I wrote a story not too many years ago about an old man who, except for doing a bit of clogging now and again, was unused to hearing music. The only pianist he’d ever heard, except on an incidental elevator ride or TV show, was at church. The pianist wasn’t much good and he wasn’t much of a churchgoer. Still, he had this fresh, uncluttered ear and mind where music was concerned, so when he found himself in the same room as an exceptional pianist playing an exceptional piece of music, the experience was soul-stirring. He was transformed by it.
I think a lot of us probably don’t hear as well as we should because music has become the background to our lives, a little like movie music. If we’re musicians, at least of the amateur kind, we may deepen our understanding of it by performing it over and over, but we also risk dulling our experience of it. My mother struggled to play the classics well, but was afraid, I think, to hear anything played by a real pianist. She didn’t want to know how far off the mark she was. I remember her dazed, almost frightened look, when I took her to hear Murray Perahia.
I, on the other hand, listen to it and thank God for it at the same as I long for one of those freak accidents that happen to the brains of Oliver Sack’s patients in Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, where suddenly someone finds they can play like Rubenstein-come-back-to-life. Of course, brain damage is more likely to have a terrible outcome, like never being able to hear music again. One of Sack’s most fascinating conclusions is that playing and listening to music happens in a very different part of the brain than speaking, writing and reading do.
To me, music has always been a mystery, as well as something I can’t imagine living without. It’s not always highly valued. Why else would it so often be relegated to the “arts and entertainment” pages of newspapers and magazines? Why would music and the arts be the first subjects to go when schools must make budget cuts? I recently ran into a wonderful speech by Karl Paulnack, the Music Department head at Boston Conservatory. The talk was given to incoming freshmen and their parents.
According to Paulnack, the ancient Greeks were the first people to understand how music works. They paired it with astronomy. “Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects; and music was the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.”
He gives a number of examples. One of the most striking is the important place of music in the Nazi concentration camps when it seemed that food, water, warmth and keeping safe, would have consumed all the prisoners’ energies. Music, it turned out, was also basic to survival. He describes the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City when he wondered, briefly, whether playing the piano was relevant. That evening, he found that one of the first things people in his neighborhood did together was to sing (“We Shall Overcome”). The first public event he heard of in the city was a concert.
Why does that make so much sense? Music, in fact, all the arts, are “the study of invisible relationships between internal objects.”
The conclusion of Paulnack’s speech is well worth quoting verbatim:
You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevys. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.