Obviously, I took this responsibility very seriously. We all hear music in the backgrounds of existence much more than we realize. Although this ongoing musical exposure often occurs beneath the level of our perception, I think that it matters. In fact, I think that it is a powerful inculcating force, despite often taking disembodied and mediated forms. I certainly did not expect the little one to start bobbing her head to anything I put on in the first hours of her life, but I was convinced that the first strains of humanly organized sound that she heard would have some sort of impact.
When the room suddenly burst into activity, I turned on the MP3 boombox and spontaneously chose Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Mr. Connell, one of my high school jazz mentors, advised me that if I were to have one jazz album in my collection, it should be Kind of Blue. I passed on that advice to students and friends for many years before I really appreciated the album’s depth.
Kind of Blue seemed appropriate in this instance because on the one hand, it is hardly an offending or jarring listen - it can hang on the edge of silence even at a perceptible volume. In my more adrenaline – fueled High School days, I would study or read by it. Later, though, after transcribing parts of it in jazz improv classes, I found it impossible to do anything but sit and listen to the album in stunned admiration. Davis showcases a deliberately lyrical style that now demands my attention. I took great joy in humming his solo in Freddie Freeloader to my daughter as she looked up at me in what looked like awe.
It seemed impossible to follow up that masterpiece, so I changed gears entirely by choosing another album that I came to appreciate during my ethnomusicology studies, Shahid Parvez’s Sitar. When I was first exposed to Eastern Indian classical music, I found it to be beautiful and soothing, but I had great difficulty coming to understand its underlying structure from a practical standpoint. This particular album is the one that made the whole thing fall into place.
To make a long story short, there are two interacting forces in Indian classical music: raga, its melodic aspect, and tala, its rhythmic organization. In performance, the players explore these features within certain well-defined rules to create and release tension, similar to the way in which classical composers use phrasing and harmony. I knew all of this from a theoretical perspective, but still had difficulty really hearing it. Watching a video performance of Parvez performing raga Bageshri, however, with a little coaching from my teacher Poorvalur Sriji, allowed me to see and hear the system work for the first time. In a flash, the competitive interplay of Hindustani styles opened up.
Both of these albums are relatively mellow to listen to from a superficial standpoint, but more subtly, are also musically expressive and intellectually engaging. We stayed in that room for four days, transforming the sterile hospital room environment into a place that would hopefully be much more in keeping with the surroundings that she would eventually go home to. I took great pride in the fact that, although most other rooms on our floor had televisions blaring into the hallways, when we opened our door, music and conversation spilled out.