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The Power of Music

Presidential Address to the Incorporated Society of Musicians. Gillian Weir, published in the June 1993 Music Journal 
by Gillian Weir CBE, President 1992/93


ISM members have been remarkably forbearing during this year as I have assailed their ears at various gatherings, on the topic of my current obsession – background music. Drunk with the power of possessing an official organisation devoted to propagating the message, I have become ever bolder in confronting those responsible for its horrors, and enlisting anyone who might be helpful to the cause. I find when canvassing restaurant diners that many say of the muzak “Oh, I can usually manage to shut it out”, so it was irresistible to quiz the head of Rediffusion on whether their people who put together wallpaper music are happy to have their life's work consist of creating something of which people say, “Oh, I can usually manage to shut it out”. But I was stopped in my tracks last week in America, when I'd patently explained to a restaurant manager just how he was increasing the stress of his customers by having rock played in his otherwise charming establishment, when he replied crisply, “Yes, they eat more”.

Given the level of the appalling problems of our time, from Bosnia to the ozone layer, from nuclear waste to child crime, all this may sound frivolous or even absurd. But I believe it does have importance; besides, despite a lifelong eagerness to save the world, I'm finding it surprisingly resistant; better, perhaps, to stay with what one can understand.

It is because of the power of music that I believe the issue has importance. The Pipedown organisation was founded by Nigel Rodgers because of his irritation with music's ubiquity; while I agree with this, my concern goes deeper. This concern has two aspects: on the one hand, the harm that it does; on the other, the good that it fails to do. Let's treat the negative aspect first. One can start at the simplest level – how often have you tried to capture the attention of a shop assistant, standing in front of you but staring into space? Meanwhile, throughout that space, a tape is playing music of such extreme blandness and anonymity that the senses are anaesthetised, brain function barely detectable, the energy and wit that makes communication a vital pleasure, repressed or drained out. It's there for just that purpose, of course; to provide ananodyne, soporific atmosphere that saps the initiative of customer and staff, lulling the customer into a false sense of security so that he will stay longer and buy more, and drugging the staff into a state where they will not feel impatience or exhibit any other inconvenient symptoms of individuality.

Or perhaps you were in a boutique designed for the teenage set, where the tape would be playing something barely recognisable as any kind of melody but fitted with an insistent beat, the bass much louder than the treble, the sound system probably distorting as the dynamic level approached that of pain. Here the feeling is of frenetic energy, deluding the already conditioned young customer into feeling excited and upbeat; reproducing the conditions of a nightclub so that he “feels good”, is ready to hang about the shop, will forget that such and such a purchase may not be a good thing, either financially or aesthetically, and will open his pockets and buy, urged by the subconscious association of the situation with the synthetically-induced excitement of the dance-floor. It's significant that the BBC, for a recent programme on the subject, was unable to persuade one of our biggest marketing groups to participate. After holding a special meeting the directors turned down the BBC invitation to comment on the music in their shops, because it was too important – for which we should read “lucrative”– to talk about publicly. They have no doubt about the power of music. They are well aware of its power to pursuade, against the will, or at least without its conscious agreement. This music, in other words, is acting as a drug does, suppressing the truth and replacing it with illusion. Of course, nobody but a scrooge would want to enforce on us a life with no illusions in it, no soothing fantasies; but we should be free to choose them for ourselves. The depth of this particular illusion is made startlingly clear if one has the occasion to walk through a deserted and locked shopping mall, in which the tapes have been left playing. The bleakness is chilling. All around one, is music, written to communicate a message from one human being to another – but neither sender or recipient is there; all is emptiness. One's steps echo – but the music plays wearily on, as though coming from a dead planet. Symbol of life, fun, conviviality; messenger of the gods; expression of mankind's deepest emotions – now reduced to liquid Aspirin pouring through electronic speakers into a deserted space.

