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Music as a Means of Detecting a Heart

by Garrison Keillor

Posted: April 27, 2023

I sat next to my sweetheart and after years of thinking I was averse to modern music, here was a hymn to joy and time, movement, rhythm, life and death…

At least once in your long and delicious life you owe it to yourself to go hear Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-symphonie” and don’t wait until you’re 80 as I did but finally last week went to hear the New York Philharmonic take us on this wild 90-minute roller-coaster ride in which Catholics are kidnapped and Baptists go Buddhist and you think in French and fly in a formation of geese and get a taste of molecular physics as horses go galloping down the aisles, and in the gorgeous slow passage “Garden of Sleeping Love” you will fall in love forever with the person next to you so be very careful where you sit.

I sat next to my sweetheart and after years of thinking I was averse to modern music, here was a hymn to joy and time, movement, rhythm, life and death, with big Wagnerian chords, delicate intervals, a dozen percussionists, a genius pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and we’ve been happily married ever since.

It’s not often a person gets to experience euphoria. For years I imagined alcohol could do the job if I could just find the right brand but eventually I gave up on that. Sometimes in church I’ve felt it. When I was 11,  I got to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I sang the Dead’s “Attics of My Life” once with two women and got a little high from it. And one night before the Philharmonic I experienced it at the Bowery Ballroom on Delancey Street listening to Aoife O’Donovan and Hawktail and the phenom fiddler Brittany Haas and it made the big crowd go wild to see artists overcome gravity and simply float.

Aoife and Messiaen, two transcendent tours on successive nights: it makes living in Manhattan worth the trouble and expense. You can eat expensive mediocre food in loud restaurants, almost get run over by e-scooters, deal with surly salesclerks, cabs stuck in dense traffic, extortionate rents, impenetrable bureaucracy, but the museums and trains and tulips in spring and the occasional transcendental experiences make up for it. Two nights of mind-blown beauty make me want to start my career all over again.

But the world has changed, of course. Taylor Swift, the middle-aged 14-year-old, has kicked off another tour, taking self-absorption deeper than ever before in human history, standing on a stage in front of 70,000 fans who each identify deeply with her, saying, “Tonight is so special and you have led me to believe, by your being here, that it is special for you too and it’s so nice that this is mutual. I don’t know how to process this and the way that it’s making me feel right now.” Who in the entire history of show business has ever talked like this? A woman adoring her fans for their adoration. The iconic emptiness of it is phenomenal. How does she maintain her powerful insecurities despite being a billionaire? The mind is boggled. Did Elvis tell the crowd he was so overwhelmed by their coming to see him that he was confused by it? No, he was Elvis.

But you walk out the door and across the street, into the park, and bubblegum disappears, and you’re among real people watching their kids, walking their dogs, jogging, looking at birds, reading the paper, enjoying city life. The city relieves you of the burden of narcissism. People look out for each other in the crowd, make way for the elderly, for people with kids, pay attention to the musicians playing under the trees. And then you remember that night at the Philharmonic, the moment the symphony ended, the maestro relaxed, and the crowd jumped to their feet to whoop and applaud.

Messiaen is dead. He didn’t create a cult, he created a masterpiece, and it lives on. It can’t be played by any orchestra in town, it’s too ferocious, but in the right hands it is a priceless gift to the audience. Same with Brittany Haas. I’ve heard hundreds of fiddlers in my day, all with their virtues, and they strove hard to find something and she simply has got it in her pocket. She stands on their shoulders. She can do it all and a ballroom full of people got their socks knocked off. Messiaen and Haas, you hear the music, you don’t envy them or admire them, the music simply goes through you like radio waves and proves that you’re alive.

America's story teller, known for his heartland wit and wisdom, and for many years as the voice of Prairie Home Companion on NPR. For additional columns and postings, subscribe to

Posted: April 27, 2023

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