Saturday, September 19, 2009

Simple Gifts

Occasionally, a work of art will silently enter your personal stage, bow, sit at your piano, pause a moment, and then boldly strike the right chord. That chord excites some dormant resonant frequency built into your personal echo chamber. Your response far exceeds your expectations, and you are put into a sublime ecstasy. But everyone else doesn’t seem to get it. To them, it’s just another tune. To them, the excitement is unfounded and irrational.
In physics, resonance makes amazing things happen. Technically, it occurs when a force drives a system at its natural frequency, creating large amplitudes of oscillation. Untechnically, it occurs when you coax something into acting just as it wants to. While pendulums and springs are the standard examples, resonance is ubiquitous: MRI, cyclotrons, violins, radios, quantum mechanics. Anywhere you look you’ll see excited oscillators.
Sometimes, one idea can resonate deeply with us and effortlessly explain many things. For me recently, this idea is the simple gift. By simple gift, I mean one without expectation of return, one that simply moves among people and makes them closer together. These gifts can be abstract—knowledge, art, love, life, time—or concrete—a bed, a meal, a shirt, a drink. It’s not about the content of the gift. What matters is the palpable bond which forms between giver and receiver.
On the program for the recent inauguration was a world-class quartet playing “Air and Simple Gifts,” a John Williams arrangement of the Shaker tune by Joseph Brackett. For me, this performance (though recorded) was one of those works of art that stirs. Why? Well, there are many reasons I should have liked it. The tune was familiar to me from my church as “The Lord of the Dance”. As a cellist, I appreciated the technical skill of the musicians. The title captured an idea that had been beavering in my head for a while. I was an Obama supporter and was already excited to be witnessing history. However, while these aspects provided background for the awe of that moment, there is something beyond words which contributed to the power of my response. That is the gift of art. The hidden frequency within me to which this piece was well tuned is a complex and mysterious product of not only those few things I just mentioned but also everything I had ever thought and felt and experienced.
Simple gifts resonate with me. They may not resonate with you. Your self, your echo chamber, may not see these vibrations as coherent. It may be all noise to you. If so, I say go find something that does resonate with you. Find the chord that just feels right. It’s waiting somewhere for you to hear it. Find the idea, the religion, the philosophy, the equation, the proof, the story, the painting, the driving frequency that sets you in motion. I bet if you find it, you will find it is a simple gift.

[The first column I wrote for the Indiana Daily Student. Other columns can be found here.] 

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