Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life

How Musical Awe Embraces Us in Community

I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in this music.


Yumi Kendall senses the world in musical forms. When she hears the horn of a Honda, she tells me, it is a G-sharp, and B-natural in a minor third. At a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, a foul ball

hits the rafters nearby—to her ears and mind, it is a pure B. C major is her home base, where she feels open to the world.

Yumi’s mother was raised in a traditional rice-farming village in Japan. Upon learning of her parents’ plans for her marriage, she said “no” with youthful gusto, Yumi tells me, and moved to St. Louis, Missouri. There she began a new life as a babysitter, taking care of children who studied violin with Yumi’s grandfather, John Kendall, who brought the Suzuki method to the United States. In the context of those lessons, Yumi’s mother met John Kendall’s son; they married and created a very musical family.

Yumi was breastfed listening to her older brother learning the violin. At five, Yumi chose the cello. Playdates were chances to play music with childhood friends. She fell asleep to a lullaby her dad sang nightly. When Yumi recounts this to me, she begins to sing ever so faintly:

Come over the sea in my boat with me The waves are breaking high

It’s up and down we wander

Beneath the summer sky . . .

Lullabies are a sonic medium in which parents create somnolent awe, ushering in the wonders of sleep and dreams. Those lilting songs, mixed in with the rituals of gentle touch and soothing words, shift the child’s physiology to a high-vagal, oxytocin-rich profile associated with a sense of belonging and connection. This is true for infants, one study found, even when listening to lullabies from other cultures. Lullabies integrate parent and child into the high-touch, synchronized patterns of community, and occasion early embodied ideas about locating ourselves within them.

Today, Yumi is an award-winning cellist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, a position that was not easy to attain. Since the 1970s, performers have auditioned behind screens, but that didn’t always prevent conductors from rejecting Yumi upon discovering her gender—even after judging her the best. Seeing Yo-Yo Ma play Bach’s Cello Suites, though, was an experience of musical awe and moral beauty: it taught her that a human being can play these complex pieces in one sitting, no matter the gender and racial biases of the times.

For Yumi, music is a symbolic medium of awe. It is where we express and understand together what is vast and mysterious, and how we make sense of the wonders of life. This notion found full expression in the writings of the Romantics, who viewed music as the artistic realm of the sublime. Beethoven, a hero of Romanticism, created music that, in the words of E. T. A. Hoffmann, “sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism.”

Fifty years after the era of Romanticism, Charles Darwin timed his daily walks near gardens to listen to the music in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. The local flora and fauna and music fed his thinking as he wandered and wondered about evolution. These encounters opened his mind to questions:

I acquired a strong taste for music, and used very often to time my walks so as to hear on week days the anthem in King’s College Chapel. This gave me intense pleasure, so that my backbone would sometimes shiver. I am sure that there was no affectation or mere imitation in this taste. . . . Nevertheless I am so utterly destitute of an ear, that I cannot perceive a discord, or keep time and hum a tune correctly; and it is a mystery how I could possibly have derived pleasure from music.

Mysteries of musical pleasure indeed.

Scholars of music have long believed that we create and appreciate music to understand emotions like awe. Here we ask: How? And why?

Darwin’s reflections hint at three answers. A first is found in Darwin’s musical “shivers,” that bodily sign of merging with others to face mystery and the unknown. It is a human universal to get the chills and tear up when moved by music. That is because we listen to music, philosopher Susan Sontag rightly observed, with our bodies. Or as Miles Davis put it upon first hearing jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker:

“What? What is this?” Man, that shit was so terrible it was scary Man, that shit was all up in my body.

Music stirs awe by opening our bodies to its neurophysiological profile. Music also opens our minds to the sublime beyond “affectation” and “imitation.” In our twenty-six-culture study, people often wrote that music brought them moments of clarity, of epiphany, of truth, of really knowing their place in the great scheme of life. The writer Rachel Carson often

listened to Beethoven to open her mind in this way:

Listening to Beethoven, the mood became, I suppose, more creative, and rather suddenly I understood what the anthology should be—the story it should tell—the deep significance it might have. I suppose I

can never explain it in words, but I think you understand without words. It was a mood of tremendous exaltation, I wept.

