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  • Aarik Danielsen

Pure Music

Some 20 years after staring through staves as an undergraduate, I have one music theory. Maybe I’ve told you already. 


 

Every great song houses one perfect moment, and usually just the one.

 

Every great song houses one perfect moment, and usually just the one. I believe in this the way I trust in my religion, and I believe this because the theory proves empirically true over and over. 


Don’t think perfect, as in pitched at A440 or perfectly on time. These moments arrive, perfectly complicating and perfectly making sense of the world created in the song. Once sounded, you cannot imagine this music—or yourself—without them. 


Perfect, as in surprising and inevitable. 


Some perfect moments arrive with a show, wrapped in a storm. Salvador Duran’s tenor forms a thunderhead en español, traveling all the pretty Cormac McCarthy skies over “He Lays in the Reins,” from Calexico and Iron and Wine. 


Listen For the Perfect Moment


Al Green achieves perfect desperation on “Let’s Get Married” as he repeats, then divides the phrase “I’ve got to stop fooling around” like a sermon the not-so-right reverend is unconvinced he’ll heed. 


 

Moments alight, so perfect because the singers and songs themselves can’t be.

 

Sometimes perfection presents itself in the quietest possible terms: the way Molly Rankin makes an epic poem of the word “go” at a phrase’s end on Alvvays’ “In Undertow”; the way the pedal steel slips in, upholding Rhett Miller’s every minor sadness on “Salome” by the Old 97s. 


Perfect, how Eddie Vedder croons “I just want to scream hello / My God, it’s been so long” on “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” the most humane moment in any Pearl Jam song, maybe any song I know. Perfect, how guitars descend in Sturgill Simpson’s “The Promise,” accenting the loneliness and faith signed through every covenant.


Moments alight, so perfect because the singers and songs themselves can’t be. A perfect moment draws nearest to a perfect song on the instrumental coda of “Thunder Road,” its final minute perhaps the most sublime in pop history. 


But these notes ascend precisely because Bruce Springsteen’s narrator spends the song touring his flaws and life’s fault lines. This perfect moment represents a last grasp come too soon: through abandon, toward something like love—or relief, at least.   


These musical revelations transcend our expectations, approaching perfection in ways a flawless test score or even some word-for-word recitation, lines of poetry lacing the tongue in the proper time and place, never will. Gone as quickly as they came, carried along by the will of the heart muscle tired but so true, maybe it’s more appropriate to call these moments pure and not perfect. 


Kaveh Akbar better explains what trips me. During a recent lecture, the gifted poet and novelist fulfilled the word ecstatic, unfolding his body in the shape of a carved crucifix or a kite halfway through flight. 


Closing his lips around the final syllable of an ancient Sumerian verse, Akbar lifted his arms, showing gooseflesh testimony to a poem’s truest power—rearranging the molecules of air within a given room. 


Similar elemental powers drive my cherished musical moments. Whenever I play The War on Drugs’ “Red Eyes,” whenever singer Adam Granduciel releases a primal “woo,” his wordless exclamation shifts balances, changes the color of cast light along the walls. 


No doubt favored art forms—not music alone—hold such sway for others. The cinephile observes perfection within a single shot, held long enough for a litany of emotions to cross an actor’s face. 


 

Art and life no longer exist as mimics, but move together, muscle around bone. Perfection abounds, perfection abides.

 

Certainly, as Akbar himself feels, last literary lines rearrange the molecules orbiting me. Franz Wright’s declaration of hope “unendurable, unendurable” as he finishes a snowy night walk defies any forecast the poet faces. The end of nearly every Hanif Abdurraqib sentence lands perfect, ending sprawling, earnest sentiments the only way they can, the only way he can. 


And not only last lines, but middle passages too: Diane Seuss undoes and refastens something in me, tucking the phrase “My project was my life” inside a given piece. 


Look, I don’t want to over-spiritualize this, because usually when we try to do something “right,” we sap what’s sacred. But what do the catechisms tell us? God’s glory is revealed the moment a man comes fully alive—that is to say, a certain perfection accompanies our purest humanity. 


In a few moments governed by music or poetry, a minute of transcendence touched, the atmosphere refashions itself, becomes more like the place we were made to inhabit, resembles edges of Eden.


I cannot, will not pretend to know every one of art’s purposes. But two realities always come back to me: the goodness in beholding anything, and how all this beholding trains our senses to know the pure music of everyday living. 


Art and life no longer exist as mimics, but move together, muscle around bone. Perfection abounds, perfection abides.


Perfect, the way a new friend magnet-pulls you into the beating heart of a gathering, asking the right question—the question no one else asks. And in this moment, a few bricks tumble from around your heart, light and warmth let through. 


Perfect also, the way The National’s Matt Berninger sings just two words—“Hey baby”—like he’s in a confessional booth of his own making, like his lover is the only priest with power enough to absolve his sins. 


Perfect, how a writer takes the mic in the backroom of a Midwestern Italian restaurant, reads the last line of something forthcoming and redraws all your maps—you gasp as she circles where Point A and Point B actually sit. 


 

Try instead to rearrange the molecules around you, if only for a few minutes a day—to make this place feel like the place you were made to be.

 

Just as perfect, how Jakob Dylan and Adam Duritz rush the line “was drawn on me,” pulling the curtain closed on “6th Avenue Heartache,” radically changing the meaning of a phrase sung in every chorus. 


Perfection lives with the leaves on tall trees, who bask in the wind’s affection, shimmering a song in response. And perfection lives at the end of Bon Iver’s “Calgary” as Justin Vernon and Co. reshape the lyrical weather (“There’s a fire going out / There’s really nothing to the south”). 


Where one pure moment ends and another begins, it becomes harder to tell. Is this phenomenon, all this perfect, fleeting music, enough to live on? I’m not sure, but the songs draw us close to something fundamental, something inborn and inherited. 


Mary Oliver tells us we don’t have to be good; per usual, I think she’s right. Tonight all I can muster is this: don’t try to live a perfect life, for God’s sake. Try instead to rearrange the molecules around you, if only for a few minutes a day—to make this place feel like the place you were made to be. Then, live there. 



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