News is cascading — online, through the door, over the airwaves, and on television — about the tension in America. Racial tensions are center stage, and many of us cannot turn away. For myself, as a teacher, I feel the need to confront issues, to examine them from multiple angles, to press an issue — whatever it may be — deeply.
Oftentimes music may be seen as an escape, as a way to "check out" from day-to-day life and responsibility. Many of us listen to music while exercising, driving home from work, or while preparing supper. Music is in nearly every part of our lives — and yet, much of the time, it's in the background.
Recently, in a first-year composition course I teach, our discussion veered into the timely topic of Ferguson, Missouri. The room was graveyard silent. None of us dared tread out into the world of deep conversation. We listened to the silence. After a moment, I rose and turned on Franz Biebl's Ave Maria.
Biebl, who was a prisoner of war in Michigan during World War II, knew something about heartache, about feeling disquieted about modern life. The text, though sacred, transports the listener to an ethereal realm: we float above the detritus of modern life for only a few minutes.
The text of Biebl's Ave Maria is drawn from two sources: the Angelus, the part of Catholic worship that recalls the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she was with child; and the standard text of the Ave Maria.
We listened. We closed our eyes and breathed in and out while Chanticleer sang with clarity and emotion. No one moved. Many of my students are not religious — and yet there is something soaring, comforting, something that nests inside the listener during Biebl's piece. Maybe there is an element of grace.
When the piece ended, when the male choir lilted and flowed, singing "Ave Maria," I rose and turned off the music. I do not know if the piece was successful — or what that even means in the context of our national discussion. A few students dabbed their eyes.
I did not tell my students that Biebl was drafted in World War II, that he fought with the German army. Perhaps it was because, as a teacher, I didn't have the answer, didn't know what to say. I lived in my own silence, in my own wrestling with the issue. Our world is so very complex, so fraught with fear and tension. I listen to Biebl at home, sinking into his harmonies, into the text that is solace and support for those in pain, those in need, wondering where the quick and easy answer is. I cannot find it.
In choosing to listen to Biebl maybe it was my attempt, as a teacher, to be vulnerable, to let my students know that as we prepared for a winter break from school there is deep pain and deep suffering in the world — perhaps it was my desire to listen with my students to something of beauty in a busy and confusing world.
I simply rose and said, "Class dismissed."
Taylor Brorby is a writer, environmentalist, and GLBT rights activist. He received his M.A. in Liberal Studies from Hamline University in 2013, and is the current writer and communications consultant for the Dakota Resource Council.