In my line of work, I think a lot about depth. The phrase ‘deep dive’ comes up a lot, and I always imagine myself in a submarine, exploring strange coral and old shipwrecks.
But this isn’t about what I do for a living. This is about what I do to live. I think music is where I find the most depth. Music is where I live out all the feelings I normally bury. It’s where I can go when I need to have a conversation with myself.
When I first heard this song ‘My Old Green Shirt, Coffee, and Cigarettes’, I felt rather breathless after listening to it. It’s by a pianist named Sergio Díaz de Rojas from Valencia, Spain, and there’s a video for it…
I used to play the piano when I was younger. Unfortunately for me, I’m better at listening to music than I am at producing it. If I could change one thing about myself, it wouldn’t be something physical. What I want is to be a musician. If I could have any life I wanted, I’d want to play a stringed instrument in a renowned symphony in a European city with a lot of old cathedrals.
I envy the music makers.
I can, however, appreciate the genius of others. This song is a collaboration with a musician named Jose Quezada Márquez, who plays the violoncello (which is the formal word for what most of us simply call a cello).
The two go together to smoothly, like silk, like a rich, dark chocolate, like something warm and thick, like a velvety cloth. The cello enhances the piano; they play with each other, lightly touching themselves the way the girl in the video lightly runs her fingers across her skin. This is the kind of music that gives me goosebumps.
It got me to thinking about what I do – I work with data, which to most people probably feels like the exact opposite of music. My specialty is qualitative data – non-numerical data. Words, prose, stories, narratives. And one of the ways you capture those narratives in qualitative research is through thick description.
I’m drawn to stories and qualitative research for the same reason I’m drawn to instrumental music – the richness of it. The depth. The things it makes you feel.
Music can give me goosebumps. It can give me chills. It can make me well up with emotion for no particular reason, only because the music stimulates the highways of nerves and neurons and chemicals in my brain, causing an avalanche of signals to be sent down my nerve tissue, and waves of feelings result.
At least, that’s how I imagine it happens.
I get that way from stories, too. I remember reading ‘White Oleander’ by Janet Fitch for the first time and being struck at how her sentences move and flow, much like the waves in water. The story is gritty at times, raw and difficult, and yet…it flows. It has depth. I fell in love with her language.
‘The Last Nude’ by Ellis Avery. [Spoiler] I fell in love with the characters, because I could feel the chasm that cracked open in the character that was betrayed, and the gaping, hollow hole the betrayal left in the one who did it. That’s a feeling that submerges itself deep in your gut and lodges there. I walked around with a lump in my throat for days after reading that novel.
I can feel music in stories, and stories in music. ‘White Oleander’ is a lone piano, playing continuously in the background. ‘The Last Nude’ is a jazz quartet, a broken radio playing a sad love song, sometimes an elongated note on a violin.
Listening to music often results in images and feelings, snippets of conversations, settings – fleeting glimpses, perhaps, but creative output is not always like a volcano. Sometimes it’s more like a dripping faucet.
This music certainly doesn’t drip. It soars. It winds its way through your body, wrapping itself around you. Sometimes it squeezes – there are times when my chest feels tight listening to it.
Can you die from this? Will I get older, and weaker, and one day at 87 hear a concerto that makes my heart stop?
I believe that art begets art. I hear stories in this song. There are no green shirts, and no coffee or cigarettes, either. The composer’s story is not mine. Mine feels like…resignation. It’s the end of an intense affair. A long separation. Yet there’s a slow emergence, as you start to feel somewhat like yourself again. There’s sadness in that sound, but also hope. A reinvention, perhaps. A realization that grief is like a heavy rock inside of your soul that you can’t put down – but you can get used to carrying it.
In ‘White Oleander’, Janet Fitch writes: One can bear anything. The pain we cannot bear will kill us outright.
We can turn pain into art, art into pain. We can turn feelings to velvet, sounds to stories. There are people among us who can layer sounds in such a way that those listening have a visceral reaction, and that always awes me.
We are cavernous creatures, aren’t we?