What does it mean to live a musical life? How has my perspective as a dedicated musician shaped my experience of the world? How does that manifest in my life and music?
The idea that movement suggests music is an influence from my study of Dalcroze Eurhythmics, as is my interest in rhythmic flow—how to create momentum, and let it subside. And so sometimes life can seem to be a vast counterpoint. And it can blur the edge between the quotidian and the musical while, at times, they become one.
Art imitates life, or life imitates art. Which is it? Both/and? The chicken or the egg…? Looking at life through a musical lens, I see many correspondences that are perhaps easier to see in a city like New York, where the counterpoint of life is omnipresent.
Rush hour between Port Authority and Grand Central is a corridor of music – live, vibrating along subway passageways, on the platforms, or on the trains. Music pairs with the clatter and screech, the footsteps, the travelers, the dancerly crossings and those who come too close during rush hour when so many people are trying to get somewhere else. Then you’re walking through a corridor and hear a drumbeat. Rounding the corner, you see the drummer, Ah! He drums you through the turnstile and gives you something you didn’t even know you’d needed.
The music fades as you walk away and seems to disappear, but it lingers in your head and pairs with your surroundings, the conversations in polyglot rhythms, the varied paces of the stream of travelers, each with their own tempo, weaving and tacking through the crowd. Movement is music. Having improvised for a walk as I did in my Dalcroze days, I’m noticing the differing gates and the movement of weight. I weave my own line into the counterpoint as I move through the crowded platform, humming a vamping bass.
Walking home one night, I discover an Indian restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. Turns out it’s good food but nearly empty due to delivery apps and the like, so I had the place to myself. Soft Indian classical music in my ears, I order. Waiting for the food, I’m looking out the window, sipping a glass of wine. It’s a charcoal black night lit by the storefronts across the way, the passing yellow cabs amid the vehicle sea, a colorful array of red, yellow, and white neon. As I’m watching, I start to notice that there’s something more. Cars are going both ways on one-way Amsterdam Avenue. Everything seems much busier! Twice as busy in fact. Comings and goings. Looking to my right, I notice the large mirror covering the entire wall of the restaurant. These are mirror images; I’m watching contrary motion in practice!
There’s the direction – the coming towards, crossing at the center line, then moving away like partners in a dual, disappearing into the vanishing point. There are various rates of flow. Cabs are the fastest, darting to the light, while cars and trucks may saunter. Eventually, I see that the cab goes through an equal deceleration at the other end, accelerando and ritard referring back to their opposite. The saunterers, whose speeds are less varied, bring an amazing but ordered complexity to the scene. And then there are the people. Walking at a steady pace, self approaches self and departs from self. If that’s not counterpoint, what is?
My mentor lives at the West 86th Street subway stop. When it’s cold outside, I take the subway home from her apartment. Waiting for the train, I hear Bernstein—“There’s a place for us…” The train across the platform is leaving the station, and that’s its song. A perfect Bernstein tribute, though unplanned.
I turn on the electric tooth brush in the morning; it sings C. I join in humming “om” as it does its work.
My dancer friend tells me that she experiences everything in terms of phrase—waiting at a stop light, walking through a department store. Her years of dancing have given her an internal phrase clock. Sometimes it goes on in the background, but it’s always there.
Sometimes I swim in phrases, holding my breath longer to lengthen the phrase. My mother once told me that she learned to swim in 6/8 time, three kicks to each arm stroke. When I tried it, it propelled me through the water with much less effort. I tried it walking up the steps, it helped there too! This must be the most efficient use of energy? A connection with the three-part beat of swing and the indigenous rhythms of African drumming and of original life?
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Debra Kaye is an award-winning New York composer whose eclectic music draws inspiration from classical, jazz, world music, story telling, current events, found sounds and her training in Dalcroze Eurhythmics. Acclaimed for her “sensitivity and raw power” (New Music Connoisseur), her debut CD And So It Begins (Ravello Records) was on Ted Gioia’s list of top 100 CD’s, and recognized as “…an album that will surely stand the test of time” (babysue.com).