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Friday, June 22, 2012

The Biggest Loser : Music as Soul Food

I'm reposting an article that I recently had published in ABC's The Drum on the power of music. To check it out on the Drum's website, go here.


In light of the Australian National University's decision to spill tenured and permanent positions in its School of Music, as well as the ongoing union fightback, it's worth reconsidering the value of music, and what we have to lose.

Some weeks ago I was offered some cheap tickets to go and see Canberra's Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony.

On my way to Canberra's Llewellyn Hall, a cluster of posters advertising the concert caused me to question my expectations. "CSO concerts are an inspiring experience that feeds the soul and affirms our creative imagination," read the quoted review. Righteo.

Once inside, I located my seat just two rows back from an enormous Steinway grand piano which lay beached centre-stage. It looked ungainly, simultaneously powerful and uselessly impotent without its pianist (how could something so inanimate be capable of telling such stories?).

I cast my eye over the audience behind me. Waves of dark suit jackets and evening dresses peaked into crops of white hair. Around me, the sweet fragrance of ladies' perfume. Eau de 'special occasion'.
The lights dimmed and I nestled down slightly into my seat. To rapturous and instantaneous applause, conductor Nicholas Milton strode to the podium and turned to address us. "I'm so glad you're here tonight," he said. "We're about to go on a marvellous journey together."

He paused briefly, as if to check his words had hit their mark. Then, with a smile, he turned quickly on his heels, the tails of his coat flashing behind him, and raised his arms to attention, his baton poised for attack.

There was a moment's silence. The orchestra seemed to breathe in. And then, with Milton's baton stinging into action, the strings let out a collective sigh and Beethoven's opening theme rode to the back of the hall. As if awoken by the orchestra's lead and with the gentlest of touches from Gerard Willems, the great whale in front of me began to sing.

We were away.

That night, the orchestra played itself into life. It played its collective soul out on to the stage. And in doing so, it seemed to feed itself, to spur itself and all of us on the journey, growing ever more confident, ever powerful.

The players were alight. I watched them, their feverish eyes locked on their conductor, willing him to lead them. And I held my breath as he lifted them up over us.

He held them there. Safely. Allowing them to do together something that they could not do on their own. And in return they transformed the marks on the pages in front of them into a whole lifetime of stories - into a thrashing Russian prince, a grand marching army, a drunken boisterous bearded wretch dashing his empty glass on a cold stone floor and, in one particular instant, into a desperate gasping stillness. I saw them all, those things.

I feel very strongly that good music is about the sharing of souls. And that experience of sharing is so much more palpable when it is live. It's as if by creating something together in one another's presence, something that is bigger than all of our individual parts, we reach out to each other and say, "Well, there you are! That thing I always knew, but couldn't describe. There you are. And there you've always been!"

And all along, there is an awareness that that feeling cannot be kept. It's a fleeting glimpse of the road we are each of us on. And that's what makes it precious. It is a gift. A going away present from beyond time, to carry with us through time, to lighten our steps as we go.

I was reminded of two things that night. The first thing is this: music is written to be played. It is written to be played. Because it is in the playing that we unlock its secrets. And perhaps even more importantly, it is in the playing that we allow the music to unlock whatever it is in us that we could never have gotten to on our own.

It's as if by playing out our souls to each other, we create a space to allow something else in. And whatever that 'something' is that we allow in, it is different for every one of us, I'm sure. For me it is a sense that what I'm experiencing is very important. Perhaps the most important thing I'll ever experience. As if, when my life finally burns out like a match, I'll remember these moments most of all.

The second thing I was reminded of derives from the fact that the Canberra Symphony Orchestra is made up of members who work in jobs by day, and play music by night. This music wasn't just written to be played by prodigies. It was written to be played by the people. Which goes against much of the historical context it was created in.

It wasn't created to be looked at, to be kept behind glass and locked up at night. It wasn't written to be wondered at from a distance, like an alter in a church. Because music wasn't written to prove to people how small they were, but to remind them how great and full of wonder and terrifying they could be. It was written to raise them up and to unlock their secrets. It was written to be shared, delved into, questioned, swum in and sifted through one's teeth like wine.

It's as if those great composers, those interpreters of secrets - who in one of life's cruel jokes were forced to eke out their wretched livelihood off the whims of princes and nobles - were able to see something we couldn't all of us see, capture it, and bring it back for us to relive.

At the end of the concert, as the orchestra filed off stage, the doors to the Llewellyn Hall were swung open and the dark suits and evening dresses washed through them until the auditorium was empty. I looked up at the empty stage. It was if nothing had ever happened there.

On my way out, I walked past the same cluster of posters I had passed on my way in. The words of Nicholas Milton rang in my ears. "We're about to go on a marvellous journey together."

If you had looked at me you wouldn't have been able to see a change, but my steps were lightened that night, and I carried with me a new gift for thejourney.

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