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Saturday, 25 February 2017

Music is life: submitting to its organised flow

Anthony Storr's Music & The Mind is the book about music I didn't know I wanted to read. But I have read it and I'm glad I did.

It's not in any way a book about "popular" music, confining itself to classical music, not something I know much about. But Storr's book is still fascinating.

So, when Storr's going on about Hayden, Mahler, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner, what he's doing is trying to get to the heart of how music affects human beings. Even more than that - he's asking what music is, what anthropological/cultural purpose it serves in human history. Stuff like that. It's not exactly the memoirs of a 90s Britpop drummer.

Michael, row the boat ashore 

I won't try to recapitulate all of Storr's elegantly-written and carefully-argued book in this blog (sacrilege!) but here are a few things I found interesting from it:

*In pre-history music and language were probably the same thing. Primitive man made sounds that were a grunted mixture of the two, conveying all sorts of meanings, including helping to bond together groups, tribes or whatever. Later on, as speech began to develop, the musical part (yells, shrieks, moans, bits of early singing) began to be used in rituals - for preparation for conflict, for group cohesion etc (much as they have been for millennia since).

*For most of history music has actually mostly been used in conjunction with or as a “melodic imitator” of speech in one way or another. It's a comparatively recent thing (from about the mid-18th-century) for there to be purely instrumental music. Up until this period most people apparently viewed music without a vocal accompaniment as "inarticulate".

*As anyone who's ever been to a gig of any kind will know, music is intimately intertwined with bodily movement. Head nodding and toe-tapping even take place at classical concerts, and at rock gigs or dance clubs bodily movement is of course a major component of the entire experience. As reggae buffs know, it's all about riddim. And as Storr says:

"Rhythm is rooted in the body in a way which does not apply so strikingly to melody and harmony. Breathing, walking, the heartbeat, and sexual intercourse are all rhythmical aspects of our physical being".

Yep, sexual intercourse. Rocking and rolling.

*Somewhat amazingly, the first public venue designed specifically for musical performances only came into being in the late-17th-century - York Building in Villiers Street in London in around 1678. Up until then, music took place in other places - houses, churches etc.

*Music is fundamentally a human activity founded on the need to impose order. It isn't an imitation of nature however "musical" things like birdsong or babbling brooks can at first appear. As Storr puts it:

"Music can best be understood as a system of relationships between tones, just as language is a system of relationships between words ... Languages are ways of ordering words; political systems are ways of ordering society; musical systems are ways of ordering sounds. What is universal is the human propensity to create order from chaos".

Or cash from chaos! Anyway, Storr’s book has a lot else that's extremely interesting on the reasons for music and the effects it has on people collectively and individually. In the end Storr's excellent book is both a cerebral and a passionate argument for the value of music in our lives. Music, Storr notes, isn't some frippery, an add-on to our busy lives. It's a vital part of a richly textured existence:

"If there appears to be an escapist element in musical participation, it is because our culture is so concerned with achievement and the pursuit of conventional success that makes ordinary life into a tense and anxious business from which the arts are absent".

Amen to that. Music not only enriches life, it even at some level makes it possible. People with brain damage, notes Storr, can perform tasks with the aid of music that they're unable to do without it. When you've got a nagging tune on your mind (a harmony in your head) it's there for obscure and complex psychological-physiological reasons, but that's generally a good thing, probably aiding your mood or physical state. And it's a reminder, says Storr, that music is "an integral part of our inner life, and therefore of living itself".

Storr's preoccupation is with classical music, and I'm fine with that. And I think his insistence on the deep value of music is entirely right. I'll end this little ode to Storr with a quote from the composer Michael Tippett which Storr cites in his book. In my case I'd just replace the word "symphonic" with the words (interchangeably) reggae/blues/punk/drum and bass/ska/noise/any:

"Symphonic music in the hands of the great masters truly and fully embodies the otherwise unperceived, unsavoured inner flow of life. In listening to such music we are as though entire again, despite all our insecurity, incoherence, incompleteness and relativity of our everyday life. The miracle is achieved by submitting to its organised flow …".

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