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Sunday, November 3, 2013

What Music Does for People

I finished writing my dissertation, had the exam, and then of course: party.

With our research group we found ourselves on the island of Schiermonnikoog, in the renowned Hotel Van der Werff, enabling me to spend some days of work and reflection amongst colleagues who are all, in some way, connected to studying the power of music.

One evening, my colleagues had decided to organize a little party for me. Speeches, presents, and music. Two of my colleagues played Fauré's "Les Berceaux". I will try to explain what went through my head - or rather: through my body, including my head - while listening. An incomplete story, because moments like those (or any moment, if you observe yourself carefully) are so incredibly filled with links to yourself and the rest of the world that it takes at least a work similar in size to one of the books of Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu" to explore the full meaningfulness of the moment.


It was fitting to hear this song, about cradles, ships, departures and longing, at Schiermonnikoog, an island with a maritime past. It  felt especially fitting for me to listen to the song because I am part of a shanty choir these days, singing songs about the sea; and it thus reminded me of the occasions where I heard, in Van der Werff's barroom, the shanty choir of Schiermonnikoog. It was great to hear this song at Van der Werff, a hotel filled with relics from he past, including loads of references to ships and seas. The small cemetery "Vredenhof" for (often nameless) sailors who died in times of war and peace came to my mind - a cemetery whose history is intimately connected to the former owner of the hotel, Sake van der Werff, as well as to the work of our research group, because we studied a cross arts project at Schiermonnikoog in which Vredenhof played a role. It was also great to hear this song sung by a colleague - we work together intensively about music but have few chances to see one another in action musically. The same counts for the colleague playing the piano part on the upright piano of Van der Werff; it fitted in  my image of him as one of those piano players who will play the piano in any occasion without any thoughts about 'appropriateness' or 'artisticity' - of course his playing was appropriate as well as highly artistic (says the connoisseur...) but the main thing was not that but rather the bare fact that he was playing, there and then. At least I thought so. The fact that one of the keys in the piano did not produce any sound at all anymore, as would be demonstrated later that evening evening by the famous islander mrs. Henriette Pieperiet (also known for her flawless imitation of a tap-dance with her teeth - reminding me of this guy, which in turn reminds me of this Ghanaian post office), couldn't be of any concern. Also the song brought me back to the times when I studied at the Maastricht conservatoire and shared a house with a friend who composed, was an actor, played the flute, lived in a bus later on, but eventually graduated as a singer and then went to London (which reminded me of another colleague and good friend, who now lives near Manchester, as two other friends do - I have to visit them soon). One of the first songs this friend had to master when he started his vocal studies at the conservatoire indeed was Fauré's "Les Berceaux", and I remember him having trouble with the high notes for quite some time - but I also remember him mastering the accompaniment although he was not a piano player at all (he also studied Satie endlessly). The piano he played on was one we borrowed from another student when he spent some time abroad; I think there was something of a small conflict when we had to hand back the piano to his family but I can't remember the details; it does fit in to an image of myself, however, as a slightly clumsy and socially not very easygoing young student - my God, I had to learn a lot; and did I actually learn, I wondered, sitting at Van der Werff listening to Fauré? I guessed I still have to keep on learning. But also, listening to the song reminded me of the fact what listening to Western art music intensely and concentrated can do to me - something I spend too little time on these days (family, work, and a broad musical interest all equally stand in the way): feeling a connection to spiraling layers of meaning going deeper and deeper (or higher and higher?) and knowing that you still after all those years still only scratch the surface of all that - and connecting you to times when on a Sunday morning after a brisk walk we would breathlessly listen to recordings of Beethoven symphonies surrounded by the small of freshly baked apple pie - or is all of that just nostalgic romanticism? Listening to Fauré, that evening, therefore also pointed towards a possible future in which I would spend more time listening to Western art music again; and it reminded me of the fact that it would be nice to own a complete recording of Beethoven's symphonies on CD, and not only on LP - yes, I still play LPs regularly - so that I can play a movement or two when I feel the need to reconnect to my Artistic Self - one of my many selves.

And I could go on like this forever - pouring out my writing stream-of-consciousness-wise in this blog.

The point I want to make is that actually, if you have carefully read the above, you know what I have found in writing my PhD. Music, in our society at this point of time, basically does three things to its users: it enables them to confirm themselves as musical individuals by choosing music they like; it enables them to connect to the world around them (to music, to their own objectified selves, to others, to 'higher' domains such as the religious or the artistic, to the past, the present and the future, and to the material world); and it enables them to regulate their (and others') musical selves by using music as a means towards ends. All this in differing ratios per individual, but also in different ratios at different moments of life or of the day.

"Is that all?"
"Yes, that's it, thank you."

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