Advertisement

Harmony

Jeff Hochberg/Icon and Image/Getty Images

Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris performing at The Quiet Knight, Chicago, 1973

My boyfriend dropped me at the Greyhound station in Great Falls, Montana. A January afternoon, already dark, and he had a long drive north ahead of him. I bought my ticket and sat near the gate with my guitar and lime-green cardboard suitcase, one of a set Mom had been given for her honeymoon. I’d planned on being in Austin for four months, and took astonishingly little. This was a long time ago, the 1990s. No laptops, then, for one thing. No passport. In a shoulder bag I had travelers’ cheques, a mickey of vodka, Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Stevens’s Selected Poems, a Penguin edition of The Complete Poems of William Blake. I’d justified the trip as research toward an independent study on Blake as part of my undergraduate English degree at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. I couldn’t tell you now the focus of that paper. But the University of Texas at Austin holds a collection of Blake’s drawings and prints, and whatever my thesis was, I’d pitched those holdings as central to it. 

In fact I was going to Austin to play music with my friend B–, who’d moved there a year or two earlier to make his name. It was an open invitation, no promises but for the chance, to paraphrase B–’s letter, to start my life. I thought it had started. After graduating from community college with a journalism diploma, I’d worked as a reporter for The Lethbridge Herald, covered the dog shows and bake sales of mid-market dailies as well as the arts, local disasters, rural politics, and court. When I received my first death threat the newsroom applauded. I cold-called the parents of a young man who’d died in a workplace accident, and the same day argued with the owner of a furniture store over an advertising feature he considered underwhelming. A slow writer who disliked conflict, I wasn’t, as they say, a great fit. Assigned to write up a few folk club events, I fell in with B–’s crowd of musicians and visual artists, which further eroded my already porous interest in the scoop. 

You’ll find your people, we tell the misfits. My early comrades came from my parents’ bookshelves. Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson, Gogol and Steinbeck, two of Dad’s favorites. When we returned to the farm this February from Regina General Hospital, his books were open to the pages he’d been reading. He always had several on the go. From the time he was a child, Dad farmed the southwest Saskatchewan homestead his Norwegian parents made, but he trained also as an engineering technologist. Alongside Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish and Anna Burns’s Milkman, a reference text titled Strength of Materials: “The maximum value of the bending moment is under the load.”

My new art friends read too, and most more widely than I had—philosophy, drama, essays, even poetry, of which I was woefully ignorant. Working jobs in the CP railyard or as carers for adults with intellectual disabilities, in grocery and liquor stores, as manual laborers or in the bars had made them diplomatic and collaborative. This being southern Alberta, several were at least partly Mormon. A job at the paper had been the closest trade to literature I could think of, and in many ways it was good training, the way firefighting is good training for arson. After nearly three years at the Herald, intoxicated by new influence, I went back to school.

B– taught me to play guitar and in return I paid him in groceries, mostly whiskey and cheese. He was a good musician and songwriter, and a born frontman, charismatic and kind, an unusual combination. I was none of those things. But I played and sang with B– and with the revolving cohort of our friends for years in the bars, at festivals and parties, in the thriving scene of Lethbridge in those days of foreign film series and weird art shows, of listening to Townes Van Zandt, Gram and Emmylou, Neil Young, The Band, honkytonk and Delta blues, sitting on the floors of cheap apartments with shared bathrooms. I’d started to read poems by that time and had come to recognize that the subset of good song lyrics that are good poems—and vice versa—is vanishingly small. The subset of writers who can do both is even smaller. As the poet Matthew Zapruder and others have pointed out, the difference is contextual and therefore structural. The words of the poem are accompanied by silence. Song lyrics are in conversation with other elements: melody, instrumentation, the singer’s voice and style. I was under no illusion that I was a musician. I wasn’t much of a writer either. But when it came down to it, I simply hadn’t been anywhere, and when my boyfriend decided on an overseas internship I saw in B–’s invitation my own adventure.

