I milked to "The Moldau" this morning, a pleasure akin to having my cake and eating it too. Bedrich Smetana's symphonic poem evokes a river that I've come to love, sight unseen. It is perhaps my favorite single piece of music. I couldn't ask for a better start to any day than to milk my cows as the musical Moldau comes to life and gathers force on the milking-parlor radio. (The real river comes to life from its source amid Bohemia's mountains and tablelands.)
Milking is an intrinsically musical and music-friendly task. The cows and I make our own rhythms, but we like radio accompaniment, particularly if it complements what we are all about. Perhaps it is stretching a point, but compositions with a riverine focus - "The Moldau," "The Blue Danube," even "Proud Mary," with her big wheels "toining" down the Mississippi - all these seem to have a salubrious effect on lactation.
The pulse of the vacuum pump creates a counterpoint, and certain pop songs mesh enchantingly with its morning beat. Some the "oldies" both pique my pre-milking memories and fit the mood of my here and now. "Grazin' in the Grass," with its clatter of cowbells, is enough to turn bovine heads around in their stanchions. "My Girl," modified with a plural twist to the lyric, becomes a melody of appreciation as I sing along with Smokey Robinson in off-key abandon ("I guess you'd say, what can make me feel this way? My girls ... talking 'bout my girls....) The cows seem to know this is for and about them.
When my son helps with the milking, he begins by flipping the radio dial to his favorite '90s rock station. I have gradually come to appreciate some of his musical tastes, but I wonder about the cows. Tim swears they resonate to rock. We've toyed with the idea of testing their preferences scientifically, by measuring production ups and downs in response to different musical styles. But in the end we decided there were too many confounding variables that would need to be controlled.
Besides, the more milking is forced toward science, the less it has to do with music.
I RARELY milk in the evenings, except when Charlie is away. Then, the twice-daily chore becomes all mine. My favorite evening milking, when I have double-duty, is Saturday's. I like imagining the rest of the world on dates and socializing at dinner parties, unaware how good it also is to be in a cow-warmed space listening to National Public Radio's "A Prairie Home Companion," "Folk Sampler," and "Thistle and Shamrock." On Saturday evening, the tank fills to ballads.
Sometimes, though, the radio goes off. Its silence lets me reconnect with some of the sources of music. They are here in the milkroom, as surely as they are in the valleys of Czechoslovakia, or in the churning wake of steam-powered paddle wheels - wherever symmetry and motion find each other.
A friend of mine, whose passion is folk dancing, explains that many of the roots of her musical art lie in the rhythms of peasant life. As I pour the grain, bend to wash and empty bulging udders, and finally watch the cows leave the parlor, swinging their hips, I glimpse what she means. It is all very much like a dance, start to finish.
It would take a composer, or choreographer, to bring the musicality of milking home to the wider world. It's tough to do it justice merely with words. If you've never waltzed around Holsteins, crooned to cows, or milked to the flow of the mighty Moldau, you'll have to take it on faith.