Music has “deep significance”; it illuminates “patterns of life,” in the words of philosopher Susanne Langer, whom you will soon meet. Music teaches us about love, and suffering, and justice, and power, and with whom and where we find our community. How does this work, though, that a pattern of sounds might lead us to understand, in the case of awe, the vast mysteries of life? By listening carefully to the symbolic meaning of sound we shall discover how.

Finally, we should not forget how social music is, that for 100,000 years, and most likely longer, we have been listening to and performing music with others. In music, as a community woven together in sound, we find a shared identity—Darwin’s “taste for music.”

Cashmere Blanket of Sound

In the autumn of 2019, I visited Yumi to hear her play music conducted by John Adams, a Pulitzer Prize–winning American composer. Fifteen minutes before the performance, I found my seat with 2,000 other symphonygoers, all buzzing in sounds of collective effervescence rising above curving waves of red velvet seats. Yumi strode onstage and waved, then sat down with the 100 members of the orchestra, all playing different notes. It was a cacophony. An acoustic assault. In one instant, though, an oboist played an A, and all musicians joined. Music. An orchestra exists.

During the performance, Yumi sat upright, her body erect and arms at disciplined angles, as if listening to her cello breathe. Her face moved through expressions of concentration, determination, ferocity, absorption, and bliss, when her eyebrows lifted and her eyes closed. Yumi seemed to drift into an invisible space surrounding her. I had seen that face earlier that day at the Rodin Museum, in Rodin’s Gates of Hell, his Dante-derived,

awe-inspiring sculpture of swirling bodies hovering near the doors to the afterlife.

The next day Yumi and I enjoyed a cup of tea at an outdoor café near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. It was a fresh, sparkling fall day of changing maple leaves and urbanites walking with newspapers tucked under their arms and city-friendly dogs on leashes. I asked Yumi what it was like to play as part of an orchestra for two thousand people. She told me of how challenging Adams’s composition was technically, and recalled her daily practice of exercising her forearms, biceps, wrists, and fingers.

Her tone then shifted. She talked about what it feels like in her body to play. She feels the vibrations of her cello. The wood touching her arms. When she is playing, her thoughts travel to new spaces, soaring and floating, not knowing where she is going. As she spoke, her hands rotated outward with fireworks-like twinkling movements of the fingers. She continued:

When I receive the score of a piece to play, I see my part, one of many dozens of parts that make up the piece of music. I have the sense that I am connected to the past of our species, of our history of making music that is tens of thousands of years old. And to our present and future. It’s so humbling. When we perform we put something out there in the space . . . some pattern of notes of our instruments. . . . I think all the notes that have ever been played in the hall are still there. I mean, if the roof was taken off of the symphony hall, where would the notes go? When I play, I feel the vibration in my heart. Those patterns go out into space. They envelop people. Surround them in texture. It is beyond language. Beyond thought. Beyond religion. It is like a cashmere blanket of sound.

We find awe in playing music with others, as part of a history of music making that is tens of thousands of years old. The awe that music moves us

to does seem beyond speech, a new kind of thought, and, for many, more powerful than religion (and for many who are religious, a pathway to the Divine). But what are we to make of Yumi’s metaphor that the notes she plays surround listeners in a “cashmere blanket of sound”?

When Yumi moves her bow across her cello’s strings, or when Beyoncé’s vocal cords vibrate as air moves through them, or when Gambian griot superstar Sona Jobarteh plucks the strings of her kora, those collisions move air particles, producing sound waves—vibrations—that move out into space. Those sound waves hit your eardrums, whose rhythmic vibrations move hairs on the cochlear membrane just on the other side of the eardrum, triggering neurochemical signals beginning in the auditory cortex on the side of your brain.

