On Music

This year’s Reith Lectures, to be broadcast shortly on the BBC, are to be given by Daniel Barenboim under the title ‘In the Beginning was Sound’. I’m hoping they live up to the excellent title, which reminded my of Claude Levi-Strauss’ Overture introduction to his seminal work on myths The Raw and The Cooked, which he dedicates ‘To Music’.

For Levi-Strauss, music is:

“the only language with the contradictory attributes of being at once intelligible and untranslatable, the musical creator is a being comparable to the gods, and music itself the supreme mystery of the science of man.”

Nature, he goes on to argue:

“spontaneously offers man models of all colours and sometimes even their substance in a pure state. In order to paint he only has to make use of them. But…nature produces noises not musical sounds; the latter are solely a consequence of culture…”

I have argued in the book that the city is the place where we best see the divine and human co-operating. We take the raw materials of creation and process them into glass, concrete and steel. So the city stands as a testament to both the beauty of that co-operation, and the dangers of doing so assymetrically.

119459318_ad0b1cccb1What I love about Levi-Strauss’ comments is that it puts music on a similar plane. Nature is full of colour and sound. But music only comes when we co-operate with nature and arrange those sounds. Music is therefore another symbol of the possibilities of the divine/human co-operation.

In other words, at best,it is essentially metaphysical. Good is an epiphany. Music touches us, universally, in ways that no other art form can even begin to. It appears to have direct access to the most ancient areas of our brains. The areas that existed before language (making it, as it were ‘pre fall’).

And this is the beauty of music: it takes us to that ecstatic place – ex stasis – off the ground, where language has nothing to add.

Last night I went to hear Sigur Ros. It was for the most part a good gig, but the final piece they played was one of the amazing pieces of music I have ever heard, and fully supported Levi-Strauss’ opinions above. It was the last song on their second album. A translucent screen came down over the band, so all we could see of them were distorted shadows back projected. (Nic told me the best way to enjoy the Sigur gig would be to keep my eyes closed. He was right: the visuals were not great. I’ve always thought MTV a paradox; surely music that needs video support is inherently impoverished?)

It was as if we were meant to see through a glass darkly. We weren’t to look. For this most euphoric of moments, the visual was minimized. This from a band whose lyrics are basically glossolalia… Beyond language. And the power of the sound, the volume and the sheer richness was overwhelming.

It was music that was literally ‘obliterating’. Destroying text or language or explanation. One felt as if one wanted to be annihilated by it. That if one could jump into it, one could actually rejoin the divine myth. And this, I believe is the promise that true music sings to us: the promise that one day we will be finally caught back up in the divine composition.

Now that’s what I call worship.

(Thanks to Jana for the photo)

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,


2 responses to “On Music”

  1. Great thoughts on worship. Sigur Ros climbs inside of me in the same way…you just articulated it way better than I ever could. Yesterday on my site I posted this:
    “Yesterday when I got off work, I took my ipod, my broken umbrella and a sweatshirt and walked around my neighborhood for half an hour or so listening to Takk… and watching the rain fall. It is medicinal and worship for me. I became so amazed at how much God is already at work in our world, if we would just have the eyes to see it.”

  2. Dana Ames

    Excellent post, and comment by Ryan. Amen.