Imagine a hundred ten-year-olds crammed into the back temp building, the one that felt like Vietnam in summer and Siberia when it snowed, the one stuffed in the far left corner of the elementary school campus, beyond earshot. There is only one teacher between these kids and chaos, a curly-haired guy who is not easily disturbed by copious spit on the floor or the obscene noises boys make in their armpits when they’re bored. He stands at the front of the room and raises this dainty white stick, which means that you’re supposed to get your fingers onto the right keys, or what you hope are the right keys. And then he waves the stick—hugely, as though lifting a whale with a fishing rod—and the building practically quakes in the ensuing noise. Kids squeak on clarinets or turn blue in the face behind a tuba. The boys in the back act out a scene from Star Wars with their drumsticks. There is a constant rustling sound that had nothing to do with page fifteen of “Essential Elements,” which has everyone attempting a sluggish version of Hot Cross Buns.
This was my elementary school band. I sat in the front row and played flute, which I chose because I was able to make a noise on it the first time I tried—which not many people could do—and because it weighed a lot less than my older brother’s trumpet. The fact that I chose the flute said a lot of other things about me. Flutists tend to be a certain type of person, the type that doesn’t mind sitting right under the director’s nose, right where the audience can see every movement you make. Flutists are the ones who can be counted on to sit quietly and count diligently during their measures of rest, although they don’t get a lot of those. Or if they do, they feel the piece has somehow cheated them, because they learn very quickly they’re supposed to have the melody. Flutists are melody-addicts; they’re used to the parts that shove you right up in the spotlight to show off.
I had a private teacher once who rightfully said that no one likes the sound of a flute up close—it’s too shrill, too loud, too audacious and pushy and fierce. At least when it’s played right. Beginner flute players will often get a breathy sound, the sound you might get when you blow over the top of a glass bottle. This isn’t the correct way to play. The air leaving your lips shouldn’t be a stream but a laser. You push each note to the point where it hits a fifth too high, and then you back down the tiniest amount, you let off the intensity like a millimeter, and that’s how you play the note right. You play each note like it’s just about to break.
I didn’t know these things when I began to play. Still, I was a studious musician, shy and eager and uncertain every time I placed my fingers on the keys. I tapped my toes the way the director taught me and bit my lip in between notes. He was always trying to get us to look up and listen around. We were supposed to see the dance of his baton through the air; we were supposed to hear the others around us in their parts, noticing that the French horns had the melody there, so our long notes didn’t matter as much, so maybe we should back off the volume a little.
I never, as they say, got my nose out of my music stand. I was terribly concerned with my own part, that I should play it right, that I shouldn’t make any mistakes. This was always one of my main concerns as a child—making mistakes. I felt like I was always making so many, and each one felt like a bruise to the ribs, and I wished for just one day when I didn’t make any—not a single, solitary mistake on one perfect day when I would be a perfect person.
Everything was out of tune, the melody barely discernible. We didn’t notice. We were just kids, and played everything as loudly as we could.
A few years later, though, I really get into music. When you really get into music, it starts filtering over into all the other parts of your life. Like anywhere you go, you can’t stop humming Mozart. (Every serious flutist is obsessed with Mozart; The Magic Flute feeds right into our pretensions.) You wear t-shirts with musical jokes printed on them (“Baby Got Bach”). In high school, you sit in your physics class holding a pencil as you would your instrument, running over that hard lick at the end of the Shostakovich symphony again and again while you pretend to pay attention. The teacher—pasty, sweating, insect-voiced—clutches his coffee mug and drones on about something you don’t recognize at the time. If you had, maybe you would have cared. He’s talking about a different music.
