One of my favorite pieces of music is a short text by viola player and writer Martine Thomas ’18. The piece is titled “path”:
1 leave all possessions
When we are looking death in the face, we will not take up our musical instruments. But, when death seems far from us, what will remind us, prepare us, for the work needs to be done when death comes?
Why has music endured? Certainly, humanity’s enjoyment of music is clear. But amidst rising social, political, and natural conflict, the significance and influence of music seems small. What does it really do in our broken world? In my contemporary ensemble seminar, Professor Claire Chase began class by asking about our thoughts and feelings towards current events concerning the NFL, Donald Trump, and the state of our nation’s race relations. Honestly, my reflections made me discouraged, as practicing musical performance seemed to be an inconsequential response compared to activities like attending protests or calling my state representative. However, I could not let go of music entirely. Does music’s capacity to resonate deep within us truly yield negligible results in the greater narrative of life? I remember composer Jason Eckardt noting that if music was truly unnecessary for humanity to survive and flourish, then it makes no sense that music has not been evolutionarily phased out of our species millennia ago. Somehow, along the way of life, we must have forgotten the role music plays in constructing our world.
A temple draws us to God, and a kitchen draws us to the stove. What is our gaze directed to when we step into the sonic space of music? We often conceive of space as a parameter we inhabit. However, space inhabits us as much as we inhabit it. For example, it only makes sense that the organization of a Harvard student’s dorm room is such that the desk, bed, and drawer the most accessible parts of the room. Thus, in the creation of the dorm room, the space inherently draws the student towards that desk, bed, and drawer.
What of sonic space, then? Just as the dimensions, furniture, and flow of a room draw us to its original purpose, sound is a type of space, one with timbre, rhythm, and time organizing the listener’s experience. Some sounds draw us towards focus: white noise machines, gentle piano-solo music, cocktail jazz. Some sounds draw us to exercise: driving beats from hip hop or EDM. What, however, are we being drawn to when an artist takes their music in a dramatically different direction? When Bruno Mars drops “Uptown Funk,” when Taylor Swift releases “Look What You Made Me Do,” or when Bon Iver imagines “22, A Million”?