Song of the morning

It was a morning of city sunlight. Along the thoroughfare the vans rolled busily by, filtering past the stoplight with determination. On a scaffolding above the sidewalk, workmen with chisels chipped steadily at an eighty-year-old facade. Even the students, lolling with books on towels in the parkland beyond, tried to convince themselves that the joys of idleness could find accommodation with the rigors of study. It was, in fact, an unexceptional day.

I have not been in school for some years. Yet I still have an oddly delicious feeling of adventure when I find myself walking out on the street on a weekday midmorning. Being out early is different: the whole world is tromping off to work. Being out around noon, too, is expected: the same world is hunting up lunch. But 10:30 is an uncertain hour, poised between dewy newness and the rhythm of sober diligence. And the old school schedule still seems to linger, lacing midmorning leisure with the daring and irresponsibility of Huckleberry Finn playing perpetual hooky. How, you ask yourself, could you be out of such an hour, when everywhere you look -- through shopfronts, into eye-level offices, down grated window-wells into brightly lighted basements -- the world is at work? To walk the streets at that hour is to be a looker-in, a stranger in a familiar land.

On such a day, and in that hour, I found myself not long ago strolling past the large, shabby grandeur of a once-fine apartment building. Shielded by great trees, it was set back decorously from the corner it commanded. But gentility, on the tide of fashion, had ebbed from its neighborhood, leaving it beached behind what had become no more than an overgrown plot marred by tire tracks and careless rubble. Probably, I thought, a building filled largely with students and the elderly. I would have paid it no special heed, except for one curious feature. Inside, someone was playing a bassoon.

Or maybe it was a saxophone. Beside the hiss and ripple of the traffic, I couldn't quite tell.Odd, I thought: I usually can. For shelved in my past are all those years when I, too, found myself practicing an instrument. I remember lessons at school, perched before a wobbly music stand over a French horn slightly too large for me, half reading and half guessing among the eighth notes. Later, there were evenings at home with my trombone, laboring over somebody's etudes and dreaming of Dorsey. And always there were rehearsals for everything from the raucous pep band, which thundered and blatted its way through countless basketball games, to the orchestra, dark-suited and sober, which did strange and awesome things to Mussorgsky in tones only a mother could love.

But never did any of this happen in the morning. Mornings, even in a school as musically minded as ours was, were for serious academics, and although I toyed with a career in music, it remained an avocation. To have spent a weekday morning in practice would have seemed as out of place as to have spent it walking out in the streets.

Yet there, as I listened, was someone for whom music was the day's work. I strolled on, soon out of earshot. And suddenly I saw how, with those few notes, my perceptions of that building had changed. It was, all at once, a place less of drabness than of artistry. For I could almost feel myself, twenty years from my mouthpiece, being in that room, playing whatever it was that was being played. Hours would pass, with nothing in front of me but a few black marks on a page. Yet out of those marks would pour vibrancy, structure, a sense of life -- ample justification for the time spent. Whatever was around me -- the stained wallpaper, the matted carpet, the faint kitchen odor -- would fade into insignificance. The music would be wholly absorbing. It seemed to me that whoever was behind that window was composing his or her own environment of woven sound, finding in it a satisfaction at which the lollers on sunlit blankets could only guess.

For music, perhaps like few other human endeavors, is self-contained. It quite literally sets its own time. Those notes gave themselves to the street beyond. But they were no part of that street, no part of the daily work of the city into which they floated. They were their own reason for being.

And yet, as a looker-in from another world, I found myself bouyed up by them. In their mirror, I saw something of why I had spent so many years of my youth in practice. It was so that, on a day of high sunlight I might feel the unexceptional made rare, the ordinary transmuted, the trnsient midmorning city recast into the permanence of art.

By now, no doubt, the instrument has stopped. Perhaps the player has moved away. They may tear down the building. But the city in which I walked has, in ways that remain unfathomed, been changed. If art could do nothing more, that would be sufficient.

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