A Moment to Reflect

26 June 2020

A Moment to Reflect – 52

The fiddle that I play which I have on extended loan. A Scottish fiddle made by Robert Lochhead in 1899

Speaking of the power of music, I’d like to introduce you to two intriguing quotations from the writer Donald Miller.

“I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.” 
― Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

And then…

“…sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself…” 
― Donald Miller,  Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

I think I know just what Donald Miller means.

Many years ago, when I had just recently started playing the fiddle, I had the huge privilege of taking part in a “Fiddle Force” weekend at Wiston Lodge where the tutor was none other than the amazing Martin Hayes. I realise, of course, that some of you will never have heard of him. [Years later I discovered that our then Parish Priest in Carluke, the late Fr Jim Naughton, had been brought up in the neighbouring farm to the Hayes family farm in County Clare, Ireland. Father Jim knew Martin Hayes very well.]

But if you’ve never heard of him, nor ever heard him play, you won’t know why I reckon that he is one of the most expressive folk musicians I’ve ever heard performing. He has the ability to take a single long slow note and play with it, varying its shape and sound, and then at just the right moment gradually add another note and another until a tune begins to emerge. Not for him the fast and furious toe-tapping reels of Shetland (though he can play fast if it is appropriate) instead he prefers to paint abstract pictures in sound that seem to make emotions hang in the air like mist.

There were more than thirty people sitting in a circle in the large ‘drawing room’ at Wiston Lodge listening to Martin Hayes playing (with his eyes closed like Donald Miller’s saxophonist) and for a brief moment I turned my attention away from the fiddler to watch his audience. And it was as if each person in the room was attached to him by an invisible emotional string— and the fiddler was pulling each one of the strings. Martin Hayes wasn’t just playing his fiddle: he was playing his audience.

That was the moment when I realised why the early Presbyterians in Scotland were so suspicious of fiddlers and of fiddle music—they were perhaps in a way afraid of the power of music to “liberate in the soul those feelings which normally we keep locked up in the heart.” (Faulkes)
To watch anyone pursue any task or activity with deep passion and commitment can be a source of inspiration that makes you want to do the same—and, of course, this is not confined only to music.

I am sure the thing that drew crowds to listen to Jesus telling stories and painting pictures in the imagination enabling them to feel the close presence of God was something just like that.

In response to the experience of listening to Martin Hayes play, I wrote a poem many years ago called “Banishing the Wolftones.”  (For those who may not know…a “wolftone” is a very unpleasant howling sound that can sometimes happen on a violin, especially when it is being played quietly. It has to do with resonant frequencies and clashing harmonics, but I don’t have time to give a more detailed description or explanation of their cause.)

But here’s the poem…

Banishing the wolftones

With narrowed gaze
and shuffling stare
he crouches low
into the chair
as if in search of something
deep inside himself.
He lifts his bow,
deliberate and slow,
touches a string
that waits to be caressed
back into being,
under his gentle authority
and fierce care,
until a tune vibrates
and spirals in the air,
released as some wild bird
into a desolate place
He is wrapping 
precious pearls
of silence
with a bright, silver foil
of sound
and offering it as a gift
of grace
I take the gift
for he has found
and now ensnared 
my soul
His awkward body now
unwinds and sways
and breathes
with every phrase,
rocking as a Jew who prays
beside the western wall
How many centuries of longing
does it take
to form such sounds
that break
and heal again
the human heart,
by harmonising
joy and pain?
© Iain D. Cunningham