Music and Transcendence

How music holds our consciousness

Posted Nov 03, 2014

I read the other day that several of the major Symphony Orchestras are experiencing financial problems – difficulties due to the fact that the number of season ticket-holders is diminishing, and that their numbers are not being adequately replaced by a younger generation of ‘music lovers’.

Yet there are any number of so-called ‘Bands’ around – musical groups which regularly perform to packed houses of youthful patrons: a fact that obviously brings one to question the difference between a ‘band’ and an ‘orchestra’ – between the kind of ‘music’ they make and the kind of appeal each one possesses: an attraction which reveals the generational change in musical sensibility.

So how would one define ‘music’ in general – a definition that would apply across the centuries and their varying cultures? What about…. ‘the combination of sounds produced by a range of instruments intended to create an appealing – if not transcending – experience affecting our sense of hearing? Now the average symphony orchestra consists of around 100 players; whereas the average band usually consists of about 10 or so. Consequently, the potential complexity of orchestral sound far outreaches the range of ‘sounds’ created by the band – although when it comes to volume the band can certainly compete.

Yet it does not necessarily take a complete symphony orchestra to produce a powerful – if not mesmeric – hold on one’s consciousness. A sextet, quintet, quartet, trio… can be equally compelling. So…. in the final analysis… such a capability comes down to the essential musical nature and structural combination of the sounds themselves. In my day – and I don’t mean to sound ‘superior’ here – the distinction made between music that touched some entrancing level of one’s being, and that which was enjoyed as simply pleasing arrangements of instrumental sound, say ‘dance music’…. was to describe the first as classical and the second as popular. Both could be orchestral. And as I remember, the word band was basically used in referring to the Brass Band – Military or Salvation Army ensembles where ‘brass sound’ predominated: raw musical sound stirring the emotions. Marching Bands, for example, which invited bodily and rhythmic responses. Not unlike the popular ‘hip’ bands of today where the regular blasts of undifferentiated sound promote bodily movement of hips, arms, shoulders, legs…. all acting in unison.

It would appear that for today’s younger audiences, so-called classical music with its ability to touch one individually and release hitherto subliminal – and highly personal – thoughts and sentiments evoking the deeper levels of one’s being…. is not as appealing as the popular music of the bands evoking semi-hypnotic reflexes of the body’s rhythmic responses – actions ensuring the supremacy of the body when it comes any supposed Body-Mind partnership.

I realize I am making generalizations here: some ‘band’ music can be mentally provocative, and some ‘orchestral’ music can bring one to fall asleep. But I have in mind those contemporary bands which ‘specialize’ in producing long and repetitive swathes of undifferentiated instrumental sound…. which induce a collective wriggling and limb-jerking response from the audience, at the expense of those deep emotive and reflective ‘felt-thoughts’ that can result from listening to Beethoven, Bach, Mozart.... not to mention a Gershwin who was classically trained, a factor which shows up in all his work.

But let me give you an illustration of what I am trying to get at here. Many years ago when making portrait-sketches for the BBC weekly ‘newspaper’, the Radio Times, I was with the famed Halle Orchestra in the north of England making drawings of Sir John Barbirolli their distinguished conductor. I was wandering about among the players just before an afternoon rehearsal for the evening performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, when the leader of the orchestra – a Yorkshire man called Lawrence Turner – called me over and asked where I was going to stand among the orchestra when Sir John came on to start the afternoon rehearsal.

“I’m not sure Lawrence: I’m going to wander about a bit ….”

“Nay lad…” he replied in his broad Yorkshire accent, “….tha must come and stand reet ‘ere, next to me, for does tha knows what tha’s going to see when Sir John comes on?”

“Well, I’m going to get a good view of Barbirolli….”

“Nay lad, the Mahler First is Sir John’s great love, and when we start the rehearsal …. tha’s not going to see Sir John….”

“Well, what am I going to see then…”

“I’ll tell thee what tha’s going to see, lad…. tha’s going to see a musical soul that’s just ignited…”