We didn’t personally interview the people we’ll tell you about here, but their stories–in their own words– seem especially appropriate  as we welcome the coming of spring after a long, hard winter. They also highlight the mysterious ability music has to help people survive in dire circumstances. 

We just saw a documentary film about Alice Herz Sommer, who died in London this February at the age of 110. She is being celebrated as the oldest living Holocaust survivor, but in pre-war Czechoslvakia she was also celebrated as a rising young pianist. We give you here a wonderful segment of that film, full of her music and wisdom at 109.

The captive audience in Theresienstadt, the camp where she and her little son were interned, knew that the concerts she played were being used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. (“We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year,” she said dryly.) Yet listening to that music also gave them hope and, she believes, kept many of them alive during those terrible years. They came in sick, she says, and after the concerts, they went out feeling stronger.

It literally saved the lives of Alice and her son, Raffi. Alice tells of a gripping moment one night when a young Nazi officer stopped her to thank her for her concerts and told her how much they meant to him. As he turned to leave, he added: “One more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay in Theresienstadt until the war ends.” And they did.

There are so many quotable ideas in this video and of course the music is wonderful.

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And here is another powerful story, one that is inspiring and harrowing in a different way.  Josh included this in his book, Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz (Yale University Press, 2004). In 1942 a Jewish trumpeter from Amsterdam, Louis Bannet—sometimes called the “the Dutch Louis Armstrong.”—entered the concentration camp at Auschwitz as a prisoner.

He learned that the camp was auditioning a handful of musicians for the camp orchestra. Taken to a room where instruments were lying around, he met two other inmates who, like him, were blue from frostbite. The leader of the music detail gave the signal for the audition to begin. The first two musicians struggled to make a sound on trombone and saxophone and could not. They were led away.

Then it was Bannet’s turn. “I was standing toward the back of the room and noticed a small stove in a corner …I inched toward the stove and placed my hands on top. My lips were frozen, so I started rubbing to warm them. As my friend placed a trumpet in my hand—I’ll never forget this …he said : ‘Louis, you must play for your life’ ”

At first he could make only a faint sound. Trying again, he was able to manage a few sputtering notes. Finally, just as the guards were walking toward him to take him away, he was able to burst out with the strains of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”

He continued to play in the camp orchestra until his liberation, and so he too survived. Here is the music that saved him.

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Whenever we see music described as “just” a stress-reliever, we tend to bristle at the dismissive tone of the comment.  It betrays a lack of understanding and appreciation of music’s value. On the other hand, music can be a real life saver when the world threatens to become overwhelming.

Our featured music lover this month contacted us because she wanted to introduce us to music that has truly transformed her life. The music she shared with us helps her focus better, be more creative in her work and more accepting of things she can’t change. Above all, it has exponentially increased her capacity to be happy and peaceful and to serve others, which are her greatest desires.

You may relate to her situation. She is in her early fifties, a psychologist and gerontologist.  She has a 2 hour commute to work and another 2 hours’ drive home. In between she works 8 hours conducting research on aging that includes a focus on end of life care.  She grew up loving music typical of her generation: Arrowsmith…The Rolling Stones…Carly Simon…Pat Benatar. She played guitar when she was young. A few years ago, during her mid-forties, the daily grind and growing stresses at home really began to wear her down.  (By the way, recent research suggests that the period from age forty to the mid-fifties is one of the most challenging and even unhappy times of life for many Americans.)

She started taking yoga to deal more directly with stress. She experimented with various kinds of yoga and settled on the Kundalini form, whose mantras and meditations were deeply calming for her. (See Ang Sang Waha Guru below for more on Kundalini Yoga.) That led her to discover the music she surrounds herself with nowadays. She listens in the car, in the gym, at home. She was raised a Catholic, but doesn’t see any conflict between religion and this kind of nondenominational “spiritual awakening.”

YouTube videos of a few of her favorite performers are offered below, with Josh’s comments. As you will see, this music comes in a wide variety of interesting forms. Let us know how you respond to what our interviewee calls “my music.” Tell us about the music that helps you deal with stress, that calms and frees you too.

Ang Sang Wahe Guru  

This famous kirtan or “praise eulogy” expresses a universal truth. Its essential message is that dynamic, loving energy, which is the Source Of All, dances within everyone’s cells. This piece is an example of a Kundalini Yoga Mantra Meditation. Kundalini Yoga  is called the “Yoga of Awareness” by its practitioners. It draw heavily on ancient sacred lyrics, or mantras, and aims to”cultivate the creative spiritual potential of a human being to uphold values, speak truth, and focus on the compassion and consciousness needed to serve and heal others.”

This performance unfolds with a hypnotically gentle rhythm  of 48 pulses per minute presented in a recurring series of four phrases, a peace-inducing rhythm reflecting a body at rest. The voices of the chorus are deeply moving as they sing in a narrow range that evokes a sense of warmth and intimacy, with the pure sound of duetting recorders providing contrast.

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Heart is thy Name, O Lord

Krishna Das, sometimes called the Rock Star of Yoga, performed this song at the 2013 Grammy Awards. The title refers to one of the seven chakras in the body while at the same time invoking Narayana, or God. His rendition has been described as a fusion of Kirtan (see the previous video) and the music of the Yardbirds. In a gentle high baritone Krishna Das chants the praise melody to the accompaniment of tabla and drones sounding a perfect fourth, a signifier of cosmic harmony. The narrow-range melody, sung in unison with the other musicians, pivots around a central pitch to communicate a state of blessed peacefulness at about 60 pulses per minute.

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 Your Light is My Guide

Hans Christian has been called “a supreme multi-instrumentalist ranging widely and worldly.” Speaking through his many instruments–which include the cello, deeply resonant crystal bowls, the sitara (a small sitar), the sarangi (a Northern Indian fiddle), and the nyckelharpa (a Swedish fiddle)–he invites us to join him on musical journeys that often fuse Western Classical with Indian and other musics. His improvisations take on an otherworldly quality through the use of live looping onstage, as you will hear in this video. This technique is common to much modern electronic music and uses technologies such as digital samplers, synthesizers, sequencers, tape machines, and delay units. A repeating section of sound material can be used to create recurring patterns that serve as a counterpoint to other melodic lines, building up a multi-layered texture that taps into deep feelings in the listener, taking you beyond the here and now.

Here is an example of Hans Christian’s artistry using just the cello with feedback looping.

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What Music Did You Love When You Were 14?

January 31, 2014

So many stories. So many moments of happiness…sadness…nostalgia…comfort…power…and so much more that our storytellers are willing to share with us. This is why we enjoy interviewing people like you about the music you love. Through gentle conversation, we try to understand what your music means to you. We believe that one person’s experiences can resonate for […]

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Drumming for Humanity

December 19, 2013

NOTE:  In January we will begin monthly posts featuring interviews with people who have talked with us about the music they love– music that has made a difference in their lives. If you have a story to share, please write to us at musicandhappiness@gmail.com or through the contact form here. We will keep your identity […]

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An Unexpected Gift of Forgiveness

November 26, 2013

FIRST — NEWS ABOUT 2014! Watch for our new series of posts beginning in January. We have been interviewing lovers of music of all kinds for several years. They have told us about the music they like to listen to most and how music has affected–sometimes even saved–their lives. We want to begin sharing their stories and music with you […]

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