Iconic

24 12 2011

(copyright 1982 Greg Edmonds)

Every winter, for as long as it has mattered (i.e. since the year after I was still a high-school kid skipping through the halls every pre-Christmas-holiday week with a basket full of tiny candy-canes, foisting sugar off on the unsuspecting to groans of “noooooo, no more candy canes!” (coming from kids–and teachers–who inevitably ate them anyway)), a very particular music has been the soundtrack for the coming of the Christmas season and the months of brooding skies and grey or white skylines that follow after it for me. Slow, bass-prominent piano tunes in any other season seem out of place, because I always hear the silent weight of snow-upon-snow in the heavy placement of the keys. There have been years when the pacing of these melodies alone–not the tunes and notes so much as the timing of the hesitation, the heartbeat-breathing patterns of the pause, the hands-in-air over the keys, just waiting, in between each sound–has made me cry each time the disc starts over, each time a track comes up in a larger mix, and years when these songs were all that I could stand to hear; sometimes those years were the same, but sometimes not.

If you were there, or if the stuff imprinted itself upon your own heart independently, you recognize the image, the cover-photograph from George Winston’s December album, which for me is burned into the sound and vice versa: empty hills like these, when sighted from the highway, sound like piano vibrations to me, the holding-down hum of a low note lingering beneath a lighter trill of higher notes played, each a short tap fading quickly, as an overlay against the dark, rich wash of bass. At the same time, the sound-and-image puts me in my mother’s living room, Carl’s parents’ living room (of the house they had when we were undergraduates), a dorm room here, a snowy window there, an office copy machine in between (one year in my twenties I made a mix-cd of winter songs, some of them from this album, some from other artists, vocal and otherwise, for a handful of friends, reproduced this image by hand with colored pencils, and then made copies of my copied cover for each plastic jacket–one of those is around here somewhere, maybe in the guest room and maybe among the unpacked boxes in the attic somewhere); it’s an instant time-tunnel to a lot of little glimpses of other moments, most of them a little melancholy (or a lot).

The season is naturally melancholy–not the lights-and-tinsel part, but the backdrop, the weather, the bare trees, the coming cold and the dying of the light, which is probably why the lights-and-tinsel part was invented (in whatever cold countries it all really started in, in the epoch before reappropriation) anyway. Not to get rid of the darkness, but to sharpen it with contrast, the way this image (and all of my favorite skies, in every season) sharpens the darkness of a really good, blackly brooding more-dour-weather’s-coming sky by lining it up against the bright foreground of a hillside painted in snow (in other seasons, sunsets sneaking under cloud-cover to throw tree-lines, hilltops, and the pinked outlines of rows of roof-tops into rich illumination tend to be responsible for the effect). Our friends Lyn and Paul, explaining the lighting of Hanukkah candles to Caleb last night, had the same explanation for why the candles, why all the parties and all the celebrations in all of the holidays: “it’s so dark, so everyone wants traditions full of warmness and light.”

To me, this picture has always had a lovely, wistful, aching-winter-loneliness, one full of the promise of what’s just over the ridge, where there’s surely a candle lit (electric or otherwise) in the window of a snug little cottage, half under snow itself, wind-swept and drift-shadowed, with a snow-smoothed path waiting to be broken by the feet of a wanderer coming home. But the notes are not the footsteps. The music itself is the sound of the night, the branches of the furs along a lower ridge whispering to each other, the flakes settling, the groan of freezing sap, the bass-notes of the steady fire of stars; the notes are what you have to choose to leave outside, to go in towards the light and warmth of human company, and that’s part of why it’s always melancholy: because the cold and dark and solitude, eventually, would kill you. But like faery, they beckon with an always-almost irresistible song, and it always hurts both ways–to stand out in the cold, feet aching in their bones no matter how thick your boots-and-socks, to listen, or to turn away and go inside to the hearth and the crafted, simple, human beauty of home.

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