Duke Ellington: such sweet thunder
One of the bonuses of being post-colonial, “multi-rooted” Indians is the variety of good music that fills our lives and does desirable things to our hearts and souls. It’s like the multiple treasure chests of literature we have inherited because of a historical association with different cultural streams. And like this literature, you can never have too much of music belonging to different families. It would be a great pity, for example, to live the kind of “either-or” life that forces you to choose between some odd pairs: say Bach and Muthuswami Dikshitar, or Lalgudi Jayaraman and Miles Davis, or the Beatles and A.R. Rahman.
As if to show that all the best things in life are intertwined, literature often celebrates music. That expert on life and living, Shakespeare, wrote in Henry VIII, “Orpheus with his lute made trees,/ And the mountain tops that freeze,/ Bow themselves when he did sing…/ In sweet music is such art,/ Killing care and grief of heart.” Music reciprocates by acknowledging its gratitude for, and debt to, great literature. Consider just one example. In a leap that says much about the human ability to connect, Duke Ellington created a milestone in the relationship between jazz and Shakespeare with a twelve-part jazz suite based on the Bard’s plays and sonnets. This suite, composed in 1957, was entitled Such Sweet Thunder, calling to mind Hippolyta’s words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “I never heard/ So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.”
It would be difficult to live without any literature, even for a while. Difficult, but perhaps not impossible. It is music that seems to fulfil an even deeper need in our lives. Suppose we get up one morning and find that music — music of any sort — has completely vanished from our lives. Say we wake up to a world where the musical alarm doesn’t ring, and the lullaby does not get sung. The computer and the radio and the CD player and walkman and iPod have all lost their voices. And so has nature; imagine she has muffled the incessant music of her birds and insects and wind and thunder and rain. What would the world be like? What would living be like?
We will probably find nothing that can replace the role of music in moving us up and down the scale of emotions. Music can soothe us, excite us, make us remember; it can make us sing along or dance. It can inspire us to prayer, and, as both armies and advertisers know to our cost, it can make us buy the lie about war being honourable, or just make us buy what someone wants to sell.
It turns out that the place of music in our lives has a very specific location — the brain. The power of music goes further than we thought; it apparently occupies more areas of the brain than language does. Human beings, in short, are a musical species. But is it possible to have no music — or too much music — in a life? Or to be more precise, in a brain? Apparently both are possible, according to the neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks.
Sacks is the ideal person to tell us about the tumultuous relationship between music and the human brain. I first came across his talents as a chronicler of the brain and its cunning with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. This account of the neurological bases for various excesses and deficits in people is the sort of essay collection that suggests that truth is better than any fiction can be. Since then, Sacks has gone on to examine many aspects of experience we would like to understand better, invariably exploring, in the process, a fascinating range of neurological curiosities. These curiosities not only make for a good read because of Sacks’s knowledge, compassion and narrative skills; they also help us understand the working of the brain — and therefore people. In fact, Oliver Sacks’s stories of people struggling to cope with neurological conditions may well have changed the ways in which ‘lay’ readers view the brain and its role in human experience.
In Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Sacks turns his prodigious talents of observation, speculation and argument to draw links and conclusions about the power of music, even its dangers. As usual, he does it through a gallery of case studies. The human stories range from the commonplace to the very rare, and they are about patients, musicians and others. At one end of the spectrum there is the experience of a song getting stuck in the brain, a maddening affliction all of us in India know about, since people here are generous about sharing their music with others. The latest catchy tune can subject many of us unwilling listeners to hours of torturous ‘replay’. In a more serious vein, there are cases of people who suffer from musical hallucinations that may assault them any time of the day or night.
But music is also there in its more familiar role as healer. A range of afflictions is eased in some small but important way by music. These cases include patients with Tourette’s or Parkinson’s. There are instances when music is able to animate patients with Parkinson’s disease who cannot otherwise move. Stroke patients, who can no longer speak, find their way back to the world of words via music. There is the calm and sense of order that music is able to bring to memories ravaged by Alzheimer’s or amnesia.
As always in the Sacks gallery, there are also some truly unusual characters with startling case histories. A man struck by lightning subsequently develops a passion — and a talent — for the concert piano at the age of 42. He begins, in a sense, to be “haunted” by music, and the result is a sudden “musicophilia”. There’s another man who has a severely limited memory span — as short as seven seconds — for everything but music. Then there is the story of the legendary Ray Charles. He claimed to have been “born with music inside” him, and this may well have been the literal truth. There are people with absolute or perfect pitch; there are those who can see the “colours of tones”. In contrast to these more positive experiences of music, there are horror stories as well. An eminent music critic begins to develop convulsions every time he hears music. He develops a horror of music, even a fear of it. Then there are those with “amusia”, to whom a symphony may sound exactly like the clattering of pots and pans. Or there are those to whom melody, rhythm and harmony are incomprehensible.
Despite the rich and bewildering variety of these individual experiences of music, Sacks is able to convince us that anyone can have a sudden loss or gain in musicality. He illustrates the universality of musical mental imaging, even in the utterly deaf. This is why music not only makes us human in the first place, it also restores our humanity to us by helping heal an ever-increasing number of illnesses, including severe brain damage.