Advertisement

C Mintaka/Wikimedia Commons

Great Falls bus depot, Great Falls, 2013

My memories of Austin, already fragmented and unreliable, feel even more remote now in the immediate aftermath of Dad’s death. He liked a lot of the music we were into—bluegrass, folk, classic country, and some of what occupied the newish category of alt-country. And he valued the independence and curiosity my half-baked plan represented, even as its practical aspects concerned him. Many details of the trip are like small parts rolled into the dark, under the broken machine of significance they’re crucial to. I don’t know how it all adds up. What has been assembled can be taken apart, Dad would say. What’s taken apart can be put back together. To live is to fly/both low and high. In the farm shop that was, that is, an extension of him, one of my jobs as a kid was to hold the trouble light. Maybe now he’ll hold it for me. 

*

I see in online photographs that the Great Falls Greyhound depot is the kind of vaguely deco public building I am fond of now. My lingering impression of its interior casts it in a frugal palette of browns. Tile, plastic chairs, faux wood. Brown as a practical philosophy. A vending machine sold me the first bottle of orange juice for my vodka, a cigarette machine’s lever pulled was the mechanical sound of irrevocable choice. Good-bye to all my friends/it’s time to go again. Behind a kiosk, a middle-aged woman hardened by gratuitous dispute. A cold static of instinct switched on when a pair of boots appeared inches from where I sat with my nose in a book. He stood until I looked up at him, whereupon he asked where I was going. I told him. He opened his ticket in front of my face. Waco. 

He pestered me relentlessly over the three days on a bus, but not only me. As a pest he was versatile, a natural, lived and breathed it, was either pestering or asleep. Probably he was lonely. But there was a loose wire in it. I’d known people who were friendly until they weren’t. You stay polite. You keep to yourself. You don’t want to give them any ideas.

To travel by Greyhound means fifteen minutes of plausible comfort followed by the desperate pursuit of unconsciousness. The ride to Austin reappears as a picaresque lit by midday or reading light, streetlights of anonymous main drags, neon, blowing snow, moon a frozen bird’s eye, then blowing dust, the bus either full or near-empty. The words were spoken as if there was no book,/Except that the reader leaned above the page. I tried to manufacture around myself a Stevensian capsule of abstract calm. Endeavored, like Ondaatje’s hunters and assassins, to come to chaos neutral. I washed my hair in the bathroom of a Texaco in Cheyenne. When we reboarded the driver said, Smoke ’em if you got ’em, I’m sure as hell gonna, and the half-dozen of us rolled through the night as in a coach to the Underworld, over the mountains and into Colorado. 

Are you excited, we’re almost there, asked the pest in Amarillo. During a layover in Dallas I discovered a room reserved for mothers and babies, neither of whom said anything; I stayed and sipped my screwdrivers. At Waco the pest told me he was pretty sure I should change for the direct route to Austin. The one I was on was a milk run. Takes forever. He knew the buses around here. I should follow him, and hurry. A retaining wall crumbled inside me and I said to the driver I might need to get my things, that I’d been told the other bus to Austin was the one I needed. He narrowed his eyes, leaned forward, stomach in a white shirt over his belt, and said Miss, you go ask at the counter. This bus won’t leave until you come back and talk to me. And there is there the same stress as with stars,/the one altered move that will make them maniac. It wasn’t the only time in Texas a stranger came to my aid. Thought so, he said, when I returned. The pest had made himself scarce. Angry weather in my head, too.

Luck, chance, fate. Stevens’s vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X. As though it were Rome, all roads seem to lead there, to the center of the labyrinth that the criminal Scharlach in his delirium, in Borges’s story “Death and the Compass,” recognizes as the world. 

Advertisement

            Ondaatje: I am unable to move,/with nothing in my hands

            Stevens: That’s what misery is,/Nothing to have at heart.

            Van Zandt: I didn’t see nothing, I didn’t hear nothing/I stood there like a block of stone knowing all I had to know.

Coincidence stacked in the vertical dimension of a chord. Dad’s doctors, helpless and defensive. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. My anger a nothing that confuses past for present, rattling the door that has locked behind it. 

