Wednesday, May 25, 2011

#140 - Sonic Coincidence

Sonic Coincidence

5/25/11 (#140)

As a prologue to this story, let me quickly recount a music listening experience from my college days, when a friend said he loved how the harmonica in REM's "Pretty Persuasion" was strangely out of key. Harmonica? I had heard that song at least 40 times and had no recollection of a harmonica. He popped on the album (kids, your parents can translate) and as the third verse started, he pointed at the speakers. Sure enough, buried deep in the mix, there was a hard-blowing harmonica, clearly not the right key but close enough to make the friction interesting. 40-plus listens and I had never heard it, and from that day on, it was impossible to miss. How had it eluded me for so long?

Flash forward a couple of decades to the necktie-wearing version of me standing at a downtown Portland Max stop, waiting for the Yellow Line to whisk me home. I was in the midst of a serious fascination with The Roots, the Philly-based hip-hop/funk/awesome ensemble, and one of my favorite funky songs began flowing through the thin white wires of my iPod. I stood close to the platform edge so the world could shuffle behind me while an involuntary sway took hold of my middle-aged body.

About 15 seconds into the groove, I began hearing a violin line that I had never heard in the song before. Hearing unusual instruments is not unusual in a band with a full-time tuba player, but this was one of my favorite songs---how had I not heard this before? It wasn't pushed up to the front of the mix, but it was clear enough that I was astonished that I was hearing it for the first time.

As I focused my ears, I could feel my jaw dropping. The violinist was totally adventurous, pushing against the textures and rhythm of the song, veering toward chaos and suddenly resolving into achingly gorgeous melodies. He bowed right over Black Thought's rhymes, seemed only loosely tethered to Questo's beats, and played with an enthusiastic abandon that made the song completely new. I stood on the train platform, entranced and ecstatic. It was truly one of the best listening experiences of my life.

Then the song came to an end, and the violin didn't. In the pause between songs on my player, I realized that the violinist was standing behind me, playing an entirely different song that was coincidentally in the same key. What I had been hearing was pure chance, a cosmic fluke that could never be repeated intentionally, a private headphone moment juxtaposed against a public sountrack. It was like a DJ's mash-up, and god was the DJ, squeezing disparate elements into the same sonic space.

On the train home, I contemplated the odds of what had happened: eight minutes on the platform that happened to overlap with the violinist's performance; 25 hours of music on my iPod, all in various keys, dozens of songs in the violinist's repertoire, all in various keys, and within that eight minute window, we were in tune. If the train had been early, if I'd gotten off work late, if the violinist's tips had been enough to call it a day before I arrived, the unlikely duet would have never materialized.

I wish the violinist could have heard what I heard. I wish I could have recorded it. But it wasn't meant for that - if I could listen to it again and again, I would be more critical, mentally mapping the missed notes, lamenting the sections that weren't as seamless as I recalled. This gorgeous collision of sympathetic melodies was meant for that moment, a cosmic spark that flared and faded in a matter of minutes, burning itself into my memory and disappearing forever.

©2011 wpreagan