Length: c. 20 minutes
About this Piece
I wrote the first major passage of this piece on September 9, 2020, the day the sun never came up in the San Francisco Bay Area. The sky hummed with a dark-orange glow, the only vestige of our star hidden by wildfire smoke high in the air. Already more than five months into the pandemic, which had stripped nearly every routine and accounting for the future, the feeling of becoming unmoored from the certainty of the rising sun, that engrained metaphor carried by a new day every 24 hours, cast an apocalyptic shadow unlike anything I’d experienced before or expect to experience again. And yet the music that I felt, the music that exists in the following pages, was ecstatic—music for dancing, the barbaric yawp, a scream of joy.
Art can be both descriptive and aspirational, it can be both a representation and an action which changes the world it enters, it can be of the past and for the future. In trying to look ahead towards a future that would contain this music, I had spent a great deal of time attempting to imagine from the pandemic’s windowless vantage point what artistic experience would feel necessary in that promised land. In the moment this piece began to erupt from me under the orange sky, it became suddenly, epiphanically clear that the music which I needed to exist was not an accounting of the suffering of this year—we have each of us lived it, and know to some degree its communal trauma—but rather an offering of the life we’re looking for, a transfiguration, the other side.
In this imagination, I was transported to the moment in Book I of The Aeneid (one of the most beautiful passages in all ancient literature) when Aeneas, having just fled the destruction of his home at Troy, early in his odyssey, lands in Carthage, where he sees a frieze on the outside of Dido’s palace. This frieze depicts the events of the Trojan War from which he just left—he sees, encased in image, in art, the lives and deaths of his friends and family, his whole life turned to story. He breaks down in tears and says to his friend Achates:
sunt lacrimae rerum, et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem.
There is no perfect translation for this (at least so far as I’ve encountered), but I would render it as:
These are the tears of things, the stuff of life touches my soul.
Release your fear—our story carries some salvation.
Aeneas, seeing himself and his own life—alongside the broader vision of his civilization, his history—for the first time as narrative, encased in art’s perspective beyond the vision of his own subjectivity, an object with the capacity to be shared across time and space, cries for all things.
The way I imagine it, these are not tears of sorrow—or at least not sorrow alone. These are the tears of everything, of the everythingness present in each moment, the superabundance of life’s experience, an understanding which we fear overwhelming us should we turn towards it too often. These are the tears of life’s entirety, of waking to the dance of shadows cast by leaves outside the window, of a memory of dad explaining something to me at a baseball game, of each thought and feeling in the endlessly interlocking ecosystem of human experience.
And from this vision, in a statement of profound optimism, Aeneas sees salvation in the transfiguration of that stuff of experience into the stuff of art. I imagine that in the world to come—the world where this music will be born, where you reading this will see my world hazily through the shroud of memory—something art can offer is the joy of this experiential transformation, the ecstasy of being together once more in a world that carries a shared past into a present and future filled with the everything of life. —Dylan Mattingly