Physicists call it the Symphony of the Universe. Think of the atom. No, think of the smallness of the atom. Think of how, if you stacked up a million atoms, you would have something about as thick as a sheet of paper. Now think of scraping a proton off that atom. Drop the proton into this machine that’s designed like a racetrack. You put it in there with a few other protons, and you get ready to play nuclear roller derby. You flip the machine on. The protons fly around at dazzling speeds and eventually collide, and when they do, they explode into pieces too small to believe in, almost. They have names like mythical creatures: fermions and bosons, leptons and quarks. And when you press your ear to those pieces, you find that they are singing to you.
So the singing pieces, they are singing on a string. Humming along on this vibrating string and at all these different tones. All the strings are the same; it’s only the frequency that changes. The frequency is what makes the thing what it is. Each piece sings its nature out to you. You change the frequency and you change its nature.
Every larger object also has a frequency, a tone. A tree or a stone or a door or a person. It’s not some mystical baloney; it’s measurable. It’s been videotaped. It’s why a string makes a certain pitch when it’s plucked. It’s why a bridge can start to wave like ribbon if the right tone hits it.
When you combine tones, you get harmonies. When you combine them right, I guess. If you combine them right you get harmonies. A song is made up of harmonies, chord progressions. Some progressions leave you satisfied; others don’t. Like in some songs, if you stay on the fifth chord at the end instead of relaxing back to the first chord, it will set your teeth on edge. That’s called a half cadence, a song that refuses to bring you home. The music builds up and builds up until you ache to hear that first chord again—the one from a distant memory—but then the whole thing just hangs there without any resolution.
Those are sad songs.
I had a choice between two high schools, and I picked the one with the better band. The director there had a statewide reputation. People who liked him said he was a genius, that he could squeeze the best out of those kids, that he could put them in a press and close the lid and turn up the heat, and then they would play, and the music would come out as though from Mount Olympus.
People who didn’t like him called him a Nazi.
I both loved and hated that director. He was like the father who was too busy to notice his kid turning back flips to get his attention. He had his favorites—even now, I remember their names—his golden students who would always play first chair and get the solos during marching season. Then there were the rest of us, desperately doing our song and dance in the background, begging him to turn around and shoot a smile our way.
That was when I got lost in something different. Not music. Ambition. When you play in an ensemble, you compete for the best chair, for the best orchestra. Everybody wants to play the solo. I wanted to play the solo more than all the others, so after three years I played them, because I was the best.
Except I wasn’t, because there was always somebody better. In something as subjective as the arts, there’s a great deal of fluidity in the hustle for position. Chair try-outs take place multiple times a year. In between those for your regular orchestra, there are honor bands, and solo competitions, and recitals. All of these are judged and measured. If you were lucky, the judge would give you feedback.
One judge told me I was good at rhythm. (I liked rhythms, the mathematical precision of them, the way you were either definitely right or definitely wrong, no guesswork involved.) Another judge said I had a nice tone, which made me glad. I liked a dark tone; I wanted it to leave the taste of thick black coffee on your tongue.
I was worst at pitch and phrasing. Pitch because I never learned to listen to others, to adjust, to lose myself in someone else’s sound. I listened to myself and marked my errors and hit the run faster next time. I couldn’t tell you anyone else’s part. Phrasing was hard because when I was younger I was asthmatic and struggled to breathe. I struggled to breathe all the time, but especially when I was putting everything I had into the music, what I thought was the music. I never had enough. I was always gasping by the end.
This kind of fire lights fast and burns out. It’s spectacular, like a firework, and then it fizzles into darkness and there’s nothing. There’s always someone, somewhere, better than you. If you love the music, you don’t mind, you keep playing anyway. If you love ambition, you won’t.
One day after I graduated, I put my flute down and didn’t pick it up again for ten years.
The thing is, the universe as we know it is too small to carry this theory of a symphonic universe around on its back. Like all those laws of nature—that when an apple drops from a tree it will fall to earth, that when electrons run in circles they gain magnetic power—they’re too big to fit inside a measly four dimensions. Four dimensions can only juggle so many forces. You need a lot more to make the math work; you need at least eleven.
