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Broken music

Community | Without the structure of nuclear families, communities lapse into noise

In all the frustration surrounding the government shutdown and Obamacare rollout, we still had football. That’s one consolation, except for a very sad story that hit the airwaves in the middle of a political storm.

About three years ago Adrian Peterson, star running back of the Minnesota Vikings, became, briefly, very well acquainted with an attractive young woman named Ashley from Sioux Falls, S.D. Some nine months later, Ashley had a baby boy she named Tyrese. She wasn’t sure who the father was, but as time went on and the little boy looked more and more like a certain NFL player, she contacted Peterson and asked for a paternity test. He agreed, the test turned out positive, and he promised to pay the boy a visit at some future date.

Meanwhile Ashley moved in with a new boyfriend. The boyfriend had a record of domestic assault—two women had filed complaints against him, the second one twice. Perhaps Ashley didn’t know this when she moved in. Perhaps she shouldn’t have left the apartment the afternoon of Oct. 10, because something happened: The boyfriend allegedly snapped, and little Ty received injuries that put him in the hospital with severe head trauma. When Peterson received word, he flew to the boy’s side, but his son never regained consciousness and died near midnight on Oct. 11.

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There’s no word for this but heartbreaking. I presume the mother is heartbroken, and Peterson, and perhaps in his twisted way the boyfriend—beyond that, I don’t know what’s going on in anybody’s heart. What’s going on in the world, though, is countless broken connections.

I’ve been researching various forms of creative expression for a possible book, and the branch of the arts that fascinates me most is the one I know least about: music. The main thing about music is relationship. Melody consists not in individual notes, but in the intervals between them. The ancient (and possibly mythical) philosopher Pythagoras discovered that dividing a lyre string in half produces an octave, while three-quarters of the string sounds a fourth and two-thirds sounds a perfect fifth. These mathematical ratios produce a pleasing musical progression known the world over. Based on this external framework, Western music established principles of harmony and melody that endured all the way up until the early 20th century. And what happened then?

Contemporary composer John Adams put it this way: “I learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” No God, no order. Musical structure collapsed, clearing the way for Arnold Schoenberg, who composed pieces built on abstract principles of numerology. From there it was only a step or two to John Cage, who tossed dice to pick the notes for his compositions and staged “symphonies” around kitchen appliances. Not all avant garde composers abandoned tonality, but music cut off from its defining structure ceased to be anything we would recognize as music.

Likewise, what defines society is relationships, built not on mathematical ratios but biology. It’s an undeniable fact that, among humans, a male sperm joined to a female egg produces a human being. The young woman from Sioux Falls knew this when she hooked up with Peterson, and so did he—he has two children from previous relationships. The boyfriend had at least one child, while acting as surrogate daddy to little Ty. The results of these random couplings drift like little wanderers from one family-like arrangement to another but never forge strong connections, except perhaps for a fraught relationship with Mom.

Like music, community was once based on standard chords and intervals: the so-called nuclear family of father, mother, and child. Flexible enough for many variations, strong enough to sustain a melody. Without it, the hum of community lapses into noise.

Are we becoming too accustomed to noise? Adrian Peterson didn’t miss his Sunday game because “football is something I always fall back on.” The mother can’t be reached for comment, and the boyfriend is jailed without parole, pending trial. He’ll pay. We all will.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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