One activity I picked up in my classical music snob days (which still, to my joy, recur from time to time), is to pick up a music book and try to follow along – or rather, to follow at least the rhythm and know what the current bar is. I started with Bach’s well tempered clavier and was able to finally understand what polyphony was all about, and how interesting it was to only follow one voice; as I picked up Chopin and Rachmaninoff, I could start seeing the “shapes” they liked the most, the harmonic and rhythmic signatures that you could hear but also quite easily see. As my phase of exclusively listening to classical music dwindled and metal came back into my life, I started picking up those dual sheet music and tab books for my favorite bands, and I could also get a more focused glimpse at their styles, their building blocks, the shapes of those sounds that enthralled me. And sometimes, being in the zone that reading music creates (for it makes you engage one more sense in it, the oft distracted sight), you can quite simply find moments of beauty hidden in already well made pieces, or even boring ones. One such moment is the final bars of Soul to Squeeze by Red Hot Chili Peppers, the bass starts to play slightly off-beat variations on the main theme, dancing around the beat with grace, adding some blues-sounding tones to it. It gives me goosebumps.
This summer I joined a band, I had never played with people before, and I must say that, over a decade after I started playing musical instruments, I discovered another joy of music: the synergy of multiple performers coming together and locking into the groove of a piece. There’s true moments of beauty here, too, as you realize, from your instrument’s perspective, just how perfectly a certain phrase in one instrument fits with another, or even how a certain moment is dull and just a segue to another moment of import. There’s a kind of visceral engagement to a piece of music when you play it live with others, a kind of unity in the reciprocal faith on each other’s ability to convey the spirity of the piece, that I never found before while agonizing over a solo in a piece I sometimes didn’t even have the courage to play with a backing track, fearing it would be off-tempo and that I’d never catch up – and yes, that actually affected my sense of rhythm and I do sometimes either speed up or slow down to catch up with the beat while playing in this band, though not as often or as egregiously as I feared all those years.
Another joy I have known for a while, but which always revitalizes me, is attending a musical event: be it an opera or a metal show, there’s always a moment where I feel so connected to the rest of the audience that I say to myself in all frankness: this is my brethren. (I have to confess, however, that sometimes I feel out of it and I can’t seem to connect to the music being played in that deep level that mesmerizes me and connects me to everything else, sometimes it’s just because I’m distracted, or I’m too tired to pay the necessary attention). An opera or the philharmonic are pretty tame events: you dress up, you go sit down, you feel either ecstasy or not much, you observe people and wonder what their stories are and maybe witness something comical, and then you leave and let the music just slowly be digested. For metal it’s a tad more interesting: there’s the approaching to the venue, you know you’re getting closer because you see more and more people in black and/or with band tees getting a smoke, a slice of pizza or just walking in the same direction; there’s the going in, with some or none security procedure and perhaps even the producing of your id, there’s coat check if it’s the winter, with the subsequent hope you’ll find your coat on your way out; there’s going in at the time the doors open according to the organizer and realizing you have more than an hour to kill and thus you decide to start drinking early; there’s the sometimes unpleasant surprise of a local opening act – when I saw Apocalyptica play Irving Plaza in 2011, a horrible, horrible rap-metal band opened for them, scarring me for life; though on the other hand I’ve seen Septicflesh open for way more european bands than I expected, prompting me to finally get a shirt from them, and a few listens off their actually great discography; there’s the performances themselves, with the different choices of audiovisuals, the banter and introductions between songs (or lack thereof in the case of highly technical bands like Russian Circles or Between the Buried and Me), which can be boilerplate “NYC, we’re so glad to be here tonight”, or highly comical and witty like Devin Townsend or the hilarious Steel Panther. There’s the getting drinks or going to the loo in between acts (if you’re a lady, a metal show is often one of the few places in town that’ll have a line for the men’s room and no wait for the ladies room). There’s the “soung hangover” the next day if you didn’t protect your ears, the stiff neck and even sore extremities if you were more mobile – in terms of headbanding, giving the sign of the horns and probably jumping or stomping – than you’re physically conditioned for, the hoarse voice if you knew – or were drunk enough to pretend to know – the words to many songs, even worse if it was death metal or any of the more screeching variants. And then there’s the moments of fraternal bonding, like when someone helps you get up after some moshpit outlier bumps into you or when you find yourself protecting the less aware in the crowd at the very fringe of a mosh. There’s sharing of smuggled substances, and there’s impromptu comments on your band shirt or your artist preferences in general. Yes, as we all either avoid physical harm or put ourselves in its way with reckless, and surely drunken, abandon, as we bang our heads loose and sing our throats mute, as we put our ears to the test by exposing them to a sonic range the human animal didn’t evolve to hear in its daily life, let alone figure out how to produce it out of hunks of wood with really taut metallic threads attached to them, and sophisticated pots and pans, we all partake, as one, in the beautifully chaotic catharsis that metal gives us: because for many of us, that kind of music saved our lives.
And here I sit, as autumn comes upon us and with its cold temperatures ushers more and more extreme music performers into the city to regale us with their own brands of sonic agression and their own moments of beauty, having spent another week performing, listening and seeing live, the very thing that I can’t never make justice to via words, or be grateful enough for. And yet I try, because music saves my life.