by Barry Edelson


In Concert


The Unanswered Question


A question for which there is no answer


The experience of listening to music has become such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it is astonishing to imagine how recent a development it has been in the history of our species. Rituals with elements of rhythm and dancing have been a part of human culture since prehistory, a practice that has been verified by numerous observations of people still living in neolithic conditions in modern times. But the professional musician who is paid for his labors is a product of advanced civilization, and the independent, self-sustaining artist to whom others flock to be entertained, moved, elevated or educated is an even more recent advance.

Today, on every day of the year, in every city and town of any size, there is a public concert: rock bands, jazz ensembles, symphony orchestras, chamber groups of varying size, singers of the blues, pop hits, standards, folk, and show tunes, not to mention ballet, opera and musical theater in which music is an essential if not the solitary ingredient that attracts an audience to the theater. Music pours from radios and computers, portable and stationary. It forms the backdrop of virtually every movie or television drama and comedy, as well as the advertisements that help to pay for them. The parlor piano, once a hallmark of middle class respectability, has been mostly replaced by the stereo speaker and advanced electronics, but the intent and effect remain the same: to make music a part of daily life. It is now inescapable.

Music is also one of the many ways in which modern man organizes himself into groups according to common interests. Unbound by geography, we now easily find communities of listeners with similar tastes, thanks to the Internet and inexpensive telecommunications. Social scientists and political commentators frequently bemoan the balkanization of contemporary life, as individuals increasingly (it would seem) identify more and more narrowly with those with whom they share a set of beliefs or predilections, to the exclusion of others. However, we ought to remember that, from the time man first cultivated the land until the Industrial Revolution and the advent of faster transportation, most people never ventured far from where they were born, their knowledge of the world and their interests, by necessity, far more narrowly focused that that of anyone living within reach of a modem or mobile phone. A village farmer in Europe 300 years ago could have made far less common cause with a similarly situated villager in India, Africa or China of the same era than adversaries in any modern democratic state would find with one another today. When the music starts playing, listeners from across the spectrum of political, religious, social and academic thought find their attention captured by the same tune.

The wide net cast by music's allure was beautifully illustrated at a concert by B.B. King we attended a few months ago. The audience of about 1500 contained a fairly wide range of ages and ethnicities, and, judging by some of the behavior around us, considerable differences in temperament and self-control, as well. Some were clearly more devoted fans of the great (though regrettably no longer vital) blues guitarist than others. Some in the crowd were evidently more interested in getting drunk or high than listening to a concert. Though everyone had obviously bought a ticket to hear the same music by the same legendary artist, not everyone came with the same level of concentration, knowledge or regard for their fellow listeners. At the end of the concert, King played a few encores, one of which was, quite unexpectedly, "You Are My Sunshine." This is about as far from a blues song as one can imagine, yet the entire audience knew it, and spontaneously sang along. The effect was surprisingly moving. How is it that, in this disparate assembly, every single individual of every age and background seemed to know the lyrics and melody of this very old song? There's no rule book that dictates what tunes we need to know to be full-fledged members of the American community, no national curriculum of song. And yet, somehow, without realizing it, every one of us had absorbed it into our beings, and had it sufficiently available in our consciousness to put all of our voices together with no hesitation.

Homogeneity in musical backgrounds and tastes, however, does not seem to have any bearing on the conduct of the rest of our lives. This is both peculiar and sad. An observer would naturally expect that the spectacle of thousands coming together in song — whether at the London proms, the Estonian national song festival or the multi-tribal Singsing in the highlands of New Guinea — signifies a united people. But the "Ode to Joy" has not prevented Beethoven's innumerable admirers in many nations from making war against one another, any more than the beloved anthem of any particular country stops civil war from erupting. It is more than likely that Syrian army soldiers who are at this very moment raining destruction upon the heads of their countrymen share deep musical traditions with their victims. Dancing to the same tune doesn't change many hearts and minds. Music may indeed be a kind of universal language, as many of its more misty-eyed proponents maintain, but its near-universal appeal and sometimes profound emotional impact fail to soften the harder edges of our other differences. A common language didn't stop Serbs, Croats and Bosnians from slaughtering one another in the 1990s, nor many other peoples with astonishingly similar cultures and near-identical musical heritages from mutual detestation.

Perhaps part of the explanation for this disparity lies in the overlap of musical preferences that most of carry with us. Some years ago, the head of marketing for a large symphony orchestra, finding himself listening to rock and roll on his car radio on his way to work, decided to start advertising the orchestra's concerts on non-classical stations. Surely, he wondered, he couldn't be the only one who loved both classical and rock? The vast quantity of live and recorded music on offer, and the variety that many of us exhibit in our tastes, leaves no particular music in occupation of more than a small portion of our personal cultural terrain. Within a few months of seeing B.B. King, for example, we heard the jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut and his new quartet (with the exceptional saxophonist Stacy Dillard) at Lincoln Center, and two distinctly different chamber music concerts in a local series in our town, all the while listening to a considerable selection of genres on CD and the radio on most days in between. ("Missouri Sky", an album by Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny, happens to be playing, at random, on the computer as I write.) Like most avid listeners, we have a hierarchy of preferences, but there is still quite a range of pieces that can transfix our minds and remove us, for a while, from our other concerns.

Temporality is music's other great paradox: the very qualities of time that allow music to emerge from the endless din of the onrushing world to grab our attention also constrain its duration. Like us, music cannot exist without time — a phenomenon of the universe about which we have little understanding — and is of necessity limited to its confines. On either side of a song's graceful arc is a void of silence, which we vainly attempt to fill with even more music. Perhaps music is a mirror of our tenuous grasp of life on our tiny planet, arising from nothing to fill its allotted moments, then fading into emptiness. And like a mirror, it presents to us, in Evelyn Waugh's phrase, the double illusion of familiarity and strangeness: a manifestation of art that we recognize instantly, but which we can grasp with no more certainty than the ephemera of our own selves. As "You Are My Sunshine" evaporated into the night, it simultaneously remained a comforting companion to the narrative of our lives and an eternal question that we can never answer.

To whatever degree we embrace and comprehend it, music has become an essential antidote to that silence into which is poured all of the vanities and inanities of the rest of our unmusical existence.

March 10, 2012


Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.