There’s physiological evidence to support the idea that making music as an ensemble creates camaraderie and closeness that would not come without it. When ensemble singers perform, their heartbeats synchronize– this unifies them, making them into an amalgamation of one rather than a bunch of soloists trying clumsily to outdo each other. It’s why, throughout my life, I have been comfortable calling my choruses (choir, a cappella, and the like) my family. It’s more than annoying, manufactured closeness out of necessity– we share chemical bonds, as real as the desperate-for-sleep weepy hormones that are causing me to write this piece right now.
I’m fortunate in that I am a musician and music and I are good friends. We go way back, and we’ve always gotten along famously. I think everyone kind of has a really unique and interesting relationship with music, whether or not they always see eye to eye. Deep down, I think we’re programmed to love music, to want to make and share it with the people we care about. It is a part of us, again, down to the molecular level– in a fun science fact musicians and non-musicians alike can appreciate, our heartbeats sync to the rhythm of the songs we listen to. Our personal relationships may be complicated, but, at the very least, they are mutualistic. As much as music becomes a part of us, our heart-rhythm makes us a part of music.
My friend Josh and I met the first night of college and almost immediately bonded over a love of singing and music. We ended up being accepted into the same a cappella group. Since the Muhlenberg Chaimonics took us under their lovely, supportive wings, our friendship has evolved to the point where now we’re the kind of people who send each other music we think the other person will like, which is, if I do say so myself, the greatest.
Something I’ve known about Josh for most of our friendship is his love of Simon and Garfunkel: a band I, too, grew up with, but I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone with more reverence for those guys. He worships them, constantly harmonizing their stuff with his roommate and filling his phone’s limited space with music from their Greatest Hits album. When I found out Paul Simon would be coming to Philadelphia this June and that tickets would not cost me an appendage, I knew I had to let him know and I knew we had to go to this concert. Paul had always been a bucket list performer for me, and the idea of seeing him with someone who thought the world of him and his music was too great to pass up. Watching passionate people interact with the thing they’re passionate about has always made me feel most whole.
So we bought tickets, waited a few months, dealt with a few possible snafoos, and finally, on the evening of the concert, Josh made it to Philadelphia. We got dinner and called an Uber to take us to the venue. Our driver, Jonathan, showed up in a black Nissan Altima and almost immediately launched into conversation with us– he’d seen we were going to the Mann Center and he wanted to know what was going on there. We told him we’d be seeing Paul Simon and it became evident that he had never heard of that person. We started joking about being the youngest audience members there by decades, not unlike what happened when we’d seen Jersey Boys on Broadway several months earlier.
Jonathan’s addition to the conversation was a comparison to the crowds at the old-school rap concerts he’d been to– they were all older and lamer than him, but he still went because he loved the music and the scene. Comparing 60s folk-pop and 90s hip-hop-R&B does kind of feel like the apples-and-oranges cliche, but, in reality, when I’m thinking about it, Jonathan knew what was up. It doesn’t honestly matter what kind of music he was talking about. He knew that an anecdote about generational music-listening would resonate with us no matter the genre– and it did. Dude got and deserved his five-star rating. Talking to him about life and having a good time would always find its way back to a discussion of a festival or concert or some kind. All roads lead to music. Differing genre creates a different sound, but the experience of listening to music you love is just the same; styles might be at odds with each other, apples and oranges– but the overarching effect is all apples.
To say Paul Simon is good live would be a gross understatement. His concert was the most relaxed I have been in a very long time– there was no pressure to do anything or be anywhere and it felt right to just be there, surrounded by people and love of music.
This leads me to a question my brother asked me a day before the concert: “What is the point of seeing people live? You’re paying a lot of money to listen to the same music you can listen to at home for free.” I was thinking about that a lot because my answer is always “the experience, the experience,” but I didn’t really have a definition for that experience. I do now. Music has the capacity to be both deeply personal and communal. You can be affected by music listening to it on your own and you be affected by music sitting in a 14,000 seat stadium. The latter is just a different kind of affectedness. Seeing someone live means your heartbeat that synchronizes with “The Boxer” when you’re listening to it with earbuds synchronizes thousands of times over, creating a network of individuals that becomes an ensemble in the same way music builds layer by layer. Every single person in that crowd traveled to the Mann Center that night to see Paul Simon. We may have come alone, or with one other person, or with our whole family, but we were really all there together, witnessing magic. I don’t know if I ever really lived until I lie-la-lied with a crowd of people that size.
Right after he played “The Boxer,” Paul played “The Sound of Silence,” artfully exhibiting the multifaceted stay power of communal music-listening. Josh told me after that he didn’t have the words to express what the performance had just meant to him, and I completely understood. Singing along with “The Boxer” felt like the most appropriate response; we all knew it and we all wanted in on the iconic melody. While we all knew “The Sound of Silence” as well, we also knew the song was more intimate and deserved our undivided attention. Paul’s band left the stage; it was just him and a guitar and 14 thousand of us each feeling like he was singing directly to us and giving us a big hug while he was doing it. In that way, the personal and the communal became interspersed. We were all having our own experiences with the song but we were having them together. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the pin-drop silence that fell when he opened his mouth to sing, or the huge cheer from the audience when he referenced the “ten thousand people, maybe more” he could see in the naked light. Intimacy in performance, evidently, is not contingent on a tiny, backdoor venue.
Josh had a bus to catch out of 30th Street Station at 6am, so we got up really early to get on the road. I am not a morning person by any stretch of the word– I’m not generally thrilled to be anywhere before noon, much less before 5am. I sat down in the passenger’s seat, exhausted, semi-terrified that I’d fall asleep before we got downtown. The music that plays in my mom’s car leaves something to be desired, and I don’t even know what song was actually playing when this happened, but exhausted-Josh started exhausted-singing “Kodachrome,” a neat Paul Simon solo song from the 70s. A while ago, he sent me a really cool live version of the song with both Simon and Garfunkel singing it in really pretty harmony, so exhausted-Sarah decided she was going join in. We sang lyrics, we sang background instruments, we attempted harmony– we weren’t trying to make it sound good, but the weird little impromptu singalong that ended in hysterical laughter woke us up and prepared us for our long drive down the highway.
So, yes, we sounded terrible, but it was another instance of music being the driving force behind a memorable moment. It was a snapshot of the previous night, localized in two concertgoers. In all my rumination about community music-listening and the coolness of seeing one performer in a huge crowd, I’d forgotten that not only had I seen a concert with thousands of rabid fans, but I’d seen a concert with one of my best friends. I’d done a good thing by broadening my relationship with music to include the entire audience, but I’d also neglected considering my relationship with music in regard to Josh, who I’ve sung with and listened to music with and argued about music with and shared music with for a year and plan to sing with, listen to music with, argue about music with, and share music with for years to come. Music is our protein. As incredible as it was to see the concert, I’m so glad I have a friend with whom I can share small-scale musical moments, too.