Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why Music?

This is a cool article, that was forwarded to me by Kate Harrod, a very talented opera singer/pianist here in Austin I work with.

Even a reference to the movie 'ET', so we are somewhat making a music/ET connection here.... C3


Welcome address to freshman class at Boston Conservatory
given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of 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 70's, 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

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 Chevies. 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, 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, a 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 fit 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


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