Most every concert I’ve ever been to, when the main act starts, the crowd goes wild. Everyone paid for it, everyone anticipated it, everyone is glad it’s finally here. Even when the music was slower, there was always something about that first note that sends the crowd over the edge.
There’s one notable exception in my experience: Patty Griffin’s Ryman Auditorium performance more than a dozen years ago.
To set the stage, the Ryman was and is Nashville’s premier performance hall, an honor for anyone who was asked to play it, the original Grand Ole Opry. Built as church in the late 1800s, seeing a performance there feels like a sacred experience. I don’t know any other venue I’ve been to with acoustics quite like it.
So when Patty began to play, something happened I’ve never seen: instead of thunderous applause, the crowd simply shut up.
She opened almost unexpectedly, her song playing before the lights came up, and when they did, I remember either a blue or green tint covering her.
She sat at a piano and sang in French a song I’d never heard her sing before, and I was pretty familiar with her music. We later learned the song was a kind of old hymn her mother used to sing to her when she was growing up in Maine.
The audience remained quiet the entire song, until at the end, she transitioned straight into one of her more upbeat tunes that everyone knew, and then and only then, the crowd went wild.
At the time, I hated it. I didn’t know the song, I didn’t care for lyrics I couldn’t understand, and though it was a pretty tune, I just didn’t really care for her starting the performance that way.
But over the years, it’s become the only song from the performance I could remember. It did something to the expectation of what a concert should be, turned that on its head, and made way for a different kind of moment fit for a hall that’s grand, especially a hall that used to be a church.
And what an interesting choice that when Patty was planning out her performance, she decided to open with something so tender and intimate, soft and unexpected. She effectively said, “I know I’m here to give them something special, so let me give them something truly special.” And then opened what was otherwise a regular concert with something truly from the heart.
Of course, if any musician is good at speaking to us from the heart, it’s Patty.
Art like that can be a gift, in a weird way. When we’re forced to get a new perspective, to shift our expectations even just a little and hear or see something that’s “foreign” to us, in more ways than one, and those small but crucial moments that nudge us to think or feel in a way we didn’t expect to, even if it takes a long time for us to see the value in it, are what–I think–make art, art.
That’s not to say the rest of Patty’s show wasn’t art. I can name dozens of shows I’ve been to, dozens of art galleries I’ve walked through, beautiful prose I’ve read, and all of it by the shear nature of being created for the purpose of creating, gives way to something we might call ‘art,’ but it’s not always the case that the song or painting that speaks to me, that jolts me, that I remember a dozen years later would be the same work for a totally different person.
Case in point, my friend Troy, who I think was also at this concert, had no memory of this moment. His only memory of Patty’s performance was there being “swirling lights at some point, like stars.” I have no memory of that. Frankly, I think Troy went to a Coldplay concert and just thinks he saw Patty Griffin.
Surely, though, if Troy saw the Mona Lisa or Starry Night or American Gothic, those would be memorable and etched into the heart in a way the other paintings he walked by weren’t. The question for me is whether his seeing any of those works moved something within him, altered his perspective, changed his tune–whether by their notoriety or by the fact they had such an impact on others. That is, while lots of ‘stuff’ can be called ‘art,’ I think I’m coming to this place of believing that the best art should do just that–change us.
But maybe it’s all the stuff that’s not art that makes what is so much more poignant when it has the power to move and change us. It’s a matter of our being and living in the world of the mundane or of the rote, raw, expected that the sacred is what most catches us off-guard, and yes, I realize I’m using the words “sacred” and “art” interchangeably here, and I think that’s intentional on my part.
Lately, I’ve spent so very much of my day, every day, dealing with the war in Ukraine. It’s daunting and emotionally draining, and the nature of my work can sometimes take me down paths where I feel like death surrounds me.
The aggression in the war in Ukraine is not that different to what we saw in Syria, and yet I’m still astounded by the lack of humanity: the use of white phosphorous; the intended targeting of civilians, including journalists; the shelling of communications towers; rapes and forced migration; the intentional destruction of 50,000 tons of food. It’s hard to not call that genocide.
So, amid reading and writing about all of that destruction and violence, when a light shines in that darkness, it’s particularly powerful:
True art will show the world that, even from a bomb shelter, no amount of destruction or death can take away who we were born to be, or silence us from what we were born to say. I guess it’s strange that we might call that art “unexpected” or “sacred” because in fact, it’s at the heart of what we humans do best. We should expect it, and maybe those less cynical than me do.
But for every concert, every painting, every act of creation, every one of us are gifted the ability to change the tune, to alter our perspectives and the perspectives of others, even when the world around us seems to be painted in the same dark hue, and no one can take that power from us, unless we give in to the temptation to have it stolen, and even when that temptation may seem our only option, the relinquishing of hope an understandable and expected event, the very next moment may be different.
The next moment may be art. It’s sure to be sacred.