When I opened an envelope that contained the Winter 2011 issue of Portland, I found a little note from editor Brian Doyle clipped to the cover, a note noting that this issue was something he’d long dreamed of publishing—an issue devoted to music, one that included a bound-in CD. So I slipped the CD into my iMac and started reading.
On the cover is a gorgeous photograph of a mandolin. I don’t like the mandolin, I never want to play the mandolin, but this image is scrumptious enough to make me at least want to own a mandolin. Once past the front-of-the-book campus stuff, you come upon seven pieces on music—Connor Doe’s sweet meditation on being a guitar player and a new dad at the same time; a Trappist monk’s counting of the myriad sounds that make up the music of his day; the music latent in the Indian names for Oregon rivers; singer and songwriter Jennifer Crow speaking through Doyle about creating music; Kirsten Rian’s startling remembrance that starts out recalling when guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn died and then becomes something wholly unexpected; an essay on the music of sandhill cranes; a story by Pico Iyer—and the CD with 20 pieces of music.
I asked Doyle for how long had we wanted to do such a thing. “Oh dear, years,” he replied. “Credit where due: Mark Wood at Pomona [Pomona College Magazine] bound a CD into his magazine years ago, but his was all music from the campus, as I recall, and the thought niggled at me that o sweet mother of the baby Jesus wouldn’t it be cool to do a record of all sorts of wild music from all corners of the vast university community, alumni, and students and guests and friends and faculty and staff and everyone and anyone. Man, that would be way cool.”
What made the issue happen now was the capital campaign. Yes, the capital campaign. Said Doyle, “We are conducting that rare and lovely music, a campaign where everyone’s creative ideas for drawing people toward the university are not only allowed (holy moly!) but encouraged (what planet are we on?!), and paid for (what galaxy is this?!). The poobah running our campaign gets it that interesting ways to get people to lay ears and eyes on the university are actually fundraising efforts, yes? On the theory that people who attend to you will soon enough get absorbed by your drive and need, and help out.” Read the captions that accompany the many photographs of musicians and instruments and sheet music and you realize that this is the slyest campaign issue of an alumni magazine ever. Each one gently suggests that Portland could use help in remaining a place that fosters the making of music and fine prose and quality thought, and directs the reader to the campaign’s website. The CD is glued to a an insert that briefly explains the campaign.
Regarding that CD, which cost about $10,000 to produce, Doyle said, “Steve Forbert gave me a song. Steve Forbert!!!!!! who had been a visiting writer—we were intrigued by how songwriters are writers and don’t get the credit for writing stories. Neil Murray gave me a song, and he’s one of the greatest Australian songwriters there is. He’d written a piece for our magazine. An alumnus gave us a song and died two weeks later, 88 years old, lovely gentle wonderful man; his daughter told me the last grin she saw on his face was the news that every reader of the magazine would hear his lovely jazz tune. A wild young hip band named the Dimes gave me a song because they had had so much fun playing a show on campus. An alumna gave me a song from her country rock band and told me so many funny stories about singing in roaring bars at night and singing at church early in the morning that we ended up doing a whole feature on her. A student walked into my office and said she had recorded songs with her friends on a university program in Kenya, would I listen, and my heart sank, because the phrase recorded with friends usually means shrieking cursing howling awful vulgar sniggering rap, and her songs made me want to caper because they were so lively and happy and laughing. It was a total ball, this issue. Also I note with amazement that no one [among the musicians] asked for a penny.”
The only flaw in this whole exercise derives from Portland being perfect bound, which messed up a few of the photos that Doyle ran full across, full bleed. I asked him is this might the one time he wished his magazine were saddle-stitched. “Sigh. Yup.”
Let’s end with a medley, which feels appropriate, a medley of prose highlights. First, Connor Doe:
At one point during our rehearsal, my son, who was pretty new to being a son then, kept perfect time while banging the stick on the floor and grinning jubilantly. I’m not kidding. It didn’t last for more than a few beats, and probably it was a complete accident, but it was absolutely perfect. Maybe the best thing about being a dad is that perfect time is always possible.
By my count, some 68 percent of our native rivernames are three-syllable words. Most of the others are four-beat words. Walla Walla, Tualatin, Skomakawa, and Metolius survived the pioneers’ naming of things. The newcomers selected, from the home folks, the most melodious phonemes they heard for this new-to-them place. They adoped rollicking names for lively rivers, so different from the flat Platte and the languid Snake along the Oregon Trail. Imagine their relief, their joy. Even Methodists could hear the three-note riff here that goes bu-DEE-bu.
Sound rings off forever. There is no reconciliation point, even when it moves past our ability to hear. It’s out there somewhere still, echoing. It’s something to believe in, to know, even though it can’t be touched or seen. Like faith. Music plays itself in how it’s felt, in how the notes reverberate through the tiny bones in our ears, yes, but also throughout all the rest of us, a secular love rooted in the infinity of belief.
And, finally, Pico Iyer:
Once, high up in the nosebleed seats of Osaka Castle Hall in Japan, I closed my eyes and heard Eric Clapton take off on long silvery riffs on his guitar. He stood alone, completely motionless at the back of the state. His head lifted up, his eyes clearly shut. The music was playing him, more than the other way round. In fact it seemed to be streaming through him—he and his instrument just vessels—and enveloping us all in something beyond the reach of explanations. I didn’t have the words for it—I was embarrassed to hear myself saying it—but I didn’t care what his religion was or wasn’t (or mine, either): this was what the world sounded like when it was unbroken.