Why Music Matters
I recently was engaged in a discussion with someone whom I would have expected to be a regular attender of symphony concerts. This was someone who spent a great deal of time thinking about culture in America, someone who attended the theater a great deal, opera more than occasionally, movies frequently, and art museums regularly. But this person said that to himself and his friends (he is in his early forties), symphony concerts were not part of their lives because symphonic music seemed somehow unconnected with their lives...
He noted that when he goes to a play, or even to a museum (where, I suspect, he mostly attends exhibits of modern and politically or socially "relevant" art), he and his friends talk about it and connect it to the events of the world or the events of their lives. If a play illuminates some aspect of human relationships - marriage, for example - it has real meaning for them; it gives them something to talk about and connections to make.
Have we really come to this? Do we need very specific reference points for our artistic experiences? The truth is that the abstract form of symphonic and instrumental music does illuminate the human condition and all aspects of it. It just doesn't do it with the specificity of words and dramatic action and specific social commentary. If you want to think about the horror of what war means, listen seriously to the Eighth Symphony of Shostakovich. If you want insights of a religious nature, absorb a Bruckner symphony. Whatever real-world connection you want, it is there in any music - but it is not there with the clarity and, I would argue, simplicity of words or story lines. That should, in fact, give you more to talk about after experiencing a symphony concert, not less - but it requires a more subtle kind of thinking, an ability to make connections that are emotive and not clearly articulated unless the "receiver" is willing and able to dig deep.
I don't know where this thought leads. Perhaps we in the orchestra world have failed to communicate to our audiences and potential audiences just what this art form can mean. We have somehow failed to make clear the relevance of the art form to the lives and innermost thoughts of human beings. In our search for quick, on-the-surface marketing one-liners to help (we think) sell tickets, we have stripped from symphonic music how it can, in fact, relate to our lives and our thoughts. No, there is probably no symphony that has been written that will help us focus on the specific political issues of the day - but for illuminating the underlying human spirit that should drive all of our thinking there is, in fact, no art form more appropriate. But we don't talk about it that way - we don't even think about it that way. And the problem is that to do so requires more than a sound bite, more than is possible in a blog.
Three books that I have recently read try to at least begin to articulate what it is about music that should matter to us, to all of us, and I recommend them all. None is the complete or only answer, but all have a great deal to contribute to the thinking about the relevance of classical music by thinking and feeling and caring human beings. They are: Why Classical Music Still Matters, by Lawrence Kramer; This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin; and Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, by Robert Jourdain. They all make fascinating, provocative, and stimulating reading.
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