Before you read this, if you can, put on your favorite streaming service, CD or album (or imagine) something by Frédéric Chopin. Something like Nocturne No.2 In E Flat, Op. 9 No. 2 performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy from Chopin: Favourite Piano Works. Because that’s what I’m listening to as I write this, and the music seems perfectly suited to my ride and state of mind. Given that it was a grey Friday evening in Austin, Texas after some light rain had fallen, and the pandemic stay at home order, traffic was extremely light.
The surreal experience of biking down Austin’s main street, Congress Avenue, with hardly any traffic put me in a reflective mood. Cue Chopin, that master of the melancholy from France by way of Poland. His quieter works may not get your RPM up very high, but they put your mind in a calm and meditative place. And that’s not a bad head space to be in these days, biking or otherwise.
I biked downtown and beyond to get some hand sanitizer. The local grocery stores aren’t even getting it shipped to them. So, Still Austin, a whiskey distillery has repurposed some of their equipment to make it. For a $4 suggested donation, you can get a 6-ounce bottle. I got two, one for the roommates, one for me. Sometimes you can’t wash your hands, so it’s good to have with you as a way to diminish chances of touching something with coronavirus. Given what now seems like an irrelevant, ridiculous, frivolous mileage goal, I was going to ride around about 17 miles in a square as I have every day for six months, but it was good to have a destination for a change.
I don’t really ever mention it here, but I’m a classical music lover. I grew up playing flute in junior high then high school, and was pretty good, but not great. After I sold my silver horn to help pay for college, I kept playing for a while, but eventually let it go. Sometimes I think about picking it back up, but then, with whom would I play? Especially now? Alone, flute is unable to play chords and thus lacks emotional range. The solo piano is a complete instrument on which an accomplished player can sound the grandest virtuosic symphonic works down to the quiet, contemplative pieces of Erik Satie, Franz Liszt or Chopin. What does this have to do with bicycles? Nothing and everything.
I don’t ride with music because I don’t have unlimited data on my stupid phone or have figured out how to work a playlist without it, but perhaps I should. From Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (Kill da wabbit!) to the theme from Rocky (Gonna Fly Now) to Rossini’s William Tell Overture (the Lone Ranger theme), classical or orchestral works can inspire, invigorate and agitate one to soaring heights, whether you’re on a bicycle, run or at home with the headphones on to drown out the roommates, dogs, traffic and the world. Music of whatever genre inspires you has been shown to improve athletic performance (you can go look it up).
To me, music conveys a mood. Sometimes you want calm, sometimes you want crying, or celebration, or even chaos. Tonight, as it has on my bike ride for the last few weeks, the world seems to be one huge movie set on a back lot where there are few actors. It’s the by now oft-repeated futuristic dystopia, except that it’s not on our televisions, it’s happening right now in real life. So if there were to be a soundtrack, at least for me tonight on a grey, post-rainy evening in Austin, Texas. it would have to be Chopin. Maybe it’s too dark to mention right now, but he’s the same dud who also wrote the piece known as the Funeral March (evoked in the Star Wars films’ Imperial March aka Darth Vader theme). We’re all having to face the reality of our immortality these days.
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,The Mourning Bride, by William Congreve, 1697 (based on a line from the epic poem Pharsalia, by Roman poet Lucan
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
As I made my way tonight, cranking over the pedals, brake squeaking lightly, gears shifting as I labored to breathe with my homemade mask on, wind in my face, I created my own soundtrack. Up hills and coasted down the other sides, an occasional car or bus passed. I could hear voices here and there from another adventurous human braving the elements and potential virus. Exercise is still legal, so far. Even though I couldn’t hear Chopin’s music, it just seemed like nature’s (including humanity’s) melodies and harmonies, crescendos and diminutions, arpeggios, major to minor chords, and all the rest were being played out all around me.
Back home, I had food and watch some telly. Sitting at my black and white keyboard (with far fewer than 88 keys), I try to channel the muse. Listening to the music in my headphones does seem to soothe a savage breast. Rome may be burning, but I don’t have the extinguisher.
All I got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth.Rattle And Hum, U2, 1988, referencing a line from Harlan Howard in the 1950’s
In my case, I’ve got a laptop, two bicycles and my truth (whatever that is). What that — and all of this — means exactly isn’t easily summarized in words. For understanding mysteries, we turn to art, especially music, to express what we feel. Whether it’s Chopin, Chaka Khan or the (Red Hot) Chili Peppers, in music we can find solace in difficult times, exultation in joyous ones, and all manner of moods in the times in-between.
Whatever your soundtrack is today, listen deeply. You may hear beyond the words and sounds to a deeper truth. Your truth. Our truth. And humanity’s truth. For me it’s that life is ever-changing and all things are impermanent. Craving and aversion, suffering and a way out of suffering in Buddhist terms. We can all try to find moments of peace and enjoyment despite the horrors around us. Coronavirus is just the latest one, but it won’t be the last. For me, there are many ways to access or modulate these moods, be it tv, reading, yoga, walking, writing, and biking. Boy, what a ride we’re all on right now.
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