(Cello) Blue

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I’ve been struggling to articulate a path forward from this past Wednesday’s events since I started watching the live footage coming from inside the Capitol building on television that afternoon. (I started typing “struggling to make sense of” the events, but that isn’t true because I know exactly how we got to that point as a nation.) This past Sunday night, as I was listening to Music from the Hearts of Space on my hometown public radio station, I still didn’t know what I was going to write here this week. Just then, shortly after listening to a retrospective of the music of one of my favourite ambient musicians of all time, Harold Budd, who passed away this past December from COVID-19, I read the news online that another of my favourite musicians, David Darling, had just passed away as well. Wednesday’s events suddenly seemed a lot further away than they’d been just a few seconds earlier.

It’s one of the great ironies of my life that my love of new age/ambient music was born from me listening to so much old school rap in the eighties. I can still remember buying a cassette tape of Run-D.M.C.’s newly-released Tougher Than Leather from the National Record Mart at Franklin Park Mall in Toledo one Saturday, and getting a free sample cassette of music from a new age label called Narada Records. I kind of liked the songs on that tape, especially because they provided good background music for all the homework I had to do back then, so I wound up buying more and more tapes, and later CDs, from that label. (The first CD I ever bought online was directly from Narada, not through a website but from their store on CompuServe. Does that ever make me feel ancient now.) When some Narada artists started releasing sheet music of some of their songs, I scooped it up and reignited the love of playing piano that had been squelched earlier by a horrible music teacher who thought that any music other than classical was just “noise.”

Getting into new age music was what led to me starting to listen to Music from the Hearts of Space every Sunday night, a habit I’ve mostly kept up since then. That opened my horizons to a lot of other contemporary instrumental music, including ambient pioneers like Brian Eno and Harold Budd and Steve Roach. I went a few years in the nineties without listening to much new age music, since I was working as a website designer and I could do that work while listening to songs with lyrics, and the folk-rock that came out of that decade remains my favourite music of all time. After my life became a great big ball of chaos in 2001, though, and I found myself back in college for the first time in six years, I needed to listen to more new age music not just to help me study, but to try to bring some moments of calm into my increasingly hectic life.

The events of 2001.09.11 just made everything else I was dealing with at the time all the harder to handle. My memories of the first weeks after that dreadful day are still fairly fresh in my mind, but when I think back to that time of my life, I’m reminded of two of the songs that kept playing everywhere I went — Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Enya’s “Only Time” — as the people around me struggled to deal with the feelings that the massive loss of life engendered in them. In a way, it provided a weird sense of communion with others, that so many people now wanted to hear this music that had meant so much to me for so long. I’m not even much of an Enya fan — a horrible dance teacher from my past created bad associations with her music in my head — but just hearing something like what I was listening to as I did homework every night being played by other people was one of the few things that brought me comfort that autumn.

It says a lot that nearly twenty years later, after this past Wednesday’s events shook so many of us to our core, at a time when we were already dealing with the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and all its attendant disruptions to our lives, that as I was watching the television news, I heard Enya’s “Only Time” again. Instead of using the song as a backdrop to melancholy images of the day’s events, though — the senseless violence in our nation’s capital, a pandemic death count that is now higher each day than the total number of people killed on that fateful 11th of September — it’s being used to sell macaroni and cheese. If that’s not a sign of just how this country’s collective priorities have shifted in the past twenty years, I don’t know what is.

This is normally where I’d “tie a bow” on this blog, calling back to a theme I developed in the first couple of paragraphs to bring everything together in some attempt to leave you all with whatever profundity I can muster on any given Monday. Instead of doing that, though, I want to leave you with one of my favourite David Darling pieces, from my favourite album of his (Cello Blue), simply called “Prayer.” I’d already been listening to “Prayer” a lot these past few months, especially when I became even more fearful of what was going on in the world around me, and despite its overwhelming sadness, its beauty still brings me a lot of comfort, even in times like these. I hope this song — and all of Darling’s and Harold Budd’s work (please seek it out if you aren’t already familiar with it) — brings you some measure of comfort as well.

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