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17.5.08

À mon chevet: Musicophilia

Oliver Sacks, MusicophiliaÀ mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

Anthony Storr, in his excellent book Music and the Mind, stresses that in all societies, a primary function of music is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together. People sing together and dance together in every culture, and one can imagine them having done so around the first fires, a hundred thousand years ago. This primal role of music is to some extent lost today, when we have a special class of composers and performers, with the rest of us often reduced to passive listening. We have to go to a concert, or a church, or a musical festival to reexperience music as a social activity, to recapture the collective excitement and bonding of music. In such a situation, music is a communal experience, and there seems to be, in some sense, an actual binding or "marriage" of nervous systems, a "neurogamy" (to use a word the early mesmerists favored).

The binding is accomplished by rhythm -- not only heard but internalized, identically, in all who are present. Rhythm turns listeners into participants, makes listening active and motoric, and synchronizes the brains and minds (and, since emotion is always intertwined with music, the "hearts") of all who participate. It is very difficult to remain detached, to resist being drawn into the rhythm of chanting or dancing. [...]

Augustine, in his Confessions, described how, on one occasion, he went to a gladiatorial show with an aloof young man who professed disgust and contempt at the scenes before him. But when the crowd grew excited and began a rhythmic roaring and stamping, the young man could resist no longer, and joined in as orgiastically as everyone else. I have had similar experiences in religious contexts, even though I am largely lacking in religious faith or feeling. When I was a boy, I loved Simchas Torah, the Rejoicing of the Law, which was celebrated, even in our normally sober Orthodox congregation, with ecstatic chanting and dancing round and round the synagogue.

-- Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia (2007), "Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement," pp. 244-246
This passage reminded me of one of the most astounding religious experiences of my life. At a largely uninspired huge Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where I sing in the choir, there were musical contributions from various parts of the world. Before the entrance procession, the African contingent came down the center aisle, with women dancing in colorful gowns and hats and men beating this driving rhythm on large drums. I find most attempts to recreate "liturgical dance" to be kitschy and hopelessly fake, but even from where we were seated in a gallery far above the chancel, this made my heart race.

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