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The time machine of music


The author (front row, held by his grandmother) surrounded by his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his brother.

The Pandora app turns your car into a time machine.

The app lets you create your own radio station.

You don’t have to waddle through the swamp of static and asinine talk show hosts to get to the music your mood demands. Pandora gives you Promethean control over the fire of music. You type a song or an artist’s name and your subconscious hankering births, through the company’s guarded top-secret algorithm, your own playlist-world! You then fine-tune this playlist with your Caesar-thumb: thumbs down sends the song to the lions, thumbs up blesses a song to propagate. Put that self-generated music playlist in the perfect sound room, your car – a moving aural capsule shutting out the noises of the world and leaving the clamors of the world in its rearview mirror – and now music is your all-encompassing environment, a microworld speeding past trees, highway exits, road signs, traffic lights, undone chores and even regrets.

Add music’s power to conjure decades two bars in, and you can transpose yourself to the timeline of your choice. Eighties anyone? How about a little funky Cindy Lauper? Or Bono when he sported a ponytail and sang with teenager’s ache and ambivalence “With or Without You”?

Like right now, I’m listening to “Electricity” by Orchestra Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD) – sharp and tangy snare, computerized perfect 16th-note chime hook and a voice halfway between pop and opera, pure and without the gravel of rock – I have traveled back to my middle school dance and, cliché-like, no one has crossed that great chasm separating the girls and the boys in the opposite sides of the gym. The great divide is a gawkish green lettered-arc “J.H.S. 67.” In my memory, I remain chained to the boys’ section, while I pull on my oversized ivory suit sleeve and never get to dance with the girl I believed was my soulmate. This music-triggered memory, however, is malleable — another advantage of nostalgia orchestrated by music. So, I am dancing with Tina. Tina was my high school crush, but she can be transported to my junior high dance. She smoked Marlboros, beat all the boys at billiards and still got all “A’s,” so naturally I was madly in love with her. I am dancing with her and she is amazed by my shuffling feet, the speed of my spins and middle school isn’t that bad at all, and all’s cool between grandfather and me.

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In middle school, we declared ourselves through music. Music was an identifier, a pronouncement of the self. The music genres gelled around ethnic identities. The angry white male had metal, which, for all that distorted-guitar-anger, was kept in check by a driving but predictable 4/4 beat. The African-American teen had hip-hop that raged against systems, declaring his right to tell his own story in rap rather than song, over the bass drum that thumped off-beat. My Asian brothers and I claimed New Wave. It was the in-between genre, songs sung by white dudes who did not dress or talk like Americans – most of the famous New Wave artists were British. We were neither white nor black, and so was New Wave, or at that’s how we imagined it to be.

New Wave had elements that resonate in the Asian culture. The fit is freakish, though I’m sure that Asians worked to make the fitting seem natural. Identity, I’ve learned, is dynamic — both a discovery and a defining. New Wave didn’t only help Asians express themselves; New Wave had a say in the formation of the Asian-American culture.

For one thing, New Wave corrals its emotions in a computer-perfect rhythm and a voice that hints at emotion without ever gushing it. In New Wave, emotion was submerged, expressed carefully, hinted and indirect, the way I communicated with my grandfather, never fully expressing neither my frustration and affection.

So, in the school hallways and chain-net basketball courts, battles about music genres raged. Few teenagers could articulate the tension between cultures, which was a more intricate conversation. We needed our music to be a proxy for our culture.

A Chinese classmate, I remember him as Henry, argued in a 7th grade social studies project that hip-hop came from heavy metal. His argument: Hip-hop is not pop music, but spoken word over music; much of heavy metal was shouting over rhythmic guitar chords; and the shouting eventually evolved into rhythmic story telling of hip-hop. The missing link? Beastie Boys of Brooklyn, who, he argued as he slid in the “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” cassette, has characteristics of both genres: they talked over distorted guitar and heavy metal’s relentless 16 beat. This got rousing “boos” from black students who heard another narrative that bastardized their culture, while the white students shouted their enthusiastic support for this theory that made white metal the fountainhead of all music.

The next period, I thought he would either be kicked to the ground or hoisted on shoulders, depending on which group he ran into first. I’m not exaggerating any details in this retelling. Outside of the name (maybe it was Chan?), everything else is still vivid — like, I remember Henry’s crew cut on his short but formidable body. His theory was sweeping without attention for details like timeline. Looking back, it was a proposition that followed the plotlines of racist theories: Make all non-white cultures derivative and inferior. But at that moment, what I couldn’t get was why everyone was so agitated over a dumb music theory. What I failed to understand was the bond between music and identity.

I read a story of a creative mall manager who got rid of a loitering and littering herd of teenagers from the mall’s parking lot by blasting Mozart’s “Symphony No. 9.” The teens scattered as if Mozart was thrashing them with his arpeggios! The image of them listening and, God forbid, enjoying classical music inflicted the pain of cognitive dissonance. Classical music clashed with the image they wanted to project. Teens who appreciate classical music were neck-buttoned, saucer-glassed, pen-in-shirt-pocket geeks and do-gooders too cultured for their own coolness. Music moves teens on the dance floor, but also moves them out of private property.

