Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Silent Night . . . . .

It was late afternoon in Washington, cold and dark, and as the flow of evening commuters converged onto the the escalators descending into the bowels of the Washington Metro, a lone trumpet player was seated on a plastic milk carton with his trumpet case open in front of him, and a few coins and bills inside. He was playing the Christmas carol, "Silent Night, in a slow, dirge-like fashion, one fragment at a time, with pauses of varying length between the familiar phrases of the song, and occasional changes to the usual melodic contour. Unlike the recorded Christmas music that plays incessantly throughout America in stores and shopping malls, and on radio and television, beginning on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and running up to Christmas Day, the solitary musician's offering was anything but upbeat and commercial. His soulful interpretation reminded me of the alap of Indian music, or the awaz of Persian music, or the taqsim of Arabic music--in which there is no rhythm, no pulse, only a unique, timeless, melodic improvisation that will never again be repeated in just that manner. This "Silent Night" was meditative, and to my ears melancholy, and yet terribly moving--a veritable cri de coeur in response to the human condition--or at least, the state of affairs that I was projecting upon the species at the time.

In my last entry, I noted that the first news on Thanksgiving Eve of the tragic and disturbing events unfolding in Mumbai, India effectively removed me from the holiday spirit. And so it was the pensive trumpet solo yesterday evening that enabled me to begin my own reluctant entry into the experience of the American "holiday season", which customarily begins with Thanksgiving and runs through New Year's Day.

As noted above, holiday music, and Christmas music in particular, is an essential part of the marketing strategy of the American consumer economy. The variety of such music is enormous, ranging from the sacred to the profane. Such songs as "Silent Night," "We Three Kings of Orient Are," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", and "O Holy Night" are among my earliest musical memories (see my previous entry), and inevitably awaken in me, as in countless others, remembrances of Christmases past, as do the Hanukkah songs ("I have a little Dreydl, I made it out of clay . . . ") that were part of the holiday pageantry in Steck Elementary School as I was growing up in Denver, Colorado. For me the superb arrangements of the Robert Shah Chorale are the high watermark of Christmas music, and if I still had those recordings from my earlier years, I believe I could listen without my usual ambivalence to holiday music.

These conflicted feelings result, among other causes, from my adverse reaction to the extreme shopping mentality of the holidays, and it is with some comfort that I look forward to my departure for a month in India on Friday, so as to avoid the relentless onslaught of holiday music. Nonetheless, in the coming days, I'll try to share some personal reflections on holiday music in all its wonderful--or awful--diversity.

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