Monday, 11 January 2016

Elevating the human spirit: Why Music Matters

The last week has brought the death of David Bowie and Pierre Boulez. You couldn't really get an odder couple! Today's hysteria around Bowie's death is at least partly about nostalgia on the part of his fans for a musical soundtrack which accompanied their teens. There is creative musical and artistic innovation - a kind of gesamtkunstwerk of the embodied artist as media icon, composer, performer, actor, self-promoter and social commentator. Boulez, by contrast, is all about music as music, which he understood intellectually very deeply indeed.

To take away the sentiment about Bowie leaves something tangible in the music. How much is left, time will tell. There is little sentiment in Boulez - just the power of the intellect whose sonic form is, for many, is too raw to take. But it is an intellect and insight which gave him remarkable powers of interpretation of 20th century classical music - much of it tremendously delicate. In music, it is what is left which matters. Musicians live for a short time. Music lives for centuries.

We live in a very confused time. There is more than consolation or entertainment in the music of the past. There are messages of those lived in confused times but who managed to make some sense out of it, and the sense they made was often beautiful, challenging, stimulating or sometimes downright weird. The musical sense is the sense of connection with the past: the practices, the intellectual struggle, the techniques, solutions, tricks and so on. And what it produces is a 'whole' - an ecology - with components connecting across centuries via the physics of sound, techniques of composition, history, anthropology, biology, anatomy and psychology.

Most ecologies are slow moving and rather abstract and difficult to study. Although most are historical in some sense (they have ontogeny), music is an ecology which grows in front of us, whose growth we feel viscerally, whose ontogeny and phylogeny are laid bare, whose structure we can analyse, whose practices we can reproduce. Only musical practice allows us to tune-in to minds long dead. Tuning-in to the past unlocks new possibilities in the present.

Both Boulez and Bowie were in some way about elevating the human spirit. But it is what they knew about elevating the human spirit which will stand the test of time. In playing some Beethoven piano sonatas recently, I've been reflecting on what Beethoven knew about what can elevate the human spirit. I struggle to understand this. But I have little doubt that what we need urgently is the elevation of the human spirit. We need to find ways of infusing the musical insight of the past into our experience of today's world. 

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