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The Dancing Dead


“Danse macabre” really gets things moving.

The dead rising from their graves and making merry on Halloween night: That’s the story told by Danse macabre, an instrumental piece written by the 19th century French composer Camille Saint-Saëns.

The work is based on an old French superstition in which Death appears at midnight on Halloween and plays his fiddle, calling forth the dead to dance to his tune. As you listen to the piece, you’ll have no trouble envisioning a throng of grinning skeletons reveling through the cemetery as they celebrate their annual night of freedom from the grave.

Near the end of the piece, a rooster crows (an oboe, I think) to signal the coming dawn. The skeletons recoil in fright and glumly slink back to their tombs for another year.

My elementary school music teacher introduced me to Danse macabre waaay back when I was a little kid and I’ll always remember hearing it that first time. Every October I put it back into heavy rotation on my iPod and let the dead dance through my mind again and again.

The tune is about seven minutes long and is available on iTunes. You can also sample it with various video accompaniments on YouTube.

How limitations can actually fuel creativity

TheEdge1987Any U2 fans out there?

Do you know that song of theirs where the guitar player, Edge, has that really fast solo? The one where he’s burning up the guitar like Eddie Van Halen?

Just kidding. There’s no such song.

Edge doesn’t play flashy “guitar hero” stuff. In fact, he could barely play at all when the band started in 1976.

But Edge didn’t let his lack of traditional guitar chops stop him. Instead of bemoaning what he couldn’t do, he made the most of what he could.

As it turned out, his limitations proved to be a huge asset because they forced him to take an entirely different approach to playing the guitar:

• Rather than try to play lots of notes, he’d only play a few.
• He experimented with echo (lots!) and reverb to get cool sounds and textures.
• He used unconventional fingerings and left some strings “open” so they could ring out for a “bigger” sound.
• He avoided anything bluesy or minor-sounding, which made the band’s music “brighter” and gave it a kind of youthful exuberance.

The result of all this was that he ended up creating a completely original sound and style of playing, something every bit as identifiable as Bono’s voice and equally crucial to the band’s success. It’s a style that continues to inspire musicians to this day. (Edge explains his creative process in Davis Guggenheim’s 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, which also profiles Jimmy Page and Jack White.)

Now imagine for a moment if, back in 1976, Edge had said, “Well, I’ll never sound like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, so forget it.”

There’d be no “Where The Streets Have No Name” or “Beautiful Day.” I know my world would be less rich if those songs had never been written. Yours too, I imagine.

The lesson here, then, is pretty obvious. If you have a passion for something, don’t put it on the shelf because you don’t think you’re “good enough.” Don’t compare what you can’t do to what someone else can. (Comparison is the thief of joy.) Do your own thing and let it be unique. Whether it’s making music, writing a poem, designing clothes, creating a new vegetable soup recipe, building a table or painting a picture — do it. If you’ve got the desire, that’s more than most. Put yourself out there and see where your passion and your own distinctive approach will take you.