FORT KENT, Maine — Music “hath charms to sooth the savage breast,” according to William Congreve in his 1697 poem, “The Mourning Bride.”
Music can, and does so much more as a very powerful motivator for the human spirit.
Played at just the right time, a particular song or tune becomes “our song” for any couple in love. With the right lyrics and beat, a song can become the anthem for social movement. Centuries ago, warriors in Scotland could incite fear into the hearts of their enemies with a well played and dramatic battle tune on the bagpipes.
For me, music is all about the memories that are conjured by a certain song or melody.
A few weeks ago, some of those memories were part of a very special performance in Fort Kent when Lisa Ornstein, former director of the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, was in town to give a concert with fellow musician Andre Marchand of Quebec.
Lisa, along with being among the top fiddlers in North America, is a dear friend to me and also my late husband Patrick.
She and her family moved away from the St. John Valley about seven years ago, about a year before Patrick was diagnosed with malignant melanoma.
During his courageous and short battle with cancer, we kept Lisa in the loop on his treatments and condition. And we notified her about the day when Patrick learned at the hospital that the cancer had spread to virtually every organ in his body and that aggressive treatment would buy him — at most — several months. That also was the day he announced he wanted to come home.
“I was so sad about the news about Patrick and was feeling terrible about being so far away,” Lisa told me the other day. “It was a sense of being helpless and overwhelmed by the understanding that the cards were all on the table and what we were facing was an imminent departure.”
As she had in other times of great emotion — good and bad — in her life, Lisa turned to music.
“One of the places I go to is my fiddle to find some way of expressing, or healing or reaching out while reaching inside myself,” she said. “Generally speaking, it’s not that I must create a tune or it must result in some finished composition, it’s more knowing the process itself is going to help me come to terms with what is going on.”
In this case, however, it did result in a tune — a very, very special waltze Lisa titled, “Patrick at Perley Brook,” in honor of our farm’s proximity to North Perley Brook.
“I found myself thinking about the feelings of sadness and of what Patrick wanted was to be home and how it was made possible by the people who loved him the most,” she said. “At the end, he was where he wanted to be.”
Patrick loved our farm and this land, of that there is no doubt, and it was something Lisa picked up on the first of the many times she visited with us here.
“I was so impressed by what a sense of place he had for ‘home’ and ‘homestead,’” she said. “I have such vivid memories of the walks in the woods and the pond, the barn and of such an amazing place you carved out for yourselves, your menagerie of animals and for your friends.”
Lisa took those memories and associated emotions, picked up her bow and violin and played her heart.
“I found myself thinking that all of us have a place where we are happy, a place where you can be serene,” she said. “As I took the violin I was trying to connect with myself and the situation to make some kind of sense out of it and what emerged was a desire to evoke that kind of feeling I had spending time with Patrick and of his peaceful and lovely sense of place.”
It was so fitting.
Beyond his love of the land and this farm, Patrick had a real love of music in general and of Lisa’s fiddle playing in particular.
One of our best memories was of an evening at Lisa’s apartment which went from simple dinner to impromptu concert when three of her musician friends become stuck in a snowstorm not far from her place enroute to a recording session in Montreal.
Since we had snow tires and four-wheel-drive — two things the carload of musicians did not have — Patrick went out on a rescue mission and soon returned with the three men and their impressive array of instruments.
“They didn’t even have winter boots or jackets,” Patrick said with a laugh at the time. “Musicians,” he added with a grin and obvious eye-roll.
Another time Lisa brought her fiddle to our home to play for us and at one point stopped, mid-tune and burst into laughter.
“Do you hear that?” she said, as our hounddog at the time was outside baying her heart out. “That dog is baying in perfect C.”
I’m not sure what tickled Patrick more — the private, in-home concert or the discovery we had a four-legged musical prodigy in our midst.
The recent Fort Kent concert was certainly not the first time Lisa played “Patrick at Perley Brook,” but she did say it was the most emotional, given the number of people in the audience who knew him.
“When I first played it for people the reaction was astonishing,” she said. “It seemed to evoke in them the same feelings of memories I had of Pat and Perley Brook with that sense of contentment and peace [and] I thought, ‘Wow, let’s share this.’”
Share it she has, using the tune as a teaching piece at Quebec fiddle camps where in 2011, fiddlers ages 8 to 80 selected “Patrick at Perley Brook” as the tune they wanted to perform as a group.
So many memories now created for so many people by one amazing musician and friend.
Perhaps the best memory of all is this: Lisa wrote “Patrick at Perley Brook” just days before his death and sent a digital recording to us.
I was able to play that recording for Patrick at a time when he was still able to understand who wrote that tune and what it meant. It may very well be the last thing he really heard on this earth.
“To be in touch with those emotions comes with a price,” Lisa said. “But if it means wiping away a tear or two, it’s worth that price.”
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.