Just back from a week-long working vacation, helping facilitate a summer camp for kids between about five and twelve years old. We managed to do all right with the assistance of some very energetic and willing youth counselors. The fact that we were situated in gorgeous and semi-wild land and sea also helped, both with the energetic mornings and the afternoons' recuperation. There were swallows nesting on the house where we stayed, swooping all around sometimes three feet from one's nose. There were golden eagles that circled afar at nearly all hours. There were deer and sea otters; and on the domestic side, there were llamas and sheep, pigs and cows, and a number of friendly dogs and cats.
Most mornings before camp, I attended Mass at a small Benedictine monastery with a community of nuns and some other parishioners. This was a coincidence -- the camp wasn't religious -- but one for which I was very grateful; it started the day with a sane rhythm. As Christian monastics have done for the better part of two millennia, they sang most of their liturgy according to the ancient forms; in this case, Gregorian chant in Latin. I could follow along about a quarter of the time, but even when lost, one could, as it were, let the service carry one. The voices were quavery and tremulous but strong, and it was amazing to me that although the singing was imperfect by any number of criteria, the music itself somehow lifted the rendition. It had permeated the souls of those who were singing.
Also while there I heard a band of four early teens and pre-teens playing bluegrass. Their performances were occasionally rough and never astonishing technically, although the beautiful and soulful voice of the singer was clearly fraught with genuine talent and real instinct. It was clear was that this gorgeous instrument combined with real music with deep roots -- and country music goes very deep -- was enough to again lift and carry the musicians into a space in which they felt something real and powerful, and their listeners did too. It didn't matter if they hadn't quite learned one of the songs or if one couldn't help but smile at a 13-year-old singing about lost love and a broken heart -- the music itself had brought them into a relationship with itself and each other that was powerful and palpable.
It isn't all music that can do this, and I'm not quite able to put into words just what the difference is; but it has something to do with music not serving as the vehicle of egotism. The nuns were not singing for their own self-expression or their own gratification; and on some level those kids were aware, precisely by virtue of their neophyte status, of being in the service of something "bigger than themselves," as the over-used phrase goes -- not just the group, but the songs. There are some musicians who never lose this awareness, no matter what level of virtuosity they attain. Schopenhauer said that all art aspires to the state of music. The amazing thing is that this "state" is available at every step of the way. If there is a royal road to philosophy, it's music: the closest we can come to the articulation of a silence that is not the absence but the condition, and even the overabundance, of meaning.