world’s oldest musical instrument

I loved museums when I was a boy, and I still do. The great ones in New York City,  especially the Natural History Museum, were places of wonder to me.

Some shows last week along the southern Atlantic coastline led me to the Smithsonian, where I spent hours wondering at this flute, discovered in a cave in Germany just ten years ago.

It’s about 35,000 years old, which makes it one of the world’s oldest manufactured musical instruments. Two pieces of carved and hollowed-out mammoth ivory, joined together and sealed. The flute had at least three finger holes and played a five-note scale.

The five-note scale is found, in different forms, in most of the world’s music, including Gospel, Folk, Jazz, American Blues and Rock. Which got me thinking:

We’ve had the ability to play any melody in popular music for tens of thousands of years. Who’s to say some of these tunes that are kicking around the pop charts haven’t been around for 30, 40, or 50 thousand years?

I know it’s far-fetched but there’s only a handful of notes and there have been human beings for millennia playing around with all the same notes, and the vast majority of music has been passed down anyway.

I suppose this is why we have the Museum: It’s a place to find remnants of every interesting or valuable thing we have ever touched alongside thousands of labels describing what’s gone, to help us make sense of the things that are left and begin anew from what we had discovered from the old.

I’m reminded how in my own real-life museum I have collected hundreds of artifacts, although they are stored as haphazardly as pencils and lyrics stuffed in cabinets, analog tapes and guitar strings tucked in drawers.

There is no order to them; they are curated in a chaos of hurt and joy. Endless artifacts of memory pressing against my heart, the songwriter’s gallery.

artifacts

still life

My right arm is all strapped up and bandaged. It’s just bruised. I tripped over a guitar cable and down some stairs.

For comedic relief, I’m telling everyone else an entirely different story. Some people I tell I was injured practicing the mysterious art of Japanese Ninjutsu. Parachute-jumping. Rock-climbing. Bull-riding.

A good songwriter never lets facts get in the way.

I’ve got some half-written songs waiting on me. Things are still moving but it’s taking longer than usual. I know I’ll finish them, eventually.

Grace has something to do with quiet and stillness, and waiting – on your healing, on other people, on your best intentions or your gut. On God.

Soon enough little words and a little tune will come out of the silence, like a prayer prayed back to the one who prays. And if it’s really meant to be, the song won’t disturb the silence from which it came.

still life

A three-legged dog walks into the saloon and announces, “I’m alookin’ fer the man what shot my paw.” (I’m so sorry.)

 

masterpiece

masterpiece

The thing I most dreaded when I began making up songs as a teenager was being struck down by an F-150 before the world could hear my masterpiece.

Not so much anymore.

These days I don’t sit and wonder if my next song will be liked by hundreds of thousands of people. I don’t care whether the world will consider it a major work. I make up songs for one reason: to get free.

Songwriting makes my feelings manageable. Some people fight or pray their way out of really painful situations; I just have to tell you how bad it felt. The grief is released, mastered in a sense, through the work. I am able to move forward from it — you never move on from grief, you only move forward — after that transcendent moment when suddenly it’s art.  To be able to do that makes the song, for me, a masterpiece.

It has a little something to do with craft, skill and workmanship. It has nothing to do with being popular. (If the goal is to be popular, then it’s all about the judgment of the world.)

It has everything to do with carving the battle scars deep into the work itself.

As long as I’m satisfied that the song I’m writing has that character, I know that even if, in the grand scheme of things, it’s the perfect emblem of unimportance, even if it’s mortal and has provided but a moment or two of consolation or healing, it will still be a masterpiece of sorts. It will be, if only for a little while, my masterpiece.

icons

At a gallery recently I was admiring a beautiful icon of Mary the Theotokos.

treasureI asked the artist whether she thought her painting would last forever and she said, “Probably not, but who cares? Every woman in love has the face of Mary.”

What a remarkable answer.

I was struck by the humility of the artist. Her reply made me think about Art: why we need to make it, how beautiful it is to need, where Art really lives and the grace of endurance.

A few days ago all of us were reminded of its impermanence. A 1,000-year-old church can vanish in the blink of an eye.

The love of it, that is more important than forever. That is a larger That.