Sound waves are transformed into a pattern of neurochemical activation that moves from the auditory cortex to the anterior insular cortex, which directly influences and receives input from your heart, lungs, vagus nerve, sexual organs, and gut. It is in this moment of musical-meaning making in the brain that we do indeed listen to music with our bodies, and where musical feeling begins.

This neural representation of music, now synced up with essential rhythms of the body, moves through a region of the brain known as the hippocampus, which adds layers of memories to the ever-accreting meaning of the sounds. Music so readily transports us from the present to the past, or from what is actual to what is possible, spatiotemporal journeys that can be awe-inspiring.

And finally, this symphony of neurochemical signals makes its way to our prefrontal cortex, where, via language, we endow this web of sound with personal and cultural meaning. Music allows us to understand the great themes of social living, our identities, the fabric of our communities, and often how our worlds should change.

Recent studies reveal how music shifts our bodies to the neurophysiology of awe. Melodious, slow music reduces our heart rate, a sign of vagus nerve activation, and lowers our blood pressure. Faster, louder music—in one study, music by the Swedish pop group ABBA—increases

our blood pressure and heart rate, but lowers levels of cortisol. Even more energetic, edgy music, then, will arouse us, but without the sense of peril that accompanies elevated levels of cortisol. When we listen to music that moves us, the dopaminergic circuitry of the brain is activated, which opens the mind to wonder and exploration. In this bodily state of musical awe, we often tear up and get the chills, those embodied signs of merging with others to face mysteries and the unknown.

In our history, music has most often been enjoyed with others, and when people listen to the same music together, their brains synchronize in regions involved in ascribing emotional meaning to the music (the amygdala), delight (caudate nucleus), and language and cultural meaning (prefrontal cortex). In one imaginative study in this vein, participants, all wearing brain-recording caps, listened to a live band together in a club rented out for the study. As they did, their brains synced up in the delta band, a brain wave frequency associated with bodily movement, inclining us toward moving in unison. Importantly, the degree of this shared brain activation predicted how much the individual was moved by the music and felt close to other people listening. Music breaks down the boundaries between self and other and can unite us in feelings of awe.

In his book How Music Works, David Byrne charts the history of this idea, that the sounds of music shift our bodies to a shared experience of awe. Some 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras proposed that the solar system emitted perfectly harmonious sounds that are the origins of the rhythms of life—of weather, seasons, cycles in nature, waking and sleep cycles, love and family life, our breathing, the beating of our hearts, and life and death. When we play and listen to sacred music, Pythagoras reasoned, these celestial sounds synchronize the rhythms of our lives, which fold us into what the Greeks called communitas, or social harmony. When we listen to music with others, the great rhythms of our bodies—heartbeat, breathing, hormonal fluctuations, sexual cycles, bodily motion—once separate, merge into a synchronized pattern. We sense that we are part of something larger, a community, a pattern of energy, an idea of the times—or what we might call the sacred.

Music surrounds us in a cashmere blanket of sound.

Sound and Feeling

After the performance in Philadelphia that night, Yumi emailed me a story of musical awe she experienced while playing Mozart’s Requiem the week that her grandfather died:

This was Grandfather’s piece. Mozart’s Requiem, which we coincidentally played the week he died, January 2011. . . . When we started playing Confutatis, all the tears I never shed when he died came out . . . the angry, aggressive 32nd notes, from all the 40 of us strings in unison playing with sharp accents . . . each one like punches. And suddenly, the heavens opened up with Voca me, and all the light shone through, bright white almost blinding light. Like sun rays beaming through in sound. Angels singing. Grandfather, and Grammy, were there with me . . . shining on us. And then the memory floodgates opened to when we sang this in high school chorus, with Mr. Gibson and my friends, in the music room . . . back in time. And then suddenly back to now, the re-entrance of the fortissimo accents and missed opportunities and grief and anger. I could feel tears streaming down my face because my eyes couldn’t contain them anymore. Became momentarily aware that I was in performance . . . and let it go, it’s a safe place on stage. I felt the surge of anger subside, and, by the time we finished the Requiem and ended the concert with Ave Verum . . . even with my tears, I felt glowing, calm, deep sadness, and peacefulness. I felt like Grandfather heard me.

