Thursday, 8 September 2016

Of Pointless Knowledge And Senseless Argument

"Music and dance are universal languages. Anyone can communicate and understand through music and dance," pontificated the guest.

 "Hmm," I began cautiously. I could feel a soapbox moment coming on. "I used to feel like that, but then I started learning to play gamelan, for example, and I was surprised that I could not find a way into the music. I needed to be taught, and to learn, how to listen to it. Music may touch our hearts or our minds, but I would have to dispute a claim that music is a universal language. A language is a means of communication and surely music cannot be said to communicate the same thing to everyone? Therefore music has limited use as a language." I also thought of many workshops I had run for people living with Asperger's Syndrome. For many of the people I had met under these circumstances music had no meaning. It left them completely cold and wondering why other people seem to hold music in such high regard. There was no point at which music communicated itself at all. That hardly makes it universal.

I wish I didn't feel the need to explain. I could have let it go. This was a friend's wedding party not a lecture theatre.  "I don't care what music it is. If I like it, I like it. That is what is important," declaimed the groom, despite his increasingly glazed expression, wobbly demeanor and microscopically (but definitely) slurred speech.

"I agree completely," the guest added. "I love all music ... although I can't stand Mozart, I hate all Baroque music."

 I bit my tongue very hard and thought of how much talking I would have to do to go into appropriate explanations about musical history, style, instrumentation and form in order to make the case that Mozart was not a baroque composer. The guest had a different understanding of the ages of Western European art music from me and who knows how deep into the rabbit hole I would have had to burrow in order to be able to say anything that made sense. This could all have been far less painful had she just used a more appropriate conjunction.

This wedding reception was taking place in the house in which the bride and groom had lived together for the past twenty-eight years. Before now they hadn't married, for whatever reasons, but intimations of mortality through recent deaths of close relatives and friends had caused them to reassess their situation. I get this. P and I are going through almost the same experience. As we age, it seems sensible to try and make the inevitable passing of one of us less complicated for the survivor. We have also experienced the confusion that can be left behind a departed loved one.

I may have mentioned that I was an active campaigner for marriage equality, as it was passing through the various stages of legislative process. Now P. and I can marry I have not been in a rush to get spliced and in truth neither has P. Every so often we talk about it before the conversation drifts on to something else. We even went as far as going to see a registrar to find out what was involved. This was even before the law was changed; she was very keen to help. We've not been back since. I am not sure that it is entirely a case of once bitten, twice shy, although that may be part of it. I have, at least, experienced my own wedding; P. has not.

In many ways my own wedding was fun. For a start I couldn't believe that about three hundred people turned up to see two nineteen year-old kids get married. We had big families and a lot of friends, but it was still an amazing experience for two people, too young, too inexperienced and too poor. We were among the first of our friends to get married, which I suppose made a difference. We married in our local Mormon chapel and for several reasons we must have had a certain curiosity value. One friend wanted to make the cake, another wanted to make the bride's dress, several volunteered to help with the catering. One non-church friend took over the music duties. My fiancée and I had put a playlist together (which, in those days, meant lugging cases of vinyl albums and my hi-fi to the church hall venue) and I was looking forward to having our favourite tunes played in the same way as the bride and groom on Saturday (even if, this time, they were playing their wedding playlist via the computer and a Bose p.a. system). My enjoyment was curtailed when my bride's father stopped our music playing and demanded music that everyone could enjoy and dance to. That was when it stopped being our day. I was embarrassed for my dear friend who was enjoying his dj task immensely till that point. Music had always been one of the most important things in my life, but that day it was clear that it was not a universal language then either.

Earlier in the day of my friends' recent wedding, I had felt the same urge to question someone on an internet forum about his apparent assumption that blogging was only for those people who want to make money. His response was to be put out that anyone dare de-rail his train of thought. I was merely pointing out that others, including myself, have other motives for writing a blog. His response referred to my efforts as an exercise in vanity and the posting of Micky Mouse messages. I thought my reasons for writing were valid. I have crossed him off my Christmas card list - not that he was ever actually on one.

Questions can be powerful and sometimes stop people in their tracks. I have used questions, not just to try and clarify an unclear situation, but also as a means of proposing alternative places to the destination in which a discussion seems to be heading, specially if I feel I am being dragged there against my will. In the late 1980s I was part of a group of local education authority "advisory teachers" charged with helping schools improve their music provision in a large rural county. One exiled Londoner was in full flow about how we could move a proposed project forward. It felt as though she had thought the whole project through and had a plan. I'm sure it was worthy enough, but I hadn't agreed to any of it and simply wanted to clarify whether we were all of the opinion that this project was what we wanted. To go ahead with her proposal meant sacrificing some plans I was already hatching for the hundred or so schools in my care; not to mention all the modest funding I had at my disposal for that year. She roared disapprovingly, got up and stormed out of the room in a most unexpected tantrum. The four of us remaining sat looking at each other before the nervous laughter set in. Two of the others then thanked me for intervening. They, too, were uncomfortable with the proposals on the table, but had no idea how to derail the runaway train, before it smashed us all into the buffers.

I'd like to think this is what I aim at with many of my songs. I sometimes fancy I can create just a moment to reflect and raise a question that diverts from an acceptance of the seemingly inevitable. If I had to chose between being a questioner or an answerer, I would stick with being a questioner every time. Pretending to be the one with the answers makes me little better than any other despot. As with most of the big decisions in my life I would rather not make one unless a way forward becomes clear. Most of the time language is not a universally understood means of communication. I spend too much time in France to think otherwise.

Music may communicate something to the listener, but there is no guarantee that it is what the composer may have intended, assuming the composer had any such intention at all.  I rather veer towards Stravinsky who said that music of itself is "powerless to express anything at all", but I would temper that by suggesting that for those of us who have a facility to be touched by music it is one of mankind's most powerful achievements.


  1. Keep up with the blog. I really enjoy reading it!