Becoming the Music
Considering Matthew Shepard is a haunting, beautiful cantata sung by Conspirare, a renowned choral group. The night I heard a live performance, the audience was part of each note; we listened through to the end without one cough or rustle of papers in a hall of several hundred people. After the end, and long seconds of absolute silence, we burst into an ovation that lasted fifteen minutes. Tears streamed down my cheeks; the man next to me wiped his eyes.
Craig Johnson, the composer, grew up in rural Minnesota, not far from my family’s immigrant farm homestead. I know the culture of this place; it perhaps contributed to Johnson’s deeply felt composition.
The story of Matthew Shepard, I realized, is the Passion Story told without any need for metaphor. Matthew Shepard was a young gay man, taken from a bar in Wyoming, beaten, and left to die on a fence post. Even the imagery of him hanging from a wooden post needs no symbolism – the facts are enough, the parallels apparent. The story is haunting and the music is beautiful, but why have I been moved to tears by this piece, more than any other?
I hear the music from the inside out. Perhaps many of you learned to do this long ago, but it is very different to listen to a tune – oh yes, I know that, and hum along –and to feel the music coursing through one as if the notes are platelets and oxygen. This listening from the inside, I understand, is not about music, but how we experience any of sensate life. Like poetry or making love, we are required to be fully part of each moment, or it is simply traffic passing us by. We enter into the story, and the music and story enter into us.
I studied piano as a child, but it has been at least 50 years since those lessons. I even won a couple music contests, but I remember a diffidence – I practiced until my fingers found the notes flawlessly, and my mind could wander off. I did not love piano.
I began singing in a choir ten years ago, and enjoy being part of music by amateurs; learning, stretching, and the community that envelopes us when we breathe together, listening for the other parts, striving to blend with the group as well as be strong individually.
I think this will be the opportunity and the task of older age, to be a full participant in sensate life.