Maybe it’s the influence of the salt fog of the North Mountain, or the slow undulating chug across the Bay of Fundy on the Digby Ferry, or just the hypnotic lure of the waves pounding the wharves and jetties all along the Nova Scotia shore… but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about music as a voyage out into an unknown ocean.
I’m no master and commander when it comes to music. As a guitar player and singer, I’ve had to work hard just to become an able seaman, to handle the challenges of my small craft. True, I’ve always heard and made melodies easily, as if they were so many fish in the sea, ready for netting. I’ve always had the ability to rig my songs with sturdy rhymes, to play out story lines to ever greater depth. These small talents kept me sailing, I suppose, even when the winds were against me, when my fingers refused to hold the cursed strings, when my voice in the storm was as rough as a crow’s and lost against the sky.
But even if I wasn’t a natural adept, I always heard the call of music, as boys who lived in seaside towns must have heard the call of the sea. I remember the way my mother’s Odetta records revealed dark secrets in the whitewashed maps of history. I remember how the holiness in Oh Holy Night took wing on that glorious melody, soaring and swooping into sacred skies like an albatross, whatever an albatross might have been. I remember the minor tones in We Three Kings catching the bitter perfume of myrrh, and knowing that this was some kind of solemn and dark miracle, that Jesus died lost and alone as a shipwrecked sailor every time that song was sung.
Music, like the ocean, is infinite – not just in its vastness, but in its depth and complexity. No one can know all the potential combinations of melody, harmony, accompaniment, rhythm, lyrics, story, arrangement, any more than a sailor can know all the potential combinations of tide, of wind, of waves, of weather, geography, astronomy… And suppose a sailor masters his craft, and sets himself a course into the unknown, knowing that all waters are one and that by the grace of good winds he may be carried home again one day. When the sailor comes back once more to familiar waters, what does he find? That everything familiar has changed, and that the waters still beckon him elsewhere and everywhere.
It’s a voyage that deepens with every passing moment. It’s fierce pursuit of the white whale inside the self. It’s a commitment to experience sublimity, to move with courage through darkness and solitude and with grace through sunshine and fair waters. It is a journey that begins with a small child’s innocent inquiry into infinity: a wee boat set afloat for fun and folly. As the waters deepen and land slips farther and farther away, the destination loses all meaning, and there is only the journey.
Gazing over side into the impenetrable fog of tomorrow, I can only wonder: does a journey without destination ever end?