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How Music Soothed the Whining Boy (And His Dad)

How Music Soothed the Whiney ChildYou know how it begins: We were supposed to be on a fun family adventure.

My wife, my son, and I woke up to an ideal fall Saturday, with the leaves of New York City’s street trees peaking in vibrant hues. At breakfast, we discussed leaving town for a hike, but a quick search revealed how difficult (and expensive) it would be to head upstate for only a couple of hours. Because let’s be real here — Felix is four years old. Once upon a time my wife and I would’ve traipsed through the woods all day and then ended up ruddy cheeked and tired at a bar for beers and fries, but these days we curtail our jaunts to a four-year-old’s limited attention span and capabilities.

So, wanting to go beyond our Brooklyn backyard, we trucked uptown to Fort Tryon Park, which, at the top of Manhattan, overlooks The Palisades in New Jersey, across the Hudson River — a sliver of nature on the edge of the great urban sprawl.

The best part? Our trip had a goal. After a half mile walk through the park’s fall foliage we’d reach The Cloisters, the branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art that specializes in medieval art. We were under no illusion that medieval art would be of any interest to Felix, but we figured he’d at least enjoy the walled gardens and get a kick out of some of the statues.

Oh, but no matter how perfect the weather, or good a mood mom and dad were in, or the beautiful surroundings, the trip became one of those things an opportunity for Felix to test us, to drag his feet, to say NO. I’m bored. I want to go home. I’m hungry. When can I watch TV? All the usual laments and grievances, aired in either a high-pitched annoying whine or announced at the top of his lungs so that the other people in the park — none of whom were laden with defiant children — gave us those looks, like what are you doing bringing a child like that to a peaceful place like this? Of course, Felix being Felix (or should I say, Lil’ Oedipus) , he threw in a few “I want mommy, not daddy” cries too. So much for a family outing.

While Felix stopped for a snack break every ten or fifteen feet, I took some solo walks and reflected on that perennial question: Why isn’t parenting easier? Am I really cut out for this thing? I got nowhere on these questions.

In The Cloisters, Felix’s attitude didn’t get any better — surprise, surprise — and so after dragging him around the garden for ten minutes we decided to go. That’s when we stumbled onto Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet in the Fuentidueña chapel. In 2001, Canadian artist Cardiff recorded a motet, a classical piece of choral music, composed by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis for forty voices. Cardiff mic’ed each individual in the choir, and tied each mic’s feed to an individual high-fidelity speaker mounted at or near ear level. In the description of the piece, Cardiff said that her hope was to “get inside the music,” and that’s what it sounds like — the choir’s voices surround you in the space, coming from all around, ebbing and flowing as each singer enters and leaves the song.

The music washes over you. It’s gorgeous, and an amazing acoustic illusion, as the singers sometimes sound as if they’re right behind you, whispering in your ear, or just off to the left, belting out their notes. Around the chapel, listeners stood still, their faces slack with calm, eyes closed or unfocused, staring at nothing. And though the space was crowded, the song played unopposed — no one said a word.

As my wife used the bathroom, Felix and I looked into the chapel. He was curious. “What are they listening to?” I explained that he would have to be quiet, and then held him in my arms so that he could best experience the piece (the speakers are set for adults, not children’s heights). Also, the way the day was going, I worried about him running circles around people’s legs.

I needn’t have fretted. Upon entering the song, Felix’s body went slack for the first time since getting off the subway, and he rested his head against my cheek. My wife found us in there, and said he had a look of utter peace on his face, and a slight smile.

“You like this?” I asked him.

“Yeah, Daddy,” he said, and then tightened his grip.

When the song came to an end we filed out of the room. “Abracadabra,” Felix whispered in my ear. “Abracadabra — sing again.”

And so we stayed a bit longer, listening as the motet repeated. For five, maybe ten minutes or so, the three of us stood still, Felix in my arms, my wife’s hand on my back, in calm awe of the majesty and richness of the human voice. We were, for the first time that day, completely at ease, together.

The trip home went smoother after that, or perhaps I was just in a better mood to grin in the face of Felix’s teeth gnashing, and gently coax him through his swinging moods. That small moment in the chapel drowned out all the rank attitude, its echo lasted the rest of the day.

Perhaps that is what parenting is about: soldiering through the crap that makes you want to give up and walk away — the trials that test not only your patience but your love, leading you to, if not regret having a child in the first place, at least question whether or not you’re cut out for it — in order to reach a few minutes of blissful togetherness. These small harmonies, like the individual voices in the motet, build up to an astounding, intricate melody. But amid the many silences, throat-clearings, warming-ups, and off-notes of the day, it can be easy to forget this tranquility. One pure pitch, though, and that’s it. You’re in love again, and with certitude.

Abracadabra — sing again.

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Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet is on display at The Cloisters until December 8, 2013.

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