Suddenly, an eerie saxophone curves its solo line like a serpent around the folds of my brain, emerging out of an icy-sounding tinkle of four notes in an ascending pentatonic minor scale, like playing the black notes on a ghostly keyboard, beginning with E-flat, and the otherworldly atmospherics of this sound sweep a calmness through me, but also a feeling of dread. Every thought in my head is somehow suspended in this drifting, mysterious music, as if we were awaiting the arrival of something ominous and relentless and could not escape the encounter. When we can bear the wait no longer, soft drums begin beating a steady 4/4 and I hear a woman begin to sing in a foreign tongue. I know this music. The saxophonist Jan Garbarek. I have this disc. It’s called Visible World. God will have his little ironies, won’t he? The song is entitled “Evening Land.” It’s a haunting piece, background to a Norwegian music video if I remember the liner notes correctly, co-written by Garbarek and a woman from the Arctic region of Lappland named Mari Boine. This is the woman who is singing, presumably in the language of her people, backed by a moody accompaniment that evokes the stark beauty and arresting near-desolation of her native landscape. It does not matter what she is actually saying, these words somehow exactly express my despair, and Garbarek’s saxophone insinuates itself into my sorrow, the notes trickling down like tears.
Without warning, the drums change their rhythm, and I hear the clack of sticks behind me and this startles me, makes me turn to face the frozen ocean behind me and I imagine myself gliding over its surface, hurtling with the speed of a comet all the way to the Arctic Circle, to the brilliance of a twenty-four-hour day shining down on the blinding, glistening surface of snow-covered tundra. There is no color here, none of the subtle shading of the temperate regions, and the edges of the shadows which fall here are as sharp as a knife. Off in the distance some people bundled in furs and sheepskin are traveling on skis and in sleds pulled by reindeer, the snap of their whips matching the slap of the drumsticks perfectly. Garbarek trills out a cluster of notes that are as alien to my ears as the words the woman has been singing or the keening of a Palestinian widow, but I am filled with a desire to make myself known to these people, and I wave my arms to hail them, but they do not see me; they are miles from where I stand, intent upon their journey across the glacial wasteland.
Now the original musical arrangement reasserts itself as I watch passively the passage of these people along the edge of the arctic horizon. They seem to move in synchrony with the loping drums, the steady strides of the reindeer falling on the beat and this woman’s song weaving in and out of this scene, first here beside me, then out there with her people, the Lapps, the Saami, those strange bundled people of the far north I find myself now so desperately and inexplicably yearning to know. Garbarek’s saxophone descends into its lower register, like the mellow voice of age, commanding my attention and offering me its instruction. These are fathers and sons who pass here, it says to me, and mothers and daughters. The woodwind yields to the woman again, who tutors me in lessons of intuition and respect, insistent as a nun and as confidential as a lover. These are dreams that pass before you, she is telling me, and desires and despairs. Imagine them, for they will not exist if you do not imagine them, she says, her voice rising, and in reply Garbarek cries out at her side. Imagine them, imagine them all, they insist, but my heart cannot contain all these hopes and fears. Now there is a rush of strings, sighing their melodic descent like a kind of gentle snowfall. I don’t feel the cold. I don’t feel anything. I don’t move before the vastness of this monochrome panorama so bright it brings tears to my eyes. It’s as if my feet were already frozen into the ice beneath them. I don’t seem to breathe. I have lost the feeling in my fingers. The drums return, carried on the rushing wind of the strings, and the woman begins to moan and wail, beyond words now, her voice beseeching me, rising high over the sleigh bells and the brute clamor of the beasts pulling the sleds, cutting through the gathering snowfall, its path made clear by the precise blows of Garbarek’s sax. I open my mouth to cry out, but I can’t be heard above the loud, urgent exclamations of voice and reed, though I try to drown them out, but they overwhelm me and finally nothing emerges from within me at all, nothing that can stop the steady progress of the passing nomads, still thundering in the far distance to the rhythm of the soft drums. The four-note ascending pentatonic line has returned, bells or perhaps synthesized chimes, something metallic and treble and struck, playing in the background, slowly climbing upward from the frosty traces across this barren earth, as tiny as snowflakes thrown up by the ceaseless arctic wind, perhaps, or the galloping hooves of the reindeer. These notes accumulate quickly into sonic drifts that have overcome the woman and begin to suffocate the woodwind, settling over everything and everyone, obscuring the wanderers beyond my view, and seeping into my throat with the vacant taste of ice. Garbarek bursts out with a sudden exclamation: Acknowledge your own limitations! The snowflakes swirl around his solo like angry bees, and they speak to me with one voice: Why must you uncover what we have so carefully hidden? Everything begins to fade away, the drums, the wind, the sound of my own breath, and I would raise up a response, but there is no other sound permitted here but Garbarek’s last desperate gasps amidst the brushing of cymbals and the sighing of the diminishing strings and even, if I’m not mistaken, a Pakistani bell tree’s glissade, which seems as woefully out of place here as I am. We are fading into an emptiness together, all of us, and into the void of holiness.
