USU's campus has a spot above the parking terrace where you can go and look out over a good-sized chunk of town and, if you time it right, the setting sun. Recently I was in the vicinity while the sky was turning orange, so I headed up to look. This spot is also right behind freshman housing and has a fire pit where several happened to be congregated at this time. I avoided eye contact and charted a course well around them. My being there was not problematic in itself, as this area is as public as any other part of campus and I've seen people old enough to be my grandparents come to take pictures of the sunset, but I wanted to avoid any appearances of trying to crash their party or steal their s'mores. I also had my earbuds in as usual. So it took me a minute to notice them calling out to me. As it turns out, they wanted to be my friends and offer me a s'more.
I apologetically explained that my music was really loud. (I hope to permanently damage my hearing just enough to no longer pick up the million annoying little sounds that my brain refuses to filter out like a normal person's.) They said that was fine and what was I listening to? I said Nightwish. They asked what is that? I said it's a Finnish metal band. They said take out your earbuds and let's hear it. I obliged, grateful that I had told the truth. The song, "Nemo", is an epic yet melancholy piece, as one can infer from the title, which of course is Latin for "little orange fish". It so impressed one of the freshmen that she pulled out her own phone and Shazam'd it. And in that moment I knew that notwithstanding how much of my time and potential I may have wasted that day, right here and now I had enriched someone's life in a very tangible way. Because of me she now knows that Nightwish exists. I'm not worthless after all.
And karma was swift to repay me. One of the guys asked if I had heard of a Swedish metal band called Sabaton. I hadn't, and I procrastinated looking it up for a few days because I get nervous about the unknown and my taste in music is generally superior to other people's, but I got around to it the other day and I would just like to say holy crap. It's epic. So far as I can tell, all of their songs are about World War I and/or II, and somehow despite being generations removed from those events this genre is completely appropriate for conveying the power of unprecedented war machines and the terror of ordinary soldiers going through hell. Its unrelenting speed, volume and intensity conveys a sense of all that without getting bogged down in history lessons or graphic details. And I'll just stop right there before I start to sound like I'm trying to sound like a music reviewer who knows what he's talking about, when all I'm really trying to is that I like Sabaton and my life has been enriched by the introduction. Favorite track: "Bismarck".
This past Friday a friend and occasional reader of this blog, and his wife whom I met for the first time but who already knew about me because of my blog, hosted the inaugural meeting of the Logan Music Society, "a place to listen to, present, and chat about music old and new, from far and near". For this meeting everyone was invited to "play" a song that has changed them and explain why. And since this guy is an actual musician type person, I thought maybe "play" meant "perform", and that almost dissuaded me from showing up. I can't play music, I can't read music, I can't sing without Autotune and I know very little about the official terminology and stuff. I just like listening to it and I know what I like. I did finally decide to show up to be supportive, and everyone just played their chosen songs from their phones so that was all right.
I still hesitated to share one in front of the group because me no very good speech the English extemporaneously. That's why I write. But I went for it because, you know, facing your fears and stuff, and I don't think I sounded like a complete idiot. People liked the song and somebody asked for the artist's name and wrote it down and said she was really excited. Another enriched life. Even so, I want to take this opportunity to compensate for the shortcomings of my presentation by redoing it with my superior writing skills.
Three contenders ran through my mind prior to the meeting: "Unwell" by Matchbox Twenty, "Last Man Standing" by Hammerfall, and "Dante's Prayer" by Loreena McKennitt. I nixed "Unwell" because I thought it would benefit the group more to share something they were less likely to be familiar with. Then, noting the general tone of prior selections and apparent musical leanings of the people who actually knew stuff about music, I opted for the remaining option that I thought they would like more. Of course it would have been perfectly acceptable to express my individuality and break the prevailing tone with metal, but since I didn't have a preference either way I nixed "Last Man Standing" and of course that left "Dante's Prayer".
"Dante's Prayer" is the final track off Loreena McKennitt's 1997 album "The Book of Secrets". She does Celtic New Age-y stuff and my parents were really into that, so they bought the album pretty much when it came out. I was four years old. And I absolutely adored some of the songs and I absolutely adored Loreena McKennitt herself, looking so radiant on the album cover. I decided I would marry her someday. As it turns out, she's still single, but only because her fiance died in a boating accident around the same time I was having these thoughts, which makes me feel terrible. Anyway, despite that, there was one song on the album I didn't care for, and that was this one. I remember where I was the first time I heard it. I was taking a bath when this low melancholy moaning sound unlike anything I'd heard before came over the stereo system, and I thought it was weird and creepy and unpleasant.
Obviously I don't think that anymore. The sound, as it turns out, is a Russian Orthodox chant called "Hallelujah", and even though the Russian Orthodox Church is being a jerk right now I absolutely love what they have to offer her. The sound is still weird, yes, but in such a good way. To me it's a sound that seems to freeze time itself. It's a sound that says, gently but inescapably, "Stop whatever you're doing right this instant and listen to this and become introspective." And I find myself wishing that its time-freezing power was literal and would last forever, because the time it brings me to is the time I was four years old sitting in the bathtub. When I was four years old I didn't know that life was as happy and simple as it was ever going to get. I didn't appreciate that my problems were all but nonexistent, but they were about to multiply like cockroaches. What I wouldn't give to reclaim that innocence! The bathtub part is just incidental.
Nostalgia is a double-edged sword, as depressing as it is uplifting, and I find that same tonal ambivalence in "Hallelujah" and then in the rest of the song as it segues into piano, cello (I think), violin (I think), and Loreena McKennitt's goddess voice. Granted, this may owe more to my own lack of emotional intelligence than authorial intent, but the way art works is that my interpretation is as valid as anyone else's. The lyrics speak of hope, of faith, of seeking after God when he seems the most distant, of grasping at tender mercies and persevering through the long dark night of the soul - depression, faith crisis, loss, whatever. In my favorite passage, she sings,
"I did not believe because I could not see
Though you came to me in the night
When the dawn seemed forever lost
You showed me your love in the light of the stars"
Yet I cannot bring myself to call this a cheerful song when it sounds like something to be played at a funeral. In this very same passage, Loreena/Dante laments her/his own foolishness and shortcomings, and this continues as (s)he asks God to strengthen her/his "clay feet" and "feeble heart" and "take these crumpled hopes, etched with tears". Near the end of life, perhaps, looking back with no small amount of regret and lingering heartache over the past, but acknowledging God's hand throughout, and humbly pleading with Him to remain nearby through the final stretch. Loreena's voice fades away as she repeats, as she begs, "Please remember me." She is altogether silent when the music segues flawlessly back into "Hallelujah", closing out this hymn of unparalleled beauty that simultaneously preaches hope, acknowledges pain, and diminishes neither. As I put it more simply the other night, "It makes me cry for multiple reasons." That's how I feel about it now that I don't hate it anymore.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.