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Syntax Issue 10
Denver Syntax
{the importance of live music}
  jonathan bitz


It is a common but overseen fact that music is fleeting. Passing. Momentary. It always was, since cave flutes.

Music has always been something that didnít belong here. Itís ghostly. Built from bodies of spirits. An apparition made only by wo/men of means. It was always like a cathedral: a stone thing that helped us outlast our grasp toward the cloudy heavens. Like this paradoxical life, music is impermanent but somehow, enduring.

Then came technology and we bottled it. Held on to its invisible soul. Turned it into a commodity. Something disposable. Wrappers in garbage cans. Stickers on bathroom walls. Parental advisory tee-shirts.

We used to treasure that musical soul, relish the search and discovery of its lost ships. But today, the child with twenty dollars no longer rushes to the music store to procure the latest songs of love and devotion. No, this child now spends that money on other nameable luxuries, trashcan merchandise. At best, this child downloads his music. If a full album at all, the kid pulls it apart for singles and a series of cursory, lazy attempts to find what he likes. To make pea snap judgments in his ears.

Something about the joy is vacant from the kidís face. Obsession is not in the eyes.

The idea of a full, cohesive album is dead. Itís so 1970s. That longing for afternoons alone, hovered over the record player, or tape deck, has been usurped by the idea of greed. Of more songs. Bigger singles. More explosions and obviousness. More as quantity, not voluptuous, nuanced content and a greater understanding of oneís self.

This is precisely why live music is so vitally important in our culture.

The live music venue. Amphitheaters. Halls. Bars. Shows. Parties. Concerts. That darkened hall, that holy space, where the face next to you no longer matters. That place where the arms on your wristwatch are meaningless. The hurried things of your life are made common and then invisible by the hovering heaven of strings Ė suddenly the pedestrian things are made unimportant by the music. Here, in these places, the darkened audience all faces forward watching only one thing: the musicians. The lighted musicians.

For thirty minutes. For an hour. In these places, music takes the stage. A lighted, impermanent stage with a microphone altar, a choir and a rhythm section for an orchestra pit.

Done well, the sound should be ambient. It should surround you. Touch you. Shove you. The cuffs of your pants titillated to a suspended vibrato in a key of D and you are, alas: immersed. Drowned. Engulfed. Had.

For thirty minutes. For an hour. There are no ringing cell phones or places to be. Just an honest chance for you to get lost. To get outside yourself. And, if you want to go further, you can learn about this piece, that instrument, her voice, those songs, that break before they fall back into the verse. Here, you can get lost in the abstract things. A beautiful passage at the introduction of the third composition. A run at the end of the fourth. Maybe just one moment. But whichever way, job well done: for one, expansive moment, youíre lost. Youíve forgotten what day it is and your ego is terrified because youíre not paying it any mind. Youíre thinking. Then, youíre not. Youíre drumming. Swaying. Kind of dancing. Somewhere in a lighted lagoon you surface, but your ego is still under, in the caves. What makes this work, how long have they been playing together Ė really, what is music? Why do I even enjoy this strange, primitive thing? I canít even understand what theyíre saying, but their instruments are speaking too and I somehow understand what theyíre trying to tell me even though I donít know what the key of E means relative to anything at all.

The piece ends. And you begin. You look around and realize your mouth is dry. The nameless faces in the room look beyond you. You take in a deliberate breath. You swallow. Blink. Body comes back. Youíve been somewhere. Really, truly Ė somewhere.

Maybe you were trapped in front of those musicians and that lighted stage - this is the story of you as a new hero. Because you were reluctant. Trapped by a situation. By friends on an aimless night. By the door cover that youíre determined to find value in. Maybe you knew that you didnít like this band. Or this style of song. Then, you got lost. You got really lost and your friends disappeared and you couldnít find them after the set and you stumble back to them, still lost but somehow better. Your ego trailing, still lost somewhere in your shadow back to the empty drinks on the bar table.

An artist or a song either makes sense to you off-the-bat, or not. Sometimes your mind is a welcome gateway for a musical morsel. It just flies in and seats itself neatly in that secret, primitive place in your brain. That place where you know it feels good for no other reason than it just does. This is music as sleep: we barely know anything about it other than it happens because it happens. Some music is not like that, though. Some music takes work. Some music is not so welcome for passage through your neural gateways. For these, one needs a utopian moment, a pale evening under the wisteria, sweaty dusk on a Texas mosquito lake, a new lover next to you with the windows rolled-down in the impossibly starry night of spring. Sometimes these moments unwittingly open that gateway and a piece of music finds the welcome arch to your understanding and sense of beauty. This is music as a dream.

Watching my beastly peers, I am not often impressed with their need for the beauty of music in their lives. As far as my telescope extends, it appears that people respond to music for much different reasons. Social acceptance. A mindless, barbaric escape. To dance. Because thatís what you do in the car: listen to the radio. I donít see a deep-seeded need to understand pieces of music. I donít see obsession. I donít see people around me clawing, digging, fighting through albums Ė creating conversation about it. Being confused by it. Yearning to create meaning out of it. Social reviews are tepid and unsophisticated Ė and more, uneducated. Unexplored.

Thereís no violence in opinions anymore. Just tepid reviews about a thing that was, in all actuality, born because of the chaos and violence and sexuality of existence - not out of apathy and luke warm waters. Brave, do tell me that you havenít felt that perfect alchemy of violence and beauty at a rock Ďn roll show before. If you havenít, I implore you: We need more of that. Again.

Moar.

(sounds like roar)

This dearth, this void of humanly emotion is precisely why live music is so vitally important in our culture. You may have forgotten about it as a possibility. But you will remember. Once youíre there again.

For thirty minutes. For an hour. If you can stand there that long Ė and are captivated enough to do so, to fight through it, to learn it, to come to a personal understanding of it: you can win it. Even if you have been before the stage for only five or ten minutes. In earnest, you win the same thing: the right to dig, to struggle, to enjoy Ė to truly enjoy something that is fleeting, that is ethereal, that is impermanent but paradoxically persistent.

If you try to pin down musicís arms to gain access to its heart, you will be defeated. For music is about moments. One breath of a breeze through the trees. One lap of a wave onto the shore. One sentence in a whole novel.

Music is about moments. We should be so lucky to be its explorers.