Music is the key to being human
Recorded music did not exist until 1877, when Thomas Edison invented his wax cylinder phonograph. Until then, the only music available to us was the performed music. Today, thanks to our paraphernalia of laptops, iPhones, wireless headphones, file sharing software, and Spotify’s playlist culture, music is ubiquitous and must-have.
During the lockdown, music played within the confines of our homes – but in empty concert halls, miserably, it died. Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican Arts Center in London, believes that the “convening power” of music is so great that it won’t be long before we come together again to listen and applaud in public.
Kenyon’s book The life of music is a wonderfully interesting study of the classical repertoire from the 12th century to the present day. In scholarly pages he examines the birth of new schools (“adventures”) in music through the ages, in response to war, political persecution and the pandemic.
It ranges from the medieval plainsong of the German abbess Hildegarde de Bingen (the “first composer to be made a saint by the Catholic Church”) to the fairy-tale grotesques of late 20th-century composer György Ligeti, whose music was used by Stanley Kubrick in The brilliant and in 2001: A space odyssey.
Musical history has rarely progressed in a “straight line,” Kenyon recalls. The hypnotic 15th century by Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem Requiem, with its cascading sound sheets, influenced Ligeti’s twentieth-century multi-voice compositions, which owe much to Renaissance polyphony. Even the most iconoclastic composer borrows from the past. Karlheinz Stockhausen turned to Richard Wagner, “looking to the future”, for his own week-long opera cycle. Licht. Estonian Arvo Pärt, one of the few composers at work today whose music appeals to non-classical audiences, is imbued with the ancient choirs of the Gregorian and Russian Orthodox Church.
Kenyon has long championed the lesser-known music of the Western canon. Among his favorite modern composers (usefully mentioned in a playlist appendix) are Luciano Berio and Judith Weir. Another is Edgard Varèse, of French origin. He wrote “knock-out” pieces, indebted to the Italian futurist painter-composer Luigi Russolo, including the 1913 manifesto The art of noise urged musicians to explore “new music” comprised of car horns, clicking streetcars and other urban noise pollution. Russolo’s aesthetic is manifested in air raid sirens and other belligerent ambient noises that distinguish Varese masterpieces such as Americas and Arcana. (Kenyon tells us that Varèse was Frank Zappa’s favorite composer.)
Kenyon is a broad-minded and intellectually curious critic. The enigmatic but rarely played wives of Cavalier composer William Lawes (killed by parliamentarians during the Siege of Chester in 1645) are recommended. The same goes for the repetitive syncopations of American minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The life of music does not claim to be exhaustive, but it is what every music lover needs nearby: not a dry academic analysis but a fellow listener.
The earliest purpose-built musical instruments, found in what is now Central Europe, are pierced bone flutes, 50,000 to 60,000 years old, that resemble a modern recorder. What kind of music did our primate ancestors listen to? Music – specifically song – probably served homo sapiens as a courtship ritual.
In Musical human, an amalgamation of neuroscience, anthropology and media studies, Michael Spitzer considers our relationship with music over 165 million years. Spitzer, a music professor at the University of Liverpool, covers some of the same ground as Kenyon, but his approach is quite different. Unlike Kenyon, Spitzer watches music from non-Western cultures: Islamic Qawwali or Afro-Spanish devotional song. cubano son.
The book is full of quirky facts and scholarship. 1970 album Humpback whale songs was the best-selling nature record of all time. Studies show that we share rhythm with insects and melody with birds. (When a male mosquito wishes to attract a mate, its wings buzz at a frequency of 600 Hz, the equivalent of natural D.)
Spitzer’s Kingfisher Spirit goes dazed from Stormzy to Mozart to Whitney Houston, K-Pop and the Aztecs. It can be exhausting, but we have no doubts about the extraordinary transformative power of music. Spitzer shares with Kenyon the belief that music is one of the essential and basic things that make us who we are. As concert halls tentatively reopen, these two books are more than topical.
The life of music: New adventures in the Western classical tradition, by Nicholas Kenyon, Yale, RRP £ 18.99, 360 pages
The musical human: A story of life on Earth, by Michael Spitzer, Bloomsbury, RRP £ 30, 470 pages
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