Yumi’s story follows awe’s familiar unfolding. It begins with encounters with the vastness of her grandfather’s death. Mystery strikes her in sensing

her deceased grandparents’ presence. Yumi’s self transforms, moving through webs of associations—memories of singing in high school, a blending of sensory experiences known as synesthesia. She feels touched by bright light—an epiphany—bursting through sound. Her body gets into the act, glowing, overtaken with tears in recognition of the vastness of it all. Through the experience, she feels she is speaking with her grandfather.

Yumi’s observations about the meaning of music find a home in an influential philosophical study of the arts, that of Susanne Langer. In her books Feeling and Form and Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Langer advances her central thesis, that the arts’ purpose is to objectify feeling. Each art, Langer details, is a unique kind of representation of emotion. In making music or visual art within a culture and moment of history, we archive our beliefs about what Langer called “the pattern of life,” or what I will call life patterns. Life patterns are the great themes of social living and are central to our experience of emotion, such as what it means to suffer. To experience loss. To love. To protest unfairness. To be subordinated by forces more powerful than the self. To be in relation to the Divine. To encounter mystery. To live and die.

The arts, Langer continues, represent our experience of life patterns in a realm of symbolic meaning that differs from that of our spoken language. Our spoken word is typically held to standards of truth, or veracity. The syntax of language and its arrangement of subjects, objects, and verbs seeks to represent events in the three-dimensional space of our usual, waking experience. Events unfold forward in a linear sense of time. Cause-and-effect relations are unidirectional.

Music, Langer posits, is freed of the constraints of veridicality that structure so much of our spoken language. As a result, our experience of aesthetic emotion—through music or visual art, for example—follows different laws of space, time, and causality. In this realm of experience, fast, holistic intuitions arise about life patterns, or possible truths about our lives. The realm of meaning in the arts, Langer concludes, has “no counterpart in any vocabulary.” Music “is a tonal analogue of emotive life.”

Yumi’s account of musical awe aligns with this thinking. For Yumi, 32nd notes are “angry” and “aggressive.” Fortissimo accents express grief. Sounds “punch,” tears “stream,” anger “surges,” like metaphorical descriptions in poems. She hurtles backward in time and is transported to a space where she is together with her deceased grandparents. Yumi’s experience of awe in playing Mozart’s Requiem allowed her to understand life’s most reliable pattern—that it ends, even for those we love most, in death.

How does music relate life patterns to us? How does it allow our minds to grapple, in the case of awe, with how we relate to the vast mysteries of life? The easy answer is through lyrics. And indeed, in our twenty-six-culture study, people around the world wrote about how specific lyrics transformed their minds. You probably could quote right now lyrics from songs that brought you awe and an understanding of life patterns.

The more complex possibility is that the sounds of music, independent of the words that make up the lyrics, stir specific emotions. It has taken Swiss emotion scientist Klaus Scherer forty years to figure out how.

Scherer’s theorizing goes as follows. When we are in an emotional state, like anger, compassion, terror, or awe, our neurophysiology changes: our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, vagus nerve activation, and movements of muscles throughout the body all shift to support adaptive behaviors like fleeing, recoiling, soothing, embracing, exulting, or exploring. These bodily changes alter the mechanics of the vocal apparatus and, by implication, the acoustics of our voice. For example, when in an anxious state, the muscles around the lungs are tense, our tightened vocal cords produce less variability in pitch, and with less saliva in our mouths our lips tighten, resulting in high-pitched, unvarying, up-tempo sounds that convey anxiety.

