Music has always been important to me. No matter how hard life has been, through catastrophic accidents, surgery, the death of a beloved wife there has always been one thing that never failed me: the power of music to evoke and inspire emotion. While this was liberating and joyful in my youth it has grown even stronger and more powerful now. Two hours of playing guitar will shift the most oppressive mood and renew my energy and enthusiasm for life and work. Without it my creativity as a writer and a human being would be greatly diminished.
As a musician I have an average amount of talent. My playing relies more on expression and feeling than a high degree of skill. I don't have the finger speed or the dexterity to give Eric Clapton a run for his money. But within my limits I have been able to develop over the years a particular personal style and delicacy of expression. More recently that has meant an extraordinary amount of pleasure when I'm playing well. Rocking a finger back and forth on the fretboard to enjoy the sensuality of vibrato on a single note has reached an intensity I've never experienced before. And this got me thinking:
'What is music, exactly? Why does it have such a profound and gloriously uplifting effect on me? On anyone? Why is it such a luxury that I'm almost embarrassed at what seems pure self-indulgence?'
Until about a fortnight ago when I had a sudden epiphany, and new definition:
Music is the beautiful arrangement of time.
The beautiful arrangement of time.
Music is the beautiful arrangement of time. It has its unique appeal to us because like us it moves through time in a linear way. Every piece of music has a beginning, an understanding of complex relations between chord and melody, descant and rhythm, and then an end. Like us. We begin, grow in wisdom and complex understanding, and then we meet our end. We are born, we perceive the beauty of the world, and then we die. Music is a miracle of human experience, a transcendent experience available to every one of us. Through music we can explore the human capacity for consciousness of both our own finite mortality and the transcendent beauty of the created universe.
Music has two unique qualities: emotional power and temporal presence.
First, music allows us to experience true emotions in a fuller, more individuated way, separate from our own personal experience. We gain access to emotional states and moods that we might never have had in the normal course of our lives; supreme and spiritually uplifting joy, empathetic understanding of anothers grief, the surge of supercharged awareness found in moments of crisis and life-or-death struggle. And with this comes an enhanced capacity for feeling, not as simple emotion, but as the process of making value judgements. Qualitative judgements about right and wrong stem from emotional reactions to the good and bad in life. The greater our emotional sophistication the surer our moral judgement becomes.
For me the search for a particular tone from a guitar has paralleled my own moral and spiritual search. Personally there's always been an inner sound to chase, a pure tone that's expressed in the words: an electric guitar should sound like shattering glass. A bell-like ringing in the middle register and a brittle, crystalline splintering of higher notes cascading to the floor. When, on rare occasions I can reach this perfect tone when playing I find my mind becomes detached from the physical experience and I observe myself from above, calmly and dispassionately, while still perfectly aware of an inner response, a connection between that ideal sound within and that ringing sound from the guitar. This experience, this moment of pure connection becomes a touchstone, a marker of absolute truth and beauty.
Music makes us more sophisticated, more deeply informed as emotional beings. It broadens our emotional experience base and enhances our range of emotions for life's situations, nourishing us and arming us for life's vagaries. It enables us to discriminate between subtle distinctions of feeling, by directly comparing feeling states expatiated directly by music. It gives us personal, direct experience of the differences between, for example, boredom, lassitude, ennui, apathy, anomie, alienation, despair, despondency and chagrin. But enough about Wagner..
And music does so without the limits of words, which are paltry symbols for the real power, range and depth of emotion. Even the English language, the most voracious in terms of stealing words from other languages, cannot come close to describing the totality of human emotion. For me this is intensely frustrating. As I get older I find I experience emotion in more subtle and nuanced forms; refined, specific and almost infinitely variable states which blossom more fully with time and experience. That I can't fully express this in words denies me the ability to capture and compare emotions that each give more colour and power to experience. Poetry seems flowery and futile, arcane and antiquated. Even haiku, which capture a poignant moment, mood or experience so sparingly evoke emotions more in what is left unsaid than what is made explicit.
Tempo, rhythm, syncopation and swing.
Neuro-scientist Susan Greenfield remarked in a lecture that beyond the cochlear and the retina both sound and sight are processed by the brain in exactly the same way, and using exactly the same electrical impulses. The only difference being the area of the brain involved and the way we perceive the results of the transfer of sound as vibration in the ear and light as an image on the retina. The key difference in perception was, in her view, that vision, what we see, is measured in intervals of space (distance), and that sound is measured in intervals of time (duration). We see only objects in space. We cannot see time, for the simple reason that we are captives of time, traveling through it in a linear way, the future becoming the past without us ever glimpsing it. We can only infer time from what we see, which is the present moment endlessly renewed.
I became aware of this dimension to music recently when listening to a digital library of thousands of songs in the small hours. I found myself hungrily skipping from track to track, cutting some songs short, skipping others after an opening riff or melody triggered the appropriate memory, moving on to the next and the next trying to consume music faster than it could be played (Smokey Robinson's Tears of a Clown from my '60s childhood, Albinoni's Trumpet Concerti from my questing '80s). It occurred to me that music is a luxury precisely because it uses up the one resource we truly have, our time. The seconds of a life slip away, and we can only hear so much, so many times, sacrificing the possible for the familiar and needed.
Schopenhauer saw music as the highest art form, the supreme act of will, turning the full power of our instinct for survival into direct contemplation of the underlying reality of life itself. It's also the ephemeral art form, passing, only available as a thing in itself by us using, spending our time to experience it. Until the last century music could not exist separate to the eternal present of a performance, a unique combination of human skill, sensitivity and the zeitgeist of a particular place and time.
Perhaps no composer has understood this better than John Cage, who demonstrated his belief that duration is the essential building block of all of music with two remarkable works. The first, 4'33", is a three movement composition (for any instrument or combination of instruments) of absolute silence performed, in all seriousness, for the first time in 1952. The second invokes the almost imperceptible passing of eternity in 'Organ, As Slow as Possible' (1985) which is currently being performed by the organ in St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, and is scheduled to last for 639 years. The performance began on September 5, 2001 with a 'rest' lasting seventeen months.
Space and time, truth and beauty. Music has the power to connect us with reality in its highest form, the supreme tension between finite mortal experience and eternal values. Not bad for an experience that asks only that you open your ears and listen.