The Soul, the Universe, and the Vastness of Music: Composer Caroline Shaw Brings Whitman and Tennyson to Life in the Spirit of the Golden Record
“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”
By Maria Popova
“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote as he contemplated the transcendent power of music half a century before this supreme hallmark of our species sailed into the eternal silence of spacetime aboard the Voyager, encoded on the Golden Record as the sonic fingerprint of what we yearn for and what we are — “atoms with consciousness.”
All of our most inexpressible feelings — our loneliness and our longing, our grief and our famishing hunger for meaning — are scale models of our great cosmic loneliness, microcosms of the immense silence of spacetime itself. And so, to bear it all, we sing — singing as sensemaking, singing as the supreme gesture that bridges lonelinesses, singing as the tonic gasp at the wonder of existence and the ravishing improbability of it all.
And yet music was not inevitable — nothing in our animal architecture calls for this extravagance of expression, nothing in the laws of probability inclines toward it. But once there was consciousness — which is also, arguably, not inevitable: look at every other planet we have studied — music arose from our complex consciousness, from this cathedral of thought and feeling: a byproduct as inevitable as god.
This glorious inevitability comes alive with uncommon splendor in The Listeners — the staggering oratorio composer, violinist, vocalist, and polymathic music-sibyl Caroline Shaw made for and recorded with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, inspired by the Golden Record dreamt up a generation ago by the poetic, prophetic Carl Sagan, who saw us as “a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”
Five centuries of celebrated poetry take on a new radiance in the light of Shaw’s music, recorded live at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California, in the spring and autumn of 2019. Among the spoken-word recordings that punctuate the sung poems, their soulful prose-poetry magnified by the orchestral magic, are Sagan’s own words from his iconic Pale Blue Dot speech and a recording the Secretary General of the United Nations made that NASA never asked for, but which Sagan found “so sensitively and gracefully composed, and so appropriate,” that they included it on the Golden Record:
We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universes that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.
The fifth piece on the record, titled “Of a Million Million,” inspirits Tennyson’s 1885 poem “Vastness” — a masterwork of moral clarity and scientific foresight that envisioned, epochs before the Kepler mission discovered the first exoplanet, a universe of innumerable possible worlds and held up, a century before Maya Angelou did, a mirror to humanity with lines of searing resonance today:
Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs after many a vanish’d face,
Many a planet by many a sun may roll with a dust of a vanish’d race.
Raving politics, never at rest — as this poor earth’s pale history runs, —
What is it all but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of suns?
Lies upon this side, lies upon that side, truthless violence mourn’d by the Wise,
Thousands of voices drowning his own in a popular torrent of lies upon lies;
National hatreds of whole generations, and pigmy spites of the village spire;
Vows that will last to the last death-ruckle, and vows that are snapp’d in a moment of fire;
Spring and Summer and Autumn and Winter, and all these old revolutions of earth;
All new-old revolutions of Empire — change of the tide — what is all of it worth?
What is it all, if we all of us end but in being our own corpse-coffins at last,
Swallow’d in Vastness, lost in Silence, drown’d in the deeps of a meaningless Past?
What but a murmur of gnats in the gloom, or a moment’s anger of bees in their hive? —
Peace, let it be! for I loved him, and love him for ever: the dead are not dead but alive.
But, to me, the crowning glory of the record is the second piece, drawn from Whitman — the poet laureate of astronomy, who called himself a “kosmos” and uniquely understood music as the profoundest expression of nature.
Caroline Shaw recomposes Leaves of Grass in such a way that the singer — bass-baritone Dashon Burton — enters Whitman’s river of language mid-stream, partway through the forty-sixth section of “Song of Myself,” culminating in that one exquisite line that titles the song:
Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.
Inexpressible feeling riding on a pillar of breath — the true Pillars of Creation, both steadying the soul and setting it free.
The Listeners, also savorable on Spotify, is an enchantment in its entirety. Complement it with one of Emily Dickinson’s deepest-feeling and farthest-seeing poems, brought to life in an animated song.
Published August 7, 2022