Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Language as Music, Prism, and Mirror

"He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself:

—A day of dappled seaborne clouds.—

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose."
--A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce, page 119

Sunday, July 05, 2009


The sweet strains of jazz lured me forward, awaft on the airy blue furrows of the soft breezeless day. With only my whims to follow, I sauntered toward the sound and lurked at the corner of the small gathered crowd. The sign perched in an open guitar case at their feet read “The Baby Soda Jazz Band,” a pile of green bills strewn messily across the black velvet. An older man in a white t-shirt with a grizzled face plucked at a one-string bass, and a thirtysomething adorned with tattoos and sunglasses strummed at a banjo. The low bluegrass twangs melded with the pure jazz of a trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. As I approached, the trumpeter, a man in his seventies with lively eyes, took a solo, clear brassy notes flirting with the melody. The game was picked up by the trombone player, a pretty girl in a backless patchwork sundress, who slipped the golden slide in and out with obvious gusto. With her final notes she turned to the clarinetist, conferring the spotlight upon the tall young man with short blond hair and bright blue eyes, which shut tight as he blew into his instrument. His fingers flew along the black and silver rod and gleeful notes escaped, one following the next, in rapid succession. High, low, high, very high, every single sound precisely on pitch, combining to create a composition specifically tailored to the brightness of the day. I was enthralled, and edged nearer the group.

The music was friendly and welcoming, inviting every live soul in the park to come and enjoy the swinging spirit of the 1920’s made quaint by the passing of time. The upbeat, toe-tapping sounds completely lacked the intimidating exclusivity of radicalism and trendiness, or the snobbery of high-class lyricism and virtuosic expectations. The band members themselves, standing in front of the curves of a black granite bench, radiated no standoffishness, marked no hallowed area for a stage. Spectators, clapping and smiling, stood in a semi-circle around them or sat on the bench directly behind them, participating in the show, exhaling a joy created by music and sunshine, good will and mutual enjoyment.

These musicians sewing sounds to match the scene, weaving their artistry into the weather, were real. They smiled, they chatted, they looked at the crowd and appreciated each hand as it met another to create applause. As they began a new song, an older woman in a pink polo shirt and khaki capris rose from the granite bench beside the band and casually began to sing. Her birdlike voice was not easy to hear above the instruments, but it was clear and trilled, an accessible jazzy siren, familiar enough to make me wish I were singing beside her.

I instinctively liked these people, and their music spoke aloud a simple, glad language. I felt a desperate desire to share in their song, to lend my voice to the instruments, to join them seamlessly, hitting just the right notes, adding to and thickening the harmony. becoming one of their group as effortlessly as cool spray fell from the geysers of the park’s fountain toward the ground. Instead of merely stifling my feelings and passing on, as I have done too often before, I chose to stay, finding an open spot on the bench right behind the performers. I felt emboldened by the sunshine, and as the song ended, I applauded with sincerity, thankful for the generosity of talent shared modestly but without reservation in the open air.