Even the all-powerful medieval church could not squash music
Occasionally, you get people who say things that you wished you had said, or worse yet, who say something you were just about to say. Being original is not always easy. Comedian Chris Rock said something at the 2005 Oscars I intended to say in this column for a long time, but I am going to say it anyway. “Music is the soundtrack of my life.”
I have a new toy. It’s a digital music player that stores more tracks than I have on my CD racks. It also doubles as a ‘memory stick’ so I carry heaps of files around with me. Thanks to the wonders of technology, the sense of guilt that I feel for not immediately doing portable work I have in hand comes with the tune of my choice.
The beauty of my toy is that I can listen to music for days on end without changing the CD every hour. If not for quality time with my family or the need to attend to business from time to time I would probably learn sign language and have the thing surgically embedded in my ear.
As a point of interest, the soundtrack for this paragraph is ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, a piece of lovely swing jazz by Eddie Duchin and His Orchestra. I am wondering whether to write the next paragraph to the tune of ‘Small Change Got Rained On with His Own Thirty-Eight’ by Tom Waits. On the other hand, I try to keep the column cheerful, so perhaps not.
As I said, music is the soundtrack of my life. It influences my moods, or I can use it to influence my mood: – tranquillity, melancholia or a cheerful moment at the touch of a button. It’s also a handy ‘off button’ when the world gets too noisy.
Various art forms have waxed and waned. Poetry is now almost entirely academic. Theatre is the terrain of those snooty few who don’t appreciate cool special effects. Individual paintings have been replaced by banal, airbrushed posters or oriental factory line kitsch sold door-to-door as ‘art made by struggling students’. Music, as an art form, has weathered the centuries.
We may be listening to Rob Zombie or some percussive hip hop instead of Handel or Strauss but we are listening regardless of the changes that cultural evolution has wrought.
Only at one time has music been credibly threatened, and that was in one of the murkier corners of the Dark Ages, when the church tried to put and end to its temptingly licentious and thought provoking effect. Of course, being the church, the monks kept a bit for themselves and grooved liberally to plainsong, the medieval version of rap. It didn’t last long though. Nobody can stop the peasants humming under their breaths. Ask any of the modern dictators who tried to go the same route.
Today the music is everywhere. It’s even ported into offices and malls, though you may wish whoever chooses the tunes had better taste.
For me, music has become one way to see God at work, and by this I don’t mean those horrifyingly banal religious CDs that people give you in the hopes that you will ‘see the light’ and start living in a way that makes them feel snug and comfy.
There are inspired moments, be they the beautiful tranquillity of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elize’ or Johnny Rotten’s howls of hideous rage and despair that forced the western world to admit that something was indeed very wrong with just about everything, and then some. These moments of inspiration are so extreme that they are hard to attribute to a mere human.
More often than not music is the voice of change. A singer comes up with something different and we all begin to change the way we look, dress and think about things. This was probably why the church tried to put an end to all but officially sanctioned tunes so many centuries ago, and why dictatorships have followed in their futile footsteps.
There is a question anthropologists ask their students which apparently has no answer: what makes us different from the apes? I think I have just found the answer: I have never heard an ape sing so knowingly and eloquently as a human being.
Without music our species would probably still be little more than apes.