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Hearing the Pathway

This word originally appeared in my Fall 2017 Harvard Crimson column, "Difference Tones," which can be found here.

One of my favorite pieces of music is a short text by viola player and writer Martine Thomas ’18. The piece is titled “path”:

1 leave all possessions

behind 2 walk out

side 3 pick a

straight path 4 listen for

where you are 5 do not open

your eyes when you feel

afraid do not open

your eyes when you

lose a sense of place

6 open your eyes only

when you think you

have reached the end

of the path. 7—walk

[steady, straight, assured,


I encountered this piece nearly two years ago. Since then, I have come to know Martine as a friend, a classical violist, a writer, and more. Amidst all of these, this piece, “path,” continues to return and resonate with me, influencing the way I listen to music, to nature, and to the people around me.

The first time I performed “path,” I was outside of Holden Chapel behind Hollis. I marked out a straight path along the asphalt pathway, towards Harvard Hall. The low, soothing drone of a Hollis air conditioning unit passed my left ear as I walked. The impact of my rubber soles on the asphalt pathway made deadened taps, cushioned by quiet crunches from pebbles and other debris. Distant whirring from vehicles on Mass Ave. gently filled out the background. Every sound became hyper-present, as if our sonic outlook had moved from a standard to a high definition screen. An air conditioner had never before seemed so noticeable. Crunching asphalt debris had never before brought me back to memories of childhood, carefully placing my bare feet on pebbled paths, hearing the soft compression of tiny rocks, feeling them push against my soles. I heard car horns and whirring tires, sounds I hear every day as I wake up in Adams House. It was only in that moment though that I felt so aware of how different Harvard Square was from Orange County, California, where I had spent the first 18 years of my life. That 20-foot walk toward Harvard Hall uncovered not only the physical sounds around me, but also the nostalgia, pilgrimage, homesickness, and ambition that had underscored my Harvard career up until that point. It wasn’t that air conditioners, pebbles, or Mass Ave. were anything inherently special. In performing “path,” though, I heard these sounds up close. And with that proximity, all the internal change I had undergone during my time at college emerged as well.

Martine later told me she performs this piece every so often when she is walking through Harvard Yard, along the Charles, over a bridge. Not that she performs the “piece” explicitly; she just closes her eyes and listens as she walks to class. A lot of my conversation with Martine tends to focus on sounds she has heard, or things she has seen, as she goes about her day. Last week we talked about the construction at the to-be-renovated Lowell, and how it is easily heard from Kirkland. We also talked about a leaf she posted on Instagram, because she noticed it on the ground as she was walking through the yard. We talked about J. S. Bach’s Chaconne for violin, an intensely beautiful and difficult piece whose exertions are doubly demanding when played on the viola, the instrument she is studying at New England Conservatory. Martine’s longstanding love for Bach’s music comes from the way in which she can keep returning to it day after day, year after year, and continue to discover personal significance in it. Upon hearing that, I couldn’t help but visualize Martine in a practice room playing through the Chaconne, listening for where she is in the music, continually sensing and evaluating her place in the path she has marked out in the score, not dissimilar at all to a performance of “path.”

As a classical violist, Martine will play and hear Bach for the rest of her life. In her teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, even to her 90s, she will likely encounter Chaconne. Its pitches and rhythms carry the emotions and snapshots of herself from when she last played it. It is similar to the act of listening as one walks through “path”: she hears not only the intricacies of the Bach, but also the resonance of her past selves playing it. With that, her listening guides her steps forward as well, directing her steps along the path that is her musical practice. I am reminded of my experience behind Hollis, with its air conditioner, crunchy pebbles, and familiar drones of Mass Ave. In listening closely, it’s not that the sounds themselves reveal new meaning. Rather, in listening closely, I felt closely as well, as my memories were pulled forth by the physical sensations of sound waves hitting my eardrums. The boundary lines between music, sound, and person blur, as I read the text to “path.” Reflecting on my conversations with Martine, I am left with a strange contentment, a sense that listening can connect us to ourselves, just as much as it may connect us to a sound’s source.

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