4 Songs & People 1:4


In the video “Soon Coming to a Social Media Near You,” I said that the first of our 4 Songs & People would be “Der er noget i luften“—Danish for “There’s Something in the Air.” And so it is. (To access the videos, just click on the titles in blue.)

I also told you I’d see you again very soon. That was in August, so I guess “very soon” depends on your perspective. I recorded the song for you in the sweltering heat of summer and planned to post it then with written material to accompany it. The plan was to post the song at the opposite end of the year from Christmas, a way to encourage hearing the song outside of its traditional context. Yet winter is already upon us (it’s even snowing outside) and waiting ‘til next summer…well…no. As last summer fined away into fall, I was massively retarded by trains across Europe, as well as business in France and China. Schedules on screens did not hold. For decades, we’ve been sold the vaunted time-saving magic of software, but what about the oceans of hours spent securing and maintaining all that digital stuff, and the way it affects the way we think and act, on screen and off? We’ll dwell further on the retards another time. For now, let it suffice to say that they are not without relation to the questions that have motivated 4 Songs & People: very human issues, persisting still, now in an age mesmerized by visions of ever greater productivity, power, and perfection.

In my youth, I taught guitar off and on, from high school to nearly the end of medical school. Basically, though, as a musician, I’m an amateur, and mostly play with family and friends. So, what’s behind the present postings? Aside from the joy of playing, I have in mind not mesmerizing visions of perfection, but human issues as wellsprings of yearning and doing, expressed in music and words. Recording Mississippi John Hurt’s “My Creole Belle” for a young Danish friend made me once again think about the ways music affects us. Without words or common logic, music can make people laugh or cry, think or numb, soothe or inflame. Music has its way of speaking to us, cognitively and emotionally. Sometimes it elicits a wide pallet of thoughts and emotions, on other occasions, a surprisingly narrow range of them, or nothing. Music—including lyrics, i.e., words put to music—may entirely circumvent our consciousness to reach something within us that first manifests itself after the fact. Hence, music may serve to explore the space between you and me, between you and yourself, me and myself, us and others.

Try to reduce music to a formula or force it to serve specific ends, and chances are it will manage to resonate beyond these limitations. Not surprisingly, political regimes and religions through the ages have gone out of their way to control musical expression (some still do). We’ll leave the politics be for now. Here, differences are our reference, and, importantly, the time necessary for them to bear fruit. Ever notice how the same piece of music elicits different reactions in different people and often they don’t know why or how? To paraphrase the first line of “Der er noget i luften”: There’s something in the air, but I don’t know what it is.

Let’s sing and try to find out.

The song was introduced to me years ago by a Dane named Anders Krag. We were in our late 20s and early 30s. Since the lyrics reach beyond the now we are wont to think eternal, since it puts generations in play, I find it noteworthy, looking back, that the song was enthusiastically recommended by such a young man. Both the melody and the lyrics were written in 1913 by another Dane, Vilhelm Gregersen. Though it is officially a Christmas song (to some, a Christmas carol even), it is clearly more than that. What has increasingly engaged me about this song is the way it expresses in all simplicity the losses life ineluctably imposes on us and the uses it makes of them. Losses are the wilting of roses, the departure of birds as winter approaches, the distant memory of childhood, the passing of generations. In our age, such things must be fixed, and fast. When the going gets rough, as it invariably does from time to time, lurks denial, hatred, and divisiveness. Yet not in “Der er noget i luften.” Where losses and differences elsewhere readily serve as reasons for rows, they are here the stuff of which communal bonds are made. As roses wilt, their fragrance endures in memory, and both the wilting and the fragrance feed the web of significance between people. It is an opportunity to connect…and an invitation to translate.

Translate? But does not music, more than words, defy translation? Well, even so, all the more reason to strike a blow for the process of translation.

Translation is the footing on which 4 Songs & People rests, the socle on which interpretations build, and the point from which they emanate, consciously or not. Translation takes place not only when ferrying between languages. It is also at work in music, in biology, in physics, and on their respective interfaces. It is interesting in this regard that the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2021 was attributed not for the impressive work done developing mRNA vaccines, but for the elucidation of fundamental mechanisms by which physical input to the senses is translated into chemical and electric messages in the body that in turn can be perceived and interpreted by the central nervous system. In this instance the Nobel committee prioritized “how do we do it” over “just do it”—a judicious choice in our polarized, compartmentalized, just-do-it times. Translating has and is often seen as a distracting difficulty in communication and those who practice it, the invisible servants of authors writing in one language and readers reading another, or speakers addressing a foreign audience. The task is further underappreciated in our day as instrumentalizations of all sorts run rampant. We increasingly rely on machine translation, enlisting the aid of artificial intelligence to make it faster and more accurate. “Why not?” you might pertinently ask. Why deny us the benefits of technological advances? Indeed. As long as we have some idea of what our success threatens to have us lose. Here the stakes are high, as what we might lose is nothing less than agency, i.e., our place as humans in the interconnected webs that bind us. So, you see, translating is more than a technical task. It is a voyage, a way of exploring how people connect and disconnect.

Now, let’s go ahead and translate the lyrics of the song. When the translation task is easy, no problem. Take the title of our song. The translation into English is a no-brainer. A simple, literal translation will do the trick.

After that, things get more complicated. Literal translations won’t do. There are issues to consider, expressions, shades of meaning, choices and sacrifices to make. Add to that, that interpretations invariably color the translation process. For the translator/interpreter, it’s a more or less a conscious part of the job. But people translate all the time; their translations just take place below the radar, unconsciously. The interpretation is what we act upon consciously. As such, what we base our interpretations on can have far-reaching consequences. All the more reason to remind us that in its heart of hearts, translating implies ferrying between languages in ways that seek to be both true to the original and hearable in translation.

Let’s move on to the lyrics. You’ll find the original Danish in its entirety first, then repeated with an English translation below each line:

Now with a translation in English:

Now, time for the music video. To access it, simply click on the Danish title, “Der er noget i luften.” You’ll find there’s more to the video than song and guitar. There’re the visuals, a pixie cap with flashing lights in the middle of summer. As it turns out, I’m posting this as winter approaches, but no matter, barring a major outage of the Internet, it’ll still be here next summer. Whether summer or winter, we don’t completely abandon yuletide or the trappings of our time, even as we let the lyrics have their say.

Play, sing, translate, and think.