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BK Blog Post
Posted by Ralph Windle.
Ralph Windle is the editor of The Poetry of Business Life, as well as the author of Boardroom Ballads and The Bottom Line, and co-editor (with William Keyser) of Public Enterprises in the EEC.
What follows is a modest diversion from our normal fare – and is based on a light-hearted interval talk I gave, at a ‘Music at The Limes’ concert soiree in October 1987. It was at the request of my late, dear friends, Michael and Jennifer Graham-Jones of Standlake, Oxfordshire.
They had opened their home to the making and enjoyment of music which, with much collateral good conversation- always seemed ready to cascade out into summer gardens and the promise of picnics! They brought a community together. Their great legacy, the Exuberant Trust, continues with its mission to bring inspiration, help and audiences to young performers – in music and all the arts – across Oxfordshire.
25 years on we can, without doubt, give better answers to the ‘What Is Music’ question, and it has always been high on the CVN agenda; but a brief, nostalgic return to where many of its ideas began seems quite in order!
1. What is Music? may sound a daft question as we sit here in the middle of a feast of it! It’s what we are all here to listen to, and enjoy, of course.
2. Yes, but what is it?
Where have the pieces we’ve already heard gone? Where are they now? And where are the ones we’ve not yet heard? Are they hiding inside that violin case, or lurking behind patches of minims and crotchets in the score? Why doesn’t the music just ‘jump out’ then, when I open them up?
3. Where do the composers get the music from?
When we talk of ‘making music’ we only mean performing and listening to it together. Composers, except in the above sense, never talk of ‘making’ it. They ‘compose’ it – to compose means ‘to put different things together’.
What are they ‘putting together’? Sounds and rhythms? What ‘sounds’ was Beethoven ‘hearing’ and ‘putting together’ when he was totally deaf?
4 Can a child, deaf from birth, have ‘music’ or ‘sense of rhythm’?
They certainly can, and do. So what, more precisely, is it that they have?
And those sheep down the lane – they’ve never ( as far as I know ) been to a concert at the Limes, or even the local disco. So that means non-human animals have no ‘music’? Don’t you believe it! Birds, and maybe wolves and whales, might have decent claims to have ‘invented’ music, whatever it may be.
So, at least we can rule out plants, trees and other ‘inert’ things? Not on your life! A very dear friend, with a massive reputation for her ‘green fingers’ regularly sang and listened to her potted geraniums and prize apple tree.
5 I was moved to ask all these silly questions by looking again at what writers. poets and the wise have been saying, or trying to say, about this ‘music’ thing. In the sense in which we are enjoying it tonight, it seems to get a pretty good press…
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
- Shakespeare ( Twelfth Night )
Like us, Shakespeare couldn’t get enough of it. And not to be like us, in love of music, was to him a pretty damnable thing …
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus;
Let no such man be trusted.
- (Merchant of Venice)
6. It proved virtually impossible to find anyone of note prepared to bad-mouth our kind of music. Even Dr Johnson, who can usually be relied on for a touch of liverish spleen, would go no further than damn it with the faint praise…
‘Music is the only sensual pleasure without vice’
Only George Bernard Shaw could, characteristically, come up to critical scratch…
‘Music is the brandy of the damned. And Hell is full of musical amateurs’
- Excuse him - Shaw was an Irish music and theatre critic by early profession, and had a highly polemical reputation to keep up!
7. Mainly, however, there is no escaping the many intimations of mystery surrounding this ‘music’ thing, endorsing the kind of questions I have been raising. Shelley had his own tentative stab at my question ‘where does the music go’?
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory –
Like odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken…
Mmm! it might have got him an ‘A’ in English Literature, but wouldn’t have satisfied the science teacher.
8. Sir Thomas Browne ( 1663-1704 ) was a relatively unknown, though more confident, commentator; surmising that ‘music’ was by no means confined to the concert hall, nor dependent on our hearing….
‘There is music in beauty, and the silent note which Cupid strikes, far sweeter
than the sound of an instrument. For there is music wherever there is a
harmony, order or proportion; and thus far we may maintain the music of the
spheres; for well-ordered motions, and regular paces, although they give no
sound unto the ear, yet to the understanding they strike a note full of harmony’
9. This notion that ‘music’ is something already ‘out there’ – some ‘music of the spheres’ – and is, in fact, a subset of some bigger ‘harmony’ which binds the universe together, is a very old idea now surprisingly back in vogue.
It is why the ancients – like Pythagoras and Plato –thought that mathematics and music were
fraternal arts and the keys to science. They were looking for the magic numbers, the scales,
pitch and chords by which the universe lives, and whose subset can also please the ear when
some musician or composer catches or intuits it.
10. Adelaide Ann Procter and Sir Arthur Sullivan certainly felt that they had captured the essence of this distant, ethereal music with their ‘Lost Chord’ …
Seated one day at the organ,
I was weary and ill at ease;
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.
I know not what I was playing
Nor what I was dreaming then,
But I struck one chord of music
Like the sound of a great Amen…
Sadly, not even so talented a musical pair could find that particular magic chord again, so we lesser mortals are obliged either just to take their word for it or simply wait for a repeat performance in some heavenly concert hall on an unspecified future date.
11. Modern scientists, however, seem to be re-excavating these external ‘harmonies’ with renewed interest in the cosmic, solar, lunar and stellar rhythms to which the births of babies dance; and to which plants and animals, which have rarely learned the piano, also cavort and sing. You can now be entranced and soothed to sleep by the recorded singing of wolf, dolphin and blue whale. Sadly, though, there has been no recording contract yet for my old friend’s potted geraniums.
However, as with virtually every aspect of contemporary science, the noisiest and most verbose are our ubiquitous neuroscientists. Armed with their fMRC scans, they have little time for these vast, external worlds; but see everything in the internal, neuron- popping of our brains. Hence, we now have neuro-aesthetics and burgeoning professorships of neuro - everything.
So, as far as music is concerned, it might be better to ignore them, pro-tem; or perhaps allow them nowhere near the Arts, at least in their professional ‘science’ capacities, without some modestly alert, more philosophical scientist somewhere to hand. I could recommend Raymond Tallis or Denis Noble; though I should warn you that the latter, author of ‘The Music of Life’, is just as likely to be performing music at the Holywell Music Rooms as researching the systems - biological implications of the genome in his lab.
12. Whatever its mysterious origins, composer-friends tend to imply that the elements of their music were certainly somewhere before, and their genius is in its fresh reshaping for new ears. Just a as the great sculptors talk of ‘seeing’ the hidden figure in the block of granite, and their art is in the compulsive skill to release it, and give it the ‘ life ’ that others can then see and share.
Which brings me to my end. Having failed to answer my own question – What is Music? – I can at least make amends by offering you Sassoon’s great comment on both the elemental mystery and therapeutic spontaneity of our greatest art…
Everyone suddenly burst out singing:
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark green fields: on-on-and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away… O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless;
the singing will never be done.
RW 1987/ 2013
In any case, as with for all intents and purposes each part of contemporary science, the noisiest and most verbose are our omnipresent neuroscientists. Furnished with their fMRC filters, they Custom Essay Service | essayChamp have little time for these huge, outside universes; yet observe everything in the inward, neuron-flying of our brains.