Yet Untitled 004 - Death and Music
My grandmother's wonderful life and the soundtrack to her death
I used the D-word, but this is not a sad post.
I lost my grandmother this week, but this is not a sad post.
I mean, look at her! She lived to 95. She insisted that she gave up drinking a long time ago, but had her small whiskey every evening anyway. She took her whole family to Thailand for her 90th birthday! And - something that makes her a total star in my eyes - she learned how to send email in the pre-smartphones era just so she could send me recipes while I was at college abroad!
She really enjoyed her grandchildren and also got to savour her great grandchildren. Living in today’s word, I think that is the mark of a seriously successful life. A lot of things needed to come together in order for that to happen. All her life she worked at nurturing family bonds. I’m so happy she got to enjoy the benefits.
🎵MUSIC (1) - Flying in with Leonard
When I was flying in to be with my grandmother - my ‘Dadima’ - I revisited to Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs. This whole album is a mood (one of my favourite contemporary expressions)…an amalgam of insight, low notes and baritone. You know, the fact that Leonard Cohen existed makes me hopeful about life. There’s something all-seeing and eternal about him, but all the while he’s singing with the unmissable humility of an ordinary person who’s at the same time observant and expressive enough to turn life’s crazy vicissitudes into a dance of poetry and voice that never leaves you.
(That sentence was really long!)
Ten New Songs is an album I own as a CD. This means that pre-streaming, I had heard it repeatedly in a way that’s rare now, primarily because I have too much to choose from. But this stands for something. For 17 years or so, I simply swam in this album’s mood. Now, in 2022, I paid attention to what ol’ Leonard was saying, and benefitted from it. It got me thinking about possessing music vs. only streaming it. Physically owning your music entails a relationship. It’s a continuous act of not dismissing, even if it’s because you paid £6.50 for it at a time when it was a £6.50 was a big amount. I suddenly see the value of my CDs afresh!
What Cohen has to say in Ten New Songs comforted me as I flew to be with my grandmother in her last moments.
Why? Why this album? I think it’s because Cohen made this album when he knew his time was very limited. What I recall from his biography is that he made this one completely on his own terms, recording it more or less in his garage with no frills. Acoustically, the album isn’t fireworks - it’s simple synth and sequencers, but the reflection on love and death is profound, unapologetic and naked. It carries you higher. And if there’s one thing that you can use when you have to face up to death, it’s higher ground. Perspective.
🎵MUSIC (2) - the mystic serendipity of Chants of India
This extremely understated album has been a part of my life for two decades. George Harrison is one of the producers, and I think he achieved something very special, rendering some of the most well known Vedic shlokas with a serene, graceful and melodious musicality. Chants of India is another album I physically possess as a CD. The who’s who of India’s modern musical heritage play and sing on this unpretentious and brilliant album that I have always turned to when I needed centring, and especially when I missed home. Every instrument used, every musician’s style - whether western or Indian - is given an equal place making it a truly cosmopolitan album. The whole thing feels like a wonderful, continuous conversation and has the depth, devotion and sincerity I hear in Harrison’s My Sweet Lord.
I popped it on to set the tone as we prepared my grandmother’s body for its journey to the crematorium. The sheer timing of Asato Ma Sadgamaya, Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya (Lead me O Mother, onto the path of Truth, Lead me O Mother, from darkness unto light) coming on while we were lifting her body up on the bier to take her to the waiting van made my hair stand on end, as if providence was saying that everything that was happening, was happening in the right way.
🎵MUSIC (3) - Gymnopédie No. 1
Dadima and I had a moment, minutes before the light left her eyes.
She had been suffering for 3 days and was in immense discomfort. Her groans had been so heartbreaking that I was not able to look her in the face. It was too painful.
And then, there was a moment.
I remembered a guidance from Daisaku Ikeda who said:
Sometimes the only thing we can do for someone is to stand alongside as the rain beats down on them.
I had to find the courage to look not just at her face but into her eyes. Where was I to find this courage? I had no idea, but somehow my love for her pulled a rabbit out of a hat, and I managed, and what resulted was a great moment of peace. It was as if the anxiety either of us was feeling in the face of death (she in her way, me in mine) had dissipated. She felt it too. She stopped resisting and, within moments, she was gone.
I have been thinking about this moment again and agin since Dadima went, and again and again the Oscar Winning film Man on Wire has been coming to mind. Man on Wire is about Phillipe Petit who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre while they were still there. It’s a true story, and the whole film leads up to the moment of when Petit walks to the middle of the towers, as if walking on air. In the documentary, a very appropriate piece of music is used in the moment when Petit conquers death thus. It isn’t some moment of whirling ecstasy, but a moment of serenity. Of calm. Listen to Gymnopédie No. 1. In my memory, it is the soundtrack to Dadima’s final moments.
🎵MUSIC (4) - Two End Credit Sequences
A provocation: “an end credit sequence is the death of a film”.
Another provocation: “A good film raises important questions, doesn't answer them but points you in an interesting direction towards thinking about them.”
The Fountain by Darren Arronofsky raises important questions about what it means to challenge Death. It’s as if the film asks in the end - what could have such audacity but Love? As an answer, it leaves us this piano piece by Clint Mansell - Together We Will Live Forever. Use headphones if you can.
Another similarly fantastic end-credit overlay I found myself thinking about in the past days is that of Finding Neverland - that tells the story of the inspiration behind the Peter Pan books. Yes, there’s tragedy at the heart of it, but for me, the final piano piece sublimates the theme of transforming the poison of grief into the medicine of creation. Listening to it in the past few days reassured me that there is always hope, even in the face of death. Here’s Neverland, Minor Piano Variation
That’s it for this week! Stay strong. Stay hopeful. Lots of love from me!