Why Music?

Why Music?

On the “About” page of the new book blog I started, Great Books of Old Stream,  I spent some time thinking about why I read.  I asked myself, why is it important for people to read great books?  Also,  why do I continue to read challenging things as often as I can?  Here on my music blog, I was naturally led to ask myself a similar question, “Why Music?”.  That is almost a more difficult question for me to tackle, because I take music for granted.    I am like a fish trying to explain water, because for me music is everywhere and I am immersed in it.  Music making, music listening, and being engaged in musical activities is like breathing air.  I don’t remember a time in my life without music.  I imagine I was born in a hospital delivery room with something wonderful playing over the radio speakers, although due to the therapeutic effects of pain medicine, not even my mother remembers exactly which song.

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
― Bob Marley

i-love-music-quotes-6hotuf304I think this is a common phenomenon among musicians, one whereby music is ubiquitous in their lives, but articulating exactly why it is important is something of a challenge.  I can’t tell you why I compose, it is simply an inner compulsion.  I do it because I have to, it is who I am.  It matters not if no one listens, I compose anyway.  Much music is very emotionally expressive, but I don’t find an answer to my question “Why Music?” in the endless parade of empty platitudes, such as, “music gives a soul to the universe”, or “music heals the heart”, or “music is the language of the spirit”.  I don’t know where the soul-giving, heart-healing, spirit language is in the score, or when it might go on sale at Guitar Center.  Even an explanation of music as an “expression of the human”, falls short for those of us who have met some wonderfully talented musicians who were simply awful human beings.  The sublime beauty of the operas of Richard Wagner, for example, are the product of a man who was a despicable person.  I have to separate the music from the man, the art from the flawed human creator, in order to live with myself for enjoying it.

““And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Conductor Benjamin Zander has amazing energy and a wonderful sense of humor in his TED talk, “The transformative power of classical music” from 2008.  The talk is very engaging, and very powerful if you do what he suggests, and imagine someone you love who is gone, while you listen to the “shopping” piece.  I don’t think it is a complete answer to why music is important, but it is a great twenty minutes that demonstrates at least part of the answer.

“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life — music and cats.”
― Albert Schweitzer

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

Of all the things that music is said to do, what I most hope it has the power to do, is bring people together.  People need to come together now, more than ever.  The most powerful music I know about bringing together the Brotherhood of Man (forgiving the all-male tense, I mean all humankind), is the setting of “Ode to Joy” in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.  Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the Ninth on December 25, 1989 in East Berlin as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin wall.  I found a video of some comments Lenny made about the “Ode to Joy”, recorded about fifteen years before that Berlin performance.  I am saddened by how current Bernstein’s comments sound today, forty years later, as he goes on a tangent about war, refugees and bloodshed.  I hope music does have the power to unite people, and like Bernstein, I pray that we all grow into something worthy of being called the human race.

Leonard Bernstein talking about “Ode to Joy”

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary!
Your magics join again
What custom strictly divided;
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

10,000 people singing in  the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth

To Thine Own Self Be True

To Thine Own Self Be True

“I don’t know that we owe God or nature a death, but nature will collect anyway, and we certainly owe mediocrity nothing, whatever collectivity it purports to advance or at least represent.”

Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why

In my last post entitled “Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf”, I proposed a solution to the arguments about forming a canon of music/literature/art in Western culture.  I said simply, “Read everything.  Listen to everything”  That is very straightforwardly stated, but really oversimplified.  There are only so many hours in the day, and so many years in a lifetime.  There is not time to literally read everything ever written and listen to every bit of music ever sounded.  Certainly not (as the esteemed Mr. Bloom points out in the above quote) before nature collects our death.  Life is short.  Read great books, drink better beer and listen to Good Music.  When I said to read everything, I really didn’t mean to include the collected screenplays of Jennifer Aniston movies, nor did my idea of listening to everything  include the complete recordings of Justin Bieber.  