Musicians express emotions, Scherer continues, by producing sounds that resemble the acoustics of our vocal expression of emotion. In empirical tests of this idea, musicians are asked to use their voices, or an instrument, or even just a drum, to communicate different emotions. They do so, research finds, by producing music whose sounds resemble emotion-

specific profiles of pitch, rhythm, contour, loudness, and timbre. Anger, for example, is conveyed in slow sounds with lower pitches and rising contours, like a roar of protest. The musical expression of joy is done with higher-pitched, quickly shifting sounds with rising contours, like the sounds of good friends tittering or a stream flowing during spring. When these samples of music are played to ordinary listeners, we have no trouble discerning ten different emotions, even from the beat of a drum.

To document how music expresses awe, Alan Cowen and I had participants from China and the United States first provide minute-long nonlyrical music samples that they personally felt expressed various emotions, including awe. We also had Chinese participants do the same with traditional Chinese music, which our U.S. participants had never heard. When we played these brief musical selections to new participants in the two countries, these new listeners could reliably detect thirteen emotions in the musical selections, including those provided by people from the other culture, and including our U.S. participants when listening to selections of traditional Chinese music. The feelings we perceive in music include the following: amusing, energizing, calm, erotic, triumphant, angry or defiant, fearful, tense, annoying, dreamy, sad, serene, and awe-inspiring. Aligning with Scherer’s theorizing, the music that expressed awe had acoustics resembling the whoas and wows and aahs we vocalize when feeling awe.

Recent neuroscience suggests that when we hear music, we perceive more than just a category of emotion, our focus thus far. We imagine emotion-specific actions, inferring from the musicians’ sounds their bodily state and likely action. Those images of action trigger our mimetic tendencies, leading us to initiate similar movements in our bodies. Embodied images and memories from our lives, in turn, arise in our minds. What this suggests is that when we hear music that expresses awe, our own bodies and minds shift, even ever so slightly, to the wonder and saintly tendencies of awe.

This analysis dovetails with old ideas about the power of sacred music, which so often shares the acoustic features of vocalizations of awe. When

we hear sacred music or we chant, sing, or play it, we are moved toward awe. We sense in such embodied experience that we are related to the provenance of the music, or part of it, most typically a spiritual figure or force. In Hinduism, uttering the sacred sound om is thought to connect those who chant it directly to Brahman, the universal soul. Reciting the Qur’an in the Islamic tradition transports the individual to a state akin to that of the prophet Muhammad in his moment of Divine revelation. As is true in many Indigenous cultures, the Kalapalo of central Brazil ritualistically chant, sing, and engage in a particular kind of dance, the experience of which transports them to a state in which they are in relation to the Divine.

If you listen carefully enough today, you might hear traces of whoas and aahs of awe in a choir’s performance during the holidays, a transfixing moment in a raga, monks chanting in Japan, or the exalted singing of Aretha Franklin or Bono. And the movements of your body and mind, chills, and sense of communitas signal to you that you are encountering an enduring life pattern, that we are connected to something vast, if only for the duration of a song.

Come Together

As humans walked out of Africa some fifty to sixty thousand years ago, we did so as a musical species moving in unison in small, wandering groups. Our most basic social interactions—those between parent and child, friends, flirting teens, and group members laboring together—were often structured within the patterns of music. We made flutes from bones, rattles from gourds, shakers from seeds, and early drums from tightened animal skins. Music would interweave with dance and storytelling. Music became a medium of being together.

Music moves us to synchronize our movements. From the age of one or two, children will move their bodies, bobbing the head, tapping feet,

clapping hands, and swaying hips, in tight synchronization with the beat of a song. In one illustrative study, West and East Africans were better able to tap to their own culture’s music than to a song from another part of Africa, a sign of who they will find it easier to sync up with.

