Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Pitch Perfect, Ann LaMott and Riddles of Life (Jan-Feb 2002)

Filed under: — @ 12:44 am and

by Thom Lemmons
January – February, 2002

Today I’m thinking about perfect pitch and Anne LaMott.

Maybe I should explain.

Recently, a friend of mine discovered her seven-year-old son has perfect pitch. Somebody told him to turn his face to the wall, then played a note on the piano. The kid turned around, went to the keyboard, and played the same note. They repeated the process with a different note, and before the boy got to the piano, he asked, “Was that a black note?” Nobody answered, but it was. The kid nailed it. Perfect pitch: spontaneous recognition of a musical tone.

I heard another guy talking about this. He’s a music critic for a major newspaper and is blessed—or cursed—with perfect pitch. His wife bought him this great new car stereo system, but the cassette player ran just a little too fast. That meant the music he heard was reproduced anywhere from a quarter to a half step too high. In other words, instead of hearing a Mozart piano concerto in g minor, he was hearing it in something between g and g-sharp minor.

So, what’s the problem? you ask. The instruments in the recording are all affected the same way, so it should sound fine, right? Right—for people like you and me. But for this guy, whose nervous system was pre-set to hear g minor as g minor, not as something else, everything sounded weird, off-track—as if your best friend’s voice suddenly started to resemble Alvin the Chipmunk’s. His perfect pitch rendered his imperfect car stereo almost useless.

And that got me thinking about Anne LaMott. In Traveling Mercies, she describes the religious environment of her childhood: “…my father despised Christianity. …no one in our family believed in God… I went to church with my grandparents sometimes… But I pretended to think it was foolish, because that pleased my father…. None of the adults in our circle believed.” She talks about her own nagging sense of God’s existence, and her repression of that sense for fear of her parents’ disapproval. For various reasons, her life became a pretty big mess. Eventually, she got desperate enough to let God into her world. Today, Anne LaMott describes herself as “a bad born-again Christian.” That fits me, most days.

Maybe we all have something inside that works like perfect pitch. Don’t we all get the sense, some days, that some stuff just ought to be different than it is? Don’t we sometimes feel, like singer David Crosby, that “…there’s something goin’ on around here / that surely won’t stand the light of day”? Aren’t we all sometimes desperate for something—some fix, some cure, some sort of fulfillment—that we can’t even describe?

Maybe there’s something to it. Could it be, as St. Augustine said a few centuries back, that our souls are restless until they rest in God? Could it be we’re all really homesick for a native land we’ve never seen?

I’ll bet the cassette players in heaven run at the correct speed.

On Augustine

On Anne LaMott Wineskins

Thom Lemmons

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