Professor Music: This column wishes you were here

For nearly a century and a half, scholars and fans have puzzled over a mysterious line in Richard Wagner’s 1882 opera, “Parsifal.” During the first act, a wise knight named Gurnemanz describes the Grail castle to the fool Parsifal: “You see son, here time becomes space.” There’s a Quora page dedicated to the line; other websites speculate Wagner may have stumbled onto Einsteinian notions from quantum physics. The lyric kept science fiction author Philip K Dick awake at night, wondering about its mystery. 

David Gill, Professor Music

David Gill. Original art: Julia Kovaleva.

I don’t know about you, but after more than a month of social distancing and sheltering in place, Wagner’s line makes perfect sense to me. The longer we’re away from something, the more distant it feels. Time becomes space. In this case, time has jettisoned most of us from the crowded and bustling juggernaut of “the world out there” and into the tiny space capsules of our individual lives. At home in our fleshy shells, we now summon a near-endless series of incorporeal zeros and ones, to speak for us on the screens of the people we love. 

We’ve become a forest full of digital songbirds.   

Almost every bird’s song is about loneliness, and I’m just spitballing here, but I’m going to estimate fully a third of all songs composed since the beginning of time have sought out a cure for solitude. 

Like Sting explains practically  every time the classic rock station comes on in the car, we are, “Just a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh/ Another lonely day, no one here but me, oh/ More loneliness than any man could bear/ Rescue me before I fall into despair.” 

Like Harry Nilsson explained, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”

Like David Gilmour sings, “How I wish/ How I wish you were here/ We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl/ Year after year/ Running over the same old ground/ What have we found?/ The same old fears/ Wish you were here.”

You can hear time become space in that Pink Floyd classic, if you can find a way to listen to it in stereo. At the song’s outset, in your right speaker, a tinny-sounding, acoustic guitar plays the song’s iconic intro from what seems like a great distance. After a couple of bars, in the left speaker, a second acoustic guitar, sounding fuller, louder and nearer to you plucks out the well-known melody that I bet many of you can hear in your head right now.

It’s like those two guitars embody the distance the song is about, separated in time and space. They call out to each other like songbirds perched on each of your speakers. How I wish you were here.

Music is just a different kind of birdsong, clarion calls issued into the void in hopes that something friendly will answer back, or at the very least hear us, and know we’re here. The songs sung from balconies in Italy, the concerts streamed from living room to living room, my neighbor playing Stravinsky quietly in the backyard, streaming playlists tailored for isolation. The digital forest is alive with all of our birdsongs. And we’re not as alone as it may seem. 

Follow writer David Gill at and Instagram/songotaku.

(1) Comment

  1. Jas

    The best way to hear Wish You Were Here is the 5.1 mix from 2011. At the start of the track, the tinny guitar is actually behind you, on the right. Then you hear Dave in front, coughing/clearing his throat, and then the second guitar breaks through in shocking clarity. Beautiful stuff.

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