At the simplest level, I think of it in kid terms: a secret way to say something. Or maybe Morse code, a way to say something in a weird formal language that can travel great distances and unbleep and unblip its way back into common speech. Or what about the criminal code? The big bag of laws that are in force in your neighborhood? Code of ethics, now there’s one that often vanishes from view. Computer code bends my brain, but I love how something assembled from the bare minimum of parts can make a machine do our bidding.
How about the genetic code, or what is sometimes referred to as DNA? Wow. You get a sperm and an ovum together and give the cell a map, and eventually it gets a driver’s license and a diploma and a mortgage and social security, and maybe it survives the flood or the wildfire.
Snark mode off. I think music is a code, one that resides deep in the bone. Today I heard a trio play an afternoon of Hungarian folk music as filtered through their unique musical sensibilities. Their vocalist has traveled regularly to small villages in Hungary, sometimes collecting a song from the last living human who remembers that particular one. If Zina didn’t hear it and memorize it and teach it to others, would it still exist? If Matthew couldn’t play the fiddle with a speed and intricacy that rivals a classical Pakistani singer’s voice, could he mirror and tease Zina’s singing? If Misha didn’t play his cello with the deep tones of a skilled lover, would their music have a rock-solid foundation?
Together the trio, Vadalma, is speaking in code. They are reaching back through generations of music sung around kitchen tables, sung while wooing, sung while coping with keen grief, sung while bringing the animals home, and they are recreating it with their own contemporary musical instincts. It isn’t ancient, it isn’t contemporary, it is a new code.
There are people who make music in the same necessary and ordinary way that they breathe, for hours every day—not for someone else to hear, but because it’s like breathing, and it’s from deep in the bone. There are those who collect others with whom they can make music for mutual pleasure, and that collective energy is a different code. One more level is those who make music for an audience, another level of experience. At the far end of the spectrum is listening alone to recorded music, but it’s all code.
Find a way to sing, and then listen.