Music and Civilization

People argue about what is unique about human beings in the animal kingdom.

I’d approach it from the most obvious angle: if you were an alien passing by the Earth in a flying saucer, what’s the very first thing you’d notice?

I’d say it would be the lights. Our cities can be seen clearly from space, shining out through the very narrow band of electromagnetic frequencies — above the radio bands — to which our atmosphere is transparent. A closer look reveals the immense complexity of our cities, our highways, and our patterns of traffic over the face of the earth.

No other species on Earth builds such complex hives and lights them this way.

Our city-building is just one example of a more general thing that humans do, which is that we deliberately coordinate and thus multiply our efforts, using the symbols of language to keep us together.

Members of most species communicate with each other: bees dance, birds call, marmots whistle. Some, like bees, tightly coordinate their activities through their language, but coordination is a necessity for survival of the individual bee: a single bee can’t survive long on its own, being too specialized in its body shape and capabilities. Species in which individuals can survive on their own, generally do so without all the fuss of such elaborate cooperative behavior. Species other than human, that is.

If we take this extreme degree of cooperation through symbols to be one of the unique identifying features of human beings, then it seems to me that the symphonic orchestra — whether of the Western or Eastern or some other variety — is the quintessential symbol of human uniqueness.

I’m thinking about this at the moment because I’m in the process of writing a symphony. I just finished an extended pizzicato passage in the strings, envisioning with a wry smile the conductor screaming “Keep your eyes up here!” as he tries to get thirty or forty people to all pluck their strings at exactly the same moment.

I’ve always been of the musical opinion — when writing music, anyway — that each part should have a certain stand-alone beauty, but what makes it a “symphony” is the way all of the parts come together into a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts: the word “symphony” is a Greek term that means “sounding together.” Simply doubling a melody in the flutes and clarinets, for instance, creates a rich, vibrant sound that can’t be produced by any single instrument. Weaving two different melodies creates at third thing that is nothing at all like either melody alone. But each part must be played precisely in time, precisely in tune, and precisely in balance: otherwise, “symphony” swiftly becomes “cacophony.”

Music is all the more quintessentially human in that it is of no practical use whatsoever.

All of the effort that goes into writing and performing a symphony serves only to make vibrations in the air that pass away almost as soon as they are produced. Creating music does not produce food, or shelter. It doesn’t drive away predators. It is not an essential part of human reproduction. It has no practical justification at all.

Its justification — its only justification — is that it evokes emotional states in its listeners. Some of those emotional states — fear, anxiety — can be easily produced by other means. Other emotional states — the pleasure of experiencing musical beauty, for instance — can be evoked only through music: there is no drug, no activity, no stimulus other than music that tickles that particular combination of cells in the brain and endocrine system.

That is, perhaps, why we would bother to invest so much effort into such a profoundly unpractical activity.

The symphonic orchestra is a signpost of civilization. It requires a kind of leisure that allows a talented individual to withdraw from the grain fields and the rice paddies and the fisheries and the mines to devote years of intensive practice to becoming skilled in the art of producing certain sounds at will. It requires a kind of leisure that allows for enough of these trained individuals to come together in one place, at one time, to practice making those sounds together until the result is ready for others to hear. It requires a tradition of communication — a musical language, a notation — that allows such a group to coordinate their efforts and play more than the hundred or so pieces they might memorize in one lifetime by listening and improvising.

As such, it strikes me that the symphonic orchestra is bound to be one of the most fragile of civilized artifacts. It cannot come into existence until a civilization reaches a certain point of wealth and stability — it will be one of the first things to vanish as a civilization declines.

There’s a sadness involved in writing a symphony for a symphonic orchestra, because I have little reason to believe it will ever be performed.

This isn’t quite as terrible as it sounds, because technology has put the symphonic orchestra within reach of the individual. With a computer and some software, I can generate a “demo” disk of my music that is almost as good a what would be produced by a good orchestra, and a darn sight better than what would be produced by a mediocre civic orchestra. It may even be superior to the orchestra that originally performed Beethoven’s legendary ninth symphony — since sound recording wasn’t invented until nearly a century after that performance, we have no idea what it might have sounded like.

So I will write my symphony, and I will perform it myself on a computer, and I will make the recording available to anyone who wants to hear it. It will make me happy, and probably most of those who hear it: it will tickle the appropriate nerve centers and endocrine systems.

But I can’t help but notice that the symphonic orchestra — that most fragile of civilized artifacts — is beginning to vanish.

I recently took a business trip to Minneapolis, and considered attending a concert during my stay, only to discover the Minneapolis Symphony lockout. One could view this as simply bad luck on my part. Or, one could take sides with the wicked, greedy, and self-centered musicians’ union, or with the wicked, greedy, and self-centered orchestra management, and yell and point fingers of blame.

The truth is simply this: the ticket sales just aren’t there any more.

There are lots of specific reasons for this, ranging from sluggish economic recovery, to the diversion of concert hall performances into “inaccessible” musical forms that have little general appeal as music.

I think the underlying cause is that our civilization is losing the ability and desire to support anything so frivolous as a symphonic orchestra.

I don’t see that as a good sign for our civilization.


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