Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Music: Still Playing Favorites

Somehow the holiday, the day of days, the seasonal mood, the generalized promise of peace and benediction for all, still means something, not matter how many years pass. Though how, at a certain age, any age beyond childhood, does one "wait" for Christmas? Anticipate? It's hard to explain, but as the years go on (and I go with them, whitening my beard with winter frosts), I rely increasingly on a stock of private music traditions.
Old stuff, with some new compositions; elegant, artistic, nostalgic. George Winston’s "December." Other Windham Hill recordings like "Winter Solstice."

I'm not talking about the festive songs here, the rousing fantasy of people stomping around raising glasses of brown ale in outbursts of universal cheer. It's hard to find a category name for these other sentimental songs – the ones that have become my songs – but whatever the feeling is I sink into it each year. It's an old friend, a late at night solitary melancholy that has a compulsion to it that you recognize as feeding an acquired taste. You didn't have to have chocolate truffles, or good wine, but now you do. It's hard to just eat one. So you keep on listening.

And then, just as I am on the point of uncovering new depths in some warm and savory, sad and gentle, recording, the song is over, or a whole disc ends, and I have to withdraw from my comfort zone sufficiently to kick the choir into action again. It takes a few bars to recognize an 'acoustic jazz' version of the first cut on familiar record. Ah, Bach. 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.' It has to be more than a little different. He didn't write for guitar. But I'm happy with the result.

Then a tense female voice tears through an acoustic torch song from the eighties. It's the sound, more than lyrics -- the sound of her voice and the sound of the instrumentation -- that tells you this is a song about unfinished business hopelessly up in the air. Then, everything suddenly clear, you remember, it's a song about being young. Maybe that's why you want to revisit it, even though it's not a warm place, with very little assurance of peace and good will toward men.

This is followed shortly by "A Different Shore" by the Irish group Nightnoise. The song has nothing to do with Christmas but it's on a disc I play this time of year, so in the end it does. It's the song that reminds me of every other Christmas. Not a "different" shore, at all; it's a recurrent one for me. But something inexplicable in the perspective over there makes me seek it out. 

            We bring back old longings when we play old music, along with old love, old feeling and old warmth. We hope, we anticipate, we dream. Our Christmas is a dream of Christmas.

Remember, something tells me, shouting in the winter wind. Or tapping on the window sill. Though someday I will fail and forget.

            I like the hymns too. I remember when my son discovered "In the Bleak Midwinter" in the hymnal of my mother's church, which we attended for years on Christmas Eve, and let out a little whoop of recognition. “I know this one,” he says.

 “Heaven can not hold him,” we sing. “Or the earth sustain/ Heaven and earth shall welcome him/ When he comes to reign.” The song is a wish-fulfillment fantasy; no 'bleak midwinter' in the Holy Land. It's another version of the dream of a human race bounded by peace and love. The illusion by which we live.

Maybe art is illusion as well. Yet George Winston’s subtle fingers still find their way into my December evenings. The song I'm thinking of now is "Walking in the Air," written by Howard Blake for the movie "The Snowman." Winston performs it on the "Forest" album.

The song goes something like this. First, a slow assembly of piano keys. Single notes, one after another. Even when they are over, and their vibrations are over, they go on hanging in the air. How does that happen? Where does that last note go on living until the next one pushes in front of it? It rings, vibrates, hangs in the air, until it too passes away and yet remains. Then a bell-like string of hammer-struck piano strings arises from somewhere (the mind?) and advances slowly to somewhere else (the heart?). Then everything comes together: hands, fingers, ears, mind, heart. They dance, they walk, they endure – somewhere.

After a certain length of time, how long can anyone expect to go on walking through linear time inside a decaying container of hurt-able flesh? Someday our feet will leave the ground. And then we will be – as angels are – as music is – walking in the air.