This raises the question of how to decide what to read or listen to.  What makes the cut?  How do we decide what is part of the mediocrity that we owe nothing, and what makes something a great book, or at least a good enough book to be worth a chunk of our short life to read?  One idea of Dr. Eliot’s Harvard Classics or various Universities Great Books programs, or the pieces of music that end up in the standard repertoire, is to try to identify masterpieces that are valuable enough with which to spend our precious time.  Usually I can’t argue with the items that are included in attempts to form a canon of masterworks.  Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and their colleagues all have stood the test of time for very good reasons.  But these lists of great works cannot be taken as definitive, closed, exclusive or in any way exhaustive.  They are often some of the basic building blocks, that modern great works build upon and refer back to.  Even Harold Bloom’s beloved Shakespeare built upon things that came before him, with lots of references to Ovid, or the Bible, and lots of borrowing of basic plots from classical Greek and Latin theatre.  None of us live in a vacuum.  But the canonical lists were created by people, people with flaws and the lists reflect some of those flaws.

Lack of diversity is an easy and obvious criticism of the various versions of the Western Canon or the orchestral standard repertoire.  Shakespeare Sonnets are great poetry, but so are the poems of Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes. Great works should not be thought to be the exclusive property of a single group.  There is some purpose to highlighting  art/literature/music by overlooked or underrepresented social groups, and that purpose is only to increase awareness.  Black History Month, the Latin Grammies, events promoting women authors, all help to bring attention to quality works that have been unjustly neglected.  At some utopian future point however, the goals of such efforts should be to put themselves out of business.  Someday awareness should have been raised enough that these social groups are no longer neglected or underrepresented.  They can proudly stand as simply authors, artists and musicians.  To call Joan Tower a great American woman composer in some ways is a left-handed compliment.  Tower is a fantastic great composer, one of the best of our time.  Her music is great, and not great only because a woman composed it.  

zenI would like to revise my previous recommendation to say, “Read and listen to everything of Quality for which you have time.”  Things of quality, the good stuff.  Spend your time listening to Good Music.  The obvious Western cultural, rational, scientific method thing to do at this point would be try to define and enumerate the elements that give Quality to a work of art/music/literature/theater.  Inventory the credentials that constitute Quality, and quantify those credentials in the world around us.  Those things that hold a good enough account of the elements of Quality shall make the cut and be worth our time.  But it is not that simple.  Quality is elusive, recognizable but actually impossible to define.  A quote from one of my favorite books says it best:

“Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others … but what’s the betterness? … So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”

Robert Pirsig, Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

Nevermind that Pirsig had a severe enough mental breakdown that he spent time in an in-patient mental health facility and underwent electric shock therapy.  His first book is a work of sheer genius, an autobiographical novel of sorts that delves deep into the roots of Western thought.   The germination of his ideas about Quality start when he is teaching writing and rhetoric to undergraduate students.  Ultimately he comes to the idea that Quality is undefinable, but very real.

“Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a non thinking process.  Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, Quality cannot be defined”

Robert Pirsig, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Over-Simply put, you know quality when you see it.  That seems trite, but so much of what I discover as music worth listening to, Good Music, comes from an initial first impression that something is there.  It catches my ear, holds my attention, I know it when I hear it.  That Quality moves me to want to learn more, hear more, begin to figure out how it works.  The Delta Blues recordings of Robert Johnson, just one man singing with his finger-plucked guitar, represent some of the most moving sounds ever made by the human voice. Those recordings inspired a entire generation of Rock and Roll musicians looking for authentic deep emotional expression.  Likewise, hearing Luciano Pavarotti sing “Nessun Dorma” is a hugely emotional experience.  I was hooked the first time I heard a recording of Pavarotti in his signature aria.  That was before I knew what the Italian words were saying, before I knew anything about opera or Puccini or the story of Turandot (the opera from which the aria comes).  Now I have enough academic skill to analyze the harmony, key areas, thematic structure and more, bar by bar of the piece.  I can explain the orchestration, translate the libretto, place the aria in the story of the opera as a whole.  But all of that does not contain and encompass the undefinable sense of Quality that turned my ears and held my attention the first time I heard it.  