A pity, you may shrug; but not important enough to waste words on. Perhaps not, but at the very least we should be concerned at the alienating effect such incessant bombardment may well have on our audiences, both present and potential, from whom we expect and require a degree of concentration that cannot be engendered in this way. Even if the music is by a real composer, the principle remains the same; after all, Shakespeare wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that surfeiting the appetite make sicken, and so die”. How true already of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or the Four Seasons.

But when this constant presence is fitted with an incessant beat, it has much more far-reaching effects on the victim than does the bland wallpaper music. During the so-called poll-tax riots in London, when traffic was stopped by groups of youths who jumped on cars and set them alight, or committed various atrocities both on people and on such unendurable public burdens as children's bookshops, yards of newsprint conveyed the attempts of journalists and politicians to understand. One youth was kind enough to expand on his own part in the proceedings: he told the Independent, “There was someone who was in one of the bands drumming non-stop when the riot started and suddenly people found they could do things like throw heavy metal dustbins, because the adrenalin was just throbbing. It felt great. Powerful.”

Well of course! Tribes in the jungle know well the power of a constantly reiterated beat of a certain freqency. We now know that a beat repeated more than 90 times to the minute raises the blood pressure, quickens the heartbeat, and produces a flood of adrenalin. Useful, when you are raising the collective consciousness to the point where those involved will be happy to set off to fight another tribe, or hunt a wild animal for lunch. And a perfectly legitimate device to produce excitement in a dance-hall, if that is what you enjoy, because the physical movement will dissipate its effects safely and naturally. But when a legitimate channel for expelling its effects is not present, then the beat acts to increase stress, whether the listener senses this or not; and at its worst to kindle aggression, which must then find an outlet. After the fans of a band called Screwdriver were involved in a violent fracas at Waterloo Station last autumn, the rock critic Tony Parsons wrote, “Such bands play the kind of music that you will never hear on the radio. What this kind of band are good at is inciting riots.” The ultimate irony in recent months must be the use of rock in a hospital to “stimulate” heart patients after surgery. (Why is it that we think constant undirected stimulation is what the world needs? In fact, we are consistently over-stimulated – it's no coincidence that the major diseases of the late 20th century are diseases of the immune system, the barometer and first victim of stress.)

Rivalling the heart idea for supremacy is the Anglican Church's new venture, “Rave in the nave”. Ely led the way, with rock, the flag music of the drug culture, reverberating around its incomparable cathedral. “Come pump up your adrenalin at the Ely rock centre!” Interestingly, Tony Parsons thinks this is bad news for rock. Even more interestingly, he thinks it is bad news for God.

The truth is that we do need stimulation, but not so much of the physical senses as of our sense of wonder, sense of joy, sense of beauty; of our awareness, our intelligence, our sensitivity to others. All this and more, great music can give, and it is a deeply affecting experience to be a witness on the occasion when it finds a response. Every performer will know how it feels when the audience is drawn into the atmosphere of the piece, the rustling and throat-clearing fade away and a dynamic stillness indicates that the music's magic is at work.

One thing I try always to remember is that however well known the work I am playing, there will be someone listening to whom it is new. I was moved beyond words after a recital in a remote town in South Africa when a young man came up to me looking quite dazed, and said, “This piece here”, jabbing at the propramme, “it says it's by Bach, but it's not, is it? Can't be, can it?” “Well yes, it is,” I replied, taken aback; “it's one of his most famous works.” “But it's fantastic, incredible!” he blurted out, unable to express the depth, the importance of his discovery – so personal did it feel to him.

Those of us fortunate enough to have been born in love with our subject, and seeking now to build a bridge to those who were not, often assume that these others have rejected serious music, and we must find a way to make it easier for them, more acceptable in what we imagine to be their terms. In so doing, we often destroy in it the very power that makes it great, and deny them this intoxicating joy of a vision of another world where they could soon become at home if only given a key. Martin Gayford has said, “The experience of encountering the great works of the past is not an exercise of personal taste – I like this flavour, I don't like that – but a matter of discovery, the revelation of works which are in every way – aesthetically, intellectually, spiritually – bigger than one's own puny tastes and opinions.”

