Difficult Times

If you’ve ever taken music lessons, you probably remember having to count out the number of beats in a bar and supplying whatever crotchets or quavers or rests were needed to make the notation match the time signature. In the early years, you mostly had to learn 4/4 or 3/4 or maybe 2/4 time signatures, but later you encountered difficult time signatures like 5/4 (Dave Brubeck’s Take Five) or 13/8 (Main Theme from The Terminator) or 3/32 (Telemann’s Gulliver Suite). Bach used strange times in his Well Tempered Clavier and The Beatles employed a number of them in Happiness is a Warm Gun. Musicians know about difficult times.

When we met for coffee recently, my friend Kathryn-Jane was sporting a These are Difficult Times T-shirt with musical staffs showing 13/8 and 6/4 time signatures. And she told me about how choral music was helping her through these difficult times, even though she was no longer able to meet with her beloved choir. In fact, she said, some of her new musical experiences were thrilling: joining a 1500 voice international choir via Zoom. Attending a one-week Zoom music camp which featured some of the best voices in Canada and working with them to sing Bach’s Magnificat. Without the virus, she wouldn’t have had these opportunities. Here’s a link to one of the recordings of the Self-Isolation Choir in which Kathryn participated: https://youtu.be/Ye_A-ebDsj8

Many musicians are entertaining and educating us through our viral challenges. Listening to Vancouver Phoenix Choir’s version of Billy Joel’s The Longest Time made me feel that I was not alone. Indeed, the song stayed with me as an ear worm for several weeks and it was reassuring: https://phoenixchoir.com/2020/04/the-longest-time-quarantine-edition

Symphonies around the world are currently making their concerts available online, and many small musical groups are performing in small or large venues with social distancing and audiences of fewer than fifty people. Some offer excellent short programs such as the Victoria Baroque’s Music for the Pause series: https://victoria-baroque.com/

I like the possibilities that can arise from referring to this time as The Pause. In music, as in verse, the caesura is a space between notes or phrases which separates what went before and what comes after. It gives us a chance to catch our breath.

My daughter tells me that in Shakespeare’s plays, the caesura signals a dramatic pause and also a change. What comes after will not be as it was before, she says. It’s a launching into something else.

It was Mozart who declared that “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Both Claude Debussy and Miles Davis said something very similar — and all three were drawing attention to the potential of the pause. Maybe, when we move forward, we will have learned from these standstills.

At times, though, feeling trapped in a pause makes us uneasy. Here, again, musicians can offer a different way of approaching things. My friend Gwyneth, a harpist, tells me that sometimes when her small chamber group gets stuck in rehearsing a piece, they jump to the end and play the last bar, and then the second to the last bar, and then work backwards from there, which heartens them. When they return, they are ready to work through the problems.

I see it as a way of throwing a hook out into the future. You hope to catch on to something that will pull you forward. It reminds me of that beautiful choral song Woyaya, the lyrics of which were written by Annie Masembe from Uganda. Woyaya, in a Ghanaian language, means “we keep going”:

We are going … heaven knows where we are going,
But we know within.
And We will get there … heaven knows how we will get there,
But we know we will.

So I plan to keep going by signing up for some events – courses, commitments, concerts – that will take me into the spring. It helps create a feeling that a tangible future lies ahead.

And I’m determined to make the most of the silences and spaces in between those events. I will practice the Covid Caesura.

The Pause.

2 thoughts on “Difficult Times

  1. As always, your writing is inspiring, Carol. There is the whimsical mixed with the profound. This blog is a particular treasure, in my opinion, because of the wide range of musical resources I can listen to and dwell in with just the flick of a click on the link you provide! I always love your illustrations.

    Like

  2. As always, your writing is inspiring, Carol. There is the whimsical mixed with the profound. This blog is a particular treasure, in my opinion, because of the wide range of musical resources I can listen to and dwell in with just the flick of a click on the link you provide! I always love your illustrations.

    Like

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