And when strangers tap to the same beat, as opposed to different beats, they experience greater compassion and willingness to assist. Listening to music that brings us the chills, or awe, inclines us to trust and to share more with a stranger.

Around the world, music does have deep universals, as we have seen— how the temporal structure of notes gives music a beat; the use of pitch to convey meaning; the singing of words; descending sound contours; the use of percussion, repetition, and nonequidistant scales (such as C major). At the same time, cultures develop specific rhythms, beats, pitches, tones, contours, and timbres in their music—their own archive of life patterns, of what love is, for example, or power, or the Divine. In being moved by our culture’s music, we are moved to its ways of perceiving, of feeling, of being, which can strike us with the awe of epiphany—of recognizing who we are. For example, adolescents gravitate to music that expresses themes that speak to their emerging identities: in one study, working-class students were found to prefer music that centers upon the struggles of life—rap and country; upper-class students found their identities, and no doubt some musical awe, in music that expresses individualism and freedom— alternative rock and jazz.

Music locates individuals within broader cultural identities to such an extent that the acoustics of one culture’s music will resemble those of another culture to the extent that those two cultures resemble one another genetically. This has been observed in analyses of the music of thirty-nine African cultures, choral songs of nine Indigenous tribes in Taiwan, and the melody and pitch in folk songs from thirty-one Eurasian cultures, ranging from the Mongols to the Irish to the Navajo.

Musicians create music to express their feelings about life patterns in ways that unite them with other members of their culture. This certainly is true of Diana Gameros.

Diana grew up in Juárez, Mexico, one of five children in a boisterous family. Sensitive to sight and sound, she began playing music on a little toy organ that her mom gave her, which transported her to a quiet space of the imagination. She would learn the piano, and then the guitar, but rarely sing. In her family it was her two uncles who sang, with the full-chested, deep timbres of Mexican folk songs.

Today, Diana’s award-winning music follows the forms of the Mexican troubadour and ranchera songs of her childhood, mixing in sounds of the cello and her classical guitar playing, which she learned while finding her voice as a student in the United States. Her songs symbolize the concerns of immigrants from Mexico and the life patterns of exploitation and being away from home.

Upon getting a green card, Diana was allowed to return to Mexico after sixteen years and tour her home country (captured in the documentary Dear Homeland). Below are her musically rich impressions of that return while in the central zócalo, or square, of Mexico City. There she found awe in many of its sources: in walking with people; in the faces, voices, and colors of a place; and in music and a song her grandmother used to sing:

I can feel it now. Estoy aquí. I am here. I am finally here in Mexico. All I had to do was turn them off—my phone, my thoughts—and deeply breathe. Deeply feel and listen. Really listen. And see, truly see. I recognize these voices, they speak my mother tongue. I recognize these colors, I was brought up by them. I recognize that song, it’s the one my grandmother used to sing in Torreoncitos, Chihuahua. I recognize myself in this place and these sounds, on those walls, and those faces, on that flag. Y ahora soy una con ellos. And now I am one with them. It has finally sunk in. I am here in my dear, dear homeland. Mexico. Y me siento inmensamente feliz.

And I feel immensely happy.

In musical awe we hear the voices and feel the sounds of our culture. We recognize, we understand, our individual identity within something larger, a collective identity, a place, and a people. We find what is often seemingly far away—home. In this, we can find an immense happiness. This can be true in hearing music that has deep cultural roots, and in music we might not immediately understand.

Laughter in the Rain

The night I heard Yumi on the cello in Philadelphia, the orchestra played a piece John Adams composed, Scheherazade.2. Scheherazade, you may recall, told the thousand stories that make up Arabian Nights, a collection of folklore, legends, and myths about local gods—archives of awe at the heart of Middle Eastern culture, and inspiration of films and books throughout the world.

The tale begins with the king Shahryar, who has discovered that he and his brother have been cuckolded by their wives. Dishonored and enraged, Shahryar marries a virgin each day, ravishes her at night, and beheads her the next morning. Scheherazade intervenes (in Old Persian, “Scheherazade” translates to “world freer”). Well read and knowledgeable of myths and folklore, she volunteers to be the king’s next wife.

