Amid all the varied richness of the Harry Potter books, the epigram spoken by Dumbledore in The Philosopher’s Stone, the title of this post, may be my favourite one-liner of the whole series. Teleportation and transforming yourself into an animal are all well and good, but can they compare with the power to console grief, cause a whole room full of people to dance, or make someone cry by singing to them?
Whether we’re being lulled into torpor by elevator music while waiting on hold, led into ecstasy by trance music, or moved to awe by musical virtuosity, our world is saturated with music. I try never to take for granted the fact that technology allows me to hear music from around the world, and play pretty much anything I want, pretty much any time I want. I revel in this luxury, but sometimes I wonder what it would be like not to have it. What was it like for the overwhelming majority of people who lived, or still live in a world where there’s no recorded music, where the only music you ever hear is that made by a live human being who’s right in front of you? Even with this inexhaustible cornucopia of musical opportunity before me, I’m still regularly moved to awe, joy or tears by music. How much more powerful might its effects be if it wasn’t at my fingertips, but only available when there was a live person to make it?
Recently, I had the good fortune to be in Quebec City with a group of friends. We were walking around La Basse Ville, and a few of us wandered into Notre-Damme-des -Victoires. By great good luck, it happened to be at a time when there was an organist practicing. I’ve written here before about the overpowering force of nostalgia that can sometimes hit you like a jolt of caffeine if you were raised as a regular church-goer, willing or not, and are confronted with churchy content that evokes your past. If you know what I’m talking about, I don’t need to describe it. If you don’t, I could try describing it all day and you still wouldn’t really get it. Sitting in the pew, surrounded by phone-fondling tourists taking pictures, or killing time till their companions were ready to leave, I was overcome by such a moment. Alone amid my friends, who clearly weren’t experiencing this particular moment of pathos, I was submerged by a flood of memories and longings for my dead parents, the security of my long-lost childhood faith, and a longing for the past which, though not really simpler or easier than the present, still has the treacherous allure of safety. It was the music. Churches can be powerful places for people. The fact that the vast majority of them offer music is no coincidence.
Luckily, a church is a place where a few tears mopped up unobtrusively on one’s cardigan will be discreetly overlooked by strangers. A mood of deep melancholy followed me out though, and I found it hard to act normal and happy. A block away, we chanced on a musician playing lively Quebecois folk music. My strong emotion didn’t go away. Instead, it got diverted, like a river changing course to go somewhere it hadn’t been before. The pull was compelling. The group consensus was to go on to have a drink at a café. With cheerful insistence, I asserted my desire to stop and let them go on without me. I sat on a kerb a few metres away, alone and content, listening, clapping along, and applauding after each song, regardless of whether I was joined by passersby or not. I was so grateful to that musician for having been right there, right then, that I was happy to give him at least one fully attentive listener.
After a few songs the musician began chatting with me between numbers. When I said I played too, he offered me the spoons. I’d never played them before, but if you start with a good basic sense of rhythm, it’s simple enough. I took to it immediately, and for the next hour I sat near him, beating out varying rhythms on my knee in time to very old music, played by a very real person who was right in front of me, and I was happy.
Music feels as universal as language, and as necessary as food. Regardless of its ubiquity and accessibility, it can still regularly give me goose bumps, evoke long buried memories, or dazzle me with its poignancy or virtuosity. Well, ok, being able to teleport would be pretty cool too.