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Opinion

We need music to survive

People used it to get through Nazi P.O.W. camps and 9/11. It helps heal us.

By Karl Paulnack / June 4, 2009



Boston

One of my parents' deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not value me as a musician. I remember my mother's reaction when I announced my decision to study music instead of medicine: "You're wasting your SAT scores!" My parents love music, but at the time they were unclear about its value.

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The confusion is understandable: We put music in the "arts and entertainment" section of the newspaper. But music often has little to do with entertainment. Quite the opposite.

The ancient Greeks had a fascinating way of articulating how music works. In their quadrivium – geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music – astronomy and music are two sides of the same coin. Astronomy describes relationships between observable, external, permanent objects.

Music illuminates relationships between invisible, internal, transient objects. I imagine us having internal planets, constellations of complicated thoughts and feelings. Music finds the invisible pieces inside our hearts and souls and helps describe the position of things inside us, like a telescope that looks in rather than out.

In June 1940, French composer Olivier Messiaen was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. There, he finished a quartet for piano, cello, violin, and clarinet, and performed it, with three other imprisoned musicians, for the inmates and guards of that camp. The piece ("Quartet for the End of Time") is arguably one of the greatest successes in the history of music.

Given what we have since learned about life under Nazi occupation, why would anyone write music there? If you're just trying to stay alive, why bother with music? And yet – even from concentration camps themselves, we have surviving evidence of poetry, music, and visual art – many people made art. Why?

Art must be, somehow, essential for life. In fact, 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."

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a resident of Manhattan. Later that day I reached a new understanding of my art. Given the day's events, the idea of playing the piano seemed absurd, disrespectful, and pointless. Amid ambulances, firefighters, and fighter jets, I heard an inner voice ask: "Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment?"

Then I saw how we survived. The first group activity in my neighborhood that night was singing. People sang. They sang around firehouses; they sang "We Shall Overcome," "America the Beautiful," "The Star-Spangled Banner"; they sang songs learned in elementary school, which some hadn't sung since then.

Within days, we gathered at Lincoln Center for the Brahms Requiem. Along with firefighters and fighter jets, artists were "first responders" in this disaster, too. The military secured our airspace, but musicians led the recovery. In measuring the revival of New York, the return of Broadway – another art form – was as significant a milestone as the reopening of the stock markets.

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