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

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