On her first night, she regales the king until dawn with a story (one of the thousand myths of Arabian Nights). The king is moved to awe and begs for an ending to the story. And then another the next night. Scheherazade is saved by telling stories of awe. She repeats this pattern for one thousand nights, and the king and Scheherazade fall in love. He marries her and makes her his queen, and they have three children. For Adams, the story is about oppression, the violence women face at the hands of men, and the power of the female voice.

That night of the performance, Adams arrived onstage, followed shortly thereafter by the violinist Leila Josefowicz, whom Adams had in mind

when he composed the piece. She played standing close to Adams, in a flowing, diaphanous outfit (with biceps bulging). The symphony has four movements, charting how Scheherazade tells her first story, falls in love, fights back against the threats of men, and flees and finds sanctuary.

For most of Scheherazade.2, I struggled to find my feeling. Like many, I love specific veins of music but can’t explain why. Listening to many contemporary composers leaves me in a wordless state, lacking concepts and language to discern what life patterns may be symbolized in their sounds.

As the symphony begins, the voice of my default self is loud: it nags me about why I never wear the right clothes, how I’m a fish out of water at highbrow events like these, what time my flight departs tomorrow, or how in seeking to feel awe in music I undermine the very possibility.

The piece starts with loud drums. They hit me like the sudden strike of a breaking wave or roar of thunder. My heart slows—the orienting reflex to the new. I am still, transfixed, silent, motionless, and aligned with the people next to me. Our porous bodies have shifted, our shared attention fixed on the stage.

In the movement “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards,” written to capture how women fight patriarchal oppression, Josefowicz’s high-pitched, rising notes of protest are countered by deeper, louder, domineering sounds from the strings—the voices of men condemning her alleged adultery, threatening honor-killing. These are the sounds of a universal life pattern, the struggle between the powerful who subjugate and the powerless trying to survive and find forms of resistance.

I feel agitated and on edge, made uneasy by the violence of power. Images move through my mind. An unexpected trip to the ER in the Sierra foothills—Rolf’s cancer had put him into a near coma. He was rushed to a small hospital, where he recovered, regaining blurry consciousness. During my stay, we walked the fluorescent-lit halls, passing two parents whose son was reeling from a psychotic break. Rolf weighing 148 pounds, walking with blue gown on, stooped, slowly moving in a sterile beige hall. Uncertain footsteps, scuffing thin white hospital-issued slippers. Light-

hearted comments: “I guess I’m not what I used to be, am I? . . . I almost left that time.”

As the symphony arrives at its end, Scheherazade flees and finds sanctuary. Josefowicz’s playing is soft. It soars in places, and then ends in gentle, elongating notes of serenity. The struggle of a single outspoken, brilliant woman speaking truth to power with a gift for stories of awe is over. At the end of struggle and subjugation is peace, felt in Adams’s composition in slowing, appreciative sounds whose notes drift off into space. Out of the quiet of the performance’s end, the crowd roars. I sense tears and a fast rush of goose bumps.

After the show, I give Yumi a big hug in the lobby and head into a torrential downpour. Headlights stuck in traffic project beams of light that illuminate millions of drops of rain, all making their way from the sky to the ground and then vanishing in ricochets off the asphalt, dissipating in radiating rings of water molecules. People run to Ubers and cabs with programs and coats draped over their heads. Clad in slacks and dresses and high heels, they shout familiar sounds—aahwowwhoa, and woo-hoo. And laugh as they drive away.

I don’t know a soul around me. I go the wrong way trying to locate my hotel. I get drenched, embraced in torrents of rain, creating such luminous light filled with droplets on the streets. But I feel located in the world, surrounded by the blanket of the evening’s sound and the movements and shared rhythm of the people around me.

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