Al Clayton/Getty Images

Townes Van Zandt recording in Jack Clement Recording Studios, Tennessee, 1972

I want to go back through that door, restart time with Dad talking out a problem at the kitchen table. What to seed and when. What and how to build or modify. How much water would need hauling to put two inches on the ball diamond to green it and keep down the dust before the sportsday, because when the guys in town had a problem like that, they called Dad. Given enough time, he said, he didn’t think there was anything he couldn’t figure out. It was a process that began most often with the phrase What a guy could do is . . . My question here is obvious. I suspect that, sometimes, Dad enjoyed the problem as much as having solved it. 

*

In Lethbridge we played a lot of covers. To cover a song you need to study it, understand its phrasing and changes. You need to dwell in its caesuras, hear how your voice might carry there. The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind. The process is intuitive and technical, and what I learned from studying songs is that technique and intuition develop together and can’t be separated. Inside this relationship you learn your range and, with it, your limitations. If you can’t, say, lower your voice on its rope down to where the first words of “I Fall to Pieces” live as though at the bottom of a well, and if you can’t, at the apex of the first verse, allow its confession of failure to escape with the high note out of the aperture, follow it with your voice almost the way you would with your eye—then you should carry on practicing awhile longer in private, out of respect. You learn respect for how difficult it is to make a song seem simple, for the mechanics that make possible an immediacy of feeling, and you learn to love the difficulty. I can’t find it, we’d say, searching for the note, the timing, the tone. I can’t quite get there. The apprenticeship of covers never ends. It’s not about imitation, though may need to begin there. You can’t get creative with the problems songs pose until you can identify those problems. You can’t create your own songs, your own sets of problems, until you can get creative with the problems you already have. 

The best I’ve been able to do in a band as a player is to fill in some basic acoustic guitar and stay out of everyone’s way. The best I can do as a songwriter is probably to not do it. I know this because I have done it, have written songs that manage to be wordy in very few words, both overthought and unfinished, and lacking good rhyme’s simultaneous inevitability and surprise. I’ve even performed them. Not in Austin, though. It wasn’t fear or self-consciousness that restrained me, it was reason and basic human decency. I had not committed to the art among the many people who absolutely had committed to it. Austin taught me that you can be good at something, even great, and never make a living at it, much less be famous (there is ample evidence that the obverse is also true). Waiting at a bus stop with my guitar on the way to practice, I was approached by a man who said if I was a musician I should think about selling my plasma. Really, he said, I just came from there, and gave me a card. 

I liked practice best. The guys in B–’s group were kind, at least to my face, which was pretty much all anyone had to go on then. I liked arranging and working out the vocals. Even when my part was minimal or nonexistent I learned from listening to the others do it. I’ve described my preferred place in a band dynamic as “happy second banana,” but in Austin I was third, fourth, or fifth banana. The extra banana. I enjoyed the privacy of the supplement while I explored my fascination, my subject of study, which was harmony. My place, as I saw it, was at an interval.

I cannot remember a time when harmony wasn’t as natural to me as singing itself. In a very early memory, adults drink around a fire in the yard, Mom plays guitar, and she and her friend sing “Tom Dooley,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and I sing the third above without thinking about it, the architecture of chords in my mind’s ear, the intervals between pitches, having been built by records: Peter, Paul, and Mary, the New Christy Minstrels, the Hollies, the Byrds. I studied classical piano through elementary and high school, learned the rudiments of theory, sight reading, and ear training. A mystery developed between what I felt on the inside and learned from the outside. The first time you hear your voice through a monitor will educate you. There is no denying then whether ability is adequate to feeling, whether feeling informs ability. But the mystery is more than the sum of these parts, the way that harmony is more than intervals. 

There is in harmony, the Austrian composer Ernst Toch writes, a “desire, leaning and tendency.” In a conversation with Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris acknowledges the magic of sibling harmonies—she references the Louvin Brothers, the Everly Brothers—but says, “I love singing with somebody else who’s totally unrelated to me because then you really are coming from different planets in a way. And so this third voice that you create is like nothing that has ever existed before.” When Emmylou and Gram sing “Love Hurts,” in the lengthened second syllable of “togetherness” this third voice rises like a phoenix from the ash of loss. Crowell says that a single voice “calls out to you in the night. But then when there are voices raised together, there’s some kind of joy that comes into it.”