Another extraordinary experience occurred after I had played the cycle of all Bach's organ works at an Australian University. After the last of the 14 or so recitals there was a line of people to greet me, but instead of just shaking my hand they had brought gifts – a piece of jewellery, some prints, many things. In other words, they were offering an expression of gratitude, for the music; rather than praise, for the performance.

There must be no more compelling example of music's power to heal and sustain than that of the women s choir that famously was formed in the horrors of a concentration camp. This was more than therapy; it was the fulfilling of an instinct to see sanity in the midst of madness, food for the soul in the midst of starvation. Even without such an extreme example it is clear that music's capacity to comfort, and the way in which it most obviously surpasses all other methods of communication, come from its ability to speak with perfect clarity to each one who hears it at the level of understanding that is right for him at the moment. Music expresses the inexpressible, and free from the imprisonment of words, it is not limited by their meaning. It is thus clearer, less ambiguous, less encumbered by the associations words carry, above all free of the distortions of translation, whether from one language to another or from one mind to another. A language of the emotions, it speaks to them directly, bypassing our defences, often showing us the truth of ourselves. However one should not fall into the trap of believing that it is only of the emotions. Its strength comes from elements of structure, a use of number and proportion that lets the concord of sweet sounds waft from the beauty of right relationships.

The Greeks understood the importance of numerical patterns in music, and through it in all the other areas, and the power of the resulting relationships to affect the harmony of our lives. Indeed, Plato observed that changes in government are brought about by changes in music. It is not too fanciful to think of our whole being as music, vibrating in our frequencies; and what ultimately pleases us in any of the arts, whether drawing, painting, carving, sculpture, architecture or poetry, is the the harmony behind it: the music. The world needs harmony today more than ever before, and the Indian musician and writer Hazrat Inayat Khan comments, “If the musician understands this, his customer is the whole world. When a person learns music, he need not necessarily learn to be a musician, or to become a source of pleasure and joy to his fellow man; but by playing, loving and hearing music, he will develop music in his personality. The true use of music is to become musical in one's thoughts, words and actions.”

Of course, you know all of this. You are musicians: you live by and through music. So this is certainly not a sermon or a lecture. Rather, it is a reflection. When I stood before you a year ago I said I could not guide the Society through the maze of a National Curriculum, unravel the complexities of insurance for musicians, or solve the mvsteries of the latest Associated Board ear tests. But as one of you I could represent you and what you stand for, and hence this moment of reflection on what music itself really means to us all.

But it is also a call to arms. The greatest heresy of our time is that nothing and no-one is better than anything or anyone else, that Michael Jackson is as good as Mozart, reggae the equal of the St Matthew Passion. It is not easy to fight this. It is painful to be called intolerant, reactionary, elitist, and sometimes even harder names. But it is still true that for evil to prosper it's enough that good men do nothing, and I feel that for great art to be devalued or misused is a kind of evil. All power is neutral, and can be used either positively or negatively, to foster the true or the false. High culture has always been the province of comparatively few, and it risks self-destruction in the attempts to force it into a populist mould. As David Cairns has said, popularising is not the way we will become a musical nation. “Music,” he writes, “is the great reconciler and agent of social harmony, and where it will achieve its healing and liberating work is in the schools, not in the scrambling free-for-all of the marketplace.”

Our children must be taught that most precious gift of the intellect, the ability to discriminate, so that they can tell the good from the bad, the life-enchancing from the soul destroying, truth from illusion. The doctrine of political correctness in the arts is just that, a doctrine; it is not necessarily true. If we say that it is, we lie. If we deny the nature of genius, we lie. And if we continue to deny it in the face of Rembrandt's Night Watchman, the Parthenon, the G minor Symphony, Michelangelo's David, we lie again.

Perhaps the best service we can render to one another, then, as members of the ISM, is to lend each other courage as we assert our belief. We don't have to go into battle, but only to hold fast to our belief in the power of the Muse we serve; it will do the rest. It is conviction that convinces; confident in the power of music, we cannot fail to be the power in music.

Gillian Weir

June 1993 Music Journal