Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Tune

What is the ecosystem of the tune? It is composed of a line of notes chosen from a twelve color palette displayed across a canvas, a sketchpad, a cartoon even, according to a selection from a restricted set of time and rhythm.

With such limited heredity how can the tune be so different from the tune that preceded it, the one that follows? Is this the tune that delights the player causing a big grin when the part with the knocking begins, or the one with the deep heart of the minor chord that makes the player long for home, or the one that turns with a bellow, exciting the dancers and causing their steps to lighten with the partners all laughing with each other, the dance set that ends with a happy pile of tired dancers with their hearts already imagining the last kiss of the night?

The tunes are so many, the repertoire so vast, that the most driven player is pressed to learn more than a handful. Are there 30,000? I can play maybe 50 today, maybe more. But each of these tunes has acquired its own story in my hands as it has in many of the hands that sheltered the tune before. The Butterfly, bringing all the hornpipe dancers up onto their toes, the Butterfly turned and fractured into the "here comes something important" theme in Roan Inish, the Butterfly which nearly froze in my hands in front of the crowd at Wintergrass. The jig Tripping Up the Stairs which we played so many times in front of the market on the day Jerry Garcia died, each time with a raised empty fist and a "This one's for you, Jerry!" The Star of the County Down, so enormous for us, the rich texture and voices, the audiences always wild, the final great performance with the Tacoma Youth Chorus. And Wild Mountain Thyme in the bright sun at the Seattle Center, our singing and playing as the the older woman sat to the side, tears streaming down her face. Then again, Wild Mountain Thyme with the Bellevue Chamber Chorus, the second performance a pure expression of flow. Cup of Tea, introduced at the Session, loved by us, becoming our title track. The Mountain Road, pushing the beat, the step dancers arranging their heels just for us.

We, people like me, are living members of a living tradition. Whether we are aware of it or not our every good act honors and respects that tradition, feeds and waters it until we give it away every chance we get. As with our meditation practice, true non-self is at the heart of the music. We get as proficient as we can, we learn the tunes and study the players, then we turn off everything else and, simply, play.

The tune is demanding. It will not open up for one who doesn't explore all its nuances and twists. But when you have the tune then you can sink and rise through its layers, you can make it sound and move people to dance, to tears, and you luxuriate in the joy of the tune and its power, its ecstasy or sorrow, its softness or its driving current. In the end only the tune remains, passed carefully through your loving hands.