Writing It Down

I was watching The Jay Leno Show last night, trying to get up the strength to go to bed. Usually, I watch the other guy, but I wanted to see this one because it was a rerun of an October show featuring President Obama. Don’t worry. I’m not going to talk about the presidential election. What was of real interest to me was the fact that Leno also had the musical group consisting of (I think he has had his name changed to include the moniker) “The Great” Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers, the sublime singer Aiofe O’Donovan, Stuart Duncan—one of the most accomplished bluegrass musicians on earth, and Edgar Meyer—brilliant, eclectic bassist par excellence. They performed “Here and Heaven,” one of the best tracks from the album, The Goat Rodeo Sessions. If you download The Goat Rodeo Sessions, there is a ten-minute video about the recording process that brought these vastly different musicians together. It is fascinating. While each of the four string players has their own expertise, the melding of alternative bluegrass style with the eclectic cello of Yo-Yo Ma requires enormous imagination. I love how this comes together, how fearless the musicians are.

One of the issues in putting together a recording like this is that not all of the musicians read music. So when they recorded, there was Yo-Yo Ma with his music stand and the entire score written out in front of him, while in contrast was Stuart Duncan, navigating the same pieces of music using only a yellow piece of legal paper with a few cryptic notes. And if the decision had been made that a prerequisite for the musicians in The Goat Rodeo Sessions was musical literacy, the magic of this recording would never have happened. Jack-of-all-trades musician Stuart Duncan would never have been allowed to play the session. Yes, he is an outstanding musician. His ability to move seamlessly between the backless five string banjo, the fiddle, the mandolin, and back again is in my opinion, what makes “Here and Heaven” such a powerful track (Aiofe, pronounced eee-feh, O’Donovan’s singing notwithstanding). But he is the heartbeat of the piece, and in order for him to learn the music, the other musicians had to go out of their way to teach him his parts.

There are a number of ways to interpret Stuart Duncan. We could look at him as a talented musician, full of vision, providing unity of insight and broad variety of instrumental timbre to the recording. I know when you first see the video, it is overly easy to focus on the work of Yo-Yo Ma or Chris Thile or Edgar Meyer. After all Yo-Yo Ma is Yo-Yo Ma. Chris Thile fronts the group on much of the album, and Edgar Meyer is able to switch style gears mid-piece so fast that he leaves your teeth in your socks. Aiofe O’Donovan salts two of the tracks with her clear, breathed straight tone. But it is hard for me not to be really affected by what Stuart Duncan brings to the sessions.

Another way to interpret Stuart Duncan is that he is disabled. He cannot read music. He is reliant on his fellow musicians in order to learn the songs. He does not pull his own weight. Perhaps, he is more trouble than he’s worth. After all, he could have learned to read music. He could be contributing his fair share. Why should the other musicians have to go out of their way to teach him the parts? If Stuart Duncan cannot read the music, then perhaps we should get another musician who can. The disability lens forces us to focus on what Stuart Duncan cannot do. It is a deficit model. And it encourages us to punish Stuart Duncan for his deficit. What a mistake that would be!

I have written before that disability is a social phenomenon and that the greatest disability I perceive in my dis ease journey is what others think I cannot do. This does not mean that I do not have significant impairments. I do. I cannot walk. I tire easily. My hands are weaker. But these are just physical impairments, and there are numerous strategies around them. Others can assist. Ev helps me get my socks on, make breakfast, remind myself that I am no less a person because of my physical weakness. It would be a mistake to put me out to pasture, even though I require assistance because I have much to offer, just as long as I can get dressed.

Not all of us can be Stuart Duncan. Not all of us carry the enormous talent that Mr. Duncan so obviously exhibits. Would that it were so. It would be much easier to argue against a social model of disability and dis ease if everyone was so capable. Yet, even if we all cannot be as able as Stuart Duncan, it is worth it still to deconstruct the social model of disability. The least talented of us all, nevertheless carries human gifts well worth the effort of helping them emerge. Just as Mr. Duncan is able to rely on his musician comrades, so should each of us turn to one another to assist us to reveal the beauty behind our own individual impairments. The bass player, Edgar Meyer observes, “What really brings the piece to life usually is the way that the people interact when they play it.”