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Pythagoras believed music wielded power to move not only human bodies but even the heavenly bodies. Musica Universalis (Music of the Spheres) was Pythagoras’ doctrine that the sun, moon and planets all orbited in their place with predictability and beautiful precision because they were following music notations. This massive cognitive leap from the experience of music to the experience of heavenly bodies was conjured on the bridge of mathematics. Both music and the heavenly bodies, Pythagoras taught his disciples with religious zeal, worked out of the same magic: mathematics.

He was the first to decipher why two notes can sound harmonious as if they were two halves of the same soul: It was their mathematical relationship. For example, a major chord is the combination of the 1st note, the 3rd note and the 5th note of a major scale. A C-chord is formed from the third and fifth note of the C-scale which are the notes E and G. These notes enrich the C note because they resonate with the harmonics hidden in the C note. Individual notes never resonate on a single frequency. As a note’s vibration comes to a rest, the vibration shortens, which create harmonics that are not as audible as the first vibration but subtlety add texture. And one of the first two harmonics in a note is the 3rd and 5th note of that first note’s major scale. This was basically mathematical proportion incarnating itself in sound.

Pythagoras was so fascinated that we could explain our experience of pleasure in hearing music with math that he applied it to everything he saw: physical beauty, beautiful arguments and, of course, the harmonious heavenly bodies that never crashed (unlike chariots). Mathematical ratio is the language of music, the heavenly bodies and anything that is beautiful and gives us pleasure.

The author’s family at the airport

This metaphysical concept was eventually debunked. Aristotle believed Pythagoras was a hoax — not a serious philosopher, but a drunken musician who needed his music to carry metaphysical weight for him to justify his lazy philosophical work. I think Aristotle was arrogant and wrong. He was wrong about Alexander the Great’s character; he was wrong about the universe, too. I put my faith in Pythagoras! It’s the music that keeps the heavenly bodies and our earthly human bodies humming along. That is what I experience when I put the headphones on and look at the stars that appear every night as if they were just birthed. And if music orchestrates the bodies in space, then it can orchestrate my body in time because, according to Einstein, space and time is one continuum. I’m conflating sciences here, but there are times when music collapses 30 years with a three-note melody hook and I’m both the 45-year-old watching his 15-year-old self, and the 15-year-old apologizing to his grandfather.

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I’ve been in Louisville, Kentucky, for 11 months. My job is to help the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s white churches become intercultural (when I share this, people’s eyes fill with great pity as if I’ve signed up for a Sisyphean task). I attend different congregations (including non-Presbyterian ones) to keep a pulse on the variety of congregational life. However, I attend a Korean service at least once a month. My son likes to hang out with other Korean kids to gripe about their Korean fathers. A glance or a nod is all it takes for my son to know that someone else shares in his suffering. When he tells me this as we drive home, I am incredulous and ask him what suffering he has undergone with my parenting. He shoots back a silent stare. I take this to mean he has nothing on his list.

I go there for the Korean singing. I am usually nodding off during the Korean sermon. But it’s not all the preacher’s fault. The Korean language has a singsong quality that, when spoken softly, sings like a lullaby. But when the tiny congregation stands up to sing a hymn, my lung’s capacity doubles. I sing like Pavarotti. My chest fills with melodies. Korean words are easier to hold a note with.

I love English hymns too. One of my favorites is “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” No contemporary worship would start with the grieving “O,” but in this classic hymn, that verbal-sigh works. The “O” becomes strokes painting the wounds of Christ. I see Christ on the cross. This hymn does the work of the crucifix for me. English songs have ministered to me. But no English song can reach as deeply as a Korean song, diving into my most primitive memory, a sea dark, formidable and formative, because Korean is the language in which my mother sang her lullabies, my father preached and my grandfather chided me. Music unleashes a language’s potency. Singing unfurls the musicality and meaning in a language by slowing it down — by not letting it just rush to express an idea, but holding it, letting it spin or stretch, giving space for the sounds of a word to reach out into other resonances, permitting the emotions and memories encapsulated in every phrase have its time. So even the same song in English and Korean has a different timber. The English timber can satisfy my mind and heart. The Korean timber will reduce me to tears in seconds. Couple that with music’s time-traveling capacity and I am enthralled.

Today, in the Korean church, we sang the hymn “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.” I found myself sitting on a sofa in our second home in America off Brown Street in Flushing, New York. The sofa is a worn and tired beige. My grandfather is sitting with his cane leaning against the tattered arm of the sofa. We’ve just fought, yet again, about the importance of the Korean language. He saw my manga drawings in my Korean workbook. I’m afraid he will launch into his tirade of how the Japanese tried to wipe out the Korean culture by forbidding Korean names and the Korean language, but now Koreans are voluntarily erasing themselves out of the earth by willfully forgetting the language. My refusal to put energy into memorizing the Korean characters was, to him, a betrayal of self and our ancestors. I am bracing for another history lecture. Instead, he sings “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.” His voice shakes with old age and emotions. Then he tells me his story.

