Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Music to die to

Last Saturday I was reminded why Martin Luther wrote about music, that “it alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely, a calm and joyful disposition.”
The occasion for this was a visit to the High Barn, at Great Bardfield, to hear Gordon Giltrap, my favourite solo guitarist, where we were also treated to a set by another guitarist, Clive Carroll.
Now I have to admit I’d never heard of Mr Carroll before this, and as I hadn’t booked the tickets I was a trifle disappointed to have precious ‘Giltrap time’ being taken up by someone else. But within ten minutes I was completely hooked. Carroll has a virtuosity with the guitar which has, literally, to be seen to be believed. A recording may capture the sound, but seeing him live you realize it really is just him, and it really does involve just one guitar.
As well as enjoying the concert, however (and Carroll duetting with Giltrap was an added bonus), I found myself wondering at the power and mystery of music. We refer loosely to animals such as whales and birds ‘singing’. But a biologist will tell us that the sounds they make serve not to entertain but to inform — to mark out territory, to announce danger or food, and so on.
Yet it is surely difficult to treat human music-making in the same reductionist manner. There is certainly a ‘visceral’ effect to some music. Certain beats and rhythms do seem ‘primitive’, in the sense that they draw on an almost biological impulse. But the sheer difficulty of some musical forms surely demolishes the notion that biology is the basis for our production and enjoyment of music.
Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that music is one of the points at which materialism is confronted by a different view of reality. Luther believed that “the devil, the creator of saddening cares and disquieting worries, takes flight at the sound of music almost as he takes flight at the word of theology.” And the Bible speaks of how David’s music soothed the demon-troubled Saul.
We speak of how music ‘lifts us up’ —but lifts us up to what? To some illusory experience of electrical impulses in the neural cortex? Can it be that all the music of the world, and all the musicians, and all those who have ever listened to music and been moved to sing and to swing, to sway, to dance, to laugh, to march, to cry —all this is just the bumping together of atom and molecules, yet another fortunate by product of the Big Bang,  like the ‘Good Samaritan’ impulse of some to help, rather than beat up (or eat) the stranger?
Remember the scene in Philadelphia where Tom Hanks’s character is listening to La Mamma Morta, whilst wheeling his drip-feed round the room? OK it is acting, but the emotion of the scene is instantly recognizable. I am of the view that there is music not only to live for but to die to, precisely because there is (or seems to be) something about music which is truly transcendental. The music, says Hanks’ character, “fills with a hope” —and so do we.
So I want —amongst others —John Renbourn’s The Pelican, Gordon Giltrap’s Nursery Chimes and why not the Cocteau Twins’ Pearly Dewrops Drop? That’ll do for now.
John Richardson
24 November 2009
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  1. A lovely post, John - thank you!
    Sadly for us 'theological types' heaven is more likely to be a (participatory) concert than a seminar, so familiarity with the joy of music is better preparation for our future than the reading of many books.

  2. "The Great Gig in the Sky" by the Pink Floyd

    Now there's music to die for..


    Chris Bishop

  3. Yet the music of this age as well as all else is destined to pass away. It is embedded in and reflects a culture that belongs to the world and not to the Father. Whatever its merits... it is not to die for.

  4. John Thomson:
    What sort of music do you think they play in heaven?

    Chris Bishop

  5. I think Barth thought Mozart would be played in heaven. There is that extraordinary moment in the film "The Shawshank Redemption" when the prisoners hear a snipet from Act 4 of "The Marriage of Figaro" (the point when the characters sing of mutual forgiveness)and are entranced.
    Bach would also feature, I think. Perhaps Bach is in heaven composing new music at this very moment!

    Ro Mody

  6. @Ro, but Beethoven is still in his grave, decomposing.

  7. Chris

    Only songs from 'Sacred Songs and Solos', naturally. You anglicans will need to learn them.


  8. Geoff Low, London30 November 2009 at 11:02

    Ah, someone else who appreciates the Cocteau Twins! But Pearly Dewdrops' Drops is nowt compared with Carolyn's Fingers off Blue Bell Knoll where Liz Frazer and the guitars really echo angels and harps . . .