This article by Douglas Yeo first appeared on the Conversations Project CD, released in the fall of 2002.
In the "Prologue" to his opera, L'Orfeo" (1607), Claudio Monteverdi introduces the character of "La Musica" who sings of her power to affect those who listen to her strains:
Io la Musica son ch'ai dolci accenti,
So far tranquillo ogni turbato core,
Et hor di nobilira, et hor d'amore
Posso infiammar le piu gelate menti.
After four hundred years, the self-evident nature of this poetry still rings true as it has for all time. Even in our 6000 channel universe, with myriad forms of media clamoring for our attention, music still manages to inspire, move and influence us.
Music, of course, is inanimate - it has no soul, it has no intrisic power in and of itself. Little black dots scattered across music paper are mere representations of what inspired them, and even then, they may be only a faint shadow of what the composer intended.
In classical music, composers often dictate to the finest point what a performer is to do when he plays the notes he has written on a page. Gustav Mahler, the great composer of the late 19th and early 20th century, routinely filled his scores with dozens of footnotes to both conductors and performers alike, convinced that the mere notes alone could not convey the specificity of his intentions. Even so, CD catalogs have dozens of performances of any of his symphonies - all played with supposed fidelity to the printed music - which are at times so varied it is difficult to imagine the performers were all working from the same source.
Then there is jazz and rock, where at times only the barest of outlines of a musical line may be written down with most of the composition left to the imagination and creativity of the performer. The music which reaches ones ears is spontaneous and new with each hearing, never to be duplicated again.
But, whether carefully constructed and laid out or improvised in a moment, music still is something unique among the arts. Nearly omnipresent in our age, music seems to accompany everything we do. Steven Spielberg knew that his movie "Jaws" would not be nearly as terrifying were it not for a simple, two note theme written by his friend John Williams - two notes which when heard by two generations of movie goers, give one pause before heading into the water at the beach. Music gives advertising its memorable edge, it provides inspiration at professional sporting events. Drive time classical radio knows that fast music in the morning (Vivaldi, Telemann and Mozart) can provide a "lift" on the way to work and that slower themes by Albinoni and Barber as well as celebratory works by Tchaikovsky and Dvorak can help us unwind at the end of a busy day.
Events are marked by music - not only do composers write music to celebrate and commemorate specific happenings such as a Presidential inauguration or the death of a national hero, but existing pieces can become associated with tragedies as different as the death of Princess Diana (Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" and John Tavener's "Song for Athene") or the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centers ("God Bless America" and "America, the Beautiful"). Every married couple goes through their life together remembering "our song," carefully chosen to be sung at their wedding or danced to at their wedding reception - a song which whenever it is heard, brings a tear to the eye and fills the body with a host of emotions.
Music's ubiquitous power moves us, it annoys us, it inspires us, it soothes us. Music calms, hurts, recalls, cajoles, whispers and shouts. We gladly pay for it but we often despise it when it's free because we can't get away from it. Public or private, music proves over and over again that Tolstoy was right when he said, "Music is the shorthand of emotion."
But the question remains: "Why does music have such power over us?"
To answer this, perhaps we need to look at the creative process which allows music to grab ahold of us in the first place.
From the mind of the composer comes the thought which is transferred to paper, or demonstrated aurally. The performer then interprets the thought and adds his own nuance based on how the music effects him. Finally the listener, informed by his own unique life experience, filters the music through yet another lens where it reaches deep into the soul to conjur up feelings which can run the full gamut of emotion. Composer, performer, listener. Three filters which bring to us even familiar music in a different way each time we hear it. The life experience of both performer and listener varies from day to day and we are all in a different "place" at each moment in time.
Yet there is something more. What is it that causes the creative impulse in the first place? Is it just a random thought that pops into an artist's head which gives birth to a song or a symphony, or is there something more fundamental, something which preceeds all of this which informs and gives context to musical expression and interpretation?
Look around. Hold up two leaves. Look at two dogs, two pickles, two giraffes. Gaze out at two mountains, or at the rocks in a river. In their own way, they are exquisite works of art. The diversity of expression in the "natural world" is staggering. Why don't all giraffes look exactly alike? Why are snowflakes all different, no two leaves exactly the same? Why is your laugh different than mine, Michael Jordon's shoe size different than Michael Jackson's?
Something is behind this. The rationalist says it all happened by accident, but why would not an accident of such magnitude result in a dreary sameness for things which have the same function. Human ears didn't HAVE to be different one from another, eyes didn't HAVE to be blue and brown and green. Just as any two pieces of music have certain similarities, each is unique in countless ways.
The rationalist cannot explain the diversity of creation - whether in "nature" or in the hands of humankind. We cannot explain, in a rational, clear and compelling way, what it is that gives music its power, or why the same piece of music may affect us in different ways on different days and at different seasons of life.
But there is a context for all of this incredible explosion of creativity and the power it has on us. Who wouldn't want to know who it was that gave Michaelangelo his steady sculptor's hand, or Rembrandt his eye for light, or Paul McCartney his gift of melody, or Dave Brubeck his sense of rhythm. Surely their teachers must have been gifted people. And their teachers and their teachers and...where does it end? Who was the first teacher's teacher?
Consider that the incredible creative diversity we see in people around us didn't just "happen" but that it was modeled. Modeled by the greatest teacher, the greatest artist, the greatest role model, the greatest communicator one could possibly imagine. Modeled by one who by his very existence defined and defines creativity.
Look around. Thousands of years ago, a poet wrote, "The heavens are telling the glory of God." The natural world, in all of its panoply of diversity, had a creator, one who was the first artist and who continues today to lay before us new and startling creations. The one who has gifted those who are made "in his image" has given us the ability to re-create after the model he has given us. The mushrooms and dandelions could have been all alike. All men could have had red hair, all leopards have exactly 95 spots. But they are not alike. They are different because the one who made them knew that his own creativity would be a model for all those who would create through all time. The gift - and it is a gift - of creating music, and the gift - and YOU have this gift - of being affected by it, is not something which simply "happens."
"In the beginning, God created...." The model is there. The gift is ours. And the teacher wants us to ask questions.
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