On Valuing Absences


I sat in my friend Jacob’s living room, listening through Emmylou Harris’s “Greener Pastures,” from Roses in the Snow. Ricky Skaggs and Dolly Parton joined in on vocals, and Willie Nelson played a gut-string guitar solo. The song lists as an old traditional hymn, and it surfaces once in a while in the annals of classic country and its associated genres. Ralph Stanley played it on Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, and the David Grisman bluegrass supergroup Here Today covered it on their once-in-a-lifetime project. That evening with Emmylou Harris was my first introduction to it, though. Jacob’s house is the one mile stop on my evening run, and as we plowed through sundry records and tracks, Ricky Skaggs’ vocals stood out to me in the trio. They were nearly pentatonic, with the exception of a few notes, and it lent the whole performance a power that would not have been present otherwise. I was reminded of the force conspicuous absence lends to artwork.

I should take a minute to explain the mechanics of a traditional, Western pentatonic scale. Think of a major scale (that’s the happy one) as eight notes, with the first and last notes being the same pitch at different octaves. Now, take out two pitches from the scale. You’re left with six altogether, but since the first and last are the same, you really only have five. Thus, penta-tonic. A great deal of music utilizes pentatonic melodies. They’re found most often in ethnic songs—Celtic, Chinese, Japanese, Native American, Nordic, and a whole host of others. Songs like “Amazing Grace” or “Be Thou My Vision” that lie buried deep in our cultural memory are often mostly or completely pentatonic. It’s not just hymns, either. Remember “Beat It?” Many of its phrases are pentatonic.

Now, I’m not saying Michael Jackson or the pub piper behind the “Amazing Grace” tune sat down and ground out some music theory before they sketched out their melodies. People generally feel the power of this musical spacing rather than constructing it conscientiously. We possess an innate knowledge that art works because it says something, not everything. After all, we like chords because they have some notes and not others. Learning where not to put something is a difficult lesson, however. My favorite bands and musicians are great at it. Many of my friends refer to it as playing “tastefully,” and it’s a skill that separates the technically good from the artistically minded.

Consider, in a Gothic cathedral there are buttresses, mullioned windows with transoms, elaborate stained glass rosettes, columns and pilasters with hand-chiseled capitals, vaulted ceilings with catenary arches, and quatrefoils everywhere. Yet all these elements and more are not thrown together in a great, impassable heap. All the artwork is situated around a gigantic empty space which, though it may not be the focal point of the parishioner’s imagination, is actually the main purpose of the structure. This is what makes it a building, not a mishmash of beautiful sculptures. The space creates context for the artwork around it.

I’ve been known to tell drummers not to play the drums, but to play the song. It’s not that I want to be insufferable—though that might be the case, regardless. My motivation is to engage every band member in creating the work of art that we’ve taken on as our job. Everyone onstage should be making decisions together about what the music needs. It’s what makes a band a band. Thelonious Monk wrote down an iconic list of advisory points for his musicians. Among them was the following gem: “Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music [is] just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.”

Some music is just imagined. That’s certainly one factor that sets good stories, songs, and paintings apart in my mind. The good ones don’t tell you everything. They never put all the cards on the table. This allows us space to come to the work as recipients and to engage with it. We participate in the making of art not merely when we choose to think about it, but when that work allows us to think about it. Sometimes it’s infuriating. A good example would be J. R. R. Tolkien’s character, Tom Bombadil.

Tom is a strange bird; he doesn’t quite fit into the Lord of the Rings cosmology. He’s called “Eldest and Fatherless” by the elves, and he talks about being around in the darkness before the creation of Middle-earth. He has power over the One Ring, but only on his own home ground, as it were, and he seems to treat the Ring as a triviality. Yet, as to his origins, an extant poem of Tolkien’s has Tom talking with a troll about his “father’s kin.” Tolkien doesn’t seem at pains to explain the character, preferring the mystery of him. Geeks have waged petty wars over Tom ever since.

Despite our constant desire for answers to mysteries, the air between the notes and the colors that are absent from the palette invite us to do what we were meant to do. That is, to play along. The actors on the stage and the musicians behind the mics and the authors penning characters aren’t just telling us to listen and watch. The good ones are saying the same thing we heard as playground schoolkids: “Play with me.” Join in. Co-create.

If we do this, the established notes, colors, and protagonists become the cathedral walls, arches, and statuary. The mystery becomes the space in between, the space in which we play. It seems that Jesus did the same thing when “He ascended into heaven,” as the creed says. In his stead came the intangible substantiality of the Holy Ghost. Flesh and blood gave way to the creative space in which we play with God. The empty space in the pentatonic scale is not truly empty. Our imaginations fill it in, recognizing that something is there, even if we cannot hear it. That something is what invites us in, to play along. In this invitation, and its acceptance, good art finds its power.

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