Seventeen participants joined this evening–some furnishing weather reports, purple clouds, a recent sighting of a rainbow–from PA, MA, NH, NY, Seattle (with newly smokeless skies), India, and England, where we hear another Covid-19 lockdown is coming.
We come into this clearing reiterating our pledge to each other to contain what is shared here, making this “safe space” and acknowledging that it is also “brave space.”
After two readings of an excerpt from “Sonny’s Blues” we waited and waded into the deep waters of this text and a scene of musicians warming to a collaboration of making music. Baldwin’s detailed description, through the eyes of the narrator, who studies Sonny’s face and Creole’s body language, as they begin to play in a trio or quartet. The narrator muses throughout about the effort of making music, of what creativity demands, of the hesitation to give voice to an instrument made of wood or wire, of how the musician must fill his instrument with his own breath, his life. As one participant noted the text is rooted “deep in the body.” Another expressed their awe for the “cultivation of inner listening” and “knowing to capture the magic in music” described in this piece.
As a group we wondered about the narrator, who begins this paragraph with the words, “All I know about music is that few people ever really hear it.” One participant immediately resonated to the idea of hearing and how that’s what we try to do in these sessions: bring our own associations and experiences to what the author writes and try to hear meaning. He thought perhaps the narrator was the bartender, who watches the musicians. Is he a failed musician?
This brought thoughts about how different it is to be in an audience or on a stage. How well-rendered art obscures the effort, the anxiety that the creator of art feels. Baldwin uses words like “torment” to get at the intensity of what can be felt in creating, in giving life to music–perhaps not unlike the birthing of a baby.
One person imagined her way into Baldwin’s experience (knowing how difficult it was for him to express what he had to say) and suggested that experience helped him to imagine the musician’s task, in Baldwin’s words “More terrible because it has no words.”
Another person noted the extremes described: “terrible” and “triumphant.”
There were also similarities we felt in the fluidity of the prose, the fluidity of musical notes merging, of water and air mentioned in the piece. A favorite metaphor was “deep water” and Creole’s wanting Sonny to know what he knew: being in deep water is not the same as drowning. In that way, with that knowing, Creole hoped to lure Sonny from the shoreline to the deep waters of jazz.
After writing for 4 minutes to the prompt “Write about leaving the shoreline”, three participants read aloud their creative writing.
One person read what sounds like a myth “of heaven and earth,” a “land of many shorelines,” and the gods’ mandate to liberate captives from Ahushdan, which is referred to, alternately, as “a literary place” and “a military place.”
Another writer writes of the unfamiliar which is encountered when leaving the shoreline. Is there a destination or is there a venturing out to discover? Fear of “losing sight of the shoreline” is countered with the wish to stay “tethered to the shore.” One response to this reading began with a brave offering of a visceral memory of untying a rowboat from a riverside and being carried downstream, in a way that frightened the second grader, who ended up needing to be rescued. We learned that this participant tried again and again until able to reach the other side of the river. We acknowledged that many questions – unanswered and not – that emerge when we find ourselves about to cross the shoreline, pulled by the current and lulled by waves.
The third reading explored the shoreline itself–what is left on the shoreline, what of that is human refuse, and what is “undigested”?The sea is described as an “obedient” sea.Another keen listener questioned the qualifier “obedient,” saying that she never thought of the sea–that kills people–as “obedient.”
As promised, we are linking here a JAMA Perspectives piece about the shoreline, and what changes and what remains of the “shoreline” when our professional lives are threatened by “ocean waves” of unexpected catastrophic circumstances, as we do in the Times of Covid.
Participants are warmly encouraged to share what you wrote below (“Leave a Reply”), to keep the conversation going here, bearing in mind that the blog of course is a public space where confidentiality is not assured.
Also, we would love to learn more about your experience of these sessions, so if you’re able, please take the time to fill out a follow-up survey of one to two quick questions!
Please join us for our next session Wednesday, September 23rd at 12pm EDT, with more times listed on our Live Virtual Group Sessions page.
from Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues” pp. 137-138.
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on a short rein. Up there, keeping the beat with his whole body, waiting on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing—he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.
And while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try and make it do everything.