To wrap your head around it, you can imagine a two-dimensional world, where paper people live. When you put your finger on the paper, the paper people experience it two-dimensionally, like a circle. But you, in your three-dimensional world, can pop your finger off the paper and place it down elsewhere. To the paper people, it seems you’ve magically transported—for a time, you were nowhere—because you were in the third dimension. Which explains things like how a person could be eating dinner in Emmaus one moment and scaring the crap out of everyone in Jerusalem the next. If he knew about all the other dimensions. If he had access to them all.
My daughter is the one who is bringing me back to music. This child who sang before she could talk, who danced before she could walk. When she was a baby, I needed only to put on the music and she’d stop crying. It was as though I’d found the frequency of her body, and the waves of music would come and reverberate inside of her, and then she would begin to resonate with peace. So I pulled out my flute for her, and it felt like visiting my childhood home, the way it felt so familiar, only I had changed.
After ten years, the music doesn’t sound the same. Not the same as before. I miss things like key signatures and hit flat notes. My fingers refuse to move like they used to; they have grown brittle, they feel like dried twigs, and no matter how hard I try I can’t hit that lick of Shostakovich. The muscles of my mouth have atrophied and tap out after 20 or 30 minutes. It makes me sad. I feel like I have fallen.
But I play, because my daughter loves it when I play. This time I want the tone to sound like bells. I want it to taste like honey. My daughter sings along, her voice climbing up the octaves to mimic me.
She’s so much like me, it’s scary. The tones of her. The way she will hesitate before putting her foot out the door. The way, in a crowd, she huddles inside of herself, silently watching. The way she doesn’t want to try anything—walking, talking, loving someone—unless she knows she will succeed. That last is scary for me.
The great fear of parents everywhere is that the music will one day go out of their children. The way one day it went out for you. The way it goes out, sort of, for everyone.
So the tiniest bits of you—the bits that give you mass and energy and being—they are music. Just music.
This is the best way I have of understanding the Incarnation of Christ: When Jesus came, all the particles inside him resonated a different tone than ours—a holy tone, the one that made his nature that of God’s. He was holding the universe together—all eleven dimensions of it—with a song. He had a way of speaking into the deepest parts of a person and giving something a little tug, and then their tones would change, too. That’s how water became wine, how sickness became health, how death became life. The pieces started singing a different song.
When you come to Jesus, or rather, when he comes to you, he comes to live maybe not so much in the “heart” that people talk about, but in the spaces of fermions and bosons. In the things that sing out your nature. This is where he makes his home. This is where he begins to change things, bringing you back to the melody you were made to resonate.
Sometimes it feels like you are just fumbling around, trying different notes, the melody is just on the tip of your tongue, and How does it go again? Because those strings in you remember. They remember the first chords, the song they were made to sing.
But here is what you should know. When you finally come back—after such a very long time, after you have tried other things and found them wanting, after you have admitted to your fear and your pride and your penchant for discontentment, after you have swallowed your doubts and your hang-ups, after you realize you really have nothing left to lose—the music will not sound the same. Not the same as before, in some memory that is not your memory. It will not sound the way it sounded in the story of a garden and a tree, before the first broken chord.
This time around, you can hear creation groaning in its decay, and the horn-like lament of pain, and the sharp staccato of suffering, and the timpani rolling sound of your body as it nudges ever closer to death. Listen to the song of the universe; listen to the chords. We are on the fifth one, the half cadence waiting to resolve.
Be quiet, my darling, you must listen now.
Because beneath it all, you can still hear the melody, that first one, the one that never changed. It will balloon to mountains on every side of you. It will whirl so fast, so hot, so bright, you can’t catch hold and you won’t even try. It will shove you back in your chair and tell you to sit down! just sit down! It will swallow you up and leave you for dead on a different shore.
Then, after you spit the salt from your mouth and rub the sand from your cheek, you will peer out and see the swelling of the wave, which is coming to carry you home.