Tuesday, November 05, 2013

What's your soundtrack?

In college, I worked in a department office for a couple of hours every day after class. The office was on the third floor at the very end of the hall. As afternoon dwindled into evening, the classrooms and corridors grew quiet. I would finish my two hours' duty, lock the door, and pull out my iPod. I would stick my earbuds in, and press Play.

This is the opening piece of music to the 1994 film adaptation of Little Women, composed by the magnificent Thomas Newman. It's titled "Orchard House." And this is what I would play every day as I walked through the empty hallway, down three flights of stairs to a door at the back of the building.

If you listen to it, you'll notice the first singular strains of oboe, haunting notes that might fall almost unnoticed between silent snowflakes, dripping raindrops, autumn leaves flitting to the ground. Leaving the department office, I would dash down the empty stairwells, the music of solitude fitting perfectly with the clean echoes of my steps. It created the illusion that the world was empty except for me, and that was magic all its own.

But I always planned my pace carefully. Because as much as I savored those moments of stairwell stillness, there was more to the music, more to my life. I knew a different magic was waiting.

As I trotted down the final staircase and pushed open the door, rich and brimming string music would suddenly wash over me, bursting past the stark, solitary oboe. More instruments, more sound, collective life created and built up with each added harmony. Every day it would spill into my ears just as sunset began to spill over the world like an egg yolk.

I always came outside in front of the library, brass and bells now ringing in my ears, and I wasn't alone anymore. Worlds collided, scores of students walking the cobblestone pathways, laughing and talking, unaware of the music that fit so well with their simple acts of living. The triumph of trumpets mixed with the grace of movement, of laughter, humanity. Often I would feel tears rising as the music proclaimed, It is good, it is good, it is good.

(I'll let you listen for a bit. Let it sweep you up.)

Perhaps sometimes putting in your earbuds doesn't tune you out of the world, but plants you more firmly within it. Perhaps sometimes we only need a soundtrack to discover that our days are tinged with miracle.

After the jubilant crescendo, the piece would slow again, clear and serene, strings and woodwinds. It slips behind the scenes, as if it's walking alongside you, anticipating your next footstep. It's secretive, you see, this music. After all, it stems from a story of a woman writing her own story as it comes. The lilt of the notes has a knack for giving so much away, but not quite all. There is mysticism holding it together, and when you hear it you hear beginnings, the fits and starts of future that float in the high sky and root in the deep dirt. You walk through it, breathe it in, slowly you unpeel your own unknowns - but never will you know it all. And so the power of the music always holds, so the mystery walks beside you.

At the last, it was almost like a bubble popping - the strings and bells would slide away, and I would reach the doors of the gym. I would grab a towel, switch to my workout playlist, plant new beats and rhythms in my ears. But that music never leaves, I hum it without thinking. For me, it will always signal the harmonies of life brimming, spilling over, like an egg yolk sunset turning the world gold.

Tell me: What pieces of music nurture your soul? What's your soundtrack?

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