This experience for me has repeated itself over and over.  The first time I heard Charlie Parker play the alto saxophone.  The first time I heard a Bach fugue.  The first time I heard the Count Basie Orchestra swing.  The first time I heard the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, or Samuel Barber’s First Essay for Orchestra, or Jimi Hendrix play the guitar.  Time and time again, I felt like an epiphany happened when I was first exposed to these pieces.  I listened to them repeatedly, learned them, searched out recordings, written scores, analyses, anything I could learn about each bit of music.  But the first thing that happened is that I intuitively recognized the Quality present in each.  Acknowledging that role of human intuition is one of the powerful things that Pirsig does in his writing in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  He ultimately finds a kindred spirit to his thoughts on Quality in Eastern philosophy, specifically the descriptions of the Tao in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

Opening of Tao Te Ching

I love the “classics”.  Shakespeare plays, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Beethoven Symphonies, Mozart Operas, Bach’s Art of The Fugue.  The standard repertoire, or the “Western canon” can be a useful guide, a set of very good recommendations.  But some of the most engaging and wonderful musical experiences I have had came from following my ears and intuitions.  Louis Armstrong playing “West End Blues”.  Duke Ellington Orchestra playing “Take the A Train”.  John Lee Hooker growling “Boom Boom Boom Boom”.  John Corigliano, David Diamond, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Gustav Mahler, John Coltrane, Giuseppe Verdi.  In the end, this is what my blog is all about.  Good Music speaks to me, has held my attention, engaged my mind and ear and about which I try to write something worthwhile for you to read.  Genre isn’t important, lists aren’t important, only that it sounds good.

“And what is good, Phaedrus
And what is not good –
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”

Feast of Saint Valentine

Feast of Saint Valentine

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    If this be error and upon me proved,
    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 116


Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, soon enough that one should begin planning now to make a success of it.  Since the high Middle Ages when Chaucer began to associate Valentine’s day with courtly love, I think the original Saint Valentine has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle.  In fact, one popular depiction describes Saint Valentine as a man who was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry.  Remaining accounts may actually merge a couple of different martyrs into a portrait of Valentinus.  No matter what the origins, if you are in a romantic couple it is a day that cannot be safely overlooked.  Dinner reservations should be made now.  If you do not have them, stop reading,  call the restaurant, make your reservations and then come back to this blog.

Romantic love is such a powerful emotion that it is no wonder that all sorts of depictions of love can be found in every genre and mode of artistic expression that human beings create.  Old Billy Shakespeare, of the above Sonnet, went a long way to promoting the romantic ideal of marrying for love, an ideal that is still a part of at least Western culture today.  I had a conversation with a young person recently, whereby I was trying to determine the Shakespeare play that my young friend had been exposed to in her short years.  My first question was “ Did everyone die in the end of the play, or did they all get married?”  If everyone dies at the end, it was a tragedy.  If they all get married, it was one of the comedies.  Fortunately, I did this out of earshot of any of our divorced colleagues, who would have confused the matter by describing marriage as a sort of tragedy in itself.  

Nowadays, as deep as I find Shakespeare’s musings about love, I find the direct language of old blues music to be more physically moving.  Perhaps it is a holdover from my urban upbringing, but I am not convinced that is entirely true.  These songs weren’t on the radio when I was in high school.  I met the music of Etta James, for example, much later on in my life.

Etta James, “ I Just Want to Make Love to You”

Another great genius of music that just makes your body move is Ray Charles, The Genius, The High Priest of Soul.  Ray Charles was a pioneer, and his music was influenced by blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, country, early pop music.  Ray was a sponge, that soaked up everything around him, and in turn has influenced every recording artist that has come after him.  You are doing yourself a great disservice if all you have heard is the opening of “Georgia on my Mind”

Ray Charles, “A Fool For You”

Looking through my collection of jazz albums, I have another endless supply of ballads that would make a great playlist for a romantic Valentine’s day dinner.  I am going to resist the urge to repost the Miles Davis version of “My Funny Valentine” and instead give you two other slow songs by two masters of ballad playing.  

Donald Byrd, “I Got It Bad, and That Ain’t Good”

John Coltrane, “My One and Only Love”

Now in the event that your attempts at romance have been well planned and are a great success, you may need a few tunes that are longer than three minutes.  Something where you don’t have to stop what you are doing to put on a new song.  I will humbly offer up the slow movement to Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, if you are not already familiar with it.  Best wishes.   
Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 2, Adagio