(Copyright © 2009)

Here’s a look into another conscious mind beside my own, that of pianist Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division at the Boston Conservatory. The excerpt, used by permission, is from a welcome address he gave to parents of incoming students at the conservatory on September 1, 2004. My interest in presenting this piece is the undercurrent of musical consciousness echoing through these words.

~ ~ WHY MUSIC MATTERS ~ ~

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks . . . [who] said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the “Quartet for the End of Time” written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for the prisoners and guards of the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone bother with music? And yet—even from the concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 a.m. to practice as was my daily routine. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome.” Lots of people sang “America the Beautiful.” The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece “Adagio for Strings.” If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s “Sonata,” which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this:

During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t under-stand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two a.m. someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 p.m. someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the Nazi camps and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

NOAA Weather Radio is some of the best entertainment around. That is if you can stand the robot voices, endless repetitions, senseless scheduling, foolish long-range forecasts, and fallibility of the whole enterprise of trying to figure the weather one day in advance, much less an entire week. Here is exhibit A of trying to predict the future based on trends derived from past and current data—as if that tells the whole story.

 

I keep reminding myself the National Weather Service, like the fallen woman in the song, is more to be pitied than censured. Even so, it drives me crazy. I rely on it as little as possible. Which comes down to times when major storms are in the offing and I want all the information I can get to anticipate how it might impact my plans.

 

Take March 2nd of this year. Big snowstorm coming. I wanted to know if schools would be closed, because that would affect my adult ed class on Minding the Mind, which had already been postponed by a storm the week before. Yep, winter storm warning posted for coastal and interior Waldo County (the dire prospects repeated three times in succession in identical wording at a minute-and-a-half each), coastal and interior Hancock County, and Penobscot Valley. The Bar Harbor town horn sounded its three-blast school-cancellation notice. It was going to snow all day, with some sleet and freezing rain mixed in. I got a call that my class had been cancelled. OK, that was that.

 

Except it wasn’t. A few flakes fell in the morning, adding up to about an inch of new snow. Then it stopped. And stayed stopped. The storm must have veered away from the coast. But schools were closed, kids stayed home, parents had to make childcare arrangements if they wanted to go to work, and life went on despite the false warning.

 

Computers, like brains, can infer trends from past data and present conditions—but they cannot predict the future. They can only make an informed guess, which in this instance we call a forecast, as if computers could somehow see ahead. Which they can’t because, like the rest of us, they’re stuck in the here and now. With no sure way of knowing what they don’t know. Even if they had access to an infinite array of data points telling temperature, humidity, wind strength and direction, they still could not predict conditions at those data points based on anything but assumed probabilities, which opens the way to misjudging the amount of energy in the system one minute from now—and erroneous forecasts for any future point of interest.

 

On the other hand, weather forecasts based on an endless loop such as “Que sera, sera” wouldn’t cut it, either. “As God wills” would translate, we haven’t a clue. Maps provided by weather radar would be a big improvement in showing what’s happening around our area at the moment, leaving prognostications up to us as individuals. Tracking such images over time would provide a sense of how fast clouds are gathering, and the route they are taking across the landscape. Which is pretty much what the weather service does for us now, converting such evidence into a thoroughly annoying verbal report by a machine that has no idea what it is “talking” about, and no feedback loop for self-correction.

 

The brain works much the same way. Except it has a gazillion feedback loops within feedback loops, so it stays abreast of changing situations by updating itself every fraction of a second. Take performing or listening to music (both of which are every bit as complicated as the weather) as an example. In Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain says the brain sorts sounds not only by tone, loudness, and duration, but by changes in tone, loudness, and duration. Auditory cortex then tracks the interrelations between sounds as they change both serially and simultaneously, integrating them to produce our subjective experience of music. Relations between simultaneous sounds (harmony) are tracked by auditory cortex in the right brain; relations between serial sounds (rhythm, melody) are tracked in the left brain, which also sequences individual speech sounds into words, phrases, and sentences (Harper Collins edition, pages 53-57).

 

In music consciousness (as in weather consciousness) what is happening now is placed in the context of what has come before. Music, that is, depends on working memory to keep the flux of individual notes “in mind” for several seconds to get the drift while, at the same time, attending to relationships between notes sounded simultaneously, integrating both dimensions to produce the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that, in combination over space and time, produce the music we are attending to at the moment (Jourdain, p. 57).

 

In music, predictions of what is to come arise from the ongoing flow of sound itself, or, if we are familiar with the piece, from our sense of having heard it before so we anticipate the directions and characteristics of what lies ahead. Listening to music has a decided advantage over forecasting the weather because we can never experience the same weather twice—storms may be similar, but never exactly the same. Modern recording technology allows us to experience identical repetitions of the same piece, or somewhat similar renditions by other performers—or by the same performer at other stages of her career.

 

In weather as in music, expectancy is the key to predicting the future. Our sense of what is to come stems from probabilities established through repetition of more-or-less similar events in the past, creating a range (envelope) of what we might expect this time around. Such expectancies exert a powerful hold on us, creating a kind of tension between memory and current sensory perception that leads us to pay close attention to how events develop and play themselves out in consciousness.

 

Here are a few examples of conscious expectancy at work. The last time I came this way that dog chased and tried to bite me; there it is again. Some years ago, my partner tripped on an innocent-looking rock on a trail in Acadia; every time she hikes the same trail she watches for that rock. Looking for eagles, I scan areas where I have seen them before. Having developed a recipe for gluten-free bread, I can now make it without even thinking about what I am doing, or convert it into pancakes, waffles, or cake topped with yogurt and maple syrup. In the current recession, President Obama looks to the example of what FDR did in the Great Depression of the 1930s for guidance on what to do in 2009.

 

The dynamic relationship between past and current events enables us to invent the future even though we’ve never been there before. Which works fine as long as circumstances haven’t changed all that much much. But one thing for sure, situations cannot ever be identical in different locations or two times in a row. A concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra outdoors at Tanglewood in summer with the humidity at 87% will differ significantly from the same program performed in Symphony Hall in winter with 26% humidity. Or perhaps the concert master is coming down with the flu. Novelty inevitably rears its head, so expectancy can never be borne out in exact detail.

 

So, sometimes schools are closed needlessly because storms do not materialize as predicted. Kids get a day off, and parents simply have to make ad hoc arrangements. Pity the poor weather service that called it wrong once again. But, too, in the next concert you go to the musicians may finally get it all together and pull off the greatest musical event of your life. Regardless of our expectations, consciousness is always an adventure. If we always knew what was going to happen beforehand, where’s the challenge or the fun in that?

 

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