The song “Here and Heaven” ends with the following line:

‘Cause we are not lost enough to find the stars aren’t
crossed why align them why fall hard
not soft into
Fall not winter spring not summer cool not cold
and it’s warm not hot have we all forgotten that
we’re getting old.

When you have ALS, you recognize very quickly that, pardon the pun here, “Time is [NOT] on My Side.” There isn’t a lot of time. But like “Here and Heaven” says, “have we all forgotten that we’re getting old” so how really do we want to spend our time? Edgar Meyer (who kind of emerges as the philosopher of the background video) states early on, “Yo Yo’s going for the same thing that Stuart is going for, which is to internalize the music—there’s just different ways in.”

I guess that speaks to me. As human beings we are given the opportunity every day to celebrate the different ways in. And the opportunity for celebration, that very same opportunity, can be used to dehumanize and exclude. We are offered a myriad of choices of how to internalize each others’ humanity, projecting it out in engagement with the great collective of our brothers and sisters. Or, we can remind people of what they cannot do, why they don’t deserve extra support, why it is extra work for us to assist, or why they should be punished for their lacks and disabilities. But disability has taught me that humanity is far richer, far more colorful, and far more remarkable than such deficit thinking, especially if we put our effort into its emergent beauty. That is what these musicians do, without even thinking about it. If the problem is reading the music, then teach the songs by rote, playing to the talents that each one brings, recognizing that they are “going for the same things.”

And maybe, just maybe, a Stuart Duncan will appear and play the spit out of a fretless, backless five-string banjo, breaking our hearts with the human beauty that he pours onto our lives.

Here is a video of “Here and Heaven”

Here is a video of “Inside The Goat Rodeo Sessions


7 thoughts on “Writing It Down

  1. Great reading. Music is the most wonderful thing/essence/noun/verb/adjective in the world. I don’t know about adverbs or dangling participles, but I WILL use Goat Rodeo in a sentence every day for the next week.
    Thanks Bruce.

  2. Ah! I was watching Leno too, for the same reason, and I loved the music. I paid attention because of Yo-Yo Ma but was soon energized by each musician as they were spotlighted. And, thanks to your words and understanding, I now have a deeper appreciation of the musicians, the music, and the message.

  3. Dear Bruce, As usually you have hit a wonderful “chord” by sharing this
    music with us and by pointing out the togetherness aspect that we
    might have missed in the world of disabilities. Who’s getting older?
    Who? Oh. Love, BW

  4. Hey Bruce, after reading your many blogs, you have really given me pause to think. Why is it so hard for me to acknowledge folks with any kind of disability? Why is it I want to avert my eyes when someone in a wheelchair comes toward me? What is it that creates this response in me? Fear. Fear, while not a good excuse, is the answer to that question. Somehow, my mind tells me that if I just ignore that person, then I won’t ever have their affilction. How dumb is that? Well thanks to you, I have really given this a lot of thought, and am now aware just how silly this response is. Thank you Bruce Kramer, for bringing this to my attention. Today, I earnestly smiled at a stranger in a wheel chair, and he looked me straight in the eyes and smiled back. Your blogs came flooding back to me in that moment. If that was Bruce or someone I knew wouldn’t I smile at them? Yes, of course, was the answer. Your blogs have really helped me become aware of my own fears and prejudices. While my fears seem silly and childish now, I am grateful that they have been brought to my attention. Thank you for helping blind people like myself see.. Your blogs are truly a blessing.

  5. Great post Bruce, and thanks for the link to “Here and Heaven”; great chart!

    I remember when Yolanda Harris came to work with the band and the choir; she taught us all the parts by rote, which was hard for a lot of folks… but the performance was among the best ever seen at GSUMC 🙂

  6. Bruce Thank you for the link that band is ,well i lack your command of the language i’ll have to revert to saying s&^%$t hot! As for your observation on the time we have left,in my mind we all have a very short time if measured by any sort of “natural” time clock,in the scheme of what ever you want to call it,a plan evolution what ever we all are for a very short while and while i do not mean to minimize the pain we feel when some one is robbed of years I do think that a more important thing to measure by and ask oneself is was that time well spent? did I use it wisely and not selfishly? and you my friend,my wise teacher can answer with a resounding YES!

  7. Another way of looking at that group dynamic is that Yo-Yo is disabled. He can’t improvise in the same way the other three can. Would you leave out Yo-Yo because of this “impairment”?

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