Musical Passages

I teach music appreciation in a community college — courses in classical music, popular music, and jazz. Since September 11th, music has changed for me. There are certain songs I can’t listen to any more, and other songs for which the meaning or the way I listen to them has changed radically. One of Deora’s favorite songs was from the movie, “Moulin Rouge,” and I hope I never have to listen to that music again.
In the classical music classes, there are pieces which have symbolic value that never mattered much to me before. When Deora was three or four, we went to see the film version (in French, with subtitles) of Bizet’s “Carmen”, with Placido Domingo and Julia Megenes-Johnson. I play excerpts of that same video in class every semester, and I am reminded of that special experience with my daughter twenty years ago. My students can’t see me crying in the dark…
Another time last year in class, I was sharing a story with my students about Beethoven’s dedication of the “Eroica” Symphony (his third) to Napoleon, a story I have told for many semesters. This time, however, as I began the story, I felt a sudden “catch” in my throat. What was I saying? Beethoven had sympathized with Napoleon’s professed egalitarian ideals, and had written a dedication to him on the first page of the musical score. When he heard that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, he angrily scratched out the dedication, so forcefully that he tore a hole in the paper. I realized that there was something frighteningly similar in this story to our own modern times in America. I barely made it through the story without breaking down and excusing the class.
In the days I visited Afghanistan in January, 2002, I was able to play some music with two musicians at the newly-restarted Kabul radio station. This “jam session” remains one of the high points of my life. I picked up something in just the few minutes we played together that has affected me musically and personally forever, and this “something” is invoked in the passages of a song I wrote after September 11th, 2002, called “One Year After.”
During the trip, I was able to “use” music in two other ways to help bridge the gaps between us and the people there, particularly at a school for orphans and street children that we visited. The night before we left Pakistan, for Kabul, I bought a very small Casio keyboard to bring into Afghanistan, with the hopes of doing something with music. When we went to the Aschiana School in Kabul, I brought the little electronic piano, about a foot and a half long, with me.
Outside, in the small schoolyard, some boys were working on calligraphy, which they put on small wooden objects to sell. I said to myself, “This is an opportunity I can’t pass up.” I asked if I could engage them in a little musical activity. I had prepared about half the words to “This Old Man”, a counting song, in Dari, the local version of the Farsi language which is common there. Wakil, the interpreter, explained the other half of the words as I led the boys through singing the first two verses:

‘Mar de peer’ (“This old man”), He played ‘yak’ (“one”)
He played “knick-knack” on my back (‘pusht’ in Dari),
With a “knick-knack paddywack” (untranslated),
‘Give a dog a bone’ (translated),
‘Mar de peer khon-a med-a wah’ (“This old man came rolling home!”)

We did hand motions for ‘yak’, “back” and “knick-knack paddywack”. By the time we got through the second verse (‘Du’ for “two”, rhymes with “shoe”), everybody was cracking up laughing! It was unforgettable.
Immediately afterwards, we went inside to visit a room full of young girls making paper flowers. The room was small, with a small high window letting the light in to shine on a few faces at a time. I had brought a pocket cassette player with me, along with a cassette of songs that had been played at my daughter Deora’s memorial services.
One of the songs on the tape was a piece written by my father, J. Russell Bodley, who had been a choir director and composer at the University of the Pacific in my home town. The music was a piece for a capella choir (unaccompanied voices) called “The Flower Factory”. The words were from a poem by the same name from the early 1930’s, about four little girls in a cold factory building somewhere in Europe after World War I, making … paper flowers. When I saw the young girls in the school making paper flowers in that little room, I knew I had to play that song for them. Wakil explained the song, which sadly describes the poor life these girls were leading, until the ending which lifts up a glorious prayer:

Let them have a long, long playtime,
Lord of toil, Lord of toil —
When toil is done… toil is done,
Fill their tiny hands with roses,
Joyous roses…joyous roses of the sun.

I had played this song on the organ many times over the years, particularly at memorial and funeral services, because the music contains the movement from sadness to joy that I had loved ever since I heard my father’s choirs sing it when I was a child. But the words, which made reference to the Black Hand and terrorist repression in those days, were too specific for the piece to have been done with any of the choirs I had myself been associated with over the years. Now, in this case and in this time, the words to the song were once again eerily appropriate.
I had also made several dozen “wallet-size” copies of a picture of my daughter Deora, taken at her high school graduation. In this picture, she is wearing a white robe and is holding … a single rose. On the back of each picture, I had written “I am happy to be here in Afghanistan with you,” in Dari. I passed out the pictures to the girls in the room as Wakil helped me explain that this was my daughter Deora and that she and I hoped they would take advantage of the freedom they now had to attend school (they couldn’t during the previous five years under the Taliban) and finish their education. When we left, the teacher was in tears. I felt as if several giant loops of meaning in my life had been completed.
Many people have told me that it was a good thing for me to have music to help me get through what happened September 11th and afterwards. I would have to agree with them. When I was younger, I had grand notions about how one (such as myself) could do great things in the world through music. But Peter Townshend, guitarist with The Who, put it best when he said “Music can’t change the world. Music changes the way one lives in the world.” I hope that, by sharing music, I have helped some of those who have heard it to change, in some positive way, how they live in the world.

Excerpted from September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning Our Grief Into Action for Peace

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