The music of the spheres
June 20, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
There are certain phrases that are so elegant that they sound inevitable. Tim thinks “meandering belligerence” is one. I wish I’d coined it! To me “Pink Panther” is a great example. Also “the music of the spheres.”
The phrase “music of the spheres” refers to the intertwined relationship between the structures of music and those of the physical world, and a conscious awareness of mystical or spiritual qualities being transmitted through composed sound.
Pythagoras seems to have conceived the idea that music could be translated into mathematical equations. He’s said to have figured out that pitch—musical notes—is related to the length of the strings on an instrument. The bassist Stephen Jay authored The Theory of Harmonic Rhythm, which posits that any harmonic interval can be converted to a rhythm, and any rhythm can be converted to a harmony. Thus hidden patterns are revealed. By synching the “right” harmony with the “right” rhythm, a musician can create a song with unusual appeal.
My mother Cecilia Lower Wictor was a musical prodigy who gave her first public recital on the piano at the age of four, the year this photo was taken.
Like me, stage fright was her nemesis. She stopped playing at the age of five. I was a semi-professional bass player in Tokyo for three years. Though my band A Window performed dozens of times, I never lost my stage fright. For the duration of every show, I’d be lightheaded, my heart pounding and my breathing shallow.
It didn’t matter how drunk I got. Walking out on stage sobered me up immediately. It was a relief when I stopped playing.
In 2001 I went on a book tour for In Cold Sweat: Interviews with Really Scary Musicians. Since it was a book about bassists, and since I thought I’d bore the hell out of people just yapping, I bought a bass amp, taught myself my favorite song, and performed it at my readings.
The stage fright came back with the same intensity as fourteen years before.
I don’t know why, but “Mobile” is music of the spheres. To me. It sounds inevitable. Before I went on my book tour, I had Mom come over and sit in a chair on the cement driveway behind my house, and I played the song for her. She loved it. Looking through the things she left behind, I can see that she saved a lot of articles about prog rock after that.
We all have different tastes. Still, I learned that knowing about music made me appreciate it more. Does that means that if you don’t study music, you’re a dummy whose opinions are junk? No. There is no right or wrong when it comes to preferences. I discovered, however, that my mother and I had identical tastes in music. Like me, she enjoyed music that took her places and made mind-movies play in her head.
She was fascinated with Gene Simmons. This was her favorite Kiss song and performance of it.
I agree with her. What makes this song stand out? The poignant melodies, the vocals, and the lyrics.
I’m ninety-three and you’re sixteen
Can’t you see I’m going blind
How bizarre and poetic. So simple but so effective.
“Gene said he thinks the Beatles are the best band ever,” Mom told me. “You can really hear that in his singing.”
Mom loved the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Mel Tormé, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Herb Alpert, Julie London, and Sarah Vaughan. Here’s the best Sarah Vaughan song.
Tim, Mom, and I all saw Vaughn’s “Key Largo” as exceptional music of the spheres.
May come to Key Largo
But where is the face
My heart won’t erase
The moon tide
Rolling in from the sea
And it always will be
Mom was religious. I’ve discovered that Orthodox Christian hymns tend to be music of the spheres. This is sung first in Greek and then in Serbian. There are no instruments, only voices.
Holy O God
Have mercy on us
Yes, have mercy on us. And another Orthodox hymn, this one performed by the brilliant Serbian singer Divna Ljubojević.
Again, there is no instrument accompanying the vocals. The hymn is a prayer to Saint Mary. It contains the following lines.
Assist me and deliver me
Protect me from the enemy
Tonight I discovered that you can pray to Saint Cecilia for intercession. And she’s the patron saint of…music. Though she may or may not have been real, her martyrdom was protracted, gruesome, and unnecessary.
Some traditions hold that Cecilia is also the patron saint of blindness. Music and blindness together can symbolize transcendence, moving beyond the grubby limitations we place on ourselves in this realm.
Cecilia represents the proper order, the way things should be. She listens to the music of the spheres.
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