Saturday, August 08, 2020

Music in lockdown


The images of people in Italian cities singing to one another from their balconies during the lockdowns to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic seem to come now from another, kinder era: before the enormity of the international crisis was fully apparent, before the death toll approached a quarter of a million and the sense of social unity had begun to fragment as politicians and others used the situation to sow and exploit division.

Here in Britain we considered that footage of balcony serenades to be gloriously Italianate, feeding into a romantic national stereotype (even if it later happened too in Germany, Spain and Switzerland). But there was in truth something universal about this impulse to turn to music in times of crisis and catastrophe. It has happened everywhere as people struggle to cope with the fears and constraints of the pandemic, offering a cathartic release much as Leonard Slatkin, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, turned to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings to express the right sentiment at the usually celebratory Last Night of the Proms following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

What makes music a good vehicle for this role? “In crises”, German musicologist Gunther Kreuz has said, “music has a very strong function to balance people, and show them there is light at the end of the tunnel.” During the pandemic, he says, there were also initiatives involving small ensembles playing in front of care homed for elderly people. One obvious advantage music has in this respect is that it works very well as a socially distanced medium: a kind of communication and contact that remains effective from a distance.

But there is more to it than that, some of which surely relates to the global use of music in ritual and worship. Unlike conversation, music is designed to be broadcast to groups: it allows everyone who hears it to feel addressed individually. That can be true to some extent for the spoken word too – the recital of a poem or sacred text, for example. But the deep value of music for promoting a sense of community, sacredness and emotional connection is precisely that it has no words – or perhaps, for those of us listening to the Italian balcony arias without understanding a word, that the words needn’t matter. Because music shares a great deal with spoken language – the rhythmic and pitch variations, the nested and episodic structure of phrases – it seems to carry meaning without actual semantic content. Each of us is free to create the meaning for ourselves.

At the same time, it penetrates directly to the emotions, in part by a kind of mimicry of human emotional expression but also by stimulating the neural reward pathways that respond to our subconscious anticipation of pattern and regularity. It is this powerful capacity of music for expression of what lies beyond words that led cultural critic Walter Pater to declare that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”. In an age of catastrophe, music becomes more indispensable than ever.

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