For UVA music professor Fred Everrett Maus, there is much more to music than meets the ear. It presents listeners with the opportunity to understand gender, sexuality, memory, and more.
“Music teaching sometimes makes music into an object, studied by examining external properties,” Maus says. “In all my research and teaching, I have wanted to direct attention to experiences that people have in the presence of music.”
“I invite my students to give careful attention to their own experiences, and then to try to imagine the experiences of others,” says Maus, who is also the co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Music and Queerness, which has essays on musical genres ranging from Irish traditional music to hip-hop, as they relate to the LGBTQ+ community.
Reading Maus’ poem “Play a Note” is an experience, too. The poem recently won the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library/WriterHouse fifth annual Poetry Contest for Adults, with entries judged by Virginia poet laureate Henry Hart. While COVID-19 might invite works of art that explore quietude, isolation, and fear, Maus’ poem is loud, lively, and inquisitive. Hart calls the piece “rhythmical” in its progression from the “creation of sound to the creation of silence to thoughts of a divine creation.”
The poem incorporates tenets of meditation, a practice Maus teaches through the Insight Meditation Community of Charlottesville. In 2015, he began teaching meditation through the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women’s Blue Ridge Prison Program, which is now on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. He says he finds the mindfulness practice valuable, as it teaches him new ways to process tension and change.
“Play a Note” investigates “sustained attention to minimal stimulus,” says Maus, with verbal instructions reminiscent of those from a music teacher or guided meditation. The poem takes the imperative voice as it commands readers through pronouns like “you.” It’s a form reflected in the works of composer and performer Pauline Oliveros’ “Deep Listening Pieces,” and Fluxus group artists like John Cage, whose “4’33″” instructs performers to sit at a piano without playing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, as audience members hear only the sounds of their surroundings.
Yet Maus’ poem ends with images and sounds very different from the meditative practice of acknowledging external stimuli without commentary. He brings the reader from an internal reverie into “hundreds” of “squandered” and “thrown” noises and faces of the streets outside—perhaps reminiscent of today’s world, after all.