The Music of Prose: Excerpt 1
“We lived our lives largely in silence. We spoke only when academically necessary during university classes, which began at 9 after we rose at 5, participated in the recitation of the Divine Office, Meditation, Mass, breakfast, morning post [assigned chores] and ended at noon. During breakfast and lunch, someone stood at the lectern in the refectory and read to us while we ate in silence. Only during our convent class in the early afternoon were we allowed to speak (again no chats — just what was necessary for class discussion), and at two recreation periods a day, and during dinner. Also on special holidays, silence was suspended for the day.
But throughout the day, there was music. We sang or chanted the Hours (The Divine Office) several times a day, we sang informally during recreation, we sang at Mass, some of us sang in a special choir, called Schola — for musically complex High Masses and other celebrations and for performance. This entailed many, many hours of practice every week. And some of us studied music formally, voice included.
The result of all this was almost mystical. Unconsciously, naturally, gradually, we developed a way of communicating through music. I’m not sure I can explain this adequately, but what happened was this: we began to acquire an ability to perceive how someone was feeling or, in a general way, what she wanted to convey, by nuances in the way she sang. These communiqués were comprised of almost inaudible variations in tone, intensity, modulation, etc. I suppose it was just a matter of frequency and vibration, as is speech, but music took on extraordinary communicative properties. After we had all lived together for a while, we began to be able to communicate via both silence and music. Silence has endless qualities, but because this interview is about music, I’ll just give an example of a musical communication:
Often when we were out on a walk, or tending the gardens, (or even working at a task if it were necessary to practice a certain piece) one of us would begin to sing a few bars from a composition. Others would join in, and — I know this is very odd — no matter how many of us there were, we would depart from the set piece and begin to sing entirely different notes and melodies and harmonies and descants — creating entirely new pieces, in complete conjunction with one another, without a single flawed note. I know that musicians have jamming sessions in which something similar happens, but the difference here is that not all of us were musicians, and during these extraordinary experiences, we seemed to be speaking a new language and exchanging information. I know how implausible that can sound to some of your readers, but it happened — and happened frequently. It bound us together.
The test of this was, that if someone else came into the room it would falter and break apart cacophonously, or if there were a visitor in our midst, it would simply be rendered inert. That was my early life in music.”
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