September 2, 2009 was a perfect day. And by some miracle, I found a way to share it with you.
That day I was on a songwriting retreat at a tiny, beloved island in the border waters of Minnesota and Ontario. The days are long there. I awaken before dawn and slip into the cool, still water before I am awake. I emerge refreshed, dress against the chill, and make my way to the eastern end of the island to watch the sunrise across the water. Loons call. The breeze comes up. Another day of wonder begins.
I live deeply at the island – away from phones, computers, cars, keys, clocks, money, even running water. I follow rhythms and impulses in ways I can’t in the city.
Near the end of a particularly delicious day there, I sat down at the piano in my cabin and started writing a song of gratitude.
The last of the sun’s rays poured in as I wrote. I was certain that the song would provide me with a way to re-live that magical day any time I wanted. What I didn’t expect was that the song would make my experience vividly available to other people.
Every time I play the song, people tell me that the song carries them to the island. They feel the chill in the air during “the brilliant, watermelon dawn.” They smell the “sweet basil crushed between the fingers.” And often, they share the “grateful tears for having lived this perfect day.”
I wonder how songs – and other art forms – are capable of transmitting very specific experiences of memory, emotion, or experience from one imagination to another? What might this capacity mean in a world of increasing isolation and loneliness? What function will music play when the oil runs out and we need to find other ways to travel the world?
I vividly remember “traveling” on the songs of a Tuvan throat singer who was performing here in Minneapolis. The Tuvan throat singers from southern Siberia actually sing the geography of the places where they linger with their herds. They replicate the sounds of a particular waterfall or rock face through their strangely beautiful overtone singing.
His songs became vehicles for carrying me to specific landscapes and ways of life I will never directly experience.
I find the same phenomenon when I lead community singing. The African songs carry us to dusty squares or rainforests. The Irish songs invoke the rugged coasts and impossibly green hills. And the song from the high Andes leaves us all a little dizzy.
Inside of every song we sing is some essence of the person who created it and to the land they inhabited. When we fully open and deeply listen, we are able to use songs to visit other experiences, worldviews, and geographies. It’s all there inside the music.
Tell me, how have you traveled through time and space on wings of song?
By Barbara McAfee