Henry David Thoreau famously said (and was recently famously quoted by Love Good on Insta), “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.”
To this I would add, “and to everyone.”
For awhile, I sat next to my arch-nemesis in high school band. We found fault with each other when it came to pretty much everything apart from what was in front of us on a music stand. But once the conductors hands were up, and we were in the zone, we were something more than friends: we were one.
“One band, one sound”, the motto from Drumline, became the rallying cry of every high school band in 2008. That motto refers to the way the group should see itself: if we want one, good sound, we have to one, good band. The paradox, of course, is that being one band with one sound was not something we did to the music, but is the result of what the music did to us.
Around the same time Drumline came out, the movie August Rush was released. In it, the protagonist and titular character famous says, “You are the music while the music lasts.” Music is not something I create; rather, music is something I encounter. It comes into me or out of me (or sometimes both), but more than anything music has always served man as a means of encountering ourselves at a deeper level. It serves as proof of the more abstract things we all seek: beauty, joy, grief, communion, authenticity, God. Music lifts our eyes and moves us away from ourselves and toward something else, something higher.
In the last decade or so, I’ve had the joy of living all over the world studying and growing in places like Italy, Peru, Israel, and Palestine. In each of these places, music crossed cultural boundaries and brought people together in ways I never could have imagined.
When I was living in Rome, I always found it ironic that fancy restaurants there were playing American pop and oldies, because in America the fancy restaurants often play Italian music. At the university where I was studying, I struggled like mad to make friends with an elderly barista at the school’s coffee bar. One day, I walked up and she was singing an American pop song with, shall we say, lyrics that should have made this nonna blush.
“Sai cosa vogliono dire quelle parole?”, I asked. (Do you know what those words mean?)
“Ovviamente no,” she replied.
So I did my best to explain to her what Ms. Swift was trying to convey and, as predicted, the nonna did blush.
But then a magic thing happened: instead of being embrassed, she smiled and laughed, and I laughed, and we laughed. And we were friends. One band, one sound.
Every Friday night in Parque 7 de Junio in the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru, a small band sets up in the park’s center, and people of all ages get their chorizo y queso sandwiches and sit on the steps to listen. The band played mainly Peruvian standards, music from the collection of South American oldies. And the South American oldies in the audience would get up to slow dance and rekindle love; then they’d switch partners and, maybe, kindle love.
The tourists and students who hung around learned more about Peruvian culture in those Friday concerts than anything a book could have taught us. Then, as if we were back at Chicago’s Millennium Park, the maestro would say, “Arre therrre any bearthdayz aqui?” Slowly, little by little, touristas, studentes, chicos, y abuelos would come forward and the band would strike up Happy Birthday, with all the people singing in their best English accents.
“Happy bearthdey tu yoo; Happy bearthdey tuuu yooo! Happy bearthdey a toooodddooosss, happy bearthdey tu yooooooooo!!”
Wild cheering, stranger-made-friends hugging, wishing one another good will. One band, one sound.
After nearly three months of traveling through Palestine and Israel, our group settled in Jerusalem. A classical music lover organized a trip to hear the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall in central Jerusalem.
We were glad the Henry Crown had English programs available, or we’d have been nearly completely lost. All the commentary from the musicians and conductor was in Hebrew, but the conductor was making jokes and the laughter and applause that resulted was a language we all spoke. None of us knew what was so funny, but the 20-or-so 20-somethings among us knew that we were welcome in a joyful place, among friends. Culturally and religiously we were different than the majority, but we were there because of music. We tapped our feet, and bobbed our heads, and jumped out of our seats in awe and wonder as if we were one body. One band, one sound.
I’m not saying that listening to classical music, or joking with grandmas about T-Swift, or swing dancing in a Peruvian park will save the world. But throughout history, in every age and place and time, music has been a salve to conflict, a point of connection for enemies, and a means for two til-now-strangers to turn toward one another and smile.
It’s that turning, that seeing, that smiling: these are the moments that foster true harmony, if we let them.