This word originally appeared in my Fall 2017 Harvard Crimson column, "Difference Tones," which can be found here.
When we are looking death in the face, we will not take up our musical instruments. But, when death seems far from us, what will remind us, prepare us, for the work needs to be done when death comes?
Why has music endured? Certainly, humanity’s enjoyment of music is clear. But amidst rising social, political, and natural conflict, the significance and influence of music seems small. What does it really do in our broken world? In my contemporary ensemble seminar, Professor Claire Chase began class by asking about our thoughts and feelings towards current events concerning the NFL, Donald Trump, and the state of our nation’s race relations. Honestly, my reflections made me discouraged, as practicing musical performance seemed to be an inconsequential response compared to activities like attending protests or calling my state representative. However, I could not let go of music entirely. Does music’s capacity to resonate deep within us truly yield negligible results in the greater narrative of life? I remember composer Jason Eckardt noting that if music was truly unnecessary for humanity to survive and flourish, then it makes no sense that music has not been evolutionarily phased out of our species millennia ago. Somehow, along the way of life, we must have forgotten the role music plays in constructing our world.
In modern society, it is easy to forget that music has the capacity to draw us towards something. Long before the first concert halls, music was played in the church’s liturgy. Even before then, the ancient Greeks placed flautists at the front of their armies as they moved into battle. The Iban people in Malaysia performed song and dance in ceremonies for healing the sick and diseased. Music functioned in these contexts not as a direct contributor to whatever liturgy, attack, or healing was being performed, but it fed back into its participants, stirring sentiment and zeal towards the performance, giving energy and desire to continue those practices for generations.
This sense of being directed by music is present in the daily, mundane parts of our lives as well. Whether we are studying, commuting, working out, dining at a restaurant, or hanging at a party, music is present. It subconsciously strikes our souls into resonance with behaviors of focus, peace, exertion, or conversation. These latter examples illustrate how music speaks to both the existential and the mundane parts of our soul. Even more so, it is a powerful way in which both sides of living coincide into an integral, singular experience.
From 1975 to 1979, the Cambodian genocide, with a death toll of an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million, wiped out ninety percent of all practitioners of traditional Cambodian music. In 2015, I heard a Cambodian genocide survivor and musician speak of how he had forsaken music, an integral part of his identity and vocation, in order to survive day by day. Now in the United States, he devotes his time towards the documentation and passing on of this oral tradition. Indeed, when we are looking death in the face, we will not take up our instruments, but move toward survival. But conversely, when death seems far, what will remind us of the brokenness and chaos that is ever present in this world? Some members of the Cambodian music community might wonder if their musical culture will ever not be about the genocide, as such an event brought the tradition so close to extinction. Perhaps in some ways it may not be, but undoubtedly the scars and aftermath of that tragic time will always resonate in the history and identity of the Cambodian people.
This music, a ritual practice of traditional Cambodian lifestyle, is both a meditation on the everyday and the existential. Nor is this unique to Cambodian music. Hip hop, church hymns, patriotic songs, each of these musics carry histories, hopes, joys and sorrows. The ear may tune itself to hear any, all, or none of it. The utility of music as a tool for change is a bit of a false question. It is not something we choose to incorporate into life or not. It is a facet of life itself. Will music calm unrest or conflict? Not quite, because it speaks of unrest and conflict themselves, as well as of joy and celebration. It is our choice, however, whether to hear that resonance or not. In this sense, music is all too powerful in world building, in solidarity, and in empathy. Music is the resonance of our world. Just as we may seek to open our eyes to the joys and sorrows around us, we may open our ears as well.