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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Listening with Patience and Letting Music Do Its Work

I've not put much stock in the theory of art as purely the artist's expression of an inward state.  Art, no matter how personal, remains a public act with communal significance.  Not to belabor the point, but why use a canvas?  Why this paint or that clay?  Why this instrument and this tempo?  There are numerous potential reasons why an artist struggles to get work into public view.  Even the desire to have one's art recognized is something more than just wanting personal validation.  It is better understood as a form of communication, of connecting with others.

Thus, when I claim in the title that music has work to do, it is a work of communication.  Music's communication may operate at many levels.  These ramblings about art and music arise out of spending an evening listening to Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo play saxophone and piano as a jazz duet.  Interviewed about their collaboration, Marsalis argues that the jazz duet is not merely a mini-quartet or a truncated ensemble.  It is itself a distinct kind of performance able to display its own communicative style of close collaboration, sensitivity, and balance.  Marsalis says, "The object is not to play in the same way that you play in other situations.  You have to change the conversation as well as the setting.  Once you know the form, you can just react to each other." 

Their further reflections on their engagement with the music as a duo help the reader, and listener, to understand there is a kind of work going on with musicians that is at least part of what I mean when I say that music is doing work.  It is the musicians, of course, who drive and make the music live.  This is why at a jazz concert, one learns it is appropriate to give applause when one musician in the ensemble completes a "solo" or highlighted portion of a longer musical composition.  People don't do that during a harpsichord concerto at the end of the harpsichord section, but in a jazz performance, when the pianist has carried the lead for some time and then recedes back into the balanced ensemble playing, clapping is appropriate and expected.  Jazz audiences, in a less formal relationship with the performers than in classical performances, immediately recognize and acknowledge the virtuosity and the effort it takes by communicating their appreciation.  At classical concerts, the audience struggles to demonstrate patience when moved by the musicians' art and waits until the end of a lengthy composition.

To take an aside, I did not grow up in a family which schooled me in the appreciation of jazz or classical music.  My introductions to these was slow, through the music education programs of public school and college.  Our music came more from folk traditions, church hymnals, and popular gospel and secular radio.  If my mom used the word "jazzy" to describe music, it was not a compliment.  Beyond that home training, in high school I sang and listened to music of various eras of Western culture, from Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Neo-Classical, and Modern eras.  We learned the discipline of remaining silent until an entire piece was finished before offering applause.  In college, my exposure grew through public performances of chamber music, orchestras, string and woodwind quartets, and occasional jazz. But learning about jazz really came later from listening to the public radio station in Dallas during my two years working there. Even now, I have attended few live jazz performances, and when I do I appreciate the chance to go with a friend from whom I can learn, by observing, the skills of listening and appreciating what I see and hear.

The work of music is partly understood as the work of the musicians, but there is in music as in all art a surplus of work that is greater than the particular agents of its production and performance.  Scientific study confirms many anecdotal links between music and the brain, affecting emotion, reasoning, creativity, exercise, memory, and personality.  I won't try to report on all these scientific studies.  A quick internet search will uncover popular and scientific resources about the complex relationship between music and the brain and body.  Play around with the search terms and you may, like me, find yourself reading all kinds of research and commentary rather than this blog post.  Rather than be comprehensive or even particularly scientific, I will comment briefly on a few aspects of the work music does for human flourishing.

Perhaps most obvious to many people is the emotional and formational link one retains to the music one listens to during formative periods and significant moments.  Music marketers have developed business models around stratifying the various niches in which people become attached to musical styles and artists during adolescence and early adulthood.  Music of the 60s, of the 70s, of the 80s, etc., become the organizational structure for attracting a certain type of listener to whom advertisers can target messages to match the demographics.  This business use of music taps into something many of us have known personally--that tunes, rhythms, instruments, and songs of a certain era propel us into memories or emotional states relevant to deeply formative parts of our history. Certain beats and tunes stir the confusion and rebellion of teens frustrated by the struggle between independence and parental authority.  Songs and lyrical hooks may evoke early attempts to understand feelings of attraction, infatuation, and one's bodily awakening as a sexual being.  Longings, hopes, and decisions about life direction may have close ties to a personal "musical score." The work of music clearly includes an interplay with crucial emotional and formational eras and mileposts in one's personal narrative.

The mention of a musical score points to another aspect of music's work.  Music taps deep structures of the brain to arouse emotion: anxiety and fear, sadness, anger, attraction, happiness, excitement and more.  While not all people respond to the same music with the same emotion, there are widely accepted patterns of "happy" and "sad" music, shaped by harmonies, rhythm, tempo, volume, timbre, and other complex aspects of music.  I tend to be skeptical of overgeneralizations about happy and sad music, but scientific study tends to support links between emotional perceptions of music and emotional reactions to other sensory perceptions.  Listening to a "happy" or "sad" musical clip will likely influence a person's perception about facial expressions as more happy or sad. Some theorize an ancient link between music and the sound of active human living as influencing this reaction in the brain.  Even without needing the hard science, the use of sound tracks to shape the mood of a movie is a widely tested and effective sign of the work music does. Many people regularly choose music to play at home or in their headphones at work or out in public with an idea of influencing a mood toward happiness, energy, melancholic remembrance, or meditation.  Music works in our brains and bodies to reinforce or redirect our moods, even without our conscious planning.

