I’ve always thought I would like to stumble across a message in a bottle. Given the fact that I grew up in Manitoba and now live in Saskatchewan, I can concede that my geographical realities have somewhat hindered my chances. Nevertheless, I persevere. The notion of making a tangible connection with some great unknown person from a distant realm excites me. To decipher a cryptic message and imagine the fantastical life and story that culminates in a desperate missive flung into the sea (or lake, as may be the more likely case for me) seems particularly well suited to me, at least in my opinion.
Of course, this may all seem like the ravings of an overactive imagination that admittedly isn’t dealing too well with self-isolation and social distancing. I won’t apologize though, as I steadfastly believe we all should be given a little extra latitude in times of unprecedented quasi- apocalyptic pandemics.
Though decidedly fewer images of swashbuckling pirates and castaways on desert islands come to mind, there are actually remarkable similarities between messages in a bottle and great pieces of music. Now more than ever, I’m tremendously grateful to be a musician, and I see beautiful opportunities to help make these tangible connections that will help us see the other side of this terrible mess together.
Forgive me for making assumptions about you, but I think it’s safe to say we’re all feeling a bit anxious here. I’ve really never come up with a succinct and accurate way to explain how music makes us feel better, but there’s no doubt that it does. It remains one of life’s most incredible mysteries why the stringing together of certain sounds elicits such vivid and raw emotional responses in us all. In this case though, the exactly how and the exactly why are not important. Quite frankly if there is a scientific explanation for all of this, I don’t think I want to hear it. What’s important here is to remember that music and all the arts are invaluable tools at our disposal now when the going seems to be getting so tough. When anxiety creeps up and when the walls start to close in on me, I put on a recording of Samuel Barber’s incredible Violin Concerto or a recording of a perfect gem like “Silent Noon” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Calm —even if temporary—does a world of good. I realize that my jam may not be your jam, and that’s ok. I just want you to listen with intention and really pay attention to what music does for you. I can’t really contemplate how we’d face these bleak days without it.
But back to my bottles. There’s more to all this than chilling with your favourite playlist. Pieces of music—just like novels, plays, paintings or statues—are also direct messages from those who came before us. These are the real messages in a bottle, and they are ever so easy to find. They come from those who created great works of art and from those who have simply shared in the experience over the years. Some of these people looked just like us, and some lived lives that bear little apparent similarities to our own. Regardless, these snapshots of artistic moments in time have captured so many thousand lives, all with anxieties and joys of their own. They are preserved for us for as long as we make the effort to hear them, read them or see them. For me, there’s tremendous comfort in this. In times of uncertainty, the shared human experience is precisely what we need because it is shared by all of us—not only our neighbours, but also those who walked our streets before we did. For the most part, their worries were not our worries; but their comforts can still be ours.
Someday we will gather again, for a concert, a play or a ballet. But until then, from across the great divide, from my self-isolation to yours, I’m throwing you a bottle, whether it’s Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Puccini’s La Bohème, “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. The connection we seek and so desperately need right now is there. All we have to do is pick it up.