Music in the Air



"We heard Cross Country live!'' my child wrote home from camp one summer. The name conjured up very little: cross-country skiing, travel, a boulevard in Baltimore that winds beside Western Run, its curving banks green with grasses, bushes and tall overarching trees.

''Cross Country?'' we wrote back.

''They sing,'' said the next postcard. ''We can order a tape.''

The tape arrived on one of those cool summer mornings when I beat my way through sticky spider webs to get the mail, only to stand awestruck near the garden on the way back, staring at webs that, in the bright sunlight, looked for all the world like phonograph records suspended above bird feeders to discourage pesky squirrels.

When I was growing up, phonograph records -- brittle, breakable 78s -- made music materialize, seemingly out of the air and at whim. On the kitchen radio, musical programming was yet to come nor would anyone, even years later on a still July night, turn on the radio and expect to hear at that very moment ''Nola'' or the Mills Brothers or Barber's ''Adagio for Strings.''

Albums of records were miraculous, far more so than leather photo albums, for while centuries of drawing and painting

predated photography, no prior human invention had captured sound. Though gramophone came from the Greek ''letter'' and ''sound,'' a civilization that could write of sound and craft symbols for sound could not store sound itself.

There was no need in the ancient world to save the sounds of nature. On land and in sea and sky, silence gave way to endless and richly repetitive noise. By night and day, the drone of insects in the fields and the wails and howls and calls of forest creatures filled the air. Beloved were the songs of birds that sang beside a temple or flew far from earth, soaring swift around the globe, riding the currents of the rushing wind. Beneath the crashing surface of the oceans, the smaller fishes were thought not to sing, but whales and dolphins chorused across the floors of the deep. For the ears of the ancients, sea nymphs sang, and the scales of mermaids rose above the clouds though their scaly tails trapped them forever in the seven seas.

The melodies that man devised seemed far more ephemeral: Played on pipes and lyre, their patterns and pitches were improvised, not instinctive. Early musicians and, later, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi, all composed before the audible reproduction of sound was possible. Flowing from imagination, the sounds of their music, once played, vanished through the sieve of time.

Then, in 1877, Thomas Edison patented a device that, with brass cylinder, steel needle and parchment, transmitted to the air the vibrations of a stylus channeled through a moving groove. While visual media only aspired to virtual reality, recorded music could seduce the spellbound into the illusion it was live.

My child and I sat out on the lawn the summer day the tape arrived, eyes closed, listening to the harmony of a folk trio. The bass of John Yankee, the clear soprano of Carol Thomas Downing, the tenor of Ned Quist intertwined like ivy trailing down a serpentine walk. As voices, guitars, a fiddle, the peeps of a penny whistle rose around us, I was beguiled into believing I too had heard the threesome live long before a friend and I took to following Cross Country anywhere -- to concert halls, house concerts, picnics, schools, to folk festivals, jam sessions, to the coffee house in the Old Otterbein Church where they have sung every spring since they joined together.

Their concerts, as all concerts, are glorious. The future of live performance is not. Wednesday marked the start of a new fiscal year in which slashes in private and government funding passed the last legislative sessions will now begin to undercut our symphonies, choral groups, conservatories, orchestras, chamber groups, artists and programs in the schools. Music becomes as endangered as wetlands and old-growth forests, as fields and groves that harbor living things.

All across our earth, we replace what is live with what is not. There are libraries of collected recordings, enough to play and replay for centuries to come. Technology for synthesizing sound improves. Classical programming survives. Yet music on the air is only a fading echo of music in the air that arose from original sources.

The spontaneous sound of a symphony, a violin, a folk trio, a songbird whistling in a wood where spiders weave webs through trees -- these assure that creation is still possible and that the first creation persists. ''The soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod,'' wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins of the industrialized earth a century ago. ''And for all this,'' he marveled, ''nature is never spent;/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down in things.''

Kneeling on the damp ground to plant patches of alyssum, I listen through the kitchen window to Cross Country -- and some songs curiously suit the season: ''Garden Holler,'' ''Down by the Sally Gardens,'' ''Now is the Cool of the Day.'' The sun slashes through the trees. A robin lights on the brick walk.

''All this earth is a garden,'' I hum along, cherishing both old and new tapes waiting inside to be sent cross country to distant friends. I turn over the soil, and I yearn to hear Cross Country sing live still again. Memory and ingenuity were given us that we might assuage a deep longing to stave off loss. We are able now to call back our past again and again, but we are able -- and we are meant -- also to apprehend afresh and anew.

Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.

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