Contrapuntal

What I like best about really good music is the way it makes you want. Want to get up and dance, want to be 16 again, want to cry, even want to hold somebody—want is the heart of all great music. You listen to the soaring vocals, the swoop of the instruments underneath, and you become a conduit for all this want. It moves something other than your body, maybe even that thing we call a soul.

I like many different kinds of music, but I am partial to the ones I can sing along to, even if my singing is mediocre, when I can feel the thrum in my chest as a note reverberates around inside of me and through me, finally sounding out my mouth.

I love too the bygone days when people would make mix tapes or cds for you. Somewhere, I still have most of the ones I was ever given. Sometimes I learned a lot about the way other people saw me through those cds; other times I questioned what message they were trying to send. A friend once put Lou Bega’s “Tricky, Tricky” on to describe me. Another, Brian Setzer’s “You’re the Boss,” another NIN’s “The Fragile,” still another, a song that echoed the refrain “still, they don’t know who you are.” In many, there was someone pictured as perhaps confident, but maybe alone, maybe unknowable. If there was a confidence there, it was one I certainly did not feel, until maybe a period of time in my 20s, briefly, maybe not even now, when I so often feel uncertainty, long for the days when learning what others thought of me was as simple as putting on a song.

Of all the musical terms I have learned in those intervening years since making mix tapes was a thing, the one that has always had the most resonance for me is contrapuntal, which, as www.dictionary.com puts it, is used to describe music composed of “two or more relatively independent melodies sounded together.” It isn’t harmony, not exactly, not the simply harmony of notes moving up and down at the same pace, sounding together evenly, that harmony I learned as a child in school choir, uncomfortable in my robes and uncomfortable too because of the awkward press of so many other preteen bodies close to me. Instead, each line of melody could stand on its own perhaps, but taken together, they became something more.

I was introduced to the concept not in a music class, but by a professor I admired greatly in my first graduate program. For him, it was a way he wanted us to write and consider literature—not as separately new books we read each week and moved on from, but rather as part of one continuous conversation, part of a whole. In both courses I took from him, at the end of the semester, instead of choosing one book to analyze, we were instead required to write an essay that discussed every book we’d read during the entire course, identifying some kind of idea in each of the books that corresponded with or spoke to an idea in the other books—in other words, a contrapuntal essay.

Many students found this type of essay extremely frustrating. For me, it was liberating, to follow the threads of something through, to make connections among seemingly disparate things. It is perhaps, how my mind has always worked. Someone told me recently that they wanted to understand how my mind moved from point A to C when writing. It isn’t always a logical, orderly progression, though I am certainly capable of logical, orderly thought.

I like to think of it instead like a road trip. There is a destination, sure, but one of the best things about a road trip is the ability to stop along the way, to detour, to meander, to enjoy the drive simply for driving’s sake. I have always enjoyed road trips, the sound of air whooshing outside the car windows, the smooth rolling of the tires, the black swath of asphalt, even the sameness of the white lines marking the boundary between road and not road.

Contrapuntal too, I think describes the best of relationships, not two people becoming one, but two people still as two people. Yet the music they can make together, their independent lines resounding? Beautiful.

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