Music has filled my house – and my life – since I can remember. Although I consider myself primarily a visual person, I find I best measure and reexperience the rhythms and cadences of my life by the music I’ve heard, sung, and danced to. Like virtually all American children, I’m sure I was taught all the toddler standbys, such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Three Blind Mice,” but the earliest song I can recall with any accuracy is “Goody, Goody” as vocalized by the jazz great Ella Fitzgerald. When asked what songs I preferred as a child, I can say with perfect certainty that, along with the Ella, I was weaned on Broadway show tunes. My father, an avid pianist, enjoyed an enormous repertory of songs from the 1930s and ’40s, which he played, and sang, at every opportunity on our family piano. When my sisters and I were little and we still lived on Long Island, New York, my parents treated us to an annual outing in New York City to see a new musical. We collected the long-playing records of our favorite shows and we learned their lyrics.
The year I turned II, we moved into Manhattan so my father could pursue a career in music. Soon he was playing jazz piano in local clubs, an occupation that consumed his nights for four years. For me, these were the years of learning the scores to movie musicals. Funny Face, Silk Stockings, High Society. I loved them all. Even now a bar or two will trigger an outpouring of memories – and lyrics.
Music caused us to move again, this time to Florence, Italy, where my father went to study orchestration, and where he began to compose. My sisters and I packed up our hula hoops, kneesocks, and LP’s of the Kingston Trio. The six years we remained abroad, including my college summers, introduced me to many types of music, but especially to Italian opera, which was an incredibly inexpensive form of entertainment. In the 1960s, as teenagers with little to spend, we, and our friends, could purchase passes for standing room in the peanut gallery at the opera for the equivalent of 80 cents (cheaper than the movies) and hope to scuttle down from our perch into whatever seats remained vacant at intermission. Afterward we would either share a pizza or go dancing in an open-air club on a broad tree-lined terrace overlooking the city. Sometimes we would sing, too, we sisters, in harmony with our dad, who taught us some arrangements of the songs he would be asked to play at parties at the American Consulate.
For many of us, music provides the Surroundsound for some of our most cherished memories. This seems especially to be so during adolescence, when we are maturing and developing our identities, and even more especially so when we begin to fall in (and out of!) love. The awakening of these deep and conflicting feelings seems to swell and ebb with whatever music happens to be popular at the time. I’m a Golden Oldies girl whose heart will always thrum to Elvis and the Beatles and all those songs immortalized on the soundtracks of American Graffiti and The Big Chill. My sons? Well, they’re marching to the beat of their own drummers!
Music can be an overt passion, but it can also have a more subtle and subliminal influence, as, say, for anyone who casually tunes in to the radio while commuting to or from work, or for those who shop to Muzak in the mall. Because music affects mood, it is a powerful stimulant in the movies and as a lead-in to many television shows. Soundtracks of movie scores sell well; some even introduce their audiences to fine examples of classical music; Amadeus, an obvious example, comes immediately to mind. Music is everywhere.
While traveling in Australia, author Bruce Chatwin discovered, to his amazement, that Aboriginal peoples could trace and map the territory they journeyed by musical intonations they memorized that paralleled the contours of the land. These intonations were expressed as “songlines” in his book of the same name, which proved sufficient to lead them back to places they might not have returned to in some time. I like to think of the pieces of music that I love as the songlines of my life. They return me to memory and guide me to places I still need to explore.