When you find the interval with your voice a tuning fork is struck inside you, you become a resonator, and the moment expands. The vertical dimension of the chord widens to accommodate style. Harmony attends to melody through the horizontal dimension, as counterpoint over time. “While the notion ‘chord,’” Toch writes, “carries much more the flavor of something solid, static, substantial, measurable, the ‘harmony’ notion implies the aspect of the fluid, unsubstantial, immeasurable. We may say chord is to harmony as body is to soul; or harmony is the soul of the chord.” The soul is a body in time. Harmony is a perceiver. Along the route of the song harmony accompanies melody—in which Schopenhauer sees reflected humanity’s “most secret story”—but harmony accompanies even more so the singer of the melody. Harmony falls back and converges, crossing the path of the lead to take the high road or the low, gauging how its singer feels inside the song that day, anticipating variations, and you lean toward each other. The American musicologist Edward Lippman writes that “the basic prerequisite” of harmony is “the existence of two or more distinguishable entities somehow capable of mutual adjustment.” You can practice a song a thousand times and still its first note sends you into the unknown. When the familiar and unknown coincide in your voices you will seldom feel as close to another human being. 

I was onstage a few times with B–’s band or with B–, just the two of us, playing for tips. But mostly—hanging out at the Continental Club, the Hole in the Wall, the Austin Outhouse—I listened to other people: Junior Brown, Kelly Willis, Blaze Foley, Jimmy LaFave, Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and dozens of local artists and bands whose names time and Shiner Bock have erased. Raised up on Canadian high-test, B– and I could drink a lot of Shiner Bock. Invited along by a friend of B–’s to a house party, I found myself in a circle of musicians warmed by long-standing friendships and alcohol, and thought, in a fit of high romance, that this is how people get religion, these voices, the double bass, six-string, dobro, mandolin. A clearing within a lineage, a wellspring, Blake’s Eternity in an hour. Through raging nerves but still largely innocent of the company, I sang with B– the old songs we’d learned in Lethbridge. Heartbreak, murder, coal mines. Toward the end of the night our host took up her guitar and said she had a new song she wasn’t sure about. It was called “Jackson.” The next time I saw Lucinda Williams she was accepting a Grammy Award. 

Enamored of Austin, of my friends by proxy, I was consistently distracted, at times fantastically inept. Having just cashed my traveler’s cheques, I left my wallet with $500 in it on a city bus. Panicked and humiliated, I told nobody, found the address to the main depot on the east side, and caught another bus. Several, actually, before I boarded the right one. By the time I arrived, so had the wallet. Every dollar was there. Jesus loves you, said the woman at the lost and found, and right then I believed that he did. In a fog of elation I left the station to find the stop for the bus back downtown. It was dusk. I was catcalled from a moving car that circled the block and drove by again, slowly. When in doubt, ask, Dad said; but ask someone who knows. I don’t remember if I heard his voice then, but I’m hearing it now. I hightailed it back to the depot, to Jesus and the woman at the desk. She sent me out on a shift change in a gauntlet of burly drivers who saw me to my stop and waved me off. 

*

Today Austin is one of the more expensive cities in the US. Only a decade ago, it was one of the most affordable. In the 1990s there was time and money to go to shows, to eat out, to have little road-trip adventures. That I finished that study on Blake seems outrageous, considering all we got up to. In the house B– had arranged for me to rent a room in, I sat on the sofa surrounded by notes and photocopies made at UT Austin’s libraries, wrote longhand as my roommates’ three golden retrievers lay on the floor at angles like fallen directional signs, and the odd rat out on business scurried by. A lot of people I knew in Austin had rats. Cockroaches were everywhere. The big flying kind. It seems there are two ways to get used to something: very quickly or never. Waking in the white rooms of Texas after a bad night must be like heaven I think now.

