Language (Music) versus Science

So the other day, en route to school and work, the conversation took a very interesting turn.  The following question was posited: “We accept that the world today is a better place than it was during the era of the Cavemen.  Is it this way because of scientific advances or because of the arts…use of language specifically?”

Little Master and Miss World offered their view points, but none of us was able to offer a definitive answer.  I opened the discussion to the Circle of Truth.  The Circle of Truth consists of my 5 siblings, my parents and depending on the topic, we’ll include my Cousin Robbie, an academic with a wicked sense of humour and very sharp political chops. Anyone makes a comment, asks a question, offers an opinion via email since we are all over the globe, and the Circle of Truth weighs in with the candor and wit that characterizes my beloved family. This particular topic didn’t stimulate a lot of chatter…only about 10 emails.  Other topics have yielded up to 50 emails… sigh.  I love them. But I kept pondering this question.

The other day H and I were discussing Obama and his performance in this second term. That’s a whole other post, and one that I feel ill-equipped to tackle, given my (lack of) proximity to where the action is at and my ignorance of The System in Washington, which has probably contributed to his sub par delivery on our expectations.  The point though is this: Obama is a brilliant orator whose deliverables haven’t matched up to his words.  So the question: Of what use eloquence and pretty language?

I remember the first time I heard Barak Obama.  This young, black senator from Illinois was addressing some democratic convention or other.  My TV was tuned to CNN and I was walking up and down tidying beds and folding laundry.  I think the first thing that got my attention was his cadence…”That’s a black man!”, I thought to myself.  I started to listen to his words. I found myself putting down the clothes and sitting on the edge of my bed.  I was transfixed.  He painted a vision so compelling, he articulated a point so eloquently that I, by the single act of merely listening to him, felt drawn into what he was saying.  I remember declaring to H that evening when he came home that there was a young black Democratic senator from Illinois that we should keep our eye on.  “He’s going places” I declared. The rest, as they say, is history.

 So he sounded good.  He got our attention. Fast forward to January 2009, Obama’s inauguration speech.  The whole world was tuned in I would think.  Here was the first black president of the USA, a country where not a generation earlier, blacks were relegated to the back of the bus. I was no different.  I was in my office, huddled with a few colleagues and one consultant. There was silence as we hung on his every word.  Every hair on my body stood on end as Obama approached the end of his speech and uttered the following:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

 In that moment, Obama was talking to me. I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I felt as if I had nothing. But like Washington stated, hope and virtue, available from within, were the only resources I had at my disposal, and by God, I was NOT going to be defeated.

During his campaign, Obama ignited the hopes of millions with a simple phrase: “Yes we can.” Americans voted in record numbers because all of a sudden, possibility thinking took hold.  And this started with words. With language.  That he may not have delivered to date as we hoped has nothing to do with what he was able to do with his words.  There are reasons, and we ought not to diminish the impact and utility of his language despite execution challenges.

Throughout the ages, words have inspired, have articulated, have illuminated, have challenged and expressed.  Words are the medium by which we explain and wrangle new insights from the world around us.  Without language, we perhaps would be unable to progress scientifically. There is nothing more beautiful to me that a well articulated thought. Words turn me on.

Which leads me to music. William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697 declared:

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

 We concur. Music has soothed me in troubled times…has stirred faith in uncertain times.. has energised me when I needed it…has expressed my deepest feelings when I’ve felt inarticulate…has given vent to violent emotions of anger and hurt. Music has also simply connected at a very soulish level and allowed me to simply derive absolute pleasure.

There were times when I sang this simple church chorus and got life…strength to progress to the next moment:

“You are not a God created by human hands….
You are God alone…”

There are moments when I feel the need to channel my inner gangster against The Man and in those instances Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t Nuthin but a G Thang” becomes my anthem.

And there are songs that express my feelings of love and my need for physical satisfaction way more eloquently than I ever could: Let’s Stay Together, Sexual Healing, Would you Mind, Rock me Tonight….

Is it the lyrics? What role do the melody and the beat play?
One may argue that it is the lyrics (words) that are the agents of hope for tomorrow. Even if this is so, it is melody that provides a vehicle by which we internalise and take on these lyrics that take life within us.  And I cannot ignore the rhythm.  I am no musicologist, but I can certainly declare the effect on my emotions and feelings of certain rhythms, certain beats… the pulsating sexuality of Sexual Healing and Bump and Grind, the bounce of Show and Tell, the slow grind of That’s the Way  Love Goes and the gotta-get-up and dance of Got to be real for example.

Melody, by and of itself, also gives life. Think. There is an almost acoustic version of the Taxi rhythm, with a dominant piano presence that forces me to stop and revel in the rhythmic beat and hypnotic riffs of what is arguably one of the baddest reggae rhythms in life. The first movement of the Sonata Pathetique by Beethoven, which I heard for the first time as as 13 year old doing piano lessons struck, impressed, impassioned me in such a visceral, organic way that I attempted to learn it…Beethoven remains my favourite classical composer. I sense turbulence and passion throbbing beneath his distinct, beautiful melodies that somehow connects with my own deep running undercurrents, almost invisible to passersby in the face of a seemingly together facade on the surface…

I am not qualified to dissect the impact of melody and rhythm and lyrics in the total construct that we define as music and quantify their relative impact. I can only share with you what music as a whole does for me.

So let’s go back to the original question: “We accept that the world today is a better place than it was during the era of the Cavemen.  Is it this way because of scientific advances or because of the arts…use of language specifically?”

As I contemplated this question I chuckled to myself this afternoon as I made my way home.  Last night we enjoyed the best of R&B music at the Soul in the Sun music festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  Peabo Bryon, Jeffery Osbourne and Freddie Jackon stirred my soul. I was literally on my feet from 7pm until 2:30 am when we left. I was the designated driver who did the 3 hour commute back home, windows wide open, radio on to prevent me from falling asleep at the wheel. It was totally worth it. I grooved. I rocked. I felt.  Why was it so important to me to rank art vs science? Isn’t it obvious that they both can and should co-exist as equals? That there is no science without art.. that none is better than the other… That as humans we are indeed multi-dimensional, housers of both the Scientist and the Artist. The Scientist cannot work without the Artist giving him a voice and inspiration. The Artist will not survive without the benefits emanating from the Scientist’s work.