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The author’s grandfather, Son Dong-IL

My grandmother was 18 when a village pastor brought a sloshing bowl of water from a village pump, sprinkled some water over her head and baptized her.

My grandfather, who had to tiptoe through the minefield of politics as a Korean police officer serving a Japanese administration and navigating the life-and-death of realpolitik, didn’t have time for the fairy world of religion. Christ was America’s imperial god as much as the Japanese emperor, another religion to impose a foreign culture and power over weaker minds, especially that of women; except, my grandmother wasn’t weak. The story of a god who became a human person to rescue her of her sins, this god-human who has the empathy to hear her prayers and the power to do something about it was as real as the sun in the morning, breath in her lungs and her husband who managed to serve the Korean villagers while satisfying his Japanese admins. She was absolutely devoted to her husband, but now she was devoted to Jesus who claimed a higher seat of authority. So, she tithed her chicken eggs, cabbages as well as her husband’s meager salary.

When grandfather found out about this robbery, he warned her that he would beat her if he caught her stealing again to give to that charlatan pastor. When Sunday came along, she gently collected the eggs and took a won-note from their tiny drawer and started the 20-minute walk to the church. Not tithing was stealing from God. She chose to steal from her husband and not from God. When grandfather came that evening reeking with soju and found a won-note missing, he beat her. She stopped tithing his salary, but not the eggs or cabbages. And she set herself on a 100-day prayer campaign. She woke up while the forest remained hidden in the dark. She trudged through dusty roads even when it became muddy with evening storm. She prayed a good hour and started walking back just as the lines of trees began to take shape with dawn light. She was back home serving the morning rice lathered in a slice of butter, soy sauce and a raw egg to grandfather.

My grandfather complained to her about her colossal waste of time, and the idiotic story of god-and-man, and the eggs she should be selling and not giving it to a charlatan who did nothing but talk. He complained until he couldn’t because one morning he woke up and couldn’t talk.

He scribbled on the back of a paper leaflet of village flyer, “Get the pastor to pray for me.” Grandmother ran to get the pastor like she was sprinting in the Olympics.

Once they returned, grandmother and the pastor prayed for him, thanking Christ for meeting him and asking if Christ can now give him back his voice. They prayed for hours. They read Scripture. Grandfather remained mute. Grandmother thought maybe this new life with a quiet husband might not be bad after all. Grandfather asked for that same piece of paper and scribbled more words. When grandmother read it she knew exactly what it was: The first words to her favorite hymn.

Grandfather never opened a hymn, but he heard his wife, while feeding the chickens and cleaning the coop, or boiling rice and mopping the floors, reading Scripture out loud, memorizing whole chapters, and singing hymns. Though he never paid attention to the words of the hymns, they lodged in his brain. The gospel-words were secretly planted by the beauty of melodies. Sometimes, grandfather would hum the tunes while filling out a police report, or walking his beat around the village. Sometimes, it took him a few minutes to catch himself singing a hymn about a diety he didn’t believe in and he would try to hum some other Korean folk song, but the hymn tunes always managed to find their way back to his lips.

Song Dong-IL (the author’s grandfather) and Won Song-Jeol (the author’s grandmother)

It was in the chorus, after the third verse, that his murmuring lips made a sound, and not just a noise, but a word in a major scale tone. The chorus goes, “Now I have come” (I am translating back from the Korean translation, which is slightly different from Frances J. Crosby’s words). I imagine him hitting the high C and leaping up on a table, doing a little dance, pulling open the Hanji paper door, running out to the cabbage field that is slightly elevated and singing the next line of chorus: “Found my way back home!” Now he lifts up Grandmother into the air and they are two elegant birds dancing while all the villagers run out, somersaulting as they gather behind my grandfather and grandmother and the individuals become a choir filling the open air with a three-part harmony, and the sun, moon and planets also crisscross the heavens, never hitting each other, staying in their lanes yet creating a single movement like ballet dancers. Only a musical could truly express the joy in my grandfather’s heart upon discovering a new life energized with new purpose.

Within a year, my grandfather and grandmother would move out to Seoul with their six children so he could matriculate in a seminary. He graduated at 49, went to a village to start a church at 50. He served that church for 20 years, and came to America after he retired at 70. I had one good year with him before he passed away. I wasted much of that year fighting him and the Korean language.

When he was flat on his back on his bedroom floor laboring for breath, I saw his lips between the white stubbles parting but heard no words — only unmelodic huffs. The family gathered around him. Grandmother started singing the hymn that freed his lips and heart. The rest of us joined her. My father broke down in tears and could not carry the tune. Grandmother carried the tune. “Found my way back home!” The song was resonating with layers of memory and longing, many different timelines all wrapped together, and home became many places: heaven, Korea, his goyang (city of birth). But for me, home was that bedroom. I was trying to sing his soul back to me. I was trying to make the music a time machine.

SAMUEL SONworks in the area of diversity and reconciliation for the PC(USA). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.