Finally, there are many directions of research on the relation of music to strengthening reasoning ability, to helping focus mental activity, and to opening up creativity in thought.  I am particularly interested in the work of music to spark creativity and reflection.  "Brain science," a term of growing popularity, is apparently something different from psychology or physiology or philosophy.  I take it to be a specialization related to each of those fields, using newly available knowledge to offer insights that could be valuable to all of those older disciplines.  Brain science offers explanations rooted in the activity or reduction of activity in various parts of the brain under certain circumstances.  One such explanation says that just the right volume and type of music can create enough disturbance in brain activity that a person's most routine reasoning and memory patterns become interrupted, requiring the brain to work a little harder, to work around interrupted routines, and seek creative solutions to problems.  I don't really know how to evaluate how credible that explanation may be. Yet, it offers one kind of reasonable explanation, rooted in basic brain function and in growing knowledge about  the complex process of memory and reasoning. Regardless of how accurate the theory may be, the actual work of music to stir creativity has wide anecdotal support.

To wrap up my ruminations on letting music do its work, I will go back to my seat in Baldwin Auditorium, listening to the jazz duet.  Not really a novice any longer, but far from a connoisseur, I listened with eagerness to the various ways the two musicians intertwined their roles, sometimes stepping back or forward as accompanist and lead, and other times mingling two lines into one.  I was listening with a friend with much longer experience of attending live jazz performances, so at times my learning included watching her responses to the music to help me understand what might be going on in the room.  In a fancy auditorium at an academic institution, I gathered that the crowd was somewhat stiffer, with less bodily movement of the head, legs, and feet, than one might see in a different venue.  There were times when it seemed I ought to be standing and moving my body, but not on this night.  Different styles and melodies took my thinking in different directions--sometimes into issues of work and intellect, and other times into relationships, social life, and politics.

There is an interesting relationship between the listener's thoughts and feelings about a piece of music and her or his desire to know a "back story" of how a piece came to be written, or when it emerged during the life of the composer.  This is not essential, and in fact may function to limit the creative reverie that music may incite.  Yet, it also can be part of the complexity of how music works. In one case, Joey Calderazzo told a story about a piece before he played it.  He does not always tell it, but the performance fell on an important anniversary relevant to this particular composition in which he was engaging his thoughts and feelings about a dear friend who was struggling with cancer. He mentioned being on tour, performing in many different places, yet looking regularly at the postings about his friend on the CaringBridge website, where people dealing with terminal illness (usually cancer) and their loved ones can provide regular updates about the progress, or regress, of their health as they deal with various treatments, symptoms, improvements, and setbacks.

Some of you readers know that I spent about a year and a half writing on CaringBridge during Everly's illness and after her death.  So the mention of CaringBridge immediately set my thoughts and feelings on a trajectory.  As the duo began to play the piece, named "Hope," I was already on track for a tour of memories.  A few years ago, I may not have been able to listen to the music because of the intensity of grief.  I'm not completely sure how to describe this particular moment which is the primary reason I am writing about the music.  The music went to work.  I was listening and being drawn along by the melody and rhythm. 

At the same time my imagination took me to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.  I saw the waiting rooms in various clinics.  I recalled the hospital rooms where we waited for and through treatments.  I saw the pharmacy, the doctor's examination rooms, the hallways, the pre-op and recovery rooms. And there were so many waiting rooms.  I remembered Everly's moments of impatience during the tedious waiting for CT scans, having to drink barium shakes to get ready.  There were times when she was anxious and needed me in sight.  There were procedures that lasted hours and left me wandering the halls.  Sometimes I even taught my classes through video and audio conferencing in the lobby of the hospital.  Mostly, it was a chain of memories of the two of us doing our work to live a little longer and share time with our kids, our families, and one another.

I did shed some tears, but the interaction between the music and my thoughts and feelings was more complicated than a mere trigger for sadness.  I'm not sure sadness accurately describes the emotions that accompanied the work this music was doing.  It was an opening to creative possibilities.  It was not only a memory of loss, but also a memory of effort, of unified struggle, and of hope for what might still await us. I'm inclined to think that what was going on between me and the music is partly described as creative thinking. It was not merely a catalog of memories, nor a sinking into a blue mood.  It was also a process engendering the love, the hope, and the good that went on between us, and even among us in relation to the medical staff, as we lived that struggle toward what we did not yet know would come to pass. I'm not trying to make this sound like a mystical vision, because it wasn't.  Yet I found myself in that evening in a concert hall in a kind of creative simultaneity with the remembered time in Houston, when the future was not known and the possibilities awaited.  Thus, there was a mixture of grief and hope, tied together in the beauty of having lived alongside Everly during those events, as well as in her presence in memory now amidst all that my life can and may yet be.

I don't want to overdramatize or idealize a song at a concert.  I'm trying to describe through self-report and reflection what I think appears as a possibility in the way music works and can work in many occasions.  I did not take a flight of ecstasy.  It was not one of the highlight events of my life.  Still, it was a moment of power, a glimpse of glory, a flash of soaring that opens the eye to possibilities that may not seem obvious in most of the mundane hours of work and routine. I think that the right kind of listening, with patience, can let music do some amazing work. 



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