We are back in Cochin and pretty much settled in our condo/flat here. It is nice to be experiencing the warm – and, as yet, not too hot – weather of Kerala and away from the colder than normal winter we left in Virginia. More about Cochin, Kerala and India in future posts because a couple of days ago I came across something on the web about music which I knew would have to be my next blog post.

“Music can change the world” – so said Beethoven. Dr. Karl Paulnack would certainly agree – but more about this later.

First, by way of background, my interest in music is confined to listening to a fairly wide range of music depending on my mood. In the late fifties and early sixties, I was totally into the music that typically interested a teenager – those were the years that I listened to Elvis and the Beatles with Belafonte and the Everly Brothers thrown in for good measure! Interspersed with this music which appealed to teenagers influenced by Western pop music were Hindi songs that blared out from neighbors’ houses when we lived in Mombasa – songs sung by Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi. I had only the most rudimentary knowledge of Hindi but the tunes, if not the lyrics, left an indelible memory so much so that even today, listening to them brings a sense of nostalgia. I would occasionally make an attempt to sing one of them – I’d get the tune right but garbled the lyrics so badly that those who knew the lyrics would ask me to stop destroying the song!

By the late sixties I had developed an interest in folk music – and Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan were my favorite artists. I loved the music and the protest aspect of many of the songs -after all, it was the era of the struggle for civil rights and demonstrations against the Vietnam war.

I have an interest in classical music that I owe to my elder brother, George. He came back from England in 1960 after his undergraduate education and imbued in several of his siblings a varying level of interest in the works of famous Western composers. He introduced us to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Dvorak and Rimsky Korsakov – though for some reason, it is Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata of which I have the most vivid memories, I assume, because George played and talked about those pieces more so than others. After I went to England for my studies, this interest became more varied and perhaps a little more informed – especially since, as a student in London, I spent a year as a paying guest with an English family who had a deep and abiding interest in classical music since the husband was a retired first violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra who had played under the direction of some of the famous conductors in the fifties. He introduced me to Mozart – who he described with passion and considerable emotion as “a genius” whose music had no parallel.

After I came to the US, I developed a very limited interest in opera though, I must confess, it was primarily because I love listening to Pavarotti and Placido Domingo who would sing these arias from different operas – not a word of which I could understand! In fact, my enjoyment of the music without any understanding of the lyrics reminds me, at times, of the memorable scene from “The Shawshank Redemption” which must rank as one of my top ten movies of all time. The scene is vividly described in another blog – “The Ecstatic Living Room”:

Tim Robbins, playing the wrongfully convicted banker who refuses to have his spirit broken by prison life, has briefly barricaded himself in one of the prison offices and decides to treat his cellmates to some music over the Shawshank (prison) loudspeaker system. Sitting back in his chair, Robbins’s character, Andy Dufresne, sinks into reverie as Gundula Janowitz (The Countess) and Edith Mathis (Susanna) sing the Duettino (little duet) “Sull’Aria” (“on the breeze”) from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Andy gets time in solitary confinement for the infraction, but it’s a small price to pay for the transcendent moment he has given himself and his fellow inmates. His unlikely prison friend Red (played by Morgan Freeman) sums up the experience this way:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Here is the scene from the Shawshank Redemption referred to above:

Red’s lack of understanding of the lyrics even as he is entranced by the music somewhat resembles my reaction when I listen to arias sung by Pavarotti and Domingo!

I have never been able to listen to Wagner for any length of time although I have tried. My inability to listen to Wagner reminds of Woody Allen who said: “I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.”

All of the above is a prelude to the main reason for this post which struck a chord with me at several levels. On one of the forums that I visit someone had posted an address by Dr. Karl Paulnack, director of the Music Division of the Boston Conservatory which I found both profound and moving. Paulnack has given this address – that has apparently been cited all over the world – on several occasions to parents of incoming students with modifications.

Here is his entire speech:

“One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re wasting your SAT scores!”

The reaction of Paulnack’s parents is probably the reaction that most Indian/Asian parents would have if one of their academically talented children told them that he/she had decided to make a career in music – it is interesting that this reaction is, apparently, not limited to Indian or Asian parents whose yardstick of success for their children is a career as “a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer” as Paulnack puts it! Sure, there are the obligatory music lessons – whether piano or violin or the flute – which children in the US go through but the ulterior motive for the lessons, for most Asian/Indian parents, is to enhance the chances of their offsprings’ admission to a good college when the time comes!

Paulnack continues:

“On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they loved music: they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

“One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you: the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

“One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp.

“He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

“Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—even from the concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

“In September of 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, 2001 I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

“And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.

“At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

“From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

“Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

“Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

“I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.

“I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

“Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

“When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

“What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

“Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

“What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

“You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

“Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

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4 Responses to ““Music can change the world””

  1. saira says:

    Very interesting piece, Papa. It makes me wish I still played the piano with any degree of regularity.

  2. neeta says:

    very interesting entry, papa 🙂

  3. Peter says:

    That episode from the Shawshank Redemption is a beauty, loved that you included it in this post.

  4. TJ says:

    Glad you guys liked it. I agree that scene in the movie with the opera music in the background and the mystified look of the prisoners as it blared out on the loudspeakers was just a stroke of brilliance.

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