CBF Field Personnel / Field Personnel Columns

Making music together is a force that opposes walls

By Jonathan Bailey

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”

These opening lines to Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” seem, frequently, to hover in the back of my mind as if to offer some peculiar perspective to things otherwise inexplicable. The poem gives glimpse to human nature’s proclivity to erect barriers, barriers by which we try to guard or protect ourselves or perhaps to hide behind. 

The adage “Good fences make good neighbors” would be a tired admission of the difficulty of maintaining relational harmony if it weren’t so easily done.  Things like a wall, you know, will keep you safe.  But if human nature’s natural energy is to separate, defend and/or ‘other-ize’, there are other, equally natural, forces at play whose energy might serve to counter or balance the inevitable effect of building walls either individually or collectively. And those things don’t love walls. They’d rather we exercised the impulse to knock them down. Newton’s Third Law of Motion notwithstanding, these two natural forces are not ‘equal though opposite.’ 

Since returning to Bali last month after a year-long sojourn in the states, I have begun to feel, myself, a kind of not-so-subtle something that doesn’t love walls, wants recognizing and, perhaps, counterbalancing. Music has always been part of my life, but I’ve never had so little around me as was the case this past year. I don’t mean listening to music. I mean playing it.

I’m not a professionally trained musician in case you were wondering, but I have played the cello all my life and Balinese gamelan for the last fifteen years or so. Cello is a gorgeous solo instrument capable of the most sublime and nuanced expression of the human soul, and I enjoy playing it immensely. But while I played in chamber orchestras long ago, nothing prepared me for the social aspect of playing music that I found in Bali.

It’s been one of the most profound experiences of my life, the sense of connectedness and collaborative expression that is a significant part of Balinese music. It’s the sense of being one with a group, in playing but also in the being together that comes naturally through musical bonding. It’s an aspect of my life that has been missing during the pandemic, this very specific way of expression and connection to others. I’ve realized that I’m a social musician.

It was one thing not to be surrounded by musicians to play with while in the states for the pandemic. It’s another to be back in Bali for a month and to not have played here either. Balinese musicians have lately begun to gather again to play gamelan for Hindu ceremonies so the dearth of music opportunity is not solely by government decree as it had been for most of the past year. 

Making music together is a force that opposes walls. (I’m resisting the temptation to illustrate by smugly pointing to the Battle of Jericho, but I’m not sure the metaphor would hold up.)

The key word here is ‘together’, and it’s not something I’ve felt much of this past year. Perhaps, while in relative isolation in the states, I got out of the habit of togethering through music, and now that I’m back in Bali, it’s taking some time for nature to do her work, for the energy to gather and move me to connect once again. And maybe it won’t be much longer because, in a few minutes, I’ll go to pick up a couple of instruments, bring them home and begin practicing once again. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” says Frost.  

Jonathan Bailey is a CBF field personnel serving alongside his wife, Tina, in Bali, Indonesia. Learn more about and support their ministry at www.cbf.net/bailey.

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