I have been thinking for some time of writing about music as part of our set of ‘selves’, long before Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature! Since music is an everyday part of most people’s lives, and universal to all cultures in our diverse human world, it should have its own space on this blog.
Music is certainly the basis for more than one of my everyday identities. For over ten years I’ve been a member of a variety of local choirs, formal and informal. (I am currently part of a small ‘chamber’ choir). With these different groups I have sung a wide range of music from traditional African songs to large, choral works by Berlioz, Handel, Karl Jenkins, and Brahms.
A year ago I also joined a samba/reggae drum band and entered into a new world of rhythms and movement. According to Ian Cross, a musicologist, the Igbo word, nqwa, which we translate as ‘music’, encompasses singing, playing instruments and dancing. The sum of these is what ‘music’ means to these people in Nigeria. Singing is a tiny part of the music we make in the band, but choreographed movement is as important as the drumming, unlike the choir, where embodied action is much more static, and concerned with the lungs, throat and mouth rather than the whole body. Being part of this band, and performing outside of buildings, in our public spaces, feels like this wider kind of music making, which is not surprising as our rhythms originate from the mixed cultural spaces of North Brazil.
After lengthy periods of ‘apprenticeship’, I can now say I belong to both of these groups. They draw on quite separate parts of the local community, and my ‘drumming’ self feels distant from my ‘choir’ self – two groups of people making different kinds of music that draw on distinct cultural traditions and networks.
There is little spatial or social overlap between the two, yet, I move comfortably between them, unifying them within my particular body and mind, and adding them to my other ‘selves’ that I have chosen, or inherited.
For most of my life though, I didn’t actively make music – I was not able to think of myself as having anything ‘musical’ to contribute. Possibly, I was too busy taking risks in other ways. But music has always been a part of my everyday life, intertwined with all my experiences, through listening, and through dancing. Certain concerts I’ve been to are like memory markers in my mind – such as those by Leonard Cohen and Salif Keita in Barcelona, and Ella Fitzgerald in Manchester – mental places I can go back to, and catch the ghosts of fleeting happiness.
Music, however you define it, is, of course, so important in our lives because of its intimacy with our emotions. It expresses them, and produces them in the listeners, in complex ways. Ludwig Wittegenstein, who could be said to be an epitome of ‘the intellectual’, spending his life wrestling with theory, was also passionate about music (although he limited this passion to a handful of German composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms). His involvement in this music was as just as intense as his engagement with trying to change the way we see things, such as the language we use. He became a ‘virtuoso’ whistler, and could whistle whole movements of symphonies. Listening to, and performing music in this way helped him through his periods of black despair and depression.
Apparently, some evolutionary theorists argue that music is just a ‘by-product’ of other human survival competencies, because it does not ‘produce’ anything essential to survival. They say its disappearance from our worlds would change nothing. For me, this kind of reasoning results from a detachment from the theorists’ own bodies and emotions, and from the everyday world that surrounds them. It ignores the ways music can rescue us from emotional darkness, as it did with Wittgenstein, as well as the ways it is threaded through our celebrations on being alive, of longing and belonging.
‘Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution’. Ian Cross, Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 2006, 930.
‘The Imaginary African: Music, identity and Race’. Nicholas Cook, Samuel Colerigde-Taylor Newsletter, 2015, 38.
‘Ludwig Wittgenstein: the duty of genius.’ Ray Monk, 1990, Vintage.