Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Power of Music

Music can unlock some strange and marvelous doors.

The other night, my wife and I went to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company's all-Wheeldon program. The first number was Carousel, a gorgeous adaptation of music from the Rodgers and Hammerstein play. The piece began with the "Carousel Waltz," as dancers, portraying merry-go-round horses, kept the young lovers, Billy and Julie, off-balance and apart. But then, the musicians swung into "If I Loved You," and another stage sprang up in my mind, no less HD and 3D than the one before my eyes. Asbury Park, NJ, summer, 1945.

Sixty and more years ago, my family went to Asbury Park for vacations. Loudspeakers at the beach blared non-stop music at the sunbathers. Carousel had opened on Broadway earlier that spring and was the hit of the season, so for two weeks that August, I must have heard John Raitt sing "If I Loved You" upward of a hundred times. And in the opera house a few nights ago, as the dancers moved across the stage, a cascade of sensory memories paraded through my mind. I saw the sandy beach filled with people under colorful striped beach umbrellas. Pieces of paper and discarded soft drink bottles littered the scene; I had to be careful not to cut my foot on broken glass. Gray-green, white-flecked breakers crashed against the slope of the shore. Bathers - the women all wearing white rubber bathing caps - walked gingerly into the water, holding the safety ropes that ran from the shore out to buoys. Gulls squawked, screaked, swooped down to snatch discarded pieces of hot dog roll. Ice-cream vendors toted little freezer compartments on their backs, their names painted on the freezers. One was named Vic, another Son of the Beach, which I thought was curious. Behind us, crowds shuffled along the boardwalk, past game arcades and frozen custard shops; some people rode in wicker pedal carriages. Grannies in cotton print dresses and grandpas in suits, white shirts, and ties sat on benches whose backs could be shifted to permit them to look out onto the beach or back across the boardwalk. Little kids laughed and hollered as they chased each other around in circles. I smelled the tar on the boardwalk, and felt my mother's fingers rubbing suntan oil into my back and shoulders so I'd "get a good healthy tan." Pink cotton candy from the little open-front shop just across the boards melted in my mouth. And as the ballet artists - remember them? - danced to the line, "Off you would go in the mist of day," I watched the big gray cargo ships offshore, slowly vanishing into the far-off haze of the horizon.

These music-generated images come unbidden, but vivid as they are, and representing the viewpoint of a particular person of a particular age, wouldn't it be something if writers could learn to call them up on demand to help set scenes? That would be a skill worth developing.

No comments: