Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Speech of Angels

A week or so ago I heard an interview on National Public Radio with the theoretical phsycist Michio Kaku.  Beyond his many television appearances and published works, Kaku’s real claim to fame is as one of the creators and developers of what’s known as Superstring Field Theory.  Superstring Theory is an attempt to take Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity – which deals with the force of gravity and large-scale structures such as galaxies – and the various theories of Quantum Mechanics – which deal with the other four fundamental forces of the universe and structures at a sub-atomic level – and put them together.  This unification of these various theorems is sometimes called, not so humbly I’d point out, “the Theory of Everything.”

To try to explain String Theory, Kaku reminded us of how strings work in the world we know – think of the strings on a guitar.  If you pluck one, it vibrates.  It creates a tone, a note.  Pluck a string of a different thickness, or length, and you get a different note.  A different tone.  A different vibration.  This “Theory of Everything” posits that the basic, fundamental reality, if you will, of the universe consists of “strings” floating in space/time.  These strings vibrate and their vibrations, their notes, are the various basic elements of creations – bosons and fermions.  Everything in the material world, then – the sun, the moon, the stars, the starfish, the moon pies, and even you and me – all of it, can be described as, fundamentally, vibrations of these strings.  You and me and everything we can see and feel around us are the harmonization of these strings.  We are literally notes in the symphony of life.
Cool, right?
And one of the reasons I especially love this new science is that it ties in so nicely with one of my favorite old myths.  It’s a creation story, but not any of the ones passed down in the oral traditions of the many Native American Nations, nor the Scandinavian story written in the Elder and Younger Eddas, nor even the foundational creation myth of the Jewish and Christian traditions, recorded in the Bible.  No, my favorite creation story is the one recorded in The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.  (Published posthumously in 1977 but begun back in 1914.)
According to this tale, Eru, Ilúvatar, The One, sings a chord, a theme, into the void.  The Ainur, perhaps the closest analog we’d recognize would be “angels,” then essentially improvise a melody around this chord.  Discord is introduced, so Ilúvatar offers a new theme and the Ainur continue their improvisations.  This happens three times, until finally Eru sets forth a theme which incorporates and completes everything that came before.  Eru then commands their Ainur to open their eyes and see what they’ve created with their song . . . and they see the universe we know and love.  Here, in this tale, is the truth scientists are only just discovering – the universe, and everything in it, is physicalized music.  
I love music.  Always have.  Maybe it’s because I grew up in a musical family.  My brothers and I were all singers when we were younger, and Pat played a mean guitar while Paul played a smoking bass.  I played the French horn.
And there was nearly always music playing somewhere.  The 60s and 70s rock my brothers listened to.  Jazz, both classical and avant garde.  Actually, just about anything and everything.  After my parents died my brothers and I went through their record collection.  There was an album of Scottish Bagpipes next to Oscar Brand’s Baudy Sea Shanties next to the Oscar Peterson trio’s rendition of the music from “West Side Story.”  Carmina Burana next to The Grand Canyon Suite next to Carmen.  Everything from Aaron Copland to Frank Zappa – if it was music, we listened to it.
And we’re not alone in responding to music’s magical charms.  While working on the sermon I found this quote from the abolitionist, suffragist, and Unitarian Lydia Maria Child: 
“While I listened, music was to my soul what the atmosphere is to my body; it was the breath of my inward life.  I felt, more deeply than ever, that music is the highest symbol of the infinite and holy. . . .  With renewed force I felt what I have often said, that the secret of creation lay in music.  ‘A voice to light gave being.’  Sound led the stars into their places.”
The renowned author Ursala K. Le Guinn has asked,
“What good is music?  None . . . and that is the point.  To the world and its states and armies and factories and Leaders, music says, ‘You are irrelevant”; and, arrogant and gentle as a god, to the suffering [one] it says only, ‘Listen.’  For being saved is not the point.  Music saves nothing.  Merciful, uncaring, it denies and breaks down all shelters, the houses [we] build for [ourselves], that [we] may see the sky.”

The poet George Eliot said,

“I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music.  It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain.  Life seems to go on without effort, when I am filled with music.” 
An anonymous commentator once said, “Music is what feelings sound like.”
And Thomas Carlyle wrote (in words that give this sermon its title), “Music is well said to be the speech of angels.”
And, of course, a pre-eminent theologian of the twentieth century once said, famously:

Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands 

(That is, of course, from Stevie Wonder’s magnum opus, “Sir Duke.”)
Of course, not everyone likes music.  Or, at least, some people say that they don’t like music but in my very unscientific survey it seems to me that what these people are usually saying is that they don’t like some particular kind of music.
Take the playwright Virginia Graham who said, “There are some composers—at the head of whom stands Beethoven—who not only do not know when to stop but appear to stop many times before they actually do.”
Or the English author Dodie Smith who said, “The one Bach piece I learnt made me feel I was being repeatedly hit on the head with a teaspoon.”
Or the actress and writer Maureen Lipman who said (and this is my favorite), “To Jack (my husband), his violin is comfort and relaxation.  To his inky wife, it’s time to put her head down the waste disposal unit again.”
One of the reasons some people don’t like music is that they are convinced – usually because someone told them so at a young age – that they are “musically challenged.”  “She can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” is a phrase that comes to mind.
My dad couldn’t carry a tune if it was put into a gift-wrapped box and stapled to his forehead.  But that didn’t stop him.  That didn’t stop him from initiating – initiating – the annual singing of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” with his three award-winning choir member sons while we trimmed the tree each year.  That didn’t stop him from breaking out into the song – “Many brave hearts / are asleep in the deep / so beware. / Beware.” – at any opportunity.  That didn’t stop him from joining a choir during his adult life.  He loved music, and he loved making music at whatever level he was able.
There’s an old proverb from Zimbabwe – if you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing.  I want to say this morning – this Music Sunday during which we’ve hears such lovely song – I want to declare this morning that each of us can make music.  And maybe that’s because each of us is music.  If Michio Kaku and his colleagues are right, then we are quite literally embodied music, music incarnate.  Let that thought vibrate through you for the rest of the day.

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