Thursday, October 04, 2007

Think Happy Thoughts

By: Michael Akerman

What's your happiest memory?

What event do you look back on, and you can't help but smile? What do you see as the most beautiful moment in your life so far?

I ask this because I was remembering my favorite memory yesterday, which I'll get to in a moment. I was thinking about it, and I think the moment that we consider as our favorite instance in our lives can reveal a lot about what we hold most dear, what we yearn for, and how we consider ourselves.

I'm also just curious about the stories behind other people.

Anyway, my happiest memory is musical.

During my junior year of high school, which was the last year I was in band, we were playing Sweet Georgia Brown as one of our concert band songs. As Mr. Solomon had volunteered to play mandolin with the band for that song (and maybe some others, I don't remember), Mr. Oldham (the band director) decided to loop a rhythm-heavy, melody-poor section and let some volunteers from the band play an improvisational solo over that section.

As a preface, I love playing improvisational jazz. I've been good at it at least since high school, finding myself easily capable of tracing a melodic line from the underlying current of the rhythm and the energy of the room. I wonder sometimes if I'm capable of it (well, was. I haven't tried in ages) because I'm good at math, or for some other talent that also makes me mathematically inclined, or if it's simply unrelated. The link between music and mathematics is fairly well established. I've also got plenty of anecdotal evidence: most of the engineers I know are musicians. At any rate, it seems to me that I evince the right notes to play a beautiful melody in the same way that I pluck out the correct equations and operators to manipulate an equation.

I jumped at the chance to play, of course. We practiced for the length of the semester, but only for the last several practice sessions did the soloists perform in the song. I remember that at least one person played effectively the same thing each time, finding a pleasing ditty and sticking to it with few modifications. The performance was pleasant enough, but it lacked a spark: the energy of the room wasn't in the music. For my part, I improvised. I thought I sounded fine, of course, but it was never anything exceptional.

On the day of the concert, the soloists were to move to the front of the stage in a preplanned order, taking a place next to the mandolinist, the focal point of the audience, and play for a few measures. The band played the opening songs of that concert, whatever they were, and the introduction to Sweet Georgia Brown with no major problems. This, of course, brings us to my part, since I was the first soloist.

I wonder if I can even describe the feeling in words, but words are all I have. Moving to the front of the stage, there were stage lights in front of me and Mr. Solomon to my left, strumming the entrance to the solo section. Audience and saxophone in front, band behind. All eyes on me. And no fear. No nervousness. I felt a purity of stillness, the music of the band washing over me, and I smiled and nodded at Mr. Solomon as I reached the microphone. Closing my eyes for a moment, I brought my saxophone up, a slight smile playing around the edges of my mouthpiece. I played: elements from different parts of the tune danced in and out of the solo as I followed the course that the band set, skipping along the surface of the melody one moment, plunging into the rhythm the next, an otter at play in a river. The music enveloped me, coursing through me, directing my path; the audience drove me, energizing the music, forming my cadence and style. The solo entwined with the room, with the band, with me. The performance was barely mine to control; rather, I served as the instrument of the music that had to be, willingly giving myself over to the tune.

It would be wrong to say, as is cliche, that time stood still. Instead, I had no cognizance of time at all. As if eternity itself coiled through me, writhed around me, erupted from me, I didn't count the measures because the measures were meaningless. I played until the music was finished. I played until the music was supposed to stop, not because of the rules imposed by the performance, but because that was the best way for the music to be. Miraculously, unconsciously, the solo reached it's pinnacle and subsided right at the limit imposed by the rules. The music had confined itself to the limits imposed by mundane necessity, though it felt like it could have strung me along forever.

The feeling was, I suppose, zen. At no other point have I felt so connected to the thrum of the universe and at no other point have I been so proud of my performance. I wonder, sometimes, if it's on tape anywhere, and whether or not I can get a copy of that concert. I'm also terrified of finding one, however. I fear that I wasn't as good as I think I was, or that the performance would be flat, lifeless. How could it be anything but lifeless on a recorded medium, without the pulse of the audience omnipresent? I don't want anything to spoil it because the feeling is what I remember, the performance be damned.

I've stepped back from myself to try to look at that moment from time to time. I think I love it because it was fully my accomplishment: it was not a song taught to me, nor was it something I had carefully planned. The solo had been driven and drawn by the music and the audience, certainly, but it had come through me and from me. Furthermore, it was like the best moments of science: I touched the fabric of the universe, and understood some small, magnificent portion of it, if only for that fleeting space. And, perhaps most fantastically, it was something only I could have performed. I can teach a skill in math or science, or instruct someone how to write with my style, but that performance was unique for the history of the universe: there is no one, anywhere, that can recreate it exactly, including myself.

So, I wonder. What is your happiest memory? What makes you smile to yourself in private? The comments are open.

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman


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