The Harp, the Void, the Promise
Inspired by Terry Riley's "The Harp of New Albion"
[image on front of the LP; from the notes on the back: “Legend portrays a harp brought to the New World by a crew member of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind, some 400 years ago. It was left behind on the shores of Nova Albion and was found by a medicine man who recognized it as a sacred object. It was placed upon an altar at land’s end on a cliff high above the ocean where the westerleys played upon it and temperature and humidity changes created an ever-shifting set of tonalities”]
Devised improvisationally with a piano in just intonation, and named for a mythical harp abandoned by European sailors and left to the weather to be played by the marine winds on the California coast, these haunting melodies confront the listener with the stark solitude of that imagined cliff on which Drake’s men abandoned the engine that produced them in the legend.
It is easy for me, in hearing the first ghostly chords and melodies of this work, to begin to meditate on how alone we are, in a manner at first unsettling and frightening. How unfamiliar the relationships between the tones, how evocative of estrangement and distance. They remind me of that abandonment of the instrument that made those sounds. They embody it in their own strange nature.
Those notes take on the shape of my own solitude. They come to speak of something empty at the heart of the human condition. How separated we are from one another, constitutionally, by definition, in the very core of what constitutes our lived, inner life. How complete that separation is. How total is our inability to bridge the gap between the self and the other.
And for this reason how awfully mine and mine alone must be my death. None can share it. None but I can know it. None can take away its awful power and terror. None can aid or comfort me in the slightest way. No science, no technologies, no politics, none of that in which we place so much desperate hope in this world can prevent it coming to make of my life a ruin and a wreck and a failure and a non-existence and an emptiness and a nothingness and a void and a forever never again and a disappearance into silence that cannot even be said to go on for all time but that is the silence that sits vast and awesome and all incomprehensible outside the boundary of time.
Into that, we are all hurtling, at a speed that is ever increasing, and everything leads us there. Our pleasures and our miseries, our joys and our pains, our contentment, our anxiety, our moments well lived, our hours and days and weeks and years wasted and never to be retrieved.
We are finite. We come and we go. We do not endure. We are a flickering pale flame, barely giving off enough light by which to see these words on a screen, or on a page, for a few seconds, before the darkness reemerges and swallows the photons of light into its boundless belly.
What is it to accept the truth?
To accept the truth is to know, in your gut, with the same dread certainty that you understand that placing your hand into the fire will cause pain and injury, that the day will come when you will no longer be.
To look carefully, steadily, meditatively, at the complete and utter annihilation of your body, your brain, the mass of matter sitting inside your skull that somehow made everything you are, to know that all of that will be the food and then the waste of beetles and worms and bacteria in the soil, and then scattered flotsam and jetsam of the air and mire, blown about by the breeze as the merest dust.
To know too that this dreadful shipwreck will come to your children, and to their children, and to their children’s children, to all the children of all the men and the women who ever walked the earth. That the earth itself and its moon and all the other planets and bodies orbiting the sun will at some point come to hang mournful and lost in a forever night sky once the sun is extinguished.
When that unlimited mass of gas and fire finds its limit and runs out of fuel like an automobile on a desert highway, and the black cold of the eternal void overtakes everything, all living things, all life, all of it will be seized and its energy meticulously and inexorably drained and its frozen husks abandoned to the ghostly nothingness of deathly space.
All the plans in your head, all the recollections of the deeds you have done and all the pangs of remorse about those you have not done, and all the trepidation and the anticipation and the hope for tomorrow, all the many seconds of experience of sentience and consciousness, all of this will whirl away into that monstrous vacuum of eternity and be gone forevermore.
All crushed mercilessly into non-existence.
Perhaps to return eventually, if time be without end?
But what if even time dies? What then?
All this comes to me in and from those otherworldly sounds from Terry Riley’s pressing upon the keys of a piano tuned in a way I do not expect, in a way that robs me of the anchor of my musical heritage and memory and sets me adrift into a bleak universe of empty space and darkness.
But there is more. Oh, thankfully! There is more!
For the harp, left there abandoned to weather when Sir Francis Drake’s one remaining ship needed to lighten itself of cargo in order to make the trip back to England, taken up by local peoples as an object of worship and left atop a cliff overlooking the sea, where the oceanic winds played its strings as the sun and the rain and the heat and the cold altered its intonation, producing such supernatural music, the harp gave forth its transcendent performance for a time, however brief in the span of all time.
And some few wanderers from an ancient race heard it and pondered the mystery of which it spoke in the infinitesimal span they had here on this globe.
Those sounds from outside this world, from a place we can never know but which is somehow always lurking just at the fringe of our perception and attention, darkening, deepening the contour of the pattern we make for such a brief time on the fabric of this world, those sounds emerged and were perceived and resonated in the souls of those men long dead, just for a time. As the sounds of this album resonate in my soul now.
And those men long departed understood the sounds they heard as a gift from heaven.
The whole of the story is there.
They heard them and accepted them as testimony of the life of the spirit. As a promise from that other realm, a guarantee of its existence and its shelter from the storm of our world. And doubtless in hearing this message from beyond our world, from the world of the spirits, they were reassured and made glad, as I too find that reassurance in the thought of their happiness in those glad tidings.
As I settle on that guidepost, I am opened to hearing the strange airs otherwise. I feel myself rising to accept the same gift, to acknowledge the same message, to receive the same promise, and to discern the indescribable beauty that escapes all words and all thought in the very sounds that had plunged me into that void.
Perhaps the void and the promise are inextricably linked. Twins. One and the same.