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November 29, 2007

Something Perfect: The Silence of a Candle

Candle In an old joke, a Buddhist monk walks up to a hot dog vendor and says, "Make me one with everything."

For reasons that I understand but I'm not sure I can adequately articulate, this joke came to mind as I prepared to write about one of my top-five pieces of music: The Silence of A Candle by Ralph Towner and Oregon. (In addition, I don't think we've ever used Buddhist humor here at The Point.)

As the New York Times once put it,

The beauty of Oregon's music owes a lot to its sheer improbability. Since 1970, Oregon has blended styles and instruments that rarely intersected elsewhere. Celtic-tinged melodies abut Minimalist permutations and jazzy chromaticism; Paul McCandless's oboe improvisations over Glen Moore's jazz bass and Ralph Towner's classical guitar. Oregon's disparate elements share a peaceable realm of thoughtful, playful inquiry.

This improbability-leading-to-beauty has never been more perfectly captured than in The Silence of a Candle. (Indulge me and stop for a second and meditate -- that is right word -- on the title: The Silence of a Candle. It's a kind of koan: candles are silent but that silence can signify more than the absence of parts that produce noise. Looking into the flame has a way of stilling our minds and making the rest of the world seem silent . . . Anyway, back to Towner's song.)

As one critic wrote, The Silence of a Candle is "an elementally sad sketch that almost suggests the sunset of a life." Like Witchi-Tai-To, Oregon has recorded the song several times, the first time (that I'm aware of) in 1972 on their album Music of Another Present Era and, most recently, on their 1995 album Beyond Words.

But there's one version that stands out: in April 1975, the group played the song for an invited audience at Vanguard Records' studio for what would become Oregon in Concert. Unlike their 1972 version, which lasted barely more than 100 seconds, this version lasts nearly 10 minutes. In those ten minutes, the quartet, led by the late Collin Walcott on sitar (yes, the sitar) went beyond a "peaceable realm of thoughtful, playful inquiry" and achieved a kind of perfection.

The opening, featuring Walcott's sitar, suggests the flames of the candle -- it burns brightly, as if to summon the listener's attention. Once inside the flame, a sitar-bass clarinet duet (how's that for improbable?) plays the basic theme, followed by acoustic bass and acoustic guitar solos.

To call the quartet's playing virtuostic would be to miss the point: Oregon's playing is never less than virtuostic. What happened that night was more on the order of transcendent. The Thomas Merton-wannabe side of me catches a glimpse of the ineffable that I've spent most of my life chasing after. It's a bit like what C.S. Lewis described in Surprised by Joy, only it's more than Sehnsucht: it's, well, IT.

Hence, the joke about the monk and the hot-dog vendor. Now, I rather doubt that anyone else will have quite the same reaction to The Silence of a Candle. Still, that it can do this for one person while taking others into a "peaceable realm of thoughtful, playful inquiry" where beauty "takes your breath away" makes it -- you guessed it -- something perfect.

Candles are silent
Just like our souls must be if
They seek after God

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