I can’t read Kant for long before my parody switch flicks on. The grand architecture of his work is inaccessible to my intelligence. But sometimes bits I’ve read stick in my mind, buried, until they turn up unexpectedly.
In the Critique of Judgment, while comparing the aesthetic value of the various arts, Kant says, “music has a certain lack of urbanity about it. For owing chiefly to the character of its instruments, it scatters its influence abroad to an uncalled-for extent (through the neighborhood), and thus, as it were, becomes obtrusive and deprives others, outside the musical circle, of their freedom. This is a thing that the arts that address themselves to the eye do not do, for if one is not disposed to give admittance to their impressions, one has only to look the other way.”
This passage has often been quoted in mockery, but it came usefully to mind not long ago in a setting Kant himself couldn’t have imagined. In March of this year, my wife, Wendy, and I went with our friends Gary and Kathy Gnidovic to the House of Blues in Chicago (which is also an unofficial “gallery” of folk art). The headliners that night were The Oh Hellos (Gary and Kathy had heard them once before); a duo called Lowland Hum opened (none of us were familiar with them), and we arrived midway through their set.
They are quieter than a lot of bands: Their music wouldn’t cause too much disturbance in Kant’s neighborhood. The quietness isn’t simply a matter of volume; it also has to do with their relation to their audience. What they do is not folk, exactly, or old-timey. “Haunting,” I’d say, except that suggests too narrow an emotional register. (You can get a sense of it yourself from their 2014 Tiny Desk Concert.)
We were sitting in high opera-style seats, and my aging ears don’t hear as well as they once did. I could only pick up fragments of the lyrics, though those bits were interesting. What struck me most from our perch was the interaction between the two of them (I didn’t know then that they were husband and wife, but there was a magnetism between them), the way they seemed to communicate wordlessly with each other, moving with an almost ritual quality. Still, our distance from the stage made it feel as if we were looking at a page on which many of the words were blanked out, unreadable. I wished we could hear them again sometime, in a smaller venue. But that wasn’t very likely, I thought.
At the end of April, Wendy and I were at Laity Lodge in the Texas Hill Country for the annual gathering of the Chrysostom Society, a group of Christian writers. Steven Purcell, the executive director at Laity, has often invited musicians for our meetings there (that’s where we first heard My Brightest Diamond, years ago, when she was just starting out). This year, Steven had invited Lowland Hum.
We met Daniel and Lauren Goans and had a chance to talk with them a little. And we heard them in a perfect setting: Laity Lodge’s Cody Center, where we sat only a few feet from the musicians. Before they played, they handed out a stack of small, stout booklets with the lyrics for forty-five of their songs (something they do routinely, we learned, when they play in smaller venues). Inside the front cover, there’s a note asking audience-members to return the books after the concert, but Daniel and Lauren said we were free to keep them if we wished (and Wendy and I did just that).
There is melancholy in their songs, and yearning, and hope, and faith. Their stage presence is winsome: witty, self-deprecating, palpably affectionate. And yet they are doing a difficult thing: performing themselves. After the concert, we bought a couple of CDs, and we’re glad we did, but listening to them that way is nothing like hearing and seeing Lowland Hum in person. If you had been in Portland, Maine, last night (October 11), you could have heard them “live,” as we say. Look for an opportunity to do that.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.