Last night, after work and driving, an afternoon spent playing a made-up sport, in between saying goodnight to the kids and staying up until midnight trying to be in touch with people that I have committed myself to being in touch with, about work that I have committed myself to doing, I decided that I might just lose my mind if I didn’t play some sort of music or do something that wasn’t explicitly about other people.
I hadn’t opened the banjo case in at least a month. As I pulled the strings into a slightly finer tune to my ear – some were high, some were flat – I felt the feeling of getting ready to play music, getting ready to make sound…and it shot through my gut like ice.
“What if I can’t make sound?”
“What if my fingers are like wood, or hot dogs? What if my hands are mute and dumb today?”
I tried to find the combination of chords that I remembered being last engaged with…playing improperly, strumming, clattering really…fumbling.
I couldn’t find the feeling of sounds that want to follow one another.
I thought about the time I found the sounds in this song, the feeling of something being played through you, played by some part of you that you didn’t know you had.
Note on the use of the word you:
It’s a sensitive word, especially to a person who strives to be unassuming in her thinking about what it might be like to be somebody else, what other people may know or need or feel.
A lot of the time, when I use the word you, I am talking to me.
I thought of the feeling that ran through me that night, full of ghosts and gravity, reverberative and singing.
Making sounds is not the same as playing music.
In the marble vestibule of City Hall, I played music with strangers at night and the echoes that rang out still bind us as friends.
I didn’t want to practice chords or finger picking. I wanted to play music with my eyes closed, forgetting that I was even holding an instrument.
I noticed that I was tapping my foot and that I was getting stuck in a certain combination that made me want to dance in a slightly stiff and head-bobbing way.
I kept strumming. Stopped. Thought about all the thinking I’ve done lately about self-documentation.
“I should record this.”
Grabbed the handheld recorder, hit REC.
Tried to start playing again, and found my hands were shy.
What is it about capturing sounds that is so unnerving?
“You’re not playing for an imagined them. You’re not playing for product. You’re just playing, because you miss the feeling of playing, because you work too much and you miss your so-called ghosts. If you’re playing for anyone, you’re playing for them…for you.”
I felt my wrist relax and my body curl into the instrument, listening. I could hear it coming.
It’s a sound like insects singing without trying to sing, an accidental sound, that is glassine and rising in waves, with pulses and near-beeps when two high notes find each other behind the clatter that sounds like the hustle of feet in a station, arrhythmic in places, a stumbling here and there.
I realized that I was moving, that my back was arched, that I felt pleasure at those sounds behind the sounds.
There was dancing in my head, in a new sort of old-fashioned dance, outside, in summer, people moving about in little blooms of orchestrated movement, a hand on a hip, a swaying slight dip, a bend of the knees, a turn and then, as I played wide open (like horses and the feeling of love!), the figures broken into a swirl of sheer jubilation, tearful at the freedom of it in the slanted gold light of the early evening with the insects weaving in and out around the lights, in the wind made by the swirling of skirts and breath breathed through laughter.
I fumbled a string, momentarily forgot where I was going, realized the song was over.
I didn’t know what the playback would sound like and I was surprised to hear how clearly elements of that ocean of tinny, roaring hum held in the recording.
As the recording played from handheld into microphone, I sat in my room and thought smiling about why I play music – even though “I don’t know how to play music.”
I remembered the day before clearly, how I felt when I played, the image of all that sound colliding invisibly while the dancers danced in my head and I felt happy.
I remember something of how I felt during every song I’ve ever recorded, where I sat, on the floor, in the hall…and so, in a way, keeping these little notes is a way of curating and preserving times and places, afternoons and long nights when – in an effort to stay true to who I am – I play music.
I didn’t even listen to the whole master track.
I knew my dog had scuttled around the room at some point, but I didn’t much care.