Thursday, November 19, 2015

Music and the World

No-one is more aware than myself of the way in which music manages to be a universe all of its own, a refuge from the world. Perhaps more than any other art form, music is something we can lose ourselves into, taken on a journey to a different and strange universe. Opera offers some of the most intense experiences of this nature, but it is also true of instrumental music. Listening to a symphony by Beethoven, Mahler or Sibelius is an aesthetic journey--and some even feel it is a spiritual one.

But as soon as you start to reflect on music, its creation, history and reception, you notice that music is after all, part of the world, even if a very special corner of it. The idea of music as inspiring a kind of trance in which one journeys into an inner world is actually a concept or practice that was particularly a feature of the Romantic era. This was not how music was typically thought of in the 18th century and earlier. Composers like Stravinsky would also likely have not thought of music in this way.

A lot of musicology in recent years has been devoted to looking at things like the influences on music and the way it influences the world. The role of music in the French Revolution and its aftermath is a topic I was looking into at one time. The very complex relationship between the music of Shostakovich and the Soviet regime is a topic that has received massive attention. The way that the operas of John Adams reference recent political events has been the focus of critical attention as well.

So it seems very safe to point out that different kinds of music have different kinds of relationships with the world or, if you insist, "society". Bach's Art of Fugue has a fascinating relationship with its contrapuntal predecessors, but it is a towering masterpiece of pure music with little or no political aspects or ramifications. So if someone were to put out a paper (expected any day now) tying it to some current crusade such as income inequality or gender I would resist that with some asperity.

But other music seems to be very closely linked with institutions or events in the world. A great deal of music was written to be used in the Catholic and other churches for devotional purposes. This includes a host of masses by generation after generation of composers and hundreds of cantatas by Bach. Some music was written specifically to be social commentary such as Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" or "Wozzeck" by Alban Berg. Let me hasten to say that in both these instances and many others exactly what the content of that social commentary is may be hotly disputed!

Where music comes from and how it affects us are complex questions that some scientists are trying to answer with the use of scanners to see what the brain is doing when we make or listen to music. I'm pretty sure that they are not going to come up with any answers very quickly.

Music itself seems almost to occupy a different quantum reality than the mundane world. But musicians live in the real world and performances take place in the real world and so they are affected by events of the real world, for better or worse.

I can't believe that anything I have just said could be considered controversial in any way. These seem to me to be obvious facts and a few reasonable deductions.

That is all I want to say about this at the moment, so let's end with a musical envoi. This is a song by Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn titled "If I had a rocket launcher". Not the kind of thing one readily expects from a mild-mannered Canadian folk-singer.

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