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A Contemplation on Music

2009 May 7

Have you seen the welcome address to parents of the incoming freshman class at Boston Conservatory? It was delivered by Karl Paulnack, director of the music division at Boston Conservatory.

One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school she said, “you’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks 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, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp. He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in 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 concentration 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 from the 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. ”

On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. 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? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? 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, that same day, 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. I bet that you have never 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 I bet you there was 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 Fargo, ND, about 4 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 70¹s, 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 chords 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 understand 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. This concert in Fargo 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 AM 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 PM 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 Chevys. 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 or 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, 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 it together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.

24 Responses leave one →
  1. May 7, 2009

    Thanks for this post. Being made in the image of God suddenly became much clearer.

  2. May 7, 2009

    Powerful message!

  3. LJL permalink
    May 7, 2009

    I can’t help but think about NT Wright’s (and others’) appeal for more Christians to be excellent in the arts for exactly the reasons above – that the arts help us connect to and organize our soul in relationship to our Creator. That is kingdom work! For too long Christians have written off the arts as impractical or frivolous. It’s time we had more of an impact – from a Kingdom of God perspective – on the world of art. Now, exactly HOW we do that is still a mystery to me . . .

  4. Craig permalink
    May 7, 2009

    Thank you, Mike.

  5. May 7, 2009

    I love this, agree completely, and am SO glad you shared it.

  6. Kathy permalink
    May 7, 2009

    Me too, Katie, me too!!

  7. May 8, 2009

    Powerful stuff.

  8. May 8, 2009


    From a dad who has a son who makes his living moving people with his tunes and lyrics, thanks, thanks very much for those of us who are moved by music and for those write and perform the music that moves us. On one occasion my son commented, “Sometimes it’s like the song writes itself, and all I have to do is put the pencil to the paper.”

    And in the words of the poet from Colorado, who has gone on to meet his maker, “Music makes pictures and often tells stories and all of it magic and all of it true……”

  9. May 8, 2009

    This is brilliant. I will use this in discussions on the power of preaching and teaching. Thanks for sharing.

    P.S. I admit it now, Sir Albert or Prince Albert is the best pure baseball player in a long, long, time. I wish he was in an old English “D” uniform.


    Josh Graves

  10. May 8, 2009

    I love Adagio for Strings and the back story. I appreciate music, but I am not a musician. However, my son works full time in church music, so of course, I appreciate musicians.

  11. kathy s permalink
    May 8, 2009

    Thank you, Mike, for sharing this beautiful address. As I read it the words from Zephaniah came to mind: “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

    I agree with markemo: “in His image” does become a little clearer as I contemplate this.

  12. sarah s permalink
    May 9, 2009

    Oh my goodness! I wish I could have had the background to have written this piece. I connected with it on many levels. Random thoughts:

    Kristen Abaquin, an Abilenian, is entering the Boston Conservatory as a grad student. That’s one of the best music schools. proud of her.

    The Brahms Requiem was just done here by a large interdenominational chorus and orchestra on Palm Sunday. It is the caliber of music that befits the occasion of memorializing 9/11/01. I was completely beyond words when we finished. Performing it (including the intense rehearsals) was an emotionally, mentally and physically strenuous endeavor. Especially emotionally. “Blessed are the dead, who in the Lord shall die” “How lovely are thy dwelling, O Lord most high” You can say the words, but if you sing them the way Brahms wrote them, and know someone in the audience who needs to hear them, it is so far beyond the mere words….

    As I was leaving a performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony with my neice a couple of weeks ago we were discussing creativity, how God is THE creator, and we were created in His image. Not only did he create music–the stars sing!–but any creativity is God-designed. My neice is a writer and can feel God’s power at work in her when she creats her characters.

    I’m not a professional singer, but sang in a little Valentine’s Day banquet once, and can still remember the couple who exchanged “the look” and an arm around shoulders when I sang “their song” How could I have evoked that kind of reaction only saying the words?

    God is so good. Music is something that really comes from the core of our being, which He created.

  13. Jina Hinson permalink
    May 10, 2009

    I cannot adequately express how whole-heartedly I agree with this. Thank you so much for posting.

  14. May 10, 2009

    Wow! Thank you so much for sharing this. So much to think on. Thanks.

  15. annie permalink
    May 11, 2009

    Simply wonderful piece. Thank you for posting it.

  16. Tim permalink
    May 18, 2009

    I had an art teacher in college that pointed out to us that in creating we are most like our Creator. The caliber or quality isn’t important, it is the manifestation of His divinely creative Spirit.

    Thanks for posting this.

  17. May 22, 2009

    You are brilliant. Thank you for such sage words.

  18. May 22, 2009

    Thanks so much, the comparison of Astronomy and Music is an amazing observation. Things like this are a big help, inspiring students to practice. I hope you don’t mind me posting a link. Cheers

  19. mevdeveloper permalink
    May 22, 2009

    That was an amazing piece. Although I see no religious connection other than god being made in the image of man, I do so the invisible pull of music.

    It is a shame that acoustic music playing and the writing of music has dwindled with the advent of guitar hero and the ‘everyone gets a medal’ attitude of scholastic equality. Music can be written and played by everyone. It not only is fun to play but it makes you feel good. There is a euphoria that is not obtained any other way. You may feel the bass in a rock concert, but that pales in comparison to sitting in a section doing your part in the majesty that is a large ensemble.

    I recommend this book to anyone wanting to get out and play music again or for the first time:

  20. Phil permalink
    May 22, 2009

    I’ve tried for so many years to explain to myself why music is so important to me. I’ve struggled for so long to try to find a description, an explanation, for why I think music is such an important thing. And for awhile I thought, ‘Music doesn’t matter,’ even though even deeper in my thoughts I knew I was lying to myself. But you’ve laid it all out for me in a way I never knew anyone could. Thank you.

  21. May 22, 2009

    I remember reading this when it was first circulated. I thought it was an eloquent paean to the power of art and a poignant précis of music’s place in our lives.

    It’s peculiar. Not for a moment then, nor when re-reading it during the following five years, did I detect any endorsement of a religious viewpoint.

    Quite the reverse. While the article marvels at the as yet unknown secret nature of music, it clearly hints at a glorious future when religions are no more.

    His touching parable involving the music of (the gay communist and atheist) Aaron Copland might have tipped off some of your more erudite readers.

  22. June 23, 2009

    I like to suck on things, including: cats, artichokes, your mom and Bruche Willis.

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