I spent a good deal of yesterday morning on the phone–on hold–with the Stanley-Best hardware company, trying to get them to expedite an order of ours for a customer who needs the stuff right now. All of our customers, it seems, need their orders right now, so I spend a great deal of my life on hold. While I’m there, I can doodle at the desk, write in my head, or simply listen to the silence, as being “on hold” begins to take on both literal and figurative significance for me.
Yesterday, though, was different. As I waited, I heard something I’d hadn’t heard in a long time: a bit of a classical piano piece–by Brahms, I believe. It only lasted a minute or so, until the Customer Service rep came back on the line, but I was grateful for it. As much as I like Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Kacey Musgraves (and I do), a fellow can only listen to “Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Before He Cheats,” “Red,” and “Blowin’ Smoke” so many times before he begins to doubt his own sanity and the good judgment of the women who hook up with such men in those songs.
The Brahms piece took me back to the Classical music period in my life: 1992 to 2005. On most days during that time, I listened to WWNO in New Orleans, and played a lot of Beethoven, Grieg, Ravel, and Samuel Barber on my sturdy little boom-box in the living room. I also played the albums of Mary-Chapin Carpenter, a country singer and songwriter who was, at that time–and may still be–the best, the most gently-melodic artist that country music had to offer.
I came away from that deep, sustained exposure convinced, at least in my own mind, that Beethoven’s Fifth truly is what many say it is–the greatest symphony ever written; and that the folk-inspired string melodies of Grieg are so achingly beautiful I’d risk my life to save the discs I own from a fire.
I also came away from that period knowing a lot more about classical music than I had before, because I read as well as listened. My bible at the time was Karl Haas’s book, Inside Music, which discusses the various kinds of symphonic music and gives more than a few suggestions about what to listen to.
What symphonic music can do is change our minds; alter our emotional states, and allow us to feel a variety of emotions without locking us continually in a singular emotional condition, as rock, or rap, or country music frequently does. I don’t know how classical music does this, even after reading more than one dry paragraph on how such music stimulates the brain; I know only that it does. And I know it does it well enough to recommend that one of the ways to ride out a turbulent period in one’s life, or in the life of one’s country, is to listen to a bit of classical music, and dwell within the worlds those composers have created for as long as one can.
As I write this, I’m still on hold with Stanley-Best. And I am remembering that we’ve had long, hot, angry summers before. No one who lived through them will ever forget the summers and the riots of 1965 and 1966–including the University of Texas Tower massacre perpetrated by Charles Whitman in August of 1966, and Richard Speck’s rape and murder of eight nurses in Chicago, the anniversary of which, I was shocked to realize as I checked for the date, is today, July 14, also in 1966. No one who lived through these events, as I did in my boyhood, clutching the AM radio in my arms for news, can ever be wholly sanguine about the human condition, but I do know that the first thing we must do to change our behavior is to change what enters our minds. It is a small thing, maybe an inconsequential thing, but I believe music–classical music–can bring all of us closer to calmness, to reason, and to the peace that so many of us genuinely seek.