While visiting DisneyWorld back in the seventies, I purchased a fife for five bucks at the store located just outside the Hall of Presidents. The fife is made of some sort of white wood that, according to the instructions, needed to be rubbed with linseed oil before playing. I oiled the fife dutifully, then blowed air through the side hole at one end while placing six fingers (three on each hand) across the holes at the other end. No sound. No whistle. No melodic notes. It took a week before I learned to blow across the breath hole to create sound, and many more weeks to create actual music. I would play simple songs, including, of course, Yankee Doodle. That summer, I took the fife with me to camp where the other kids cringed at the gawdawful cat scratch that they heard.
I still have that fife and thought about the contrast between my playing it to the music flowing from the Sun Valley Symphony last week as I listened to it conclude the summer series by playing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. A full orchestral complement of instruments came together to recreate the amazing movements of Tchaikovsky’s piece, with both delicate sensitivity and fanfare gusto. I felt myself elevated from seat to heaven, pondering, of course, the ability of one man to create such harmony.
Yet, not just one man created that night’s music; each individual instrument and musician composed the whole. Lone notes – by themselves almost meaningless or even discordant – aligned to form symphonic complexity. Moreover, each musician learned his or her craft by years of practice, sounds evolving from cat scratch to satin audible. Each instrument likewise evolved.
Think about it. Some ancestor somewhere and sometime must have appreciated a single note or sound emitted from rough wood or metal and passed that appreciation and invention to another person, and to another generation, until at last an actual instrument took shape and form and capacity for scales.
An orchestra coagulates unity from disunity, array from disarray, music from earth.
The metaphor is obvious. Each of us is rough hewn when alone, emitting at best a simplistic melody. Yet, when yielded to another, yielded to the whole, together we form symphony.
John Hall Wheelock wrote in This Blessed Earth, “Songs on Reaching Seventy” (abridged), about death, and death’s dividing line between the bounds of individualism and the whole:
… Between us and our world, and we awake
Out of the dream of self into the truth of all,
The price for which is death.
Must we sleep in death to awake to the truth of all? What is the truth of all in our world now? Is it that Afghans are us, and we are Afghans? Closer to home, that what happens to you is happening thus to me? Who is the “Other” to whom we are invited to be kind?
What notes can I express that will organize themselves into symphony?