It would seem that the piece is all but over, because nearly all the instruments have stopped, the few that remain just barely audible as they fade out, and before my eyes there is nothing but a bright whiteness, the snow obscuring all signs of life. But now a spooky whisper of a vocal begins, the woman’s words close against my ear, close as a lover’s tongue, but there is wonder in her tone, a sense of awe, and the language she is speaking now sounds different, sounds almost like Hebrew, though I suppose it’s still her own language, the language of her own people. She is singing this dirge as if all the musicians of the world have suddenly died and she alone is left to mourn them. The softness with which she sings these words is exquisite, with a kind of desperation that makes you question if she’ll ever be able to take in another breath. There is certainty in the way she expresses these words. The certainty of faith, perhaps. The certainty of knowledge. And there is resolution there, too. As if she were singing for the resurrection of the dead and knew instinctively that they are better summoned forth by a whisper than a shout. I wish to summon forth no one from the dead. I wish to be away from this limbo of light and formlessness. But the woman keeps whispering these words I know and do not know. These ideas I recognize and do not recognize. I am no priest, and I am no saint, and I do not belong here, I want to tell her. But she whispers her song into my ears as if mine were the only ears that could receive it. And gradually the strings, playing as if from across the sea, quietly drift back into sound. Like the waves of a gently rolling ocean, in shushing chromatic descent, they draw near, and as I catch sight of their ship on the crests of the water, the sea becomes a desert and Garbarek’s muted sax returns, leading them like Moses. They walk across the revealed foundation of the earth with the confidence of true believers, of chosen people, and I marvel at this new landscape, so alike and so different. Bright and blinding still, but what was frozen is now burning, and what was obscured by snowflakes is now exposed to the full light of the sun. The drums return, with the cadence of a caravan, and now the nomads are bedouins, riding upon camels that step faithfully to the slow, steady beat, bringing them over one dune after another, closer, closer to where I stand, buried now in sand instead of snow, and Mari, oh sweet Mary, now she sings the same melody she’d sung at the beginning, and the song’s mystery is renewed. Garbarek blows hard here, wails his sax into the face of a sudden scirocco that sweeps over us, hurling the stinging sand into our eyes, into our mouths and ears and nostrils. Why have you uncovered what we have so carefully hidden, cries the voice at the center of the tempest, the sand swirling around us, gathering in gritty drifts around our legs, around our waists, why have you tried to uncover what we have so carefully hidden? The woman sings, the woodwind wails, the drums pound, the sand and the snow and the water and the fear, they overcome us, overcome us all.
And then there is no sound. No music. There is again the frozen beach and the eerie glow and the feeling of a presence I cannot name and do not wish to face.
This passage was inspired by a track on the ECM album by Jan Garbarek entitled “Visible World” and was composed to be read aloud with the track playing underneath, something I hope to do and then post before too long. It contains a paraphrase of a line by Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita (“Imagine them…”).