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How Can I Keep From Weaving Meaning With Sound?

Music. Music. Music.

Once I was working with a group of high-school students in a classroom that was undergoing minor renovations. I had asked them to define “music,” and the discussion that followed was vigorous and opinionated. A hard-hatted construction worker had entered the room and was busying himself with some repairs; he was standing on a ladder with his head up inside the ceiling. One of the students suggested, “Hey, why don’t we ask that guy what he thinks?” (You could see the kid’s eagerness to have input from the blue-collar working class.)

I waited until the workman had pulled his head from the ceiling.

“Excuse me, sir.”

He looked politely in my direction.

“The students and I would like to ask you a question.”

He said, “Sure!”

“Could you give us your definition of the term ‘music’?”

And without a pause, he replied, “Culturally-mediated non-semantic patterns in sound,” and stuck his head back in the ceiling to finish off his work. (Another reason to love the Boston area: construction workers with degrees in Philosophy)

Music, music, music.

Working with the shared raw material of vibrating strings, air columns, skins and vocal chords, our species has created endless weavings of sonic beauty and meaning, reflecting individual traditions and ways of living. There is no human culture without its own distinctive music.

And now that countless human cultures are living under the looming threat of a suddenly hostile planet, triggered into uninhabitability by steadily increasing doses of atmospheric toxins, administered to the global community by its wealthiest and least responsible members, many musics will drown, or burn, or be displaced into irrelevance.

And as someone who’s been fascinated since childhood by all those culturally-mediated non-semantic patterns in sound, I find that a tragedy.

Now, while making music has certainly made me a better person, I know that it doesn’t work that way with everybody. Hell, according to Kevin Phillips, old Prescott Bush loved singing more than anything. And don’t forget John Ashcroft. There’s ample enough evidence that you can be tuneful and musical — and a raving, destructive sociopath. On the other hand, maybe if GHWB’s daddy hadn’t been a singer, he would have been an even worse human being. Scary.

But I’m an old hippie (well, a getting-old-hippie, anyway), and I’m proudly naive enough that I stand with Pete Seeger when he says, “I don’t know if humanity’s going to make it…but I do know that we’re definitely not going to make if we can’t learn to sing together.” Thanks for everything, Pete; sometimes you’re the evidence I need that our species is worth saving after all.

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