We are the Music

Programming

The fastest-growing section on my bookshelf seems to be the autoethnography corner – researchers turning the lens on themselves and their own tribe. The latest addition to my collection, joining the ranks of Richard Hoggart, Lisa McKenzie, Kate Fox and al., is Marvin HarrisWhy Nothing Works, an “anthropology of daily life” published in 1981, digging deep to retrace the roots of everyday evil in contemporary America.

“This book is about cults, crime, shoddy goods, and the shrinking dollar. It’s about porno parlors, and sex shops, and men kissing on the streets. It’s about daughters shacking up, women on the rampage, marriages postponed, divorces on the rise, and no one having kids. It’s about old ladies getting mugged and raped, people shoved in front of trains, and shoot-outs as gas pumps. And letters that take weeks to get delivered, waiters who throw the food at you, rude sales help, and computers that bill you for things you never bought. It’s about broken benches, waterless fountains, cracked windows, dirty toilets, crater-filled roads, graffiti-covered buildings, slashed paintings, toppled statues, stolen books.”

Marvin Harris, ‘Introduction’, Why Nothing Works

How and why does all of this happen? The underlying causes of all these disparate problems are, according to Harris, centralisation, bureaucracy and oligopoly, the dark side of unfettered capitalism that ends up killing – in the name of maximising shareholder profit – the sense of initiative, quality control and efficiency that led to prosperity and progress in the first place.  

If the cause is centralisation, it would only be logical that the solution should be decentralisation (and Harris’ is always reassuringly logical, even when he turns upside down entrenched myths and rock-solid narratives). Already in 1981, Harris was calling for legislation towards greater local autonomy, “legal barriers against takeovers of new energy technologies (…) by multinational conglomerates” and support for “small business and community-based cooperatives” – an unlikely but necessary scenario that finds many advocates today, such as the partisans of the Transition model.  

The human-scale, everyday damage of capitalism is illustrated in the first two chapters – ‘Why Nothing Works’ and ‘Why the Help Won’t Help You’. Harris introduces up a simple concept that peaked my attention: if your new toaster burns everything it touches, or the shop sales assistant has no idea (and no interest in finding out) when they will restock your size, that’s because the social link between maker and user is broken. In a small-scale economy, the transaction between the person making and the person using the object is much more than monetary: there has to be trust, care and accountability. Objects made for oneself, a family member or next-door neighbour are perfect and durable because there’s a direct relation between the maker and the user: Harris give the examples of a sea canoe and a parka, which failure would be life-threatening on a freezing hunting trek. Inversely, in modern-day manufacturing and service industries, ever-growing layers of bureaucracy and hierarchy fragment the making process and separate each employee both from the product or service and the end-user.

This made me think of “music-making” – a term I’ve come to like for giving music – technically, a series of invisible waves – a physicality that makes it easier to relate to the people at each step of the process, the makers (musicians), users (listeners), but also the enablers, such as producers, promoters… It clearly places music within the frame of a communication process.

Music as a social link between people is an idea that I find helpful to think about activities that fall within the range of education, outreach, engagement and participation: of course, music can be ‘beneficial’ in itself, and the well-being and cognitive benefits associated with playing and listening to music are well documented, but the power of live music is also that it’s created by someone to share with others. Organisations like Live Music Now, as well as many orchestras, take music to people who can’t otherwise access it – inside hospitals, special schools and community centres – and as LMN founder Yehudi Menuhin says in this short extract, it’s about communicating and touching people one by one.

When music is played together, from a duo to an orchestra, a special chemistry happens between players, which, when it ‘works’, becomes a thrilling, enthralling bond between performers and audience. The context is hugely important in creating this connection, as the audience experience is shaped and influenced by a multitude of details that are mostly completely out of the control of the musicians: venue layout, sound quality, interaction with staff or volunteers…

And when thinking about the user-maker relationship, I wonder if we could think of the audience themselves as both creators and receivers of their own experience – that of being part of a crowd, a community of feeling. Then it’s perhaps the social link between listeners that is broken when rules and etiquette are erected to contain emotion and exclude rather than include participants. I’m thinking here of the concert hall experience often associate with classical music, and the stilted attitude to fellow audience members that can come with it – see the baffling episode related by Gillian Moore, Head of Music at Southbank Centre, who was chided by an audience member for moving her head in appreciation of the music.

There has been much done recently to allow the audience to develop and express a collective emotion while listening to classical music, by playing in more informal venues, from pubs to clubs and car parks, playing with presentation format, like the annual festival La Folle Journée in Nantes, or even making it a multi-sensory experience, like in the experiment below by BitterSuite.  

As I revisit these initiatives to reinvent the classical music experience and constantly discover new ones, it strikes me that I just can’t find the same type of information for jazz, another once-popular genre now soul-searching for new audiences. There are plenty of innovative jazz promoters out there inventing news ways to be with live music, but they just don’t get shared the same way that classical music case studies do – for example, I don’t know any jazz equivalent to this photo-heavy collection of 40 innovative live classical music case studies from around the world compiled by audience specialist Johan Idema. One for the to-do list? In the meantime, I take this call for responsible listeners that concludes Aaron Copland’s “preparation for listening” manual as a reminder that not all responsibility lies with the promoter:

“Take seriously your responsibility as listener. (…) Since it is our combined reaction as listeners that most profoundly influences both the art of composition and interpretation, it may be truthful to say that the future of music is in our hands.

Music can only really be alive when there are listeners who are really alive. To listen intently, to listen consciously, to listen with one’s whole intelligence is the least we can do in the furtherance of an art that is one of the glory of mankind.”

Aaron Copland, What to Listen for in Music (1939)