Friday, October 25, 2013

Thinking warm thoughts

How many of you know Edith Bunker?

She's a character from a 1970s television sitcom called "All in the Family." Unlike her argumentative, bigoted husband Archie, Edith was the nicest person you could ever meet and everybody just loved her. But she was a little...odd, sometimes.

In one episode, the family is looking at old photographs, and she observes that she always wonders what happened to the people in the picture right after the picture was taken. One moment, there they are, still for the camera, the part we have on record, and then, they must have all started to move, but where? The camera didn't capture that part. The family just look at her like she's gone nuts.

I have a little bit of Edith in me. Sorry, did I type that out loud? Don't tell anybody.

A week ago today the folks from the heating and cooling service came to our church and inspected the furnace and basically switched everything over from air conditioning to heat. We are now, officially, in the cold and dark part of the year. And it got me thinking about organ music. For some reason, listening to some of the music I've played in past years seems to warm me up. Probably because it reminds me of precisely that time of the year when the world outside is cold and the sanctuary is (moderately) warm, and, especially at Christmas, there is musical cheer to be had as we survive and thrive our way through the season.

That's not really all that weird, is it? People tend often to have memories associated with pieces of music. I just happen to have a lot of other layers to put on top of them. But there are still pieces of music that I associate with certain seasons of the year, probably because that's when I first learned them. Some pieces remind me of autumn, some of spring, and many of winter. Such associations may or may not have anything to do with the music, or any kind of rationale. They might not even be conscious. I have occasionally found that if I have to put away a composition in progress because of other demands that I sometimes reflexively begin working on it again at the same time the following year.

As I said, that isn't all that rational. But then, human beings are not that rational, and living on this constantly warming and constantly cooling planet isn't that rational. If you live in the temperate zone north of the equator, this time of year the planet is cooling off pretty fast. This week, in fact, the morning low has been below freezing. And the sun won't stay out past 6:30 anymore, to say nothing of what will happen in a week when daylight saving time goes away.

That can be a bit of an inconvenience, and eventually it will probably be a psychological downer as well, but for our ancestors, too much darkness and coldness had consequences. It could inspire fear with good reason. You could really feel that chill in your bones and know what you were in for: the long siege that was winter. Time to go find a cave to keep warm. My cave just happens to be a church sanctuary. And while I'm in there, I like to make loud sounds by depressing plastic levers attached to great metal pipes with air blowing through. Makes sense, right?

That's not what keeps me warm, though. The heat keeps me warm. At a former church I used to wear a thick jacket when I practiced because the sanctuary was ice during the week. Odd, this organ music keeping me warm thing, isn't it?

21st century Americans have frequently gotten away from the elements and a sense of being part of the ecosystem. We need holidays to remind us. Our ancestors celebrated the harvest because being able to eat was kind of important. These days it's just an excuse to watch more football. And they celebrated--or at least marked--the transitions of the seasons. The air getting colder, darkness settling across the land, an excellent time to confront our fears: the big ones. Fear of death, fear of bodily harm, fear of the unknown. When the church came to town it learned that this was too big a holiday to simply wipe out, so, like Christmas, the church simply wrote over top of an existing holiday. It tried to introduce doctrinal reasons for why we celebrate them. The rational mind finds this very inviting. But the irrational part of us still celebrates the chill in the bones, the loss of the sun, the return of spring. It's an important part of us, doctrine or no doctrine.

And it's that way with music. You can learn it, you can study it, you can make erudite comments about it, but those gut level associations are still there, grinning at us, nonsensical as they are.

So if you need to stay warm this winter, there's a healthy supply of pipe organ music over at And to my friends in Australia, where things are just starting to heat up, if you need to keep cool the next few months, just listen to some of the piano music instead.

Don't ask.

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