The Landfill Harmonic movie is a miraculous love story set in one of the world’s most destitute slums, a slum built atop a landfill.  Here in Catuera, Paraguay, a garbage picker and a teacher collaborate to find and build musical instruments for local children out of pieces of reclaimed trash.  Equipped with their recycled violins, cellos and horns, taught to read and play music, a group of Catueran children grab hold of an unexpected pursuit.  Born into a life upon a trash heap, children surrounded by – indeed literally sleeping on top of – garbage, have become musicians.  They have become members of the Recycled Orchestra.

Imagine that for a moment:  Forging a livelihood, a home, and a daily existence amidst and upon the world’s discarded waste.  In this brief glimpse, we are reminded of truths about the human condition, and our aspirations to dignity that transcend all social, historical and cultural contexts.  I dare you not to cry.

Landfill Harmonic

Disposable, or Indispensable?  A Reflection on Music, Beauty, Gratitude & Hope

Absent the consolation of beauty, could any man, woman, or child, truly thrive in a life upon a trash heap?  What society of men, even in the throes of destitution, has ever been completely devoid of the impulse to create art?  But what is this compulsion towards expression and beauty?

There would be such a thing as saying too much about Catuera – at least by me, unqualified and too far removed to do it proper justice.  The better for us all, perhaps, rather than to elaborate, is simply… to watch and listen.

Instead, an indirect reflection on two ideas, Beauty and Gratitude:

What is it about beautiful music that elevates man beyond his momentary sorrows?  Enriches and elevates his joys?  What is it about a film’s sweeping musical score that stands our hair on end?  Music occupies that ethereal realm of the indescribable – it’s such a challenge for us to talk about beautiful music.

 Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, and life to everything. ~ Plato

 Music fathoms the sky. ~ Baudelaire

 Music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life. ~ Beethoven

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated the ear of man.~ E.M. Forster

Music doesn’t discriminate.  Beautiful music goes wherever it’s taken and presents itself to the human ear, to the human soul.  Whether sounded from a lavish concert hall or scratched out on an old record player, performed on stage at Lincoln Center or echoing through dingy city subway tunnels, music is a universal call of beauty.

Does man hear it?  How ought he respond?

Beauty elicits a human response

Beyond the good intrinsic to the beautiful object – the lovely piece of music – itself, if such a thing might be quantified, there is a second and more important implication, that of instrumentality.  The beautiful thing is a toehold for the climbing, reaching man.  It is a doorway to a more dignified state of the human experience.

But if our ears and our sensibilities are oversaturated by noise, we might just miss our chance to hear the thing.  In our embarrassment of abundance, our paralysis by options, are we too distracted or too accustomed to a low-level niceness to notice true beauty?  And what of those dwelling on the fringes of society: does the music of Bach sound any less beautiful to their untrained ears?  Played in a hut upon an oil-can cello, does a sonata ascend to any lesser heights than before an audience in the Sydney Opera House?

 Let us then propose three truths, each one leading reasonably to the next:

1)    We require a proper disposition, or preparedness, to hear (see, sense) something beautiful.

2)  In hearing (seeing, sensing) that beautiful thing, if properly disposed and therefore attentive to its beauty, we are called to a fitting response.  That fitting response is Gratitude.

3)    Gratitude, by its very nature, demands an object… a direction.  Whom are we to thank?  To Whom do we address our gratitude?

Beautiful music, (but also a beautiful painting, a building façade or interior, a beautiful piece of literature), is an authentication of that small voice whispering: “you are worth it… simply by hearing this beautiful thing, you are good enough for it… and it is FOR YOU.”

How can our hearts remain indifferent to this call?  Whether it’s the reverberant tenor belted to the rafters, or merely the gentle whisp… the suggestion… the brush against the shoulder.  The pang is universal.

“When I listen to the sound of a violin, I feel butterflies in my stomach. It’s a feeling that I don’t know how to explain.”

Mighty or gentle, beauty begs a response, and our response of gratitude is itself a form of hope.  Gratitude and hope are the fitting responses to the loveliness of the shape of a violin… to the transporting and transforming effects of a true chord sounded.  Maybe that chord resonates from a metal violin, welded by a trash sifter, plucked by a “disposable” child.

What is “Disposable?”  Trash and Forget… or Reconstitute and Remember?

This is not a commentary on wealth v. poverty, per se.  It is, rather, a rhetorical question about unintended consequences:  Are we impoverished in spite of our affluence?

How often, how deeply, do we allow ourselves to be enlightened by gratitude?

Perhaps instead of gratitude we cultivate forgetfulness – even unconsciously – when we throw things away, and acquire their extravagant replacements with such little exertion.  When the next perceived need or good is always at our fingertips, endlessly stacked upon shelves and at every street corner – or only a mouse click away – how do we perceive the world of things?  What do habits of consumption do to our sense of reality?  Certainly any single act of discarding a material item may qualify as morally neutral, but still – the air we breathe, a throwaway culture – how does it shape our sense of the world, our relation to our possessions, to each other, and to our Creator?

 “People realize that we shouldn’t throw away trash carelessly… Well, we shouldn’t throw away people either.”

The message is not a politicization of material inequality.  The message is not divisive.  On the contrary, it sows not division but recollection – a re-collection – into coherence and the right order of things.  Recycled violin-as-icon: sometimes it takes a beautiful surprise to remind us of what we didn’t know we’d forgotten.

Man is ennobled by his self-giving desire to respond to any good external to himself.  What if it were possible to integrate these allegedly distinct parts of our selves: the consumer, the aesthetic eye and ear, and finally the self that responds in gratitude?

 Beauty & Gratitude – a call and response

Privation can remind us of truths and awaken in us a different – perhaps heightened – awareness of goodness and beauty.  Once alert to these gifts, we should in turn be elevated to the appropriate response to goodness and beauty: the response of gratitude.

To unblock, to clarify and to cultivate our appreciation of beauty is to liberate ourselves to the expression of gratitude, directed to the source of beauty in all things.  God’s love is the source of that beauty and goodness – it is readily and superabundantly offered and awaiting our free response.


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