I continued in bands, in duos, when I returned to Lethbridge, and even periodically in Victoria, where I went to graduate school. After I moved to Toronto, I made friends who would gather occasionally to sing and play. Music felt so important to writing that it was a surprise when, after a difficult personal loss, it left me. This happened cruelly, casually, another slow-blooming flower in a garden of ruin. My voice dried up. So did my desire to learn songs, where once I practiced for hours as the room darkened around me. I couldn’t even listen to music anymore, at least not to anything of beauty. It isn’t an uncommon experience, I gather, and might be connected to Aristoxenus’s idea of musical understanding in the Elementa Harmonica: “For we have to perceive what is coming to be and remember what has come to be. There is no other way of following the contents of music.” In a depleted present, the perceived fullness of the past may cause pain. The line between what gives solace and what requires it can be very fine. 

At an auction in Victoria, Dad bought a basket containing a pile of parts that had been a four-string banjo. In the farm shop he rebuilt it, then taught himself to play. He often encouraged me and my brother to bring out the instruments. That I pleaded callousless fingerpads, that I had forgotten all lyrics, couldn’t sing, now seems selfish. Turn away no more:/Why wilt thou turn away. But in the final days before Dad died, in the room the staff had given over to us, my brother having brought from the farm his National Steel guitar, we sang John Prine, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Townes. Nothing like sibling harmonies, Dad said, fully present for all of it, less than a week before his birthday in a winter of record cold, and we sang and laughed and cried by turns past the time we were usually told to leave on the night they didn’t make us leave. 

The Pythagoreans believed that the same mathematical principles that govern the relationships and movements of the cosmos reveal themselves to us in harmony; that mathematical and natural principles are one another’s voices. This is why, they thought, music regulates its listener’s mood and character, the way the moon regulates the tide. The spirit, ever suspicious of the limits of its mortal container, affirms in harmony its sense of scale, of itself as existing in excess of those limits. It is reacquainted with, as Toch writes, an “inborn urge to move.” Shake the dust off of your wings/and the tears out of your eyes, Townes sings, even as we can hear in his voice the tears collecting in his own. 

One of my last gigs with the band was near La Grange, me and the boys in the van out to some kind of party in a wooded area halfway to Houston. Cheap beer and biker colors, night gathering in the trees, fairy lights and folding tables. Always I was nervous, and nerves made me tentative, were a noise I had to fight through to find the interval. B– told me I needed to be braver, and he was right. So much of life depends on deciding how much shame to have. Maybe it was a combination of the partygoers’ inattention, the anarchic woods, and the mood of the band, but I felt good onstage. By the first chorus of “Dead Flowers”—the Stones’ version, not Townes’s sad, shattered cover—my feet were under me. When it goes well the ability to anticipate and adapt is an athletic feeling of body memory. We tore it up, train-crashed the ending, and B– turned around and hugged me. When in the crowd a fight broke out we didn’t care to stick around for, we threw the gear in the van and drove back to Austin.

We got the sky to talk about/and the earth to lie upon. Dad wasn’t a religious person. He met spirit in the land, family, music, in figuring out how to make things work and how to have fun. At the top of his list for his memorial were live music and liquor. The community hall in my tiny hometown filled up with people I no longer recognized. Most of those who spoke about Dad used the word “methodical,” even when the stories were about getting into trouble. In her eulogy my sister recalled A small job for the farm shop as one of Dad’s signature sayings. I sang harmony to Townes’s “If I Needed You,” a song Dad loved, my brother on the National Steel. He had to tune down to accommodate my narrowed range so I could sing lead on a verse, as Emmylou does in her cover with Don Williams. That was all it took to solve the problem, to tune down a little. And you’ll miss sunrise if you close your eyes/and that would break my heart in two.

Harmony is the sound of structure. It’s also a deeply intuitive experience of pattern recognition. “Given a world replete with internal relationships,” writes Lippman, “music can easily account not only for the mathematical meanings of harmony, but for the entire generality of the term which develops as part of a progressive musicalization of every aspect of experience.” I don’t know if the metaphor of experience as music can ease the difficulty of experience; but music as the voice of internal relationships might allow one to feel part of the world, within the web of relation that, like the spirit, seems to exceed physical boundaries. Harmony is simultaneity, and it comforts me to think of Dad as simultaneously here and not here, as though he were not gone, but at an interval. The idea is a bit of a reach, but that’s what finding any comfort seems to require. 

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in