemplate music “the language of time,” music takes on a richer which means — or, moderately, it’s stripped right down to its elemental uncooked materials — for with out the arrow of time, with out with the ability to inform one second from the subsequent, there could possibly be no melody and no rhythm. That is what makes music our supreme laboratory for feeling and time.

Ultimately, the couple’s sons uncover music on their very own phrases, in their very own time. Certainly one of them — the novel’s first-person narrator — encounters its energy and tenderness harmonized in a soul-stilling efficiency of historic music by a choir at The Cloisters — the medieval monastery turned museum within the uppermost reaches of Manhattan, simply previous Harlem. The small boy, untainted with ideas, experiences music in its purest kind, pouring out of the singers like dawn, like one thing of one other world, but saturated with pure translucent presence, in that peculiar method transcendent experiences have of taking us each past and deeper into ourselves:

Silence falls, erasing all separateness. Then the silence offers method to its solely reply. That is the primary public live performance I’ll bear in mind ever listening to. Nothing I’ve already lived by way of prepares me for it. It runs by way of and rearranges me. I sit on the middle of a globe of sound pointing me towards myself.

It doesn’t happen to me, on the age of seven, that an individual may luck upon such a music solely as soon as a lifetime, if ever. I understand how to inform sharp from flat, proper singing from mistaken. However I haven’t but heard sufficient to inform bizarre magnificence from once-only visits.


There’s a sound just like the burning solar. A sound just like the surf of blood pumping by way of my ears. The ladies begin by themselves, their word as spreading and dimensionless as my father says the current is. Keee, the letter-box slots of their mouths launch — simply the syllable of glee little Ruth made earlier than we persuaded her to study to speak. The sound of a easy creature, startling itself with reward earlier than settling in for the night time. They sing collectively, certain on the core for one final second at first breaks open and is born.

Then reee. The word splits into its personal accompaniment. The taller girl appears to descend, simply by holding her pitch whereas the smaller girl subsequent to her rises. Rises a significant third, that first interval any baby any colour wherever learns to sing. 4 lips curve upon the vowel, a pocket of air older than the writer who set it there.

I do know in my physique what notes come subsequent, though I’ve nothing, but, to name them. The excessive voice rises an ideal fifth, lifting off from the decrease word’s mattress. The traces transfer like my chest, mushy cartilage, my ribs straying away from each other, on aaay, into a better brightness, then collapsing again to fuse in unison.

I hear these two traces bending house as they pace away from one another, hurling outward, every standing nonetheless whereas the opposite strikes. Lengthy, short-short, lengthy, lengthy: They circle and return, like a blowing department submitting once more to its shadow. They close to their beginning pitch from reverse sides, the shared spot the place they need to impossibly meet again up. However simply earlier than they synchronize to see the place they’ve been, simply as they contact their lips to this recovered residence, the boys’s traces come from nowhere, pair off, and repeat the splitting sport, an ideal fourth beneath.

Extra traces splinter, copy, and set off on their very own. Aaay-laay Aaay-laay-eee! Six voices now, repeating and transforming, every peeling off by itself agenda, syncopated, staggered, but every with a watch on the opposite, midair acrobats, not considered one of them wavering, nobody crashing in opposition to the host of transferring targets. This stripped-down easy singsong blooms like a firework peony. In every single place within the woke up air, in a bathe of staggered entrances, I hear the primary phrase, keyed up, melted down, and rebuilt. Harmonies pile up, disintegrate, and reassemble elsewhere, every melody praising God in its personal style, and in every single place combining to one thing that sounds to me like freedom.

Artwork by Kay Nielsen from East of the Solar and West of the Moon, 1914. (Obtainable as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

Towards the top of the novel, many years and disillusionments later, Powers returns to music because the supreme instrument of our self-knowledge:

The usage of music is to remind us how brief a time we have now a physique.

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music and the universe and violinist Natalie Hodges on the scientific poetics of sound and feeling, then revisit the outstanding story behind Beethoven’s “Ode to Pleasure.”

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